Letter (email) to my daughter

By chance, I came across this, a ‘letter’ (actually an email) to my daughter when she was at the end of her first year at university and unhappy in the course she was in. Because she was born in August, she was young for her year. At the time (about May, 2014) I was on holiday in Mallorca and had stopped off for a lager and a cigar at a café somewhere or other of the inland towns. I had with me my works laptop (I can’t think why but I did). My daughter messaged me because she was in a complete tizzy about whether even to carry on with her uni course or not and was very unhappy. About 1,300 miles away I was trying to advise her and cheer her up. This is the email I sent.

Quite why I am posting it here and why I think it would be OK to do so, I don’t know (although I know none of my family reads this blog) but it does occur to me that what I have to say is in some ways also generally true.

I have not altered it except where indicated in [square brackets]. I feel it would be dishonest to do so, but again I don’t know why or why that would even matter. But there you go.

Sweetheart,

It occurred to me that if I told you a bit about my troubles at college, it might help give perspective to your thinking and in some way make it a little easier for you.

But first I have to tell you that I believe we inherit one or two traits from both our parents but also have some of our very own. Mum, as I told you, also tends to bottle things up and you might well have got that from her. She is also a curious mixture of a great deal of confidence in some areas – farming, local life - and a troubling, for her, lack in others, i.e. she would hate to have to drive up to Bristol. But then we all have our oddities and curious aspects of behaviour. I know I have mine.

You, too, seem to be a bit like that (though not necessarily in farming – you will have your own areas of confidence and a lack of it). But believe me, please, and you will only realise I was right when I am long gone and you remember me just as that cranky old sod who used to shout at people on the phone and sit outside smoking cigars when everyone else had retreated from the chill outside and was warm and comfortable inside.

I’ve told you this before, but I’ll repeat it so you believe me: when we are young, before we become three or four and still lack self-consciousness, many of our most fundamental characteristics are already apparent. And you were always a confident lass, determined and at times a bit stroppy, with a tendency to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Whatever else happens to us in later life, these things rarely change. Obviously, they can manifest themselves in different ways depending on what happens to us and how our lives go, so self-confidence sometimes becomes an arrogance which doesn’t take the feelings of others into consideration. But that will be the exception rather than the rule.

This might also be the point where I should tell give you my take on ‘intelligence’. It has nothing to do with education or academic achievement. And we can be intelligent and bright in some ways and shit-stupid in others. It has nothing to do with profession, job, ‘class’, who your parents were, your family or anything else. It is something all our very own. I think you are both bright and determined – the way you conscientiously set about doing your essays is a case in point. If at the moment you feel ‘uni isn’t for you’, well, I suggest you look at it and tell yourself ‘this course isn’t necessarily for me’, not uni. You sound more enthusiastic about this new course, for which I am glad.

You also mentioned that you decided you wanted to become a teacher after others said ‘you would make a good teacher, Elsie’, but that in practice it is a harder than you thought. Nothing wrong with that, either. In fact, look on the bright side: you now know that you are not necessarily cut out for working with children by teaching them in class, but you still, I think, would like to work with children and in education in some other capacity. My point: look at the positive – you have gained a little from experience.

As I am talking about experience, let me tell you that gaining a little experience in whatever way – it could be in work, driving a car, dealing with your taxes, in your personal, in relationships, in our dealings with the opposite sex, the different circumstances are endless - is very useful. The bright person takes from it what is useful and tries not to make a similar mistake (and not always successfully, but that doesn’t alter the point I am making). The stupid person doesn’t and repeats a mistake again and again and again. On the other hand, don’t be afraid of making a mistake, but if you do, take stock and try not to do the same thing again. As I say, the bright person learns from mistakes, the dumbo doesn’t.

. . .

I went to boarding school. In my first term I was very, very, very unhappy and homesick. Without exaggeration, I was completely and utterly miserable 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout that first term. I ran away from school to go home three times, though as we only live eight miles away it wasn’t that difficult. Then I had a stroke of luck: my parents couldn’t really afford the fees any more, so for the next two terms and the three terms of my second year I was a day boy, cycling to school every day. Then – as I saw it then – disaster. My father was posted to Paris by the BBC and I was told I would have to be a boarder again. I was heartbroken and, remembering how miserable I was, I was dreading the next few months until September. Then something odd happened: on my first day – as boarder – I met up with some friends, made them laugh and it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t going to be half as bad as I had feared. In fact, I enjoyed the next three years. And I learned a lesson: keep an open mind.

At school I didn’t fit into any of the three main groups. There were the sporty ones, the swots and the dumbos. I was none of those: for one thing I could make people laugh, and I wasn’t all that stupid (he says carefully, so as not to be thought self-satisfied). But I didn’t really work hard at all. I got by but that was it.

