The answer is “only if they understand what we are saying.”
This page was prompted by a friend who said, yesterday:
In today’s Sunday Telegraph magazine an article consisted of several celebrities who from a wiser and older age wrote letters to their 16-year-old selves with warnings and advice. Would anyone like to attempt such a task? The most interesting one was from Elton John to Reg Dwight.
And I thought “I can try that.” My teenage self, lived in a prison of his own making. And, today, I met someone else who has lived in a prison of his own making. He was impressed that I have made a huge amount of progress at dismantling my prison cell. he has now started on his. And that reinforced my resolve to publish this letter from me as an adult to me as a lost teenager.
I wrote it last night, polished it this morning, and am publishing it this evening.
From 57-year-old Tim
19 October 2009
To 16-year-old Tim
19 October 1968
I lived through it; you know. I survived and got out the other side, but I did it wrong; or I could have done it so much better, or perhaps just differently. With luck, if you are willing to listen, you might also take some advice, just a little. I don’t expect you’ll take it all. I never did, but that’s what makes you me, if you follow me.
I wondered how on earth to start this. Would you want to hear how the story ends now, if nothing changes, or would you open your mind to other possibilities?
And I wondered what you want out of life, too. I wondered that especially because I’ve never really known. I wore blinkers. Or did I have tunnel vision? You have that now, and I know it feels good today, your today. In my today it feels like crap.
That’s why I thought you might like to know how your life turns out without this letter, and that you would judge what to do.
I turned 57 this summer. I still feel 15 inside, but I let my body get fat, and that gave me type 2 diabetes. You don’t want that. I have a good life, a wife I adore and a fine son. I’m not rich and I’m not poor. I’m retiring early and I’ve made the best fist I can of my life. I’m good at many things and I’ve missed being good at some I’d like to be good at.
If you ignore this letter, then, when you are 57, this is the letter you’ll write to 16-year-old Tim. If you do even one thing you would not have done, and do it because of what I write to you, then you may not even get a letter. What a strange thing time is.
Since you are reading this, I can tell you that you will always be good at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But why have sows’ ears at all? You’re heading for a crashing disappointment at university where you’ll have a great time and fail your metallurgy degree, followed by a succession of pretty tough jobs for mostly uncaring employers. Yours is not to be a career, unless you do something about it. You will get a succession of jobs with a very few good ones in the mix.
Is that what you want? I thought you were heading for a career. I know you half want to be a barrister, half a schoolmaster, the “To Serve Them All My Days” RF Delderfield sort. I think the schoolmaster is wrong for so many reasons, not least of which is that you will be like a diabetic in a sweet shop. And I know that Mrs Bruce, that awful teacher at Kingswood House ensured that you were so put off singing that I am still unable to sing out loud today, and that means that, today, you are even afraid of public speaking.
What would you say when I tell you that I’ve made some of my living out of public speaking, that I enjoy it, and that I’m good at it?
If being a barrister is what you want, take the bull by the horns and learn the skill of speaking way earlier than I did. I lost my fear at 27, actually in October. You get to do it 11 years earlier. And it will open up choices for you that you never dreamed of. You could even decide to be an actor!
Of course, you’ll need contacts. Use the Old School Tie while you’re still at school. No-one ever tells you how to do this. It’s simple. Find Old Epsomians who’ll guide you, tell you about their businesses, careers and lives, and take the good parts out of their advice.
I’m ignoring the elephant in the room so far.
I know how much you look forward every day to going to school because you get to see John Bensted whom you fell for truly, madly, deeply, three years ago. I know how much loving him is a part of your life, of your very being right now, and how afraid you are that you’ll be found out by the wrong people. I know you’re scared of our parents and how you are pretty sure they’ll send you away to be cured of being queer – something I can tell you is impossible; we know that today, in 2009 – and yes, I know you don’t think you’re queer, and that you just love John. But you are queer, much as you and I have always hated that word. Your head turns for a beautiful young man but never for a beautiful young lady. You need to come to terms with who we are. It took me until I was 48 to start doing that. Nine years later I think I have it licked.
I know, because I asked her, that mother would have consulted doctors. She had no answer about how far she would have gone with that. But I have news for you, good news. You can refuse treatment. And it probably won’t come to that anyway.
