Wot's so great about yoof?
As the Young@Heart Chorus prepares to astound London with its ancient cast, whose ages range from 73
Lillian "Diamond Lil" Aubrey leads the Young@Heart line-up on the chorus's website. She is renowned, we are assured, for her solos: "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy", "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and other popster hits of the Baby Boom generation.
Diamond Lil is no Boomer. When she was a teenager, there weren't any teenagers. When she was 16, it was Al Jolson singing "Swannee"; she would have celebrated her 21st birthday to "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, while Charlie Chaplin was on the silver screen in The Gold Rush. She reached retiring age the year that the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" topped the American charts. But she didn't retire. She's still singing, still dancing.
At 101 years old.
You can see Diamond Lil and the Young@Heart Chorus in Road to Nowhere at the Lyric Hammersmith, west London, from 19 October, and you can bet I'll be going, just like I went to see the Palm Springs Follies, another line-up of oldsters, up there hoofing. See, there's a problem: there they were, in their sequins and shorty shorts and top hats with the Stars and Stripes on, and with their chorus-line legs, and I sat at the back and chose. "The one second from the left," I thought to myself, and then I thought: "No! No! She's an octogenarian! It's wrong!"
After a bit, it would start again, until I could no longer decide whether I was a pervert or I was being suckered in; whether they thought they were gorgeous, whether they really were gorgeous, or whether it was in some way a knowing parody, a tiny satire on the dauntlessness of age, whistling in the dark. We applauded their sheer chutzpah, as well as their skill, and secretly laughed at their absurdity. But we knew that we were being laughed at in our turn, our prejudices interrogated by a joke of a higher order and a subtler irony.
Our public cultural transactions with old age are invariably disingenuous. Charles de Gaulle compared his old age with a shipwreck; John Mortimer's biographer Graham Lord spoke of his subject's "derelict teeth" in the same context as his sexual adventuring, as if the former (now) invalidated and made repulsive the latter (then). The hydraulic juju Viagra is wedded to the icon of the "dirty old man" - age as self-neglect, unfit for consumption - while the idea of old women defacing their whiskered visibility with any lust at all is so repugnant as to be inexpressible and unexpressed: like lesbians according to Queen Victoria, it simply cannot be.
Much of this feeling is, of course, about sex, with which the Boomers (having grown up with the Pill and penicillin but without Aids) are unfeasibly obsessed. In the Boomer aesthetic, the semi-competent urgency of the young requires an aged Other to shine against. Now, as if by some odd trick of the light, the aged Other is us. Almost by reflex, we persuade ourselves that we yearn for lost potency, and so must admire in Youth what we ourselves have lost.
It is a trick of the light: only those with little to say (and even less worth listening to) pin their hopes on copulation. Wisdom is with Sophocles, alleged to have said that the death of sexual desire is like being unchained from a lunatic. Finally one can get on with some work.
Youth hacks out the raw marble, which age then sculpts. Without talent, skill and maturity, in time you just get rubble. Rock music, a thin medium, is the preserve of the young because all it requires - all it can deal with - is vigour. In other musics, age brings depth, complexity and mastery. Composers and conductors know this. Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen: age, in all cases, brought greater depth and creative power, as it did for Gunter Wand, Georg Solti, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Even for virtuosos, the trade between raw energy and experience more often than not favours age (think of Michelangelo, Vladimir Horowitz and Isaac Stern). The sitar players of the north Indian classical tradition create under near-impossible demands: their music requires theoretical mastery, unimaginable virtuosity, physical endurance and intellectual agility, yet Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, the two greatest performers of the past hundred years, both produced their finest work towards the end of their lives. A similar calculus applies to the third great musical language, jazz. (But who wants to hear a 70-year-old rapper?)
The process extends across the arts. Aeschylus was nearly 70 when he wrote the Oresteia. Euripides wrote The Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis in his seventies; Sophocles was about 90 when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus. These three set the pattern for the dramatists who would follow: that the finest work comes with age. And not just for dramatists: for novelists, painters and most artists. The exception is lyric poets, whose gift (which, like that of physicists, mathematicians and chess players, is the gift of the reckless apposition of apparent irreconcilables) tends to desert them, like the muse of the one-trick poet Rawcliffe in Anthony Burgess's Enderby Outside: "But she left me then. Opened up heaven of creativity and then closed it." Youth - all youth, though it might not bear too much outside scrutiny - is heaven of creativity. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower bursts in a shower of words, images and lyrics, most of which should be kept hidden under the bed. Instead, we expose them to the light too soon and, having tended them, crush them again for fun.
Why do people who should know better - grown-ups - collude in this? Partly because grown-ups are thin on the ground. The Baby Boomers who run the show want to be children, and want everyone else to be children, too. The ideal is to be "just a big kid at heart". Yet the proposition is a base cheat, crucial to the "money economy", as Georg Simmel called it in his 1903 lecture "Metropolis and Mental Life". "Money becomes the most frightful leveller," he wrote. "It expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of 'how much?' All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money."
And the money economy needs Big Kids At Heart: shallow, biddable, insecure, given to fads and meaningless competitive display. The BKAH recognises only surface, and will swallow the effusions of the masterly manipulators of surface - at least long enough to pay, which is the motto of New Britain. Give us the money; now fuck off.
Or as the pseudepigraphal First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians put it: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." It is the great heresy for the BKAH generation. Become men? Put away childish things? Not while the Prime Minister plays a guitar and holidays with the eerily neotenous Cliff Richard! Let us remain Big Kids At Heart, and never see how the young (rightly) sneer.
The other day I heard someone announce smugly that "50 is the new 35". Nuts. I don't want 50 to be the new 35. It has taken me half a century to get here. To diminish it would be like capriciously knocking 30 per cent off my wages and expecting me to be pleased. I love having put away (most) childish things. I love not competing, not worrying what to wear, not having to impress, being able to say what I think, rather than what I think I think. I love not having to think about being cool any more. I love not being on the pull any more. I love the fact that I became a man long enough ago that I can start working on being a mensch. I love not thinking I'm a genius (though I would have liked to believe it when I was young. Never had the confidence).
Why is this of any account? Because we live in a culture desperate to infantilise us in order to keep us buying. Do your house up. Do your life up. Buy the kit. "Can mature skin glow?" asks the advertisement for pricey face-splatter in a fatuous magazine. No, it can't. Glowing is what mature minds do. Leave the epidermis to the young, along with the insecurity and the aspirations. As for the Young@Heart Chorus: however good they are, the name mocks them. We'll know we're getting it right when they rename themselves Old As the Hills. And never mind that the show is called Road to Nowhere. We're all on that one, whatever our age.
The Young@Heart Chorus is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, 19-29 October (box office: 08700 500 511)
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