“So, how’s the photography going,” I asked after the waitress had taken our order for coffee. He didn’t reply and seemed distracted by the parade of people jostling along the sidewalk on their way to or from the beach. I thought, perhaps, he hadn’t heard me above the growl of the traffic on the street and I was about to ask the question again, when…
“Growing old sucks!” he said without warning, like he was a pot that had been hottering on a stove and had reached the point where its lid had no choice but to rise up and let off steam.
“In what way?” I replied, a little taken aback.
“A young woman offered me her seat on the bus this morning.”
“I’m sure she was only being considerate.”
“I know that; and I applaud her for it.”
“I’m not angry at her. I’m angry because I look as if I’m someone who isn’t capable of standing on a bus. I feel like I’m a young person trapped in what is increasingly becoming an old person’s body. Nothing works the way it used to.”
“You could go to the gym.”
“That’s the point! When I was young, I didn’t have to go to the gym. I’d go out dancing till 3 in the morning and I was thin as a rake. Now, I struggle to stay awake until midnight and I look like a barrel.”
“What’s this really about?” We had been friends for so long that I knew when he was concealing something from me. He sighed and pondered the question for a moment before attempting a response. Then eventually…
“I have to go overseas next month and I really don’t want to.”
“Because the whole business of travelling has become such a hassle, with all the queuing and the waiting and the paperwork and wondering if you’ll make your connections and if you’re luggage will be there when you arrive; and just the feeling that you’re constantly under suspicion of being a smuggler or a terrorist or something.”
“So don’t go.”
“I have to. It’s a family thing. It’s expected.”
The waitress brought our coffee and set it down carefully on the table, leaving her scent in the air after she had departed.
“What’s that got to do with growing old?” I probed, struggling to make the connection.
Once again he sighed and pondered. It was an idiosyncrasy I knew well and was often followed by a revelation, released carefully, like he was returning an injured bird to the wild.
“I used to love to travel. I’d set off with the sketchiest of plans; just throw a few clothes in a bag and head off to my first destination; then allow chance and circumstance to guide me. Life was an adventure that unfolded before me like the scenery in a cheap computer game. My horizons were both immediate and infinite. I expected nothing; and as a result, each day brought a succession of surprises.”
The rosy picture he was painting must have brought a sceptical expression to my face.
“That’s not to say that the experiences were all positive – far from it”, he qualified, hastily. “Amongst the novelty and excitement there were challenges and adversity. But somehow I managed to overcome them. And as time went on, I began to sense that I was invulnerable; that nothing could stop me.”
“And travelling is not like that for you now?”
“No,” he shook his head remorsefully.
“What changed it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t identify the exact point at which this all changed; or if there wasn’t a point, then the moment when the balance tipped away from invulnerability towards insecurity. All I know is that I don’t look forward to travel with the same sense of enthusiasm any more. Now, every trip I make seems to be lived in advance, planned to the most minute detail: the transport arrangements, the accommodation, the things to see and do, the things to take and the things to bring back.” He paused, as though to catch his breath then, refreshed, resumed the journey. “Gone is the sense of discovery; that exhilaration of unfolding surprises. And the precision of those plans that I now feel compelled to make creates a kind of tension; of commitment to be in certain places at certain times otherwise the whole edifice of the trip will collapse in ruins. The years of experience in successfully overcoming the challenges of travel have somehow been replaced by an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the things that can go wrong and this has caused the invulnerability I once felt to be undermined and replaced by a persistent anxiety: What if I miss my flight? What if I miss my connections? What if the hotel didn’t get my booking and has no rooms available when I get there? What if the airline loses my luggage? What if I am robbed? What if I run out of money? What if I get sick? – All the things that I never used to think about.”
He took a sip of coffee and for a moment, drifted into an internal space. I let him go, knowing that he would return when he was ready. And he did.
“Where once, travel was a liberating experience; an escape from the predictability of normal life; somehow it has become a bondage of commitments, of plans and contingencies, whose endgame is a safe return, culminating in a sense of relief when the ordeal of travel and its potential for disaster is over.”
“Have you told your family how you feel about travelling?”
