January 31, 2020 | Feature
moving on up
looking for post-grad advice in a 56-year-old docuseries
“When I grow up, I want to…learn about the moon and all that.” This is Nick, a seven-year-old from the Yorkshire Dales, who only minutes earlier was shown clomping in a comically tall pair of rainboots toward the one-room schoolhouse that provides the interior for this shot. Nick is the only child in his village (except for his younger brothers), and much of the camera’s time with him is spent panning over the rolling hills and imposing cliffs that he explores in place of playgrounds. This landscape dwarfs Nick’s body, and yet he walks on, resolute. Little does he know, in 21 years, he would be a nuclear physicist.
The Up series began in 1964 when director Paul Almond and 22-year-old researcher Michael Apted scoured English schools looking for children from disparate backgrounds. Inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” their initial documentary, Seven Up!, set out to suggest that children’s socioeconomic backgrounds would predetermine their paths in life. Almond left the project after the first episode, but Apted, harboring his own directorial ambitions, decided to continue following the same 14 subjects every seven years and filming updates from their lives. The most recent installment, whose participants are now 63 years old, aired in June 2019 on British television and is now in some American theaters.
I watched the back catalog over winter break, initially hoping for an interesting sociological study of the country I had recently spent a year living in. What I got instead was a meandering meditation on what it means to live a good life.
A good life is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. I am about to graduate college. I have applied to a few graduate programs, a smattering of jobs. I have mostly been whipping myself into a froth worrying about how to pursue the most ethical path in life while also making enough to pay rent. I have envisioned a vague sort of future with a family of my own and at least one pet. I cannot decide if I want to live in the city or the country, but I know I want a house whose walls are lined with books, one that calms me when I walk in. I say all of this to say that I don’t know—at least concretely—what I want out of my life. So I watched other people live theirs.
Apted’s pool is admittedly narrow. A mere four of his 14 interviewees are women, and the cohort includes only one person of color. All appear to be straight, or are at least shown in heterosexual partnerships if they don’t remain single. Yet there remains something profound to be gained from sneaking a peek into someone’s life every seven years. We see marriage and divorce, birth and death, hardship and happiness. The series spans Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, Tony Blair’s New Labour, and the 2008 financial crash, exploring their resultant impacts on people’s livelihoods. The series does not deny that structural factors impact the way we move through the world—those most severely affected by the crash, for example, are the working-class interviewees. But the Up series is more than a straightforward longitudinal study. It invites us to contemplate the ins and outs of human life and, ultimately, to recognize that we are, each of us, full of something greater than the statistics which scaffold our experiences.
Humans are remarkably resilient, I thought while watching, and this is largely due to our relationships with one another. Neil, who at seven declared his ambition to be an astronaut (“or if I can’t be an astronaut, I think I’ll be a coach driver”) was homeless at 28 due to a persistent “nervous complaint.” Bruce, a former boarding school boy and fellow participant in the program, took Neil in sometime during the interval between 35 Up and 42 Up. At 42, Neil appeared to be back on his feet, and had been elected as a city councilor to the London borough of Hackney. When Bruce married a fellow teacher shortly before the filming of 42 Up, Neil gave a reading at the wedding. I think about the weddings whose invitations will soon flood my mailbox, wherever I’m living. I think about my friends here, that one day soon we’re not all going to live together, and that we may never live together again. I think about our future spouses and children, and how I want them to know each other like I have known their mothers. I hope we all land where we want to, but I also hope that if we don’t, we’ll have the strength to pick each other back up.
The strangest episode for me to watch was the third, 21 Up, because I am now 21, if only for a few more weeks. Suzy, smoking sardonically in an armchair, is confident that she does not like children and does not want to marry. Having witnessed her parents’ divorce, she feels cynical about the whole process: “I think it kills what love is; it just seems to go wrong.” At 28, though, she is married with two young boys and muses that it has made her a much happier person. At 56, she is still married to the same man.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Neil is highly critical of his upbringing in the church. From the London flat he is squatting in, he tells Apted that he was taught “if one was to survive in the world, one had to believe in God,” yet finds himself leaning toward agnosticism. It’s hard to imagine that by his forties he will have embraced his faith and become a lay minister. Our perceptions of the world and our place in it can change dramatically; what we hold as pillars of our identities now may crumble in seven years. Like Neil says when asked what he thought of himself being “all bright and perky” at age seven: “It’s hard to believe I was ever like that, but there’s the evidence” on video. I likely wouldn’t have been picked as a participant at age seven—I was so painfully shy. I wanted to be a veterinarian so badly I woke up at six every Saturday to watch the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. I was brave enough to write to Sesame Street to correct Elmo’s grammar that same year, though. I probably wouldn’t do either now, but under the right circumstances, I can still imagine myself doing both.
These 21-year-olds seemed more set in their ways than their 56-year-old counterparts, which made me wonder just how much I will have let go by 56 that I hold to be true now. Perhaps then I will have weathered enough change to learn that I can’t stop it from happening, no matter how steadfastly I will everything to stay the same.
I recognize that I am dealing in platitudes. Relationships are important. Change is inevitable. These are not the most electric sentences, but their meanings are clear. Platitudes are maligned because they are so often repeated, but they are repeated so much because, in some fundamental way, they are true. Sometimes the best way to say something is also the easiest.
Here is another: We are the authors of our own stories. We cannot know everything about anyone else, and making assumptions does no one any good. In one of the most powerful moments of the entire series, Jackie, one of three women from London’s East End, criticizes Apted for his treatment of their stories. Aged 49, Jackie recalls a scene from 21 Up in which Apted asks her and her friend Lynn whether they feel like they’d dated enough men before getting married. “I thought that was an insulting question, and I got very angry, and we actually had to stop filming because of it,” she tells Apted in 49 Up before pointing out that the upper-class boys would never have been asked that type of question. “This is your idea of what you want to do, and how you see us, and that’s how you portray us,” Jackie says. Indeed, for the rest of the interview at 21, she can be seen staring steely-eyed at the floor.
It is tempting to look at a child and hunt for hints of their future. It is exciting when such predictions work out. And yet, what we hope for others more truthfully reflects what we hope for ourselves.
We may devote ourselves to something for decades only for it not to work out. This terrifies me. But as the Up series demonstrates, in some instances, unforeseen obstacles can divert us toward a path that turns out to be rewarding in its own right. Nick immigrated to the United States to do nuclear fusion research, only to fail time and again before he was forced to abandon the project altogether. Yet he has retained a post as an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin since the early 1980s, and scenes of him in front of a blackboard show undergraduates laughing at his jokes as he gestures wildly and smiles, clearly full of passion for his profession. Before becoming a London cabbie, Tony dreamt of being a jockey and apprenticed at a stable at age 14. He rode in just three races before realizing he lacked the skills of his competitors, but still calls his race with famous jockey Lester Piggott one of the proudest moments of his life. I hope one day I can learn to let go with as much grace.
“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” Virginia Woolf once wrote. Rather, it is “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” There is much to be learned from this sentiment (yes, more than the fact that I’m writing an English thesis). The Up series has reminded me to notice the light my gig lamps cast, to recognize how much brighter it gets when I stop trying to put them in order. I’m trying to trust that I, too, am wrapped in an envelope of possibility, even if it’s too transparent for me to fully see just yet. Seven years from now, 28-year-old me is cringing at these metaphors. In another universe, 56 years from now, a 63-year-old woman is laughing at both of us.