I think I know why old people get grumpy

Apart from the aches and pains that increase with age, which obviously would make anyone grumpy. But Tim and I have noticed something in recent months – that things we thought that everyone knew aren’t actually as obvious as we thought.

I mean, I’m used to the fact that not everyone knows the frequently strange and obscure things I have learned in my travels, and I’m never surprised when something even *I* think is odd knowledge isn’t recognised. But there are some things which, for people of my age group, are just things that everyone knows, surely? It’s shocking and disconcerting to discover something you thought was common knowledge turns out to be obscure or even irrelevent to someone under the age of 25.

This came up recently when Tim needed to explain Scott of the Antarctic to someone. When he told me, my first thought was “but he’s mentioned in the Australian Crawl song ‘Reckless'” – and then remembered that this song is from the 1980s and may be just as irrelevent as the doomed explorer to the person in question.

More and more often, things I thought that everyone knew turn out to be things that only people of a certain age know. Another friend was gobsmacked when he had to contextualise who the Nazis were for someone – when the penny finally dropped the person said “Oh! The Bad Guys!” as though she only understood World War II and the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who had only seen it in Hollywood movies.

I was naturally reminded of some of the older books I read – Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle – and wondered about the references in those stories which were commonplace to the author and their contemporaneous readership, which are nigh on meaningless now. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of their work, though it sometimes requires that I do a little research. (It was amazing how much funnier Blackadder the Third became once I’d read a book on the Regency period., for example. That Mr Curtis knows his stuff.)

I wonder now at what elements of my own ignorance may have surprised my parents and grandparents. Did they have the sense of the world being not so concrete as they thought it was? In what ways have I appalled my elders by not knowing, or caring much about, things that were considered essential to an education in their day?

It brings a new light to the problem of writing contemporary fiction and wanting to put current references into the work which, in my experience, editors don’t like very much. They fear it will date the work, pin it too much to a particular time. It shows a charming confidence that people might still be reading the thing in a decade and wonder who these bands and celebrities and TV shows are that are referenced so glibly. But if you are writing for a young, contemporary audience, restricting yourself to referencing only pop culture that has lasted the distance in the last 20 years is going to date the book – or at least the author – before the decade is up.

I have vowed to be less gobsmacked at the things people don’t know. The only reason I know some of this stuff is because I read voraciously and talk to people a lot. I also vow to maintain my curiosity about what’s going on in the world *now*. I don’t want to suddenly find out that all my reference points for art, culture and history are dusty and irrelevant. That doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon the history that I know, or cease using it – but I intend to keep the weaving the thread, from past to present to future, pulling in the strands from every place I think can help me to tell a story and keep it rich, deep, detailed and relevant.

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Posted on August 19, 2010, in creativity, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. naturallydotty

    It works the other way too, doesn’t it. I’ve noticed my 13 year old niece and her friends using a lot of different symbols in their Facebook updates and comments. I keep meaning to ask her what they mean. Interestingly, the kids the same age down here don’t use them, so it must be a localised thang…

  2. Oddly, I’m never surprised at what I don’t know about new cultural stuff happening with the younger kids – I suppose we all developed our own communication codes with slang and signs as teenagers. I moved a lot as a kid, and slang that served me well in one state left kids staring at me in bemusement when I moved to another…

  3. naturallydotty

    Ah yes, that makes perfect sense – you’d be well used to all those regional differences.

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