It’s Good To Talk


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.

10 comments on “It’s Good To Talk”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I’d widen the swathe to include the teen years. You need to remember this is the age where people most resemble a school of like-minded fish. (Is it any wonder the marketeers drop their nets into these profitable masses?) As the school – the X generation for example – breaks down into professions, communities and pairs, the shoals and individuals begin to be more approachable, as they are more more established and open.
    Writers and artists need not only to communicate, but to observe. Step back, lean up against a nob of coral and watch the shoals go by. Have your phone’s camera ready.

  2. Mike Cane says:

    Now that I am ollllld, I understand why I didn’t want to speak to the ollllld when I was young: They wouldn’t let us be stupid. I wouldn’t believe advice back then. Which all turned out to be good advice! Ah, bloody life.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    A review in the TLS (June 22) for a book by Emily Cockayne: Cheek by Jowl: a history of neighbours. She talks about the ways you knew the people in your area and how important it was for survival. There are some difficulties with the book,”Information is packed into each paragraph like poor families into back-to-back housing….at times it reads like a thesis that the author must defend as she goes along.” By the way, could that really be the author’s name? I’m keeping my eyes out for this one, but it will be from the library as 20 pounds is above my limit at the moment. (This came to me from a friend who maintains a detailed clipping service for a number of us.)

  4. Steve says:

    “Holding forth” for the young is a waste of time and breath. I wasn’t interested in learning from the Voice of Experience when I was young; why would I suppose the young would be interested in learning from me now?
    In the course of a lifetime, each of us reinvents the wheel. But that’s half the fun; and it makes it uniquely OUR wheel.

  5. keith page says:

    Where I live, most people seem to be either old enough to be my grandparents or people whose main concern seems to be what colour their next Chelsea tractor for the school run will be

  6. glasgow1975 says:

    I’ve lived at my present address for nearly a year, I’ve still no idea who lives in which flat for all but one, and only then cos I see them in their kitchen when I’ve parked in the carpark. I’ve said ‘Hi’ to a few but nothing more.
    In contrast I was in rented accomodation for a year previously and knew/chatted to each of my neighbours often, and this was in the ‘unfriendly’ east coast, away from ‘friendly’ Glasgow!
    Before that I was in a traditional Glasgow Tenement and after 16 years I was almost the longest resident, with all the comings and goings I didn’t really know most of the rest of the ‘close’ apart from a largely absent guy and the resident busybody who I think had been there since it was built (OK not quite)

    As for ageism, I’m 37, that’s a gazillion in gay years 🙂

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm, we’ve lived in our house for over 40 years. Everyone around us is now younger than we are – except possibly for the new people across the street who get up early to watch the neighbourhood trekking off. She was the one who told me there had been someone digging in my front border. We talk to most of the families on a casual basis – the former school headmaster from India (talked education with him, although haven’t talked to his wife, children or grandchildren), the former real estate agent, the landscaping man, the rock drummer/sculptor and his now retired teacher wife, but the few children there are don’t talk, except for the ones who grew up here and they tell me what they’re up to and what they think.

  8. snowy says:

    There is some sort of temporal distortion effect going on. When you are little every else is BIG, and you will happily gabble away to anybody.

    As you grow, those younger than you become babies, or little kids and are annoying. Those senior commit the sin of being teh OLD and DON’T UNDERSTAND your (frankly trivial) obsessions.

    You then hit the sweet spot, you master the maturity, patience, and grace needed to talk to both young and old.

    Time will take its toll though, and if you are not careful, one day children will appear to murmur in a strange tounge, and speak of things of which you know nowt. If you are lucky enough to have grandchildren (or friends who do), listen to them they will keep you young.
    (They are also the only ones that will laugh at your terrible jokes.)

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    I live on a pipestem – a common driveway – with 8 families. I have made it my bit to help many of my neighbors out when they are on trips or a vacation. I know have five sets of keys and know electric door combos.
    I also bring their trash bins up to their garage doors every few weeks when I’ve had to go down for mine. (If asked I say the rubbish elves probably did it.) If I see something is off, I let them know. I slip treats to their dogs, if they can eat them, and I look after a couple of other pets. (No, rabbits thanks.) When dogs get out, they usually come into our garage and stare at the big treat jar on the counter, it tends to bunch them, so it’s easy to reclaim the beasts.
    I have lived here 26 years, I’m one of the original owners, and now most everybody and their kids talk to us.
    When out shopping or travelling, if I see a white-haired person in need of some help, I often ask if I can be of assistance. When they see my white hair they usually act startled. So, after I help them I say: “You’re welcome.” Tap my hair line. “It’s a hair-color thing, we all need to stick together.” Like putting a coin in a parking meter when you leave. Paying ahead.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    There are people you occasionally wish were your neighbours, no matter how naughty they can be.

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