Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Margaery Tyrell with No Clothes On. (…and other adolescent dreams)

Procrastinating with Perry Iles

The other day I made my daughter cry. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t punch her in the mouth or kick her downstairs or delete her Facebook account or anything truly cruel and unusual. I did it with words, because words are what I’m best at. It was the day after the British general election, and I put on my best Private Frazer voice and said: “We’re doomed. Doomed, I say…” I then suggested that poor people would come and eat our household pets before the decade was out, and then I found Bowie’s Five Years on YouTube and played it quite loud. When the song ended the silence was the sort you only get in family homes, when the atmosphere is thick enough to be diced with a knife and deep-fried with a side of fries. My daughter sat with her face covered in tears, before asking me why I had to be so cynical and miserable about absolutely everything. Then, pausing only to kiss each of the dogs in turn and cuddle the cat (who protested loudly because he’s a miserable old bugger like me), she did that flounce-up-the-stairs-and-slam-the-bedroom-door thing that all women are good at until they get to the age where they have to use a Stannah stair-lift to flounce up the stairs in. 

So I sat there for a while, feeling the waves of displeasure emanating from my sweet wife as I pondered when and why and how I’d got so cynical, world weary and misogynistic. I don’t think I’m a racist, a sexist or a homophobe. But maybe I’m all three because I always say I hate people in equal measure, that I’m an equal-opportunity cynic, taking the piss out of all and sundry while around me the world goes to hell in a handcart. When my wife eventually spoke, she said just this: “Don’t you ever get tired?” And, like always, she was right. I am tired. I sleep at night and then after the kid’s gone to school I do some work and then sleep in the afternoon. Sometimes I’ll nod off in the evenings too, all covered in dogs at the comfy end of the sofa. I am old, I tell myself; I have earned my rest. I am sixty, and well into what Frank Sinatra would call the autumn of my years. If I live to be 80, I’m going to have a fag, that’s another thing I tell myself, but sometimes I look at my dogs and wonder if they’ll outlive me. So why am I such a grumpy old bastard? Why do I slip so easily into that Clarkson-y category? I’m white, middle class, I’m not broke and I don’t have a mindless job, or worse still a stressful one. I don’t have to punch anyone when they won’t get me hot meal or anything. So I thought about my upset daughter and my miffed wife, and I came to some kind of epiphany. The world is pretty miserable without me adding to it. I’ve said as much when talking about my writing. Authors of fiction are just lying for fun and profit, I said, so why tell horrible lies when you can tell fairy tales? Not that I’m some sort of peace-loving, vegetablist hippie bastard, but… see? There I go again. A friend once told me that if I live an attitude, that attitude will eventually come to live in me, and that I will subsume my will to it. So I’m practising being nice. Not that it will earn me anything or make me better off, but seeing my daughter do anything but cry is probably a step in the right direction, because I’m quite fond of her. So anyway, what I did was to pop out and get my wife something for our twentieth wedding anniversary, which was in May. I tore up the card in which I’d written “you complete me—plus you still have magnificent tits” and wrote her another one in which I simply told her I loved her. Because I do. Sue me…

So what’s it like, this whole being nice business? It’s odd, frankly, and rather unfamiliar. I have started to garden. There’s a verb. To garden. I garden, you garden, he/she/it gardens. We are gardeners. This is the gardener’s Ferrari, and here is Astrid and her twin sister Helga, who are surgically enhanced Swedish contortionists who live with the gardener in his Scottish castle. See? From a basic concept to one of those bad noun-turned-verb-expressions straight back to cynicism, world-weariness and a dig at the nearest minority group. Depressing, isn’t it? But in my head gardening goes with rhubarb and caravans and a nice sensible Nissan Insipid and Caribbean cruises with Daily Mail readers for company and Murder She Wrote and all things vapid and predictable. So I set all of these terrible thoughts aside and simply did the gardening. I planted cherry trees outside my front door, filled some hanging baskets with fuchsias without using them as swear-words. I planted a clematis out by the back fence without once referring to it as a clitoris and I potted peonies without making any obvious puns. At this point my wife came out and cuffed me round the back of the head and re-planted all my flowers randomly. “You do the words, I’ll do the art,” she said. I’d been putting them in colour order, laying them out so each bed would look the same. They looked like gay Nazis at a Nuremburg Rally. I pondered spelling out a very bad word in the front garden in geraniums, but restrained myself.

Because I’m nice now. And I’m not making anyone cry and people like me more. I have returned to the Age of Innocence.