You have a choice to make. Carry on as you are, hoping, wishing that John will love you back, and when you get to 2009 still be in love with him, the ghost of him, as he was in 1970 when you will see him last, or bring it to whatever conclusion it comes to by speaking to him now, in 1968.
Be logical: why would he be queer too? There’s a study by a man called Kinsey. You can look it up in the school library. Actually, you did look it up, or will… He says that 10% of people are homosexual, pretty much. So, of the 75 boys in Crawfurd, that means that six, maybe seven others are. Why on earth would you be lucky enough for him to be one of them? And what would make him be in love with you too, if he happened to be queer too? Think. It’s possible, yes. is it likely? Not a hope.
Carrying on as you are is a poor option. You lose track of him in 1970, lose him completely until 1999 when you find out how to find him. There’s some sort of universal encyclopaedia today called the Internet which you’ll find out about when its time comes for you. And you find him through his father and through a friend. In 2001 you try to arrange to meet him for a drink and he acquiesces and then refuses, so you tell him, by letter, of your love.
And he replies not one word. Nor will he ever reply. In 2009 you even find his picture as he is today in the universal encyclopaedia. He’s at the top of his profession and is well respected. At the same time you write a book about your school years and you discover, as you close the final year of the narrative, that you probably never really even liked him, and that he probably never really liked you either. Or at least you realise that no relationship ever existed.
In my life he was a fun friend to be with at school, but, after that, he was a ghost, and object of infatuation, perhaps – no, certainly – of obsession. That is not living. Nor is that loving.
I know you don’t believe me. I know how being just near him makes your heart beat faster and makes your world feel perfect, but you need an answer. You can’t move forward properly unless you have an answer, until you have an answer. And I imagine waiting until 2001 and beyond is rather a long wait, especially when you know that “answer came there none.”
What’s the worst that can happen if you take him aside and say ‘John, I am deeply in love with you.’?
Yes, it can go all round the school “Tim’s in love, Tim’s queer!” and they can sneer at you.
I have news for you. That happens in 1970 anyway over a cheeky kid called Paul Metcalfe, younger, handsome, and in another house, a boy with whom you’ve only exchanged a dozen words, if that, in your entire life. It gets written in letters a foot high on the walls of the prefects’ study. I won’t tell you who did it, you may change things, so it doesn’t happen, and you like the idiot before he writes that graffiti. It would be a shame to spoil that.
No one dies, although you think about killing yourself that day because of it. No doctors happen. No parents get involved. There’s no electric shock therapy. It’s a storm in a teacup, over before it’s started. I know. I was there.
So, what’s the difference with getting it all out into the open in 1968 instead?
I could be wrong. He really might love you as much as you love him. The thing is, I don’t know at 57 any more than you do at 16. All I know for sure is that unrequited love, especially unanswered unrequited love, is terrible. It lets you ruin a lot of the enjoyment in your life because you always wonder, always wait, always hope, even when you know it’s not ever going to happen.
John’s a nice person. He’s a gentleman. If he’s any kind of friend, then he’ll listen. So, talk to him and listen to what he says. The hard bit to understand is that you’ll be happy even if he says that he doesn’t love you, can’t love you, and wants only girls. You’ll know it was never going to be, and you’ll be able to move on. And he might want and need you like you want and need him. Might. And you might even end up as real friends, something I never achieved, and the only thing you and I wanted when we were 13.
Once you know, once you know either way, you can start to be happy.
My legacy to you is simple. I’m asking you to take control of your life. I didn’t, you see. I let it happen to me. The outcome’s been fine, but with major difficulties.
Take control of your career and your heart. If you can’t find this letter in a day or so then you’ll know you’ve done so.
And me, then? What of me?
Who knows? In the life you create for yourself, for me, I may never reach 57 or I may live to 120. I’ll have had different highs, different lows. I may be partnered with John, I may be with a different, lovely guy, I may be married to the same beautiful girl. I may be dead from unprotected sex from something yet to happen in your time called HIV which usually leads to something else called AIDS. That turns up and kills a load of folk and kills most of them before anyone even knows what’s going on. It’s just a sexually transmitted disease, but, so far, it can be managed though not cured.
So, my final piece of advice to you is always to use a condom.
from me in 2009
It says everything I wish someone had said to me at the time. I wrote it as if it could really be done, as if a letter from the future could arrive in the past. Today, 11 October 2010, I updated the letter subtly to bring it up to date, and I phonecasted it.