Despite the near-zero weather, I had a surge of energy and embarked on a clear-out. Among the ra-ra skirts, Tolkein novels and unloved gonks, I found a treasure trove of literary juvenilia in an exercise book with a photo of Alice Cooper on the cover. The poems and nihilistic meditations on drugs and death therein make Lou Reed in his Velvet Underground phase sound upbeat and wholesome. Turning the yellowing pages, crammed with erratic italic script in purple and green ink, I was amazed that a size ten blonde with flawless young skin, no responsibilities, no debts, and the world of university, foreign travel, and full employment before her could be such a whingeing, don’t-care-ain’t-bothered, bored bitch.
My size 16, crows-footed, overdrawn self could barely recognise the teen me because my current incarnation is also happy, confident, constantly amused, and creatively engaged. However, I was in good company, literature being replete with the mawkish musings of young people obsessed by age, death and destruction. The ‘who wants to live past thirty?’ mind-set, which can persist until you’re about twenty-nine and a half, is particularly beloved of artistic, floppy-haired, interestingly moody-looking young men from Chatterton and Keats to Kurt Corbain. The latter belongs to the 27 Club, the membership requirement for which is dying at 27 (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and Winehouse are other prominent members). Of course, non-members have to face up to growing old, comfy and contented or maintain a pessimistic, self-destructive pose into frumpy-dumpy middle-age like Dorothy Parker or Truman Capote (poor Truman could be excused some chagrin if you compare his beautiful boy book jacket photos to the raddled, reptilian mug-shots of his later years).
Martin Amis has made a study out of his own metamorphosis from arrogant toothy, skinny, long-haired, velvet-clad youth to arrogant, toothy, portly, be-fringed, chino-clad grown-up. It is the writer’s job to record and examine the human condition for the entertainment and enlightenment of others after all. The more you live the more material you have – look at late-starter Diana Atill , 95, Alice Munro, picking up the Nobel Prize at 83 and Philip ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ Roth, presumably still masturbating (or at least writing about it) at 81.
The perspective provided by experience and maturity definitely makes for more nuanced, less self-indulgent writing; it also makes for a more objective, less angry take on life. The faster you are hurtling towards the yawning grave, the more cheerful you get. Perhaps it’s because ironically the nearer death is the nicer life seems; you don’t have time to indulge in the morbid speculations of extreme youth, you’ve got to get out there and enjoy what’s left to the max. Now if I could only fit into that 22 inch waist ra-ra skirt again I really would be a happy woman…