The best of The Big Issue’s Letter To My Younger Self from 2021
Every week we ask a famous face to give their 16-year-old self a good talking to. Here’s some words of wisdom gathered in 2021.
by: The Big Issue
15 Dec 2021
Billie Piper. Image: Theresa Marx / Evening Standard / eyevine
Each week The Big Issue speaks to a public figure about their life. The series, Letter To My Younger Self, has even produced a celebrated book. As the end of the year approaches, here are some of the highlights from 2021.
Those teenage years are a period of my life that I’m reflecting on now for the first time in my adult life. And there’s a lot of missing pieces, to be honest, which I think speaks for itself. Those first few years were totally thrilling, and I just felt like I was living a dream of mine. But I was often in very strange, very adult situations that I wouldn’t subject my own kids to at 16.
Actually, my real takeaway from my 16th year is just how exhausted I was, because I was a teenager going through everything a teenager goes through but very publicly. With a schedule which would rival a highflying businessperson.
It must have looked peculiar from the outside, but I was having fun at that point, so I couldn’t feel what that really meant.
School was tough. I suffered racism and a lot of fighting. I got caned a lot. I didn’t know it then but I have dyslexia. In school I was just told I was dumb. I remember my session with the careers teacher. Everybody went in, one after another, and they’d say, I want to be a fireman, and the teacher would say, get this qualification, get your fitness levels up, stuff like that. I sat down and my teacher said, there’s no point you sitting here, because you’re going to amount to nothing. And that was it.
If I could have one final conversation with anyone… I lost my brother, very suddenly, last year. I just got a phone call one lunchtime saying, do you know why Nigel hasn’t turned up for work? It was one of those. Sudden and wrenching. All his plans for a long, busy retirement snuffed out overnight. My father was entering dementia by then so he didn’t really fully understand it, but it was very tough on my sister and myself. So I’d like to know… I think I’d like to know that my brother was happy. Because I didn’t get the chance to ask.
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I see a lot of dead bodies around me, a lot of careers that are over so quickly. I give myself props just for sitting here talking to you today. It’s been more than 20 years and I’m still here. I give myself even more credit for being excited about the next chapter, because I had this huge opening in my twenties and now I’ve got this chapter which could be even more exciting because of the lessons learned.
I was from a working-class family so we made our own pocket money. I used to wash cars, clean windows, go shopping for the old people across the road who would throw 50p out of the window. And I was quite happy with that. Because I was helping people and it taught me about the value of money and trying to find my own opportunities. I left school at 16 and worked in the newsagents, where I’d had a paper round. I always had a sweet tooth and kept pinching sweets. A woman called Carol challenged me to see who could stop eating sweets for the longest. She gave up after a month – me, being this competitive person, did it for one year solid. I’ve always been pig-headed and determined.
Some of our best interviews are collected together in Letter to My Younger Self: 100 Inspiring People on the Moments that Shaped Their Lives, out now (Bonnier Books, £9.99)
I’ve always been an observer. It’s not that I didn’t play when I was at school, but I did observe even then. I would be interested in how kids were with and around each other. I think many people who are shy are like that, because you’re standing back all the time. So it gives you an opportunity to look and see how people are. It has always fed into my work.
It never crossed my mind that I was any kind of trailblazer. I didn’t know I was breaking ground. Nothing like that was on my mind. All I was doing was writing as I wanted to.
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I’m Jewish so through my teenage years in the ’50s I became aware of the history of the concentration camp. Memoirs were beginning to be published and the shock-horror of those things, that was a real trauma. To discover what human beings would do to each other if they were unaccountable, if no one saw it. There were people where I lived in north-west London who you could see were concentration camp survivors, people with tattoos on their arms. People who had clearly suffered mental health problems as a result. So I was aware of belonging to a minority, and I was very grateful that I was British.
