There is a moment – it is only a moment, a second at most – when it seems you are suspended in mid-air although in reality you are speeding, hurtling in fact, down, down. At this point there is the possibility that you might save yourself, pull yourself back from the brink. Usually, the momentum carries you on. You have time for the familiar rush of dismay, terror and exasperation as the ground rears up to meet you and you see yourself tumbling inexorably downwards.
Aged seven or eight, I sit on a kitchen stool in our Wembley home while my dad picks bits of gravel out of a grazed knee. I am crying not just on account of the soreness but in response to the telling off for breaking the rules and venturing out to the park unsupervised. Fifty years later, another kitchen: I have come off my cycle after taking a bend too fast on a rainy Midsummer Common. A sympathetic friend who is also my tango teacher is removing the gravel from a bleeding knee. I am tearful at the prospect of being sent home for a hot bath and missing my lesson. Is there also an underlying guilt: that my reckless behaviour is the reason behind the spill?
I am twelve or thereabouts and at guide camp somewhere in rural Sussex. We are taken to Lewes for the day and given an hour or two of free time, the only proviso that we steer clear of the castle. The temptation is irresistible: not only forbidden ground, but a very satisfying hill for running down. When I crash onto the footpath at the bottom I know there is something seriously wrong but pride, shame and fear of reprisals keep me hobbling on until I have to admit defeat. A trip to a local hospital in a potato cart - can such a journey really have happened? My parents are summoned. The ligaments and tendons in my knee are badly damaged. I am moved to a bigger hospital miles from home. My leg is in plaster for weeks. Afterwards I have to learn to walk again.
Just weeks ago, in central Cambridge, I leave the cinema and cross the road. The next minute I am lying on the pavement. Three young girls want to help but don’t seem to know how. One is holding my stick. Two men materialise. Are you OK? one asks. I bumped my head, I say, but yes I’m fine. So stupid, I say, wondering as I speak why I feel the need to excuse myself. OK one two three, one of the men counts and they hoist me to my feet. Do you need an ambulance? the other says. No, I’m fine, I say. Thank you. Thank you so much. I stand for a few moments, steadying myself. A group of young men hovers. One approaches and kind of ducks down so he can make eye contact. Are you sure you’re OK, darling? he says. Do you need anything? Even at seventy-one, dignity is overrated, I think and the unexpected tenderness leaves me on the brink of tears. Once home, I am in trouble again for inviting disaster by allowing myself to become overtired.
A dictionary definition of ‘fall’ is ‘to move from a higher to a lower level, typically rapidly and without control’ or, of a person, ‘to lose one’s balance and collapse’. The range is huge: from small-scale domestic accidents to the potentially horrific. Two stories of children who fell down disused wells made the news recently, their tragedies heightened by elaborate rescue attempts which failed to recover the boys alive. Or there are accounts of climbers toppling to their deaths as well as tales of narrow escapes. One friend fell whilst walking in the Lake District, bumping against loose rocks and landing on a narrow ledge where the rest of his party were waiting. They just had time to express their relief when the momentum of his fall took him onwards over the edge to plummet downwards. Astonishingly, he survived with minor injuries. Our cat similarly defied the odds by falling from our eleventh-floor balcony and suffering only the trauma of his encounter with the large Alsatian that greeted his sudden appearance on the ground by barking furiously at him. Not so lucky were the hundreds pushed out of aeroplanes above La Plata in Argentina in the 1970s, casualties of the political ‘disappearances’ carried out by the military regime.
The concept of falling is often used figuratively. We are familiar with the idea of falling into place or into line, falling into disrepair or out of favour, falling short. There is also the sense of a fall from grace. In Paradise Lost, Milton sets out to examine ‘Mans First Disobedience’ and to explore what prompted ‘our Grand Parents, in that happy State/Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off/From thir Creator, and transgress his Will…’. The initial temptation comes of course from the ‘infernal Serpent’, whose own demise along with his band of fallen angels results from the sin of pride though the real culprit, we know, is the woman. Eve not only disobeys God’s instructions but persuades Adam to do the same. Some versions of the story even depict the serpent as female – the sculpture at the entrance to Notre Dame in Paris, for example. Both Eve and Adam are punished for their transgression by banishment from the Garden and being deprived of eternal life. In the Jewish tradition, the she-devil Lilith is the first wife of Adam and is banished from Eden for her disobedience.
