Plastic surgery aside, there’s no escape from growing old. Our looks change. Our appetites change. Our opinions of ourselves invariably change.
So, how do we deal with the sense of inadequacy that age can wreak upon us?
Watching an attempt to deal with it is the most uncomfortable aspect of the BBC’s new drama, Apple Tree Yard. And given some of the things that happen in it, that’s a sombre statement.
Yvonne Carmichael, 50, is an accomplished scientist. She’s shown presenting evidence on genetics to a Commons’ Select Committee.
Without cause or explanation, she swiftly finds herself in a compromising situation with an unnamed stranger in the crypt where the suffragette Emily Davison once hid.
Quite a catchy affair.
And so follows an hour where we learn little about him – other than that he’s got ‘gambler’s edge’ down to a fine art – but a lot about her. She’s listless and uninspired with an astonishing inferiority complex.
We find her second-guessing herself, trying to find confidence, and warning her daughter against starting a family. “It took me seven years to finish my PhD. Gary did his in three…”
I recognise the signs, and I did nothing as noble as raising a family.
As a rule, I don’t watch tension-TV these days (or reality TV as it’s more commonly called). I generally trust fiction to have more nuance than the real-life debacles on The Apprentice or similar.
And this was a difficult watch, but for intriguing reasons. Carmichael getting her thrill and experiencing a sexual renaissance at fifty should be something really positive. In a 2017 world of Trump and anti-abortion threats, we’re in need of some genuine empowerment.
But even the victories here are messy. “There are too many people to get hurt”, Yvonne says, before just as swiftly changing her mind.
The arrangement is secretive, seedy, and, most importantly of all, riddled with crises of conscience. She’s up in the middle of the night typing missives to herself. She tries to make her husband confess to cheating and then later manages to turn what should have been a celebratory scene with her daughter into a frigid affair.
It’s a manipulative business, this discovering yourself. Because for every sordid step that brings a rush of blood, there’s a part of yourself that you loathe for it.
Thus, as soon as Yvonne senses a bite of control, she snatches at it and any reasoning she can find.
She’s eyed up by a young job candidate eager to impress, which she seems to quite enjoy. But in the relief to confess something (albeit fairly meaningless) to her husband, she determines that the poor lad won’t get the job.
This leads the husband, Gary, to makes the most potent observation of the whole piece.
You’re the one with all the power, love. That’s probably what it was about. You can screw him over so he thought he’d do the same with you. You know – redress the balance.
And there it is – power. Of influence? Maybe. Of attraction? Certainly.
A light going out
Inadequacy grows when we feel that a power we once had is spent. It’s an imbalance that dominated the only long-term relationship I’ve ever had. All that seemed to matter in the end was how many men were interested and how that could be maintained.
But the sad thing is – as explored in Apple Tree Yard – it’s not always about power that we ever discernibly had. Rather, it’s one that we just assume is weakening as we get older.
Sometimes, it gets an unexpected jolt, out-of-the-blue, in a crypt somewhere in the Commons. But I wouldn’t count on that as a rule of thumb.
I think it’s clear that part of what drew me to the poetry of Andrew Marvell was the series of lonely, lost, frustrated voices that stem from a point of inadequacy.
I’ve written about many of these in more detail, from ‘To His Coy Mistress’ to ‘The Definition of Love’ to ‘The Garden’.
- Would Marvell approve of Tinder? (To His Coy Mistress)
- Epic Fail (The Definition of Love)
- Marvell and Green Sicknesses (The Garden)
Even ‘Thyrsis and Dorinda’ (which, rarely for Marvell, involves a happy couple) is concerned with how Dorinda’s mind warps as soon as she discovers she’s trapped in an inferior world.
It’s incredible how quickly inadequacy can take hold and how severe it can be.
If ‘To His Coy Mistress’, perhaps Marvell’s most famous lyric, was written in his late 20s, we can certainly understand why there might be concern behind it.
If we are to have a chance, it needs to be before inadequacy has such a tight hold that it won’t let go.
Time makes victims of us all. And it runs out a lot quicker than we think.
In memory of Karla Heyns
A friend, fellow Alphavillean, and supporter of this site, who sadly left us on 19 January. Here’s to spring in the air, and silence in the skies.