There was a particular trauma after the end of Nirvana that lasted for a while but, you know, I think that love of music I had when I was a child eclipsed everything and I realised music was going to be the thing that would write me out of that depression. For a while there I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to play music again. But it came back. And thankfully, just as I had hoped, it healed me.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone in my life, it’s got to be Freddie. I was on my way to see him, less than half a mile away, when they rang me in my car and told me he’d gone. I just stopped the car on Kensington High Street, in a kind of shock. Because even when you know somebody is going to die, it’s still such a shock when they do. I wish I’d been there to give him support. That’s what he wanted. He liked his friends around. I think [the subsequent outpouring of love] has been terrific. He would have been so happy about it. But I just wish I got to say goodbye.
I lost my focus at Arsenal. I thought I had everything. I felt like I was breathing different air. To go all of a sudden from the ugly duckling in the family to the patriarch, and everybody wants you and everybody knows you. I didn’t trust anybody. But I was getting all this adulation after being starved of love as a child. If I could go back and talk to myself I’d say, there are some people around you who you need to move away from. I’d say, bam, bam, bam, bam, seven, eight of you – out.
My political awakening was in Coventry in my teenage years when I discovered that working men’s clubs had a colour bar on their doors. You could only get in if you were white. That really shook me. I couldn’t work it out. One photograph of The Specials told you who we are and what we believe. People could get it straight away so you were either with us or not. Even at a very young age, I didn’t want to be in a band to sell records or be well known. I wanted it because it felt like it was the only thing I could do with conviction and honesty. That still applies now.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone… my mother [Prunella Scales] springs to mind because she has dementia. You always imagine there’s eventually going to be this moving final reel with a limpid piano soundtrack in which you both say everything that needs to be said, ask everything you’ve ever wondered about. When your parent gets dementia, you realise that that’s not going to happen. But that’s OK, I’ve made my peace with it. In fact, leaving the desire to answer those questions behind has been an important thing for me to do.
I think the thing that would surprise the younger me most is that anybody would rate me and want to work with me. I know it sounds silly – I should have enough evidence by now to prove that’s the case. But every time somebody says, “Oh, would you like to do this?” or “We’d like to talk to you about that”, I’m like, really? Me? That Labrador puppy is still inside me somewhere. I’m still surprised every single day that I’m allowed to join the club and play the game.
The whole experience of that first Wimbledon win [in 2013] was strange. It’s difficult to explain – you’d think winning something like that, achieving your dream, you’d be filled with joy. But you know, I just felt a bit numb. I was unbelievably tired from the match, and I had to go to the Champions’ Dinner, being pushed and pulled in all directions down to what brand of suit I was going to wear, things I couldn’t care less about. After that I went to a hotel with my wife. I turned on the TV – BBC One, they were talking about my match. I turned to ITV and I was on the news; I turned to Sky and I was on the news. The whole thing was just overwhelming.
I was manufactured. My look came from London, with hair and makeup from New York. It evolved thanks to Mary Quant and a friend of mine named Amy Green. She took me to a salon called Kenneth in New York and I met a lady who coloured my hair blonde. And I loved it, that new persona. I was grateful for it because I had been floundering. It was playful and a little sexy. It was courageous for me to step out like that.
It was instant when I met David [Coles’s partner; they were in a civil partnership from 2010 until David’s death in 2019]. I met him when he heard me preach a sermon and I ponced a cigarette off him afterwards. It was the day of the smoking ban, July 1, 2007. I still don’t think David is dead. I mean, I know he’s dead, but I don’t think he’s dead. I have this sense of him being somewhere in the world, knitting, or going to the Co-op and spending a fortune. I’ve got a new dread, of him fading. So at nights I put on a dab of his cologne and I have the dogs in bed with me. One of them snores – it sounds a little bit like him so it’s a bit of a comfort. But it’s lonely.
[When I was 16] racism was only talked about in the context of racial slurs. Or duffing people up in an alley. We didn’t have the vocabulary we have now to describe the much more subtle racism that even the people who were harming us weren’t aware they were doing. It was a difficult thing to bring up. There was a shame around it. I saw my parents getting it and it wasn’t anything we ever talked about. It felt like there was no one to talk to. When you’re young, it makes the world feel unsafe.
Find more of the letter to my younger self features here.