“Can I see anothers woe,
And not be in sorrow too.
Can I see anothers grief,
And not seek for kind relief.”
– On Anothers Sorrow”
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience
“Are you, uh, experienced?”
Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?
“We are facing an existential crisis… and we should also try to wake the adults up, because they are the ones who — their generation is the ones who are mostly responsible for this crisis, and we need to hold them accountable.”
“The emperor’s not wearing any clothes!”
The little kid who first points out that the emperor’s been conned and his new clothes don’t actually exist. After lots of adults kept their mouths shut in case they sounded stupid and got laughed at.
“Once you’ve pickled your gherkin, there’s no getting the cucumber back.”
When I started writing this post, I meant for it to be about my perspective on The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger’s most famous – and only, I suppose – novel. As is often the case with me, what it ended up being was still – sort of – about my perspective on it, but my train of thought wasn’t so much derailed as redirected around half the country until it turned into a sort of meditation on the ups and downs of maturity. And fear.
Depending on who you are, you might consider an essay about maturity written by the likes of me to be a bit rich being, as I can, a touch infantile. Even so, most things that have been written about maturity have probably emerged from the pens of people who actually are mature, so at least this might suggest a slightly different, if fundamentally flawed perspective on it.
I turned sixteen in 1987. Retrospectively, I’d describe myself as awkward, confused and mildly disappointed. At the time, the sixteen year old Middlerabbit probably wouldn’t have disagreed with the 48 year old version’s conclusions too much, although he might have been tempted to add the caveat that any awkwardness, confusion of mild disappointment he felt were due to a cruel world that didn’t understand him. The 48 year old Middlerabbit, having just thought of that, is similarly tempted to suggest that nothing much has changed, apart from a gradually dawning conclusion that a lot of problems he’s faced have been almost entirely brought on by himself. Possibly due to an unchanging, juvenile outlook that may have also have been largely brought on mainly by himself.
By sixteen, I was a mixed bag. I’d left school after O levels, most of which I’d done pretty well in, started work as a YTS plumber and lost my virginity. Ostensibly, I’d done what The Bible had told me in Corinthians 13:11, and put the ways of childhood behind me. As it happens, I’d not actually read The Bible by that point in time or ever been to church although I was familiar with the statement because I’d read it in a P.J. O’Rourke book which had a bit about grown men riding bikes, poking fun at them by adapting it to something along the lines of him saying that when we become men, we put childish things away, we shouldn’t buy more expensive childish things with fifteen gears from France and Japan.
I was never a keen cyclist, even when I was a child. I was always more of a walker, but the basic thrust of O’ Rourke’s satire was still lost on me because it didn’t occur to me that just because I thought bicycles were a load of shit and had as little to do with them as possible, it was still abundantly possible for me to be otherwise totally mired in childishness. Which I certainly was and, many people would argue, still am.
Despite having left school and having started full time employment (which I went to on a bike, so there’s an early signal of an unhealthy lack of perspective – something I certainly shared with Holden Caulfield although I was about as aware of that particular similarity at the time) I still looked about twelve. In addition to which, my hobbies weren’t a million miles away from the things that a lot of people who really were twelve would consider reasonable things to do.
The Smiths had split up in August of that year and I was still obsessed with them. In fact, I considered listening to anyone else to be bordering on infidelity. Even though I knew it was stupid, that’s how I felt.
If I watched films, it tended to be mainly older ones. My favourites at the time were the black and white kitchen sink dramas of the early 1960s – a residual effect of The Smiths, who revived the black and white 1960s, or at least Morrissey did – Billy Liar, A Taste Of Honey, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner were my favourites. Mozzer didn’t mention A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, but it’s not a million miles from that sort of thing – Blade Runner, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, and Where Eagles Dare. I had all of those on video – all taped off the telly, the only person I knew who had genuine copies of any films was Mrs Cowley, my English teacher, at whose house I’d watched Jules Et Jim with my homework partner Suzie Green while she was babysitting before losing our virginities (?) to one another on her living room floor.
I played cricket for British Rail North on Saturday afternoons and on Tuesday nights, which I’d been doing since I was fourteen, so no change there either.
