Dangerous Times

We think of teenage identity solely as a problem for the teenagers themselves. A decade long guerrilla campaign to be free of the parental empire; room by room their influence is resisted, then pushed back; we ignore the pictures, look away from the statuettes - beribboned milkmaids with sickly sweet lambs whose faces are a sentimental leer - quietly remove the Coronation mugs, replace the DVDs and the CDs, put Val Doonican in the bin. The soft tyranny undermined, attacked, finally usurped until…that glorious independence day! when Virginia Holt, Wilbur Smith, Jean Plaidy and John le Carré are deposed from the shelves, and a new head of state is appointed. Henry Green! No. Rhys Davis! Certainly not. Too too often: Borges, Kafka or Camus. But what happens to the governor and his wife when the new flag goes up and they sail back to the old country? 

What happens to the parents when the child assumes their own identity, one radically different from that they have long tried to cultivate? So enamoured with the glamour of rebellion, embodied in the young we too keenly celebrate, we miss the trauma of adults forced to confront an independent ego shattering a belief that the child is a copy of oneself. She has become different, strange, rather aggressively subversive; and our authority is crumbling, the holes in our knowledge revealed, our wisdom is transposed into prejudices; so of course she is not listening to us anymore: that’s old stuff, everything is different now; your ideas pre-packed food long past its sell by date. Is she wrong? As she grows up the image of ourself changes; a once imperial monarch now a figure of fun; we are clowns in decline, victims worthy of our kids’ cruel laughter; we think of the Victorian father ridiculed in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9.

If wise, we accept the changes and try to understand them, adjusting our view to the new landscape. But this is not easy; it requires subtleties of feelings and thought that are beyond most people, especially middle-aged men. Poor dears. Faced by a boy who isn't the image of the old man they are confused, angry, heavily moralistic; their identity severely tested it freezes into rigidity, or disintegrates. Where did I go wrong? Who is the main influence here? The interrogation is remorseless. Who am I? Can’t I look around my own ego? Is it all just opinion? The questions relentless and hard hitting you want to leave the room; you try to run away… There is no escape; tied to the chair, you feel like a hapless Greek tortured by Socrates; what seemed such an easy, simple life turned into contradiction, illusion, foolishness and lies. The questions go on and on. With nowhere to go, we fall back into the mind, find a refuge in dreams; Orlando fantasising of a successful literary career.

A sad soul. It is only the philistines who believe that art is an escape. Art. It is a trial, a torment; an endless struggle to create meanings and dress them up in fancy costumes. Hard work, with glimpses of pleasure. Orlando is an outsider to the craft and therefore sees only the good things, the finished product, its rare rewards. He wants fame, and the adulation it will bring; the deus ex machina that suddenly transforms life, turning a little rich boy into a hero with the common touch, a lonely man into a crowd of friends. Brought up to be a knight of commerce he has discovered that you need more than money to be a social success. He has learnt the wrong lessons from his father. Inheriting both his wealth and his pride, but lacking the older man’s charisma, Orlando has isolated himself from the human race; a skinny runt who sees Narcissus when he looks into the pool.

We must be blunt: Orlando is a fool. He befriends a brash American literary critic; one of those academics who mistakes literature for self promotion, and for whom Roland Barthes is not a master of the blaque but a career advisor - The Death of the Author the billboard on which one sells one’s Big Idea under one’s own even bigger name. Dazzled by his reputation and influence, especially the influence, Orlando doesn't notice that the prof is attracted to his money not his talent; his novel a mere pretext for an acquaintance with a rich man. Here’s an opportunity: to have a real mate for the first time. But no, Orlando wants to talk about literature, and thus, because he knows little about it, turns himself into an obsequious idiot.

When a child grows up and acquires a different character he can become a stranger to his father. Unable to cope, the old man’s identity suffers, undergoes trauma, producing an urge for radical change, a break with a past now believed redundant. Such crises we associate particularly with the middle classes. Brought up in well protected households the child absorbs the belief that the world is a safe place, where they can do anything they desire; life is to be a large department store where you can buy everything on display. Few are so lucky. Most find that after their youth1 life is a rather boring, unfulfilling affair; most of us welded to careers that are dull, routine, skimpy with meaning. Only the belief that the kids need them keeps an adult’s lost soul alive; a belief that since the early Sixties has become especially difficult to maintain, as the ideas of one generation are ridiculed as passé by the next; the middle classes particularly prone to conceptual obsolescence because they rely so heavily on the public realm for their facts and concepts, a shifting fashion of received opinion mistakenly believed to be knowledge.2Yearning to escape, they start to envy their children, those adolescent dreams, that freedom…

