Older isn’t necessarily wiser, but age can change us profoundly
Ian Jack, March 4, 2017
In the autumn of 1971 a Yorkshire landlord, Jack Showers, declared that the New Inn at Appletreewick would be the first non-smoking pub in the world.
The consumption of tobacco on the premises was banned: no pipes, cigars or cigarettes. In an age when you could light up on tube trains and airliners, when you flicked ash into the gravy of just-used dinner plates, when the offer of a fag was a ritual courtesy, a pub that barred smoking was an extraordinary phenomenon: a story.
Eventually the news reached London from Wharfedale and a photographer and I travelled up to meet the revolutionary publican.
He proved to be ideal newspaper material. Sometimes the equivalent of a golden apple drops into a reporter’s lap – some person so vivid, theatrical and unguarded that the writer’s job is pretty well taken care of; he just needs to get it down.
Showers was like that. He was 69, born the year after Queen Victoria died, and he had the manner of an Edwardian showman. His career had included spells as a banana planter, detergent salesman and restaurateur – he’d opened Yorkshire’s first Chinese restaurant, which the food writer Raymond Postgate had described as “a very odd place” – and he spoke in rhymes and metaphors.
Non-smokers purred down the Motorway of Life while smokers turned into the Cul-de-Sac of Death.
His close friend Bunty had died recently of lung cancer: it was this that had brought on what he described as his “brutal, ruthless” no-smoking policy, under which he would happily tell a pregnant customer that she was “a silly bitch for smoking” and her husband “a knave for letting her”. He was, as he said himself, many years ahead of his time.
All this and more went into the notebook and a few days later appeared in my paper, the Sunday Times. Showers rang the news editor on Tuesday. Having detected an element of mockery in the piece, he was furious. Somehow I managed to placate him, probably by telling him insincerely that no comedy had been intended, though I must have felt a little ashamed because I still remember the call.
What strikes me now is my pitiable lack of imagination: how could I not have understood that seeing a friend die of lung cancer had maddened him, or that he might be among the advance guard of a social movement that four decades later has made pariahs out of smokers? But what did I know?
I was 27. I smoked away – pipe, cigarettes, cheroots, anything that came to hand – without much concern for any consequences, and I was part of a culture that prized satire, which had begun to seep into the news columns of serious newspapers.
Forty-five years later, while neither particularly saintly nor wise, I hope I am at least less thoughtless. Valuing kindness in others, I try to be kinder. This is a feeling common to many older people. Some of it, I suppose, is prompted by fear and pragmatism – most of us will need kindness sooner or later, so best pay some into the bank – but I also like to think it comes out of an empathy fostered by experience.
Age changes us. There’s hardly any news in that, but a recently published study by a team at Edinburgh University suggests the changes can be more fundamental than we think – that the human personality is no more stable than the human body.
The Edinburgh project, which was led by Mathew Harris, a research associate in brain imaging, had its foundations in a survey of Scottish schoolchildren made in 1950, when the teachers of 1,208 (14-year-olds) were asked to assess each of their pupils by six “personality characteristics”, comprising self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality and the desire to excel.
In 2012 Harris and his colleagues traced 635 members of this 1950 sample and invited them to take part in a follow-up study. Most declined or didn’t reply. The 92 women and 82 men who agreed to participate were sent questionnaires that assessed their personalities and health, and invited them to nominate someone who knew them well to do the same; most (not all) also agreed to a telephone interview and a series of cognitive tests.
In 2013, when the survey was complete, they were aged 77 – in other words, 63 years had passed since the original study.
Studies of “personality stability” are not new. Young American men, Hawaiian children, Harvard alumni: researchers have pursued ageing cohorts of them all. What makes the Edinburgh study distinctive, possibly unique, is its long timespan: adolescence at one end and old age at the other. Studies over shorter timespans have observed relative stability – minor changes between assessments.
The Edinburgh study suggests that if the interval is increased to 63 years there is hardly any relationship at all; the personality in old age can be completely different to that in childhood.
Harris and his team found that only two out of six chosen characteristics – stability of moods and conscientiousness – had lasted to any significant degree.
A surprise; they had expected the correlation between 1950 and 2013 to be far greater. They concluded that personality, defined as an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour, isn’t solid and lifelong.
Their report got attention, including a front-page story in the Times, and yet its methodology seems to me questionable. The assessors in 1950 were teachers, while those in 2013 were a combination of the participants themselves and their friends.
And if characteristics can have fashions, then those in the study belong to an age that even in 1950 had begun to die. Each of them could have been a subtitle beneath a portrait: self-confidence under Kipling, perseverance under Shackleton, conscientiousness under George VI. The fundamental trouble is that they are abstract nouns, hard to test against any observable reality, and therefore slippery.
The participants may have reflected on themselves and decided that “perseverance” didn’t suit their thoughts, feelings and behaviour, even though these had barely changed since a teacher in a Scottish schoolroom decided that was an appropriate label for them 63 years before.
Still, the conclusion is irresistible. Life changes you.
Even the smaller externalities can have an effect. The telephone call from Showers made me slightly warier of having fun at the subject’s expense, though it was difficult to abolish the habit completely, just as it was with smoking.
Showers is dead, the photographer who came with me is dead. But the New Inn at Appletreewick survives – unexceptional now, no more or less smoke-free than other enclosed public spaces in many other parts of the world.
You might say that a social revolution began here, as well as my own far smaller and less successful personal reform