Finally, I still read a lot. I’d never been into comics, apart from The Beano and Dandy when I was at junior school, I liked books. Novels, I suppose. At sixteen, I supplemented my continuing Smiths obsession with The Catcher In The Rye.
Having already said that I considered listening to music that wasn’t by The Smiths to be something close to an extra-marital relationship, it’s not possible for me to overstate the devotion I felt about that book. If listening to the Bunnymen felt a bit like shagging someone other than my girlfriend, then reading a novel other than The Catcher In The Rye at the time would have been the equivalent of, I don’t know, something even worse than that. Sneaking bits of animals into Morrissey’s yoghurt or something.
I came to it because I was friends with a kid from the year below me at school who’d been assigned it one term in English Literature. This kid was Paul Taylor.
Kids like Paul Taylor were the reason why kids like me were thought of as divvies at school. That’s not to suggest that he was a dick or anything because he wasn’t. If one of us was a dick, it was me. Paul Taylor was a genius: one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met – and one of the nicest too. We both had ZX Spectrum computers, as did a lot of kids at our school. We used them exclusively for games.
Spectrum games were relatively cheap, but price was no object anyway because you could copy them – tape to tape, like you’d copy albums, no problem – providing somebody had bought a copy of it. Fortunately, I knew someone who bought all of them, more or less. I say I knew someone, actually, my old man did. This person was Stevo. My old man knew Stevo from work. Not that Stevo worked himself because he didn’t. Steve spent most of his day in an enormous house on Ash Grove, off Beverley Road in Hull when he wasn’t in WH Smiths or Boots buying the new releases. He had an old house with nine or ten bedrooms which was handy because he had eighteen kids. In those days, if you had that many kids, there was no point getting a job because, unless you were the chairman of a worldwide company, you couldn’t earn as much money working as you could get in child benefit. Not like now.
So Stevo didn’t work because he had eighteen kids and a ZX Spectrum and, consequently, 24 hours a day to kill, necessitating new games. My old man would bring home cassette copies of pretty much every last game that came out on it every week, much to the delight of me, Paul Taylor and every other kid at our school who had a Spectrum. They cost me nothing and I was happy spreading them around. Stevo was happy to tape them for me even though he didn’t let his kids go on his Spectrum.
Now and then, my old man and I would go to Stevo’s house, which was an eye-opener for me at that point in my life because it was a total shithole and, when I say ‘shithole’, I don’t mean it was a shithole like my bedroom was, I mean it was like something out of the last half hour of ‘Threads’. Once, while sitting on a settee in his living room, I found a carving knife shoved down the side of it. The carpet wasn’t so much dirty as greasy. The windows weren’t grimy so much as, well, stained. Stained glass windows in which they’d only used yellowy brown and hadn’t bothered making any pictures. I went to one of his toilets and noticed padlocks on the outside of the doors around it. When I returned to the living room, I asked him about them and he told me about the rota system he ran which appeared to be based on prison hours. All of his kids were locked inside their rooms all day, apart from one hour, when he let them out. I didn’t say anything but, perhaps feeling the need to explain, told me a story which involved one of his boys who’d acquired a pair of bolt cutters which he’d used to liberate a motorbike of the chain that was preventing it from being stolen. Stevo’s son decided not to steal it and ride it off, but to attempt to sell it to passers by from its location. Unfortunately for his son, he attempted to sell it to its returning owner when he returned for it which didn’t go down very well. Stevo’s son ended up in hospital and the padlocks were bought to avoid Stevo having to stop playing Manic Miner or whatever it was and visit one of his eighteen kids in hospital. “Prevention’s better than cure, Middlerabbit,” he sagely told me and I nodded, privately contemplating why prevention didn’t appear to apply during the act of procreation in Stevo’s sage mind.
Anyway, Paul Taylor was a genius who didn’t really have to make very much effort in school but did anyway. Possibly I have him to thank on some level for my making a decent fist of my O levels. What I mean is that, even though we didn’t talk about schoolwork or homework or anything academic really, I didn’t want to be the thick one so I made a point of working at it. He didn’t really need to but he did anyway.
