The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, J.B. Morrison, Macmillan, 2014.
The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 tells the story of a year in the life of an elderly man who lives alone an English seaside village. On his eighty-first birthday, Frank is run over by a milk float and fractures his arm and foot. His daughter, who lives in America, is concerned about his ability to take care of himself when he is released from hospital, so she engages the services of a home care company and pays for twelve weekly visits. At first, Frank is upset by the prospect of a strange woman bossing him around, but he soon realises he has hit the jackpot when Kelly Christmas turns up. She might be a very bad driver but she is kind and considerate, and soon Frank is looking forward to her Monday morning visit as the highlight of his week.
Frank Derrick is an endearing character. He is one of life’s dreamers and chancers, the sort of man who would spend his last $20 on lottery tickets rather than food. He is heartbreakingly lonely and terribly bored, but he is resilient and takes life as it comes. His big passion in life is movies and he once harboured the notion of setting up a cinema in his garden shed, but like most of Frank’s other ideas, nothing ever came of it. His wife died, his daughter moved away, and he finds himself living amongst strangers who fill their days washing their cars, trimming their lawns, or twitching the net curtains and spying on their neighbours. Frank wears his hair long, is a Sex Pistols fan, and still young at heart. And this is Frank’s big problem, because although he is still young in his mind, his body tells him otherwise.
The tone of the book is poignant, whimsical, and sometimes funny. I found Frank quite heartbreaking at times because he misses his wife and daughter and only has one friend, who has MS and lives in residential care. A lack of money means that Frank cannot do the things he would like to, and the quiet village he and his wife moved to years ago has become much larger and less community-minded. Poor Frank spends most of his time at home with his cat, watching television, sorting through his junk mail, and trying to dodge the many cold-callers who land on his doorstep and attempt to sell him things or talk him into having his roof fixed. He longs for companionship and something meaningful to do with his days, but daily visits to the local charity shop and rides on the bus to visit his friend are about as good as it gets.
When Kelly Christmas comes to care for him, Frank’s quality of life improves but he knows her visits are numbered, and this is very hard for him to bear. I felt sad when I was reading about Frank’s schemes to raise some money so he could pay her to continue visiting. His quiet despair was all too palpable on the page and I think Morrison has done a wonderful job of capturing that with words. I know there are a great many older people who feel lonely and lost living in our communities, maybe next door to us. Boredom and loneliness are terrible afflictions, especially when you are old. As Frank says, young people have no reason to complain about being bored:
Bored. Ha. Really. Bored. They didn’t know the meaning of the word. Frank could teach them something about boredom. What did the young have to be so bored about? They had slides and swings, they had computer games, football and kiss chase. They could run and jump, skip, hop, somersault and cartwheel. They could make fists and punch each other. They could chew gum. They had their own television channels and virtually all the radio stations. They had the Internet and bicycles, mobile phones and skateboards. If kids were so bored they should try and spend a couple of hundred afternoons in a row sitting on their own watching repeats of Murder She wrote. Then we’d see what they’ve got to be so bored about. It was the elderly who should be smashing things up.
Frank has quite a lot to say about how elderly people are seen by others and how they are treated by society in general. He is not asking for pity; he wants to be seen and heard, and not be written off as a silly old bugger who is just cluttering up the place. Frank’s life may be extra ordinary but he is desperate not to go back to sitting alone, day after boring day, watching repeats on television and eating tinned spaghetti. Even at eighty-one, as the narrative shows us, Frank wants to live rather than exist, and he wants to have purpose and meaning in his days.
I enjoyed The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, even though it has come in for some criticism for supposedly jumping on the ‘uplifting books about old people’ bandwagon. So, there is only allowed to be one book with that theme? How presumptuous and condescending it is to imply that one book can encompass all elderly people’s experiences, but I am not surprised that some people do think that way. No, the more books about elders the better, I say. In a world obsessed with youth, it is refreshing and interesting to read about older people and their lives. There should definitely be a lot more books like this on bookshop shelves.