We think of Donald Crowhurst; a legend now.3 Crowhurst dreamed of sailing around the world, even though he had little experience of the sea. Then one day he had his chance: an around the world yacht race! That he was no yachtsman didn't matter; for technology, his catamaran the most sophisticated boat in the competition, would make up of his lack of experience and skill; technology a substitute for technique and craft. It failed. Boats need proper sailors if they are to conquer the oceans. On the race’s eve Crowhurst recognised this very obvious fact, however, he couldn’t accept its truth; for he had to protect his family, who would lose everything if he didn't sail at least half way round the world - to buy the boat he mortgaged his life to a local businessman. So he faked it. But fate was against him; his competitors dropping out it looked like he would actually win the race, his exposure thus assured. Horrified by the coming shame he collapsed, and whilst mad appears to have committed suicide. It is a modern myth. Crowhurst representing those middle class men who seek the quick fix to rescue their meaning-lite lives; short courses, self-help books, technological aids will, they believe, by making up for their lack of talent and graft, catapult them into the heroic realm. This is the dream. But when they try… They wake up amongst confusion and fear, capsized in a nightmare.

Kids too have their problems, especially if they are precocious. Learning always easy they never expect it to be hard; but when, at a certain age, they encounter difficulties, suddenly finding that they must really work to understand a subject, this can create a crisis in confidence, provoke a mental collapse;Alex is confronted with the prospect of never reading all the books…

Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise 
New distance scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But, those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!5

Alex breaks down under the accumulated weight of his teachers’ bibliographies. Destroyed by what he loves. It is the sudden switch in polarity - common to late adolescence as well as middle age - when a love affair becoming too much is felt to be crowding us out; overbearing, too demanding, its beauty turning into ugliness - suddenly we hate what we once adored. Alex is overcome by his obsession; in books he finds both meaning and excitement but his character is unable cope with their enormous demands, which require a maturity to manage, to limit: always we must create a space to live out the rest of our life (books, if we are wise, should be barred from at least one room in the house). Alex, still young, doesn't see the danger so overdoses on words. 

It is a right of passage. Fate to decide if Alex gets through to the other side. Succeed, and  he will be like the writer of this play, a mature artist; but he could fail, and follow the trajectory of so many precocious kids, whose adulthood is a broken mosaic of missed chances, mediocrity and regret.6

Orlando wants to be obsessed! He needs to feel that claustrophobia, be squeezed tight up against the wall, where he can hardly breathe. He gets his wish.

A psychological theory appears to lie under this play; one closer to Freud than Strindberg. To punish Alex for burning down the school’s library his parents remove all his books. Alex’s response is to become a fitness freak; one addiction replaced by another, and one that mocks his father’s pretensions to being a superior soul. But then something odd happens. Alex’s literary interests migrate to this father and his sister; like Christabel, the Coleridge poem that has taken over Liz’s imagination, Alex’s spirit has left his body to embrace the weaker members of the family; Orlando deciding to become a writer, Liz a ventriloquist for the Romantic poets. It is an odd kind of transference; the father taking on the persona of his son, the sister trying to become Alex’s replica, thus keeping his old spirit alive; a ghost that walks around the home. There are problems. They are living inside fictions that are too weak to subdue the instincts of character; Alex’s obsession with his books seeping into his mind like the sweat that sinks into the walls of his gym (which, tellingly, the cleaner easily removes with air freshener); Liz overwrought with the psychic tension of being another person; Orlando forced to confront his lack of talent, when Charlotte humiliates Professor Snelling, who later writes that Orlando’s book is a poorly written diary; evidence that the author needs to read a lot more… The transference is complete; Orlando has become Alex, and he rushes to the lock-up to burn his son’s books.

The End. 

Will the match strike the matchbox? No. Orlando isn’t Alex, he is but a poor copy (a badly written fiction)of the real thing. His behaviour a mad chaotic moment, not the climax of an obsession with its own inner propulsive logic: an obsessive will seek the logical outcome of a consuming passion: its complete destruction.Throwing books on the floor - we tread over Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctor Criminale, William Cooper’s Scenes From a Provincial Marriage, and George Gissing’s New Grub Street as we leave the auditorium - is the most this weak man can do.