Paul Taylor’s also the main reason I went to university too. He didn’t make me or anything, but he did show me his UCCA and PCAS forms that he completed when he was at sixth form – I’d already done my A levels at college on day release from work and it had never occurred to me to apply to university. Nobody at Hull College of Further Education had ever suggested such a thing, even though I got all ‘B’s at A level. I didn’t know anybody else who had been, or was going. I realised that I could apply too when Paul Taylor did.
That’s another story though. Paul Taylor had The Catcher In the Rye lying around on his bedroom floor one evening and when I asked him what it was, he told me they were reading it in English Lit. and that it was alright. I read the first page and though it looked promising, so I got myself a copy and read it over a couple of nights after a busy day repairing broken cisterns in council toilets. And it resonated with me like little else had done before or since. Apart from The Smiths and, later, The Stone Roses and Catch-22.
I’d enjoyed books before, obviously, but not really like this. I said it affected me like The Smiths and The Stone Roses but I hadn’t really thought about it in that way until I wrote that sentence. Having read it back – a rarity in itself for what I vomit out on here – because I’d started doing something else and wanted to pick up the thread again, I saw that and it made me think: it was exactly like that.
Diversion – Morrissey.
In 2019 – and for some time prior, to be frank – there’s been a bit of an issue in being a fan of The Smiths. You know how taste works in art: it’s not just about the art necessarily, the artist might provoke a strong reaction one way or the other. Blondie, for instance, were pretty popular. People liked a lot of their records but also Debbie Harry didn’t seem to have too many detractors. Morrissey on the other hand… I can see why people didn’t like him in The Smiths in terms of his singing and his lyrics. I’m into both, I don’t think it would have been a hundredth as good without Mozzer being Mozzer. In addition, a lot of people didn’t like what he had to say in interviews either. Again, not me. I was with him about most of it although I was never tempted by vegetarianism and, having been in a long term relationship with a vegan when I did go to university, I was put right off that as well. . Healthy, it might be, but it seemed like a voluntary eating disorder to me. I know it’s bad, but I just can’t be arsed.
Anyway, I never felt the need to apologise for Mozzer when he was in The Smiths but recently I’ve found myself having to justify still liking The Smiths despite Morrissey having become whatever it is that he appears to have. Which is to say he’s moved on from being a bit of a twat at times to becoming a total dickhead. The long version is this. The short version is that I tell them, “That’s nothing, I’ve got Gary Glitter records at home.”
End of Diversion.
But it was also a bit like that with The Catcher In The Rye because I wasn’t the first person who got obsessed with it and some of the people who’d been obsessed by it before I was had shot Ronald Reagan, which doesn’t make my heart bleed, and John Lennon which, on balance, while it left me with an unbleeding heart, didn’t thrill me too much.
So if I mentioned it to anyone, what I tended to hear was along the lines of “Oh, that’s that book that drives people mad and makes them shoot famous people.” Which, to be honest, might have made it even more exciting. Like a real version of The King In Yellow, from the short story of the same title, which drove people to kill themselves. I don’t think it drove me mad but I do think it affected me quite deeply and I couldn’t really put my finger on why that was. Again, probably another reason why I was so affected by it. Did it drive me mad? With hindsight, I think I might have driven other people mad as a result of being a bit obsessed with it but I’m pretty sure I was already fairly fruity, mentally, so I don’t hold it responsible or anything.
I’m not going to write a synopsis of the plot because first, there are synopses of it all over the internet and second, nothing happens really. It’s just this teenaged kid recuperating in a hospital, describing how he twagged school in New York for a few days last Christmas. A lot of things happen, but they’re mainly conversations with people and what Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, thought about them.
What he primarily thinks about the people he conversed with was that they were phoney. Not real, in other words. A bit fake. Kids of around fifteen, sixteen, maybe younger, quite often feel a deep rooted sense of dislike towards phonies. Kids I work with – a lot of them – are adamant that, if you have something to say about someone, you ought to say it to their face. I point out to them that it’ll only exacerbate arguments and lead to falling out with people for longer because people’ll always have their own opinions and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by hitting them, but they don’t care. I’m being historically hypocritical with them because I was exactly the same at their age. “If you don’t like someone, you should tell them,” was something I clearly remember saying to Dave, who thought I was fucking stupid for it and, now, I’m inclined to agree with him. At the time, I wasn’t so much adamant as calm and secure in my viewpoint. Self-righteous even. Perhaps that’s what ‘mellowing as an adult’ means. Losing the fire in your belly. I don’t know. Maybe. It just seems like a lot of effort for no good reason or outcome now. I’m sure the sixteen year old Middlerabbit would sneer at what he’d become but he can fuck off. And he wouldn’t care either because I’d have become a phoney.
