When a child a letter I wrote to a National British Sunday newspaper was published. My memory may be modest or faulty or both but I think it was the Star Letter and won a prize. £5 I think.
This was in the 1970’s and £5 then could buy you a Raleigh Chopper bicycle. That’s a damned lie! I did have a Chopper though!
I am saying ‘National British’ again due to my hazy memory but it was almost certainly a ‘red-top’ – the Sunday People or the Sunday Mirror, definitely one of those two, I think!. And alas this letter of several paragraphs has yet to be archived online for posterity for me to clarify such details let alone share with you here.
It was about football and my then team (so a fairweather fan and already establishing that I am not a proper serious sports fan) Queens Park Rangers more commonly known acronymically as QPR.
They had lost and lost handily. Their then manager Dave Sexton made the usual template excuses but me being an innocent to this other game, the game of punditry, felt strongly enough about it to put pen to paper and send off a letter suggesting that the manager should just accept that our (for it was as much mine as his!) team was outplayed and stop blaming all and sundry.
I would like to think it was published for my precocious sparkling prose and unnerving insight but fear it was almost certainly published for its blunt message and my tender age.
But it was the first time my words had been seen by eyes other than my school-teachers and my words were in print.
My first piece of writing that I remember was when I was in Primary School. A homework assignment. We did not get much homework when I was at my primary school and perhaps because that was so unusual is why I remember it.
But I really put myself into it. It was long or seemed long though perhaps long to my ten-year old mind and experience was two sides of school exercise paper.?!
I did not keep it so have to rely on my memory. I remember it was written on a dining table in the main living room of my Mum’s bungalow home, an exotic conversion from a tennis pavilion, my Mum having recently divorced my Dad. Anyway, so I remember the location of it. And that I was sitting with my back to the main room – I might have been in an open space but I was an artist at work and was not to be distracted in my creative purpose!
The plot was some sort of adventure involving a plane on a runway. I think I was making it up as I was going along and enjoying myself immensely in the process. My first feeling and sense of the creative spark and process. I say I think as it is still possible that I had been given a theme by my teacher in which to adhere to but I do recall that my piece was pretty freewheeling. Perhaps I was pushing the boundaries of what I had been set. And again if so then more first feelings of the creative life.
There was also something illicit in the story too. It involved a girl and I was setting myself up as some sort of hero to her. Wish fulfilment fantasy – again ticking all the boxes for the creative life! I felt that I was straying and showing myself as quite grown-up – meaning that it involved me holding her hand and possibly kissing!
I do remember waiting for the teacher who would be reading it and giving their report with some trepidation.
Again at this length in time – four decades on – I cannot entirely recall what such teacher reports entailed. My story was as likely marked for the neatness or otherwise of my handwriting as its spelling. As for the finer points of its plot and characters who knows how much weight was given to that!
I do not recall whether the report was generally good or bad. Perhaps it was bad as if good I would have more likely remembered it! And perhaps my first experience of pretending no heed to what editors and critics made of my work. Perhaps!
Now I was a teenager and the time was the 1980’s and the subject of my correspondence was the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The letters page was surprisingly divided on the issue – despite its abhorrence there were actually defendants for it and in good number.
I cannot remember too much of the details near three decades later but the general gist of their defence was though Apartheid was not ideal it was better than many alternative forms of government in Africa and elsewhere because at least the regime was democratic!
Except that most people not classified as White could not vote. Can you have partial democracy, like a bit of freedom? A rhetorical question. The thrust of my counter-argument was that should someone be grateful for being victim of an act of violence just because the alternative is that they be killed.
The correspondence ran for several letters, each of the sides not giving quarter to the other. But I like to think that history at least will look kindly on our side of the anti-apartheid argument and aghast at those apologising for it.
I would be quite pleased to see the letters again and perhaps I have copies of the newspaper editions that they featured in stored away somewhere forgotten to me. But I don’t think so. Perhaps too at some future date these letters will be digitally archived and made available online.
If that should happen you can bet I will link to them.
About this time, like many teenager before me and I hope after me, I was getting deeper into music. And inevitably the music press came upon my radar.
There were many players in the late 1970’s but the biggest player (in the UK at least) then as now* was the New Musical Express which no-one who bought it regularly would ever call it.
The NME – it’s Thursday and the week finally begins!
Or perhaps it was published Wednesday and being a hick from a stick I did not get it until Thursday. At any rate you cannot say that now as it is online and available every day, hour, second of the week. You can follow it on Twitter though perhaps not on Facebook, it not being cool enough? Anyway.
I did not pen many letters to the NME but the ones I did were long and important, long-winded and self-important that is. And yet I cannot recall them. Only that the main motive for their writing was to get the coveted letter of the week and I never achieved that. My letters did get published though which I guess is something. I recall one receiving a rather patronising curt response along the lines that I should receive a ‘Blue Peter badge for my perceptiveness’!
As well as the weekly music press there were a few monthly magazines that gave more than a passing interest to music beyond their usual concerns. One such was the The Face, its first issue appearing in May 1980. It closed in 2004 and so proved less faddish than much of its featured content.
