Sometimes reviews of books tell us more about how ageing is framed than the books they are feeding off.

Take Professor John Sutherland’s polemic in the Provocation series from Biteback, The War on the Old. The book itself is worth reading for its style and fluent navigation of the usual stats and assertions, as much as its actual arguments. Its an elegant, angry book.

This is one of the more entertaining and thoughtful of the attempts to combine the political and the personal in relation to age, probing expertly the intergenerational conflict and revealing inconvenient truths about British society. The short 160 pages boil things down to reading-on a-bumpy-busride convenience. It really knows just how quotable it is. It is after all a polemic.

The first half is significantly stronger and more analytical than the second, where the line is crossed, probably inevitably, into the unnecessarily personal and passionate, bringing diminishing results.

Now stop right there. This has turned into another shallow review, mixing a lacklustre summary drawn from the publisher’s promotional material, with a bit of unsupported opinion. It is after all a review. Well, no it isn’t actually, its something else.

Here is the publisher’s (Biteback) promotion gush in full for the record:

“The war on the old has been declared.

In the post-Brexit world, intergenerational conflict has become a visible phenomenon. There is an overwhelming sense of blame from younger generations: it was ‘the wrinklies’, the grey-haired plutocracy, who voted Leave; who are overburdening hospitals, shutting the youth out of the housing market and hoarding accumulated wealth.

By 2020, we are told, one in five Britons will be pensioners, and living a longer retirement than ever before. ‘A good thing’, politicians add, through gritted teeth. The truth is that for them, ‘the old’ are a social, economic and political inconvenience.

John Sutherland (age 78, and feeling keenly what he writes about) examines this intergenerational combat as a new kind of war in which institutional neglect and universal indifference to the old has reached aggressive, and routinely lethal, levels. This is a book which sets out to provoke but in the process tells some deep and inconvenient truths, revealing something British society would rather not think about.”

Take this one.

Not sure the reviewer has actually grasped much about the book in fact, with the tell-tale ending with a poem from the book ploy. Why not actually engage with the arguments in the book which could be challenged, the implications drawn out, the idea of whether a polemic style actually helps the arguments land, the framing of old age by the book itself – so much else better than this.

Another approach is the hyper-cheery Times Higher Education soundbite in its Books of the Week. The style is tedious hipness which reveals more than the steady tedium of most reviews. This is all it says:

It comes to us all. Even if you’re short on sympathy for the boomers – last spotted V-flicking their own patiently suffering elders, prancing through their demographic-bulge salad days before boring everyone who came after with nth-hand tales of shagging at the Isle of Wight – you should read this short, sharp, scary book about how bad it is, and how much worse it will soon be, to get old. Covering media invisibility, “millionaires’ bus passes” and bloody Nick Clegg, pensions, prostates, pills and “the old man’s friend” of the massive coronary, winter fuel allowances and care home horrors fit to make medical suppliers vomit in the car park, it ends on a determined note – wise up, don’t be a victim – more bracing than Skegness.

Lots of lazy assumptions and negative resonances built in here, culminating in the horrendous cliché of the old going to windy UK resorts – just short of a naughty seaside postcard from the 50s, missus. The old are like that after all. So here’s a very short review which tries to be clever but actually epitomises one profound aspect of the book’s argument – that a NEW old is needed and it is unlikely to happen.

We must never forget the value of the informed public review. Let’s pick Goodreads rather than Google for a change. Only two “reviews” here, for once, nestling below the pasting-in of the PR copy from Biteback.


Why did either actually bother? So moving on….

To Google. Same blurb but followed by one of their wordclouds, which tells us what exactly?


Well, actually quite a lot in a shallow, millennial sort of way. Prostate cancer ranks bigger than dementia; Ashbourne and Southern Cross (the icons of failing care) more than the NHS; an unhealthy prominence for Martin Amis (Professor Sutherland remember is 74 and an Emeritus Professor of English Literature) and Giles Coren (the self-loathing, self-publicist, 48).

But also here are the litmus tests of the British old age, the TV licence and the free bus pass (hahahah). One could conclude that the book is a perfect polemic just from this – high-brow references to give a bit of cred, alongside the populist. And prepared to repeat (sorry engage with) the iconography of a narrow British old age as though there is no wider world.

Interesting too that neither war nor old feature in the word cloud, but war does so get the attentiont when its in a title, here to make the point about state power and negative intent, resonant with avoidable death, but actually also bringing a nasty whiff of unnecessary maleness with it. This is interesting as old age is a feminist issue, right? Just a further unsupported assertion, as we are in the business here of making them, aren’t we?.

The War on the Young has now been published. A best seller needs its sequel. The Guardian knows a good idea when it sees one, so reviews the new book by actually reviewing the old book in greater detail, and then excusing this with its own shallow polemical conclusion – hey everyone, it’s the same argument for young and old, with the State and its acolytes as common enemies – very Guardian. See what you think.

Lorna Finlayson for once to be fair does not mention Professor Sutherland’s age, 74, nor that he is an Emeritus Professor, which is a relief as he is actually 78 now. And that’s. like, really old, right?

The War on the Old is a short, stimulating book. So just read the book if you haven’t already.