20 Books of Summer, #1: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

30965704A mother, named only as Ma, tells her teenage child, Alex, that they must both leave the house abruptly without any warning, and that Alex can only take the school backpack they’d already packed. The pair set off on a road trip across America, guided by a map upon which Ma has written annotations such as ‘Brainwashed broodmother’ in the middle of Texas, and ‘Den of prostitution and overpriced wine’ in Nevada. But there’s a pattern to some of these scribbles; many of them relate to a series of women called Laura that Ma met throughout her life. While Ma had romantic feelings for most of the Lauras, some took other roles in her life entirely; yet their influence was always positive. As she explains when Alex asks her ‘Why are they all called Laura?’, ‘You try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name… until you look back when you’re forty years old and realise that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important.‘ However, alongside Ma’s odyssey, Alex has their own journey; they (Alex) has no internal sense of gender identity, and take care to outwardly appear neither male nor female, so they cannot be forced into a box by others. The vicious bullying and sexual assaults Alex encounters at a series of schools has set them apart from the world, yet they are totally certain about who they are inside.

The Guardian headlined its review of The Lauras an engrossing transgender road trip‘, which is misleading; Alex does not seem to me to be trans or even non-binary under the conventional definition used by trans women and men or non-binary people, because they do not have a gender identity, and so their gender identity cannot be at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth.[1] Nevertheless, The Lauras is intensely thought-provoking about gender. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently myself after hearing Sarah Perry talk at the Emerald Street Literary Festival about how she does not have a strong internal sense of being a woman. I don’t want to paraphrase her words too much, so here is a link to an older article where she says: ‘I’m not entirely sure I think of myself as a woman.’ 

When I was a little girl, I swung year on year between being a vehement ‘tomboy’ and being the girliest girl I could imagine. When I was five, I used to ask for a ‘boy’ party bag at friends’ parties rather than a ‘girl’ party bag – because I wanted the dinosaur and truck toys, not the dolls and glitter, but also because I think I already had the sense that I didn’t want to be like the other girls. By the time I was seven, I insisted on having my long hair braided, wore the frilliest possible dresses, and policed my own behaviour for signs of anything I thought was too ‘boyish’. As a nine-year-old, I swung back again; I remember one male teacher at my primary school joking that ‘Laura’s as likely to wear a skirt as I am.’ Perhaps cued by this kind of well-intentioned comment that nevertheless, highlighted my difference from the others in my class, by twelve I was in short skirts, platform shoes and badly-applied make-up. This is all summed up for me by an entry I made as a young child in the sort of diary that gave you prompts as to what to write. Under the sentence ‘This year I’m going to change this about myself’ I wrote ‘Being Like A Boy.’ A year or so later, I rubbed the last word out and wrote ‘Being Like A Girl’.

Ramona diaryPerry’s talk chimed with me because I have also never felt an internal sense of gender identity. Because I have grown up being treated as a girl and then as a woman, I have learnt my way into this role, but it doesn’t feel like something that was mine to begin with. However, I think I differ from her when she says that ‘my being a woman only rarely occurs to me, in quite a detached and disinterested way’. Although I don’t feel that I always was female ‘inside’, I would say I have come to identify with other women through shared experience under patriarchy. Therefore, being a woman is now an important part of my identity, albeit not one that I feel has been present since birth.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I absolutely loved the thought-provoking questions that The Lauras posed about gender and gender identity. We never find out Alex’s biological sex, or indeed, whether they are in fact intersex. As in the Ancillary Justice series, which are in all other respects very different books, I found myself trying to guess what Alex ‘really’ was, then wondering why the question mattered so much. As Alex appears androgynous, their sex has nothing to do with how they are treated by other people, except insofar as they are bullied and assaulted for being genderless. Taylor is perhaps a bit too blunt and simplistic in attacking readers’ assumptions when she has Alex think ‘Knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything… I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave about them… tells an awful lot about you’, but it’s a point that is obviously central to the novel.

I’ve written so much about Alex that there’s little space to say much more about Ma’s journey, but rest assured that, if not as theoretically thought-provoking, her travels fully earn their place in the narrative, and, indeed, provide its backbone. Travelling from place to place, Ma picks up the threads of stories that she dropped years ago, and finds out what happened next, while being as at ease with her own sexuality as she is with Alex’s (lack of) gender. And I have to say, as a Laura myself, I loved the series of different Lauras that she seeks out. As a small child I often made friends with other Lauras because we had a common point of reference, and I still have a disproportionate number of friends called Laura in the present day (although the name was so popular in the year I was born that perhaps this is inevitable; I’ve rarely been in a large group of people my age without at least one other Laura).

