Christina Patterson: The rise of the bright, old things

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The Independent Online

The arts world, like every other, is obsessed by youth. Like sharks ready for the kill, middle-aged executives comb their in-boxes and their contacts for news of the new Sam Mendes, Vanessa-Mae or Damien Hirst.

The arts world, like every other, is obsessed by youth. Like sharks ready for the kill, middle-aged executives comb their in-boxes and their contacts for news of the new Sam Mendes, Vanessa-Mae or Damien Hirst. Now that the YBAs are not quite so "y", the search is on for the next young - or even Gavin - Turk. And four years after Zadie Smith made her spectacular debut with a novel she started writing during her finals, publishers are still desperately seeking her successor.

It's therefore something of a relief, on the publishing front at least, to find a crop of recent debuts by authors at the other end of the age spectrum - authors, in fact, well over even the new retirement age. In the past few months there have been notable first novels by a 74-year-old former nurse, an 83-year-old retired school-teacher and a 94-year-old artist. It's hardly a trend, but it is, surely, good news for anyone who has fantasised about writing fiction but feared they missed the boat.

Dorothea Tanning's sado-masochistic fantasy, Chasm: a Weekend was published in the summer and hailed in one review as a "complete artistic success". Tanning, who was born in 1910, has said the book took her "50 years to write". Michael Judge was 80 when he started writing his first novel, Vintage Red. A finely crafted and moving love story, it has a great deal to say about the uses, and abuses, of sexual and political power. But the best of this trio of late flowerings is Patricia Tyrell's The Reckoning. Told in the voice of a teenager who has committed a murder, it is, quite simply, stunning. "Electrifying, brilliantly written and taut with suspense" says the jacket blurb, and for once it's right. Tyrell is 74, but looks older. How nice that her publishers weren't deterred by age or wrinkles!

Well, it would be if Tyrell hadn't been trying - and failing - to get published for years. She wrote 11 novels before deciding to take matters into her own hands. She took The Reckoning to the printers and submitted it for a prize. Within weeks, she had an agent and an auction. Among the publishers who rushed to the West Country to woo her was one of those who had rejected the book within a week.

In the age of botox, we all know that youth and beauty are worth more than wisdom. We want the people who stare out at us from the news stands and the television to be wide-eyed and wrinkle-free. As an aesthetic impulse this does have a certain logic. If lines on a face are unwelcome intimations of mortality, then it makes sense to keep - or airbrush - them out of our sight. But the same cannot go for lines on a page. Who cares if the hands that tapped the keyboard are pink or liver-spotted as long as they can write?

"It's about promotion," say the arts supremos when defending their latest youthful acquisition. Everything's about marketing now, of course, but this is a malaise that goes much deeper. It's a malaise that reached an unsavoury apotheosis in the recent media frenzy over Pete Doherty of The Libertines. Here was an artist who was young, talented and wasted, one who was living a Baudelairean life on the edge. A life that would, he said in a recent interview in this newspaper, "emulate poetry". No, Pete, poetry is an artform. Life, as you'll discover if you manage to cling on to yours, is something else.

What his statement - and the media interest - pandered to was a Romantic, and rather puerile, model of the artist: the talented one who springs from nowhere and keeps the flame of art - and youth - eternally alight. It's attractive, but it's wrong.

Doris Lessing, who celebrated her 85th birthday this week, is still producing her own inimitable brand of fiercely intelligent fiction. Merce Cunningham, also 85, continues to create dance to shame his youthful successors. Leonard Cohen, the master of misery whose songs resounded through generations of student bedsits, has, at 70, just garnered a crop of reviews to die for. Fellow 70-year-old, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is still composing stupendous work. And Michael Frayn - whose play Democracy opens on Broadway next month - continues, at 71, to win accolades for his fiction as well as his work in theatre and on TV. The list could go on and on.

Artists combine talent with toil. Some improve with age; some decline. Life is short and art, as Hippocrates said, is long. Good art takes time. Sometimes, it even takes wisdom. Let's seek out, and celebrate, all artistic talent, youthful or mature, raw or cooked. There is, surely, room in the world - and the media - for songs of innocence and experience.

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