My 14-year-old self's 'Johnny Cade', still suffering the indignities of 30+ years of sticky tape on the back of the paper behind his lovely nose.
S.E. Hinton's book 'The Outsiders' is 50 years old today, and I read it when I was 13. I watched the film about a year later, and was so entranced by it I wanted to live in it - just as I did when I read Wuthering Heights some years later, the response to which formed the bedrock of what I do for a living, and the resulting output, to date.
The book follows two rival groups, the Greasers and the Socs (pronounced as 'Sew-shes' - short for Socials), who are divided by their socioeconomic status. Written by a teenage Susan Hinton living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and inspired by her own experiences, the story is told in first-person narrative by Ponyboy Curtis, and it is his family and group of friends whom the book follows to tragic and hopeful conclusion. The Frances Ford Coppola film version was an early who's-who of the brat pack - C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane, and further installed the book in my artillery of life-changing fiction, which I was to draw on, literally and figuratively, for years to come.
My school year were doing a whole year on 'Prejudice' when I read The Outsiders, and the book dovetailed conveniently with its themes - I didn't know any black people, and tried to write stories based around the only black public figure I could relate to, Joe Leeway from the Thompson Twins - so while people were writing about colour and race riots, I was exploring poor kids and punks, music-based rivalries and eyeliner-wearing New Romantics, and the real-life news stories of the attacks, bullying and confusion they were being met with.
The Outsiders is a classic tale of haves and have-nots, injustice, poverty, fear, love and loyalty; of loss and recovery. It shares those qualities with thousands of other stories, but The Outsiders were my age, or very close, and I knew bad kids and sad ones and ones whose parents treated them very badly; ones who were skint and others who never fitted in. I couldn't possibly know what Tulsa was like, but as a teenager it was also my ambition to 'live in America', so this one wove a very tangible, sticky spell over the bright but impressionable, shy but mouthy, uncertain but ambitious small me.
I even went to the local record shop, and learned early that the sneering that can result from girls asking for obscure things in record shops was going to become a feature of my adult life; the gruesomely aloof chain-smoking assistant at the counter, I observed, was a FELLOW FEMALE as she sneered at my request for ‘So Gold’ by Stevie Wonder, its end credit theme tune (she was younger than me too, you can’t behave like that under school-year hierarchy rules, can you? Should she even have been working there? Or smoking? So many questions.) I illustrated the book, and wrote a ‘sequel’ in Jonny’s voice, listening to ‘Gloria’ by Them — I didn’t even like Them. It took months for me to stop thinking about Johnny burning to death in the church.
Only a few books really did this: made me want to live inside a person or time, to have their experience and somehow change the outcome of what I'd read (which I suppose is what drives people to write, in the end). How did it feel to have a burning roof joist fall on your back? To sit under the stars smoking (I hadn't yet taken up smoking, not for a couple of years), or see your friend's brother shot dead? To fight in the street? All of things were fascinatingly alien to me, growing up in a quiet working class Midlands household with no guns, yet somehow I knew if I tried hard enough by drawing and writing I could SOMEHOW, somehow 'become' them.
It wasn't true of course, but the solitary daydreaming drawaholic 14 year old really believed it, and the urge to get inside stories and fictional people has driven me ever since. Part of me wishes for a life where I could spend an entire day reading, or watch film after film and just doodle and not have to generate money to pay bills, but I know that's not a possibility.
For now, at least.
PS: Years later, around 2004/5, I seized the opportunity to render Robert Frost's poem 'Nothing Gold Can Stay', featured heavily in the book, on the big white wall of a client's office for an exhibition there. Cheeky really, it had no bearing on any sort of theme...I just bent the brief to my own whims: