Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Patronising ageism did AWOL D-Day veteran Bernard Jordan a disservice

Journey: Bernard Jordan
Journey: Bernard Jordan

Ah, bless. A man of 89 has walked out of a care home and taken a train and a ferry all by himself. He has attended a public event in France without becoming the slightest bit confused. After posing for photographs, he returned home to face the Press.

It is fair to say that Bernard Jordan had a very good D-Day. His walkabout knocked the 70th anniversary of the key moment in a great global conflict off the front pages of many newspapers.

Described in the Press as "the great escape", his journey was widely reported to have captured the heart of a nation. Here was a man who still represented the spirit of a great generation, we were told.

Congratulations to Bernard Jordan; commiserations to the half-baked culture which accepts this kind of trivia as worthy of serious attention.

The moral seems to be that the great and moving events of the past are best conveyed to those who were not there by a gurgling, sentimental story from everyday domestic life.

I suspect that many of those who actually fought in the war will have been annoyed that such an important anniversary could be reduced to this level of triviality.

An odd contemporary prejudice is revealed by the coverage the story received. It seems that anyone who has reached the age of 89 should be presumed, by the very nature of things, to be so helpless and infantilised that merely catching a train represents an act of derring-do.

Commemorating thousands of men who died fighting for their countries was, apparently, not quite moving enough to appeal to the modern sensibility. What was needed was a story to which everyone with aged parents, or grandparents, could relate.

There was something else at work: a sort of generational cringe. Now that most of those who fought in the war are dead, a myth-making process has imbued them with characteristics which we fear we no longer have.

When a veteran does more than sit in an armchair, reminiscing mistily, fiction kicks in. Only a member of the D-Day generation could have behaved as Bernard Jordan did, runs the story.

The cringe is in evidence when public figures – Tony Benn, for example – reach their eighties and still contribute to the debates of the day. The fact that they can still develop ideas in their old heads and articulate them without losing their thread becomes a matter of wonder.

At the same time, our culture has become anxious about growing old. The best, most-lethal way to criticise a politician who has reached some grand age – 60, say – is to be openly ageist.

And, for all the tearful affection showed towards Mr Jordan and other old soldiers, our society's treatment of the aged is often disgraceful.

Those big words which were bandied about during the D-Day anniversary – gratitude, respect, admiration – tend to be forgotten when it comes to everyday care in hospital, or in homes, or to Government support, which would take some of the anxiety and downright poverty out of old age.

The old are patronised in stories like that of Bernard Jordan. They become an excuse for the kind of easy emotion which is the common currency of social media; a wrinkly version of the cat who rescues a toddler.

That would matter less if there was genuine, practical concern beyond the tears and smiles.

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