This week’s Something Understood gives voice to people who I reckon are rarely heard on radio. Teenagers. The readings are all done by young actors and much of the music and poetry you’ll hear was written by them, or about that remarkable time in our lives.
We reflect on the surprisingly enduring template of the original teenager: There’s the 50s/early 60s dawn of the teen as captured in John Waters’ original, self-aware and comic Hairspray and its forerunner Girl Trouble as much as James Dean’s earnest Rebel Without A Cause.
Janis Ian’s anthem for ugly ducklings everywhere At Seventeen is no surprise, while Cat Stevens’ The Wind captures the solemnity and earnestness of young poets and musicians. But I’ve enjoyed re-visiting Claude Tardat’s Sweet Death – the acclaimed French satire I first encountered as a teenager myself, about a brilliant young student rebelling against her mother’s bourgeois perfection by – quel horreur – gorging herself to obese death.
Novelle Vague’s version of Teenage Kicks keeps up the French presence in our exploration of le Teenager. And Maxim Leo’s Red Love – gives a fascinating insight into an East German coming of age just before the Wall fell. It’s been one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years and an important reminder of the power of state brainwashing on impressionable minds. I take the opportunity to recommend it highly again now. But America – home of the Hollywood teen also offers up John Steinbeck, a rare adult permitted in this story with his delightful advice to his son.
Time constraints meant we had to lose a great section on the Harlem Renaissance with music by Chick Webb who came to New York at the age of 17, and a reading from a teenage school story with a difference: – Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bum about a girl who “passes” for white.
But Alom Shaha – author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook and Peter Capaldi’s Letter To My Younger Self (a terrific Big Issue feature when celebrities reflect on themselves at 16) are the highlights. Shaha generously agreed to talk to me about taking responsibility for his younger siblings when he was just 13, after his mother died.
He’s a wonderful example of how keeping in touch with one’s inner teen makes for the best kind of grown up. And Capaldi’s honest reflections on how he burned all his geek treasures as a teen, including signed photos and memorabilia from Peter Cushing “because I didn’t want to be a geek and I regret it to this day” – is a moving reminder that plenty of bullies may have jumped on the geek-chic wagon, but there is an inherent cruelty against the young, the sensitive and the different that mainstream society continues to reward.
There’s a Spotify list of music here used in the programme, plus a few extras to get you in the mood to get back in touch with your own inner teen.