Letter to My Younger Self: 100 Inspiring People on the Moments That Shaped Their Lives, Jane Graham, (ed), Blink Publishing, with royalties going to the charitable work of The Big Issue, 448 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1788702324
“Bones heal, pain is temporary and chicks dig scars.” If there was a prize for the pithiest piece of career advice offered to one’s younger self, Evel Knievel should win. That quote was the stunt performer justifying the risks he routinely took with his life (much of which, it should be noted, was spent limping from hospital to motorbike and back to hospital again). Not surprisingly, the late daredevil’s insights are not included in Letter to My Younger Self; this collection is reserved for people with a more realistic take on life and death.
The condensed anthology – 100 interviews chosen from 500 published in The Big Issue since 2007 – includes contributions by Stella Rimington, Philip Glass, Mary Beard, Mo Farah, EL James, Werner Herzog, Diane Abbott, Chelsea Clinton, Ranulph Fiennes, Roger Daltry, Desmond Tutu, Salman Rushdie, Tracey Emin, Ian Rankin, Simon Callow, Billy Jean King and Max Hastings. Some deliver profound advice that would benefit us all; others make such hard work of their task that reading their words is like swimming in cement (stand up and bow, Andrea Bocelli). One contributor will make your slapping hand twitch (yes, Jeffrey Archer).
But others, in a few sentences, will deliver a punch to the heart. Near the end of his letter, Johnny Lydon – once upon a time mouthy, badass Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols – makes an unexpected admission. “It’s a shame that when I think of everything I’ve done, I’d trade it all to have brought a new life into the world.” He and his wife, Nora, were unable to have children, and he sweetly goes on to say: “I’m kind of well-known where I live for running really good parties for kids – Halloween, Guy Fawkes – I love doing it.”
Ozzy Osbourne wouldn’t offer any advice to the young Ozzy, not even a warning regarding an early career segue into burglary that did not end well. But he knows what he’d like to do if he could live any day again: in his delightful letter he says he would change the ending of the day her married Sharon. “I was off my face all day and didn’t make it to the bedroom suite. In the end, they found me face-down in the hotel corridor, unconscious. I’d like to go back to that day and end it by going to bed with my wife.”
A few other people also chose to impart no advice, believing it was the hard knocks and insecurities that propelled them towards success. Wilko Johnson would not tell himself, at the moment of his terminal cancer diagnosis, that there would be a medical breakthrough and that he would in fact live. The year the former Dr Feelgood musician thought he was dying was emotionally charged and fully lived. “I know I’m really getting better now because misery has descended upon me again,” he grumbles happily. “I’m back to the old me, moping about the place.”
A surprise is the number of men (Jamie Oliver, Rod Stewart included) still scarred by their shyness in the early years. Paul McCartney, later mobbed by women just leaving the house, still agonises over the logistics of excruciating first dates. “It’s terrifying – what do you do? Do you put your arm around her? Do you sit there and wait for her to talk first, or are you supposed to talk first? Do you buy Maltesers?”
Do not smoke, many of the contributors tell their healthy little selves. Go easy on those drugs. Tell your parents you love them while you still can. That acne will disappear. Have more fun than you are having. Your heart will get broken and it will mend. Boy George’s sage advice on playing it cool when infatuated would have saved him multiple broken hearts and even some jail time (four months in 2009 for false imprisonment). “My advice to my younger self would be that jealousy doesn’t make you more attractive – if you go and smash a guy’s windows, he’s not going to like you more.”
Some of the sensible advice catches the reader off-guard because of who it’s coming from. Danny DeVito surprises because he is playing it straight for his younger self. Danny the class joker should “crack open the books a bit more, do more reading and get the history and geography down. Get used to learning.” And he quotes the Dalai Lama, for God’s sake. “I’d say to the teenage me, if something good happens to you, embrace it and let it go. And if something bad happens to you, embrace it and let it go. I think that’s a good way to lead your life, right in the centre of the Yin and the Yang, so you’re always ready for everything.”
Was David Cameron ready for everything? In 2011, he told The Big Issue: “In a typical morning you can wake up to being criticised on the radio, read bad headlines over breakfast and then get skewered in the House of Commons. But throughout it all, you’ve got to focus on the big picture, do the right thing and remain optimistic.” You’d have to wonder how that’s working out for him.