So when it came to applying to uni (though we didn’t call it that in those days) and [I] had decided I wanted to study philosophy (because I was intrigued that we could talk about ideas and concepts) and English [that was] (because I had written a poem, showed it to an English teacher, he told me to ‘carry on’ and so there and then I decided I was going to ‘be a writer’. I though that by telling me to ‘carry on’, he was saying ‘look, you’re rather good at this’, but he wasn’t. It only occurred to me years and years later that all he was doing was what any good adult should do for a child: encourage them. Another lesson learnt, though many, many years later. And to this day, until today, and into the future, I still want to ‘be a writer’.)

But applying to uni, I got nowhere. My [UCCA] application spiel was laughably naïve and childish. So I stayed on to retake my chemistry A level and do German S level. (German was always easy – I wonder why). But the second time around I got nowhere. No offers from anyone. And all the time there was the threat from my father that if I didn’t ‘buckle down at school’, he would take me away an ‘put me in an office in Reading’ (the school was near Reading). Well, that did it: there was no way I wanted to work, especially not in ‘an office in Reading’ which frightened me beyond measure. That was the only reason – the only reason – I was desperate to go to university. I should add that, unfortunately, neither of my parents seemed to take any interest in my education, really, although I do know it wasn’t quite as simple as that. For one thing, they both had confidence that I would somehow do reasonably well in life and, anyway, were far more concerned with my brother Ian who was already showing distinct signs of his mental illness. But also, their marriage wasn’t at all happy and hadn’t been for many years. (For that reason, while we were living in Paris, from 1965 until 1972, I only went home about five times for a couple of weeks at time, because it was a miserable household. Instead I stayed with friends from school.)

But there I was, 18, two very poor A levels, biology and chemistry and one very good one, German, as well as S level German, and no university had offered me a place through the UCCA (now UCAS) system. And I didn’t get anywhere on the clearing system. I was down in the dumps big time.

My mother’s distant cousin in Germany owned a shipyard (in Papenburg), ) so it was arranged that I should [go] to [sic] and work there. And about the same time I got the advice simply to write to individual universities simply asking for a place. I did. I wrote to Liverpool, Dundee, Kings College London, Bradford and one or two others I can no longer recall asking for a place on their English and philosophy course. I got an interview with Kings College, came back from Germany for a few days, fucked the interview and that was that with Kings. But Liverpool, Dundee and Bradford all offered me place. Well, stupid little public school snob that I was, I turned down Bradford – ‘who wants to live in working-class Bradford’ I thought. But I accepted the offer from Dundee.

Then, just a few days later came the Liverpool offer, but being, as I thought ‘gentlemanly and upright’ I believed that as I had already accepted the Dundee offer, I couldn’t turn around and say no, so I turned Liverpool down. (This business of simply asking for a place at a university which seemed make a complete nonsense of the whole UCCA (UCAS) scheme puzzled me for many years, until I heard that as universities were at the time fully funded by the government, they tried to ensure they completely filled their available places so they would get as much money per student as they could. So that’s why I got to college: they wanted their money from the government. It has bugger all to do with me. But at least I got to go to college.)

So there I was, my parents in Paris, me living in North Germany and I had to organise getting to Dundee, all in a matter of weeks. And I did, but I have no idea how. None.

Dundee is miles away from anywhere I had been used to. It seemed like the back of beyond. I eventually went to Kings Cross station and caught a train to Edinburgh. We got to York and I thought ‘well, not far to go now’. But it was. Newcastle is 100 miles north of York, but at the time I didn’t know – my knowledge of British geography was pitiful. So when we got to Newcastle, I panicked. I thought ‘isn’t Newcastle south of York? Bloody hell, I got on the wrong train’. But someone put me right. Edinburgh is another 100 miles north of Newcastle and it took ages to get there. But once we did, I looked up a train for Dundee and got on. Now that train was the same kind which took us from Henley to Twyford, a ten-minute journey, where we could then catch the train to London. So I thought ‘I won’t even bother sitting down, we’ll be there in ten minutes.’ We weren’t – the journey, on a slower train, took two hours.

Dundee was desolate. I arrived in October at about 3.30pm. It was pissing with rain, it gets dark far earlier that far north and not only was Dundee desolate, but so was I. I found my digs (I had called the college accommodation bureau who gave me an address) and was confronted by Mr and Mrs Scottish Incomprehensible Accent, both of them only about five foot four. They told me I was just in time ‘for tea’. Teas [sic] was high tea, i.e. a fry-up with chips. Nothing wrong with that except that when I asked for vinegar, I was handed a bottle with clear liquid and it was called ‘condiment’. I was totally and utterly at sea. And desolate. What the fuck was going on?

But I’m a sociable sort and made a few friends (and felt very guilty eventually ditching some of the early ones). I went to my lectures on time for the first few weeks, then got into the habit of sleeping in till noon. My room was on the top floor and it was so damp, my jeans were always – always – wet when I put them on in the morning. We were allowed on bath a week, but there was never enough water for more than – I am not bullshitting you – about four inches. I carried on, in my private moments, being very desolate indeed.