Which, given the way that The Catcher In The Rye tends to be viewed by most people over the age of around, I don’t know, 14-20-ish, is a bit odd. It’s odd because they tend to find that where once they found a lot to identify with Holden Caulfield, now they find him at best annoying and at worst a dickhead. I have to say that I don’t, especially. A bit gauche maybe, but for a kid who’s still at school, I think that’s allowed. What sort of interesting kids at that age aren’t? Most people I know find teenagers pretty annoying at the best of times and if you find most teenagers annoying but don’t mind perennial-teenager-caught-in-amber Holden Caulfield to be alright, maybe you could accuse J.D. Salinger of doing a shitty job of creating a believable character. As it is, I can see why older readers might not like it, but I don’t think you can say it’s a crappy portrayal of a teenager. People who liked it when they were young and now don’t, don’t like teenagers. And I have some sympathy with that. They can be hard work, especially if you’ve been a clever twat as a parent and not sorted them out when they were little.
Diversion – The Fruit Of My Loins and the naming process.
One of my favourite parts of Catch-22 is the chapter about Major Major Major Major whose father named him Major Major Major for a joke without telling his mother. I didn’t do anything like that but I did secretly sneak in a tribute to J.D. Salinger in my daughter’s name.
When the current Mrs Middlerabbit was pregnant with her, we disagreed about names. My perspective was that it’s better if you give a kid a choice, meaning give them a name they can do something with. ‘Robert’ is the perfect boy’s name if you ask me. you can do a lot with Robert. Bobby, Robbie, Rob, Bob – all perfect for different stages of a person’s life. Maybe ‘Bob’ wouldn’t suit some Roberts, but if it didn’t, you’ve got variations haven’t you? I don’t suit my first name which is partly why I don’t use it very often. Also, you can’t do anything with it, so I’m lumbered for life with no other possibilities.
Anyway, Mrs Middlerabbit liked the name ‘Katie’, which I didn’t object to particularly, but I vetoed it because I thought ‘Catherine’ gave her more options, including ‘Katie’ if she felt like it. Anyway, Mrs Middlerabbit vetoed that one because she thought people might call her ‘Cathy’ which she dislikes. I don’t, I think Cathy’s a nice name, even if I wouldn’t call my daughter it.
Eventually, we had a shortlist of two: Jessica and Daisy. I only really agreed to Daisy because the only other name I was prepared to accept was Jessica, even though I don’t really like that either. What I mean is, I didn’t think Mrs. Middlerabbit would actually go through with calling our child ‘Daisy’. Which was slightly imperious. As it is, she dislikes the name ‘Daisy’ enormously. I do like ‘Jess’, but I don’t like ‘Jessie’. Still, I thought, it’s not me who’s going to be called it, even if I was going to be at least partly responsible for it.
Having given birth to a daughter who refused to breathe, resulting in an extended stay in the special baby unit, Mrs Middlerabbit was totally off her tits on whatever drugs they gave her when we looked in at her incubator and I suggested that she looked like a Jessica. Whatever drugs it was that she was on had resulted in a rare degree of agreeableness and Mrs Middlerabbit agreed, although she was also agreeable about Daisy and expressed that it was a shame because it was a nice name. I suggested Daisy for her middle name and so it came to be that I secretly gave our daughter J.D. Salinger’s initials. I still haven’t told Mrs Middlerabbit and she’s fucked if she can be arsed reading any of this, so I daresay she’ll never know. I’ve not told our daughter either. I’ve also not given her a copy of it yet because I’m planning on leaving it lying around somewhere because it’s not the sort of book you want your old man to tell you about.
Also there was the added bonus of irritating my mother in law because her family tradition is to give their first born daughter their mother’s name for their middle name.