All this is to say that The Lauras is a beautifully-written and gripping novel, remaining upbeat about difficult questions of identity while consistently managing to steer clear of anything too kitschy or glib. It’s been a brilliant start to my 20 Books of Summer.

[1] Based on the definitions of transgender and non-binary identity put forward by Stonewall and GLAAD. Obviously these definitions can be contested.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #6

This entry was written late in my last year of sixth form, when I was in the middle of writing a novel, but also acting in my final youth theatre play, After Juliet.

UntitledEighteen

April 19th, 2005

I went into the Boston Tea Party today to get some form of drink after swimming (Starbucks being closed) and had only been there a little while when A— came in and noticed me. [A was a playwright who had written a number of plays for youth theatre.] I don’t think I’ve seen her since HOUSE ON HELLMOUTH HILL (the return of!). I seem to remember finding her slightly annoying and patronising – God I was an over-critical little girl then. We had a very interesting conversation – she began by asking me about my own writing, as always, and I said that I was certainly keeping on with it but was so busy at the moment with A Levels that I had very little time. (Still bogged down in chapter 13. And not very positive about it as always happens when I have to take a long break. But I want to start again!)

Then I asked her about Storm [on the Lawn. A youth theatre project] this year, for which she’s written another play, this time focusing on the life and stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We had quite a good conversation about Andersen – by good luck I’ve been reading some of his stories lately, thinking they might be useful for Elizabeth [a character in the novel I was writing] so I could mention the well-known ones like the Wild Swans and the Snow Queen without sounding a complete twit. It was clearly a good topic for A— as she’s obviously really enthusiastic about it having done loads of research – she told me about some of the lesser known, more ‘Gothic’ Anderson tales such as ‘The Shadow’ apparently, about a man who believes his shadow has come alive and is following (Funny how we just did Ferdinand [from The Duchess of Malfi] today – I am being chased by nothing and so forth) him, and ‘Auntie Toothache’. Must look those up – could be very useful.

It was interesting enough just to be able to talk to somebody serious about writing; it’s always surprising how nice it feels, as even people who say they’re interested in writing but are my age are usually not OBSESSIVE enough. Said I knew very little about HCA’s life and A— told me a bit about that as well – apparently a very strange man. She finished by promising to get me a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, as always, and gave me her e-mail address and said that I really could contact her at any time in the future, as it would probably never change. Always feel awkward about that – I am grateful she wants to help me with my writing but I never know what I could ask her.

B— [our youth theatre director] came in at that point and he and A— went to a separate table while I read. I think they’re discussing ‘The Country of the Blind’, Foundation group’s new project. I continued to read (‘A Clash of Kings’ very good at the moment) [proof I was a George RR Martin obsessive before it was cool!] and when I left I made sure to say good-bye, as I always miss chances like that. B— told me he was coming to see ‘After Juliet’ tonight and wished me luck. I didn’t want to sit down right away as it was sunny and the air felt gorgeous so I prowled up and down a bit. Am excited about first night tonight, although funnily I almost don’t want to go back into the atmosphere of the play.

Author’s Note

Teenagers – and indeed, the under-25s – are often stigmatised as being incapable of long-term planning, defined by their impulsiveness, risk-taking and lack of understanding of real consequences. In other words, they cannot make serious plans for the future. These stereotypes have always puzzled me, because I’m convinced that I was far more ‘mature’ as an eighteen-year-old than I was in my early- or even my mid-twenties. Viewing age as a continuum along which we gradually become more competent until the ‘decline’ of old age involves fundamentally ageist assumptions about both young and older people. In reality, we don’t experience our own ageing as steady improvement, but as a series of ups and downs, as we claw back some self-knowledge and lose it again. Why, then, are we so ready to accept negative generalisations about whole age groups?

As I’ve said all along, posting my teenage diaries has never been about proving that I was some super-exceptional teenager. Indeed, I’ve tried to emphasise how much I had in common with others my age (although I often looked down at my contemporaries at the time!). This entry is a little different, in that I think, aged eighteen, that I was unusually focused – a focus I lost once I went to university and was distracted by my social life. I was committed to writing a serious novel, and I worked on my novel every day. Ten years later, I realise how difficult that is to achieve. I was taking four A Levels, so I didn’t have a lot of free time, and I consciously gave up things I might have enjoyed to devote time to my writing. For the first time, I also became truly reflective, about myself, and about the others around me. I’m not suggesting that I was a perfect eighteen-year-old – most significantly, I was very socially isolated – but I think I knew who I was and what I wanted much more clearly than I have since, and that I was essentially right about what those things were. When I re-read this diary entry, I don’t hear an immature teenager but a person living her life as best as she knows how.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #5

 I was increasingly isolated at school during sixth form, partially (perhaps mostly?) through my own choice. In this entry, which I’ve cut for length, I go to the pub with two girls I’d known since we were all eleven, Allie and Katie, and a girl who had joined our school for sixth form, Esther. Warning: scandalous underage drinking!

