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I might rail against the self-absorption of teenagers today, their obsession with their smartphones, addiction to social media and vain predilection for selfies. But, when it comes to sheer conceitedness, it turns out they have nothing on my fifteen-year-old self.

This I discovered when I unearthed a dusty spiralbound notebook from a broken shoebox at the back of a shelf of my childhood. My looping adolescent handwriting overflowed from every page as if the margins of the pad simply could not contain it.

And, if you know what was in the last notebooks I happened upon (eviscerated in this blog), you can imagine how my heart sank.

Surely not more maudlin poems preoccupied with mortality and saturated in self-pity? Not more lacklustre investigations of hackneyed topics like ‘My Hobby’, liberally peppered with protestations about my infamous lack of spare time?


No, here, it would appear, tellingly exposing the untruthfulness of said protestations, were word-for-word copies of letters that I had mailed to a variety of unsuspecting recipients that year.

Hmm, it would seem a fairly arduous and egotistical undertaking to have carefully transcribed my letters to my penfriends into a notebook before sending them. Even with my peculiar mania for documentation, how did I judge this to be a worthwhile use of my time?

Perhaps I kept a record in order not to repeat (or contradict) myself in subsequent letters? I choose to believe this to be the case because the alternative, that I considered them somehow worth preserving for posterity, is not something I wish to admit, even from this distance.

But, curiouser still, I shortly after stumble upon laboriously typewritten versions of these same dreary epistles. This truly does beggar belief. Especially when you consider the alleged dearth of spare time belaboured in my earlier writing efforts.

Remember, this was before we all had personal computers, laptops, mobiles, tablets and the wherewithal to not only instantly commit our most inane thoughts to posterity but blast them into the ether without forethought or further ado.

smith corona

It was before word processors. I didn’t even have an electric or electronic typewriter at the time, just an old children’s aqua blue manual Smith-Corona Petite. So this represented a lot of painstaking, time-consuming work. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite a Herculean endeavour but, believe me, my (no doubt many) spare hours could have been more profitably spent.

In the incriminating Tippex- heavy pages, I’m forever less than subtly blowing my own trumpet, while relating mundane activities and banal schoolyard exchanges with friends, but parlaying them up to sound like some kind of systematic rebellion against an unjust world. Mock exams approach and I claim to be close to a nervous breakdown. Friends get suspended for what I deem minor offences and I itch to start a revolution, not that I ever thought to mention it to anyone at the time. I never would have guessed I had such a talent for melodrama.

old car[Sister recalls that one of my (generally older male) penpals was in prison. I protest: ‘It was a mental home … at least I like to characterise it as some sort of secure facility.’ In fact, the address was a hospital, but possibly a psychiatric one, somewhere in Kent. I’ve kept his letters to me too – which mainly consist of rather too in-depth recitations of repairs he’s made to his car, sometimes with photos. This correspondent, evidently reading between the lines to conclude that it was unlikely that I’d have gone anywhere or be doing anything, had the temerity to turn up on my doorstep unannounced one Saturday. I was horrified, mortified that I’d opened the door with greasy hair and in my usual ill-fitting outmoded hand-me-downs. I probably cared more then about being unable to follow fashion, as dictated by the odd copy of My Guy I could persuade my parents to buy.]

hughIt seems I wrote letters (yes, more than one) on my sixteenth birthday, which I describe as ‘not up to much’. That’d be right. Plus ça change … no one ever made any fuss about such things in our family. At least I’m able to report that my brother’s birthday the next month is a similar non-event.

I still can’t get over the hubris behind the conservation of this woefully damning and unremarkable correspondence. Yet it does offer some insight into the image that my teenage self wished to project to outsiders, I suppose, albeit a rather disheartening and sobering one. I guess I had the chance to portray myself and my daily bland as something less monotonous and ordinary to people who would probably never meet me in person.

It’s not that the facts have been changed exactly but the complexion I put on them seeks to subtly colour and amplify their significance. And this sort of shading also affords a glimpse into my slightly weird psyche.

Thank goodness that I don’t seem to have persevered in copying these exceedingly dull letters out for that long because they are literally excruciatingly embarrassing to read through.

johnny macFull of thinly disguised criticism of others, my friends, family, etc. (for not being more like me i.e. liking the same music, TV shows, tennis players, etc.), they also feature the usual (familiar from my preteen efforts) justifications about why I’m not really doing anything (but writing in my diary and to my long-suffering penfriends and copying everything out for no good reason).

Similarly, I’ve just discovered a diary (always a heart-stopping moment) from about the same era, detailing such momentous events as trips with friends to play tennis on grass courts in Danson Park, to shops (sadly without the benefit of ready cash) at Eltham, to McDonalds and to see my grandmother in Lewisham Hospital.

It also carries the dubious honour of containing some more transcriptions of the toe-curlingly trying-too-hard-to-be-cool-when-I-was-anything-but awful letters, including one to some poor chap whom I regret to inform that I can’t take on as a penfriend.

He must have been thanking his lucky stars that day, unless he slit his wrists while reading the first part of the letter, before realising he was going to be spared future correspondence.

I break the news to him gently:

‘Well, I hope you won’t be too disappointed but I’m afraid I can’t write to you as I have already got so many penfriends that I had to pass the last one on to my sister. It wouldn’t be fair to take you on too as you’d probably never get any letters. … I’m really sorry that this was a waste of time.’

Then I think I no doubt angsted at length over leaving someone utterly heartbroken. Now, in retrospect, I imagine him ceremoniously burning the letter before doing a little dance of delighted relief around the ashes.

The diary is also replete with top tens – of men I fancy, characters in TV shows, songs I like, songs I’ve recorded amateurishly on tape (you know the ones, with the first couple of words missing and the DJ’s voice breaking in at the end), radio chart positions, boys at school … if I was interested in it, it seems I graded it into a list. And then if I heard a new song or saw a fresh prospect, I would immediately pen a new list to include them, sometimes dated just a day after the superseded one. Not sure how I found the time.

I detail entire tennis matches and plots to films that I’ve seen on TV, gushing praise for players and stars. I also went through a phase of copying out large chunks of library books I liked, with buying them out of the question due to the fact that our parents didn’t believe in pocket money.

barry tookIt’s a sad indictment of my teenage years. My whole existence was the same crashing non-event bursting at the seams with insignificance. And, if anything, the writing is worse than in my first years at grammar school, more self-conscious and less honest, perhaps partly, at least in the case of the letters, because it was written for others to read.

It seems no one was immune from my clamorous communications. I also wrote letters to French and German schoolgirl penfriends, Points of View at the BBC, the Radio Times, tennis magazines, pirate radio stations and companies who made TV adverts that I liked the music of. I know this because one was kind enough to send me a recording of the music in question, which I still have to this day and still love. (It was an advert for Long Life beer of all things.)

the queenPerhaps my primary school was to blame for kick-starting my correspondence habit, as, purely on the strength of having reasonably legible joined-up writing, I’d been deputised to write a letter to HM The Queen for her birthday one year; and duly received a response from one of her ladies-in-waiting. I still have this, mounted, no expense spared, on the inside of an old exercise book.

Receiving post in those days was something incredibly desirable – as children we just never got any, bar the odd birthday card from our Gran; and so were inspired to write off for stamp approvals galore, needlework guides (no interest in needlework just coveted the plastic doobries and stuff that came with), AirCanada brochures (still haven’t managed to get there but it looked breathtakingly beautiful) and pretty much everything whose small print insisted the applicant be over eighteen but didn’t require any proof of the fact or any money upfront. (I’m pretty sure my little brother also answered one of those ubiquitous Charles Atlas adverts that promised to turn weaklings into muscle-bound he-men.)

charles atlasWhen this illicit post landed with a thump on the doormat, you’d have to get to it before your parents could see what you’d been sending off for. Not easy as at that time you also had a second delivery to watch out for each day.

In the end you’d have to confess as the demands for you to purchase the next instalment of the craftwork periodical or whatever began to mount up.

Still, as this was about the only misdemeanour I committed as a teenager, I reckon my parents got off fairly lightly. And they probably thought giving me a few pence now and then for stamps was a good investment, as it meant that I would be relatively safely occupied for hours on end composing self-aggrandising drivel to dispatch to all and sundry.

No shoplifting or underage drinking, no casual sex or adolescent ennui, just a few inadvertently solicited unwanted items of mail and some penfriends driven to distraction – that about sums up my whole sadly unmisspent youth.

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