It was my birthday at the start of May. I don’t make a big fuss about birthdays but I like to be remembered and to my daughter’s credit she always has remembered. This year she has been incredibly busy and so when she hadn’t called to ask when she should come over laden with gifts I assumed the worst and that this was going to be the first year she was going to forget me. The thought bothered me less than I expected. But I can’t pretend it didn’t bother me at all.
As it happens she didn’t forget and I got an e-mail on the day wishing me well and asking if I’d like to meet for lunch on Sunday which was fine. Carrie was off to America and so I was going to be on my own at the weekend. We met outside what-used-to-be-Borders where the new owners are installing old-fashioned sewing machines in all the windows on racks; some kind of artwork I guess. At a minute to two she arrived – I thought this was the first time she was going to be late but no – she arrived and asked where I wanted to go to eat. I felt like an Indian and so we walked up to Sauchiehall Street and she treated me. (A mince biryani if you really need to know.) There were gifts too, three books (as if I don’t have enough books to read) and the promise of a fourth present which hadn’t arrived and it was all Amazon’s fault. Bad Amazon. Two of the books were off my wish list (Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane and The Story of Mr Sommer by Patrick Süskind); the third was one she’d seen at Xmas and read half of whilst standing in the shop. It was called Dear Me.
What Dear Me is is a collection of letters written by celebrities to their sixteen-year-old selves. I won’t bore you with the whole list but here are a few that jumped out at me: Simon Callow, Tracey Emin, Stephen Fry, Rolf Harris, Debbie Harry, Annie Lennox, Libby Purves, Emma Thompson, Suzanne Vega and Fay Weldon. Now, on the whole I don’t have much time for gifty books like this but my daughter knows me quite well and she doesn’t often get it wrong. It wouldn’t matter either way. My daughter thought of me and spent hard cash on me and I’m not that hard to please. I just wish one or two of my family would buy some of the textbooks on my wish list; they’re on there for a reason folks. (Actually I did get one for Xmas so that’s a start. Mustn’t whinge.)
Now the book.
Do your best. Don't worry. I’ll always be here. All is well; thinking of you so much, you funny young person. Keep in touch. Lots of love, xxx Me.
as if somehow guaranteeing a future. There’s a photo of her too about an inch square. It’s a bit too small. She’s sitting on a wall looking thoughtful and with a dreadful hairdo.
As it happens you wrote in 1973 a letter to your future self and it is high time your future self had the decency to write back.
Much of his advice concerns his sexuality but this bit stands out:
Gay people sometimes believe (to this very day, would you credit it, young Stephen?) that the preponderance of obstacles and terrors they encounter in their lives and relationships are intimately connected with the fact of their being gay: as it happens at least 90% of their problems are to do with Love and Love Alone: the lack of it, the denial of it, the inequality of it, the missed reciprocity in it, the horrors and the heartaches of it. Love cold, love hot, love fresh, love stale, love scorned, love missed, love denied, love betrayed... the Great Joke of sexuality is that these problems bedevil straight people just as much as gay. The 10% of extra suffering and complexity that uniquely confronts the gay is certainly not incidental or trifling, but it must be understood that Love Comes First. This is tough for straight people to work out.
I think everyone’s letter could start the way that Fay Weldon’s does:
Stop worrying. There is nothing wrong with you.
As soon as my daughter gave me the book I said to her, “You know, there’s a blog in this.” This is the 21st century now. And so it transpires that there is in fact a blog to go with the book. You can find it here. That’s not what I meant. What I meant is that I would end up blogging about it. Which is what I’m doing just now.
I was sixteen in 1975. In 1975 the Conservative Party chose its first women leader, Margaret Thatcher; it was a couple of years later before she became Prime Minister though. The Cod War broke out between Britain and Iceland when Iceland extended its fishing rights to 200 miles. Dutch elm disease destroyed more than three million Elm trees in the UK alone. The Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Act came i nto force. BIC launched the first disposable razor. Jaws was on at the pictures and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Pink Floyd released Wish You Were Here and the country was in the throes of ‘Rollermania’. Happy days.
That was the year I left school and got a job in an architect’s office as a draughtsman which is the only job I’d ever wanted to do since discovering Techie Drawing four years earlier. The fact that you could actually get paid for doing something so fun was just unbelievable. I was good at it too: top of my class, top of the year, 98% in my O-Level exam. I walked out of the school gates with my mate Tom and John who went on to become a doctor if memory serves right – the three of us in a line – and straight into an apprenticeship. Three months later I resigned because I couldn’t do the job. Drawing with pencils at school is one thing but no one prepared me for the degree of accuracy that was required in a real drawing office or the speed that I needed to have to work at. I simply couldn’t do it. No AutoCAD back then. I quit before I was sacked. So, there I was at sixteen with absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my future. And from there I ended up here. And all it took was thirty-five years.
So what would I have to say to the young man I was all those years ago? To be honest I’d like to give him a checklist: don’t do this, don’t do that and be careful who you do the other with. But since most of our actions are actually reactions to things that have gone beforehand the one single thing I would tell me to do is not quit school, to take my Highers and go to university. This is not because I believe in higher education. In fact my mate, Tom, the same Tom I walked out of the school gates with that July, told me after finishing his degree that he ended up using next to nothing of what he learned in those three or four years. What he did say was that a degree tells a prospective employee that you have the capacity to learn, nothing more.
