4 October 2008

An Awkward Age


This is a slim, annual-format hardback in a tatty dustjacket with a rather charming picture of some nice young people politely socialising. The cloth boards beneath the jacket have a pattern of silver stars that give a first impression of its being something between one of those film review books from the 40s and 50s and an old Bunty annual.

First thing on a random opening is a page that describes various types of musical composition. These include Concerto, Rhapsody, Pastorale and Nocturne. This last comes with a little warning: "Not all nocturnes are restful; but then neither are all nights (think back on 1940-45)." For the readers - who would have been war children - that's some example of a restless night. At the bottom of the page is a stylised motif of two French horns.

Leafthrough. There's a slight gloss to the pages which reinforces the impression that this is really a kind of magazine in hard covers. As a prototype, it has hit all the key elements - a jauntily illustrated mix of advice, fiction and celebrity - that would make up the weekly diet of later generations of teenage girls and young women. The only thing missing at first glance is the advertising. But a slightly slower leafthrough reveals that, rather than punctuating the whole book, the adverts have been quarantined in the last few pages. These are prefaced with a disclaimer which tells us that only a limited number of advertisements from reputable concerns have been accepted by The Teen Age Book. So Cussons, Pond's Cream, Gossard, Max Factor and the Kleinert Rubber Company have all been granted leave to discreetly address the young ladies after the show is over.

The front bits give very little information but say a lot about where this book is coming from. The first bit of text is a credit to Pearl Falconer for the drawings that decorate the endpapers. These are line drawings of teenage girls doing such things as going off to play tennis, cavorting in an apron with a collander full of spuds, putting on a (vinyl) record and sashaying in a ballgown. This is followed by a lurid pink free endpaper which faces the title page. Overleaf from this is a photo (by John French as it happens) of the editor Ann Seymour. The portrait is oval in shape and surrounded by a pink baroque mirror frame design.

Looking into it. We think we have a pretty good idea what a teenager is. We may not know what it wants or what it thinks and we may not know why it behaves the way it does, but we know that it is someone between the ages of about 13 and 19 and we have a name for it.

The teenager is a post-war concept the basic structures of which were laid down during the consumer boom of the late 50s and early 60s. This book is part of the prehistory of the teenager. So much so that the word is still two words without so much as a hyphen to join them, except in one primitive instance where the prescient use of a hyphen is completely undermined by the retention of an apostrophe, thus: 'teen-ager.

The uncertain status of the intended readers is also highlighted in Ann Seymour's brief introduction. "During the war" she says, "you won the right to be considered as young people, not grown-up children." I can sort of see what she's trying to get at, but the implicit suggestion that children are not people grates against my modern parent sensibilities.

Perhaps the best analogy would be that the teenager represents a larval stage of adulthood where the potential grown-up stumbles around in an ill-fitting body comprised of possibilities, worries, hopes and awkward questions. And this, really, is a book of answers to some of those questions. 'How old is old enough for make-up?' 'How do you sound?' 'Who do you think you are?' 'Are you clever with flowers?'

These thorny issues are tackled by writers who would probably have referred to themselves as the better sort of people. There is a relentlessly upper-class feel to the whole thing, making it almost like a handbook for some kind of finishing school. The larging-up of attributes such as flower arranging skills, proficiency at tennis and good posture are all aimed, according to Ann Seymour, at allowing the reader to develop 'so that people are pleasantly aware of you as a charming person'. For a teenager, even an unwitting one of the late 1940s, that's not much of an ambition.

'A charming girl needs to know but two things', opines Ann in her piece on posture, 'how to sit well and how to accept a compliment'. Any further knowledge apparently indicates 'ill-breeding, laziness, indolence and incompetence'. Now that's more like it.

The two world wars were the 21st century's big bang. Many of the fragments that were hurled out from the disruption took decades to coalesce into the forms we live with today, and it's a continuing process. Youth culture evolved in ways that cannot have been imagined by the people who put this book together. Only a few years after this attempt to guide youngsters (young women, anyway) into a life of charming pleasantness, the concertos, rhapsodies and pastorales were completely overwhelmed by a species of night music that must have seemed like it came from hell itself.