So biblical accounts, whether read literally or allegorically, clearly identify women as responsible for ‘original’ sin. Tempted by the promise of knowing what God knows, Eve encourages Adam to want the same. When they eat the forbidden fruit, they lose their state of innocence and are shamed by their nakedness. From there it is not much of a leap to the Victorian perception of the ‘fallen’ woman whose transgression is primarily sexual. A fallen woman might be one whose innocence has been lost after a single encounter or one who has resorted to prostitution. The loss is of society’s approval rather than directly of God’s, although social norms routinely achieved their sanction from religion. Such women, often ostracised by the polite middle-classes, could be seen as inhabiting a decadent underclass or, as by Hardy or Dickens, sympathetically portrayed as victims of inequality and prejudice. Campaigns to ‘rescue’ fallen women in nineteenth century Britain were mounted with missionary zeal. The power, protective or controlling, rested predominantly though not exclusively with the man who also reserved the right to sample the illicit delights of the marginalised, be it dancers or otherwise ‘loose’ women. The mistress or the ‘kept’ woman contravened the modesty principle valued by many cultures but the lure of the exotic or the forbidden proved irresistible and was celebrated in art, film and literature.
For those who prize freedom, societal norms have long represented a constraint to be rejected. The loose collective of writers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group in 1920s London and Cambridge, for instance, turned against the bourgeois in favour of libertarian ideals and the pursuit of individual freedoms, particularly in their attitudes to sex and morality. In rural Norfolk, writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland defied convention in their openly unconventional and often tumultuous relationship. In France, philosophers, writers and activists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir also served as role models for the impressionable young. In my early adulthood, sexual experience was a facet of life to be explored and celebrated. Far from the sense of having ‘fallen’, the model rather was to jump headlong into whatever opportunities came my way, regardless of the ensuing damage. If I considered the notion of the fallen woman at all, I did so only in the sense of wearing the mantle with pride, a move from disobedience to defiance in the name of liberation. And some encounters, well into my middle years, were evidently about more than sex. To fall in love – into love – Is an experience so deliciously overpowering, so overwhelming; who, after all, could deny themselves the pleasure? I vividly recall a moment one summer’s evening, standing looking into the darkness as a soon-to-be lover approached from behind. The physical sensations – an intense heat, a full-body tingling, the exquisite agony of anticipation – were matched by emotional turmoil, the combination irresistible. In the 1930 film The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich made famous the song ‘Falling in Love Again’. In the English translation, the focus is on the surrender of the singer – ‘I can’t help it’. The original German lyric has a different emphasis: ‘I am from head to toe set for love’ – the verb is usually interpreted as ‘adjusted’ or ‘adapted’ Here, it almost has the connotation of ‘programmed’ for love. And the reason? ‘That is my world/And nothing else.’ When I fell in love with Argentine tango, it was with a sense of gratitude and wonder. As if stepping onto hallowed ground, I took my first steps in a dance born amongst the poor and rootless more than a century ago on the other side of the world and found a home rich in poetry, history, culture, music, philosophy. Incredibly, despite my limitations, here was somewhere I belonged. Tango communities made space for my stumbling and shaking, some even suggesting that Parkinson’s added something positive to the dance. And the fact that I could take part in this most sensual dance without fear of falling seemed little short of a miracle.
