Sunday, 31 August 2014

I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

I went to a reunion and it got me thinking about life. Everyone else got pissed.

At the age of fifty-something, I'd never been to a reunion before. No school reunions, no college reunions. When I finally ended up going to a reunion it was for a punk club.

It was all Facebook's fault. I try not to do nostalgia: 'You can never go back' is one of my mottos. (The other's one is 'Life's too short'.) But one of my friends invited me to a Facebook group, and it was a laugh discussing questions like 'What's the best Clash album?' and 'The Stranglers - punk rock band or pub rock bandwagon jumpers?'

And others like 'Do you still feel like a punk?' and 'Who thinks they are old?' (So, it's not just me thinking about life after all - although you can usually rely on someone to lower the tone if things get too serious.)

At some point someone mentioned a reunion. And everyone got really excited. And then about a week before, the anxiety started creeping into people's posts. What do you wear to a reunion? What if we don't recognise each other?

And I started wondering: do you talk about 'then' or about 'now'?

I've always imagined that at 'real' reunions, people talk about status stuff like the number of children and cars they've got. I'd never want to do that. But I'm interested in the 'now' and 'then' of people's lives, and the connections. And as I joined in the handclaps on Do Anything You Wanna Do, I couldn't help wondering: how many of us did?

I imagine the answer for most of us is that we did some of the things we wanted to do, some of the time. My life's quite good now - I am grateful for my second chances - but it's more boring than when I was 18. Let's face it, everyone's life is more boring than when they were 18.

It's a good time to meet again: at our age, those of us who've survived have been through things and come out the other side. Everyone's got a story to tell, even if most of them were too busy partying to tell it.

And it was a bit like a real party - music (the best music), booze, people - but with the added bonus of saying 'Do I know you?' at the beginning of every conversation.

I didn't know many people back then - too shy to make friends. I'm pretty sure that I talked to some people for the first time, not in 35 years but ever. And they were nice people. I don't know what I was so scared of.

I talked to people I thought I knew, and people who thought they knew me. I failed to recognise some people I used to know. I got information overload from all the names and faces. And I tried not to revert to my 18-year-old self. Even if I did actually find myself staring at my shoes at one point. They're nice shoes, but... I'm a grown-up, I work for myself and I go to business networking events without being nervous. I don't actually want to go back to 1977.

And I shocked myself by how little I remember about 'then'. Someone asked me about my memories and I struggled to find any. There are more feelings than facts. Most of what I remember is an atmosphere, and the music.

The music was great, of course. There was dancing, and it didn't hurt til later. And there was something special about being in a room full of people my own age for a change. With no young people there to compare ourselves to, you could forget that we weren't all still 18. Some of us are stouter, most are greyer (except the bald ones and those with purple hair), but it was dark and  - for one night only - we didn't look old. We didn't feel old, either.

In short, it was kind of fun and kind of weird. And it made me think, which is a dangerous thing.  I've done the 'then' and 'now', maybe it's time to start wondering about the 'next'.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Neat, neat, neat: Teachers, tests and lies


There's a thing going round the internet. Well, there's always a thing going round the internet. It's divided opinion more than most, and nearly made me fall out with someone I love. Which wasn't nice.

It's a letter from a teacher to children in her school about not worrying about their test results. A sort of consolation prize. I think her heart's in the right place but I also think she is feeding the children a lie.

We've always been fed lies, of course. Growing up in the 60s, the lie was that we are living in a meritocracy. I was told that with brains and hard work you could get anywhere. Turned out that was only part of it. In real life, it needs brains, hard work, self-confidence, a financial safety net, and knowing the right people.

The lie is different now. The story is that achievements don't matter as long as you are a nice person. Funny, though, how it hasn't resulted in more nice people than there were before.

The lie is in this letter going round the internet. I thought it was a fake at first: it rang my bullshit detector very loudly. Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was great.  Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was awful. I did too.

It felt so phoney. I got the same feeling I get from looking/reading/listening to Bad Art. And Bad Art is one of the things in the world that makes me angry. (Yeah, I know, priorities and all that but that's just the way it is.)

Nothing rang true. The Americanisms, for a start ('neat', 'smart'). Turns out she'd plagiarised it. The sweeping generalisations (there was nothing personal about the child - so whose benefit was this for, really?). And the lies. The lie that 'there are many ways of being smart'. No, being nice is not being smart. It's a good thing, but it's not the same. The lie that failure doesn't matter. The lie that fuzzy feelings are a good thing in themselves. The lie that 'self esteem' is more important than the truth.

