Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How thrilled does 'Bressie' look being photographed with his Middle Aged Lady Novelist Fan? My husband said I look like his ventriloquist dummy and I have to agree. Please note not one - but TWO pairs of identical glasses. Suffice to say I have burned the coat and the beige cardigan and ditched the hat. NOT my finest fashion moment. 

When it comes to teenagers, we adults have very short memories. Teenage culture has always been at a slight remove from society and every one of us has gone through the silent, angry rebellion of wanting to be an adult while still feeling as emotionally needy as a child. 
Being young is a time of transition, of challenging the adult world and it is only made harder by the fact that society is built on the conventions of certainty and security. Even though we were all young once - we fear teenagers for the challenges they present to us – the mirror they hold up to our own failings as parents and society.
In my own twenties, I was editor of the teen magazine Just Seventeen and as such became a public spokesperson for my readers. I loved giving teenage girls a voice and the whole experience of working with them made me realise how harshly society judges its young. However, that was a long time ago, and I am now a crotchety middle-aged woman. From the remove of my quiet family life in a small country town it seems to me that we have produced a teenage generation of spoiled, promiscuous drunks. I really its not true because my eldest son is ten years old and will soon be moving among them so when a local branch of the Irish youth organisation Foróige invited me to their Band On The Strand gig – I decided to go along and see what the teens of today get up to. 
My fourteen-year-old niece refused to join me. It seems my nagging has resulted in my demotion from beloved auntie to judgmental, interfering old cow and no amount of begging would convince her that I would not be following her around for the night trying to persuade her to put on a coat. Even the attendance of Irish popstar ‘Bressie’ who was headlining could not sway her. However, I decided that this was my chance to be a bit of a teenager myself and pursue my mild crush on The Voice hunk.
For the first time in it’s nine-year history the Band on The Strand organisers were providing overnight camping for the kids. Anne-Marie Thompson who runs the Post Office in Lacken said I could park my campervan nearby and join them all for breakfast in the morning. She had clearly lost her mind. Teenagers? Camping? All together in a marquee?
The invite they sent me kept stressing ‘alcohol-free’ but I could just not even begin to imagine how they were going to keep control of the situation. Teenagers drink these days. It’s what they do – everybody knows that. They’d get it in somehow. It would surely be bedlam – a marauding teenage drink/sex fest.
I arrived as the first band Children of The Sun were about halfway through their set. It had been a dry, sunny day and the beautiful stretch of beach - Lacken Strand where the gig was being held was still bright. Across the dunes I could see a massive stage flanked with burger vans and bouncy castles.
I parked the van on a verge next to the long camping marquee – and walked across the shallow grasslands towards the broad beach and a thousand buzzing teenagers. The kids were all cordoned off into a barriered zone in front of the stage, flanked throughout by adults in high-viz vests. The kids had to walk down a security path to get to the stage and entertainment area. Everything was open and everyone visible - no hidden corners for troublemakers or dealers to lurk in. The adult presence didn’t seem to interfere with the kid’s excitement and the atmosphere was electric. I walked down in amongst the fray and felt instantly surrounded by all the energy and excitement of youth. These kids were high on life. They were out, in their hot pants and their hoodies and their Day-Glo socks and they were buzzing – just with the thrill of being alive and being together. Three passionate longhaired young teens were pumping out music from the stage and while the kids at the front were dancing, others further back were just milling about and chatting. The age group was twelve to seventeen and the boys looked way younger than the girls. I saw one or two young boys who reminded me of my ten-year-old son wandering the crowd looking a bit lost and I felt briefly compelled to scoop them up. The music was so great I wanted to dance. The air was so infused with the possibility of youth that I wanted to cry.  The truth is I felt overwhelmed by the intense positive energy around me. We forget how hard it is being young but we also forget how great it can be; the adventure of the world opening up to you – those first exhilarating steps of freedom. Then there was the kissing. All around me teenage boys had their hands nervously planted on the hot-panted bottoms of teenage girls as they kissed in that peculiar way teens do; their lips locked, their heads barely moving. Far from finding it appalling as I thought I would, they looked rather funny and sweet – and very innocent. It seemed very normal to me that these young ‘kissers’ should just being left to get on with it in full view rather than sneaking off to the dangerous corners my generation was more familiar with.
I went over to the volunteer tent to queue for my tea and sandwiches and got chatting to Sean Campbell The CEO of Foróige. No drink – he told me – was a major key in ensuring the success of these events. ‘Even if the volunteers go away for a week with the kids – there is no drink the whole time. We have to set an example - show young people they can enjoy themselves without it.’
His attitude was refreshing. ‘Learn to drink responsibly’ is the best we can do when it comes to a national mantra around alcohol abuse. But what does that actually mean? The implication is that drinking alcohol is such an important and integral part of life that it’s essential you learn to do it ‘properly’. Not doing it at all is rarely presented as an option. As a non-drinker people often express astonishment that I am able to socialise ‘normally’ without the aid of alcohol. If I was a teenager being told by my mother not to drink – yet I knew she needed half-a bottle of wine inside her in order to be able to get up and dance at a wedding would I listen to her line of reasoning? Our drink culture remains juvenile into adulthood. ‘I got hammered last night,’ people complain when they get hangovers, ‘I just can’t do it any more.’  Nobody ever says ‘I don’t want to do this any more because it’s pointless and makes me stupid and boring.’  We continue to aspire to drinking too much into parenthood – sending our kids the message that drinking is fun.
Small wonder they want to go out and drink as soon as they can. It’s do as I say not do as I do.

At half ten I was called away for my audience with Bressie along with a selected group of teens. I tried to work myself up into frenzy of infatuation but while he’s a nice young man who is sometimes on the telly I discovered that the teen gene couldn’t undo the jading of forty-odd years – so I remained underwhelmed.
However watching the kids go crazy when he came on stage picked me up again.
At one am when the gig was over, the sky lit up with a massive firework display. Nearly two thousand kids raised their faces to the sky in sober silence gasping at the show.  The fireworks bought this celebration of life to a dramatic and significant close. The adults had invested hard work (an money) to bring this night together but they did all this because they believe the kids are worth it – and you know what? They really are.

At the end of a long night the teens were still high on energy and excitement. They were hugging and chatting and being so sweet to each other outside the camping marquee. There would be no sleep got and all the adults looked thoroughly knackered already but I could totally understand why they wanted to be there. I had forgotten that being around teenagers is actually really good fun.
I slept in my campervan next to a marquee full of three hundred hyped-up teens. Nobody banged on the roof of my van or rocked it in the middle of the night as has happened at other festivals I’ve been to. In the morning we all feasted, bleary eyed on breakfast rolls and tea in paper cups.
Honestly - I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night out like it.
It occurred to me then that if a volunteer organisation can organise an event like this for kids – why can’t the rock promoters? The answer, of course, is that the promoter’s motivation is making money and Foróige’s priority is the kids’ welfare.
If only there was some way of combining the two.


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