7 Minute read

AofA People: Lucy O’Brien – Writer/Academic

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7 Minute Read

What is your name?

Lucy O’Brien

Age

57

Where do you live?

Harlesden, NW London

What do you do?

I’m a writer and academic. I’ve just published an updated edition of my book Madonna: Like An Icon, an in-depth portrait of Madonna, including over 70 interviews with friends, musicians, dancers, film-directors, choreographers. I wanted to get to the heart of what motivates her as a woman and an artist – the private as well as public Madonna. She has just had her 60th birthday, and now is a great time to think about her cultural impact. She deals with ageing in her own inimitable, defiant way!

I also wrote She Bop, the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (now in three editions), and biographies of Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox. And I teach popular music studies at the University of West London. I have some lovely, very engaged BA and MA students.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I’m not just saying that. I am happier now than I have ever been. For six years I was in a very stressful job, commuting three hours a day and waking up at 4am thinking about emails I hadn’t sent. Then a year ago I decided to leave, even though I didn’t have another job to go to. It felt like taking a skydive – really terrifying. I went back to full-time writing, I finished my PhD (I am now a Doctor!!!), and I updated my Madonna book.

Just when I started to feel the financial pressure as a freelancer, I started applying for teaching work. I was offered a full-time Course Leader job, but turned it down because the thought of it just made me feel stressed! Then part-time teaching came up at UWL. I love it there, and feel that finally, finally (after 30 years?) I have got that work/life balance.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Peace of mind. Seriously. Peace of mind is not easy…I feel that I have worked for it. At 25 I was ambitious but troubled. There were so many things I wanted to achieve in life, and so many things I needed to work out. But now I have two beautiful, funny teenage children, my husband Malcolm who is also my best friend, and fulfilment as a writer. And passing my PhD viva on my birthday two weeks ago (great birthday present!) felt like the culmination of a long period of hard work and thought. 

And what about sex?

Sex gets better after menopause. I know people say that but it is absolutely true. I feel I understand what it means to be a woman. I didn’t really understand that until I was 50.

And relationships?

Relationships are more complicated and deeper, with friends and family. I have good friends that I have known for years. I’ve been married 20 years and enjoy sharing my life with Malcolm, and growing with him. In the last ten years though many friends and family members have died. A lot of friends my age, which is mad – shouldn’t we be the healthy generation? But the losses make you appreciate life SO MUCH. It’s a cliche, but life is really too short to waste time doing things that make you feel unhappy. My rule of thumb is, I will do the work I want, with people I like, as much as possible. And why not? After years of senseless government austerity I feel that too ENJOY LIFE is a political act!

How free do you feel?

Very free – because I’ve worked for it. I have spent a year meditating, thinking, writing, talking to people, going on courses, working out my finances and gradually, gradually getting to a point where I can truly be who I am. It’s about following your instinct. The American psychologist and writer Ralph Metzner calls it ‘alchemical divination’. Following your instinct at every point – even if it doesn’t make sense rationally or professionally – is the way to go.

What are you proud of?

My family – Malcom and my two kids. And my doctorate. Scholarly recognition was a huge thing for me.

What keeps you inspired?

Music, literature (I love reading memoirs), looking at the trees against the sky. My kids’ jokes. Watching them grow and get enthused and passionate about things.

When are you happiest?

Laughing with my kids. If everything is all right with them, then I’m happy. And doing my work – being caught up in writing, when the words and thoughts flow. That’s when I feel like I am truly me.

And where does your creativity go?

My creativity now goes into my writing and thinking. I appreciate that so much, because for ten years I was working mainly for money to pay the mortgage. I was working for The Man!! That kind of work is overrated. I was in management and slowly dying inside, bit by bit by bit. I knew I had to get out for my spirit (and body, frankly) to survive.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Trust, trust in yourself. And when you don’t know what you think or feel, or you’re not sure what you think or feel, don’t stress it. Don’t try too hard. Go to bed and ask for help. Just ask for help to them out there. Whoever they are. They might be God, or a guardian angel, or loved ones who have passed away, or a spiritual energy. Whoever it is, just ask. And as you fall asleep, listen. And as you wake up, listen. That’s my philosophy of living. 

And dying?

God, the big one. I don’t have a philosophy of dying, because I’m terrified of it. I have so much that I want to do and I can’t pack it all into this life! So I guess I’ll just have to do what I can, and love the people I’m with, and hope for the best.

Are you still dreaming?

Yes, all the time. I love dreaming. I love sitting and thinking and realising. No one tells you that as you get older you get amazing wisdom. Every day you understand something about the past, or a friend, or a conversation. Every day there are moments of, Oh God, yes, why didn’t I realise that before? And it keeps happening. It’s the trade-off for being less physically agile, I guess.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

Six months ago I went to see spoken word group The Last Poets at the British Library. They pretty much invented rap music – they have such presence and charisma. While I was standing there watching I had a vision in my head of me wearing a black Last Poets T-shirt, my hair short and blonde, talking to a crowd. At the time of the gig, my hair was in a long red bob. So I went to the merchandising stall and bought a T-shirt, and the following week I got my hair cut short and dyed bright blonde. I reminded me of my young punk self!

Then in July, I was presenting a paper in Porto University, Portugal for KISMIF, a big international music conference. On the day of my talk, I wasn’t sure what to wear. I remembered the vision, and put on my Last Poets T-shirt. I then went and addressed a theatre of over 200 people and killed it – talking about punk and DIY and feminism, and why these ideas still mattered. Afterwards, people kept coming up to me the whole day saying how inspired they were by my talk. That to me was my outrageous action because it made me feel so empowered.

  • Come and join me on October 15th for LIKE AN ICON, a night of conversation and music. I’ll be talking with writer Daryl Easlea and signing copies of my Madonna book.
  • Lo fi duo Radio Rubbish will be playing a live set ‘tackling the most ambitious Madonna pop epics with as few instruments as possible’!

7.30pm; Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX.

Tickets £6 advance from Eventbrite.co.uk (LIKE AN ICON) https://www.facebook.com/events/2252985441397250/

About Advantages of Age

Challenging the media narrative around ageing, Advantages of Age has been created to celebrate being over 45. So if you feel that getting older has its benefits and want to be inspired by what you read, sign up and get involved. We welcome submissions.

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