What Do Teens Think …. On a Night Like This?
Gary and Bambi’s exhibition opens with a reception in the museum. There’s around 100 people taking in the works, huddled inside enclosures of huge pen and ink drawings in humanity’s most fundamental colours: white, red, black. Sumi-e style cats and rabbits are cheekily juxtaposed with Sailor Jerry-esque cheeky 1950s pin-ups.
Gary reads three of his poems, which always feel honest and vulnerable in a mood-tense so extreme that it risks gesturing towards fakery (this, the very art of them: our own shame or cynicism is the filter for our responses). Introducing the reading, Gary tells us that he’s lived in Worthing for seventeen years and loves it, though you wouldn’t believe it from some of the poems. We laugh. Then wait for the shift in the room that comes when live words from the writer’s mouth fire up the air.
Now, the fact behind Worthing’s outdated image as a retirement town is this: it is the only district in West Sussex to have, not an increase, but actually a decrease in the over-65 age band. Worthing is 20% under 16s; 20% over 65s; 60% college and working age folk. Will those young folk stay here? Let’s nab a few now.
Brightly and warmly, in best mamma-auntie-kind-teacher mode, I put the question to two artsy-looking skinny blond teens wearing interesting matching trousers. They take it literally and simply say, “No”, avoiding eye contact, shifting about, looking like they’re going to faint because I spoke to them. Honestly, people, this accosting strangers thing is far harder for me than it is for you – I’m not gregarious at all. I try to fish: “So, you literally don’t belong, or you feel like you don’t belong, existentially?” (As far as I know, young folks’ perfectly age-appropriate solipsism has not changed much in the past fifty years, making the concept of the ‘existential’ as appealing as ever). The kids shuffle, look panicked, plainly have no plans whatsoever to speak. “So, where are you guys from, then?” “Lewes”, they murmur, discomfited, embarrassed. Full-sail middle-class English socially awkward masculinity. Is Lewes Grammar full of browbeaten kids who are ‘A’ graders but with a terror of adults and the world more generally? I hear that when they reach Varndean and Bhasvic they experiment with hair colour and vintage clothing, but they remain worlds apart from the home-made aesthetic and organic street cool that the kids from Northbrook College cultivate. And it might be years before we could have a conversation. I move on.
I sidle up to another group of 3 teens who seem to be lulling their talking. I’m determined to go after a youth demographic today. The middle one is loud, looks like a talker and unafraid of a stranger’s approach. The orange fake nails, fishnets and boots with parka, and messy corkscrew curls speak of boldness and Northbrook. The trio laugh a unified and instinctive response to the question: “No! No way!”
One says, “I feel bad saying this – I grew up here, but ….”. “Yeah, it was a nice place to grow up”, suggests the friend, “But now ….” The third tries to mitigate their strong reaction (making things worse, actually) with, “Older people? Maybe it’s a nice place for older people?” Bless them, they’re laughing in acknowledgement of how awful that sounded, but they’re not worrying if I might be offended as an ‘older person’, in their keenness to help me out with some further thoughts beyond their initial horrified and unified, “No!” Coming to seriousness, the quietest of the three offers, “I want to see more, do more; I feel like Worthing can’t offer me what I need. Career-wise and all that”. They all nod. We chat about possibilities of spending time away and doing the London or Brighton life and then maybe coming back post-30 to Worthing. Their last word is an interesting encapsulation, pronounced gently and in laughter, but perfectly hitting the mood of all three of these creative, ambitious kids: “My heart belongs in Worthing, but I feel like I deserve more”.