– by Jacinta Mulders, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo credit: Liz Ham, Oyster Magazine
When I was young, I bought magazines. My initial obsession with Barbie and TV Hits graduated into a monthly purchasing of Dolly, and then, in my last few years of high school, Vogue Australia. When I started uni, it became the Australian fashion magazine Russh. I occasionally—when I felt I ‘needed it’ or ‘deserved it’— shed $20 to buy the latest issue of Dazed and Confused, direct from London. It always had a fluoro sticker on it bearing the words ‘CURRENT COPY!’, as if to suggest that its presence in Australia at the same time it was released in the UK was something to be gawked at, and accordingly, paid for.
I did like fashion, but, looking back, this wasn’t really why I bought so many magazines. It was because I was interested in image, and imagination, and the idea that what you adorn yourself with should be an expression of who you are. It thrilled me that somewhere out there, there was a capacity to make clothes that were the physical manifestation of someone’s dreams—that all the maker’s subliminal influences had somehow coagulated and with this, they had produced something gorgeous and suggestive, which spoke of other things and places.
I found the magazines espousing youth culture to be particularly thrilling. Within the pages of Dazed and Confused, the creativity of the stylists seemed unbounded. Piling on clothes in new and novel combinations, they would send their models off to shoot in Dutch tulip gardens, put new season Rodarte at the top of an industrial building at sunset, to capture the sequins glittering. These magazines—i-D, AnOther, Dazed, LOVE, Wonderland, Oyster and Russh—had a dual effect on me. In one sense, I found them to be exhilarating, for the way that they tapped into a feeling that inspired me, or that I could aspire to. Yet in another, they were almost too wonderful, I felt I should give up immediately, that my existence was deficient in comparison. There I was, a girl of 20 or 21, who, at the time, had no immediate prospects of contributing to a short film about a subculture in Manchester, had no capacity to visit art shows in Hackney, nor (for want of means and proximity) to trawl the sample racks of Luella or Christopher Kane. Looking back, it seems ludicrous that these were things I should so palpably aspire for. And yet, their suggestiveness of another world was so strong, I felt an urgent need to be swallowed in it.
In a wider sense, I found the regular tropes relied upon by these magazines to be so compelling and wondrous, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out. They seemed to meditate on an idea of youth that was more wild, breathless, reckless, and thus infinitely better than my own experience. ‘Youth culture’ connoted people doing sublimely interesting things (usually art, sex, drugs) at a level that seemed constant, or that seemed to define them. Advertisements and shoots of girls my age tossing glossy long hair, in a car, at midnight, with boys, under sparklers, or a night full of stars. Campfires on the beach; neon-lit raves: that sort of thing. These images spoke of a youth that was endless, unconfined by responsibilities, where everyone felt free and had the capacity and desire to do entirely what they wished. It’s the exact syndrome that’s described in On the Road, a book that caused many people I knew at the time to start salivating, or staring out at the world in a kind of starry-eyed wonder:
the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Even in films or on TV, either in recent releases or recent classics, it seemed that everyone was living out a youth, or ‘finding themselves’ in circumstances that were more blissful and transcendental than my own. Garden State, Empire Records, Reality Bites, The Breakfast Club, St Elmo’s Fire. Everyone seemed to be coming to profound realisations about themselves in situations replete with compelling people who spoke honestly about their impressions of the world, one of whom was usually quite attractive and which thus allowed for a sort of bumbling yet immediate attraction which often would not manifest itself until a glorious penultimate scene. The TV show Skins made me bemoan my own teenage years for how packed they were with studying, or the fact that I didn’t have a mental breakdown (well, at least not one that had any dramatic outward signs) caused by my intimate but inexplicable connections to so many confused young boys.
All the while I was reading and ingesting these films, books, and magazines about youth, I was living my way through my early 20s. And though I was having a good time, it seemed that I was living out my life in a way that was inherently different from the representations I was seeing. My life, though containing many of the things that I saw so regularly in books, in films, or in magazines (alcohol, drugs, hook-ups, long nights, parties in warehouses, young friends in alternative clothes), did not have that same tone of transcendence that seemed to define so much of what I was seeing. To me, those facets of my life seemed de rigeur—although they were fun and exhilarating, they were not something to be captured or fetishised, but something that just happened, in the normal course of an evening, triggering the usual range of emotional responses in what was usually the morning after. A feeling of being cleansed, of being slightly awe-struck, of pondering, of shame. Of feeling like you always acted incorrectly, had too much, kissed someone you shouldn’t have, made yourself too vulnerable in that hour-long chat about the universe. Life continued—these moments peppering night-times and weekends—and around it, the movement towards your more professional goals, the ones you tell your family and acquaintances about as if they comprise the exclusivity of your existence. Yes I am doing a degree, yes I have a job, yes I live in a Sydney inner-city suburb.
And then, at some point, when the gears of my life had begun to shift and change, I recognised something. Enacting a more sombre pursuit—taking myself out to a movie, having dinner with a friend—I would often reflect with a kind of smug wonder at the many stupid, reckless things that I had done. Somehow, and without knowing it, I had been living through what I imagined to be a lacklustre time. There had been innumerable midnights. I had made compelling and immediate connections with people I didn’t know—their glossy faces had loomed into my evening like gorgeous apparitions, only to disappear by morning, as though they were exclusively creatures of the night. I had danced in dark, anonymous rooms, ended up on the grass, in a bush, in someone else’s house, or pool, or bed, or with other people in mine. And looking back, it was blissful. It was transcendental. It was just that, stuck in the immediacy of my experiences, caught up in the usual anxieties and paranoias of being young, and drunk, or in love, or whatever, there is no luxury of looking at yourself, and your experiences, with the romanticism that comes to characterise the nostalgic gaze.
Now, I find it incredibly ironic that I am a person who writes fiction about young women with the same sense of mysticism and romanticism that I used to wonder at, and which I saw to be so woefully missing from my own youth. Maybe it’s telling that, at least from my experience, the really compelling literature about what it’s like to be young comes from people for whom youth has passed: Tessa Hadley, Alice Munro, Christina Stead, Ernest Hemingway. They all seem, to me, to be informed by the idea of looking backward, a desire to pick over the pieces of what has made us who we are.
Is it little wonder that magazines, films, TV shows, seek to emphasise these representations? How can we, when we are young, compete with the strength of the backward-gaze? Our bumbling, confused young lives, peppered with moments of exhilaration, come into a different light with the benefit of retrospect. Youth, so the saying goes, is wasted on the young.
Jacinta Mulders works in international human rights law research at Australian National University. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen and TheVine, where she worked as an editor. She plans to commence postgraduate studies in creative writing in late 2015.