A number of contributors warn of the horrors of boarding school, but not keen-as- mustard Joanna Lumley. “I especially loved my second boarding school, an Anglo-Catholic convent in the hills behind Hastings. The nuns wore blue stockings and were brainy and lovely. There were 70 boarders and I was happy as a clam.” Lumley believes “you never lose the little you who is within you”, and she goes on to offer her younger self lovely advice: “We have to cherish the people who bring us joy. We have to remember to say, ‘By the way, I love you,’ and tell strangers who’ve been kind, ‘God, you’re a nice person.’”
Several contributors to the book are at pains to say how unimportant fame is to them, and explain how they circumvent it. Lumley, an activist as well as an actor, encourages her younger self to generate her own power, and to use fame wisely. “I would tell my younger self that one is powerless until one decides to be powerful. Any of us can put on a Batman cape. I’m not a lawyer, nurse, teacher or any of the things that are really useful, but when you are an unskilled person like me but have a kind of fame, you can use it to attract the oxygen of publicity towards something that will make other people’s lives better.”
Another activist, Mary Robinson, speaks movingly about her father, a socially aware country doctor and a strong influence in her life. She recalls him coming home from delivering a baby and, on more than one occasion, furiously telling his wife he had been asked whether the newborn was “a boy or a child”. “That convinced me that my father thought I was equal to my brothers,” Robinson concludes. When it comes to making changes in society, she advises young Mary Bourke to take her time. “You have to educate, persuade, talk to people and have patience.”
Roger Bannister, the first person to run a sub-four-minute mile, would have preferred to be remembered for his work in neurology than for his athletic record, pointing out that he had worked in medicine for sixty years and only been a runner for eight. “If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the autonomic nerve system, I’d take that over the four-minute mile right away.”
Choice advice from the eminently quotable Olivia Colman includes the caution that ageing is not for sissies: “If you don’t like your body now, just wait till you get older.” The much garlanded actor is not about to tell the teenager about the Academy Award, Baftas, Golden Globes and other awards she will win, concerned the teenager might then not try her damndest. “You need that fire up your arse, you really do.”
Graham Linehan says he had an existential crisis every day when he was sixteen. “I think the thing that would make the teenage me happiest would be hearing there are lots of girls in his future, but I don’t think he’d believe that.” Linehan makes sure to hammer home the point: “You’ll meet interesting people and some of them will let you have sex with them.”
A downbeat and introspective Buzz Aldrin alerts his young self to impending depression, alcoholism and divorces. Nothing was ever as great again as that first Moon landing, the ultimate buzz-wrecker, and Aldrin slightly weirdly tells his young self that even if he wasn’t to be the first human on the Moon, there would be compensations: “I was first back into the cabin, so I became the first alien to climb into a spacecraft on the way back to our home planet.” There are no photographs of the lift-off from the Moon because Aldrin forgot to switch on the camera. So yes, among the advice to his younger self would be to turn on that camera.
The former astronaut rather touchingly recounts how he wanted to do something personal and symbolic in gratitude if the Apollo 11 mission was successful. “I was given permission to serve myself communion, with wine and a wafer, on the surface of the Moon,” he says, “but I was advised not to say anything about it at the time – somebody had strongly objected to the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Bible, and we didn’t want to get into any more trouble with the religious critics.”
And then there’s the staggeringly smug Jeffrey Archer, who would urge his younger self to ask for advice from older people. “I now surround myself with intelligent, well-informed people. If I have a problem, I phone an expert and they tell me what to do.” The all-knowing author tells of the publishers’ bidding war for the Kane and Abel manuscript. “A very intelligent woman at HarperCollins told me, ‘A year today, this book will be number one in every country.’” Archer targets smoking as a habit to quit, always good advice, but he cannot stop himself from adding: “And I’d say that especially to women – you’ll regret it in 20 years when your face is lined.”
Last word to Olivia Colman. The actor, such a lively presence on chat shows, has had bouts of depression throughout her life. Her letter to her young self is raw and it is brilliant; the book is worth buying for her input alone. The successful actor is still visited by “the black clouds” but she has found ways of coping. “It would be nice to go back to those early fugs and tell my younger self, ‘You’ll be okay. This will pass. And you will be loved. Don’t make any rash decisions in this moment. You will make the world work and have a brilliant time. And if you’re not skinny, fuck it.’”
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.