On 7 Up and personal (hi)stories

Since the hype around the new film Boyhood, I’ve been reminded of the famous long-running ‘Up series’ of documentaries that started with ‘7 Up’ in the 60s and followed its real-life cast every seven years from then onwards. We’ve been watching them from the beginning over the last week or two and there’s nothing quite like them, and nothing to prepare you for how it’s going to make you feel, watching them.

In 1964, a group of 14, seven-year-old kids from different parts of the country and different socio-economic backgrounds were interviewed on camera about their lives and opinions. Their parents aren’t shown at all, and the resulting black and white film is an odd mix of public information footage and Noel’s House Party, as the kids goof around, undoing the pomposity of the questioner and playing up to the camera pointed at them. It’s highly entertaining and interesting, as well as heart-rending (‘in the playground, we observe the children from the children’s home playing at building a house’…) The kids were asked how they felt about their own social class, what sorts of things they enjoyed at school, their love lives (!), what they wanted to do when they grew up. But when this footage is called back to in each subsequent episode, and the questions are asked again of the children as they grow, mini histories within historical footage, you will start to get goosebumps.

The film maker revisits these children every seven years from this point on, and the documentaries are still being made, still following the same people on their path through life, with each episode getting longer as the flashbacks to previous episodes build on themselves and take on subtly different significance. You watch these lives like a movie, some take extraordinary directions, some less so. You’re always looking for the arc. It’s clear we’re only getting a tiny sliver of reality held together by cameras and storytelling, but we are also witnessing something absolutely real from a detached, god’s eye view; it’s slightly discomforting to remember these people are alive and out there.

Watching the films in a short space of time is particularly uncanny; you experience these lives almost as part of a sci-fi narrative. They live in a series of presents, leaping forward seven years at a time like victims of some terrible curse. You can’t help noticing the years etching and bloating them, indeed that seems to be the true subject, and you find you admire those who’ve remained serene throughout and fearing for those who can’t get a foothold – whose lives, despite the storyteller’s best efforts, don’t have a narrative that makes any sense. It is ostensibly an analysis of class in England, but it’s much more than that.

These people get recognised in the streets. If I ran into them I wouldn’t feel like I’d met someone from my own time or my own world, I’d feel I’d met someone from history who was somehow sustaining an existence outside of their strange accelerated life pods. I’d feel I’d met an escapee from the Truman Show.

There are pages and pages I could write about this series, but rather than run my mouth off about it, I would highly recommend watching it yourself if you get the chance to. It’ll make you think about, and probably appreciate, a great deal of what you have, and if you’re about my age, it’ll make you think about your parents’ generation and how their childhood, their teens, their youth – is not ancient history, it’s just a few sevens ago.

Seven years doesn’t sound like a lot, and of course it stands for less, the older one gets. But a great deal can happen in that space of time. I tried to picture myself in the shoes of the interviewees and imagine what I’d have had to say and how I’d have come across on camera, had a film crew descended on me at those intervals – but I was surprised to realise I couldn’t immediately think where I was at seven, fourteen or twenty one. That unsettled me.

My past is quite complicated, not just emotionally (whose isn’t?) but in terms of things like geography and residence. It is such a jumble that I don’t have many reliable memories that I can tie to particular places or times, and as a result, I’m not always sure what structure I’m built on, it seems so unstable sometimes. At 35, one of the people in the film says, “Nothing much has changed for me since you filmed me at 28”, and I felt envious of that and understood why there was such contentment in her voice. Now that I, too, am middle-aged, I haven’t got used to things changing; I have not accepted that life is a twisty backpacking journey of endless upheaval. I don’t think I’ll ever accept that, even though it’s all I’ve really known. It is simply not exciting as a prospect, wobbling around on a thing built on sand makes me queasy. And at my age, I have fundamentally had enough of feeling queasy. I just don’t have the energy for it anymore.

Getting your story straight is a powerful thing. Every time I write a new talk I have to think what the story is; what will be the angle and argument that I won’t deviate from, this time. It’s always got to be true, so it’s just a case of working out what I believe, because what we believe is simply what is true to us. It isn’t easy because I am not a natural storyteller, but it is satisfying, and it is how you communicate importance – stories hanging off a recognisable frame are the language of conviction.

There are moments when you can see some of the 7 Up people getting their own stories straight, aided by the structure of the interviews, perhaps, but also as a useful and deliberate exercise – as something they’re doing to help themselves. There are things we all tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from, stories that are more or less consistent with outside perception of how we are, and more or less indestructible.

Watching these shows, I’ve found myself yearning for that. I hit a wall on even the most rudimentary questions about my past, and it’s always caused social obstacles. Where are you from? How do you see the future? Because the future transforms itself out of the past I struggle with all these questions, anything that tries to find commonality – that amounts to: “What’s your story?”

I get so bored of the current ‘communication’ or ‘agency’ world obsession with stories and personal brands, because to have a story of your own is to have a direction, and it is a sort of privilege. I have no intuition for them, because I don’t have one, because my complicated background precludes it, because sometimes you have to write your own, and sometimes that’s bloody hard because if it doesn’t involve the right archetypes and the typical progressions and all the things people recognise and understand, plotted on the correct arc, then no one else is trained in its language. At best, that kind of story – a story with no larger-than-life characters or arcs – is incomprehensible, at worst it’s just dull.

The ‘Up series’ is backward-looking, “Where have they been since the last film?”, but most of us don’t have a media record of our lives. Some of us don’t even have a reliable memory record. Despite the benefits of a clearly defined history, its absence means we are free to start again with what we have today, because if our story didn’t have its main characters or plot established years ago, it’s all there for us to write ourselves. And maybe, in fact, that’s a pretty good way to create our own narratives – not thinking in terms of where we’ve been, but where we’re going next.

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