Seventeen

September 11th, 2004

… As for the pub, it was extremely interesting, because I’ve never been in that sort of situation before. It was also rather painful, because of course Katie (and Allie to an extent) were fairly patronising to me, assuming I would not know what to do, or that I was completely lost. I was a little lost with the conversation, partly because they’re an established ‘group’ with their own language, which seems to be, as I put it to Allie, ‘having their minds in the gutter as much as possible’ i.e. ‘doubting’ someone means having sex with them (?). Anyway, this led to much hilarity when Allie said that I was ‘doubting her virtue’ due to a comment I made teasing her about being a woman of little virtue. I tried to retain a detached stance, but this was fairly impossible when Katie still sees me as an innocent young girl. The comments I made weren’t a problem – I could think of things to say. No Katie (and Allie to an extent) seem to have such a strong impression of me as good and innocent that they don’t even really hear the words I say any more. It goes right over Katie’s head; I’m still the same person she always thought I was. They always have to check if I’m all right, when I’m sitting there listening, and talking a bit, just as much as most people could be expected to do when introduced to an entirely new group. There was one guy who went around asking for all our phone numbers, and I gave him mine – with a different last digit, of course. I didn’t see Allie shaking her head at me until after I’d finished typing it. I’m not stupid! I don’t need signals – or surrogate mothers. It made me feel like they’d taken their 12 year old sister along to the pub, and had to be protective because she didn’t really know what she was doing.

 I shared a bottle of red wine with Esther and Allie. I hadn’t had much to eat beforehand and it made me really dizzy. I won’t drink next time. It doesn’t matter if they think I’m prim; they think that anyway. Katie had Malibu and Coke, which I had a sip of and it was utterly vile – not because it’s alcoholic, but because it was sickeningly sweet. She seems to drink that all the time. The wine was too bitter, of course.

We played table football, which I am rubbish at. We left at about eleven o’clock. One of the boys (this time one of their friends) asked me twice why I hadn’t come along before, if I went to their school. I don’t know if they’ve dragged pretty much everyone they know down to the pub at one point or another, or if I was coming off as one of their close friends, the same as them. I’d like to think that it was the latter, because it would show that it is their first impressions of me that makes Katie (and Allie, to an extent) treat me the way they do. It has seemed in the past that other people don’t seem to think of it like that, and are even slightly surprised when they make comments like “You can’t corrupt Laura” (paraphrased quote from Katie). When we left, it was dark and the air seemed to be singing around me because there’d been quite loud music on in the pub. My hair smelt of smoke, though I couldn’t smell it myself. They were all going back to Katie’s house, and started trailing off. Allie told me that she hoped I hadn’t felt too left out, and said that they’d make me ‘one of the group’. She’d said a similar thing earlier in the evening. Even then, I didn’t believe her.

 She hugged me goodbye in the middle of the road, which was empty, and went off to follow the others. I can still see it now; so clear. It’s just a ritual you have to go through, hugging people. Dad picked me up in the car. He didn’t recognise Allie. 

And naturally, of course, I’m not part of the group. It isn’t something that I particularly mind about; and the visit to the pub wasn’t as horrible as I’ve made it sound here. It was interesting, that was all it was; interesting.

Author’s Note

Unlike my earlier entries, it’s more difficult to assess how this entry comes across to others, because I remember it so vividly. Although, as I recognise, I’m making out that this was a really miserable evening, I don’t remember it that way. Indeed, reading this back, it seems to me that this entry was written with a very definite purpose; to convince myself that I would never be part of this group, despite their efforts to include me, and there was no use trying. To convince myself that I never wanted to go out to the pub again, even though I had enjoyed some of the night. I think that’s why I’m fixating on so many petty details, rather than the better parts of the evening. When I re-read my diary, I was reminded that I had tried and failed to become what I defined as ‘real’ friends with these girls several times over the past three or four years, and here I think I have finally given up. I’m deliberately trying to cultivate a detachment from the entire situation, from school itself. Far more than my previous entries, this reminded me that, while it would be easy to caricature my teenage problems (I had no friends and everyone was horrible and patronising and Sam didn’t fancy me!!!), at the time, I thought deeply about this situation and dealt with it as best I could. I was very sad a lot of the time when I was seventeen, and it seemed rational to me, after the many friend-related disappointments of the previous years, to withdraw from the game. From an adult perspective, and without altering my entire personality, it’s hard to see what I could have done differently.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #4

The fourth instalment of my teenage diaries. The rationale behind the project is here. As always, I will change all names and identifying details, and remove anything that is too easily identifiable. I will also correct all my spelling.

