REVIEW

Hunter Davies' Happy Old Me is a cheerful self-help book about life after the death of a long-term partner

Writer Hunter Davies. Picture: Getty Images
Writer Hunter Davies. Picture: Getty Images

When Paul McCartney wrote, in late 1966, When I'm 64, it was a tribute to his father who had turned 64 earlier that year. The words, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four", implied 64 was nearing the end of one's life, but now that would be 84.

Hunter Davies is 83 and was the first official biographer of the Beatles. Davies recalls, in Happy Old Me, picking up manuscript scraps of Beatles songs from the floor of the Abbey Road recording studio during the year he spent with the band. Now the manuscripts, which he donated to the British Library, rank as the most popular in their Treasures Gallery.

Davies' wife, the acclaimed novelist and biographer Margaret Forster, died in February 2016 after a long battle with cancer. They had had been married 55 years. Happy Old Me, Davies' 100th book, documents the subsequent year.

Forster's death received wide media coverage, which Davies thinks was a reaction to all the "monster male" deaths of people such as David Bowie. Davies says, "Twitter was awash with women talking about their favourite Margaret Forster novel. Margaret would have been furious. She hated attention".

Davies was always the more gregarious of the two, especially in the London of the swinging 60's. Forster shunned the popular success of her 1966 novel Georgy Girl, filmed and immortalised in song by the Seekers. Forster, a private person, devoted socialist and republican, refused to accompany Davies and their children to Buckingham Palace for his OBE.

Happy Old Me is an engrossing, and even cheerful self-help read, as Davies comes to terms with life without Margaret, although. "As long as I'm alive, I'll be with her, and she'll be with me".

Forster told her friend Valerie Grove that when she moved into the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, it was the perfect place to die, indicating that it would be "so awful for Hunter. He could never cope". When she learned that Davies had bought a microwave, she exclaimed, "a MICROWAVE in MY kitchen", echoing Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell.

Margaret had always done the cooking, while Hunter looked after the finances. He writes, "Thank goodness my wife died before me . . . what I mean is I wouldn't have wished upon her all the financial and legal faffing and flaying around that happens when anyone dies. Dealing with banks and debit accounts would finish anyone off".

Those who have lost a partner will know the issues, in an anonymous automated world, of dealing with banks, probate questions and tax issues.

Happy Old Me is an engrossing, and even cheerful self-help read, as Davies comes to terms with life without Margaret, although. "As long as I'm alive, I'll be with her, and she'll be with me".

Davies acknowledges that his lot is made easier by owning the Hampstead house, which he and Margaret bought cheaply in the early 1960s, still writing books and newspaper columns, and having children and grandchildren living relatively near.

Forster was not particularly house proud, saying "I am having nothing done in this house, ever again". When Davies had suggested a summer house in the garden, she replied, "Over my dead body".

He writes, "Now six months after she died I got a summer house. And put half her ashes underneath". The rest were buried in her beloved Lake District.

Davies recounts the strangeness of sleeping alone in a bed, the lack of conversation at breakfast and bedtime, coping with cooking and chores - he gets a cleaner - and then contemplates a new companion: "I am male. I am human. I am attracted to women. I would like one to be able to join me when I feel most lonely."

He initially sounds out friends like Jilly Cooper, "but she made it clear, if not in so many words, that she was no longer interested in what I might be interested in. Her real passion in life appears to be her dogs".

Joan Bakewell "made it clear that she was not looking for a male companion as that part of her life was over".

Davies wanders "what Margaret would have thought, looking down from on high, to see me with these ladies, being charming and entertaining. I like to think she would have been pleased and amused. And desperate to hear what happened next. If anything".

Several women were exclusively devoted to their pet animals, while others were obsessively house proud: "One woman watched me brush my teeth in her bathroom, then bustled me aside and made a huge palaver of washing the sink as if I had the plague".

Ultimately he meets 70-year-old Claire "with her own house, grandchildren and interests".

They meet weekly and go on holidays together, and Davies writes that his aim is to reach 94, "happy to have had my past and happy looking forward to tomorrow".

But, after delivering the manuscript to his publisher in 2018, Davies suffered a heart attack and had a triple heart bypass.

He subsequently wrote in the Sunday Times, "Oh God, how could I have been so stupid?

"I will now have to say the title is ironic - Happy Old Me".

  • Happy Old Me. How to Live A Long Life, and Really Enjoy It. By Hunter Davies. Simon &Schuster. $45
This story A postscript to a happy marriage first appeared on The Canberra Times.