For most of the play we think the source of the trauma is Alex’s sex change - he is cleverly played by a she9- a belief sustained during a long monologue when Charlotte recounts a childish obsession of her own: her love for a classmate, because of his soft, delicate, immaculate skin… Yes! Yes! Yes! we are right! No. The anecdote has a different moral: individuals are complex and contradictory; they flow over the limits of our simple understanding; and so, to make sense of someone, especially those we love, we must simplify their personality, reducing it to a single facet of their being, which in idolising we both concentrate and manage our feelings about them. A lock of his chin hair she sees falling… A little too precious. (The American is too coarse.) But we forget these minor blemishes as we rush after Charlotte’s epiphanic conclusion: once create an image of someone - your father for yourself - it is difficult to change it; your father unable to accept that his bookish boy is…an arsonist! All the air goes out of the balloon. We experience the sadness of a theory denied. Regret having mentioned it in the interval. Yes. The audience’s ego is a terrible thing. Fortunately, a good play squashes it. Inflate the balloon! The author does! There he goes! Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. Puff. We float away, smiling and waving ecstatically; the denouement, so nicely tailored to fit the plot, it forces our hands to move and shout: clap clap clap clap. Oh my, we could be naifs at a Parisian fashion show. And yet, a doubt lingers on: can one event really, fundamentally change the image of a son? The burning of the school library was terrible, but it was also clearly the behaviour of someone in deep distress; made worse by the decision to remove all the books from Alex’s room. Simply to punish Alex? Or was Orlando frightened that he will burn these and the house down too? Or, more grossly…

Is Orlando using the opportunity to destroy his son; turning Alex into a version of himself, a philistine? For sure we think this is possible. Although it doesn't work out quite like this, for a strange metamorphosis is taking place; having removed the competition Orlando now tries to live his long cherished dream of being a writer; even though he has no previous form, showed not a trace of literary talent. Can it suddenly emerge? Has it no need of books? Can you read something, please? Why won’t you? asks Charlotte. Questions lead to doubts, and there are moments we think that Orlando has stolen Alex's book, and like the heroine in Morvern Callar attached his name to the title page. It is not so. Nevertheless, the feeling is there: this is a father stealing his son’s identity.

We think of Liz, talking about how her father recites poetry and it explains its meanings; and all this happening in the last few months, since that library burnt down and Alex has been at home. Given Orlando’s evident lack of literary knowledge this feels very strange. Is Liz lying? Is it really Alex who is the teacher? A truth she cannot admit because it shows that her brother hasn’t changed? Under pressure to maintain the facade - dysfunctional families experts in fostering illusions - has the fiction morphed and is Liz trying to live up to her father’s fantasy of himself as a literary man? We are convinced that this is the case, the evidence: Orlando is oblivious to the Christabel reference of Liz’s dolls. The pressures to invent so intense - because reality and story are so far apart - it is only a matter of time before she collapses. Few can live the fictional life for long. John Keats not a guide for this girl to follow.

‘Then wherefore sully the entrusted gem
of high and noble life with thoughts so sick?
Why pierce high-fronted honour to the quick 
For nothing but a dream?…10

The arson attack and Alex’s subsequent breakdown is an opportunity for Orlando to become what he is not; a ready-made story allowing him to escape from the drabness of his own personality, which of course he projects onto everyone else, including the rest of the family. Anyone can write a novel, but only the few can turn it into literature; a real life dramatic plot making up for deficiencies in skill and subtlety, he only needs to copy it out, the book almost writing itself; we think of Crowhurst’s catamaran, its navigational aids doing the sailing for him.11

It is Charlotte who is the cultivated one; the parent whom Alex most closely resembles. Being highly cultivated she has no illusions about culture. Looking at Professor Snelling she sees nothing there but vain words. 

Orlando, a businessman whose aspirations are above his talents, has appropriated his son’s qualities, which he now uses to imagine his own fairy tale. This is not easy. To be successful Orlando must get erase the reality; a book loving, poetry quoting son bringing too much dissonance into this fantasy. We think of Orlando’s father crushing his son’s ego, turning him into a mechanical image of himself, to disastrous effects… It is happening to Liz, through her own wilfulness in following her brother whom she adores. Fortunately, family inheritances are mangled and twisted. A strong son will not be the exact image of his father;12 a father cannot acquire the properties of a gifted child… Alex is not to be repressed; forced into philistinism he becomes an uber-philistine; submission transformed into rebellion. Then there are the crazy labyrinths of art. A poet cannot submit to reality; always he will add meaning, make of it a story, lyric or caricature. This latter, the aesthete as fitness fanatic, the fate of the artist who is forced to make of himself the artwork; his talent applied not to the page but to himself his personality, suffused with too much conscious thought, becomes too clearly outlined, the aestheticism distorting his character making it odd, cartoonish.

