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The not-so-secret diary of James Roose-Evans, aged 90

Indefatigable creator of Hampstead Theatre has just published a thought diary entitled Older. Nicholas de Jongh looks back at a remarkable lif

07 November, 2019 — By Nicholas de Jongh

James Roose-Evans: ‘I have not wasted my life, but lived it to the full’

IT’S a daring 90-year-old who decides to mark his 90th birthday by writing a year-long, daily diary intended for publication.

James Roose-Evans, who created Hampstead Theatre more than half a century ago and went on to have a notable theatrical career, has done just that in a rare and remarkable feat of candour, no holds apparently barred.

“One man in his time plays many parts,” says Jacques in As You Like It. Similarly, Roose-Evans has enjoyed a life that bounded off in several creative directions – as a non-stipendiary priest; an adaptor for the stage famously moving 84 Charing Cross Road from page to stage.

He has authored books on experimental theatre and on the value of ritual and meditation, which he has practised himself for more than 50 years and in which he still leads a monthly group of meditators.

Then there is Bledfa – a centre for the creative arts in Wales, the second arts building he created. It is perhaps this fine diversity of experience that helps gives Older its stimulating vigour. Here is a book about the pains of growing old with grace, and piercing self-awareness

On February 15 he writes in poignant outburst of revelation: “At half past eleven I woke and thought how deeply I long to be hugged and held in a warm embrace not for any sexual reason – I am long past that, but for the deep comfort of being held. And I realise how many old people must yearn to be held, embraced – indeed some may never have known it.

“As Keith Hunt at the Royal Free Hospital, whose team give massages to over 35,000 people a year says that it is the first time of being caressed for many along year.”

You catch in this observation a recollection of Roose-Evans’ own sense of loss – that familiar late-life, general experience – for his partner of 54 years, Hywel Jones, who died of cancer more than half a decade ago.

Yet Older, as he calls his book to distinguish his state from what he considers the dead end of Old where one waits passively to shuffle off the mortal coil, does not see death as a finishing post but as a new state of being.

Early in his diary years he writes: “He [Hywel] will always be there for me… in that other existence [where] each will have new tasks, new responsibility, on a continuing journey of discovery.”

This note, however, whether felt to be either religious or romantic, does not convey the full flavour of his writing Time past and time present jostle for attention in a stream of reverie, recollection and philosophic debate.

There is no cocooning the author’s bright mind in lofty clouds of thoughtfulness.

James is very much earth-bound, recording the way his body is now subject to the ravages of time.

He looks, and I say this as someone who has known him for many decades, remarkably untouched by the years, but he has honestly recorded how the pit-falls and real falls of old age have caught up with him.

A painful, recurring ear infection, chills and hospital visits for X-rays and blood tests mark the year. His balance is not what it should be, he finds walking – and he does a mile a day – a real strain. His deafness is something of a trial.

There is, though, no missing the positives.

His mind has lost none of its questing vitality. He has published two books since his 90th birthday – Blue Remembered Hills, a memoir of his early years in Radnorshire and A Life Shared, recalling his life with Hywel Jones.

He regards the frailties of old age as hurdles to be attempted. He resists melancholia and a single note of self-pity.

By great good luck, and he has been much blessed by it, a “lodger”, less than half his age and of whom he tantalisingly lets us know almost nothing, rents a room in his Hampstead flat.

This youngish man, who came to know him through reading his book on ritual, offers a sociable, helpful, attentive and sociable hand: “an entirely platonic friendship” Roose-Evans calls it but there’s no missing his sense of pleasure in the companionship.

He may not live in a social whirl but it’s certainly a stately pirouette, with a profusion of friends at his small lunch and dinner parties.

He cooks the meals himself and sometimes describes them in mouth-watering detail.

Death, in one’s 90s, may be just around the corner or decide not to turn up for years, but it holds no fear for him in dreams or actual reality.

“I have not wasted my life, but lived it to the full”, he writes as his diary year ends.

“It is hard not to relish the serenity of someone who has known much happiness and still finds plenty.”

• Older: a Thought Diary. By James Roose-Evans, Zuleika, £9.99
James Roose-Evans will be discussing the book at 6.30pm on November 20 at St Peter’s Church Belsize Square, NW3

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