A Selfless Age? From ‘Winter Fires’ to ‘1001 Stories’

Gwen Sewell and Rosie Wheatland, iPad painting by Mik Godley from Winter Fires (2012)

I think about unravelling it, but I don’t, I change my mind. 

I think about taking stock of my life, but I don’t, I change my mind. 

I think about thinking about it, but I don’t. 

I keep on wearing it next to my skin. 

Sue Gill, from ‘Eighty-Something’

We’re getting older, my friends and I. The view looks different from here.

I was 53 when I began work on Winter Fires, still young enough to presume that art and agency in old age did not concern me, not really. I spent a year meeting artists, visiting them at home across the country and talking about the experience of artisting, (I coined the term in the book) after the official age of retirement. Some were professionals, adjusting to change in their careers or freed by a pension from the market’s expectations. Others had finally been able to explore their creativity after a lifetime of other commitments. All had things to say. What they had in common, at least in my eyes, was that art remained as other resources declined or fell away. Creating art, expressing a vision, sharing ideas and stories, brought them agency. As winter deepened, their fires burned brighter.  

We’re getting older, my friends and I. Some of us have gone: Dave, Helen, Mike, Ross, Carol… The scars remain, like those of fallen leaves. 

On 24 April, older artists will take over Leeds Playhouse in a production called 1001 Stories. For two weeks, hundreds of professional and non-professional artists will offer a programme full to bursting of storytelling, music, cooking, singing, games, dance, screenings, yoga and much more. It’s the dream of Alan Lyddiard and his friends in The Performance Ensemble, the group of older artists who have been working together for years. I’ve seen some beautiful performances from them in that time, and contributed in a small way too, but this is their most ambitious work yet—the simple demonstration that art is always within reach. 1001 Stories is a gift to the people of Leeds from the people of Leeds. I’m disappointed that I will miss it because of work and medical obligations—a foreshadowing perhaps. 

We’re getting older, my friends and I. And in this changing world, we are learning other truths and finding new joys. 

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with dear friends John Fox and Sue Gill at their home on Morecambe Bay. I had not been there since just before the lockdown in 2020, and the intervening time has been marked by painful losses. But time together, nourished by food and stories, deepening old friendships and making new ones, is healing. And in sharing poems of grief, eulogies for loved ones, together we created moments of fleeting art I will treasure as long as my memory holds. We spoke of John and Sue’s contribution to 1001 Stories. They’ve written a lovely book called Eighty-Something, A lifetime of conversation, for the artists working on the production. My copy arrived this week, and it is as full of love and art as you’d expect from the people who founded Welfare State International in the 1960s. 

We’re getting older, my friends and I. Our relationship with art is changing. 

What all that might mean for me, 11 years after Winter Fires, I don’t yet know. Nothing to prove? Perhaps, but only because proving anything doesn’t seem important any more. I’m not sure how convinced I am about my own ideas anyway. Withdrawal, surrender? Attractive but untrustworthy sirens. Things do matter, more than ever now. The world is on the edge. There are tasks to be done, a difference to be made. There is suffering to prevent. It’s not the world that is fading in importance for me, it’s the self. What part age plays in that, I don’t know, and it might not matter. We don’t choose our biology or chronology. But we do choose how we act. Now. Today.

We’re getting older, my friends and I. It’s time to collect some wood. Stoke the fires. 

John Fox and Sue Gill, February 2023 (photos François Matarasso)

The book Winter Fires (2012) is available free from the Baring Foundation.

Click here to download it as a PDF.


  1. Another thought provoking blog from Francois. Thank you. Sue and I are delighted to be included. It is a cliche to say “Friendship is Ageless” but useful and true. To be practical ( and not morbid) it is also worth checking out and donating to campaigns@dignityindying.org.uk. We are pleased to say our new book “Eighty-Something a life time of conversation” will be available via our website http://www.deadgoodguides,co.uk from May 1st.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.