It reminded me of what happened during the 90s when my nieces and nephews were growing up. And children were sent home from school with certificates and badges more or less every day. For doing more or less nothing. Has it made them more confident or successful than my generation? I doubt it. Has it done any harm? Well, my nieces and nephews have turned out well as adults but I would say that, wouldn't I? I have friends, though, who work in graduate recruitment who believe they are dealing with a generation that has an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

It reminds me too of the creeping sentimentalisation of our culture. It's coming, I think, from American mass entertainment and I don't know why we listen to it because that country is not, after all, a bastion of equal opportunities.

We're getting the lie that we can all get along because fundamentally everything's lovely and everyone's lovely. Then there's the lie that all we have to do is share inspirational messages and the world will suddenly become a heaven on earth. (And anyone who challenges this is 'negative'.) And there's the lie that if you have 'a dream' you can get anywhere. You don't even need brains or hard work any more, just a wishlist.

Life is more complex, and tougher than that. The world, as today's news broadcasts are telling me loud and clear, is not a nice place, and  humans are not necessarily nice people. So why pretend?

Don't get me wrong, I hate Michael Gove as much as the next person. And I agree with the basic idea behind that teacher's letter. That tests aren't everything and there are other things that matter about people.  But there are better ways of saying it than this inauthentic, sentimental posturing. As for lying to children – I've never believed in that.


Friday, 27 June 2014

Book review: Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

Years ago, when I still worked for other people, I was talking about the legendary grumpiness of a colleague and one of his admirers said 'You don't know what he's been through.'  As if that was an excuse.  And I thought: 'You don't know what I've been through either.' And then I thought: 'Show me someone who's got the the age of 40 who hasn't had bad things happen to them and I'll show you someone who hasn't lived.'

Shit happens. We're all survivors, one way or the other. And you could call Viv Albertine's memoir the story of a survivor. Except that would be a) very '80s and b) a cliche.

I picked this up expecting the best bits to be about the punk years and her time as guitarist with the Slits. They weren't. The best bit was following the life story of a woman who has been through a lot. As we all have, which makes this the story of  everywoman. But she's probably been through more than most, which makes this the story of someone extraordinary.

Extraordinarily honest. No spoilers, but she tells you everything. There are some experiences I hope I never have, and some that made me cry because they were so close to home. I'm not going to tell you what they are and that's why I'll never write a book like this.

And it's an extraordinarily full life. Considering this includes several years as a  'Hastings housewife', she's done a lot. And considering she describes herself as melancholic, that's an achievement.  Living life to the full is hard when you're 'prone to depression'. I know.

But she doesn't let anything stop her. My favourite quote: 'That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.' That's how I try to live, too.

You could call this a story about female survival, but more importantly it's a story about female creativity. Or what Viv calls 'self expression'.

That's where punk comes in. Or 'punk' as she puts it, which is fair enough because she was there. She doesn't romanticise the movement (for her, it died early on, when the London scene turned violent) but it's clear it was a turning point.

For a fan, it's a great read. Inside gossip on the Sex Pistols and their circle, and spot-on descriptions like this one of Johnny Thunders: 'He looks like he's walked straight out of a Shangri-Las' song: bad but good.'

But the music business is just part of her story. It's about a lot of other things, too. Things that happen to you, things you make happen, bad choices, good choices, learning to say yes.

Some of what the book is about is in the title (based on her teenage obsessions). I'm so glad she wrote it herself instead of, as her 'manager' wanted, getting it ghost-written. I like the voice that is true to herself. I like the bit at the end where she lists the clothes, music and boys for each time period in the book. I like the fact that the photo captions describe what she is wearing and where it came from.  These things matter.

And music, of course. Music matters. She describes her first musical epiphany, listening to the Beatles: 'Now everything's changed: I've found the meaning of life, hidden in the grooves of a flat black plastic disc. I promise myself I will get to that new world, but I don't know how to make it happen.'

And her second, on seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time: 'This is it. At last I see not only that other universe I've always wanted to be part of, but the bridge to it.'

In between, not knowing that music was something women could do. Finding out. Doing it. Doing it well.

And at the end of the book (not the end of the story), finding out that older women can do it too. Now that I've read the book, I just want to hear those songs.