When it comes to advice about life, men and cold sores on buses and trains, Rae Earl is in praise of older women.
Illustration by Claire Jones
For most of my life I’ve looked lost. I don’t mean in a profound, tortured, spiritual way. I mean literally in the ‘I’ve got off at Doncaster when I was meant to change at York’ sort of way. I’ve just got one of those generally confused faces.
This has led to some interesting phenomena. People always assume I’m involved in their travel problems (“Do you know just how long the delay is to the Chicago flight?” “No, I am going to Guernsey.”) and I often get handed random free sandwiches and bottled water at airports. I also get “adopted’” by old ladies on public transport. Through this I’ve come to realise that mature women are the saviours of the bewildered everywhere and can offer priceless life advice in handy 10-minute journey increments.
There was, in 1992, the nun in full habit on the train (Peterborough to King’s Cross) who offered me a Hobnob and asked me where I was going. I told her I didn’t know. I wasn’t getting on with my mum, was failing at university and spending the festive season with a boyfriend who I just seemed to annoy. Around Biggleswade she suggested that I should think about having some time away from the relationship. After spilling my emotional guts at Stevenage I decided she was right. It was only when I got off the train that I realised she wanted to know where I was going in terms of actual destination – not in terms of life. Her advice was spot on though. I ignored it for a further two years but she was right.
This isn’t a wholly British phenomenon. A few months ago on a bus in Hobart, Tasmania, I was approached by “Lynette”, an ex-nurse who’d noticed I had a “small” cold sore on my lip. It wasn’t small. It was the size of a decent Debenhams and it was seeping. She handed me some ointment from her handbag and told me to take a zinc supplement. She also, on finding out my son was born in December, proceeded to give me instructions on how to hold a successful birthday party near Christmas (tell people not to worry about presents/make it last just an hour/don’t serve any food that features hundreds and thousands).
Less generous souls might accuse these women of interfering but I don’t see it that way. Women over 60 often feel marginalised or forgotten by society. Yet their experience in careers, family, parenthood, life and, frankly, shagging (OK, perhaps not the nun), is often unparalleled. In my mind they are an untapped resource: fairly unshockable, eminently knowledgeable and with a sagacity that can temper even the most vicious worry. We NEED them. Society needs them. Bugger the quiet coach on trains. I would like to see an old lady carriage. A place where we can nip in with a Starbucks and get some decent guidance or tough love. Richard Branson, you can have that one for free.
Rae Earl is the writer of 'My Mad Fat Diary' and the 'OMG!' Hattie Moore series. She has never, despite three decades of trying, taught a cat to show jump. @RaeEarl