Childhood friends frequently fall out with each other, but this is not something we necessarily leave behind when we grow up. Matching the intensity of falling in love, its opposite forms the basis of much popular song and poetry. ‘Don't know why/There's no sun up in the sky/Stormy weather’ sings Billie Holiday, ‘Since my man and I ain't together/Keeps raining all of the time’. My private passion, Argentine tango, explores the particular pain of lost love with compelling melancholy. Almost every song contains the word ‘corazớn’ – ‘heart’: ‘a sorrow inside your heart’, ‘my sad heart’, ‘my poor heart’, ‘I carry you within my heart’. Or take ‘Derrotado’ – ‘Defeated’ – recorded by Carlos di Sarli’s orchestra in 1956: ‘Today I sadly review the moments of the past/Without knowing why your love returns to my memory/Without being able to tear you out or cry out my pain…’ If falling in love is associated with new life and hope, the springtime of the soul, the end of an affair is linked in our minds with autumn, the ‘fall’ of the year: ‘I miss you most of all, my darling,’ goes the song, ‘When autumn leaves start to fall.’
The dictionary defines ‘fallout’ as ‘the radioactive dust in the air after a nuclear explosion’ and thence ‘the unpleasant results or effects of an action or event’. The collateral damage from what one abandoned lover of my early years described as my ‘all-loving mores’ was considerable although at the time the pain I caused seemed an inevitable part of my emotional landscape: messy, for sure, but mine. Fifty years on, the fallout from my recent brush with the pavement is a patch of livid bruising around my right eye extending down my cheek; this, and the increasingly familiar anxiety of family members and friends who wish to protect me from harm. We have to do things differently, my son says. This can’t keep happening. But keep happening it does – and not just to me, of course. Accidents happen. But for many older people and particularly those of us living with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s and MS, staying upright becomes a constant challenge.
Living with Parkinson’s demands a radical re-examination of the relationship between brain and body. The taken-for-granted mastery of the brain no longer holds: for no apparent reason the body develops uncontrolled twitches and tremors. At the other extreme, the impulse to move can fail completely without warning. And there are many different ways to fall. Clumsy feet may tend to stumble over each other or trip on an uneven stretch of pavement or fallen debris. You may simply lose your balance and topple sideways. You may find yourself ‘freezing’ and fail to stop your upper body from moving on as if your feet were not rooted to the ground. You may be unbalanced by others in your path. Increasingly, as the body becomes more disobedient, you feel fundamentally unsafe. And as the falls become more frequent, the danger of breaking bones threatens our future well-being. Is this an inescapable banishment from the Eden of our middle and late years or is there some redress possible?
In fact the diagnosis plays catch-up with the reality. How long before coming face to face with the consultant’s prognosis had the condition been making itself felt? I recall all those occasions out running when tree roots were blamed for tripping me. Or the morning when, during the closing stages of a local half marathon, I pushed for a last burst of energy towards the finish line and landed spread-eagled immediately behind then celebrity Jimmy Saville and was caught on the TV camera. Ironically, a fall of a radically different nature awaited this personality: the disclosure that his reputation for charitable work had masked years of sexual abuse of children. Sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective: seventeenth-century Bristol philanthropist Edward Colston was honoured for his good works with a statue by sculptor John Cassidy. The statue was designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977 but was toppled into the harbour by anti-racism protestors in 2020 on account of his involvement in the slave trade. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests led to a re-examination of those we might consider heroes. The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriol College Oxford, for example, recognising the prestigious scholarship he gifted to the University, has recently become the subject of a bitter row about his appropriation of land and repression of black rights in Southern Africa.
Maybe it’s worth considering whether the motion of falling is always negative? The overturning of the heroes of the past can help us towards an essential reassessment of what underpins our society. Surely it’s time that sexual predators or institutions rotten at the core with misogyny or racism are toppled from their elevated status? And as well as phrases which carry a negative connotation – falling short, falling into disrepair or out of favour, falling off a ladder or a cliff, falling prey to predators or falling out with friends – there are some positives: falling inflation or unemployment, falling interest rates or infection figures, falling NHS waiting times. On balance, though, the prevailing direction of falling for those of us who are older is down and not in a good way: if this life is a game of snakes and ladders, the alternative to achieving success is the ignominious slide down one rung after another, until you land in a heap at the bottom, all profit and achievement lost.
