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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dear Me


DearMe This is not a book review although it was a book that gave me the idea for the post.

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.

tracey_emin_ 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.

Some took it far too seriously – Desmond Tutu – some far too frivolously – Peter Kay – but some got the tone just right. I actually teared up when Joanna Lumley ended her letter with:

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.

stephen-fry1 Stephen Fry had four single-spaced pages allotted to him – or maybe there was no way he could be edited down to just one. I enjoyed his opening:

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 iOne_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo's_Nest_poster 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 twentyJanice Galloway 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:

Jim at 16 copy Me in Ayr circa July 1975

Dear Me

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.



Elisabeth said...

This is a wonderful post, Jim.

When I was eighteen years old, I wrote a letter to my twenty one year old self. I have the letter still. I've written a paper about it.

The letter is a shocker, at least it is to me now when I read it, filled with admonitions about how I should live a good life and how shocked my eighteen year old self would be were I to stray from my then state of goodness.

Needless to say I swayed. Thank goodness. What a bore I'd be had I followed the dictates of my prissy eighteen year old self.

Your letter here is wonderful, though it is different writing back to your imagined sixteen year old self; very different were that sixteen year old to write to your fifty plus year old self.

Thanks, Jim. I'm glad your daughter remembered your birthday way back then.

I'll have to chase this Dear Me book up. I'm interested in letter writing particularly of the imaginary kind to past and future selves.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Wonderful Jim.

I've written lots of letters to myself over the years, saved not a one. Unless you consider that my books are actually letters to myself in a way.

Love this post. Just love it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can’t in all honesty remember having done this kind of thing before, Lis. The same goes for time capsules. Put it this way I would never have thought to do this as a post without some external prompt. I actually feel sorry for my daughter. I told her that I had written this three months ago and this is me just getting round to posting it. In fact it got to jump the queue by a week because I decided to tweak the post I was going to put up. That said it’s kept her checking my blog to see if it’s there. I actually found the letter fairly easy to write – it’s not like I laboured over it for weeks, a couple of days and I was happy with what I’d said. I suspect this is because over the years in my writing I’ve already thought through a lot of the things I include in the letter.

The reason I told myself to read Brave New World is because it contains the line: ‘Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery’ – I think that was one of those pivotal moments in my life when I read that.

I suppose you’re right too, Cheryl, when you say that. I think of them, the poetry in particular, as letters to my daughter. Not that many of them are written to her – two of three are – and in a couple she’s the actual speaker – but if she ever wants to look back and remember me the poems are what will get her the closest.

Anonymous said...

Stunning posting, Jim - it brings together the best of all the worlds of your writing: your reviews, your essays and your honest, straight-forward approach to the writing at hand.

I'll be back to read this one again later tonight. Such a great posting - that you put it together in four days - is amazing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Four days, eh, Koe? I just told Lis it took me two. It would help if I read these things again after posting them.

martine said...

Hi, passing by from More about the Song. I thought this book was mostly trite and patronising, but your post and your letter were thoughtful and interesting.
thanks for sharing

awyn said...

An interesting and thought-provoking post. Thanks, Jim. I especially liked your list of basics, most particularly those dealing with love, selflessness, meaning, and truth (beliefs as being there to protect us from the truth, and not writing something if it doesn't mean anything. Worth remembering. Merci encore!.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

What to say to the 16-year-old me?

"Fear is your biggest obstacle. But you already know this."

Jim Murdoch said...

A lot of the responses didn’t impress me, Martine, but clearly one or two took the task seriously and I was genuinely touched by what Fry and Lumley wrote. I can imagine a lot of people coming up a blank when asked to do something like that. I remember asking a group of Christians once; “Why do you believe in God?” Most gave it their best shot but one girl got so flustered she wandered off in a fit of nervous giggles. As you can see I took the thing seriously and found it a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately it’s been a while since by daughter was sixteen but I’d never have thought of this without her.

Awyn, most of those ‘basics’ were easy to come up with because, as I’ve already said, I’ve spent a long time distilling my feelings on certain subjects. Ask me about global warming or third world poverty and I might not sound so wise.

