You know that thing Benedict Anderson says about identity? Well, he’s about like, say, a baby picture. So you pick up this picture, this two-dimensional image and you say, “That’s me!” Well, to connect this baby in this weird little image with yourself, living and breathing in the present, you have to make up a story like, “This was me when I was a year old, and later I had long hair, and then we moved to Riverdale, and now here I am.” So it takes a story that’s actually a fiction to make you and the baby in the picture identical to create your identity. And the funny thing is, our cells are completely regenerating every seven years. We’ve already become completely different people several times over and yet we remain quintessentially ourselves”
The above quote is from the brilliant film ‘Waking Life’ (if you’ve not seen it, make a point of doing so). The thing about the seven-year regeneration is, apparently, something of a myth(I only got around to checking it this weekend after being questioned about its veracity!) but the general point is a fascinating one. It came back to me on Saturday because an old friend, someone I was very close to in Glasgow, came to visit. It was the first time I had seen her in years and it was, I suppose, to be expected that it would inspire reflection on how we (and our relationships) change with time.
This is something that has been on my mind in the past year anyway – for probably the first time, I have been acutely aware of getting older and (more grandiosely) of being part of a generation that is not what most people now have in mind when they refer to the ‘young’. Whereas once I felt an almost innate relationship to the pop music in the charts or popular tv shows, now I find these things increasingly jarring and feel acutely aware that they’re no longer aimed at me. It’s an odd feeling but also an oddly comforting one. Life moves on and, as much as I still passionately love music (for example), I grow less and less interested in the chart positions that meant so much to me 10 years ago, less concerned with what my listening habits ‘say’ about me to others. Yet I still think about these things in a way in which I can’t imagine my parents doing.
I wrote last year that, when my last grandparent died, I had this overwhelming sense of a generation passing. My dad made a comment about how my parents were now the older generation – meaning that my brother and I were now the ‘middle’ generation, the ones with ageing parents and who might be expected to have children. Indeed, when my parents were the age I am now (32), they had already had two children (as had so many of their generation). It’s a very curious thing to think about because children obviously bring heavy responsibility. It’s been much observed that my own generation is having children later and later in life and instead has an extended ‘youth’. So many of us still share our interests with people a decade younger than us – even more, our behaviour. It’s very common for my generation to still go out every weekend, to still get drunk regularly, to still go clubbing, to still take drugs and chat about the latest Rihanna video while doing it. Heck, it’s fairly common for people aged 42 to still do this in many circles. It’s been very strange, then, to be hit with the sensation of tentative fumbling towards traditional ‘adulthood’.
My friend and I chatted about our current situations – we both live with a partner we’ve been seeing for about 4 years and are both increasingly content to spend our time with them. It struck me that last year, when I had to help with the marathon for work, it had seemed like a massive deal that I couldn’t go out on the Saturday night. Now it wasn’t something that particularly bothered me because I’ve spent so many Saturdays in the past year sitting indoors with my fiancé (though, just to emphasise the feeling of ‘transition’, I still ended up in a local pub!) Going to the wedding of a partners’ friend, having both of our parents visit and stay, attending work events for each other – they’re things which I honestly never spent any time thinking about when I was 22 and now, when I find myself doing them, I sometimes think about how alien I would seem to my younger self. It manifests itself in wider relationships too. We chatted about how our social circles have become smaller and it’s a good thing. I have become far more tolerant of opinions that I would have thought were unconscionable until very recently (perhaps most notably, I no longer think that voting Tory necessarily means you are the devil incarnate.) It could be said to be the dreaded ‘creeping conservatism’ – I would certainly have thought so at one point. Yet in the discussions around the new book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, I’ve noted the observation/theory that ‘conservatives’ tend to care about the same things as those on the left, but also care about things like authority and loyalty. However much I might still disagree with many of their opinions, my once-certain belief that many on the right were wicked seems increasingly at odds with my perceptions of the world and, most shockingly of all, I think that I have much to learn from many of these people.
The sense of a narrative in life, of getting from one point to another, was incredibly strong when I visited the Jeremy Deller exhibition a few weeks ago. One of the installations was a reproduction of ‘Uses of Literacy’, a piece using the fan art of Manic Street Preachers obsessives. It was like looking into a mirror which magically showed me at age 21. I used to dress up in a tiara and feather boa, write terrible poetry and revel in my alienation. There seemed to be something wonderful in being able to recognise myself in the Deller pieces, feel tremendous affection for the person I was then but also feel that I wouldn’t swap it for my life now. There is always the danger in writing such ‘I’-centric pieces that it comes across as quite smug, so I apologise if that’s the case. It’s certainly not meant to be – my point is not that my life is ‘better’ than anyone else’s, but rather that, for the first time in my life, I recognise where I’ve come from but also recognise that I am always going somewhere else. The kid I was in Glasgow is gone and, sure enough, the man I am now will become someone else. Feeling relaxed about that seems like an enormous blessing.