Moving & William Cooper’s Scenes from Later Life

OK, this wasn't us.

OK, this wasn’t us.

Moving is arduous.

We all have our stories.

The keyboardist (or drummer?) for John Cougar Mellencamp helped us move a desk from a garage sale in return for our helping him move a chair.

We left the desk in Indiana because we couldn’t squeeze it out the door again.

Later, I acquired a big wooden desk that was similar.

The first time we hired professional movers, the young men complained about the stairs, the books (“What’s in here, bricks?”), and the heavy desk.  One of them, who was really raging about the books,  sublimated by vengefully lecturing me on my inadequate polishing of the desk.

Okay, I tried polishing after that.  I knew I would have to move again.  I wanted happy movers.

Next time we moved, we hired wonderful movers who endured my frantic continued packing while they loaded the truck and caught a panicky tortoiseshell cat  who dashed out of the basement.  They drove cross-country with a truckload of furniture and books and not only delivered my desk (and books)  intact , but somehow kept our big plants alive in the dark truck.

Scenes form Married Life and scenes from later life by william cooperIn William Cooper’s charming novel, Scenes from Later Life, the fourth in his series about writer and civil servant Joe Lunn, Joe is preparing to retire, and he and his wife sell their house.  The description of the movers made me laugh, though Joe is exasperated by their incompetence.  If Joe had had to move my huge desk, he would have been thrilled with  movers.

They came half an hour late, having been drinking tea at a caff on the main road.  They were in possession of a pantechnicon with scraps of old carpet lying on the floor and containing a huge number of tea chests partially filled with crumpled newspaper.  There were four men; one, older than the others and smelling rather more strongly, appeared to be the foreman.  He assured us that though they were starting half an hour late they would finish early.  Early, if you please!  It was immediately obvious that they were going to achieve that desirable end, when the house resounded with the noise of our chosen pieces of furniture crashing against the bannisters and hanging onto door-posts on their high-speed way to the pantechnicon.”

I can visualize this so clearly.

William Cooper

William Cooper

Then there is the problem for Joe of  redecorating the new flat.  The boiler has been boxed in by the kitchen carpenters so no one can light  the pilot light, the sink is installed too far away from the dishwasher, the chairs are upholstered with the wrong material…and it never stops.

We have never redecorated, though we did get some rewiring and painting done.  I don’t remember ever seeing the electricians:  were they little mice nibbling the wires?  The painters spent quite a lot of time here, and I learned their names.  I would say, “Hello,”at the horrid hour of 7 when they showed up, then dash out on my bicycle and hope they would be gone by the time I ventured home.  I wanted to avoid conversations with Michelangelo or Fra Angelico about their smoking breaks. Yes, somebody smoked inside, possibly everybody, and there were always cigarettes in the toilet.  Here’s what I learned from a friend many years ago: if you have maids or workmen, get out of there, because they will never do anything the way you want it done anyway.

Cooper’s charming novels, which I’ve read recently, are unassuming, thoughtful, and funny:  Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Metropolitan Life, Scenes from Married Life, and Scenes from Later Life,  There is nothing the narrator Joe Lunn doesn’t talk about as we follow him through different stages of life:  sex, bachelorhood, work, money, marriage, old age and death.  Scenes from Later Life is the last of the four but not the best:  it is, however,  a quietly observant, stylish portrayal of the effects of aging.  I coudn’t make myself read this fourth novel until my own mother was in a nursing home, because I didn’t want to dwell on this phase of life.

The novel begins with a trip to his mother’s nursing home.

My mother said, ‘Tell me how old I am!’

I said, “I’ll tell you how old you are if you want me to.  But you do know how old you are.  And you know you know.  In fact ten minutes ago you told me.”

There’s an underlying misery in these exchanges with his mother.  He makes the same statements again and again.  Every time I see my own mother, she asks, “Is that how old I am?” It’s as though, traumatized by leaving the house she lived in for 50 years, she cannot bear what she sees.  She is usually lucid, though.

Joe experiences the trauma of moving to a flat now that he is aging.  He  has arthritis and needs a cataract operation, but he still has a warm, sexy relationship  with Elspeth, who is 15 years younger.

There is quite a lot of sadness in this novel. Joe’s friend, Robert, another civil servant/novelist, has spent most of his time alone since his wife was diagnosed years ago with schizophrenia and is in a private institution.  Poor Annette!  I loved her character in Scenes from Married Life.

But William Cooper/Joe keeps the novel from getting sentimental.  This is the way things are:  the men accept them.  They seem to know there is so far and no farther one can push, though the women of the novel (and women like me) always think more can be done.

And here’s a John Cougar Mellencamp video (since I mentioned him above).

2 thoughts on “Moving & William Cooper’s Scenes from Later Life

  1. I’ve moved several times. The last time (1983) we had already accumulated quite a library; the time before that we were moving far; my husband had a good job with the gov’t (of course long ago, 1980) so it was paid by the gov’t and we were treated with quiet respect. Not that in the latter case the men complained; they looked upon it as a hard job — as they might had we huge amounts of furniture. We did pay them for it. But they also had slightly sarcastic looks at times — it seems it’s acceptable to spend oodles of money for expensive heavy fancy furniture but not books.

    Libraries are not acceptable — I have had bitter comments about dust from handymen now and again. Once I got a whiff of intense resentment: how dare I live this way? We should add this to Kathy’s blog on how public libraries have been destroyed without a protest in the US. The disappearance of good jobs gets publicity, but not the disappearance of good libraries.

    See my

    I didn’t include Umberto Eco’s quip:

    “Have you read them all?” “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.” (Eco, “How to justify a private library.)



  2. Ellen, movers do joke about books!

    When we were young, we used to rent Ryder trucks and do it ourselves. That was really dreadful. There was always someone who “owed” us help–all of us moved a lot in our twenties. And so we’d spend a miserable day. Without even “dollies,” if I remember correctly. Did we not even know those existed? 🙂

    And thanks for the link to your blog!


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