As a sort of postscript, Nicola, who I’ve written about before, had a family naming tradition too. They were named in reverse alphabetical order. Her mum was the oldest and was called Pauline, then her dad, Owen, then Nicola, her younger brother, Mike and the youngest, Lucy. When Nicola had her baby – not mine, I hasten to add – her parents and everybody else in her family was fully expecting a name beginning with ‘K’. So I suggested ‘Sally’, having not really thought about giving a bit of choice by that point – I should have suggested ‘Sarah’, shouldn’t I? Ah well. Anyway, she called her Sally, which also irritated her family. Probably not the best idea, but it’s not like I had any real say in it. I’m just helpful, what can I tell you?
End of Diversion.
Anyway, yeah, it’s a great portrayal of teenage angst and while the late 1940s setting obviously dates it, it doesn’t really matter because it’s so utterly spot on – and the older naysayers just emphasise that even more.
Mrs Middlerabbit has many pet names for me but the most relevant one in terms of this post is ‘Shakespeare Cunt‘ because, despite myself, I’ve found myself enjoying quite a lot of Shakespeare now I’m older. I hated it when I was a kid, but I don’t beat myself up about it. The reason it’s pertinent is because I quite enjoy thinking about books and films and what have you in a different way these days. I quite enjoy the analysis now whereas when I was a kid, I thought it was just killing the goose that laid the golden egg, ironically enough. My experience, having taught English for a few years now is that kids aren’t often interested in character development, structure, context and all that because what they’re interested in is the plot, which tends to not be given such weight by literary critics. You know, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. I think English Literature, as a subject, is a bit vague for your average teenager. Well, it was for me, even though I jumped through the hoops reasonably enough to pass exams in it. I just learned essays really. Word for word, yeah. I faked it until I made it, except I didn’t really make it. I just bumble along really. Which you might be able to work out if you read any of this bollocks.
The reason I mention that is because one of the things that I certainly didn’t really pick up on when I first read it – and I read it constantly. I must have read it a hundred times. At one point I could probably have recited most of it. I treated it like an album: I could read it from start to finish and then start it again at the beginning, or I could pick out little bits I was into at that time. Which reminds me of the kid in it at one of Holden’s schools who kept digressing and all the kids shouted “Digression!” at him, because I’m probably him more than Holden Caulfield in at least one way. Bearing in mind that’s all we ever hear about the kid who digresses. Mind you, Holden’s king of the digressers, isn’t he? Sort of.
Anyway, what I didn’t pick up on on the first couple of hundred times I read it was how the first person perspective of it obfuscates the abject trauma that he’s going through. That was something I only realised when I was a lot older. There’s a part where he’s bleeding and walking through the streets of New York, hallucinating his dead brother’s with him. At the time, I just went along with it because the way it’s narrated, later and in a detached sort of way – almost emotionless, apart from the continuing thread of cynicism/dislike of cynicism and negativity that runs through the whole narration – it’s told in such a matter-of-fact way that it didn’t really register then like it does to me now. Maybe he’s on valium or something when he’s narrating it, I don’t know. He’s suffered PTSD since the death of his younger brother, whose innocence he pretty much worshipped. And that’s one of the main themes of the book, I suppose: innocence and the desrire to preserve it. That, and isolation, both of which I could and can get right behind.
But there’s more – and less – to it than that. Holden’s ambivalent in a lot of ways . His contradictions aren’t made explicit because he doesn’t have that level of insight into himself and again, I didn’t see anything suspect because I identified with him, I suppose. Like you’re meant to, probably. There’s a lot going on in such a short book, even though there also isn’t – which is just beautiful, isn’t it? It reflects the contradictory nature of the protagonist.
He’s independent and likes being on his own, but he’s also lonely and he needs comfort and he doesn’t know how to go about getting it or, if he does, the way to get what he wants is to succumb to phoniness which, we gather, wasn’t an option at that particular time in his life. Well, not consciously because the aforementioned contradictions are are the core of Holden’s own phoniness, of which he appears to be almost entirely ignorant.