And, Glenn, fear, yes, so many kinds and degrees of fear. The worst kinds are the ones that disguise themselves as something else like doubt or insecurity.

Art Durkee said...

Not an exercise I'd normally attempt. I guess if I could only say one thing it might be:

The worst form of censorship is censoring yourself.

Anonymous said...

Jim - looks like I was commenting at the same time you were writing to Lis - a day, a couple days - it really shouldn't have mattered. It is just a great read.

Dave King said...

Your basic facts would form the bases for a few essays with metaphysical slants, no less. I'm not at all sure how basic they are, but I think I shall come back to them.
You can't put an old head on young shoulders was also a favourite saying of my dad.
I have just come from watching the recording I made of Stephen Fry being interviewed at Hay where he talked of his letters to himself.
Great post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think, Art, that if you sat and thought about it you’d actually have quite a lot to say. Not that it would probably do any good. We never listened to our parents so why should we listen to the old farts we’re becoming?

And, Dave, I forgot to watch the Fry interviews. Damn. My dad was also one for using pithy statements. The one that jumps to mind was about speeding: “I’d rather be five minutes late in this world than five minutes early in the next.”

Art Durkee said...

I might have a lot to say, maybe, but the exercise itself strikes me as one of those exercises that requires narcissistic self-regard. I'm all for living the examined life, and I already mentor a few younger men and women, so it's not that I never proffer advice or think about life. It's that ,aside from what Stephen Fry etc. have done with this exercise, which I laud, it seems to me to tread on that thin line between passing on wisdom, and self-indulgence.

Jim Murdoch said...

I see where you’re coming from Art, but, since my sixteen-year-old self no longer exists to receive the letter, really the letter is for whoever gets to read it. Had I not presented it as a letter to myself but rather as a set of aphorisms I wonder if you would have objected so. The ‘letter’ is really to my daughter. Despite the fact it took me ages to post the damn thing the first thing I did once it was live was to send her the link. Unfortunately she’s not been sixteen for quite some time now but I’ve never stopped trying to pass what wisdom I have onto her. If she can’t make use of it maybe she can pass it on to someone who can. Unfortunately, and this is the point I was making in my little ‘Advice to Children’ series of poems, there’s a lot of things we’d like to pass onto the young (our own and others) that no matter how simply we express those things they’ll never get; second-hand wisdom is just wisdom that some old bloke can’t use any more.

Art Durkee said...

I don't OBJECT to it, as a practice, I merely am not attracted to it. I certainly have no problem with aphorisms presented as wisdom one has accumulated during one's time on earth. Aphorisms can be a great way to express in short form lessons one has spent years learning. But how you present them matters a great deal, and make all the difference between passing on wisdom or being merely self-indulgent.

I agree that the letter is really being written to others, not to one's younger self. In which case, why pretend? Why not just be honest about it?

I find the least useful examples of this sort of letter to be those that are prescriptive in tone, that tell the younger self what to do. No younger person is going to listen to a lecture about life and follow its wisdom. Far better to just state what one has learned, and leave it up to them what to get out of it. The tone of prescription is most likely to make them do the opposite. This applies to whomever the letter is actually addressed to, it seems to me.

Marion McCready said...

An amazing post, Jim. I think it's the best blog post I've ever read, I even welled up at the end of your letter.

Jim Murdoch said...

What more could I ask for, Marion? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

When I was forty, I wrote a book to myself -- kind of to the scared adolescent I had been but who was still controlling me. I was having a mid-life crisis, and the words were from my reading, from my counselor, from my friends, but they were words I had to keep telling myself to survive it.

I self-published it, and it's still on Amazon. It's called Dear Me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yeah, Peter, I’m almost at the stage I could write a letter to the forty-year-old me even though I’m only 52 (just about). The man I was then wasn’t a bad guy – far from it – but he was killing himself trying to be a good guy. I had my third breakdown when I was about forty but it took a fourth about eight years later to finally get me to grab myself by the lapels and give myself a good shake. Essentially I had the same problem as you. I looked like a grown-up on the outside but I was still a teenager faking it. He’s still in here but I don’t give him nearly as much rope these days. Who knows where he would stray off to if I did?

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