Category Archives: creativity

I think I know why old people get grumpy

Apart from the aches and pains that increase with age, which obviously would make anyone grumpy. But Tim and I have noticed something in recent months – that things we thought that everyone knew aren’t actually as obvious as we thought.

I mean, I’m used to the fact that not everyone knows the frequently strange and obscure things I have learned in my travels, and I’m never surprised when something even *I* think is odd knowledge isn’t recognised. But there are some things which, for people of my age group, are just things that everyone knows, surely? It’s shocking and disconcerting to discover something you thought was common knowledge turns out to be obscure or even irrelevent to someone under the age of 25.

This came up recently when Tim needed to explain Scott of the Antarctic to someone. When he told me, my first thought was “but he’s mentioned in the Australian Crawl song ‘Reckless'” – and then remembered that this song is from the 1980s and may be just as irrelevent as the doomed explorer to the person in question.

More and more often, things I thought that everyone knew turn out to be things that only people of a certain age know. Another friend was gobsmacked when he had to contextualise who the Nazis were for someone – when the penny finally dropped the person said “Oh! The Bad Guys!” as though she only understood World War II and the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who had only seen it in Hollywood movies.

I was naturally reminded of some of the older books I read – Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle – and wondered about the references in those stories which were commonplace to the author and their contemporaneous readership, which are nigh on meaningless now. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of their work, though it sometimes requires that I do a little research. (It was amazing how much funnier Blackadder the Third became once I’d read a book on the Regency period., for example. That Mr Curtis knows his stuff.)

I wonder now at what elements of my own ignorance may have surprised my parents and grandparents. Did they have the sense of the world being not so concrete as they thought it was? In what ways have I appalled my elders by not knowing, or caring much about, things that were considered essential to an education in their day?

It brings a new light to the problem of writing contemporary fiction and wanting to put current references into the work which, in my experience, editors don’t like very much. They fear it will date the work, pin it too much to a particular time. It shows a charming confidence that people might still be reading the thing in a decade and wonder who these bands and celebrities and TV shows are that are referenced so glibly. But if you are writing for a young, contemporary audience, restricting yourself to referencing only pop culture that has lasted the distance in the last 20 years is going to date the book – or at least the author – before the decade is up.

I have vowed to be less gobsmacked at the things people don’t know. The only reason I know some of this stuff is because I read voraciously and talk to people a lot. I also vow to maintain my curiosity about what’s going on in the world *now*. I don’t want to suddenly find out that all my reference points for art, culture and history are dusty and irrelevant. That doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon the history that I know, or cease using it – but I intend to keep the weaving the thread, from past to present to future, pulling in the strands from every place I think can help me to tell a story and keep it rich, deep, detailed and relevant.

Real life hyperlinks

On Saturday 30 July I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne for one of Stephen Fry’s two talks. Someone on JJJ remarked that the event was like spending two hours in conversation with one’s favourite disreputable uncle, which I think sums it up nicely.

Fry, with nothing but a microphone and his native charm, strolled back and forth across a bare stage talking about his life. He did brilliant impersonations of people he has known, was charmingly impolite and disarmingly frank about some ugly episodes in his life, and generally held us captivated for the entire period.

I suspect the evening performance varied from the one we saw, since Fry is likely to go off at tangents at a moment’s notice before returning to his theme. He mentioned (and did a funny impersonation of) Australian theatre great Frank Thring at one point. Tim and I had already noticed, prior to the show, a marble plaque at the entrance to the Regent in honour of Thring, who had been instrumental in saving a number of old theatres in Melbourne. I promptly tweeted a terrible picture of it to him after the show, and was fangirlishly excited beyond all measure when he tweeted back!

During his talk, he mentioned the concept of ‘real life hyperlinks’, where you discover something new to you via a mention elsewhere. As it happens, Stephen Fry is my Real Life Hyperlink into the world and works of PG Wodehouse.

Tim and I lived in Egypt from 1993-94, teaching English as a Foreign Language. Egyptian TV often showed odd English language programs in the mornings, and through this we caught Australian kids’ show The Girl from Tomorrow, and an Australian mini series set in the Queensland cane fields. One of the last series we saw before leaving Egypt was Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster.

We were charmed and delighted. The language was exquisite. We promptly went and found the books on which the series was based, and discovered even more literary treasure with seven decades worth of books and short stories. Now we always have a Wodehouse story on hand as a way to de-stress when the world’s going a little bit mad.

It’s not the first time I’ve discovered literature as the result of a superbly done TV series. The 1990s Jeremy Brett version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes led me to the original Conan Doyle stories, after decades of an avuncular Holmes and dim, corpulent Watson had utterly failed to engage me.

I have gone to source material after reading comics with an intriguing premise. I have gone to history books after fictionalised films and series have sparked my curiosity. I have read fiction and non-fiction books mentioned in newspaper articles, and followed up recommendations made by friends.

More recently, in creating my Melbourne Literary iPhone app (coming soon!), I have discovered books and authors I knew little or nothing about. I’ve read books I wouldn’t normally have chosen, and have a long list of new and classic authors to try.

Discovering something new by following a lead from a book, film, tv show, conversation or newspaper article, is another chance to make our knowledge richer and deeper. It’s an opportunity to engage in fresh ideas, or older wisdoms, and to learn more about our literary heritage. I’m hoping that when the app is finally available that it will act as a psychological hyperlink and that its users will discover something wonderful as a result.