So, in a roundabout way, this brings me to the subject of young adult literature. Because I was young once, and although I was extremely badly behaved as a child (words like Oppositional Defiance Disorder and ADHD would be used now, I’m certain), I was still at some point or other a dewy-eyed optimist, the sort of fifteen-year old who wanted to go and live in Middle Earth and, you know, grow stuff, man. But this optimism guided my reading, especially in the early days, when the simple story arc of putting a good person in a bad situation and seeing them cope with it and emerge an even better person still held sway in my teeny-tiny little brain. But there were vital differences. As a schoolboy, there was a well-defined line between what I thought was good YA literature and what the school wanted me to read. If YA literature is described (as it is in that fountain of all knowledge, Wikipedia) as reading matter for twelve to eighteen year olds, then I guess I went from Narnia through Middle Earth to Gormenghast, stopping on the way for a bit of satire (Heller and Vonnegut), some science fiction (Edmund Cooper and Robert A Heinlein), and the usual revolutionary claptrap (Abbie Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin, Oz and IT.) Plus of course, YA literature for boys of a certain age (Between puberty and regular shags, basically) consisted of sneaking off to the bathroom with my father’s copy of the Carpetbaggers, which after a certain amount of re-reading would, if held loosely in the left hand, just fall open at the dirty bits while your right hand beat out adolescent rhythms of its own. Nowadays you don’t have to read, you can just nip off to the toilet with your smartphone and chafe the snake over a picture of Miley Cyrus or Harry Styles or whoever. Which is another great leap forward for the youth of today. When I was a lad (nearly 50 years ago now) all you could get was topless photos of Barbara Windsor or National Geographic articles on tribal dancing (why were nude ethnic minorities OK? Was it a racist thing? I was grateful enough for it in my time, mind…) Anyway, anything beyond the odd nipple was unknown territory, and as far as dirty bits in books were concerned, unless someone told you what page they were on you’d have to read the whole damn book. I developed Popeye’s forearm to My Life and Loves by Frank Harris, and I vowed in my innocence that when I grew up I was going to be a male prostitute because women would come and pay me to shag them. This hasn’t happened yet, and hopes are fading fast as I enter my sixties and my waistline expands further and I grow hair everywhere except on my head. But nowadays most adolescent boys are familiar with gynaecology and the many and varied approaches to reproductive activity without having to read a single word. What the Victorians referred to as “the Venereal Act” and Orwell called “our duty to the party” is now a commonplace from of online entertainment.

So what do kids read now? Rowling, Pratchett, Meyer, What’s-her-name off of the Hunger Games? JRR Tolkien has become George RR Martin. Which is a good thing too. A few years ago the BBC had a poll to reveal the best book in the English language, and Lord of the Rings won it. People of a certain age (usually those who smoked a lot of dope and called their firstborn Pippin Galadriel Moonchild) had looked back on their youth with starry eyed optimism and voted for a book that reflected the best time of their lives, rather than a book that was actually any good. Emboldened by the poll’s result, I went back and started re-reading LOTR for the first time in forty-odd years. God it was dull. Beautifully imagined, but turgid as a Victorian novel. It was like wading through treacle, almost as bad as reading Dickens. And as for poetry, Tolkien was unbelievably, toe-curling-embarrassingly bad at it. Go watch the films. They’re loads better. And go read Game of Thrones, it’s got swearing, proper violence and gratuitous breasts in it. And nobody’s going to think of it in any way other than what it is—a rip-roaring adventure yarn for boys who want to be Jon Snow (and are content to know nothing) but look far more like Samwell Tarly. I used to look like Samwell Tarly myself, only gingerer. I was bullied a lot and had no girlfriends and spent my weekends wanking and pulling the wings off flies. Just like Aragorn, son of Arathorn, King of Middle Earth and Thane of Cawdor or whatever the fuck he was. I’m sure Jon Snow is just the Aragorn de nos jours, but he seems a bit more three-dimensional, a bit more thought-out, and I bet he didn’t spend his adolescence thinking about Margaery Tyrell with no clothes on.

But now that I’m old and spend my dotage thinking about Margaery Tyrell with no clothes on, what memories do I have of the books I used to read? Not the ones I pretended to read when I was eighteen and carried Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha around in my pocket because I was a pretentious cunt, I mean the ones I really read? The ones I remember are mostly adult novels—Catch-22, The Magus and Lord of the Flies spring to mind, but I remember the eternal dichotomy between books teachers told me to read and the books I actually wanted to read. For years I was convinced Shakespeare was just a boring old fart, and it took me decades to realise that he made our language sit up and dance in a way no other author ever has since (although Cormac McCarthy comes pretty damn close). My tip for the best ever YA novel? Forty years ago I’d have said Alan Garner’s Red Shift, now I’d say David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. The latter is a book they should force anyone contemplating a career in either teaching or parenthood to read at gunpoint. It is a brilliantly told coming-of-adolescence novel in thirteen chapters, set in 1982 and seen through the eyes of the first person protagonist, Jason Taylor, as he moves from his thirteenth birthday to his fourteenth. The book contains, as they say on the television, scenes of a sexual nature and offensive language, so I can’t see it hitting the school curriculum any time soon, but if the purpose of YA literature is to sum up how it feels to be a YA, there is nothing better than this. Not Tom Sawyer, not To Kill a Mockingbird, the Hunger Games or anything Pottery, Black Swan Green is the one. A bucolic, West Country Cider with Attitude of a book, something that outdoes Laurie Lee, which is a hard thing to do.

So, another two thousand words of opinionated ranting, sexual references and occasional swearing. I guess that’s in line with most adolescent attitudes. As for me, I’m 18 going on 61. Inside my wrinkly balding head there’s an eighteen year old wondering what the fuck happened. As David Mitchell said, if you look in an old man’s eyes, sometimes you’ll see a boy staring back and wondering how it all came to this. That boy gained his early experience vicariously, from reading. Writers have a responsibility to make that entertaining, literate, interesting—and above all, fun.

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