A new book collates the letters that notable people have written to their teenage personas, with revealing results. Here, Telegraph writers do the same.
Imagine you could counsel your 16-year-old self: what words of advice would you offer?
Using the benefit of hindsight, dozens of luminaries have picked over the insecurities that plagued their teenage years for an enlightening book entitled Dear Me: More Letters to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self. Their retrospective letters offer wit and wisdom on everything from fashion to relationships, and all the anxieties in between.
Here, the Telegraph’s leading writers reflect on what they would have told themselves, if only they’d listen. The results are comic and touching – and straight from the heart.
* Dear Me: More Letters to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self (Simon & Schuster, RRP £12.99) is available from Telegraph Books at £10.99 + £1.25 p&p. To order, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
First, the bad news. You will never become Mrs David Cassidy. Or an air hostess. Both will be lucky escapes, though I don’t expect you to see that now.
You have moved around too much in your young life. As a consequence, you are often lonely, feel perpetually on the edge of a friendship group that shifts like quicksand so you take refuge in a fantasy world peopled by characters you have invented who find you mesmerisingly beautiful and fascinating. This does not make you a sad weirdo. It makes you a writer.
One day, all your fears will be strengths, all the insights gained through a thousand slights to which young female flesh is heir will connect you to the rest of humanity, and therefore to your readers. Remember, the girls whose names are called first when choosing teams for netball have no power to spoil your future. Life’s early winners often fall away. Your time will come.
Look in the mirror, and say to yourself, “I have a 23-inch waist.” Youth is lovely and slips away faster than sand through a sieve. Make the most of it. The red hotpants and white wet-look boots are a better choice than that Laura Ashley pinafore, which you think hides your lumpy bits. You have no lumpy bits.
Please promise me something. On the first night at Cambridge, don’t hide in your room, OK? You think that you’re not the equal of the other freshers in that dining hall. Actually, you’re better than them because you had to struggle so very hard to stand on the same mountain top. I am so proud of you for reading and reading as though your life depended on it. Because your life does depend on it.
When it comes to men, the three non-negotiable qualities are kindness, humour and generosity. In fact, be wary of the unkind and live your life among nice people. Don’t waste time seeking the approval of others. A small group of friends who love and know you are worth a battalion of fancy acquaintances.
I know you’re not sure you believe in God any more, but He believes in you. Stick with your faith and its traditions, for they will be a great comfort.
The greatest freedom in life is the freedom from self. You won’t discover that properly till you have children. They change your heart. Don’t miss out on them. A life without kids is like a world without music or lightning.
Finally, never put moisturiser on your chin and always wear foundation out of doors. You’ll be glad you did when you’re my age.
Oh, and there’s almost no problem in your relationship so bad that it can’t be solved by sex or sleep. Preferably both.
Good luck and God speed,
Let’s start with the biggie. Your baffled-and-beseeching future university boyfriend is right; even if you do sleep with him, someone will still want to marry you. Several people, in fact. Yes, really.
Now that’s out of the way, perhaps you could ease off on the whole intense religious piety routine? You might not be saved from eternal damnation, but catching a glimpse of yourself undressing in the bathroom mirror doesn’t constitute a Mortal Sin, even before Vatican II. Plus, you will have more friends, which would be nice.
Achieving a B at Maths O-level is not reason to contemplate suicide (even if God allowed it), and when you insist on going to school with a sticking plaster over that weeping pimple on your nose, nobody believes for a second that you were scratched by the cat, because they all know you don’t own one.
Oh, and please stop torturing yourself about Not Fitting In. Not Fitting In is a good thing. Well, maybe not a good thing, but it is your thing, and you would do well to accept and embrace it sooner rather than later, and dressing like a Goth isn’t the answer.
Beneath the trailing man’s overcoat and fish hook earrings that keep ripping the skin on your neck, you’re not nearly as lumpen and unattractive as you imagine. Nor do you need to prove, forcefully, how clever you are to everyone you meet. Men, in particular, don’t like it. They never will.
You see, the reason why you don’t have a boyfriend isn’t because you are ugly, it’s because you are scary and emasculating and weirdly devout. Oh, and the black lipstick doesn’t help.
