AGE INSIDE: Iain Banks

Iain Banks, author
b. 16 February 1954
Age inside: Between 18 and 25 – let’s say 22.

[NB: Re-reading this interview, conducted at Iain and Adele’s kitchen table after an overnight visit filled with laughter and goofy DVDs, makes me feel sad — especially its final lines. We spoke in all innocence, several years before Iain’s diagnosis, when he was in robust health.]

I think I look my age, but I don’t think anyone feels their age. In some ways, I feel between 18 and 25. It’s when you started to feel like your own individual entity, rather than part of a family unit. It’s a lot to do with when you first really felt comfortable with yourself. Especially if you go to university – when you get out of there – bang! – it’s like being launched. The world is yours.

It was about stopping feeling callow. Having gone through the teenage awkwardness and coming to terms with yourself as a functioning adult. And getting laid, obviously, helps a lot. Not so much having sex for the first time, but realising that you are attractive to the opposite sex. I think a lot of guys, and probably girls as well, have that fear: ‘No one’s going to fancy me.’ But especially, as a guy, because girls mature so much faster. You see these people the same age and go, ‘God, these are women! I’m just a boy!’

So partly it’s that you can have a sex life – and you have this glorious awakening realising that women also like having sex and might like you enough to let you into their bodies. Yippee! Incredible!

It’s also that you’re being treated as an adult by other people, and also about that feeling of independence – and that’s why it makes a big difference if you go to university. You’re going to be changing so much during those years, changes you’ll go through regardless, that it makes a huge difference between people who go to university and people who don’t.

But it’s also as if you’re being held back, in one sense. I’m not dissing university. I’m for as many people going to university as can, and for having it made cheaper for them, as well, but you’re essentially being held back, because you’re not really a fully functioning adult until you’re out in the world.

As a kid I had a vague feeling that it would be nice to be older, because you get more freedom. There was the feeling that being older meant you got more privileges. You always wanted to be the oldest in the school, when you were the top dog. You were starting to be treated as an adult, to some extent, by the teachers, especially in Sixth year, because it’s a stepping stone towards university and you are expected to be self motivating.

I was spoiled at home as an only child and I felt – I didn’t realise then, but looking back, I felt completely loved and made to feel special and completely protected. It’s been a long slow realisation and one that, in a sense, is still going on. Every time I read about someone who’s had an abused childhood or has been through a hell of a lot, it still makes me realise how different my childhood was. My home was my sanctuary. Mum and Dad were my pals.

But imagine that for a lot of people home is a place of fear. I still find that hard to get my head around. I was used to being treated extra special. If Mum had three bits of steak, Dad would say, ‘Oh give the boy the best bit because he’s still growing.’ I was the most special person in the family, so having to get along with the normal cut and thrust of a school class – you are obviously subject to the hierarchy and defer to the bigger, older boys.

A lot of my ideas about being grown up related to stuff I wanted to avoid. Being a grown up was almost defined by negatives. I always knew I wanted to be a writer and that writers didn’t behave normally. I never wanted to be a father, despite the loving example at home. I didn’t want to get married, to be honest. I did, in the end, but it was about reassurance more than anything else. And it didn’t work.

One thing I did want was to leave home, though I was dead lucky – my room was kept for me! I remember saying to one of my first girlfriends that it would be great to have your own place because you could eat whatever you want to and you could control your own surroundings. Yet I never wanted to own a house. Having a mortgage seemed too much of an imposition, and I thought the only way to own a house outright was if you won the football pools.

The other thought always at the back of my mind was that I’d never truly feel adult until I became what I wanted to be, which was a published writer. I knew that was going to be some time in the future – though I didn’t know it was going to be when I was 30! I’d hoped it was going to be earlier than that. The Wasp Factory was published on the day of my 30th birthday.

On occasions I did think what if I don’t? Then I will have to settle down and get a proper career. I always imagined I’d still write as a hobby, but it would have been a real acceptance of defeat if I couldn’t have done it. In one sense, when it did happen, it was almost the start of my real life, though that’s not the same as my age inside.

That is linked to this time of freedom, when you’re not controlled by your parents; you’re not controlled by the educational establishment; you’re just starting out but you still don’t have all the responsibilities and the ties to a fully functioning adult life, which often does contain politics and proper serious relationships and often children as well. It’s the interregnum, as it were, when you really are at your most free.

I’ve never had that absurd dread of ‘the big 3-0, the big 4-0’. I just think, ‘Let’s have a big party!’ The only thing that has made a difference, and I’ve joked about this: you know you’re really getting old when it’s not the policemen who look young, it’s the judges who look young!

It was realising that Tony Blair is the same age as me. Someone in a position of power – whether they’re good or bad, they’ve worked themselves up that particular greasy pole, and done it at the same age that you are! And at one point, watching Wimbledon, realising that you’re older than all the main players. The same with footballers. You start realising, ‘Oh god, I’m older than all my heroes.’ Because as a kid, all your heroes are older than you.

