I knocked on the door and the sounds echoed through the bare hall. After a short while, bolts were withdrawn and chains undone. The door creaked open an inch or two and Nanny H—peeped out. “Oh! It’s you, Sir! Just wait while I get the money,” and she disappeared into the musty back room of her ground floor flat, to reappear with money for “The Book” and a couple of extra coppers “for the good cause.”
My first encounter with Nanny had occurred several years before, when canvassing a London suburb for Socialist Standard sales. A woman in her eighties, she had a mind as alert as a person many years younger, and despite the privations of working class old age, she was never without a cheery word whenever we met. She lived entirely alone—not even a cat to keep her company.
Sometimes, I managed to glimpse the interior of her flat. It certainly bore the marks of neglect. An old mattress had been rolled tightly against one wall of the hall, and against the other stood numerous empty jars and bottles. What little wallpaper was left, hung in odd strips here and there. The drain outside in the front garden, its original purpose forgotten, was blocked with all manner of filth, and some of the window panes were stuffed with rag.
Yet Nanny herself was always neatly and cleanly dressed and managed to assume a calmness and dignity, doubtless a relic of better times. Indeed, I learned during our many doorstep discussions that she had for a number of years been employed as a nurse for the children of a wealthy family, and was now living on a small pension. With true working class humility, she was most grateful for this pittance.
Her one fear was the loss of her independence. “They want to put me in a home, Sir,” she confided fiercely on one occasion, “but I won’t let them ” And for some time she managed to withstand efforts to this end by various social welfare visitors. But advancing age was taking its toll, and even this courageous soul could not hold out for ever. Besides, the landlord was getting mighty worried about the depreciation of his property and was making regular complaints to the local health authorities.
So into a home she went, and there she died. I had managed to visit her twice before a bout of winter bronchitis carried her off. The matron at the home allowed me to keep a portrait of her as a memento, for there was no one else to claim it. Her few relatives and previous employers had been informed of her illness and death, but had shown not the slightest interest or concern. They did not even bother to attend her funeral. She died as she had lived for many years —alone and unwanted.
Could it be argued that her’s was an isolated case? It could be, but it would just not be true. The problem of old people—working class old people—has become one of the scandals of the modern world. It is well known that many are forced to lead a miserable existence after retirement. As the Royal Commission on Population has stated:
“Enquiries have revealed the existence of very large numbers of old people living in most unsatisfactory conditions.” The Monthly Digest of Statistics for September, 1959, tells us that of 5,340,000 persons drawing old age pensions, some 894,000 are also having to receive National Assistance grants.
But worst of all, it is the loneliness and hopelessness of such conditions which illustrate the essential inhumanity of our private property society. Some idea of the desolate existence which old age entails for many people is given by Trevor Howell, M.R.C.P. (Edin.) Writing in his book Our Advancing Years (page 18), he tells us:
It has been estimated that there are 85,000 old age pensioners over the age of 80 who live alone, as well as some 200,000 married couples over 70. Loneliness becomes one of the greatest enemies of such people. There is evidence that senile mental changes occur more readily among those old folk who live a solitary existence.
Nobody really cares very much about the “Nannies” of this world, for the appalling truth is that they are the human scrap-heap of modern industrial Capitalism. They are one of the uncomfortable problems which the politicians swear to solve when out of office and signally fail to solve when in. The few shillings more which they were offered in the recent election manifestos of the Labour and Liberal Parties barely scratch the surface. And as for the Conservative promise that the old ones would “share in the rising prosperity of our country”—this probably meant most things to most people and precisely nothing to the pensioners.
Let us face it! For the majority of us under Capitalism, old age is an insult. We have worked for the best years of our lives in the interests of a parasitic minority and at the end are told that we in our turn are parasites. Mr. Howell is quite blunt about it and tells us (p. 13) “. . . . from the economic point of view, most old people are parasites.” Thank goodness there is an alternative to a social system which condemns old people to a sordid existence, instead of the dignity which is their due.
E. T. C.