I recently described being fourteen as ‘a fantastic age’, and my other half silently shook his head. It’s true that the teenage years are difficult; laden with the weight of expectation and rife with conflict. Learning to stand on your own two feet is even harder than learning to walk, and the painful experiences of the teenage years can scar you for life.
So what on earth did I mean about it being ‘a fantastic age’? What did I enjoy about being mid-teens? After a while I figured out what it was. By my early teens I’d begun to abandon childhood cultural interests and started to learn that there was a whole world out there of exciting things waiting to be discovered. It was at that age I decided I wanted to prat about on stage and I joined the Southport Youth Theatre. It wasn’t a flash in the pan, but the start of a lifelong passion for theatre, even though the mode of expression has shifted in the intervening years.
Back when I first started performing, and encouraged that I had finally found some extra-curricular activity from school (having dropped out of everything else), my parents booked tickets to see Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. At the time I was annoyed, because it meant having to miss a rehearsal at Youth Theatre… but they dragged me along, and I was entranced from start to finish. If I saw exactly the same performance now, I’d notice the mechanics of the storytelling, the actors’ sweat and mistakes, fudged lighting cues… That’s because I’m usually at the theatre every week and these days, it takes a lot to really blow me away. Back then, at the age of fourteen, my imagination was being bombarded with supernovae regularly, and I revelled in it.
One thing led to another. Through my parents taking me to see Les Misérables I became an aficionado of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which I still adore to this day. How? Well, I was so impressed with the story of Les Misérables that I bought the book, in two volumes, for £2, and as they were, combined, the size of a brick, I took them on holiday with me and read the whole thing within a fortnight. (My parents’ idea of a holiday was always to sit immobile on a beach and never explore the local area. Still my idea of hell, but I always took books and a Walkman to force time to pass.) Having read the book, I suggested to a friend that someone should make a film of it. He told me they already had, and lent me Lew Grade’s 1978 TV adaptation on VHS (ah, those were the days). I loved it, and the actor playing the dour Inspector Javert thrilled me. I was rarely off the stage at this time in my life, both at school and with Youth Theatre, so I was trying to learn from actors who impressed me. That actor… was Anthony Perkins. I looked him up and was gutted to learn that he’d very recently (at the time) died. Yet his most famous work seemed to be a little movie called Psycho. The local video store (remember them? I think that might even have been the occasion the assistant was boasting that they were still in business… not for much longer, they weren’t…) only had Psycho III. I hired it. It scared the shit out of me (I was 14 or maybe 15, but tall, so passed for 18 to someone desperate for custom). But I still loved Anthony Perkins so I hunted down the original and watched that too. I hated having to wait so long for my idol Anthony Perkins to appear, but when he finally did, it was worth the wait, and the film was great. And who was this guy who made it? Had he made any other movies?
I taped The Birds when it was shown on TV. And Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, North by Northwest… I became a fan of Hitchcock aged fourteen because a few months earlier my parents took me to see a piece of musical theatre in Manchester.
That sort of unlikely sequence of events was precisely the kind of thing that was possible, then, in that magical, troubled, awful, wonderful, mysterious intermediate time (for me it was 14-16) when anything and everything is possible and there’s a genuine excitement and thrill to make new discoveries.
I recently threw out all my old school textbooks. I don’t mean to suggest I’d kept them on a shelf for all those years. I’d stuck them in a cardboard box and shoved said box into the attic of my parents’ home. Forgotten. In the last five years, I’ve whittled all the boxes down and cleared out the lot (probably junking about 75% of the stuff I’d bizarrely kept. Ebay came in handy). One time I uncovered an infestation of cluster flies and fled from the attic as if running from a biblical plague. Anyway, I couldn’t help but flick through my old exercise books before shoving them in the recycle bin. What astonished me was how much I used to know. I didn’t think I did at the time, but the depth of my knowledge on the subjects I studied at school impressed me greatly. These days, I leave my brain in cruise control for most of the time. Back then, I was taking in information like a black hole gobbling up matter. My brain functioned far better and reached more of its potential when I was 14-16. I’d stopped the rote learning of a kid and started to genuinely understand the fundamental principles of various subjects. That’s also what made it such an amazing time of life.
I could play the piano to Grade 5 standard when I was 16. I learned whilst I was studying at school and rehearsing for multiple productions. Now, I can’t play a note. Sometimes I dig out sheet music and have a go, but it’s like trying to walk again after paralysis: I can’t believe I used to be able to do something so magnificent spontaneously, with barely a second thought. Sure, there were hours and hours of practice: but now? It’s all gone. And that hurts.
I’m better at some things now than I was then. Writing. Painting. Definitely drinking. Also understanding my severe limitations as a human being. Better at surviving, too; but that has come through a process of shedding my adolescent sense of wonderment. What a double-edged trade off that really is, when you stop and think about it…
There’s no going back, of course. Yet, the things that fired my mind twenty years ago I carry with me to this day. I’m typing this sitting up on my bed. To my right is a framed poster of Psycho III. To my left is a framed Psycho print signed by Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles. Whenever I watch Psycho, I’m flooded with nostalgia, and feel a faint echo of that same wonderment of seeing it open up in front of me for the first time, like the residual cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, faint, but detectable, and still very definitely there.
Life gets in the way and some of the old enthusiasms dwindle and die. I found the last time I was on the stage that I didn’t particularly enjoy the process of acting any longer. I was too impatient in rehearsals, and my natural nervousness was far closer to anxiety than excitement. I could no longer capture the feelings I’d had as a boy that were so real to me then. I had fallen out of love… Painful, as it always is. Didn’t happen overnight, just gradually I moved from being in an audience and wishing I was on stage, to no longer being willing to trade, and preferring to keep my thoughts to myself; or if not, to express them on the page rather than the stage.
Why mention that? Only because it’s a microcosm of the difference between being mid-teens and mid-30s. It’s harder, the older you become, to find something that will blow your mind; or to stand and see whole new vistas opening up in front of you; or to discover a trail of wonderment as one thing leads inexorably to another. It’s easier to be jaded and cynical, and to dismiss your younger self for being an idealistic idiot. All those points of view are true: but having thought about it I now know exactly why I said being 14 was a fantastic age. It was; it really was, and it’s something I do well to remember.