The parade of celebrity dust-cover reviewers clearly saw something in Extra Time which I missed.
For by page 132 the book was being slammed shut while cool was recovered. The author had been meeting one Professor Leonard P. Guarente of MIT. And then the poor reader gets this:
“Does he look 64? It’s hard to tell. Balding, but spry (sic), in a check shirt and faded jeans, kind eyes twinkling owlishly (sic) behind rimless spectacles, he could be younger or older (sic)”.
Nobody should be asked to pay for journalese so inert and so pointless. Extra Time is jammed with the kind of observational banality so popular in American non-fiction that it should be the object of serious import restrictions.
Even more tellingly, the book does not really have a clear target or purpose.
It’s a bit of personal anecdote (I freely accept here that CC writes movingly about her father), gerontic travelogue (Japan, US), handy hips and tips, popular science, suggestions for public policy improvement, complaints about how ageing is misunderstood and misrepresented. But is it produced for the general reader, the Cabinet Office, leader-writers everywhere, the multiple ageing lobbies, big business, the NHS….? That it is so not obvious who is meant to be doing the reading results in audible intellectual drift and streams of untutored thought.
Extra Time can be interesting and informative. But the big trouble is that anyone who follows the international narrative about ageing will, pretty well, have read it all before. Yes, sexagenarians must discipline themselves permanently to lose weight and be super-scrupulous in their food choices; yes, they must keep re-inventing personal identity and life-purpose perhaps over decades; yes, they must keep sharp the tools of social interaction, even as other muscles weaken. Not wrong.
But oh how the clichés constrict the flow of well-meaning truisms. So many favourites are here, as welcome as liver-spots : sandwich generation, bank of mum and dad, everything to play for, out of kilter, Russian roulette, Holy Grail, paradigm shift, magic bullet, plain sailing, rat race, new kids on the block, pyrrhic victory, wild goose chase…
And so, an author who is allowed to write so badly is bound to reason badly too.
What, for example, possessed CC to sunday-supplementally refer to Italy as “the country of ‘amore’? Dearie me.
Or compose such hagiographic drivel about Japan – “the strong Japanese tradition of self-reliance” / “the stoic Japanese” / “the Japanese have a strong culture of looking after family” – when in the very sense CC is exploring Japan is one of the most troubled of all the wealthier economies. But the grass is always greyer over there.
And do we have cast-iron proof that because Cuban citizens are well-educated “though dirt poor” they have “higher life expectancies than America”? (Incidentally, the IMF offers no comparative data for GDP per capita in Cuba).
Travelogue-ing is just so much analogue-ing in a complex digital world.
More importantly, the author is interestingly opinionated perhaps only when she thinks it safe to be so. She is against UBI and mandatory college degrees for nurses and indeed the triple lock for state pensions. But when the biggest issues beckon and we hope for superfood we get fudge.
On the vexed question of the funding of social care in the UK, we are told that it is – no ghost from the grave required here – very difficult to balance care needs with the taxable capacity of the economy, referred to some interesting examples of funding regimes in other countries, offered some hurried throwaways about a possible national insurance funded by “removing the national insurance anomaly”…. something which “might win public support”. Given the title of the book and the author’s role in public life, we deserved clear intellectual and political leadership at points like this. But it did not come.
And for the favour she bestows on the suggestion that the Government build “large-scale dormitories where poor elderly folk could trade in their pensions for food and medical facilities”…. Well, the feeling grows that not nearly enough rounded thinking has taken place here. It is an awful idea and not something that “might become an attractive solution” (even if CC argued for it – which she does not).
Serious effort has nevertheless been mounted to deliver Extra Time. But the scholarship does run a little thin every now and then – and the text rather builds-in its own obsolescence as a result. The section on telomeres is far too brief. More, the academic referencing could maybe have included Josh Mitteldorf, Elizabeth Blackburn, Larry Samuel, Marc Augé, Jo Ann Jenkins, Sharon Moalem…. there is some good stuff out there which might usefully have been distilled in the mix here. And it is just not good practice to use a numbered footnote reference to guide the reader to only a newspaper cutting or a lobby-group report.
That CC comes across as likeable and as someone with a good purpose is not in dispute. But Extra Time is badly barnacled with banalities and as a result the spirit too often leaves the pages. You drop even the friendliest reader’s ear when you serve sentences like : “One measure of civilized society is how it treats its elderly”.
Or when you droop into the fantasy of a better yesteryear. “In times gone past”, the author tells us, “the neighbourhood was somewhere you could feel safe… where people looked out for each other”.
Ah, the cheery camaraderie of the slums, all those ghastly housing estates. How this generation of wrinklies really misses all that.