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Camden New Journal - ROSE HACKER - The Oldest Columnist in the World
Published: 8 November 2007
Lessons of second childhood

AS though it was meant to be, I started a new life in my second century.
After wonderful celebrations of my first centenary, I went into reverse, became seriously ill and nearly died.
Hospitalised for several weeks, I had to relearn how to sit, stand and walk, then how to look after my own bodily needs. Now approaching the age of two again, I experience my second childhood with a degree of awareness and experience that children in their first century cannot enjoy. I reflect often on how a child before it can speak is aware of its need to be nourished and cherished by other people.
There is no way to relearn how to see, but thank goodness recollecting poetry and literature allows me look both forward and backward from within.
Reviewing the app­roaching end of his life by reflecting on his childhood, William Wordsworth wrote, “not in utter nakedness but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home”.
As we nurture small children we can feel how true this is but small children are also noisy, dirty and leak from all orifices. Cherishing always includes hard chores of cleaning and mopping up. So maintaining a balance of caring as a parent becomes more difficult as each generation tries to cope with the demands of family and finance. Watching my grandchildren only convinces me that we have yet to understand and cope.
Since becoming a “celebrity” (oh, how I hate that word) for doing no more than staying alive and continuing to interfere, I have had the good fortune to attend many elaborate events.
One, last month, was a lunch celebrating the International Women of the Year Awards.
There were more than 400 eminent women, all with great achievements behind them.
Observing the glamorous crowd in the smart hotel, it seemed initially that very few came from families where, as Shakespeare describes in Loves Labour’s Lost, “greasy Joan did keel the pots” (cooking stew to last through the arriving winter).
Not only did greasy Joans slave in basements, they also dragged buckets of coal upstairs to bedrooms, so that their employers’ children could watch the glow of the coal fire on their ceilings, and carried ash and rubbish down. There was no consideration of the fact that those girls who had to keep the home fires burning were people. Although there was often genuine friendship between nannies and children in their care, there was a real hierarchy of staff beneath stairs.
Reflecting, I realised that this lunch illustrated how class structure appears to have changed out of all recognition but appearances can be deceptive. Many of the beautifully dressed, elegant ladies around me had actually been “greasy Joans”, scouring not only pots but potties and even responsible for clearing up the mess their husbands made.
Some of the “greasy Joans” of my childhood had now become part-time carers or cleaners who, like their employers, sometimes went out to restaurants. Thanks to supermarkets and charity shops the “greasy Joans” could look as smart as or smarter than their employers, though rarely earning anywhere near as much and probably paying more tax.
My husband’s father had prophesied the coming of the “new man”, a century ago by saying “there are no servants in this house”. Everybody was expected to clean up for themselves, yet his mother was of the generation I knew, enslaved to their men, not allowed to work at any good professions, and forced to give up careers on marriage, the terrible conflict of the time. The arrival of the “new man” should have heralded the advent of a “new woman”.
A few of the 400-plus women at the awards lunch were big-earning high-fliers.
Some were prominent in fields that would have been considered inconceivable or didn’t exist a century ago. Many had done wonderful voluntary work.
Yet I have experienced how women, after emerging from subservience, are now being pushed back into it, re-ghettoised through the regressive ways we are changing.
October 30 was Women’s No Pay Day. More than a century after my birth, 27 years after the Equal Pay Act, women still receive on average 17 per cent less pay than men for similar work, the equivalent of not paying them for any work done from the end of October until the end of the year. And that is only their paid work. Inequality is on the rise again and the greater the inequality, the worse women fare.
When we built the post-war welfare state we did not realise how soon history would repeat itself. We are back in the age of the Romans who gave their masses bread and circuses. Ours are given McDonald’s and monster arena gigs or megastadia events.
To help us become more aware of what is happening we need genuine education based on the natural exploration, curiosity and creativity which are part of those “clouds of glory” the child brings.
What can we do? Here is a haiku suggestion:
What, where, why, how, who, when we are seeking answers, we’re happy and wise.

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