Holden refers to almost every person he writes about as being phoney in some way. Phoney, meaning, not genuine – lying in some way. And they are, he’s right. I say he’s right, but it’s possible to be right about things and still be hypercritical. Which, again, he is. Well, he is of other people. He berates himself about some things but, on the whole, he’s a bit busy pointing his fingers at everybody else to turn the spotlight on his own hypocrisy. Holden lies through his teeth to almost everybody. Sometimes he does it to entertain himself, at other times he does it to protect himself. Some of the time, I don’t think he would be able to explain adequately why he’d lied about something to someone. Holden Caulfield, in short, talks out of his arse quite a lot. And yet, I was – and remain – sympathetic to him. Perhaps nothing’s changed really.
So, innocence and isolation. Holden’s not innocent anymore. You might argue that he’s gone out of his way to stop himself being innocent – drinking booze, hanging around with prostitutes and the rest of it. Still, why does he do those things? He drinks alcohol perhaps to numb himself – as many do – and even though he agrees to the prostitute going to his room, he has no desire to have sex with her and just wants someone to talk to. How does that relate to innocence? Well, he’s lost his innocence and, to an extent, his belief in innocence – at least as a relatively permanent state of affairs – because his younger brother, Allie – who personified innocence – died. And took his and Holden’s innocence with him. Holden finds it hard to cope with a world that he can’t perceive through the eyes of somebody who he considers innocent. When Allie dies, he moves onto his younger sister, Phoebe.
The title of the book is explained when Holden tells Phoebe about it. It’s his fantasy which involves him saving kids from growing up – leaving innocence and moving to experience, when they turn into phonies, just the same as all adults.
Fear of maturation, I suppose.
Diversion – The Salamander In The Victorian Conservatory, Pearson Park, Hull.
The Victorian conservatory is at the Princes Avenue end of Pearson Park in Hull and, to be frank, it’s a grand name for a big greenhouse.
Still, whatever you want to call it – and its patrons seem to enjoy referring to it by its official title which is unusual in itself in Hull, where absolutely everything is abbreviated, even Princes Avenue is called Prinny Ave – it used to be one of my favourite places in the city, although it’s gone downhill in the last ten or fifteen years.
When I was a kid, the best thing in it was the minah birds, who were fantastic talkers and who, naturally, had been exposed mainly to swearing. You couldn’t walk in without getting told to fuck off, you wanker, or one of about twenty variations of the theme. I enjoyed it on the same facile level most halfwits do, I suppose.
Had I not enjoyed mindlessly being sworn at by birds, I still might have enjoyed the last time I – or anybody else – saw them.
On Sundays, when she wasn’t too busy hanging around with her mates and being a teenager, I used to take my daughter out to parks, the countryside, different places to show her new things and to give Mrs. Middlerabbit a break.
One week, when we went to the Victorian Conservatory, I turned to look at the one remaining minah bird which was sitting on a perch and said hello to him. It didn’t call me a cunt which made alarm bells ring in my head, or it would have done had it not swung rapidly upside down before dropping dead on the floor of its cage.
I distracted my daughter by pointing at George, the big lizard and telling her to go and have a word with him. Meanwhile, I collared one of the people who work there and told them that their last minah bird appeared to be dead. They didn’t seem too upset, but I was. It was the end of an era for me: they’d been there since I was little and my dad used to take me to see them. They were the highlight of the place and now it was over.
The person who put the corpse of Hull’s last minah bird in a bag told me they weren’t getting any more on account of the complaints about the swearing.
Anyway, that’s only the half of it.
The other exhibit I used to be particularly fascinated by was the salamander they kept.
It was a funny looking thing. You know when you take your kids to high school on an open evening to see what it’s like before you put their name down to attend and in the chemistry labs they always make slime, like they’re pretending that Chemistry isn’t all about maths and it’s a bit like going to a magical toyshop? Well this salamander resembled a blob of pink slime that had a mouth roughly scooped out of it and a couple of eyeholes poked above that with a blunt pencil before the kid got bored and wanted to go back to Food Technology to eat more biscuits. It was an ugly thing but that wasn’t why I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t even ugly-ugly, he had a certain appeal.