This entry is largely self-explanatory. Polly is my sister (sorry Polly; you don’t get to be anonymous!)

DSC02320

My yearbook photo.

Sixteen

16th February, 2003

I went on the march against war in Iraq yesterday. We drove to London by car but a lot of people were going by coach (including Jenny Mackintosh and her posse). [A politically active girl in my year.] Apparently there were 70 coaches from Bristol alone. While on the motorway we drove past a lot of coaches, from all different places, Plymouth, Wales, Devon, Bristol. All the coaches had peace signs in the windows, or signs saying ‘Not in Our Name’, ‘Stop the War’ or simply ‘No’. Me and Polly decided that we should have one too, so we wrote ‘Stop the War’ in big bubble letters on the back of Polly’s mock Year 9 SATS timetable. (It was bright yellow so we thought it would show up). So the sun didn’t shine through it we paperclipped two sheets of paper to the back of it with a bright pink paperclip, which simply added to the general professional appearance of the sign. As all the coaches also had signs up saying what number coach they were, and from which place, I tried to put a sign up saying No 1 Coach, Conkwell. It was too small for anyone to see it however.

When we got to London, it was amazing because they’d closed most of the streets in central London and you could walk down roads that were usually full of traffic. Dad couldn’t get over it, he kept on going on about how much quicker and less stressful it was. We walked around for quite a bit before finally managing to join the march. There were so many different groups there, loads of people from something called ‘Stop the War Coalition’ who were handing out free stickers (I still have one stuck on my coat). Some socialist groups, some Palestinian people with placards saying ‘Free Palestine’ (I recognised their flag; we had it on our notepaper at MUN [Model United Nationslast year), groups of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, all sorts. There were huge numbers of people. We marched quite fast at first but when we were going along the Embankment it slowed right down to almost a standstill. That was the most exhausting part as my legs and back got so stiff. We were hardly moving at all and could only shuffle forward a little every so often. But finally we came round the corner into Parliament Square and the pace picked up again. There were a big group of Kurds (as Dad told me they were) with yellow flags with a picture of some leader of theirs on them.

Everyone was blowing whistles and these sort of horn things. The whistles made an awful noise. Dad bought one and hung it round his neck on the multicoloured string it came tied to. It was really annoying.

Many people were chanting things. The one I can remember that seemed to be chanted the most was “One, two, three four, we don’t want this bloody war.”

After marching for about three hours we finished and went to the huge Waterstones at Piccadilly.

I was exhausted but it was worth it. It was definitely an experience and on the radio coming home they said, several times, that it was the biggest protest in British history. There were at least a million people there. At last I have an historical moment to write in this diary!

AuthoDSC02321r’s Note

I think anybody looking for accounts of teenagers’ engagement with politics had better look elsewhere. What I find most striking about this entry is that it’s almost all observation, with no internal monologue. I’m not sure if I simply had nothing to say about the war other than ‘it’s a bad thing’, which I presumably felt was obvious from the fact that I was attending an anti-war protest, or if I didn’t feel confident enough to write anything. A later entry from March 2003 describes a debate about the Iraq war held at my school, where I was confident enough and interested enough to ask a question, but again there is nothing about the content of the debate, just the experience of participating. (‘I did ask a question, which I thought was quite good because out of the whole crowd termed ‘the floor’ there were only 4 questions asked. Unfortunately when Mr — asked me whom I wanted to address the question to I immediately forgot everyone’s names and ended up just pointing to Hazel and the Labour MP and saying “Them… that side…” which the trevs who had invaded the room got a good laugh at.’) Judging from this, then, I think that I was interested and engaged, but wasn’t sure what to write. Unlike my usual entries, I obviously felt that I was composing this one for posterity and so must be more serious and adult than usual.

There is a real jump in eloquence and fluency between 2002’s and 2003’s diary entries. I’m not sure if I was simply writing about less emotional subjects (I’d finally got over Sam), but my entries are much better-written, and more carefully full of detail. More on this next time, when we reach 2004.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #3

The third instalment of my teenage diaries. The rationale behind the project is here. As always, I will change all names and identifying details, and remove anything that is too easily identifiable. I will also correct all my spelling.

This time, I’ve kept the same group of friends, but gained a hopeless teenage crush, Sam, who went to my youth theatre, which was being split into two different groups after the holidays. I’d fancied Sam for ages but he had no idea that I liked him.

UntitledFifteen

26th February, 2002

I still don’t know whether Sam is in my group or not. He has to be. I can’t bear it otherwise. But yesterday, Monday, I didn’t go to theatre group. No-one seemed to think it was on, and I didn’t want to know.

But now I do. If he isn’t in my group, which I think is the truth, then it’s over. If he is… but can’t think about that. Can’t let myself hope. I won’t see him until May. And then…

I have to stop going on about Sam all the time!

I had a really interesting discussion with Allie, Lois, Jenny and a few other people in room 4 on Monday. It was about how people are attracted to other people. Personality or looks? I said I think you sort of take someone’s personality into account when you start fancying them. Even if you haven’t spoken to them you can tell a lot about them from the way they talk to other people, just their body language, the way they look. You see… this is going back to Sam again, isn’t it?

Aaaargh.

Right. I will write about school. At school today I sat next to Allie in PSE and we had to do this personality test. [Possibly a version of Myers-Briggs?] We both scored lowest for personality type E, which was interpersonal intelligence, and highest for personality type F, which was intrapersonal intelligence.

Intrapersonal intelligence means you’re independent and like working on your own. You know your strengths and weaknesses and you’re quite intuitive.

Intuitive. It means you know what’s going on, even if it’s not clear.

Am I intuitive? I wish I was. It would help a lot with this Sam thing for a start… Stop there!

DSC02316

HOW PATRONISING!

And ‘knowing your strengths and weaknesses’. Mrs —, our temporary tutor, made me so mad when she said after reading that “but I don’t think anyone of your age really can?” HOW PATRONISING! I don’t mean to boast but yeah, I know myself, I understand why I do things, I definitely know my strengths and weaknesses!! Here, I’ll show you.

Strengths

I’m very creative and imaginative. I always have ideas. (Easy one that). Unfortunately I often let my imagination run away from me and end up imagining things into situations that weren’t really there. Have to control this.

I can work very fast and I’m pretty good at all my schoolwork.

At school, I’m pretty nice to everyone. I haven’t fallen out with any of my ‘new group’ of friends yet.

I’m excellent at working alone and I can make myself get things done if I really try.

Yeah, but strengths is easy. I’ll do weaknesses.

Weaknesses

I like to be dramatic. This whole Sam thing. Okay, I have to go back to it now. I know I do really like Sam and I’m not making it up. In fact, the entire problem is real. But I’m not utterly miserable about it. In fact, I’m enjoying the drama of it in a a way, and also thinking how sorry for me everyone will feel if they find out.

It sounds horrible, but I mean, I have been very upset over all this. What I think is that if I can enjoy any of it than why don’t I?

I get annoyed with people at home really easily, and act babyish.

I’m not very good at helping people. I find it very hard to help anyone who’s upset because I just don’t know what to say.

I’m prejudiced against people who aren’t clever. This is because trevs [Local slang. Roughly equivalent to ‘chavs’ or ‘townies’, but the class element is more muted] are stupid, so I assume anyone is horrible who is stupid. Well, I don’t think they’re horrible, I just find it very hard to like them.

I find it hard to understand how people can have problems with work. I find most of it so easy.

There. I’ve done a vague list. There’s a lot more I could add.

DSC02315

P.S. I’ve become a vegetarian.

Author’s Note

I find the way that I have carefully and deliberately structured this entry quite interesting. By this point, I’d fancied Sam for a few months and there are plenty of stream-of-consciousness earlier entries detailing my feelings, but by this point, I had clearly come to terms with the situation enough to have thought how to convey it in my diary. Although I do find these entries very funny to re-read, it’s fair to say that this was a very stressful situation at the time. The thing I remember about it most clearly is the suffocating sense of being imprisoned by my own thoughts, how I couldn’t stop thinking about Sam and going over the few interactions that we had even though I often became bored of the topic myself. I had all this very real emotion but there was no outlet for it. I also remember becoming frustrated by my own diary, which is perhaps why I wrote this entry, where I try to give a sense of how I’m feeling without writing down the same things that I always wrote about Sam. Far from being a raw rush of teenage emotion, this entry is written for a reader, even if that reader is only my future self.

