Forever Panting and Forever Young
Author(s): Prof Christian Kay
Copyright holder(s): Prof Christian Kay
This profound thought struck me when I returned to the nest after nearly three years abroad. While away, I had led a nomadic life, and the high cost of storage and shipping had forced me to keep my worldly goods to a working minimum. At home I found a backlog which amply compensated for such expatriate ruthlessness.
“These tea-chests in the attic, they’re yours, aren’t they?” my mother began hopefully when I had scarcely set a filial foot across the doorstep. “And the five suitcases under the spare room bed, and that stack of old pictures, and those thirty-nine china cats...?”
Reluctantly, I agreed that they were. When one leaves home for the first time, one falls an easy victim to nostalgia. I had begun my preparations for departure by adhering firmly to the principle that anything I didn’t need for three years, I didn’t need at all. This disposed of a mountain of incomprehensible university notes, and some very old clothes I had never liked much anyway. Unfortunately, I then lighted upon the pathetic, mutilated remains of my childhood playthings. Sentiment welled within me, and I had not the heart to discard them. Although the day after graduation had found me racing to the second-hand bookshop with many immortal works tucked under my arm, such literary treasures as “Fuzzy Bear and the Naughty Squirrel” proved too precious to part with. Commercial instincts joined with sentiment in the conspiracy, and I carefully preserved yellowing newspapers of potential historic value and guides to incredibly remote ancient monuments, which might one day save the expenditure of another shilling.
Being united with all these possessions was rather fun at first. The “Situations Vacant” were abandoned as I renewed the acquaintance of Marys Mouse, Poppet and Plain, played myself at snakes and ladders, lingered lovingly over a collection of rocks and seashells which must have come as close to upsetting the balance of nature as any of man’s mature machinations. I congratulated myself on having had the foresight to preserve my youth in tangible form.
Nevertheless, doubts began to attack me when I waded further into my vast reserves of printed matter. Was it really necessary, I wondered, to go through life burdened with several gross of old theatre programmes and catalogues to unremembered artists whose works were invariably titled “Painting” or “Composition”. These doubts increased when I chanced upon a store of early creative works of my own: juvenilia in the form of laborious compositions on “My Holidays” and school magazines dating back to 1947, stillborn poetic fragments and morbidly sensitive short stories from the later years. At bottom of this collection lurked my first attempts to crash the commercial markets.
These I scanned with dismayed embarrassment. Had I, in the midst of preparing for a brilliant literary career, ever stooped to write, “Roderick gripped her shoulders in his strong brown hands and murmured passionately, ‘There was never anyone but you, my darling.’” or “Cynthia, her eyes shining in the moonlight, gazed at his clean-cut profile and melted into his welcoming arms.”? Were these slow-witted suburban Adonises, these blushing, simpering, feeble-minded heroines, really the products of my diseased imagination? Boggle though I might, the erratic typing alone proved that they were.
Repelled, but fascinated, I read on, and gradually the genesis of these outpourings came back to me.
It had seemed so simple. We had all been students at the time, and we had all wanted TO WRITE. On a less elevated level we had all been broke. To keep body and soul together, we had, in a spirit of gracious condescension, been prepared to prostitute our creative talents and write for the general public. Some market research cunningly conducted on station bookstalls had revealed that the general public was largely female, and that what it wanted was Romance.
It seemed so easy that we wondered why we had never thought of it before. While we had been fooling around with beat poetry and perceptive little pieces on “Self and Anti-self in Hamlet”, this goldmine had been waiting to be tapped. The writing, we argued, scarcely attained our standards, and in our daily lives we experienced, or at least had confided in us, emotional dramas far more traumatic than in any print. We therefore set to with a will.
To begin with it was easy. With true scholarly precision, we analysed, perhaps even profited from, the rigid moral code of Romantic fiction. We dreamed up improbable Romantic names, enthusiastically pairing Dominic and Camilla, Gary and Heloise, Leopold and Annabella. We noted that if the heroine had hair the colour of ripe corn, the hero’s was dark as a raven’s wing, and vice-versa. (No-one cursed with ordinary brown hair has the stuff of true love in him.) Over coffee we rehearsed the dialogue, lavishly embellishing it with endearments, exclamation marks, smirks, and sparkling eyes. Those of us who had been abroad preened themselves on plots set in Romantic European capitals.
