Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2009

Rules for Old Men Waiting, by Peter Pouncey

Rules for Old Men WaitingI could not put this down!  It was on loan from Kate at ANZLL and I had had it on the TBR so long I had forgotten why it was recommended.  I had no special expectations of it at all….but it turned out to be a real treasure!

(Beware: there are some spoilers below).

It’s an elegiac yet exciting tale.  McIvor has not long lost his much loved wife and the emotional core of his being has gone.   He has allowed himself to drift listlessly into decay at their retreat in the mountains, and the disrepair of the building is a metaphor for his body.  He hasn’t looked after the cabin and now it is falling down around him.  Winter is coming and he has only limited supplies of food and not enough wood for the fire.

Out Stealing HorsesHe is roused from his torpor by a fall from the porch as it crumbles under his feet. He realises that he has not much time left and he decides to take control of his final days.  He knows he is dying but there are things he wants to do.  Like the old man in Out Stealing Horses by Per Petersen, he wants to live his last days with dignity and purpose, but his is the life of the mind so he sets himself some rules: he will take care of his body so that he can write his story about men in the trenches in WW1.

The tale shifts in and out of time and place effortlessly as we learn the life story of this passionate, highly intelligent, wilful, insightful man.  Scots by birth, he was a professor of history at Columbia, and married to a talented (somewhat idealised) artist wife called Margaret Westleigh.  They had a son called David who disapproved (as they all did) of the Vietnam War but volunteered as a medic.  (His portrayal as an ‘innocent’ veteran seems important to Pouncey.  I think they were nearly all ‘innocents’ – as most young men are when they go off to war.  The same cannot be said of their elders.) 

Through McIvor’s reminiscences we learn how he met his wife and lost his child – and then when subsumed by anger and grief nearly lost his job and his wife as well.  We discover how they came to live peacefully in the cabin on the Cape in their old age.  And we learn about the men he interviewed for his doctoral research as he writes this story that he has meant to write for so long, basing his characters on old soldiers who had survived the evils of trench warfare.  This story within a story is as exciting as any thriller yet it’s cocooned in McIvor’s memories and soft details of his remaining small comforts (such as his recipe for biscuits, honey and whisky, the only nourishment he can keep down as his body fails him).  

The story he writes really is gripping.  The evil Braddis, fingernails filed sharp to match his ferrety ways, is a looter. He goes out into No Man’s Land to prey on his own men.  He’s also a bully, focussing his spite on Callum, an artistic lad who sketches what he sees in the trenches as well as portraits from home, which he draws from memory. Dodds, his platoon commander, is onto Braddis, and the tension between these three forms a story of betrayal and honour which is rare in literature about this tragic war.  The characterisation is strong and the suspense is managed carefully by placing the vignettes in each chapter so that they flow naturally out of the other small events in McIvor’s last days and his recollections of events in his life – and it works wonderfully well.

A great book about the impact of war on individuals, with a story of genuine love at its heart.  Thank you, Kate!


  1. A pleasure Lisa – I’m glad you enjoyed it too.


  2. […] him have some paper to record his story instead, in circumstances entirely different to McIvor in Rules for Old Men Waiting but with the same sense of time running out. […]


  3. […] Rules for Old Men Waiting (2005) by Peter Pouncey (UK) […]


  4. Do I qualify, being 70 comes August 3rd or am I still too young?


  5. Thanks Lisa Hill

    Well now I feel like a young adolescent of 35 and I suggest you read my Post:

    That is after all where I found your Blog as Automatically Generated related Posts. And you have made my day.

    Do go well.


  6. I too have made some serendipitous discoveries using automatically generated related posts. I like your philosophy:)


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: