Dan Snow on being a loser, foreign girlfriends and the smell of South London

History buff Dan Snow in a Letter To My Younger Self recounts why he'd never leave London permanently, revisiting his days a prep chef in the Rocky Mountains and hanging out with his parents as a teenager

As a 16-year-old I probably came across as arrogant. I was tall and very athletic, good-looking. But I wasn’t confident. I couldn’t look people in the eye and I was very nervous in social situations. So that probably came across as ‘look at that tall bloke over there, he thinks he’s better than everybody’. I felt very insecure in London, embarrassed about my posh accent. I didn’t know how to dress. I was still wearing the Gap T-shirt I’d got at 14. I went to a single-sex private school, which also made meeting girls difficult. My friends knew lots of girls and I didn’t know any. I hadn’t kissed a girl yet. My friends were telling me lots of stories about kissing girls and la la la. I wish my 16-year-old self had known his friends were all lying to him.

My parents never addressed the issue of me becoming a teenager. They quite liked the fact that I was hanging out with them on a Friday night in my old Gap T-shirt. As a dad myself I’d be quite mindful that your kids need to be with their friends, to start to move into adulthood. I think I’ll try to help them do that. My mum never said, look, here’s your pocket money, go to Camden Market, buy some decent goddamn clothes. My dad never taught me how to shave. He just said, “Oh yeah, you need to start shaving now”, and wandered off. And I was like, I’m fucking terrified, what do you do?! I was embarrassed, I had these hairs coming out of my chin and I didn’t know what to do about them. They probably thought I was on it, but I wasn’t on it, I was dying.

I look at the street signs, the hedgerows, the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, and I know I could never move away.

I was very competitive when I was 16. I wanted to get into a top university, I wanted to be good at rowing and rugby. So I was working hard. Looking back, that’s what I’m most grateful about. I went to Oxford right? I can tell you this, the people at Oxford were no cleverer than anyone else I ever met. But they were people who made the decision at 14 years old to work really hard. Oxford was like anywhere else, a bunch of muppets who wanted to do well and made a lot of mistakes. But we all had been weird teenagers who made a decision at 14 to work for two years and see what happened. And I’m glad I did that, because it opened up a world of opportunities for me. I absolutely loved university. After hating being 16, I bloody loved being 17 and 18. I grew into myself. I felt I’d made it.

I’m quite a conservative person. I did try to be rebellious when I was a teenager. I remember a friend offered to sell me weed and I said, hey, cool, of course. So I bought some weed from him and literally, the moment I was round the corner I started panicking that a SWAT team was going to swoop down on me. I immediately threw it in a dumpster. That was the fucking scariest 30 seconds of my life.

If I could speak to that teenager now I’d say, you have so much more time than you think. At 16 I thought time was running out. I thought life was over by the time you got to 23, that’s when you were washed up. So I only had five years to really live. And here I was, on a Friday night in one of those years, just sitting at home with my mum and dad. I thought everyone was better at socialising than me, was much cooler than me, more successful than me. I was in a dark place. I thought I was a complete loser. What I know now is that those are just practice years, real life begins much later. I had much more fun and adventure and more experiences in my twenties and thirties.

I think I developed gradually into someone who could speak to an audience. This is one of the things about having a wonderful dad [fellow TV presenter and historian Peter Snow], he’s like a wise older you giving good advice. And he once said to me, when I was starting my career, say yes to every speaking event you get asked to do. You’ll be absolutely rubbish for the first five years, terrible, you’ll make a balls-up of the whole thing. But then you’ll be able to do it. And that’s exactly what happened. I was fucking useless at first. But now it’s no bother to me.

In 1994 the year Dan Snow turns 16…

  • Ayrton Senna is killed during the San Marino Grand Prix
  • Nelson Mandela becomes president of South Africa
  • Michael Jackson marries Lisa Marie Presley

The 16-year-old me would be very surprised I’m married to a very conventional English woman with a life like mine, very boring. He’d be like, oh come on Dan! I’m half-Canadian and always assumed I’d marry someone exotic from a completely different part of the world. And I did have a lot of foreign girlfriends. But the moment I met my wife, I felt very comfortable with her. I immediately thought, I wonder if this is the one. And now three kids later. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I never thought I’d be as lucky as I am.

The 16-year-old me would be disappointed that I haven’t lived in lots of different, exciting places around the world. I’d say to him now, don’t underestimate the importance of home. I’ve travelled all over the world and the older I get the more I feel we’re like salmon. We come back to where we’re from. When I land at Heathrow Airport, it has that feeling, there’s something in the air. The smell of the streets of south-west London, the mixture of dog poo, and fox piss, and rubbish and concrete, that’s the smell of my home. I look at the street signs, the hedgerows, the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, and I know I could never move away. I used to think happiness would be drinking expensive cocktails on fantastic beaches chasing beautiful foreign women around. I know now what makes you happy is a deep and abiding sense of comfort and confidence and proximity to people you love.

Dan Snow with Family
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Pictured here with wife Edwina and two of their children, Wolf and Zia

If I could go back and re-experience any moment in my life, it would be a very special day when I was 19 and working as a prep chef in the Rocky Mountains. I’d spent the summer there, living in a lodge in the mountains, letting my hair grow long and go blonde in the sun. I’d made amazing friends. And in three days’ time I was leaving to start at Oxford. I came out of the lodge and ran 20 miles through the mountains and the flowers, by these beautiful cerulean blue lakes. I had my Walkman on, blasting the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans. I felt at the prime of my life. I was ending an amazing chapter of my life and about to begin a big new one. Nothing could stop me. I’ve never been so happy.

Dan Snow – An Evening With The History Guy is touring the UK from June 2. For full details, visit ticketline.co.uk