I felt sorry for him because, as it said on the information board next to his glass case, salamanders only reach maturity – and start looking like salamanders, as opposed to roughly moulded, home made slime gargoyles – at certain temperatures. The temperature in this ones case was specifically maintained so that it never reached maturity and always remained in a juvenile state. And that’s why I felt a bit sorry for him. Not just because he had to look like a blob of regurgitated school blancmange forever, but because he was never going to get to grow up and be an adult.
I vacillated between feeling sorry for him and, occasionally, thinking that he was lucky – you know, eternal youth. Dorian Gray. Peter Pan, that sort of thing.
And then ,when I started thinking like that, being a big reader, I started thinking about what a total arsehole Peter Pan was in the books. And Dorian Gray. And thinking about the torment of eternal youth, watching everybody you love die. And then making new friends and watching them die too.
Which brought me back round to deciding that eternal youth might sound like a great thing, but probably wasn’t in the long run. And it would be an uncomfortably long run of misery, wouldn’t it?
End of Diversion.
And that’s what I thought about with Holden Caulfield’s mission to avoid maturation and thus develop full blown phoniness. You know, maybe maturation’s inevitable unless you’re being kept in a temperature controlled environment in the Victorian Conservatory on Prinny Ave in Hull. And maybe the only thing worse than growing up and reaching some sort of maturity is not growing up and reaching some sort of maturity.
Not that I considered that when I was about 16, you understand. I don’t know why. Ironically, I probably I wasn’t mature enough, even though I’d started feeling a bit sorry for that salamander who lived in permanent stasis in the Victorian Conservatory when I was about eight. I mean I didn’t make the connection between Holden Caulfield and the sorry looking salamander until I was much older.
When I did make the connection, as usual, I didn’t really know what to do with it. It seemed like a bit of a stalemate. You know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Except it’s not because, as I suggested at the start of this thing, a lot of teenagers dig Holden Caulfield and most adults find him to be an insufferably irritating adolescent. What that means is that when you’re not especially mature, you tend to notice the hypocrisy of the adult world and you hate it. Well, I did. When people start developing a bit of maturity, they tend to cut the hypocritical adults a bit of slack because they start realising that being an adult is all about making compromises and the youthful idealism that infects almost everybody in the western world except Jacob Rees Mogg is seen as being hopelessly optimistic.
Diversion – Hopeless Optimism.
Whenever I hear or see the words ‘hopeless’ and ‘optimism’ combined, my mind always returns back to university, which I’ve written about quite a lot here. Not that I was especially optimistic at that point, even though I was fairly hopeless.
We studied a module about the differing attitudes towards, well, all manner of things in the mystic east and the capitalist west. The part that’s particularly stuck with me over all those years was the part about romantic relationships and arranged marriages.
Arranged marriages tend not to happen so much in the capitalist west, where individuals generally expect to choose their own partner and what most western people are looking for is love. Over in the mystic east, where arranged marriage is often much more the norm and where people don’t generally expect to choose their own partner, they view the concept of romantic love as, and I’m quoting the book I read it in here, “hopelessly optimistic”. A nice idea, a beautiful concept, naturally, but in reality? Nah.
End of Diversion.
And, like many people in the mystic east view romantic love as hopelessly optimistic, I suppose many western adults think of Holden Caulfield’s attitude to maturity to be a nice idea, but fundamentally flawed and also a bit annoying to witness.
I’m not going to suggest that I have the answer because I don’t. I’m also disinclined to suggest that the reason why I don’t have the answer is because there isn’t one, even though the egomaniac element of my brain does think that sometimes.
Maybe there is an answer, but I suspect that the division between the youth and the adults – to simplify the situation somewhat – isn’t ever going to go away.
I quoted Greta Thunberg at the top of this post: a 16 year old Swedish girl who’s pointed out the climate disaster that we’re all stumbling towards and who, I gather, gets an awful lot of abuse hurled at her, primarily by adults who suppose that they understand the complexities of the situation a lot better than she does. Do they? I don’t know. I doubt it, to be honest. I’m not suggesting that her youth has provided her with some sort of super astute powers of reasoning, just like the little kid who pointed out what the Emperor’s New Clothes actually were in the fairy story didn’t. What that little kid and Greta Thunberg have in common is that they’re prepared to say what they see without being encumbered by the baggage of fear that age tends to carry with it.
And maybe that’s what it is. Fear.
