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The Generation Game

22/04/2014 13:53 BST | Updated 19/06/2014 10:59 BST

So the Pensions Minister has said that pensioners might soon be provided with an estimated date of death, so that they can calculate how long they need to eke out their pension funds. The ultimate expiry date, it strikes an uncomfortable balance between financial pragmatism and a cynical attitude to an ageing population. As Shakespeare's King Lear stormed, 'age is unnecessary': we must 'reason [out] the need.'

In a visit marked mainly by quietness and enquiring looks, I spent part of the Easter weekend with an older relative who struggles to connect the adult I've become with the child she'd always known. In her mind, I'm still away at university - fixed forever in a time which, in her mind, defines me. Amid the debris of tea and cake, she stood up suddenly and ordered me to get my books and essays off the dinner table so people could have space to eat: a frequent argument of teenage years. Conversation made sense at times, only to diverge next moment into snippets of a nursery rhyme or complaints about 'those men' she's become convinced now live upstairs. 'See saw, Margery Daw. Look. There. They've written it in the curtains.'

As I gave her a hug goodbye, even though she pulled away, she half-smiled and chuckled. 'Nice to see you: to see you, nice.' The catchphrase of The Generation Game, the Saturday night television of my childhood. After the quietness of her uncertainty of who I was, the sudden phrase was sunlight through cloud - though heartbreaking as well. Perhaps it was her recognition that she'd known me, back when The Generation Game was on TV, or perhaps just a discourse marker of goodbye: an acknowledgement that she hadn't been sure who I was or what to say, but had been glad of the company and chat.

The catchphrase is a chiasmus, I thought, driving away: a figure of speech forming an 'x'-like pattern: related clauses used in an inverted parallelism to make a point. If it was good enough for Greek rhetoric, it was good enough for game-shows; the more I thought about it beyond humour, though, the more it started to make sense. The inverted parallel of the linguistic 'criss-cross' doesn't just balance out the order in the text: it reminds us that we end as we begin: babbling, making little sense, dependent and looked-after.

But it's more than that. We start out tiny and incapable, picking up a language and the skills of independence from those older than us - imitating, working our way through virtuous errors and benign correction to a stage at which we can fend for ourselves. Somewhere before the expiry date arrives, this starts to drift. There can be a malfunction in the line between what's logical and what we say; a false connection between what's really there and what we think we see. The parallels invert: the patterns between our realities grow misaligned. Where once we learned from our errors and grew to get things right, now we slip further from the normalities which other see around us...

... and so when she comes outside to see the evening sunlight on the garden, she's certain the steep driveway is a precipice and grasps the door handle of my car so that she doesn't fall over the edge. I'm presenting reality in show and tell - look, it's safe, it's fine, you won't fall - but at the same time I am certain that the real precipice beneath our feet is the shift in time and the steep slope of what I have to learn. She's still teaching me, in one way, or making me learn, presenting the chiastic goodbye when it's time to go: because what's left to us in the end but words of social formula? We're not a demonstrative family. There won't be words of love: there might be just a light kiss on the cheek, from which she'll mostly pull away. She thinks I'm still studying literature, twenty years away: when I push the books in my head aside so that we can share tea and cake, I'm learning how to make sense of her words, and how to formulate replies. I'm relearning reactions, balancing myself on new, unsteady, tilting ground. I'm realigning parallels in times which don't seem to make sense, having to learn as rapidly as I ever did back then.

Before our expiry dates are reached, we grasp at routines of time and formulas of speech, trying to secure the parallels and balance the unstable, shifting ground below our feet. Just as we try to budget for an unburdensome old age, we try to find the things to say to one another when we're sure of nothing any more. To see you, nice.

And as she ever was, she's right. I am still learning.