Letter To My Younger Self
Devised & edited by Jane Graham
Blink, £16.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

The Big Issue has been running Letter To My Younger Self since 2007, and it’s become a staple feature in which celebrities mull over what insights they could pass on to their 16-year-old selves. Such is its popularity that this collection of interviews – weighing in at over 400 pages – can boast a star-studded cast that includes Buzz Aldrin, Sir Paul McCartney, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Billy Jean King, Mo Farah, Stella Rimington, Salman Rushdie, Shania Twain, John Cleese, Olivia Colman and 90 more.

And it’s a brilliant format. There’s something about the subject that causes interviewees to let their guard down, loosening tongues and allowing fears and vulnerabilities to come to the surface. It’s hard to imagine Shami Chakrabarti blurting out “I think if a Pankhurst met a Chakrabarti, she wouldn’t be desperately impressed with her achievements” on Newsnight. And the thought of Max Hastings comforting himself in war zones with the thought “At least I’m not in boarding school” humanises him while speaking volumes about his upbringing.

So, while their advice to their younger selves is frequently a bland “believe in yourself”, or a reassurance that things will turn out all right in the end, there are some more individual perspectives. Grayson Perry wouldn’t want to reassure his “negative and cynical” younger self because “then he might relax and wouldn’t be driven by the demons I was driven by”. Armando Iannucci contributes a sage “I’d tell myself that what you do in life tends to be a product of what you’re interested in, not what exams you pass”, while Tracey Emin draws on hard-won experience to recommend using condoms, not expecting your boyfriend to sort everything out and never letting your drink get spiked. Most poignantly of all, Davina McCall answers, “I would do for my younger self what my own mum couldn’t do for me; I would mother her.”

Thinking of one’s younger self inevitably brings back recollections of parents, and there are numerous touching moments of appreciation and regret. Most, if given the chance, would doubtless pass up the opportunity to meet their old selves to spend some precious time with a departed mum or dad.

As for how much they would like their 16-year-old selves, most interviewees think they would. But the exceptions are more interesting, and more fun. The young Max Hastings was a “hobbledehoy” who would “horrify” him now. Harriet Harman remembers a “stroppy” girl, adding, “I must have been a nightmare.” Richard Hammond goes for broke, deriding himself as “a cocky, arrogant, self-reverential little prick”. Only Ruby Wax draws a complete blank when asked to summon up an impression of herself at that age.

From a thoughtful, funny and moving book like this, there are so many possible last words. But the prize for self-awareness must go to Ozzy Osbourne, who recognises the pointlessness of a shambling old Prince of Darkness giving advice to anyone, let alone an impressionable young lad. It’s probably for the best.