A word of advice for the ambitious young
28 December 2007
They will soon be all over the newspapers, the bright young faces of 2008, those sparkling, talented people in their twenties who this time next year will, we are reliably informed, be household names. The photographs which appear in the features and arts pages will exude potential. Some of the future stars will look cool, others studiously dishevelled. None will quite be able to conceal the triumphant glint of ambition in the eye.
For most of them, the announcement that they are to be the next best thing will be as near as they get to the big time, thank goodness. There is a limit to how much brilliance and achievement one generation should produce; ordinariness has much to recommend it.
But, as they enter the choppy, shark-infested waters of adult life, both the high achievers and the merely capable could probably do with some end-of-year advice. Almost certainly, they will be too busy sharpening their wits, pencils and daggers for the struggle ahead to look through the back pages of newspapers for guidance from the mature or even the dead, but it is there, all right.
They might start on the obituary pages, a ready source of insights and wisdom but one which is rarely read by those who are young enough to benefit from them. The master of the modern obituary, Hugh Massingberd, collected several volumes of modern lives remembered but, although they were bestsellers, they were hardly self-help books. Now Massingberd, who died on Christmas Day, is being obituarised and, although he was, by all accounts, self-deprecating to a fault, there are lessons for young thrusters even there.
“It was quite salutary, really,” Massingberd said in 1994, while recovering from a near-fatal heart attack. “One felt that nothing mattered beyond kindness, good manners and humour.” At first glance, it might seem the sort of distinctly old-fashioned message which one might expect from a man who used to work for Burke’s Peerage and whose enthusiasms were for country houses, cricket, the royal family and genealogy, but that trio of virtues kindness, manners and humour are more timelessly relevant than they might appear.
In Massingberd’s case, they contributed to a generosity of spirit which in his life gave him a talent for friendship and in his writing were perfectly suited to the obituary form. Much of human life is mad, he realised, and very often failure is rather more interesting than achievement. Even the most fearful crashing bore could be presented, in Masssingberd’s prose, with a forgiving flourish of wit. He was “a relentless raconteur” or perhaps, in even more subtle code, someone who “relished the cadences of the English language”.
The quiet, slightly bufferish exterior was deceptive. Massingberd might have been intrigued by Englishness and by the upper classes but he was no snob and was unusually perceptive about human nature. I met him while I was researching the complex and slightly tortured life of the writer Willie Donaldson and it was he who saw something in my subject which no one else had quite pinned down. “It was as if Willie had to live his whole life at one remove,” he said. “Otherwise, it would be too difficult and painful to live at first hand.”
The lesson drawn from Hugh Massingberd’s considerable character and life that it is important to be kind, well-mannered and have a sense of humour is perhaps unlikely to appeal to those looking to 2008 with hungry, youthful ambition. So how about this? Throughout his life, Massingberd’s favourite group was Manfred Mann and, wherever that ageing Sixties band were appearing in Lowestoft or Croydon he would, throughout his life, try to be there. He was also a considerable and unashamed fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and was said to have seen The Phantom of the Opera over 50 times. Often he would wait at the stage-door to catch sight of the leading actors.
As a boy, he had been something of a hero-worshipper and, however out of date or unfashionable his heroes might have become, so he remained.
It may come as something of a shock to those working hard to be grown-up, but there is much to be said for controlled immaturity. Sometimes, the adult virtues of walking in step with one’s peers in a dignified manner are less important than remaining true to our younger selves.
In one of the year’s great debates, between those two luminaries of Manchester University, Martin Amis (Professor of Creative Writing) and Terry Eagleton (Professor of Cultural Theory), the question of intellectual and personal change provided an intriguing subtext. The reason why Eagleton’s angry characterisation of Amis’s arguments against Islam that they were not unlike “the ramblings of a British National Party Thug” sounded authentic was that they were entirely consistent with his past.
Eagleton at the age of 65 is every bit as angry and left-wing as he was 40 years ago. Today, Western capitalism is at the root of religious fundamentalism, he believes, just as, in the past, it lay behind the Vietnam War or the decline of the Labour Party. Down the years, that political rage, often directed against perceived members of the establishment like Kingsley Amis and his son Martin, are what has kept him going, and interesting.
By contrast, Amis’s anger against Islam looks odd, like a new, ill-fitting suit, or perhaps a recent hand-me-down from his pal Christopher Hitchens. He has done the very opposite of remaining true to his younger self. Once one of the best comic novelists, he now seems to mistrust humour and to be more interested in political debate than in fiction. He has become a solemn and not entirely convincing polemicist.
So that should be the end-of-year message of the older generation to the younger: do not distrust what makes you angry, or makes you laugh, or simply interests you, when you are young. Hold on to some of that intemperate, youthful passion. It will help you later on.
For a New Year role model, the young thrusters could do worse than return to the obituary pages for the notices surrounding the death in Los Angeles of Beverly Allen at the age of 90. Described in the 2005 edition of the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest showgirl still working, Ms Allen was still doing nine three-hour shows a week when she was 87. As part of a senior-citizen troupe called the Fabulous Palm Spring Follies, she did cartwheels on stage and, in one routine, was thrown around from one 70-year-old to another. “She tapped, she twirled, she toe-danced,” said her producer. “She seemed invincible.”
It is not a bad message from the grave for 2008. Tap, twirl, toe-dance avoid, to the last, being entirely grown-up and you will seem invincible.