Sunday, 17 December 2017

Twice In A Lifetime

The Philosopher Considers Breakfast and The Meaning of Life

Almost twenty-four years ago I turned 40, and began to wake up from a ten-year trance. Huh? What time is it? What do you mean, a quarter past 1994? I found myself the father of two very young children, working in a stalled professional career that had turned into a part-time job, and without any clear idea of where to go next with my life. Cue up Talking Heads, "Once In A Lifetime" ... Yeah, yeah, midlife crisis... You and a million others. Get a tattoo, or something.

Well, thanks for your concern. So, anyway, instead of buying a powerful motorbike, I decided finally to do something about the alternative life as an artist that had been bubbling under ever since I was (thankfully) persuaded by my teachers not to set my sights on art-school and instead to persist with academic studies, for which, all the available evidence suggested, I probably had rather more talent. In fact, as I eventually discovered, taking exams was my actual main talent, but (as far as my school was concerned) this was pretty much the same thing as an aptitude for scholarship. Which, trust me, it ain't. The world is full of people who ran out of road when there were no more exams to take or dissertations to submit. Frankly, earning a humanities PhD is an excellent way to fast-forward your midlife crisis into your twenties. I know one guy who used to work for me – now there's an abject fate – who had postponed real life a degree too far by doing two doctorates. Nobody ever called him Dr. Dr. Smith, though.

Anyway, that alternative artistic life. At a workshop I once did with German photographer Gerhard Stromberg, it was suggested that an artistic career takes about ten years to happen, starting from the moment you begin to take the idea seriously, and actually do something about it, as opposed to day-dreaming about it. Like: make a substantial body of work, submit it to the appraisal of people not obliged by ties of family or friendship to make encouraging noises, learn to accept serial rejection, and then how to keep on keeping on, making more, better work. It's tough, and it turned out Gerhard was right. For me, that process of serious critical self-examination had started around 1994, and I got my first serious break – a long-running exhibition of photographic work made and shown at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire – in about 2003.

Of course, career is not a word to apply, without irony, to the endeavours of 99% of would-be artists, or even to those who appear, on the surface, to have made a success of it. I'm certainly no exception, and I'm glad I never had to try to make a living from my "art"; I'm sure by now I'd have been reduced to producing greetings cards and calendars. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much where I am, anyway. With the crucial difference that – having had a rather enviable part-time day-job that it would have been folly to have given up – I can sit here contentedly mucking about, happily retired from 35 years of public service in academic libraries, with the satisfaction of knowing I spent my working years both usefully and gainfully employed. There are worse fates. So I should tip my idiotic hat to those teachers who cared enough to save me from myself. Thanks, guys!

All of whom, I now realise, without exception, are dead. Or sadly dead, as we should say, apparently. Or who have passed (as if death were an exam), or are no longer with us (like they might yet show up). Yep, but nope: plain dead, all of them. And, what's more – and this is still hard for me to grasp – several of them died at an age rather younger than I am now. Teaching's a tough job, I know, but even so... It seems kind of unfair, doesn't it? To die in your mid-40s or 50s, at the stage of life when a stale career could still be transformed by some new adventure, or chasing some preposterous dream still hanging around from your teenage years? Although it would be far, far worse, I'm sure, to live to regret having put it all off until it was far, far too late. So, go for it, Sir! Buy that powerful motorbike! Come out as gay, or as a political animal with a mission to help the poor, or begin seriously training for a marathon, or why not learn to play the Northumbrian pipes? But, on the other hand, no, don't get a tattoo, Miss... And please: do think twice before blowing the pension.

Evidence: a mind can be expanded too far

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