So it’s not surprising that we become more risk-averse as we grow older. The Covid pandemic, though, has shifted our attitude to risk. In the early days our personal safety became a constant preoccupation. The new phenomenon of ‘lockdown’ saw us effectively locked in for weeks on end, the world seen from behind the mask, the ubiquitous hand sanitiser an obsessive alternative to frenzied handwashing. We became familiar with horrific accounts of ICUs and turned ourselves into armchair statisticians; the daily briefing became required viewing, the health advisers household names. We clapped the hard-pressed workers on the front line. Two years on, whilst the chance of infection is still there, many are beginning to weigh the negative impact of avoiding social contact on our quality of life, calculating the benefits of travel or returning to theatres and cinemas, galleries and museums, dance halls and restaurants and shops, against the possibility of catching the virus and its likely consequences, at least for those of us for whom simply managing rising prices is not a full-time anxiety. I wonder if it has also changed our attitude to activities that carry their own inbuilt risk factor? The recent case of a caver trapped for more than two days 300 metres underground in the Brecon Beacons was widely reported. The inevitable comments on recklessness were refuted by one of his rescuers who maintained that the dangers of sitting on the sofa watching TV presented a greater risk. For many, the return to social interaction feels precarious but precious: a risk worth taking.
Where to draw the line, though? And for those whose health is compromised by age or chronic illness, how ambitious is too ambitious? Should we clip our wings in the interests of preserving our lives and/or protecting families and friends from anxieties on our behalf? The story of Icarus, emblematic of over-ambition, can be read as a cautionary tale, his literal downfall a result of ignoring his father’s advice and flying too close to the sun. His fate is depicted in Brueghel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus as ‘a splash quite unnoticed’ by the world around him according to poet William Carlos Williams, his legs ignominiously sticking out of the water in a corner of the picture. Whilst my own falls, at least those that happen outside my own four walls, don’t go unremarked, I feel I am becoming part of a problem too tricky to manage.
Advances in medicine and general health in the developed world have extended our life expectancy beyond the long-accepted threescore years and ten although globally, the picture varies. Japan and Hong Kong top the life expectancy charts at around eighty-five years whilst the average age for the UK is eighty-one. At the other end of the scale, several African nations are around the sixty-five years mark. Within the UK the figures vary too, with the Northeast achieving the lowest average life expectancy. Still, once we reach seventy, there is the sense of an inexorable slide as we inch towards death. There are times, though, when our progress seems to gather speed – or is it that death reaches out a hand towards us? We may eat and drink more carefully, count our daily steps and exercise more systematically in an effort to stave off the inevitable decline but, whilst many manage a further ten, twenty or more active years, it seems that nothing can protect us against accidents or strokes or cancers which may start any time but whose likelihood increases as we get older. More worrying, perhaps, is the spectre of dementia, now the leading cause of death in the UK and it rarely happens fast. According to a recent Institute for Public Policy Research report, for most in England ‘dying is a process that may take days, weeks or even years, involving a progressive decline in functioning and frequent interactions with health professionals…’ And in a recent radio broadcast, Will Self foresaw ‘a degraded, dystopic and nakedly Darwinian future in which the old and unfit will very definitely be unsustainable’.
In Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande characterises our society as one that faces the final stage of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. As a result, he suggests, our elderly are left with ‘a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.’ When my mother developed dementia, we did all we could to keep her safe, including giving her clear instructions to keep in touch. Still her tendency to wander caused us many anxious moments. One afternoon she disappeared between leaving Cambridge and arriving home a short train ride away. We scoured the shops, visiting her regular haunts and between countless calls to her landline, phoned local hospitals and, eventually, the police. When at last she picked up her phone, she was unimpressed by our concern. ‘When I realised I was on the express to London,’ she explained, ‘there was nothing I could do but sit back and enjoy the ride.’ At the time we were, I felt, justifiably exasperated by her non-compliance. Now, seen through the lens of my own increasing frailty, I recognise that our concerns were really for our own peace of mind, rather than her well-being. Gawande poses the question: how can we make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves anymore? In the light of his father’s decline, he recommends a change of focus, living for the ‘best possible day today rather than sacrificing time now for time later’. In Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives, journalist Carl Honore addresses the ‘longevity revolution’. Rather than settling for a ‘one-way track to elasticated waistbands and the rocking chair’, he feels we need to consider how we can age better and feel better about ageing.
Easier said than done. In our family we have begun the difficult conversations, have arranged Lasting Power of Attorney for both health and finance and I have made a ‘living will’, (also called an ‘advance statement’), including the ‘Do not resuscitate’ clause. But I’m not sure how far this gets us. Whilst I don’t doubt that my family and friends love me, I imagine it would be something of a relief if I just dropped quietly out of the picture. Meanwhile global concerns are hard to ignore: the damage we have done to our world and the escalation of Russian hostilities in Ukraine combine to create a sense of things falling apart to the point where ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ In a universe gone mad, for me simply staying upright is a challenge. This afternoon I set out to walk into town and fell before I had made it round the first corner. On this occasion I had time to remind myself to keep my head off the concrete and, once I’d sworn a few times and managed to clamber to my feet, I dismissed it as minor, humming to myself the Chumbawamba song adopted by Carlisle United fans as their signature tune, ‘I get knocked down/But I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down’. I think of writer and birder Tim Dee, newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his early fifties. His chosen coping strategy is apparently the exercise programme PD Warriors. Ageing isn’t a battle but often it feels as though it is. Sometimes our struggles will be noticed but much of the time life goes on around us, ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ according to Auden’s ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’. Still, in ‘Leap Before You Look’, the same poet suggests that the ‘sense of danger’ is essential, even though ‘no one is watching’. We have to be prepared to sacrifice our ‘dream of safety’ and to ‘leap’ into the unknown.
And what about rescue? Should we expect to be saved, however many times we fall, whether or not we have tempted fate by putting ourselves in danger? Do we have a responsibility to keep ourselves from harm, particularly as we grow older and more frail? Or a responsibility to keep aiming high and getting the most out of our shrinking worlds while we still can? An email arrives in my inbox from the British Trust for Ornithology with the news that a tagged cuckoo by the name of Ellis has begun his long migration, an incredible 5,000-kilometre journey, by flying from the Congo Basin to West Africa, a promise that spring is on the way, that the impossible beckons. As we approach the later stages of our lives, perhaps we can look for ways to reject a slow and grim decline into dependency in favour of a full – and riskful – ageing process.
Nine months after I began this, on an afternoon in autumn I set out to walk to the cinema – the same cinema that witnessed my earlier fall. I didn’t get far, was just thinking that, if I stepped up the pace a bit, I would have time to call in at M&S for a bit of shopping on the way when – crunch! My nose hit the pavement. Blood everywhere. A man with a big smile brought tissues; so did the lady from the laundrette. A woman with a dog produced a whole kitchen roll and a runner stopped and joined me on the pavement, wrapping her arms round me, where I sat and howled. And bled. She managed to get my phone to work and called Jack. Two passing police pulled up on the kerb. Everyone had an opinion. Eventually it was agreed that I was headed for A&E. We travelled in style in the back of the police car. Four hours later, those in charge were on the point of agreeing that I had had a ‘non-medical fall’ and could go home, when I stupidly stood up too fast from the wheelchair where I’d spent the afternoon and toppled sideways. After that, it took another two hours of stubborn pleading to secure my release. And that would have been that, were it not for an ‘episode’ some 40 or so hours later, which resulted in another visit to Addenbrookes, this time in an ambulance. And on this occasion, it was five days before I was able to come home.