And – I’m sorry about this – take the Nietzsche quotation off the wall. You know the one: “Even one who despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.” Do yourself a favour and put up some fluffy kittens instead.
Rest assured, you will love and be loved unconditionally and have your heart broken with a giddy passion in years to come. You will know the exquisite agonies and ecstasies of motherhood and see Soft Cell live in concert. On several occasions you will cheat death – but I hope, never betray your true self.
Judith, you are special and wonderful, in an odd, square peg sort of way. And if I had one wish for you, it would be that you could feel as gloriously comfortable in your skin at 16 as you will more than two and a half decades later, when, ironically, the collagen is starting to give.
Put the hair mousse down. No, really, put the hair mousse down. It’s not going to make anything less frizzy. It’s going to make it worse. What you really need to get into is the hairdresser blow-dry: swishy, sleek armour against the world. As a friend said the other day: “Can you believe that no one ever told us about them? What were our parents thinking of, sending us out on dates and to interviews without one?”
More seriously – sorry, I’ll rephrase that because I am deadly serious about the blow-dry – more earnestly, I really wish at 16 I’d known that in just a few years’ time it would become cool to be a nerd. So much so that I’d go so far as to say that (with a few honourable exceptions) there is almost no such thing as an adult nerd. At school, I remember it really only being socially acceptable to be any good at hockey, drama, art, English and so on. If I’d realised that beyond the school gates it doesn’t matter what you can do as long as you can do it really well, that differentiation is as admired as dance, physics as feted as football (well, in some quarters and that’s what counts), then I’d almost certainly have made different choices in life.
So, do what you’re best at, do more of it, and never worry about being behaving like a swot, because later you’ll realise everyone is slogging away behind the scenes while pretending not to, and that if you don’t, you’ll get left behind.
Slow down, you move too fast, you gawky plonker. Appreciate the world around you. You’re 16, singing in a choir in Westminster Abbey and you just don’t understand the amazing privilege. Those early-morning Madrigals, that majestic setting and the occasional grand concert pass you in a blur. Wake up and smell the incense.
I can hear your voice has broken, staying sadly too close to the Kenneth Williams end of the range. I know you’re too busy concentrating on limiting the squarks to admire the surroundings properly. But come on. Next time you run through the cloisters, late for practice again, just consider this advice: stop eyeing up the sopranos for a moment and take in the full beauty of the Abbey.
Enjoy the experience. I know where you keep that diary, recording marks out of 10 on how well you’d climbed mountains on field-trips, noting with pencil-shaking fury if a fellow-pupil beat you to the summit. The only view from Snowdon or Scafell Pike you like is of others still on the way up. Relax. I know you tasted the bile welling up in your mouth when that stupid teacher forbade you from tackling the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye. “It’s only a rock, sir, let me,” you pleaded. He said no. So you fumed for the rest of the trip. Stop being so painfully competitive. Cherish the occasion.
All the best,
At the moment you are obsessing over a boy called Dominic. Please stop. Dominic is going to get married to a lovely girl called Helen and have two beautiful children. He is not interested in you. He is taking up valuable head space that could be given over to the small matter ofchoosing your A-levels, and if you are not careful this will result in you closing your eyes and sticking three pins in a list of subjects meaning you leave school with passes in English (fair enough), Geography (hmmm) and History of Art (what the?).
Why didn’t you choose History? Or at the very least French? Had you done that, you wouldn’t have to spend holidays in France explaining yourself through a variety of hand movements and gallic shrugs, like a particularly bad mime artist. You wouldn’t have to ask your boyfriend about the importance of King Charles II, and when someone said the words ‘Franz Ferdinand’ to you, your thoughts would not go immediately to a Scottish rock band who found fame in the early 2000s.
As it is, in the future you will remember absolutely none of your Geography A-level, be able to impress people with only a passing knowledge of the works of Rembrandt, and wish ill on Charlotte Bronte for ever having written Villette. Oh well, you live. Eventually, you might learn.
With deepest sympathy, Bryony
Sixteen was the age at which I regularly drank too much and was sick in the bath at parties. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to find a boyfriend; it certainly wasn’t alluring. My 16-year-old doesn’t appear to be as foolish, but I was alarmed to hear of a new game they were playing at the weekend which involved drinking a whole glass of wine at a time. Binge drinking is not new, but frighteningly normal. My broken-record message to all my teenagers – and one that I wish I had known – is that they can enjoy themselves without getting ‘tanked’.