So why would I tell myself to go to uni? To avoid everything that happened because I didn’t. This would mean that I wouldn’t have met my first wife and wouldn’t have had my daughter who wouldn’t have gifted me a copy of Dear Me which would have meant I wouldn’t have been writing this post but I think both you and I could survive that without too much upset. In fact, if I’d gone to uni you and I might not even know each other. Who’s to say? But at uni I would have had the opportunity to be exposed to people who are more like me than those I’ve encountered for the last thirty-odd years. I might have even met writers. I would have at the very least gone to lectures and heard writers, been able to interact with them. I may very well have discovered that I could write more than poetry twenty years sooner. I might have run into Janice Galloway in her final year. If I’d gone to Glasgow Uni. She might have the first woman to say to me, “The trick is to keep breathing.” You never know.
I was clever when I was sixteen. I’m clever now but when I was sixteen being clever mattered to me an awful lot. I wasn’t a geek though, not your classic geek anyway, and the reason I wasn’t is because I took Engineering Drawing and Applied Mechanics which brought me in contact with some of the rougher elements of the school with whom I also developed friendships with; that I wouldn’t change, it’s stood me in good stead all my life, the ability to get on with pretty much anyone if only for short periods of time.
Of course we all know how the space-time continuum works. I can’t go back into my own past and as soon as I affect the life of my previous self that immediately brings about a new timeline. Which is a shame because there is a lot I would like to erase. The idea that there is another me out there in some parallel universe, a me that made all the right choices pleases me. I’m sure there are more than a few mes who’ve made an even bigger cock-up of their lives than I have, too.
If I was, however, permitted to pass on a few words of wisdom to one of those other selves then this is what I’d say:
Most people regard being short sighted as a bad thing. You’ve lived with it for sixteen years so you know it’s not so bad. You know I’m not talking about literal short nearsightedness. Everyone wishes they could get a peek into their futures. Some farsighted people can spot trends, it’s true, but they often miss what’s right under their noses.
Everybody is looking for something out of life. Most of us stumble across that something with little or no effort but don’t realise that what we’ve found, or what finds us, is indeed that something and so we fail to grab it with both hands and we let it drift away. Once it is beyond our reach we can usually see clearly enough to realise that that was actually it all along but it’s too late. What I’m saying is that, yes, you should be aware of the bigger picture but concentrate on the details of your life. It is these tiny course corrections that will make all the difference in the long run. I’m talking here about opportunities. People use the expression ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ glibly but the unalterable fact is that very few opportunities come round a second time.
Decisions need to be made, they don’t make themselves and they can’t be avoided; even not making a decision is a decision. Although you sometimes have years in some cases to prepare, actual decision-making takes seconds usually, sometimes a fraction of a seconds, and often feels not thought through. That’s an excuse. None of the really critical decisions in your life will need to be made with insufficient time to prepare for them but it will always feel like they have been. For every action there is a corresponding consequence. In Physics that’s an equal and opposite reaction. Life is not rocket science though. Small actions can have major consequences. These should be considered but you can only think so far ahead. Your decision to become a draughtsman was the right one to make based on the evidence that was available to you at the time. There were a number of things you didn’t know then and could not have been expected to. As Dad was fond of saying, “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.” So it would be easy for me to say don’t do this and don’t do that and everything will be fine. I don’t know that and you can’t expect me to. You’re not the genius you think you are and you’ll discover that long before you reach my age.
There are some basics you would do well to grasp:
● Guilt is not the driving force behind the universe nor are you the centre of it.
● Love is not the answer. Meaning is. Meaning is something you decide on after giving a matter some thought. Meaning is not truth.
● Sex does raise some interesting questions along the way but it clouds your judgement and also wastes a lot of time.
● You do not have a spiritual bone in your body. This does not make you a bad person.
● Just because something can be proved to be true does not mean it’s right for you.
● Life is not an equation – there is more than one right answer. Doing the right thing isn’t always the best thing.
● Beliefs don’t need to be true although they can be. More often than not they’re there to protect us from the truth.
● Quitting is not the worst thing you can do. Anyone can take a wrong turn. You can’t see the future but you can see where it’s heading. When it’s obvious your life is going in the wrong direction get off at the next exit.
● Getting things back once you’ve given them up is hard at best and often impossible. That applies to everything from an old paperback, to a minute wasted, to your self-respect.
● Dad means well but he is not in possession of all the facts any more than you are. You can’t trust grownups. You’ll be one soon enough and that’s all the proof you’ll ever need but I’d appreciate it if you took this on trust if you accept nothing else in this letter. Experience is a natural by-product of aging; wisdom is not.
● Pleasing other people is commendable but don’t you take it too far; it’s your life. Selflessness is more damaging than selfishness if your heart’s not in it.
● Setting unattainable goals will only make you unhappy. Achieving or acquiring things is no guarantee of happiness not that what people think of as happiness is all it’s cracked up to be. You should read Brave New World sooner rather than later.
The hardest thing in the world is to believe in yourself when you have little or nothing to believe in. You know there is a spark within you. I know you know. I felt that spark too but I chose not to fan it. I did the ‘right’ thing. I got a job, worked hard, settled down, paid the bills and then lost the lot. And it was only when I felt relief after it had all gone that I realised I had taken the wrong path. So I did it again. And a third time. That’s not learning from your mistakes. If at first you don’t succeed ask yourself how much you want to succeed. It may not be lack of ability that’s holding you back.
When I die, when both of us die, I’d like to be able to say that my life meant something. It’s an expression that’s open to a fairly wide interpretation but I know what I mean by it and so will you; you may already do, I can’t remember. But if you want a credo to live by then it’s as good a one as any. Don’t write something if it doesn’t mean anything, don’t do anything that doesn’t mean something.
I’d love to say that I’m waiting to see how well you do but if you do as well as I hope then we’ll never come within a million miles of each other. That would please me no end.