In the last instalment of our Relative Values series, JOANNE SAVAGE meets a grandmother and granddaughter whose love of books closes the generation gap
JOAN Havlin, 74, is talking about her love of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and Jane Austen’s Persuasion – a book she has shared and discussed with her granddaughter Emily, a fellow diehard bookworm.
Books stacked high, her enthusiasm for learning much referenced in her conversation, Killyleagh-born Joan attends a weekly world literature class at the Life Long Learning Programme at Queen’s; when she isn’t reading she often paints pictures of flowers and birds at a class at the Belfast Met.
“Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that youth is wasted on the young?” she laughs.
“I think I appreciate the opportunity to learn much more now that I am older than I did when I was at school.
“I started attending literature classes 10 years ago and for many years the extra-mural classes at Queen’s were run by the late Edith Devlin - a brilliant woman who shared her love of literature with her students.
“Now the class I go to is run by Tess Maginess and we have guest lecturers and they often remark that we pay far more attention to what they are saying than the students in their early 20s who can barely wait to get out the door.”
Granddaughter Emily Sanders, 18, is studying for her A-levels in English Literature, Spanish and Business Studies at Aquinas Grammar in Belfast, with a view to studying law at university next year. She loves to read – everything from the classics of American Literature to the poetry of Seamus Heaney.
“My granny and I both enjoy the classics – Jane Austen; the Bronte Sisters; Little Women by Louisa M Alcott is our absolute favourite. She also read The Catcher in The Rye which I’m studying for A-level along with The Outsider by Camus and poetry.
“I would lend granny books or she would lend me books and we would discuss them after dinner or over a cup of tea. Sometimes we go for lunch and gran tells me about the courses she goes to, like her English literature course, what they’d learned that day, what the craic was. We’re very close – definitely.
“I live about five minutes away and try to call in to see her most days after school.”
Joan and Emily find their perspectives on a particular book are broadened by their conversations.
“I think we have similar tastes in literature though we don’t always agree”, says Emily, “but I appreciate getting her opinion on things – it’s really helpful. It’s great to swap books with each other and have a shared interest that brings you closer together.”
“We often have very different opinions,” agrees Joan, “and that’s the beauty of it really. She is very good at English and like me reads a lot. Lately we both read The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.”
Joan lives off the Ormeau Road in Belfast and has five grandchildren.
After moving to Belfast from Killyleagh, aged 11, Joan went to St Dominic’s on the Falls Road in the 1950s when most of the teaching staff, she recalls, were nuns.
“I remember we used to have to wear the old-fashioned gym frocks,” laughs Joan. “There were very few lay staff then.”
She worked as a secretary before the birth of her first child and then gave up work, 50 years ago now, to look after her three children – Fiona, Emily Jane and Edward.
“Before I married Eddie, a locksmith who ran his own business, I worked as a secretary to a food importers at St George’s market. I loved it. I was secretary to the managing director and I would take everything down in shorthand and type it up because obviously in those days there was no such thing as computers.
“I was happy to stay at home and mind my children after I married. That was what I wanted to do and I really enjoyed it. Nowadays my own daughters can’t afford to give up work to look after their children even if they wanted to – things have changed a lot in that way. I was lucky.”
Joan talks positively about getting older, relishing the wisdom it has brought and all the extra time to indulge in hobbies and interests like reading and painting.
“I started classes 10 years ago and it completely broadened my mind,” she confides. “I started to read George Eliot, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, John McGahern, Harper Lee, Seamus Heaney. Every week our literature class has a different theme. A few weeks ago, for example, Edna O’Brien’s son, the author Carlo Gebler, came to tell us all about the books he would take with him to a desert island.
“I do feel that the secret, when you get to my age, is joining different classes where you meet people, make friends and do something you enjoy at the same time. I would probably never have read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or had so many educationally enriching experiences if I had not signed up to different classes.
“I think it’s so important to get up, get out, meet others and keep your mind alive and bright.”
Age NI works to help older people tap into the networks, services and clubs that are available to them and, during this the designated European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity Between the Generations, is putting the focus on intergenerational connections.
“So often you don’t hear about the positives of being close to somebody older and wiser,” says chief executive of the charity Anne O’Reilly. “We want to shine a light on the positive relationships that exist across the generations.
“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the time the roles of older adults and of younger people are very narrowly defined. There’s the perception of older people as a burden, as a frail and vulnerable cohort of society; and the idea of younger people as being selfish, out of control, thoughtless. We want people to see that these stereotypes don’t reflect the reality, that older adults – and young people – are as diverse as can be and that many people enjoy relationships that prove age is just a number.
“In Joan and Emily’s case it shows how a love of learning can close the generation gap beautifully.”
Age NI helps to advise older people on the benefits they are entitled to, to help them navigate the care system and to put them in touch with other older people by informing them about classes and groups in their area.
“Poverty, ageism and isolation are issues affecting older people that we as an organisation want to help combat,” adds Anne.
“I know I am so fortunate to find getting older such a great thing,” says Joan. “I must say that my taste in literature is now much more refined; these days I would turn my nose up at some of the rubbish I used to read when I was young.
“I appreciate every opportunity to improve my mind. I think that is the best thing about getting older really – you don’t take things for granted and you appreciate each day.”
:: For more information on services available through Age NI visit www.ageuk.org.uk/northern-ireland/ or call the 24 hour helpline on 0808 808 7575.
For more information on the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations visit http://europa.eu/ey2012/.