Mind games

    31 May 2014

    Addressing an audience at the Second Half of Your Life Centre recently, I described myself as a 67-year-old (77 if you read the Mail, 47 if you read the Jewish Chronicle) mother of two, widow of one, grandmother of She who Must Be Obeyed, actress by definition, author by default, hot tempered, cold footed, hypermobile, hypersensitive, hyperthyroid, hypochondriac, left-leaning, right-thinking, lazy, workaholic, Commander of a lost Empire, occasional ethnic stereotype, sometime national treasure… and Yorkshirewoman.

    What I didn’t mention is my other title, doctor manqué. I have an answer for all your ills and will lay on hands or boil up a potion at the drop of a whinge. I find the needy wherever I wander — or they find me and I issue advice, solicited or otherwise. In my time, three, possibly desperate, universities have done me the hons, so I am in fact Doctor Doctor Doctor Lipman, although I have never used the title, not even when trying for an upgrade.

    I sincerely hope this qualifies me to write an amusing article for this quarterly organ. Last year I made a BBC documentary on memory, which gave me an opportunity to hold a brain in my hands. It looked and felt like a waxed cauliflower, was surprisingly heavy, and the obvious differences between a slice of infected brain — shrivelled and discoloured — and a shiny healthy one, made me long to give up the night job, cast away the wigs and underpinning and stay in that pristine laboratory to devote my life to exploring this last great unknown continent.

    I found that exercise, diet and learning new skills such as a language or instrument were more beneficial to the grey cells than any amount of bridge, crosswords and sudoku. I interviewed my friend Elsbeth Juda, who at the young age of 102 is some way into the Third Half of her Life, about her disciplined regime of pilates, relentless curiosity, and a very light diet. She is a ‘how to survive’ flare-path to all her friends, who don’t just want to be like her, they want to be her. In her childhood, her strict German father, a professor of philosophy, insisted that she learn something new every day — a poem, piano piece or a fact — and the habit stuck. I found out how memory in children comes after the advent of language and how the teenager’s memory hits a high spike, which lasts into our twenties. After that it’s every mammal’s memory for itself. While learning 25 names and birth dates I sat back, flushed with success, to realise that, during this reassuring feat, I had let the bath run over.

    Actors never retire until their minds do. I remember Sir Alec Guinness’s diamond brilliance on the set of the BBC’s Eskimo Day by my late husband Jack Rosenthal, playing a man with fading powers. By the time we were making the sequel, Cold Enough for Snow, two years later, the great man wrote to Jack with great regret, declining the role.

    ‘I feel I can no longer bear the weight of remembering,’ he wrote. Only then did we have any indication of the strain he must have been under during the filming of the first play.

    Susan Hampshire wrote movingly that when her husband, who suffers from dementia, was left with good carers he retreated to his bed and showed little interest in life. Susan gave up her work to care for him and by gentle ministration, coaxing and copious portions of raw garlic and fresh fruits, pulses and vegetables in his diet, she improved his condition enough for them to go out to play bridge, Chinese checkers and dominoes, and thus enrich both of their lives.

    We all have a front to preserve and any fissure in that bright façade, as shellacked as a James Bond getaway car, whether caused by either mental or physical illness, can send the whole edifice crashing down.

    My nightly routine before going on stage now requires so many rhymes, tics, rolling of ‘r’s’ and stretching of muscles that it could be mistaken for a case of Tourette’s syndrome, or an episode of Disappearing World. Does it work? I’ve convinced myself it does and that seems to have got me safely through almost 50 years. Physician, heal thyself?