Writing a novel in letters about a pop fan put me back in touch with my teenage self

Zena Barrie waxes lyrical about her youthful love for Smash Hits and writing to pop stars

Zena Barrie: author of Your Friend Forever (Unbound)

Zena Barrie: author of Your Friend Forever (Unbound)

 

I’ve always wanted to write an epistolary novel. I didn’t know the word epistolary of course and I still can’t actually pronounce it with any confidence but I love epistolary novels (a novel written in a series of letters).

In the case of Your Friend Forever, it starts off with our heroine, Maud, writing letters to her favourite popstar in 1981, then there is a 30-year gap and the letters become emails. When writing the book, weirdly I found it much easier to inhabit 12-year-old Maud than I did 42-year-old Maud, even though I was 42 at the time of writing it... Perhaps we all perpetually feel like we are 12, and being 42 is just the same as being 12 but with saggier skin?

It was easy for me to remember the excitement of being a teenager. Why can I remember every lyric to every record from the ’80s but not know a single band that’s popular at the moment? I suppose our brains are no longer like sponges; instead, we just own sponges...

Being a teenager in the ’80s/’90s, for me and most of the kids I knew, everything was about music and what band you liked or didn’t like. Liking a band was choosing a team, and you wouldn’t just like their songs, you’d also try to decipher their fashion, their attitudes and try and make some of it your own with very limited means.

The only places we had to go to for our information were Smash Hits, NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror etc and of course none of us had the money for all of these, but occasionally we’d forgo our dinner money for the latest issue of something, or we’d use our bus money to buy a badge and walk home in the rain, proudly sporting the badge on our school tie. My school bag was always half books/half cassette tapes and I was forever running out of batteries for my Walkman. Oh how the invention of a USB cable would have changed my life for the better back then!

One of us would get a copy of Smash Hits and we’d all pore over it at school. Then carefully take scissors to it and hand out the various bits to whoever needed them for their scrap books. Liza loved Brian May and anything Queen-related or any band with big hair really. Gillian would have anything to do with Axl Rose or Jon Bon Jovi. Emma liked boy bands so she’d take anything that was Take That / New Kids on The Block. I would take anything to do with Erasure / Depeche Mode / Jimmy Somerville / synth pop of any kind / Hue and Cry related. Sharron’s only true love was T’pau. The big problem came when someone wanted the Jon Bon Jovi lyrics but there was a picture of Carol Decker on the back. Then we’d surreptitiously look around the classroom for anyone else with a copy of Smash Hits. Maybe there was some sort of deal that could be brokered, swap you a Seal picture for Ben from Curiosity Killed the Cat? Then give the Ben poster to Kathryn who will give us a Bon Jovi duplicate. Everyone sorted? Phew.

We were all music obsessed and we defined ourselves by the music we liked. As an adult when I meet people they say “what do you do” which always makes me want to poke my own eyes out. Even if your job is interesting, who really wants to talk about it? It was better when you were 14, and people would ask, what bands are you into? If you happened to like the same bands, then that was it, you were friends.

Generally, if someone tells you what bands they liked when they were 14, you can imagine what kind of kid they were
Generally, if someone tells you what bands they liked when they were 14, you can imagine what kind of kid they were

You had to be careful, though. I once overheard a girl in the year above me talking about The London Boys. I jumped into the conversation “I love The London Boys! Did you see the back flip he did on Top of the Pops?” She turned and looked me up and down. “We were just saying how shit they are” Even now I can feel my cheeks burning at this memory, and the humiliation I felt hearing them piss themselves laughing as I walked away. Sod it, though, if someone plays London Nights by The London Boys I will dance, and if there is a stage to do interpretive dance on, all the better.

Generally, if someone tells you what bands they liked when they were 14, you can imagine what kind of kid they were, how clever they are and whether or not you’d have got on with them then or if you’d get on with them now. We all judge each other so why not use this as the litmus test? Better still, next time you are interviewing someone for a job, just ask them what bands they like. You will soon know if they are a vapid bellend and then you can decide whether or not that’s a problem.

There was no internet, of course, so compiling information on bands and what they might be doing / wearing / saying at any given time was a full-time job.

We couldn’t just follow them on Twitter, there was no hope of any interaction, unless of course we got hold of a fan club address, or in fact any address of any kind. I would read the small print on the back of tapes looking for PO Box addresses and I soon developed a hardcore letter-writing habit.

If I had an address I would write to them. About everything that was happening in my life. I never got replies, though. I’ve always thought this might be because I got all my envelopes from Skipton Building Society. I just crossed out the Skipton Building Society address bit and wrote in the name of whoever I was writing to that day. These envelopes said FREEPOST on them so I didn’t bother with stamps.

I often wonder if John Major got my letter about starting my period whilst dressed up as a reindeer in the Christmas grotto with the headmaster dressed as Father Christmas. I had to walk round the school holding hands with him panicking that the blood I could feel going down my legs wouldn’t seep through the fun fur.

As I got older and was allowed to go to actual gigs I started to meet like-minded people in queues or the front row of gigs or in the sodden tent next to my sodden tent. We’d swap addresses and write to one another.

Whilst stood in the front row of an Aztec Camera gig, I swapped addresses with a girl who was a vicar’s daughter. We wrote to each other a bit about Aztec Camera, and how we had enjoyed the gig. Although we were both distraught that they’d had to get off stage before the encore because when we got the security guards to peel off the set lists and give them to us we saw that they were indeed going to do Somewhere in my Heart. We were both delighted by Roddy Frame’s leather trousers, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

My best friend was deeply in love with Brian May, I was happy to go along with her to whatever concerts she was going to. We are both still in touch with a girl we met in the queue outside the Apollo in Manchester, getting on for 30 years ago now (agh). During one of his gigs, though, I got crushed quite badly and was having an asthma attack. Security guards pulled me out and had to drop me through a trap door in the stage to the St John’s Ambulance crew waiting eagerly below. According to Liza, Brian May turned slightly and saw me being lifted out. HE SAW ME. She was quite cross about this. I was quite cross that I missed half the gig and then we had to wait outside in the snow until midnight to get his autograph, only to find he’d already gone.

I did eventually learn the lesson, though, that liking the same band doesn’t necesarily mean you’re the same kind of person. I met an American girl at a gig when I was 18. We became penpals, writing maybe a couple of times a year. At some point the letters became emails. When I was 30 I had some time off work and no one to go away with. I decided to go to America and stay with my old penpal (yes, you can see where this is going? I didn’t). She met me at JFK airport and drove me to her her and her husband’s lovely home somewhere in New Jersey. They fed me, poured me a glass of wine and then pulled out all their George W Bush memorabilia... It was 10 days I won’t forget in a hurry... We’re still in touch, though, despite her collection of MAGA hats... I’ve convinced myself it’s just a phase and that underneath the Trump-loving second amendment- shouting American there is the cool 18-year-old American girl who came to the UK on her own to watch loads of bands because she f*cking loved them and I did too.

In writing Your Friend Forever I definitely woke up the young part of myself again. Wake up, Zena! Stop doing the washing up! You’re not just a mother in high-waisted jeans. You are funny, and you love muisc, and being stupid with your mates, and yes, your mates are all middle-aged too but they are all still the same daft dickheads they were 30 years ago. Go and do something stupid with them, remember who you are!

Your Friend Forever is published by Unbound, at £9.99

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