He gave an ironic laugh, hardly a laugh, more of a shrug with vocal accompaniment.
“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I’ll do what I have to do.”
“And hate every moment of it?”
Another sigh; another long pondering pause.
“If I can survive the flight, luggage intact, and there’s a bed waiting for me at the other end, that’s all I’m asking for. Then, I’ll be able to relax; and maybe rekindle some of that old excitement that comes from being somewhere different.”
“So it isn’t all bad,” I interjected, with a note of optimism.
“Maybe not. But on my last trip, I calculated that I spent a full 25 percent of the time in transit just waiting around. Think about it. You wait for the taxi to take you to the airport. You spend more time shuffling your baggage towards the check-in counter…”
“You could check-in electronically.”
“Never saw the point in that. You still have to get there two hours before departure so you either wait in line to check-in or you kill time in the food court or the duty free shops.”
I shrugged my agreement.
“Then you have to queue up to go through passport control; followed by security; followed by another wait at the departure gate; and when you finally get on the plane you inevitably sit on the tarmac for a further 20 minutes waiting for clearance to take off. And if you have connections to make en route you have more waiting because you need to allow enough of an interval between arrival and departure as contingency against your incoming flight being late. Then, almost inevitably, the outgoing flight is delayed and you have to wait even longer. And when you finally get to your destination, you have to queue up to go through the scrutiny of immigration control; then you have to wait for your check-in baggage to be unloaded, suffering the mounting anxiety of imagining it, at this very moment, going round and round on a carrousel in another airport somewhere, on another continent even; then you have to queue up to go through customs; then you have to wait for transport to take you to your hotel; and when you finally get there, feeling tired, unkempt, unwashed, over-fed with plastic airline food, the bitter taste of too much coffee in your mouth, your eyes burning in their sockets, your head feeling about the weight of a bowling ball, your feet swollen and your back aching and a presentiment of DVT paralysing your legs, and all you want to do is check-in quickly and go to bed for 24 hours, but you find that you’re stuck behind a busload of pensioners on The Grand Tour, each one of whom is so excited about making the trip of a lifetime that they want to pour out their personal history to the one clerk on the reception desk trying to process them all. I mean really; is there any pleasure left in travelling?”
“It doesn’t sound like it…for you, at least.”
He gave a monumental sigh and shook his head slowly.
“I used to love it. I used to live for it.”
“The journey; or the destination?”
He gave the question some serious thought. “I lived for the experience. I tolerated the waiting and the queuing because it was still new to me then and it was still part of the experience.”
“And because you were more tolerant then?”
There was another pause, even longer than the previous one.
“When you’re young, these down times represent only a small faction of the time you believe you have ahead of you. But when you’re my age, every second counts, every hour spent waiting is a precious hour lost.”
The smile that spread across my face, despite my attempts to appear sympathetic, didn’t help.
“You think it’s funny? Wait until you’re my age and see how funny it is. There was a time when I was the one offering my seat on the bus to young women. When I was a young man, girls would beg me to photograph them. Now, they don’t even want to know me. Let’s face it, growing old sucks.”
“This is not really about travelling, is it?”
“Not really,” he admitted.
“I went to a gallery yesterday. They were showing the work of a group of young photographers…”
He shook his head, momentarily lost for words, and then replied, “Most of their stuff, if I had taken it, I’d have thrown it in the bin.”
“You can’t expect to like everything.”
“I realise that. But I’d expect to understand, at least, what they were trying to say. This stuff, though, was so banal, so naïve, so shallow and superficial, so kitsch…” His frustration was still boiling but his vocabulary had already evaporated. He slumped back in his chair disconsolately. “I try to create images that are real, that are meaningful, that reveal some aspect of the human condition; whereas these kids point their plastic cameras at the sun, cross-process the film and the galleries can’t get enough of it. I mean, what is the point? What am I missing?”
Now, I found myself lost for words, but felt that I must try to save the conversation from the agonising silence that threatened to stifle it.
