Thursday, June 23, 2022

Midlife without the crisis

One Friday night back in 1991 I came back from the pub near to the house I was illegally sub-renting with two mates in London, to watch Channel 4’s The Word. I was so appalled by what I was watching, I called the duty log at Channel 4 and called it the worst programme in the history of television.

On Monday evening I returned home to an answer machine message from Channel 4 saying they’d enjoyed my rant and wondered if I’d like to come on television to make the same points on a show called Right To Reply, where viewers have their say.

I thought I might be recording a video piece to camera about how rubbish Michelle Collins and Terry Christian were. Instead, I was required to deliver the same accusations of unprofessionalism directly to the producer of the programme, Charlie Parsons, and to Michelle Collins herself. Alongside me was another viewer called Miranda who also had to join in this brutal character assassination.

Bizarrely, I can remember I was wearing a yellow Paul Smith button-down shirt and a Levis denim jacket. I recall saying that Michelle was ridiculous to ask Kylie Minogue if she was trying to reinvent herself as the new Madonna.

Thankfully, I don’t have the VHS tape of it, and I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

Afterwards, we both got slated for not declaring, drum roll, that we were journalists. I was a staff writer at Television Week, an industry newspaper, and Miranda wrote for Smash Hits. Quite why that rendered our views any less relevant was a mystery, but given how rude we’d been to Charlie Parsons, a genuine big hitter in telly, he was well within his rights to defend himself as he saw fit.

What I do know is that of all the people on that programme the only one who never made a career of appearing on TV after it was me.

I’ve done the odd bit of punditry, usually on business or politics, but Miranda Sawyer, for it was she, has interviewed actual legends, as well as being one of those people who turn up on talking head pieces on the 90s, Britpop, and (probably) why Kylie Minogue successfully reinvented herself as the new Madonna. 

She also wrote for Select, The Face, the Daily Mirror, and still has a column in the Observer. She went on to write a very entertaining and wise book about growing up in Wilmslow called Park and Ride

Through a good chunk of the 90s and the decade after, I felt very jaded that I wasn’t doing things like that. I felt opportunities in life hadn’t gone to plan and that I wish I had either the connections or the smarts, to not just write about people who made television shows, but actually appear on them.

The reason I didn’t was a Northern chip on my shoulder, a lack of confidence, and a massive sense of imposter syndrome. To counter it I have always sought a comfort zone, just a little below where in my heart I feel I should be, which keeps me going but feeds a deepening sense of disappointment and a feeling that I basically never really fit in.

I’m just reading another book by Miranda this week, after seeing her do a brilliant interview on stage at Kite Festival with the actor Minnie Driver. See, she even gets to interview Hollywood stars at Festivals. Her book is called Out of Time - Midlife If You Still Think You Are Young. And of course, you can’t use the word midlife without the inevitable follow-up word, crisis. Not hers, specifically, but the idea of it and how our generation experience the triggers for it, career insecurity, diminishing health, regret, and envy.

The very fact that I bought the book at my very first music festival - a few years after it was published - speaks volumes, and that it is absolutely for people my age, for people like me. I do still think I’m young, despite being a father to actual adults. Me and my mate Neil love music, we both love discovering new stuff and interrogating old. We wear expensive technical jackets and call each other to show off a new pair of trainers or cords. 

We’re part of an easy demographic to make fun of: Acid Dads, old punks, boomers, whatever. Our parents weren’t like this. We’re a generation that seems to be steadfastly refusing to grow up. Festivals are actually designed for people like us.

Miranda’s very honest account of her progression through life is sobering. It is brilliantly written, and quite sad at times. There’s this haunting account of a dream where you are surrounded by people who think you are wonderful, you start a chess game, you leave the room, return and things are a bit more hostile. You look at the chess board and you’ve lost a knight, a bishop, and some pawns and you ask to start again. No, comes a voice (God, maybe), that’s the game.

There’s an incredible and lucid chapter on music, which sums up the feeling of being forever young and growing old. “In the middle of my life, I feel as though I might be young and old and the age I am today all at the same time, and music is one of the ways I sense this.” Beautiful. 

In the closing sections of her book, which she insists isn’t a self-help book, she does offer some advice on what might work for midlifers, extrapolating on what has worked for her. Running (slowly), is one, and music is another. But here’s the one I loved; think back to what you loved doing when you were young, and do more of it. That got me thinking. It’s why me and Neil do our radio show. It’s why I am obsessive about climbing fells and mountains. It’s why I’m working in politics again. It’s why I have a chart on my wall with the football grounds I must go to in order to complete the 92.

It has taken me a lifetime to reach any kind of contentment, and though I feel it now, it doesn’t take much to knock me off course. In the wreckage behind me lie various confused therapists, lost friends, failed relationships, and an inability to bank what I have achieved. Rachel is nothing like this. I have no idea how she puts up with me. Even when my frail, dying Great Grandma looked at me through milky eyes and said to me when I was still in my early twenties ‘you’ve had a good life haven’t you?’ I still couldn’t quite accept that I’ve done enough. Fast forward thirty years, despite the brag pack shelf I constructed to give me a high five every morning, I can't shake the voice that says I'm out of time. 

I’ve also been through a few career changes over the last decade. My industry has been decimated - as has the consumer and cultural media that Miranda operates in - and I’ve tried other worlds where I had a limited impact and screwed up. It isn’t an excuse, but the business model for what I really wanted to do was hard to deliver when everyone was working from home. 

That’s the chess game of life again. Imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others and thinking of yourself as inadequate next to the version you see, rather than the reality below the surface. But to confront it successfully also requires real self-knowledge and awareness. That's the bit that's been falling into place recently. Two older friends who know me well have both independently offered the observation that I'm resilient, a survivor.

For so many reasons, I was really pleased that we went to Kite Festival. Picking up this smart, funny, and beautifully written book by someone whom I briefly, fleetingly crossed on a path to Channel 4’s studio in 1991, and who I have occasionally compared myself unfavourably to ever since was one. The other was feeling really pleased to see her do such a great job hosting an interview (with no notes, NO NOTES) and me not feeling a single pang of envy. 

Miranda Sawyer's Out of Time is still available, buy it from Blackwells here, they are lovely.

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