I’m also cheering on my rant against the patronising temporary tutor. I think the list of strengths and weaknesses is pretty fair, if incomplete, and I’m sure that most teenagers could produce something similar. I’m quite impressed with my fifteen-year-old self for standing up to the stereotype of teenagers being utterly self-centred and having no perspective on their own problems. In my experience of working with teenagers in this age bracket, they are often very self-reflective and ironic, so I don’t think that I was in any way unusual in this respect, though most probably wouldn’t write such a long diary entry proving it.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #2

The second instalment of my teenage diaries. The rationale behind the project is here. As always, I will change all names and identifying details, and remove anything that is too easily identifiable. I will also correct all my spelling.

If you read the previous entry, I now have an entirely different group of friends than I did aged thirteen… apologies for any confusion!

Fourteen

Laura26th July, 2001

It was the last day of school two days ago. The last day at the lower school [our school was split site] ever. Next year I’ll be in Year 10 and everything will be different. They’re even putting seating up on the bank where our group have sat for the whole of the summer term. OUR bank.

I have to invite Allie over during the holidays. I am ordering myself to do so. I want to see Caitlin as well, but that’s easier. I’ve known her for longer and somehow she’s just an easier person to know and get along with.

We all wore mufti [i.e. it was a non-uniform day] on the last day of term. I wore jeans and my butterfly top, and everyone said I looked really nice.

I’ll miss them all a lot over the holidays. I know I won’t see most of them. Now I’ve written that it seems untrue. I don’t usually miss my friends. It seems strange that I should. But I think I will.

In so many ways I’m just skating over the surface of my life. I don’t put much in.

I really hate people who try to convince others of what they believe in. Why can’t they keep it to themelves? What IS THE POINT of going on about it to other people?

At least in our debate on Tuesday [we were constantly debating religion, as we had a substantial group of Christians versus a group of atheists/Wiccans/pagans in the year. I don’t think this was actually part of a lesson, although it may have taken place in one.] Hannah was pretty well beaten. I think the name for her religion is Fundamental Christian. I thought of some okay arguments. I feel better that I am not a Christian, ESPECIALLY a Fundamental one. I’d hate to be one. I wouldn’t be able to be one. I am not a very believing person. I like to have proof. But – I never thought I was like that. I don’t need to see it with my own eyes. But I like proof. Sometimes. I guess the word is I’m not good at having faith in things I can’t see. So I’m not a religion person.

One of the points in our debate (Hannah, some other people who aren’t Christians, Claire especially and me) was about the power of the mind. Hannah said that people had been healed by God through prayer. Claire countered that by saying they might have concentrated so hard on hoping to be well that they helped to heal themselves. Not a miracle.

I said “It can work the other way round, too. I heard somewhere about people who believe when someone puts a curse on them, they die. And they believe it so much they die of fear.”

There’s a quote in Harry Potter like that. I think we had Hannah beaten. On the evolution angle as well.

diary cover 2Author’s Note

These sort of questions were honestly and passionately debated among my group of friends and many others in our year in Year Nine and into Year Ten. The sort of arguments I put forward are obviously embarrassing to look back on, but I remember how important it all felt at the time. A relatively unusual feature of my teenage years was that Bath at the time was a base for what felt like an evangelical revival, so what I refer to as ‘Fundamental’ Christians (they actually attended a range of churches, but were united by their focus on the importance of conversion and their belief in the literal truth of the Bible) were a substantial minority in my classrooms. Our school had a very active Christian Union (we occasionally attended their meetings to eat free cake and heckle) and I was once hiding from Year Elevens throwing eggs on the last day of school in the school library when I was cornered by another student who tried to talk me out of all my objections to Christianity, and was unable to escape through fear of the eggs. All this is to say that these theoretical questions felt very real and vital to me at the time. It will come as no surprise that this fourteen-year-old girl devoured Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and felt as if it had been written just for her. The use of Harry Potter as an authority is an especially ridiculous feature of this entry, but it does have a context; the more fundamentalist Christians in my year made no secret of the fact they considered Harry Potter to be suspect, and one of my Christian friends actually made a point of giving me GP Taylor’s Christian fantasy allegory Shadowmancer as a possible antidote. Such were the culture wars that raged in Hayesfield c. 2001.

 

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #1

diary cover

A diary I kept at a very early age.