At the end of my first year, and after not attending any lectures at all, I failed all five of my foundation year subjects – methodology, economics, political science, history and psychology. It seemed like the end of the road and that ‘office in Reading’ or, worse, Bradford beckoned with all the miserable boredom I thought ‘working in an office’ entailed. But we had ‘resits’, a chance to take the same exams again in September, and I had just one thought in mind: make damn sure I was able to stay on at college and get that bloody grant cheque.

So I went to a bookshop, bought as [many] teach yourself history/economics/political science and psychology – the thinner, the better - and spent the summer months living in Dundeed [sic] – no one, but no one was around, the place seemed dead as a doornail - preparing for those all-important ‘re-sits’. How I managed to learn all about ‘methodology’ I really can’t remember, but I took my exams and past [sic] four out of five. I failed psychology (but passed [well, if I could get it right a few words on, why not the first time?] later that year) and my university course could continue. That all-important grant cheque was mine and the nightmare of starting work ‘in an office in Reading’ had been postponed. Phew!

More important problems started in my second year. Like you, but not like you, I, too, have a habit – some might call it a facility – of bottling things up. And out of the blue I had a panic attack. And, dear Elsie, panic attacks are awful, quite awful. They arrive completely unannounced and, for the first one or two at least, are utterly bewildering. (I have had a second bout of them, years later in London, which went on for about two years, and they were still bloody awful.) No one knows what causes them, except most probably unresolved stress. Which is why I insist: never bottle things up. Don’t postpone problems, deal with them now. Tackle them head on.

I went to the college doctor who put my [sic] on – well, I don’t know what they were back in 1969, but they ‘solved’ the problem by more or less zombifying you. When I returned home to Paris that Christmas, having taken the pills for a few months, my mother was horrified. But then that was almost 50 years ago. Science has moved on, though I am still very, very dubious about putting young children with attention deficit disorder on drugs. (In fact, as far as I am concerned western society relies on psycho drugs far too much. They merely mask a problem and make it seem to go away, but we don’t look at underlying causes as much as we might, though things are a lot, lot better. I rather suspect the pharma industry which makes fabulous sums flogging the bloody things is not being quite as responsible as it might and encourages their use for its own shabby ends.)

This is the point where what I am writing might be relevant to you. Everyone has problems and difficulties - there are no exceptions and sadly some get more than their fair share - and we deal with them or not according to our personal resources, attitudes, character and wisdom. If you had ever had a panic attack, Mum and I would most certainly know about it, and I doubt very much that you have. But if you do, don’t suffer in silence. But the other side of the coin is that: we all have problems and difficulties and we all find ways to deal with them.

From the day I was born until I left university, I had moved – was moved when I was younger – seven times, and especially when a child is young that can be disconcerting. I didn’t have my first bout of appalling homsickness [sic] at school, but years earlier when we had been in Berlin for a few months. Suddenly, all I could think of was to go back to Henley. So I am eternally grateful that you and Wes were born, have grown up and will eventually leave to start your own independent lives in the same place, the same house, the same environment. All things being equal it gives you an inner stability which is invaluable. I believe you have that inner stability, Elsie, apart from being bright, determined and resourceful – yes, that, too, even though you might not think so. Don’t sell yourself short.

Mum is a very good woman and very good mother. It might not have been, as I once told you recently, Romeo and Juliet between us (and, to be frank it is hardly ever the case between any married couple), and we have had and will always have our moments. Both of us love you in a way you will never understand until you have your own children. There is no other live [love] like it. In some ways a love for one’s own children is the only real love, utterly pure and utterly selfless. We want nothing from you but your happiness, contentment, health and fulfilment and my heart goes out to those children (Daisy, possibly?) who are sold short in that respect [Daisy was not my niece in the farm, but a former flatmate of my daughter’s drank, smoked a lot of dope, slept around]. You owe us nothing, nothing at all. And if you feel you do, don’t repay us, repay it to your children by giving the [sic] unconditional love.

I know you understand every word I have written. You are now on the cusp of womanhood, but please try to understand that both Mum and I have known you at very stage in your life from newborn baby, to toddler, you [to] young child, to growing child, you [to] adolescent teenager, to the woman you are now. And we don’t just see you now as Elsie 18 going on 19, but as ALL those Elsies.

If there is anything – and I mean anything – you want to talk to me about, don’t feel shy. (I told you yesterday that I am shy. Well, deep, deep, deep down I am, far deeper than anyone could ever imagine, so I know what shyness is, though no one, but no one believes that loudmouth Pat – as I am at work – is shy. But I am.)

Now, chill out, take a long deep breath, don’t rush things – you might well have inherited ‘rushing things’ from me if you do – chill out and look forward to the future with confidence. You might sometimes not think so, bout you are one of Life’s lucky ones. I hope all this has helped.

Dad, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx



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