Unfortunately, being true geniuses who composed in solitude, we then had to split up and begin to write. This I found distinctly embarrassing. However hard I muttered “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, the goose pimples began to form as soon as I penned the first passionate clichés. Somehow it seemed indecent to sit there in broad daylight lingering over the juicy emotional details. I felt more like a case for the nearest psychiatrist than a hard-headed writer of the world.
The translation from pen to typewriter helped: cold steel seemed to place a more respectable distance between the author and the horrors of his creation. A friend who had miraculously learned to touch-type roused my envy that she composed with her eyes shut and felt scarcely any embarrassment at all.
Writing under cover of darkness made things easier too. Romance seemed to burgeon more naturally in the small hours, and the tortuous amours of one’s invention lost some of their intrinsic improbability. These late sessions also guaranteed secrecy. One’s high-minded public image naturally demanded that none but the initiates should know what was going on. Moreover, nothing was more daunting than to be interrupted in one’s description of the final, passion-laden clinch with the kindly offer of a cup of tea or a well-meant enquiry after the progress of one’s studies. It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence: by day one enthused over Shelley and Salinger; at night one returned to probe the fevered minds of Cynthia and Roderick.
The Romance of this ill-starred pair, the only one to survive my onslaught, suffered many false starts. They either fell in love so quickly that five hundred words told the whole story, or were separated by such dire circumstances that only divine intervention could possibly have brought them together. At last I managed to get them convincingly to the altar. It was a tale of epic proportions. A tale which, or so I modestly assured myself, would shatter the general public with its combination of purity and passion, its vindication of the all-conquering power of the human heart. I hid it in the works of Shakespeare, who no doubt turned several times in his grave, and sauntered triumphantly forth to see how the others were faring.
Despite the cooperative nature of the venture in its early stages, people were remarkably cagey about producing their works for objective criticism. Perhaps they too were embarrassed about revealing their murky emotional depths – or simply afraid that one would censor their technicolour version of one’s latest Wagnerian tiff with the current heart-throb. Secrecy was therefore maintained through the final stages: the polite little notes to the editor requesting publication only under a pseudonym, the carefully disguised handwriting on the return envelopes, which one included for form’s sake although one hated to waste the stamps. Even greater secrecy attended the steady plop of these same return envelopes on the mat a few days later.
Soon it became impossible to ignore the tell-tale signs of failure. All of us still bought cigarettes in slim packets of five and lunched on pie, beans and chips (one-and-ninepence). The goldmine had failed us.
Confession followed and we anxiously compared rejection slips. Those who had achieved a pencilled “sorry” as well as the disheartening printed message were regarded with new respect. Drive our towering intellects how we might, we could not root out the causes of failure. Although we admitted that the writing had been more difficult than we expected, in the end our heroines had seemed as lusciously predatory as any, our heroes as virile and gullible. Sadly we returned to the neglected acres of English Literature and the queue for vacation employment.
Even after we had half managed to convince ourselves that we were simply too far above our market for success, the enigma of failure remained. As I reread the ardent pages, I could not see why my Cynthia and Roderick should languish unrecognised while others exactly similar romped through the press at pounds a time. My fingers itched to take up the challenge once more. Could not they, forever panting and forever young as they undoubtedly were, be resuscitated from their Grecian Urn? Surely three more years of literary expertise, not to mention the accompanying emotional maturity and a slightly improved typing system, would finally do the trick and allow them to take their rightful place in the lucrative world of fiction.
Luckily at this point my attention was directed to that stack of old pictures – and many fine examples of child art it contained. But don’t worry, Cynthia and Roderick, I haven’t forgotten you. One day your turn will come.
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Forever Panting and Forever Young. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1528.
"Forever Panting and Forever Young." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 23 February 2024. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1528.
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