Who knew that anyone’s teenage diary would provide so much material for present-day entertainment? Because teenage diaries are certainly in fashion at the moment. There are numerous articles in national newspapers, and similar programmes on the radio, where notable people wallow in the horror of their teenage diaries (the continuing success of the various incarnations of Rae Earl’s My Mad Fat Teenage Diary may have something to do with this). You can even attend events where people read their teenage diaries aloud; Oh Dear Diary ran recently in Manchester and Birmingham, while Diary Days was a London equivalent. The draw? Teenage diaries are funny. Oh Dear Diary is ‘the cringeworthy comedy night where readers bare their teenage souls’ with ‘large doses of teen angst and strops aplenty’, while Stylist made much of the fact that most colleagues immediately refused to share extracts from their own diaries, but that they finally found ’10 for you to enjoy. Expect plenty of exclamation marks. Names have been changed to avoid embarrassment.’ Lucy Caldwell in the Guardian could find only one surviving diary: ‘But one is more than enough as a reminder of those gruesome years.’

While I certainly don’t want to criticise any individual diarist for choosing to share their teenage memories in this way – I’m a little bit addicted to If Destroyed Still True, Tess Simpson’s teenage diary blog – as a trend, I find this somewhat disturbing. Most importantly, what is it saying to today’s teenagers if we present adolescence as something that can only be viewed with total hilarity or complete despair? Rather than accepting that teenage lives are often as mixed, complex and varied as adult lives, and that teenagers can have serious problems that cannot be laughed away, such a narrow focus on how to re-read the teenage diary makes teenagers, both past and present, into caricatures.

Luckily I kept a diary from the age of 13 to 18, and can hence conclusively demonstrate that I was a ray of sunshine, totally understanding of the feelings of everyone around me and troubled only by the important issues in life, such as world peace…

Obviously, that wasn’t the case. But I am going to use my own teenage diaries (that being the only good source material I have to hand) in this series of blogposts to demonstrate that while teenagers, like adults, are often selfish, irritating and unintentionally funny, they are not only these things, all the time. My diaries are definitely not works of great introspection, especially in my early years, and as I discussed in my post on children’s diaries, I adopted a self-conscious ‘diary style’, so they are in no sense the unalloyed truth about what I was feeling. But when I re-read them, while I often laughed, I also remembered the full range of emotions I felt as a teenager; it was unexpectedly and surprisingly immersive. Far from being distanced from my teenage self, she felt more real to me than ever.

Over this series of posts, which will run on Mondays, I’ll take a couple of entries from my diaries for each year of my teens, stopping at eighteen (I’m not going to touch the university years… too close to home!). I will change all names and identifying details, and remove anything that is too easily identifiable. I will also correct all my spelling.

So, without further ado…

Thirteen

UntitledMarch 14th, 2000

Today I felt like crying. After all, who stood by Sarah when she got stressed out and moody and everyone else turned against her? Who listened to her problems, all the time? Me. We’ve been best friends for most of Year 8 now, and I’ve never let her down. I don’t think I’ve smothered her either – we’ve both got other friends, like Hayley, Louise, Rosie, Maddy. But now she says that me and Maddy are ‘both her first best friends’. I thought I was your best friend! I thought I was the only one! I wanted to shout. She says she’s been best friends with both of us since Year 7. But that isn’t true. For a while, she was my best friend only. I was so lucky then.

I know what it is. Ever since the Culverhay [local all boys’ comprehensive] disco on Friday, when they both found boyfriends. Some boyfriends if you ask me – they hardly know them! But now they’re all secretive, wanting to talk privately about boys. I don’t like the boys at Culverhay – most of them are really ugly. But it would be nice if someone had asked me out too, even though I would have said no.

A long time ago. The Christmas before last. There were three friends and they were so happy. But a girl called Maddy Jones broke everything up. She took my place with Allie and Stephanie, only to break up with them.

In some ways, Allie and Stephanie were the best friends I’ve ever had. They didn’t see me as a charity case, unpopular, uncool. I was just normal. I want to be normal. And I could talk to Stephanie about anything. Do you remember, Stephanie? I want to ask her. What went wrong?

Maddy Jones went wrong.

For the worst time, I was alone. Then I made friends with Maddy and Sarah. Then Hayley joined our group. Then Rosie. I won’t let Maddy break us all up again. I’m tired of her games. Maybe it’s her turn to have a taste of what it’s like to be out in the cold.

Author’s Note

This entry probably epitomises the sort of thing I would read out at a comedy event, if I was so inclined. The melodramatic style – inherited from such great literature as Sweet Valley High – is just so ridiculous. Nevertheless, this brought vividly back the complicated tangle of female friendships at my all-girls’ comprehensive school, and the quasi-romantic language – ‘break us all up’ – that the other girls and I used to describe them. The incident that has upset me is clearly very minor, but because it ties into a history that I partially explain in the diary entry, it’s sent me into a spiral of misery and fear. There was a period during my first year at secondary school when I had no friends at all. I was deeply unhappy, and I essentially spent the next six years doing anything to ensure that this would never happen again. So although this entry does make me laugh – I feel especially sorry for the poor Culverhay boys, whom I’m rejecting en masse because really I believed that none of them would ever fancy me – it also reminds me of how insecure and frightened I felt a lot of the time in my first few years at secondary school. To be honest, I would not want to have to attend school nowadays and so I don’t see my worries as necessarily disproportionate to the situation I found myself in – just very badly expressed!

