Peter Mortimer's sad reflections on the way we treat our elderly should be required reading

THE Whitley Bay News Guardian, memory murmurs, used beneath the masthead to bear the sub-title "and Seaside Chronicle". It was jolly, breezy, almost kiss-me-quick.

Since 2003, it's carried a weekly column by Peter Mortimer, an old and formerly pony-tailed acquaintance whose house overlooks Cullercoats Bay and who writes wonderfully well.

"Twenty of his books and around ten plays have appeared, usually to a respectful silence," says the potted biography which prefaces a new collection of those coruscating columns.

Pete kindly sent a copy, which I began to read on the train. Jolly, breezy, if not necessarily kiss-me-quick, the columns seldom stray far from North Tyneside - whimsically crafted little musings on the Hoppings, on cricket at Chester-le- Street, on 250 pollisses beating down his front door, on the mixed blessings of a travel pass, on Pirate Pete and on how he'd always wanted to be one of those ballerinas in blue jeans who'd dance around on the super waltzer, collecting sixpences.

Amid it all, as uncomfortable as it is incongruous, are 1,000 of the most unforgettable words imaginable headed "A society in denial, the shame it's convenient to forget." Published last April, it's about a visit to his demented old mum in an old folks home.

"In the lounge, the old people sit round the perimeter, some silently staring into the room's empty centre, some mumbling, some sleeping with slumped heads. They are positioned in a way that makes human interaction as difficult as possible.

"In one corner, a TV set is blaring out the inanities of daytime telly. No-one is watching. The television, in true Orwellian fashion, is always on. No matter what day or time of day I visit, the scene is identical. These people have been dumped. And we have dumped them."

Politicians, he goes on, forget them.

"There's no mileage in them. They are the huge silent scandal deep within our society. Probably millions are living like this. They are invisible.

"If I stay too long in the home, I suffocate.

The suffocation is partly my own guilt, that I have helped bring things to this. We spend billions on immoral wars, on futile macho weapon systems, while we allow our old people to rot. Why are we not more ashamed?"

That column becomes all the more poignant for those of us who have endured identical institutions, who at least have been able to walk out and again to breathe God's good air, who beg loved ones never, ever, to let it happen to us and who try to hide the fear that, maybe quite soon, it will.

Goodness knows the answer, but for all with real responsibility for reform, the first step should be to read Peter Mortimer.

His mum died in January.

■ Mortimer at Large (£8) is published by Iron Press/North Tyneside Libraries and Museums on March 27.