Crisis at all ages – 4th Estate Literary Salon

A literary salon involves stimulating conversation, lively debate, challenging opinions, all inspired by literature. 4th Estate is one of the most innovative and varied imprints in the book industry, and their Literary Salons bring together great minds for just this.

Most recently it was all about life crises – at whatever age. Whether it’s the stereotypical mid-life crises or the anxiety that comes in your twenties when you realise that the rules and plans mapped out before you are either falling away in the face of financial and social insecurity, or bear no resemblance to the life you actually want to lead, there’s been some great books written about these critical points in existence.

Chaired by comedian Will Smith, formerly of Radio 4’s Crisis Management, we heard from  journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer, whose book Out of Time describes not just her own experiences of facing 44, but recounts the stories of many others who are navigating this period and journalist Marisa Bate, who knows all too much about the challenges facing those in their twenties and thirties. Using their books as a means to ponder the messiness of life, this evening of creative and critical thinking was a lively lift to the new year.

The mid-life crisis is one of clichés and stereotypes. An ageing man seeking a younger woman and a fast car as he goes of to discover his youth. For Miranda Sawyer there were no cars or girls involved, but she did find herself at the age of 44 experiencing a moment of mid life panic, and asking herself the crises criteria. Is this it? Can I start again? Have I done it all wrong?

For Marisa Bate, journalist for The Pool, it’s more of an insidious creeping. Surely, as you get older you get more sorted, you have knowledge and achieve the things on the list of life milestones. But she and many of her peers are still eating white wine and crisps for dinner and find themselves so broke at the end of the month that they must retreat back home as they know their parents will buy them dinner.

Sawyer and Smith have news – you never get it sorted. Especially if you’re a young person today, living in London. As Sawyer says, you can’t get it sorted, due to the times and society we live in. Young people have been sold a dream that it impossible to reach, and career panic, broken housing market, sky-high rents, internet anxiety, infertility scare-mongering and no pensions are all a symptom of the crisis that society creates. ‘You can’t reach your dreams not because you’re a failure’ says Sawyer, but because ‘they were ludicrous dreams to start with.’

Following a year of disaster, at least in the eyes of our predominantly left liberal panel and audience, the election of Trump and Brexit means that there’s been a huge crash of confidence not just on an individual basis, but we’re experiencing ‘social, economic, political crises’ says Bate. ‘Me and my friends sit there and just go “what the fuck?”’ What the fuck indeed. The solution, or at least part of it, are discussions like these. But just talking isn’t enough. You have to get angry, believes Sawyer, and it starts at the grass roots.

The feeling of possibility that Sawyer felt when she ‘blagged’ her way into music journalism after Smash Hits took pity on such a sad sap and her obsession, or the time she bought a black cab and lived in the back of it in Paris, simply isn’t available now. The internet often gets a bad rep, but we can’t deny its impact on our lives. Sawyer believes that when she was in her twenties there was a freedom and liberation to have fun, whereas the scrutiny is now far greater. Comparisons are exacerbated through social media, whereas now there is a far greater obsession with not stepping out of line, being contained and controlled both my rules, be they clean eating or gratitude practice, but also by what others see. Whilst this obsessive sculpting of the idealised image might make you look good, it does involve ‘no fun or friends or food.’ So much for progress. Bate’s career is on the internet, and so her need to keep up to date with the changing landscape much greater than many – and thus more anxiety promoting. The ‘internet gives you this feeling of being thirty seconds off falling of the end of a treadmill’ the panel acknowledge. It’s not a nice one.

Sawyer recommend that you ‘go out. Sit on a night bus, go for  walk, whatever. Something happens. I worry for you young people with your no alcohol and nights in.’ Whilst Sawyer does acknowledge that things are easier for her in ‘middle age’ – primarily due to the fact that she doesn’t give a fuck any more – that doesn’t mean she’s sitting back. When dealing with children and mortgages there is a different kind of energy required, ‘constantly trying to maintain revving.’ But it’s certainly not a riding downhill. Apparently even chimpanzees have a dip in happiness in midlife – all we have to do is ride it out

Adjust your dreams to suit you. Accept what is, drop the should, and find what gets you up in the morning. For Sawyer it’s jogging slowly round the park twice a week which ‘gets me off my nut’ but it could as easily be reading a magazine, having a bath. And never feel guilty. ‘Guilt is a waste of time.’

Crises or not, this was a reminder to live life on your own terms. It’s one we all need to hear.

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