Monday Musings: The child’s voice

Aged 10, when I wrote the diary in question.

Aged 10, when I wrote the diary in question.

I recently attended a seminar on the child’s voice at Magdalen College, Oxford, one of a series of seminars in the history of childhood that I’ve been going to intermittently for the past few years. (Historians of childhood and youth should note the upcoming colloquium on July 4th – the details are in the link above). At this seminar, alongside an interesting mini-presentation on the global distribution of Sesame Street, some of us brought in old childhood diaries to share with the group. I haven’t yet used this type of source in my own research – the closest I’ve come is handling autobiographies that describe a remembered childhood – so my thoughts are really more about my own childhood then serious historical reflection. Still, the seminar raised some interesting questions for me.

I kept some sort of diary as a child on and off from the age of five, but the formats varied a lot. The diary I’m going to discuss in this post had short slots for each day, so the amount I could write was limited, and I remember being annoyed by that at the time. I was ten years old when I wrote this diary, and in Year Five at junior school. While a lot of it is very boring, some of the entries made me think about how many of the gaps I fill in when I re-read my old diaries, and how much harder this would be for an historian who hadn’t written the texts themselves.

UntitledFirst, I definitely wrote in what I thought was an appropriate ‘diary style’, drawing on two major influences: Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson. I can hear Blyton’s school stories in entries such as ‘I had a row with C— today. She is definitely jealous of me. I did not like it much but it was very exciting.’ The girls at Malory Towers were always having ‘rows’ with each other, and I remember feeling pleased that something really worthy of record had happened in my life. The same voice pops up in complaints about teachers as well: ‘I HATE MRS —. She is an old meanie.’ Jacqueline Wilson’s writing style is probably more influential on the diary as a whole, which is full of emotion, loves and hates, echoing the narrative voices of some of her earlier books such as Double Act, The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Bed and Breakfast Star. Some of my illustration attempts also copy the style of Nick Sharratt, especially the way he draws in Wilson’s novel Cliffhanger. You can see this in the picture above, which I drew in response to some exciting events in games at school: ‘We played kicking rounders in games and J— kicked the ball so hard it stuck in the rafters!’

lib demsSecond, I often dutifully recorded events that I thought were important and hence ‘diary-worthy’, even if I wasn’t really interested in them myself. This diary was written in 1997, so there were a lot of these about. In May, ‘Tony Blair is the new prime minister. He got 4 hundred and something MPs. The Liberal Democrats got forty something.’ (Followed by much more important news the next day: ‘I GOT A GUINEA PIG!’) Princess Diana, however, only got a mention when events actually impinged on my life: ‘PRINCESS DIANA’S FUNERAL ON TV. No post today.’ Occasionally, I would write down observations that were slightly more off the beaten track: ‘We went to see 101 Dalmatians today… On the way home, Daddy said where the cinema was was fields a while ago and by 2015 road traffic would double.’ (Fortunately, he was wrong!)

motherThirdly, the format of the diary itself encouraged me to write in a more ‘childlike’ style, because I thought it suited the diary and because there was very little space to fill in for each day. (In my next diary, kept when I was 11/12, I wrote only intermittently but often filled several pages for every day, which was possible because it was only a notebook). The diary I had also occasionally included little questions to fill in. I usually gave these short shrift because I suspected that ‘good’, ‘nice’ answers were expected. For example, I impatiently wrote ‘will not grow up to be just like my mother because… we want to be different things and are different from each other.’

I suppose the upshot of all this is: how can an historian read a child’s diary when he/she doesn’t have access to all this information that fills in the background of the entries? Obviously, this is a problem for adult diaries as well, but I suppose I find it particularly troublesome for children because I know how simple my thoughts look in my diary compared to how complex my inner life actually was at that age, which feeds into existing stereotypes about how deeply children can feel, or how much they understand. This, of course, is not to say that such diaries shouldn’t be used as sources; indeed, I think they can be incredibly valuable. But using them thoughtfully requires some intense consideration of one’s own beliefs about the ‘child’s voice’ and about ‘childhood’, if those assumptions are not to get in the way.

I have removed the names of classmates and teachers from the diary entries quoted here. I’ve also corrected spellings.