On your doorstep
We speak to Ruth Steinberg and Len Biram
Since our inception Shine has spoken to many older people in Leeds, but all of them over the phone or on Zoom. Now Covid restrictions have eased we are starting to see people in real life. To keep everyone safe we meet outdoors – on people’s doorsteps. In this feature we’ve teamed up with the Centre for Ageing Better to some meet some inspirational older people who are active in their communities; people who are defying the negative stereotypes about getting older and redefining what ageing can look like. You can watch a short segment of the interview or read the full interview below.
Our first interviewees are friends to Shine: Ruth Steinberg and her husband Len Biram. Ruth is a storyteller and writes regular articles for Shine. We featured Len’s story in Issue 1 of Shine, back in Spring 2020. It was a real pleasure to meet them both in real life!
Tell us about yourself.
Ruth: I’m 68 ... 69 next week. This is Len, who’s a bit older than me. He’s 84. We met in the year 2000, not long after Len’s wife died. We got married in 2003. I’m a storyteller and performer. I also write. Recently, during this Covid time, I’ve been writing for Shine.
Len: I was a GP working in a practice until 2018. I came to the UK as a refugee in 1955. Britain has been very generous to me. I’ve worked as a doctor, as a medical lecturer and I’ve done a lot of work in other countries.
Where have you lived in your life?
Ruth: I was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I lived there until I was 18. Then I moved to Middlesbrough to go to university. After that I came down here to do teacher training, which was a complete disaster. But I stayed here. I’ve been in Leeds since 1976. I think of Leeds as my home. However, we’ve just bought a flat in Tynemouth and I feel a real sense of belonging there. This is my home, but I belong in Newcastle.
Len: I’ve been a drifter. I started in Poland – Krakow – in 1937. Just before the Second World War. Then it was Siberia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Prague, Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya. And I washed up in England. I came to study with the very generous support of the British government. I finished the drifting in 1955. I worked for UNESCO so I lived in Italy, worked in west Africa, in Ghana and in Ecuador. I studied in Dundee. I decided on general practice and I couldn’t get a practice in Dundee. But there was a practice in this dirty, industrial town of Leeds. I drove past Ilkley and looked at Ilkley Moor and I drove past Otley and looked at the Chevin – and I thought, “What a wonderful place to live.” It’s a fabulous city to live in.
My father was a pharmacist in the quite primitive days of medicine. He turned into the village doctor. I was aware of how much he was helping. I grew up in a village and was used to village life. When I was financially secure (and secure in my practice) I asked for a Sabbatical year to give back a little bit. I went to Ecuador.
A couple of years later my son told me aboutan organisation he worked with in India that provides high class GP services to a couple of villages. A sort of crazy thing to do in a country of 1 billion people. But you either go big and end up with corruption, or you go small and you do an amazing job locally – which is what that organisation does. I went to India to see for myself. And I’ve done several trips since, of about 3 months each. Possibly another one, everything crossed. There are a couple of barely-trained local people, who have learned a lot of medicine from doctors like myself. My father managed to be ethical and generous – but still managed to survive. Some of the things I’ve done were a direct copy of what he did.
When were you happiest?
Ruth: My first thought was our wedding day. We had a full Jewish wedding and it was wonderful. Joyous. Everyone was there to launch us into the next bit of our lives. If you look at the photographs you can see joy.
Len: It’s probably each time that I sit in the plane coming back from one of the assignments in India. I feel, “Yes, that went well.”
Would you are happy you've achieved something?
Len: No, I’m happy because I haven’t screwed up!
Ruth: This is not true! Len is the happiest when he’s the most generous and when he can see a difference. That’s what I would say, anyway.
Len: I don’t quite agree with you because, for a doctor, working in challenging conditions, there is still professional pride in everything I do. And a fear of intending well but doing bad. So, the end of a mission is a very important part of being happy.
What communities are you part of?
Ruth: I was very involved with left-wing politics for a long time. Those are still my friends. People who want to see a world that’s fairer. Where there’s injustice, try to do something about it. That’s also a very Jewish idea. I grew up very traditional. I became quite religious in my early teens, then threw it away. But I was always very Jewish, until I went to university – and it was nothing to do with me. Later on, in my 30s, I came back to it, through playing Jewish Klezmer music. Reclaimed my identity. Now I have a Jewish Masorti community, about 20 – 30 of us. It has a real sense of community. I’m not religious but I live a Jewish life with what makes sense to me.
How important is community to you?
