Writer Graham Caveney Reflects on Growing Older

Words: Graham Caveney
Illustrations: Jon Aye
Thursday 22 April 2021
reading time: min, words

Writer Graham Caveney, author of The Priest They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs and Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg, shares his reflections on the process of growing older...


“He was a man of forty-five. Forty-five! In five more years fifty. Then sixty – then seventy – then it was finished. My God – and one still was so unestablished. How did one grow old – how could one become confident?” 

I was seventeen years old when I first read those words from D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow –  an A level text I'd elevated to the status of secular bible. The words belong to Tom Brangwen, his internal monologue, jolts of mortality and self-doubt fizzing through him like electrical currents. I remember being affronted, horrified even. If grown men are still waiting to grow up, what chance has a seventeen-year-old boy with acne scars? Maybe adults were not as adult as I'd thought. How did one grow old – how could one become confident? I don't know Tom. I was kinda hoping you'd tell me. 

I'm now a decade older than the character who did those calculations, twenty-five years older than Lawrence when he wrote them. I'm 56 – a number I tend to bury in the phrase my mid-fifties,  neither milestone nor millstone. I'm aman of a certain age’  – a peculiar phrase, one used for those whose age remains uncertain. I can feel ageing's scripts hanging over me – the ones that begin 'you won't remember this but...', that sees 'youths' rather than young people. I catch myself imagining my sixtieth birthday. 

My father was dead at 65, my mother at 67. I sometimes wonder if my genetic code will simply split the difference, clock me out at a nice round 66, thus satisfying my preference for even numbers.

56! It's an age I never thought I'd reach, convinced like other boys with too many Smiths albums, that I'd be dead at 27, 33, 44.  I would conveniently revise the age limit – the dead line –  as each of those birthdays approached. I wanted to be a writer and everyone knew that writers died young. It was part of the job description. 

I began by writing reviews for the New Musical Express. The NME is what I had instead of art school; a learn-as-you-go creative writing course before such things existed. They offered me space to write about my serial obsessions – new American writers, underground filmmakers, post-punk music. I wrote on an Olivetti manual typewriter and posted my copy in the mail. Occasionally they even paid me. 

By the end of my twenties I was a full-time writer. There seemed to be a dizzying amount of magazines and papers to write for, not just specialist publications (Literary Review, Publishing News) but men's fashion journals (GQ, Arena), music monthlies (Q, The Face), weekly listings mags (City Limits, Time Out). I wrote for them all. I wrote about New York poets and country music, IMAX films and Fred Perry shirts, alternative comedy and Desert Island Discs. In 1991 I published my first book – Shopping In Space, a study of new American writing, written with my friend Elizabeth Young. The book did well. We flew to New York to promote it. I saw a world I thought only existed in celluloid. Life was ripe, full of promise. It was, as we used to say, rock 'n' roll. 

How did the stardust of my twenties melt into the bad, bad trip that was my thirties and early forties, a decade-plus spent either behind closed curtains or on psych wards?

So why did it turn to shit? How did the stardust of my twenties melt into the bad, bad trip that was my thirties and early forties, a decade-plus spent either behind closed curtains or on psych wards? 

The answer to that question is the subject of my next book. The short version is that I drank. I drank to oblivion, a joyless quest for total anaesthesia. Drinking made me ill. I switched to drugs. And then I drank some more. Anyone who thinks there is glamour associated with the image of the self-destructive writer should spend five minutes in a rehab unit. The shaking, the sweating, the shitting. Romantic tragedy it ain't. 

I used to lie to myself that drinking is what writers did, an occupational hazard. I had lots of role models: William Burroughs about whom I wrote my second book, his friend Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Johns Cheever and Berryman. The list goes on, a roll call of excess all lined up and ready to burn. I was entranced by this myth, became intent on adding my name to the tally. If I couldn't write like my heroes I could sure as hell drink like them. 

I got sober at the age of 44, the same age Lawrence was when he died. It had been ten years since I'd written my last book – a monograph on the poet Allen Ginsburg; I wasn't sure I'd ever write again. Or who to write for. The music journalist had been replaced by the blogger, arts mags by websites. I felt like Rip Van Winkle awaking from his slumber utterly baffled by an unrecognisable world. What the hell is this? Where the hell am I? I discovered that a day consists of 24 hours, that meals must be eaten, sleep slept, clothes washed, conversation conducted. I may have looked like a 44-year-old man, but I was as helpless as an infant. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous and began to count my clean time, celebrate sober birthdays. I may be 56 but I am twelve years dry. Age is much more than the date on your birth certificate. 

In early sobriety I spent my nights at the Broadway, days in the newly-opened Five Leaves bookshop. The owner, Ross Bradshaw, talked for hours to me about books, writers, writing. He did not ask me about my history, or why I still had shaky hands. He let me give a reading from my book on Burroughs even though it is out of print. Eventually he gave me a job. 

Working at Five Leaves was like remembering a line of poetry I'd thought I'd forgotten. The books reminded me of who I was, where I belonged. In the evenings I started writing again, once more listening to the rhythms inside my head. It felt like coming home. 

Graham Caveney's memoir The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness is published by Picador at £9.99. His new book On Agoraphobia: Reading, Writing and Other Empty Places will be published in May 2022, also by Picador. 

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