“Some art is highly contextual; it can only be understood by those who know the context,” I suggested, trying to offer him something to cling to. “Take Dadaism, for example. It was a rebellion against the established art of the day. It was popular for a while, and is still acknowledged as an important stepping-stone in the evolution of modern art; but name me one painting or one poem that the Dadaists produced.”
He thought for a moment before conceding that he couldn’t; but still didn’t seem persuaded. I tried a different tack.
“On the other hand, maybe it was just a bad show. I’m sure it happens.”
“No. I can’t accept that. Their work was on display in a gallery; and a reputable gallery at that; so someone must have believed that there was merit in it.”
“But I couldn’t see any merit in it. So, I asked the curator what their work was trying to convey. And d’you know what he told me?”
I shook my head phatically since there was no way I could possibly have known.
“He told me that it was a ‘generational thing’.”
I waited for him to go on but drew only an expression of frustration at my apparent inability to infer the full import of this statement, and he was forced to elaborate:
“He said that I couldn’t be expected to understand modern photography because I hadn’t experienced the world these photographers inhabit. I didn’t know their culture and I didn’t know their vocabulary; so there was no common level on which we could communicate. Plus I was carrying the baggage of my own generation colouring my perception of their world. So, basically, he was telling me that I’m a photographic dinosaur; that I have no place in today’s world. And d’you know what the worst thing is?”
“He was probably right. My influences are archaic. I see the world as the world sees me: old, retro, mired in the past.”
“You can’t be alone in that.”
“I suppose not. And maybe other photographers of my age are not bothered by it. Maybe they’re perfectly contented in their milieu. But for me, to be told that my photographs aren’t good enough to exhibit would be disappointing but I could live with it. I could work harder, learn more, try to improve. But to be told that my images are irrelevant in today’s world, that is soul destroying.”
“There must be an audience for your photography, at least among people of your own generation.”
“You’re still missing the point. I don’t want to be stuck in a time warp of my own generation. I want to embrace what’s new in the world. I want to be part of it. I want to be educated in it. I want to understand it and be excited and inspired by it. But how can I be if I’m dismissed as someone who is ‘too old to understand’? Young people are willing to give up their seat for me on the bus; but not to let me into their world. They are the ones the galleries want, not me. They are the ones whose photographs are being published in magazines, while I’m being put out figuratively to pasture. Before long they’ll be sticking me in a nursing home and feeding me through a straw. I’m telling you – growing old really sucks.”
I leaned back in my chair and searched the sky for inspiration. In all the years we had known each other, I had never really thought of him as old; and I had never felt a need to tailor my conversation in order to communicate with him. We’d meet like this now and then, for coffee, or for lunch sometimes, and we’d just talk. And he’d tell me stories, some of which had happened before I was born; but they seemed as relevant to me now as they had been to him then. And his experience had guided me, or at least given me alternatives to consider; but now, it seemed that he was the one searching for guidance. I was familiar with the style of photography he was referring to and I tried to picture it in my mind, shutting out the activity on the street and on the footpath for a moment. I tried to understand now what I, myself, had sometimes dismissed with little thought. And this was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment:
“What the kids are doing today is popular because it exists in its own time; it connects with the experiences they are having right now. But if you’re looking for ‘art’ in it (‘art’ as you know it), you will be disappointed because most of it is not about art, it’s about life.”
“I’m alive! I think.”
I laughed. “Yes. But your point of view is different. You do have years of experience behind you and you invest your images with that experience. You appreciate the gravity of life, the complexity and the subtlety. But these young photographers are just beginning life’s journey. Everything is still new for them. Everyday brings new discoveries and with it, fresh excitement. Remember how you said you felt about travel when you were young; how you described it as ‘an adventure that unfolded before me like the scenery in a cheap computer game’? That’s how they feel about life; and it’s that exuberance that they convey in their images. They might not be great works of art but they’re full of life and vitality and innocence and spontaneity and purity of spirit. So, maybe you should try not to look at them through the eyes of a photographer of a certain age; but instead, just allow them to transport you back to your youth.”
“And if I can’t?”
‘Then, maybe you just have to let them enjoy their innocence while it lasts.”
“You mean, before they become old and jaded, like me?” he smiled.
I just smiled back.