I was a convent girl with two sisters and no boys in the family. Having been to co-ed schools, my girls have no need to consider boys frightening aliens as I did. When I was 16, I wish someone had told me to just relax and have a laugh with boys of my own age.
I don’t think teenagers heed advice, so I won’t offer too much. But I implore the younger me to ask more questions of my father, to realise I wouldn’t have him very long, and that once he was gone the grave would swallow his mysteries. I wish the younger me had been less self-obsessed, and recognised that a man who was born in 1910, lived in Greece, Iran (or Persia as it then was), Turkey and Africa, and lived a life that spanned the Edwardian age through to the advent of personal computers was witness to a remarkable century.
Sixteen might seem a little young to sport a full set of whiskers, but I’d persevere if I were you. Well, I was you. It’s a harmless hobby and shaving’s a waste of time. Some girls may be repelled, but not as many who will be put off by your gaucheness and foolish opinions. I won’t say you shouldn’t worry about this. Do worry about it. Worry, like other sorts of suffering, is a sign of life.
If shaving’s a weird way of wasting time, don’t even consider driving. It considerably narrows the mind, and the way you’re co-ordinated, you’d probably end up killing someone.
I could explain why you shouldn’t be a b—— to other people, but I wonder if you’d understand. I certainly wouldn’t want you to have done things I haven’t, such as LSD, but even things I wish I hadn’t done have a way of seeming good to have got over, like a kind of disease.
You’ll find that plenty of people are nicer than you could suspect now. On the whole, the next 40 years are going to be very interesting, and, on balance, enjoyable. After that it becomes very uncertain.
Old age is not for wimps, and you don’t strike me as being made of very tough stuff. In the end, I’m convinced it’s going to be all right. But if, when you are 56, someone comes back from 40 years on, will you really take his advice, any more than you will now?
You’ve just discovered strong drink, slow horses and fast women. It all seems good, doesn’t it? Well, stop right there. Beer bellies are easy get, winners are hard to find, and the girlfriends you’ll encounter in your early twenties will be far more rewarding than the one you have now.
You’re sailing through O-levels, but A-levels will be much tougher. You’ll have no money, the subjects will seem irrelevant, and you’ll be tempted to drop out. Stick at it because the benefits of going to university will change your life in a profound and positive way – and you will love every minute.
Take a gap year. But don’t waste it dossing about in Spanish discos with barmaids from Crawley. Your best subject at school is French, so go to France and immerse yourself in the culture. Embrace the delights of cognac and coffee for breakfast, Burgundy and Brie for lunch, and uninhibited women who smoke Gitanes in bed.
Ever since you were able to read a newspaper, all you have ever wanted to be is a journalist. Teachers, career advisers and assorted know-alls will try to put you off. Don’t listen to them. Follow your dream. There will be many setbacks, but keep the faith. Earning a living in newspapers, radio and television is an extension of childhood and much better than getting a job. Treasure your family and eventually, when the time is right, become a dad. You will never understand, until it happens, the unbridled joy that parenthood will bring.
Best of luck,
Dr Max Pemberton
Stop worrying. About everything. If you’re that upset about your spots, go to the doctor. Most things turn out for the best and the things that don’t, aren’t as awful as they seem at the time. You can get away with much more than you think you can.
Lots of the really cool, attractive kids at school turn out to be really dull when they get older.
You definitely need to stop wasting time getting worked up that your hair won’t go into curtains. In years to come, you’ll look back at photographs and laugh at the hairstyles that you used to covert. In fact, you’ll be grateful for your thick, wiry hair – it means you don’t go bald and you cannot imagine what a big deal this becomes for some people.
Get braces now. It’s really irritating – and expensive – getting your teeth fixed later.
Nobody important cares that you’re gay. It’s not worth losing sleep over and certainly not worth getting upset about. It’s fine. Mum doesn’t even bat an eyelid when you tell her.
Your inability to grasp even the basics of inorganic chemistry does not hinder your life in the slightest.
You know what Mum said about giving up the piano? Yep, she’s right.
Do me a favour though: stop smoking. Honestly, some things are so much easier when you’re 16.