An editor’s eye for an easy format has thrown up a range of ‘profiling’ clichés: the questionnaires that ask when someone last cried, their favourite building and if they’ve ever said “I love you” and not meant it; five things they’d save if their house caught fire; their desert island discs. One, popularised if I recall correctly by Stephen Fry, is the letter to your younger self. In the hands of a less skilful and less self-aware writer, the format can often teeter on the edge of mawkish smugness or wistful self-congratulation or threaten to turn the subject into a parodic version of the love child of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Aww, gee shucks, what … little ol’ me?
It’s understandable in the sense that – and I may be speaking for more than just myself here – the older one gets, the more readily one grasps at opportunities to feel wiser rather than wearier, at moments when you can be contented that one of the advantages of having literal wrinkles up your sleeve is having metaphorical wrinkles up your sleeve too. But there’s a comparative lack of articles that reverse the telescope, and offer us the glimpse of ourselves through the eyes of the younger version. A checklist of possibly abandoned dreams and earnest hopes is probably a more daunting read than the verbal equivalent of a travel rug that can tuck our young self’s weaknesses safely out of the way of the chill winds of experience and adventure. Selective nostalgia has a very high TOG rating.
And what age do you pick to write from? The 15 or 16 year old, still at school whatever our academic potential, one foot still in childhood and the other treading sometimes recklessly, sometimes cautiously in unexplored space. Too naïve, insufficiently worldly to have realistic ideas of how adulthood might turn out? Probably, the simplicity of some of the best insights shouldn’t be ignored: perhaps we could let them write a postscript – something light hearted we can dismiss if our response feels too dismally jaded? Or the 18 or 21 year old leaving education and facing not just the world of adult responsibility but the world of work too. That seems like the critical cusp: the first reality check on our plans, dreams and ambitions for ourselves.
How did it look back then? Were you full of lofty ideas of how your future would be, or were you closer to Elvis Costello, a mere 22 when he sang:
Welcome to the working week
Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you
Welcome to the working week
You gotta do it till you’re through, so you better get to it”
Were you reasoned and realistic, accepting not just a first rung on a ladder but that the ladder might be pulled from beneath at some future point and understanding that Snakes and Ladders might have been more educational than Grandpa had let on at the time? Or were you buzzing with hormones, ideals and intense authenticity, holding out for something truthful. Did you relent and sacrifice your lentil and beansprout diet for the multinational that gave you late nights pondering ethical conundrums? If you did, how did you feel having done it? Was that the last time, or the first of many?
It was a question that I mused recently reading Robert Rowland Smith’s Breakfast with Socrates, a book that’s quite possibly the kind of philosophy-for-numpties book my 21 year old self would have self-righteously hurled in a bin and rebuked themselves for not going straight for the Wittgenstein. (Or maybe something a little more firebrand-ish.) This is the paragraph that brought me up short as I sipped my cocoa and consulted my Kindle:
According to a recent newspaper survey, 34 per cent of lottery millionaires prefer to keep their job. Assuming that, before the day of the jackpot, such people are pretty average, we can deduce that about a third of all those in work aren’t there just for the money. Even if you adjust for the fact that per capita spending on the lottery is higher among lower social bands and that some players are already retired, this still leaves, say, a quarter of the working population who, following a windfall, would continue in the same employment. Far from biding their time at work until the big payout, when they can jack it all in, these people can’t even be paid to go away. They keep working despite the fact that they don’t need to. And that raises the question of what, exactly, work is all about.”
Which of those percentiles would your younger self have hoped to find you, looking out through the page at you as you sit here fifteen, twenty, maybe thirty years on? In the 66 per cent who had a better idea about how to fill their time, who your fledgling version would probably classify as having ‘worked to live, not the other way round’? Or in the 34 per cent who’d found something so rewarding and meaningful to do that they would do it even without the reality check of economic necessity: the ones who’d found a different way of viewing life and work – not as a divide, but more as parts of a greater whole?
Or perhaps they would have hoped to find you among the unnamed percentages so dedicated to either material gain (and therefore either above lottery tickets or perhaps even retired young to enjoy the booty) or ethical purity (and therefore refusing to stoop to the sordid temptation of lottery tickets) that the question would remain purely hypothetical.
Would your youthful interrogator see a rigid sticking to principles down the years, a fatalistic acceptance that values can be a luxury and that lives are shaped by circumstances and events, or a maturing willingness to judge each situation and determine whether determination or compromise presented the better option? Would a younger mind see the faint branch lines of an adult life – the explorations and options not pursued – as the tread marks of a life ruled by caution and led too often by others, or as the natural pattern of a complex story?
Would whatever you present as progress for their scrutiny be sceptically reviewed for the telltales signs of backsliding and concession? Or would the complex weighing of internal and external factors be a revelation from the future as alien to them back then as smartphones, memory sticks and a hundred online ‘friends’ that they wouldn’t recognise if they were stuck in a lift with them?
And looking back at them, would they seem impossibly innocent or the challenges that would lie ahead, nearly all of them unnoticed in advance? Or would their view of their own future be, as William Gibson has commented on sci-fi writers, more honestly a case of hoping how the present might be or of overcoming or escaping some of its drawbacks? Would they recognise the subtle difference between two types of disappointment? The word can, after all, mean either the failure to realise your hopes or dreams, or something that prevents them from being realised – both the dashed and the dashing. And it’s not the dashing others in our lives that leave the biggest impact, it’s the things that get dashed by them.
Looking back at them, caught at the age of (to borrow a phrase) ‘known unknowns and unknown knowns’, would you have seen a younger person who thought they knew it all or who knew more than they’d even realised they did? And stood in front of you, would they be proud, disappointed or merely curious? Wanting to know how things had turned out, or lost to comprehend how they had? Would they welcome an evening in your company – eager, as they’d possibly hope you would (still) be, not to be ignorant at the very least of themselves – or would they wait for the opportunity to spit in your pint and slide out a side door?
Ian Dury once sang that “No one said you must be good as gold; It’s what you haven’t done/That matters when you’re old”, but I wonder if it isn’t also the things you haven’t learned?