As an aside I bought a number of those early issues, cutting out their pages and plastering them on my bedroom walls. The idea that one day they might have collector value never occurred to me!
Primarily interested in young fashion and more broadly pop culture it did feature music that it considered cutting edge even if this was as much sartorially as musically. The New Romantics were one of their formative obsessions.
They also had a few music scribes over from the NME on their books including Julie Burchill. Before there was the Internet and Internet Trolls there was Julie Burchill. And sadly for a brief time I was under her spell.
As a teenager there were no music opinions – only Truth. Any self-respecting music journo always presented their opinions as if they were irrefutable facts, and that if you did not share them you were an irredeemable philistine. This was Burchill’s approach and for a while it was mine too.
With that in mind I recall with cringing embarrassment a letter I sent to the letters page of The Face, perhaps even with greater self-delusion I sent it to their article editor. Thankfully they spared my blushes and it was not published.
One of my music obsessions of that time was Joy Division and they were the feature of this letter or small piece which ended and I paraphrase from hazy memory ‘Had Ian Curtis lived, Joy Division’s next album would have been called Suicide’!
Deep and insightful wasn’t I!?
My only experience of sitting in the presence of a journalist or professional writer was also of this early eighties time.
I had an Aunt who worked for the Radio Times more particularly in their Arts Department – this included sometime involvement in the covers of their weekly magazines.
Though the actual details are quite vague as this aunt was the youngest sister of my mother and their relationship was let us say a difficult one.
At this time I was out of work and it was thought a good idea if I could have a working holiday with this aunt. Meaning we would talk about my writing ambitions and she would introduce me to some of her media contacts – my aunt also living in Finsbury Park in North London at the time whereas I was living in the Shropshire Sticks.
As it transpired there was but one contact. This was Richard Williams the now chief sports-writer for The Guardian. At the time of our meeting though he was still working in music journalism having been the Editor of The Melody Maker. His music CV was quite a diverse one notable enough indeed to merit an entry on Wikipedia. This entry detailing that he wrote regularly for The Radio Times which I guess is where he met my aunt.
I do not recall much of the conversation but that it was uncomfortable and only made more tolerable by the presence of white wine. Some time was spent talking about some of my then current favourite writers and the NME inevitably came up though it was of one of its then illustrators not writers that we talked most of and not sure why. The illustrator being Ray Lowry.
Richard Williams has come to my attention again in the last year courtesy of Twitter and I decided to follow him based on this one meeting some thirty years earlier. If he remembers me he certainly has not followed me back!
At this time I also began to pen a lot of letters.
Each day in the mid-eighties it seems I would be writing a letter to at least someone. And generally they were not brief pithy Oscar Wilde like missives but long, wordy and rambling with consideration given to expressing whatever I was thinking and feeling at the time and little consideration for whether the recipient would be remotely interested in their contents; the attitude was if they were not interested then they should be! Of course you want to take precious time out of your busy day to find out my every, very every, thought!
And this time was pre-Internet and pretty much pre-Computer – the PC being then an expensive calculator-come-games console for the few. I did have an electric typewriter but as much of my letters were hand-written as typed as I had not yet learned touch-typing and it was thus a laborious process to compose anything on it beyond a few paragraphs.
And so if the great length of my letters did not make reading them trial enough there was also deciphering my hand. In retrospect I can see that very likely much of these letters would never have been read beyond a few paragraphs!
A particular target for my letters was music radio. I penned a number to local radio stations, to their token ‘indie’ DJ, which were usually praiseworthy in tone – of them and the music they played.
The biggest radio station in the UK in the 1970’s and 1980’s for new music was BBC Radio 1 – it was the biggest radio station for old and established rock music too. Radio 1 is far more diverse and eclectic today but even back then it filled the airwaves with a wide range of sounds.
John Peel was ever at the helm pioneering new music but I never felt there was much I needed to say to him. The annual entry to his Festive Fifty was the summit of my contact.
I did though pen a letter to the man at the top, for sadly it was always men at the top of radio in those days, alas I think it still is.
The man at the top being known as the Controller of BBC Radio One and at this time this was Johnny Beerling. Not only did my letter go on at length but its main thrust was that pretty much the entire output of daytime Radio One ought to be changed and all of its DJ’s culled. For culled would have been the sort of language my twenty-something but still very much teenage self would have used!
How could the Radio One Controller not agree with me that the likes of Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis were an on-air embarrassment?!
But he did reply and addressed quite a number of my ‘concerns’ though ending that he hoped I understood his was a very busy job and he could not entertain any further correspondence on the matter. What a diplomat!
It was only later that I discovered that Johnny Beerling was responsible for most of the recruitment of those aforementioned DJ’s!
However my feelings of dissatisfaction were not unique and indeed his successor Matthew Bannister subsequently sacked or caused these DJ’s to jump before they were pushed. And in effect carried out the roster-cull that I had been suggesting.
