Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Fighting windmills at 25 Down

Call it turning 26. But suddenly, clutching my Young Persons Railcard that is only valid because I was cheeky and renewed it a week before my birthday, clasping at the knowledge that I will no longer get a good deal on theatre tickets, I am starting to feel sensitive about equating artistic breakthroughs with the young. Youth culture is so pervasive, our obsession with youth so complete, that we are barely even aware of it. Look, there are a few places where I can concede that the young rule the roost. In the looks department, for example. I mean, part of the pleasure of watching Channel 4's Skins (and I am just teetering on being young enough to say this without sounding creepy) is how young and beautiful all of the main characters are. Young people have nice skin, good smiles, white teeth, babyfat if any fat at all, it's lovely. That's fine. But. The arts. Why the obsession with emerging artists being young?

Ali told me a great story today over Vietnamese food. I was lamenting that my best play was probably written when I was 18, because it was instinctive, because it wasn't tainted by all the work and productions and drafts and script reading and writing classes I've subsequently participated in. Al countered me with a Borges short story. The story is about a man who tries to rewrite Cervantes' Don Quixote, word for word, without looking at the book. So the man first goes to great lengths to recreate medieval Spain. Then the man tries to go through some of what he assumed Cervantes went through at the time. He tries to live as Cervantes. And the man succeeds in rewriting the epic. The story is a review of this book, which is exactly like Don Quixote, it is Don Quixote, word for word, but the author went through a much more labored process to make it. The reviewer writes that this version, this second version, is far better. The man had to work for it, knowing exactly what he wanted, needing to go so far to achieve it, and what he did achieve is somehow weightier and has more depth.

In the UK, new writing programmes are in no way structured to nurture the people who want to rewrite Don Quixote. At the Soho Theatre, the cut off age for their writers programme is 24. At the Royal Court it's 25. At the Traverse the same probably also applies. What this suggests, which doesn't sting until you turn 26, is that if you haven't made it past needing a writers' group by the time you're my age, you should just give up completely. Truly. This is the message these programmes are putting out. They are not interested in nurturing older voices. It implies that old dogs can't learn new tricks. I think it's sad. Sadder still is that I've been so programmed by our youth culture that I kind of believe it - and I think all of the older writers out there still working on their debuts are worried that this may be true. As if it wasn't hard enough being a writer without theatres encouraging you to give up at 25.

One of the most beautiful books I've ever read was Henri Pierre Roche's novel Jules et Jim, which was later adapted by Francois Truffaut into a film. Roche was a journalist, a bit of a womanizer, and close friends with Picasso and Duchamps. Jules et Jim was his first novel and he wrote it in his 70s. We don't hear many stories like these, but then again, maybe we don't want to. The young are beautiful, with nice skin, good smiles, white teeth, and babyfat, if any fat at all. It's easy to think about those beautiful people starting out, making work, being stylishly bohemian and poor until, through that writing group at the Soho or the Court they're able to make it - just in time (thank goodness!) for their 25th birthday. There's something comforting about that image. Something attractive. But comforting and attractive as it may be, that attitude is probably keeping a lot of good artists from finding the courage to pick up a pen and make something beautiful. And frankly I could care less how good you look smoking a cigarette and eating cheese on toast in your grotty apartment. I care how good your work is. And good work can come from anywhere.

(The Title for this blog posting was stolen from my friend Richard Jordan's play 25 Down which is taking Australia by storm. Richard and I met on the Royal Court Young Writers Group. Back when I was 25.)


Anonymous said...

Good Post. I seem to be spending large amounts of my time round young students at the mo (just finished lighting a student play) and usually it's fine ... and then I get home and wonder whether I should feel weird about it or not.

janet said...

climb the steps faster and the sun won't set.