Young adults and the meaning of life
Should you scramble for cash, like a coke-fuelled commodities broker, or drift along like a hippie?
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 20 July 1999
Last year, my thoughts went out to teenagers who had received dodgy A- level results, consoling them that, however they had done, their souls were beautiful, and that their parents were more proud of them than they were currently able to express. A version of this meditation will shortly be appearing in the Reader's Digest, a career peak which I long to emulate with my advice for those coming down from university.
The spoof graduation address, of course, has been done by the ridiculous woman from Chicago who wrote a semi-ironic piece about flossing your teeth and looking after your knees which was subsequently put to music. It would be foolish to deny that, like most columnists (with the possible exception of Paul Johnson), I suffered a pang of jealousy when Sunscreen, or whatever it was called, became one of the relatively few newspaper columns to reach the top of the charts.
But it's the advice to the newly adult that is the problem. They are about to emerge from the cocoon of education, more or less grown-up, slightly qualified, but still confused. What should they do now? Fall in love sharpish, to get their hearts good and callused for the long haul ahead? Grab as much meaningless sex as possible, before the ghost of commitment has them in its thrall? Scramble for cash, like a coke-fuelled Eighties commodities broker, and risk ending up an exhausted has-been at the age of 30? Or drift along, taking time to smell the flowers, like a Sixties hippie, and risk missing so many buses that in the end the point of the journey will have been forgotten?
As a long-time member of the bus-missing community, I have always favoured the gradualist approach, trusting that, if you played it cool, your future would somehow find you, introducing itself like a beautiful new friend at a party.
Now I'm not so sure. I've been reading Ford Madox Ford, whose advice, based on his own hilariously busy life, was "Work yourself all out, to the limit of your passion for activities. Then take what you get for it." Coincidentally, a new production in Battersea of the classic Jewish play The Dybbuk has reminded me of a late friend, and cousin by marriage, whose short life was a testament to the wisdom of Ford's advice.
James Menzies-Kitchin died three years ago, at the age of 28. A bright, dynamic man, charming but with a will of steel, he lived for the theatre and during his mid-twenties established himself as one of the most promising directors of his generation. His death from heart failure was sudden and unexpected.
In memory of James, a trust was established, aimed at providing an opportunity for a young, untried director to bring a classical work to the stage. A bursary is provided, underwriting the cost of production, and the recipient's production is put on for a three-week run at the Battersea Arts Centre.
This is not amateur hour, by any means. Of the shortlist of eight directors who spent a weekend of workshops and interviews at the Battersea Arts Centre prior to a final decision being made, three, including the winner, have subsequently been commissioned to put on productions in London. Last year's runner-up, Simon Godwin, is currently staging Eurydice at the Whitehall Theatre.
This year's winner, Mark Rosenblatt, was aiming particularly high. His proposal was to put on S Anski's complex and intense exploration of mysticism, sin and the supernatural within an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, an epic story of love and betrayal, with a cast of 12, plus three musicians, playing a score commissioned for the production - all in a studio theatre in Battersea. It should perhaps be mentioned at this point that the director is 21.
The result, for me, was spellbinding, a truly remarkable evening of theatre, in which the heat of the summer evening was forgotten and the limitations of the space were turned to advantage. Part religious meditation and part ghost story, The Dybbuk emerges as an unexpected, searing romance, in which the two doomed lovers are played with mesmerising intensity by Sally Hawkins and Luke de Lacey.
Maybe Mr Rosenblatt, Miss Hawkins, Mr de Lacey and the rest are not taking time to smell the flowers. But those who doubt the wisdom of working themselves to the limit of their passions should give themselves a treat, and take a trip down to the Battersea Arts Centre this month.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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