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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Indignity Of Old Age

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bailey

Set in the early nineteen seventies, this is the story of Laura Palfrey, an elderly upper-middle class widow who takes up residence in a small hotel in Bayswater where she joins a group of lonely old people eking out their last days on dwindling funds, largely forgotten by relatives, their old friends outlived.


Her time at the Claremont is both enlivened and considerably complicated by a chance acquaintance with a young man living nearby who is, in his own, way, as much of a social misfit in the changing world of the late twentieth century as she is herself.


Elizabeth Taylor's style is famously economical. Characters are sketched with a handful of traits. A hinterland is evoked in a few neat phrases. The slow drip of time for the lonely is perfectly conveyed in Mrs Palfrey's observation of the the dreary hotel schedule:


"The chief gathering-place for the residents was the vestibule where, about an hour before both luncheon and dinner, the menu was put up in a frame by the lift. People, at those times, seemed to be hovering - reading old church notices on the board, tapping the barometer, inquiring at the desk about letters, or looking out at the street. None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food: but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and disappointments, as once life had."


Gently humorous, yet at the same time painfully poignant, 'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' explores the indignities and loneliness of old age, the compromises that the elderly are obliged to make, and the tiny rewards on which they must subsist.