Ruth: The centre of everything to me is connection, deep human connection. Without connection – this is why we’re getting the difficulties we’ve got. Because we’re torn away from each other. It’s nothing new, but Covid has really shown up those divisions. Community is when you really feel those connections.
How about you Len?
Len: I was due to go to India on 19th March 2020. On 13th March, India closed its borders. I realised then that the community I am most linked to is the village and the organisation in India. The other community is from the experience of being a Jew in the Second World War. Going to Israel, finding a country that was building itself out of the ruins of what was in Europe. I find it difficult to accept the way it has drifted politically. Of all the different languages I have been exposed to, Hebrew is the most important.
Ruth: Len grew up a loner. He does have community around him; people love him and he loves them. But in the end, he’s a loner. But I managed to get in there somehow. And I’m still there 21 years later
What are you passionate about?
Ruth: The importance of story. We all have a story. People’s stories need to be heard. The power of hearing somebody’s story is a transformative thing. It’s everything.
What has Covid taught you?
Ruth: Something about nature. Last Spring everything went quiet. You could almost hear the animals saying, “We’ve got it back”. Also, anything around life and death is going to throw up the importance of being alive now – and what we have now. The importance of now. Learning how to live with uncertainty. Because I was brought up in a Jewish household not long after the war, I was taught that the world was dangerous, other people are dangerous. You have to be careful, careful, careful. That has been triggered now. I’m much more cautious than I’ve ever been. About other people, going places. It’s both easier and harder during this period. When we can’t meet person -to- person. But I have been able to meet people in San Francisco! On Zoom. In a way much easier – but it has its limitations.
What do you think about getting older?
Len: You think you are at a steady level – but then you find you’re not at a steady level. I had two leg fractures at the end of 2020 and several weeks in hospital. One of the changes has been that some steep gradients I could do, I haven’t done since the fracture.
Is society ageist?
Len: I think the simple answer is yes. Pushing people away, based entirely on age. It’s a very complex question because people age in different ways. I am 84, a fairly fit 84. There are people whose life has treated them far more harshly. They are older biologically, mentally than I am. There is a perception of what people can or cannot do. I have found a lot of people wanting to be “helpful”. I met ageist attitudes much earlier. When I was just coming up to 70 the doctors in my Practice decided at 70 people should retire. I objected and they said OK. I didn’t retire. I went on working until I was 83. There is built into society a perception that your powers fall off very considerably, very rapidly. But it didn’t happen to me.
Ruth: I’m 70 next year and Len will be 85. We’ll be 155 between us! There is a reality that our bodies wear out and things change. I have aches and pains. I’m not the same shape as I used to be. I’m not as bouncy and nimble. But I won’t have my life to be smaller than it needs to be. I won’t be told from the outside what I can and can’t do. I will not accept that “once you’ve finished work it’s all downhill.” What you’ve got is a lifetime of experience and knowledge. I’ve always been odd. I’ve always been small – and not the norm. I’m now old and I’m invisible. I say things and it’s as if I’ve not said anything. I have to push more. “Hello! I’m here! Don’t make assumptions about me!” Each person is of great value – of more value maybe, because of the life they’ve lived.
Quick Q & A with Ruth Steinberg and Len Biram
What do you like about Leeds?
Ruth: It’s big enough to have lots of culture, lots of things happening.
But it’s small enough that it’s likely I meet someone I know. It’s
cosmopolitan, it’s rich, it’s diverse. Its parks and green spaces are the
best. Roundhay Park is near us.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Ruth: I struggle getting out of bed in the morning! What gets me out of bed is my diary, I guess. There are a lot of things in there. What gets me out of bed is that I’m interested in something – doing something.
Len: The weather forecast! Then I have to remember to make toast and squeeze oranges for this person (points to Ruth).
Ruth: I’m interested in things. I’m always doing puzzles, that’s my morning routine. I do a crossword puzzle or a number puzzle. I’m learning Yiddish at the the moment. I’ve decided to learn photography. I write. I like my mind to be active.
When did you last cry? And when did you last laugh?
Len: I last cried properly when my wife died. We laugh a lot and we spark each other off.
Ruth: I cry and laugh very easily. I do something ridiculous and Len plays along. We find reasons to giggle. It’s infectious. I cry easily at how terrible the world is My view is that things are terrible and glorious at the same time.
Thanks Len and Ruth for letting us On Your Doorstep.
Thanks to the Centre for Ageing Better for sponsoring this feature.
The Centre for Ageing Better has a vision for society where everyone
enjoys later life.
Find out more about the great work they do at www.ageing-better.org.uk