And romantic leads now, they’re nothing like the same age! So authority figures, media people, it gradually kicks in, and that’s probably the single most affecting and important signifier to me of encroaching age, comparing yourself to people that I think of as being in positions of prestige.

I also think every generation faces a steeper curve, in terms of feeling their age. I’ve talked for years about science fiction being the most important genre, because it’s the only one dealing with the effects of technological change on human beings, and on society as a whole.

Ever since the industrial revolution, this has been of absolutely vital importance. Before that, for the average person, the society that you died in was almost exactly the same as the one that you were born in. There could be catastrophes and invasions and disease and all that, but the technological base of society didn’t really change. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, that has changed. And we’ve got much longer lives. Someone born at the time of the Wright Brothers’ first flight could survive long enough to be a grandmother or grandfather flying across the Atlantic in a 747.

It’s an incredible pace of change. Even though we don’t have floating cities or even a moon base, nevertheless, the pace of technological change is still accelerating. For every successive generation, the gap between what you get used to as a child or adolescent, and what you have to cope with, technologically, when you get into the later stages of life, gets more and more difficult to cope with. Every generation is going to have to cope with more and more dissonance.

For my parents, for example, one of the major differences in their lives came from the previous generation: both of them came from very large families. Although they were Protestant rather than Catholic, they came from eight or nine, I think. That’s because the generation before, you had to have eight or nine children to make sure that one or two lived. You had to have children because who was going to look after you in your old age, if you were lucky enough to live that long? There was virtually no state support. That had changed by the time my mum and dad got married in 1950.

My mum and dad had a child before me, Martha Ann. She only lived for six weeks; she had spina bifida. My mum was advised at most have one more child, and then no more. But it was relatively safe to invest all your hope in just one child, because the benefits of nutrition, and especially the NHS, made it much more likely that your one child would grow into adulthood.

The Baby Boom generation especially is more self indulgent. We are the Me Generation. The world changed so much post war that we expected things to fall into place for us in a way that my parents’ generation didn’t. They expected gradual ageing and that things wouldn’t stay the same with better grace, I’d say. We’ve been kind of spoiled.

There’s been a tremendous shift in society – a deleterious one – toward selfishness. We live in a greedist age with people who are greedists, who believe in greedism almost as a faith. It’s vitally important we’re all as greedy and as selfish as we can possibly be. If only everyone was completely selfish, then the free market would work properly for a start, god bless its little cotton socks! If only everyone would stop being altruistic! There are people brought up with the results of Thatcherism, in whom there’s a profound difference. It’s every man or woman for themselves.

I think you have to find a balance between growing old gracefully and raging against the dying of the light. I am determined to stay as young as I can in the sense of being physically fit. I’m not a fitness fanatic but I do a bit of walking. I want to retain my mobility.

I always had this feeling that I’d have to slow down a bit when I got to around 45, and I was kind of right. I didn’t freak out when I saw my first grey hairs – I’m glad I’ve gone grey and not bald! I always knew what I was going to look like because I’m very like my dad. You can tell I’m my father’s son. Allegedly my dad turned up at the maternity hospital the day after I’d been born and a nurse who hadn’t seen him before, who had only seen me, said, ‘Ah, you must be Mr Banks.’ And I walk like he used to, we have the same gait! So I’ve always tracked my dad to see how I would wind up looking. I was relieved, as Dad got older, that even though his hair went very white and very thin, for a man who was 91 when he died, he had a head of hair.

Also, getting grey hair was ameliorated by the fact that I’ve had a beard since I was 22 or 26. It was mostly ginger or auburn, but there were always a few freak hairs: pitch black, and the occasional albino white hair. I started out life with orange hair on my head, then it went ginger, then auburn, then brown and then grey. But my beard always was a mixture of bizarre colours.

I have never thought about whether growing a beard was part of staking a claim to who I was. It’s a good question. Back then, in the late 1970s, it was just a countercultural thing to do. But my dad never really had a beard, and I’ve never shaved mine off, not even for charity.

When I was a kid there were one or two twinkle-toed uncles – not blood uncles but close family friends – who were really good at flattering ladies. You’d see these crumbly 85 year olds going, ‘Wooo hoo hoo hoo hoo!’ And for a moment, if you closed your eyes and squinted, they even looked like girls, because they’d been called girls and flirted with! It was one of the first times I found myself thinking about this very subject: what age are they inside their head? And realising, ‘My goodness, they’re still teenagers’ In almost every human being, there’s an 18 year old still in there who comes out when they’re somehow reminded of that time in their life – and it’s a lovely thing to see.

One of the things that keeps you young is being creative, because to be creative, you have to look a the world with child like eyes, and not have those filters that most people have, that come down over the years and are in some way necessary to do all the aforesaid things, such as raising a family. As a writer, or any sort of creative, you have to have a rawness to the world, and that will hopefully keep you young.

In that respect, I hope to stay as young for my years for as long as possible. I certainly intend to keep on writing essentially forever. I don’t see myself stopping at any point; I just think the intervals between books will get longer: five years, ten years – and then I’ll be dead!

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