I have been reading Emily Carr’s autobiography Growing Pains.
Autobiography is not a genre that I typically enjoy, but this narrative by the Canadian West Coast painter has hooked me. She is young, creative, aspiring but also abrasive, acerbic and sharp. You wonder if her slashing wit is a kind of defence, a way to keep people from getting anywhere near to the vulnerable quick of her inner Self.
I was reminded of my own “growing pains” when I first went to London after university. Aged 22, with a moderately good degree, I had looked forward to being unleashed on the Big City. But my salary was barely enough to cover rent and food, and I had an overdraft and non-sympathetic bank manager. My girlfriend was erratic and still at University. Weeks earlier my friends had all been in walking distance, and available at all times of day or night; now they were scattered, getting to see them would often take more than an hour and work sandwiched the time to see each other into a narrow band between 6 pm and midnight.
Sometimes it takes time to find your feet. My first bed-sit was so damp there was a strong fungal quality to the air, and the radiators didn’t work. I seem to remember my parents had helped me financially by buying me a suit and office shirts, but the “furnished” room didn’t even have coat hangers, let alone a wardrobe to hang them in. I was utterly miserable. It was hardly worth buying furniture for a place I knew that I would leave within months. In fact, I made my escape after a few cold weekend days and nights wrapped up in a sleeping bag.
The drudgery of my accommodation matched that of the job. I had joined a large accountancy firm and was training to be a chartered accountant, but after a month I knew this was not for me. During the day I would tick invoices, take stock, and run through questionnaires with employees of the firm I was auditing, with not a clue about the overall purpose of these activities. I had intended to be a journalist but for some bizarre reason this had seemed insufficiently serious an activity, and a good solid background in finance looked to be a better bet. It was, after all, the early 1980s. My mistake, but it would take me six months and around 60 job applications to rectify it.
A friend had offered me a room in a house her father had rented on her behalf in Maida Vale. She had assembled a motley crew of our old college friends, and we would all smoke and drink far too much; but what started as good-natured bohemianism gradually disintegrated into toxicity, tedium and tantrums. No-one could agree what to watch on TV — except when it was the Young Ones, and then we would all sit glued to the sofa, facing ourselves, as if in a mirror, before animosities resumed when the episode was over.
Wine and cigarettes left little spare cash for meals out and drinks in the City with friends. When the opportunity for these arose, however, it carried its own pitfalls. We would chew the bitter cud of other people’s success and ruminate despondently about our own mediocre trajectories and occasional meteoric failures. The dullest of my University chums had jobs at companies like Bankers’ Trust and JP Morgan and in some cases were earning 10x as much as I was. How was this fair?
More to the point, how was this even possible? I had been used to being the crème de la crème and suddenly here I was, earning less than almost everyone, in a miserable job, in miserable accommodation, in miserable company and with nowhere that I could really call my own. This was not what I had expected at all!
But the worst thing was that it was so difficult to admit that disappointment. Enjoying London was part of the deal, it was what made you an adult, and having fun – drinking too much, smoking too much, staying out too late and missing the last train, ending up sozzled on London Bridge in the cold rain and getting a taxi home that you couldn’t remember let alone afford – this was Real Life, this was what gave It meaning. Life. With a capital L.
I am thinking of this slightly non-satisfactory period in my life because my own two children are each, in their own way, about to face that same challenge of Growing Up. One is heading off to University, one is just through with her studies and about to take the leap into the unknown that is life without parents. Both of them, I hope, know that life is never going to be “without parents” (even now, when both my parents have died, they are still in some mysterious way present and close to my heart) but it is a big step to take — to strike out on your own and determine your own future, and be responsible for your own decisions.
Reading Emily Carr’s book reminded me that this is a recurrent challenge for all generations, one that has affected young people through the ages. Emily Carr was 28 years old when she left Canada to study art in the UK. Her account of her journey is sliced through with nostalgia for her Canadian home, and London looms as a particularly difficult station on the way.
What could be more frightening than visiting a strange country where you know no one? She visits various friends and relatives, suggested by well-intentioned family members and her guardian, but you have a sense of intense ambivalence. Routinely, she demonizes the individuals she has been urged to befriend, railing at them from the start, even though often, over time, she grows to feel a strong affection for them.
While these people are there for her in her hour of need, you feel they are also a kind of extended family that prevents her from individuating from the bosom of her parents. Perhaps, then, it is the people you know most closely who are actually most frightening, because they can hold you to your old way of life while you are fighting to break free and be yourself? I recall the poem by John Clare, written when he was in an insane asylum:
“And even the nearest
Whom I love the best
Are strange – nay, somewhat
Stranger than the rest”.
Perhaps Emily Carr’s “growing pains” were more painful because she had lost both her parents by the time she was 15. Emily doted on her father, but became estranged from him because, in her view, she stood up to his autocratic manner; and she was close to her mother, but being part of a large family, seemed ever to be insecure about having her mother’s individual undivided affection.
You have a sense of deep, unresolved grief at the loss of her parents, complicated by these complex cross-currents of love, affection, loyalty but also betrayal, pain and divided loyalties. This desperate crucible of feelings is intensified by her travel. She wants to be an artist, but to achieve that at the level to which she aspires, she must cut herself off from her past. She feels homesick, but identifies herself as a “difficult” person, relentless, never giving in to what others want her to be. She is Rebel Yell rather than Canadian Club.
Even more painful than the Pain of Being is Emily’s capacity for joy. She wants so much, her soul is so wide, her heart so big. Again, I am reminded of a poem, this time by Emily Dickinson:
“I can wade Grief
Whole pools of it
But the least taste of joy
Breaks up my feet”.
Reading “Growing Pains”, I was reminded of the complexity of this process of growing up and being able to live on your own terms. It is not an on/off switch, even though the law insists on putting in place markers at 16, 17, 18 and 21 that define black-and-white thresholds for being “adult enough” to do certain activities.
I feel this gives a sense of it being like an exam, a series of hurdles to be cleared. Rather, “growing up” is a continuum. It continues through teens, twenties and thirties and arguably it never actually stops. It is joyful, painful, bitter-sweet, multi-faceted. It isn’t just about how you are, but how you want to be, and how you want to seem.