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Paper Chase, by Bob Cook

August 14, 2014

You Think You Knew from Oldies?

When my mother died, she left behind a vast, pirate’s hoard of costume jewelry, almost all of it purchased from the Home Shopping Network at about 2:30 in the morning. I hated the jewelry, partly because I thought it was garish and ugly and badly made – which it is – and partly because it seemed to me to be visible evidence of my mom’s unhappiness. It was junk she had bought in an attempt to fill the hole that could not be filled, as if by piling sparkle on glitter on gleam she could beat back the smoggy darkness that too often clogged her head.

I hated the stuff so much that I was ready to throw it away, just toss all of it, until cooler heads prevailed and persuaded me to sell some of it on Ebay (you’d be surprised to know what you can get for a Kenneth Jay Lane cocktail ring) and donate the rest to a non-profit that outfits low-income women for job interviews. They loved the bling. There’s nothing like a pink enamel ladybug to perk up a respectable grey suit.

I was pleased to get the Ebay dough, and considerably more pleased to help the job-seekers, but I still hated the jewelry. I suppose it looked to me like a twinkling mass of accusation: If only I had been a better daughter my mother wouldn’t have been so unhappy, and would not have felt the need to buy all this shiny crap. She even bought a couple ugly, badly made, HSN-exclusive chests of drawers to hold all the dreadful stuff.

I was moaning about the jewelry one day to my business partner, Kiz, who is rather a jewelry-hound herself, though she favors carved jade and antique beads and beautiful handmade settings. And she said something that shut me up mid-moan. “I never really looked at your mom’s jewelry,” said Kiz, “but she always looked so snappy. She never did that depressing Old Lady thing of wearing the droopy beige sweaters and the SupHose. It was always a party when she walked in.”

Yes it was, and with that one comment, my opinion of The Jewelry turned 180 degrees. I suddenly saw it not as the detritus of desperation, but as a form of war-paint, as the flag she waved and trumpet she blew in her battle against diminishment. Gaudy? Loud? You betcha. And if you don’t like it, too damn bad for you.

How did I get onto this topic? Robin Williams had something to do with it; I was thinking about how hard it is to fight depression, and how often depression wins. Churchill famously called it the Black Dog, but I think of it more as the Black Fog, a pestilence in the air that poisons every breath, every thought, every pleasure. My mom seems to have chosen, as her weapons, pink enameled ladybugs, vast quantities of Swarovski crystals, and the entirety of the Joan Rivers Collection.

But as Kiz so astutely pointed out, depression wasn’t the only thing my mom was fighting: She was also up against old age – her experience of it, her assumptions about it, the world’s assumptions about it. I waded through half of this article by Penelope Lively before concluding that even the best writers can benefit from an editor. She makes some good points up front, though, and I particularly liked “Old age is forever stereotyped,” with the options ranging from “the smiling old dear” to “the grumbling curmudgeon,” with not many stations in between. It’s as though geezers come in two flavors: “Jesus loves you,” and “Get offa my lawn!”

Lively offers up some suggestions for books that offer a more nuanced portrait of old folks (and I give a very enthusiastic thumbs up to Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori). With a theme of old age in mind, I sifted through the F&M list, to see what we might have to bring to the conversation. One title in particular leapt out: Paper Chase, by Bob Cook.

The four decrepit spies at the heart of the story would be appalled to see themselves described as geezers – but then, they rather enjoy being appalled, and the late 20th century is giving them many opportunities for enjoyment. Top of their Appalling list is undoubtedly the Director, the jumped-up puppy who has taken charge of Her Majesty’s security services. Brown shoes! The man wears brown shoes! And his Latin is an embarrassment. Also, he is extremely rude.

The spies would be a delight if things stopped here – a delight but, as Lively would undoubtedly point out, also rather a cliché, fussy, Blimp-ish old duffers stuffed with their own self-importance and their yearning for an England that never really was. But things take a wonderfully antic turn when the four decide – by way of sticking a collective thumb in the eye of the Director – to write their memoirs, and glorious tales of Bond-style derring-do come racketing off the printing press. You thought you knew from Oldies? Think again.

 

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