Not all of my long, oh-so-very long correspondence went unrequited. Occasionally I would happen upon another just as prone as myself to go on, and on, and then on some more.
One such involved a then musical infatuation, Irish band Microdisney, responsible for such gems as Pink Skinned Man and Helicopter of the Holy Ghost.
And they had a fan club going by the name of The Love Club. I cannot recall now whether a subscription was involved or what was received in return – only that I received a Love Club button badge. I was living in Peterhead, a small fishing village in the north-east of Scotland, at the time and I am sure my wearing of it would have been met with universal indifference.
Were any of you reading this a member of that Love Club? I am not holding my breath for confirmatory comments below this post!
This club was head-quartered in London and run by Tiger Ward. I think it was her idea and do not think she had a team at her disposal. And it was her that returned my letters, and at length.
There were many such letters, and as many I did not send – they were excruciatingly earnest being what I remember most about them. I likely have some stored away and at this distance of time cannot bring myself to look them out. Some memories are best left in the past? At the same time I could not bring myself to throw out these letters either.
At some point our correspondence ended. Though I note that there was a lot of it such was its intensity I think it all burned itself out in a mere few months. I cannot remember whether it was she or me that ended it or why. Given the wordiness of our letters quite possibly all that we needed to say to each other we said to each other.
Perhaps that last paragraph’s conclusion is me being narcissistic and the reason our correspondence ended was because the band Microdisney had disbanded too. Their pop-life seemed brief, all-too-brief at the time, but born in 1980 died in 1988 in retrospect is a good pop-life duration. How many groups can you think of that produced a second decade’s worth of music as good as their first? Not as easy a question to answer as you might have thought?!
Microdisney did become other bands but I do not know what became of Tiger Ward. Google her name and you very quickly come upon results for Tiger Woods! But of course she may well be Tiger some-other-surname now if Tiger itself was her real name. Her whole name might have been made-up for all I know!
Let’s end this section with some Microdisney.
My membership of the Love Club was fandom but it was third-party proxy fandom, I did also write directly to groups.
But these letters were not especially long or insightful rather doting uncritical almost-love letters, the today equivalent of requesting they follow-me back on Twitter.
Groups the object of my pop-love included Sarah Goes Shopping and Trixies Big Red Motorbike.
Very likely you do not know who those two groups were. Had you been around when they were making records in the early-eighties very likely you would not know who those groups were!
Though most of my writing could broadly be described as pop culture review with occasional forays into politics I do have periodic obsessions where my interests can get very niche and intense.
One such period was in the early 1990’s when I spent a lot of my time embroiled in correspondence chess.
You can probably work out what that entails but either way you might like to look at this site to see that is an international affair and very competitive.
However in the 1990’s most of correspondence chess was still analogue. There were tentative steps into Email and Fax but the majority of moves were made using the postal system of all the various countries involved.
Postcards were the primary means – whether picture-tourist type ones or austere two-tone chess-board affairs specially customized to record the moves and their dates – with letters and aero-grammes also used.
Most chess opponents had nothing to say to me, and not just because I played Internationally and not being able to understand each other’s native language, rather the talking was being done in the chess-play and no time for any chit-chat beyond the social niceties of ‘How are you?’ and ‘Good luck’.
Most chess opponents but not all. Some had much to say and not all of it chess-related. I was one of them.
There were a few who wrote beyond chess clearly as an opportunity to improve their use and understanding of English but the rest of us wanted to share – their life to date and their views on all and sundry. Perhaps even as a primary means of meeting new people with chess-play a mere afterthought.
At one particularly frenetic period I was involved in over a hundred correspondence chess games – and what with the time devoted to that and the letter-writing too it was a wonder I ever left my home.
I note this period merely to reflect that when you can write it is easy enough to get carried away by it, to develop a tunnel-vision and lose perspective of the wider world around you. Not just that while involved in this incessant and intense chess writing – I would also write regularly to very many chess magazines of varying degrees of obscurity – that it was at the expense of other human activity but it was also at the expense of other more formal writing.
I was expending thousands and thousands of words and minutes when it could have been better focused on writing the Great Modern Novel or at least submitting articles to small-print publications!
I may have been happy in my distraction but distraction it definitely was.
It was not just on my own time that I could not help but write. Even when employed to undertake other labours – in my case computer-related office work, support and training – if there was an opportunity to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard I would take it.
When a past employer of mine, Barnardo’s, installed an Intranet they were eventually persuaded to include Online Forums.
Ostensibly they were to discuss work related themes, policies and practices but often as not the most popular postings were non-work related – news items, what was on the TV the night-before – the water-cooler chat brought online. And I was one of its most prolific posters. It would have been evident to my employer that while doing this I was not working but somehow I could not stop myself.
I was holding forth on all and sundry but in a most inappropriate not to say obscure place.
But it was self-evident that left to my own devices, my heart’s content, writing was the activity above all others that I would surrender too.
And then I discovered blogging and WordPress and shhh (!) other blogging platforms and this blog was born.
* This was originally written in 2013. This revision is 2019 and the NME is no more in print, but does still lead a digital existence.