Ideas change but character remains the same. Orlando is weak and a bore. He is no writer. Charlotte, intuitive, sophisticated and clever destroys his fantasies, and so saves the genius in the house.

Before the curtain falls Orlando stands in a room looking at the books he is desperate to burn. They are safe. They are too powerful for him; for they have a life of their own, which is beyond his meagre capacities.

Orlando Deaks: the jealous parent. I have wandered off the main road into a dark lane, where I scare myself with my own fantasies. The theme of identity so strong and yet its resolution being weak - Charlotte’s idea that Orlando cannot accept the arson attack - we seek a deeper and inevitably darker explanation for the atmosphere that pervades this play.13 We sense a profound feeling of rebellion; of a real need to escape; an anxiety about influence. Given their depth and pervasiveness these feelings cannot be explained by a single action, no matter how bad. A sensibility is here seeking to comprehend and articulate itself; its articulation suffused throughout all the relationships of this play; a single monologue, with is epiphanic meaning, camouflaging such exposure.

We go back to the main road, with its lights, its cars, the passing talk: Alex is struggling with his adolescence; Orlando with his middle age; both are seeking new identities. Whoopee! we cry. So lovely to return to the safety of our innocence… Orlando must fail, because his attempt is not real; relying on secondhand ideas for its transformation it conflicts with his character, which lacks vigour and soul. And Alex? His gift, evolving from out of his mother’s, has met with a huge obstacle, which has momentarily stalled it. But that obstacle is now cleared… Alex is for real. This is a literary sensibility - not just wish and idea, as with Orlando - whose instinct cannot be denied; it exists and has a will of its own. The father has failed. Alex has got through to the other side. Hurrah! Hurrah!

(Review: Custard)


 1. In the 1950s a literature emerged that celebrated these years of freedom, now extended to one’s early twenties (see my review of Hurry On Down). 

2.  See my Critic as Clerk, and for a case study based on this piece: Cartoon Concepts. Tony Judt has a masterful analysis of the generational shift in Postwar, while the Cambridge University chapter in The Memory Chalet captures the rapid change in intellectual atmosphere.

3.  See the documentary, Deep Water. See also Jonathan Raban’s perceptive review in Driving Home.

4.  See Lisa Jardine’s interview with Alan Macfarlane.

5.  Alexander Pope, Essay in Criticism.

6.  Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter is a wonderfully dark tale of precocity.

7. Compare with my review of The Fastest Clock in the Universe, where a distinction is made between fantasy and literature.

8.  The great study is Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

9.  Also suggested by the father’s name, with its reference to Virginia Woolf’s hero-heroine.

10.  Endymion. In a marvellous passage Endymion’s sister contrasts the noble life with the dreams of love and art, the dream of love especially debasing the hero. Both Orlando and Liz are proofs of Peona’s argument: poetry is a sickness. 

Endymion of course rejects his sister's views, arguing that his dreams are grounded in a natural passion, the true source of inspiration. Poor Orlando is too weak to rise about Peona's complaint: desiring merely the dream, but lacking any feeling for the body that lies under it, he is revealed as an impoverished spirit. Without profound feeling and the heavenly imagination attached to it poesy becomes merely a bodily desire; that when enacted exposes the desirer's ineptitude. If Orlando had truly read his Keats he would have returned to his business.

11.  While an ad man like Professor Snelling would see big sales: the actual incident used to promote the novel, whose quality is irrelevant to bestsellerdom.

12.  Virginia Woolf’s influence feels strong in this work: the conflict between the generations; the need for metamorphosis; the ineffectual Mr Ramsay… 

Woolf was lucky; following after her father she had the genius to transform his inheritance into her own image, we think of Orlando and its sudden shift in identity. Crowhurst too inherited his parents’ spirit, but, being weak, he ended up repeating their catastrophic mistake - they left India for the fantasy of an England that could not support them. We have to be strong - almost wilful - if we are to overcome our parents’ influence.

13.  It may be revealing that the writer co-directed The Fastest Clock in the Universe, a play that also deals with characters trapped inside a charismatic’s idea.