My US agent told me that the best years of one’s life were between fifty and sixty, and for a while I didn’t really see what he meant. I’ve always had a widely-aged crowd of friends, from children to people in their eighties.
Then, one undesirable side-effect of ageing appeared; I noticed that a certain swathe of the population demographic, say twenty to thirty five, had started screening me out, rendering me invisible. They were always in the professional classes, and had a highly focussed attitude to life that precluded time-wasting conversations.
I could partly see why. There’s a tendency of older successful people to hold court and preach – a habit I’ve come to abhor in others and to make sure I avoid myself. I like to listen to the young; why wouldn’t you want to hear what it’s like for them? But conversations – and certainly opinions – are becoming a kind of post-Facebook taboo. We’re all expected to smile and say everything’s great all the time even when it’s not.
But one of the big changes I noticed in myself was a willingness to engage in conversations with strangers. For the first half of my life I had been an odd mix of awkward extroversion and painful shyness. The latter manifested itself in a total inability to talk to strangers.
The paradox is that you finally conquer this fear at the precise point where ageism kicks in and people don’t want to talk to you so much. So the best way around it is to ask questions, which require answers to be made. Then, if you get a short answer you know that person is unwilling to engage, but if you hit upon an enthusiasm, you can share opinions. My best research now begins not at Wikepedia but from talking to others.
I once heard an editor say that the trouble with Bill Bryson’s travel books was that he preferred research to talking with people. It’s true that research only takes you so far – characters bring stories to life. And that’s the problem in England. Breaking through the initial coolness is hard work. We’re an indoor society, too given to communication by social networks now. It wasn’t always like this. Terraced housing and small parades of shops with local amenities clustered together creating neighbourhood communities, and information was always shared. In my last house, my neighbours gathered information at the local pub (now turned into flats) and lived around the corner from their parents.
And how about this? Until 1939, the average radius within which a Londoner travelled socially was just 3 miles. Thankfully we’re not as bad as that now, but it’s hardly any wonder that we spoke to each other more frequently.
Now I live in a building largely consisting of professional singles, and there’s very little contact to be had. The more you get into other people’s thoughts, opinions and speech patterns, away from the unifyingly bland standards of social networking, the closer you get to life.
And for writers, that’s paramount.