If William Golding’s fable, Lord of the Flies, had concerned not the gradual descent into beastliness and cruelty of a group of boy choristers stranded on a coral island without adult supervision, but, instead, the antics of a group of senior citizens (imagine a Saga Cruise gone horribly wrong), I fear the result would have been the same. The thin and gracious veneer of civilisation that the elderly present would soon enough wear off and the pettiness, arrogance and animal ambition that lies at the core would gradually emerge. True, the capacity of the elderly for actual violence might be diminished by age but the intent would be there.
I say this after spending a calm and pleasant Christmas at my mother’s retirement home in Salisbury in the West of England. It’s a community of about 50 elderly men and women (eligibility starts at 70) where communal and individual rights are finely balanced. Each resident owns his or her own apartment (albeit leasehold) but there are communal areas (a large dining-room and sitting-room), and there’s round-the-clock supervision (though this doesn’t extend to nursing), financed by a very considerable and mandatory monthly service charge. There are pleasant gardens, and the town centre and Cathedral Close are a short shuffle away.
At a comfortable retirement home you might expect an atmosphere of serenity and calm, but you would be mistaken. As retirement and age diminish our power and influence over professional and public events, and as our world contracts, so the will to control, to assert our capabilities, even if the battleground is smaller, burns ever more fiercely. As Alan Bennett writes in one of his Talking Head monologues, ‘If you think squash is a highly competitive sport, try flower arranging.’
Politics at my mother’s community are every bit as complicated as at the Kremlin, or Conservative Party Headquarters. Committees thrive in the tedium of daily life, putsches are plotted, and no prisoners taken. Two ladies recently came to blows at Reception over a procedural issue debated at the Entertainment Committee. At the Debating Club, fiercely dominated by the Church of England clique, you can sometimes cut the atmosphere with a knife. And who will sit with whom in the communal dining-room requires seat planning skills worthy of a chess grand master.
But one issue has recently torn the community apart, and shattered the fragile peace more damagingly than usual. It’s all about windows. Residents were recently asked by the General Purposes Committee to accept, collectively, the cost of replacing all the windows in the building. Never mind that some residents, as in my mother’s case, didn’t need new windows, and didn’t want PVC instead of wood, each was asked to stump up several thousand pounds for the collective good.
Now the terms of residency don’t require this, but it was put about (I think falsely) that it must be all or none, that the Council’s planning rules require this. True, costs are lower if all agree to have the work done at once, but the question is whether the collective good usurps individual rights. Unanimity on the question was required.
My mother and two other brave residents dissented at an all-residents convocation, my mother making a speech of almost Churchillian eloquence on the matter of individual rights and the collective, and the motion was therefore rejected. A tornado of bitterness has ensued, and over Christmas my brother was ambushed by two elderly and slightly equine sisters and invited to examine their rotting window frames, an invitation he declined.
But I discovered only yesterday that the issue is one not only of balancing interests but of the conduct of democracy. At the all-residents meeting, where, as described in the minutes with impressive pettiness and spite ‘only three residents opposed the will of the majority’ the vote was taken at the end of the debate by asking only those opposed to raise their hands. Never mind that some of the residents don’t have the strength to raise their hands, or didn’t have the faintest idea of what was being discussed, this was the method that was chosen for the vote. No secret ballot, no opportunity to abstain. Those who were not against were assumed to be on the side of the collective will.
Clearly the timid could simply rely on the motion’s being rejected without having to peep over the parapet. This flavour of democratic expression resembles the way voting was conducted at the Reichstag as the Nazi Party forced the passing of power into Hitler’s hands. There were no storm troopers in the sitting-room at the Court, but it certainly wasn’t democracy.
We must now install intruder alarms and strengthen the door frames at my mother’s apartment. I don’t know what the Gestapo are plotting but I suspect they will be mounting an offensive. Retirement doesn’t mean serenity. It’s dog-eat-dog at the Court.