Is being an older Australian a type of ‘brand’? Melbourne playwright Ron Elisha isn’t so sure – here he delves into the dialogue between him and one of the youthful literary elite.

 

Writing (or, in my case, playwriting) belongs to a very select inventory – the inventory of things that improve with age.

There are three main reasons for this: First, the passing of time, loved ones and the odd kidney stone. In other words, the fact that stuff happens. Often not very pleasant stuff. Which leads one to ask why bad things happen to good (or, at the very least, relatively innocuous) people.

Second, practice makes less imperfect. (Only the young still subscribe to the notion of perfection.)
And third, one has no alternative but to look Death in the eye at close range, thereby forcing one to come to literary (or, in my case, dramatic) grips with its meaning.

Armed with the self-affirming knowledge, then, that I was twice as good a writer at 60 as I had been at 30, I ventured out into what is traditionally regarded as the real world.

This was some seven years ago, at a time when those who appreciated my gifts as a dramatist had either shuffled from this mortal coil or turned their backs on it.

Not quite prepared to do either just yet, I’d heard on the grapevine that there was a new Literary Manager at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne who might be prepared to receive my overtures with an open and, as yet, untrammeled mind.

Having learned through bitter experience that the secret to success in writing lies not so much in inspiration as it does in networking (a skill in which neither time nor experience had adequately schooled me), I made a somewhat apprehensive appointment in order to introduce myself.

The Literary Manager (to whom we’ll refer as Madame Defarge) looked about 30, with all the hubris that that number implies.

I was about two minutes into my ‘pitch’ (it’s always a concern when sporting terminology begins to infiltrate the arts) when she stopped me and said:

‘There’s really no point in going on. You don’t suit our branding.’

I had assumed that my wife had sent me out into the world bearing some resemblance to a civilised human being, but I suddenly found myself stricken with terror at the thought that I might’ve misunderstood her instructions and put on my pants back-to-front.

‘What exactly is your branding?’ In posing the question, I was fairly certain that the lips of sweat that were forming at my armpits were not a part of the answer.

‘Young,’ she said, her wrinkle-free hand reaching for her knitting.

And, with that, my world tumbled to the ground – an unedifying perspective from which it has yet to recover.

It’s not as if there’s a satisfactory comeback to the word ‘young’.

It’s not as if there’s a satisfactory comeback to the word ‘young’.

Everything about me – my greyed temples, my receding hairline, my mottled skin, my nascent paunch, my slightly stooped posture – screamed the very antithesis of ‘young’.

I tossed up various prospective replies in my rapidly ageing head.

‘I could look young.’ (That ship had long sailed.)

‘I could write young.’ (That ship had never docked.)

‘I could think young.’ (Why throw away a lifetime’s experience?)

What, precisely, was her definition of ‘young’, and at what point did one transition from the ‘young’ brand to the ‘old’ brand? Was there some form of temporally purgatorial brand in between?

I wondered whether Shakespeare might’ve suited their branding when he wrote of the ‘mortal coil’ from which, according to the branding of the day, he should’ve shuffled a full three years earlier (being 38 at a time when the life expectancy of the average Briton was 35).

There was nothing about her unlined (and, I have to say, vaguely pugnacious) features that hinted at the answers to any of these questions. Surely, at 30, she was writing only half as well as I was at 60, which led me to ponder why our positions in relation to the desk were not reversed.

Call me a fool but, right up until the moment when she uttered the word ‘young’, the individual inside of me who looked out upon the ‘real’ world had never questioned his right to claim such branding for himself.

Now, quite suddenly, he (and therefore I) had been unmasked as patently and irredeemably old.

In the end I said nothing, and tottered from the building – which now seemed positively to bristle with youthful brio – with my limp and greying tail between my arthritic legs.

Literary managers have come and gone since, but I haven’t had the courage to return to the scene of the de-branding. It was all too humiliating. And besides, my appearance now makes my appearance back them seem young by comparison.

The only consolation to be salvaged from this ‘reality’ check is the knowledge that Madame Defarge is now in her late 30s, some seven years closer to ineligibility for her own branding.

That’s about as close as an old man comes to a happy ending.