What if there’s no future?

I was asked this morning, just in passing, which decade I would most like to have lived in. It’s a question I’ve been asked surprisingly often, but which I mean it’s been asked approximately once every six months for as long as I can remember. It’s one of those questions people use to find a way in to another conversation, about the music of the ’60s, or the family values of the ’50s. No-one seems to be very interested in my response, which is why my standard answer of the 1920s provoked little more than a shrug this morning. Mind you, I wouldn’t be very interested in anyone else’s answer, whether it was the 3010s or the 1290s. I’ve come to justify my answer with some ramble about Fitzgerald and glamour and other such things, but the point is that it’s not interesting because it’s not possible. None of us ever get the choice of which decade we’re born into, and so it will forever remain a little ice-breaker, along the lines of ‘would you have sex with the Corrs, if you had to do the bloke too?’, which I seem to remember was an important dilemma for a while, probably when the Corrs were big news, so a little while ago.

I quite like living my 30s through the 2010s, though I can’t imagine that my life would be significantly different if I was this age in the 1990s. I’ve now reached an age where I’ve got about as much future as past. It’s an ideal age: the past is recent enough that I can remember it, I can revel in my triumphs and I can learn from my mistakes. There’s a quite a bit of future too, and I reckon I’ve still got quite a lot to look forward to. I asked one of my classes at School to write about the future or the past, from any point of view. All by one pupil wrote about the future. Of course they did – they’ve got far more future than past, and even though the future is uncertain, it’s also exciting. At age 16, you’re pretty bullet-proof, and there’s a myriad of paths in front of you. Even if you take the wrong one, you’ve got time to return to the junction to take another, and it might just lead you somewhere exciting anyway. Time passes very slowly when you’re 16; there’s not even much past to remember, so you can recall things easily.

Being old doesn’t interest me, which is a puffed-out chest way of saying it scares me a little. I remember waking up one night when I was about 8 or 9 years old, literally in a sweat from the realisation that I would die, and that it would be forever. My life would be as a flash of light between two eternities of dark, and even at 8 years old, that was a worrying thought. When you’re old, you’ve got a very limited future, and most of what you have is past. When you’re young, the future is uncertain, but that’s exciting, and it’s brimming with possibility. When you’re old, even the past is uncertain; there’s so much of it to remember, so much to regret and so much on which to ponder. You’ve had your one chance, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I’d like to remain in this state of middle-ground for a while. I acknowledge both what’s gone before and what’s still to come. I like my memories to remain vivid, not seen through frosted glass, and I like to think that my mistakes yet to come won’t be un-correctable.

Dan Wheldon, the Indy car driver, died yesterday in a crash at the Indy 300 in Las Vegas. I have a picture of my School year in 1991, and he’d been at School only a month by then. His future was uncertain, and it was certainly exciting, though ultimately tragic. I wonder if he’d have swapped the excitement for a long uneventful life, Achilles-like?

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Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.