Diversion – Horror Films
When I was a kid, probably from about 12 until, I don’t know, early twenties, I enjoyed a lot of horror films and then well, it’s not that I didn’t like them anymore because I still do, but I found them a lot scarier when I was older in comparison to when I was a teenager and, unusually for me, I think I do understand why that is.
Kids can think of themselves as being indestructible. Bad things happen, yeah, but mainly to other people. There’s an optimism there. Not a useful form of optimism, if there is such a thing (cheers), but a form of fearlessness. I’d say that the cause of this fearlessness in the young can largely be attributed to a lack of awareness regarding what you already have. Kids tend towards ego-centricism, which explains why toddlers think that if they cover their eyes up with their hands then nobody can see them. You know, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. An inability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Obviously that doesn’t work for (most) teenaged kids, but the basic principle’s the same.
As we grow older, we realise that losing the things that we value is a frightening thing. You know, death, mainly. Losing people you care about. When you’re young, you tend not to lose all that many people you care about – hopefully. Those kids who do lose people who love them and who they love tend not to retain the carefree outlook that more fortunate kids have.
As adults, the older we get, the more people we lose and the more fear we develop relating to the people around us dying. Having experienced it, we don’t like it and it frightens us.
And that’s what happened with me and horror films. As a kid, I just viewed them as Fantasy Island, more or less. I spent more time laughing at horror films than I did hiding behind the settee. I know that kids often laugh when they’re scared, but it wasn’t that because I remember it pretty vividly. As an adult who watches horror films, I laugh a lot less than I used to and I cringe and avert my gaze a lot more. Because I’m a lot more scared now than I used to be. And I used to be fairly scared. I suppose that, with maturity, comes fear of losing that which you’ve become accustomed to. Like Grendel having his arm ripped off his body by Beowulf, which is about as close as I can come to actually shoehorning the subtitle of this essay into its text, apart from the fact that Holden mentions it, in terms of doing alright in English at least in comparison to everything else he was meant to study at school.
End of Diversion.
I wonder what somebody like Holden Caulfield would have thought about somebody like Greta Thunberg. My suspicion is that he’d feel bad about her because Greta’s a girl whose innocence has been almost entirely lost. First, I suppose, by the realisation that the earth’s on the knackered side as a result of capitalism and an uncaring and rich set of people who don’t give a shit about anything except money. Second, if that wasn’t enough to strip her of her innocence then the abuse she receives on a daily basis from older, apparently more mature people must have done the job. So, yeah, I expect he’d end up feeling bad about her but, as he ends up feeling bad about pretty much everything and everybody, maybe that’s not such a great inference.
Holden Caulfield then; J.D. Salinger. What’s his trip? Like all the great novels, to a certain degree, it depends what you bring to it yourself which, in my case, wasn’t very much. On the other hand, in this case, I think that the more you bring to it yourself, then the more flawed you’ll probably find Holden Caulfield and, consequently, the less likely you are to like him as a character. Which is probably one of the reasons why I liked him so much.
Bearing that in mind, I think it’s about loss of innocence and feeling ambivalent about loneliness. Loneliness is a fairly universal theme – Morrissey sang about it often and maybe that’s something else that drew me in, even if I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time – Salinger’s take on it through the medium of Holden Caulfield is a bit more nuanced than most. He’s a bit like Jonathan Swift, who wrote, “Principally I hate and detest that animal called man; although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” He can’t stand anybody and yet wants to spend time with people. Not even John, Peter or Thomas: people he’s never met before, people who he has met but dislikes and people he knows and likes – well, two of them – Phoebe and Mr Antolini. And he ends up not all that convinced about Mr Antolini because he thinks he’s perving on him. Is he? I don’t know that either. I suspect not, but who knows, eh?
But it’s the loss of innocence that resonates with me because, unlike him, I felt ambivalent about it at the time but I didn’t have enough about me to make the connection between him and the salamander in the Victorian Conservatory.
Now, having read it again recently, I still like Holden Caulfield even though now I can see his flaws and can understand how he’s likely to get on a lot of people’s tits but that’s alright because when you’re a kid, sometimes it’s alright to have a load of squares to kick against. You know, when you’re young enough to be arsed.