I write this with my back against my teenage bookshelves.
Wedged between the books are diaries: I have a clear memory that one of them starts “I know every teenager says nobody understands them, but what they don’t know is that for me it’s really true.” I don’t dare open them.
I’ve got what the poet Emily Berry calls “the British flair for embarrassment”, especially about my own earnest adolescent ideas about who I might be. Better, then, to reread Berry’s first collection Dear Boy, which is, in lots of ways, a funnier, cleverer and more precise picture of what it’s like to be 17.
It’s other things too, of course, but that’s what I love it most for: Berry wrote a blog entry a few years ago, which you should read all of here, where she talks about a reviewer’s idea that “the book read like an ‘unusually discerning teenage girl’s diary’. I was happy with that assessment.”
It’s probably why I’m thinking about this book this week. As I write this there’s a coffee mug balanced on one knee, and my laptop on the other. This is exactly how I used to write all my A Level essays.
And this, right here on the floor by the bookcase, is where I learnt to drink coffee. I made myself learn to drink coffee, because I thought it was important that A Writer should. This is also why I used a fountain pen. The fountain pen blotched horribly, and coffee gave me panic attacks: it seemed a small price to pay to look like Somebody.
I am not allowed coffee
because of my nerves, but the biographer doesn't
That’s from the first poem in Dear Boy, a poem called Our Love Could Spoil Dinner. In that blog mentioned above, Berry says the title of the poem is the oldest thing in the book: “a bit of genuine teenage girl”, written first in “poetry fridge-magnets on my best friend’s mother’s fridge when I was eighteen, circa 1999”.
I’ve spent a week taking pictures of my sisters for their Instagrams. They tilt their heads back and laugh, pretending to be oblivious
The speaker is standing in the hall (I picture carved mahogany balustrades – much better than a banister – dust, and marble busts of ancestors) and flinging her arm back to catch the biographer’s attention. It always feels to me like a series of poses, this poem, the way being a teenage girl does: always hoping for someone to catch you unawares and notice your staggering beauty and phenomenal intellect and fall hopelessly in love with you.
Berry is a ventriloquist: I know this girl completely in 26 lines. Berry calls her the “precocious young-girl character”, and you know her; she’s the one you think that’s ME in the book, right there. She’s the Lizzie Bennet; the Decca Mitford; the Jo March.
You can’t make fun of something – in the way this poem very gently does – without loving it. It’s that I-Capture-The-Castle-ish-last-daughter-of-a-decayed-house thing. It’s basically the poem version of this tweet:
You know this world; you know how it works. As Berry says about the title “Dear Boy” (from that blog above again) it’s part of and drawing on the world of the “Young Adult romance novel”. It’s more specific than that, actually. It’s a historical-but-not-too-historical Young Adult romance novel, the kind where there are “boarding-school educations” and “grapefruit spoons” and men “play cards to settle a debt”. The kind where sex is a constant, bubbling, unspoken undercurrent: the kind with a tasteful row of asterisks or an elegant, drifting ellipsis.
In Berry’s second collection, there’s a line in her poem Picnic:
Remember when we used to imagine
Our correspondence would make us famous[…]?
I used to sit right here writing long letters to my best friend (the address is still pinned to the side of the bookcase), thinking this the whole time. Picnic is older and wiser, but the girl in Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’s still living in that “used to”. Oh, she knows she’s asking a lot – to be Somebody! To be A Writer, maybe! To be worthy of a biography or a Collected Correspondence! – but it doesn’t matter.
The biographer might call her a “worthless excuse for a story”, but it doesn’t matter either: here she is, and we’re reading it. There are other poems in the collection that Berry links tentatively to this one, and you could maybe piece something of the speaker’s narrative together, if you wanted. Here is her biography.
I keep wanting to write “photographer” when I mean “biographer”, perhaps because I’ve spent a week taking pictures of my sisters for their Instagrams. “Let’s pose for candids?” one will say to the other. They tilt their heads back and laugh, pretending to be oblivious; I take the picture. Or 30. I didn’t have an Instagram as a teenager; I had a MySpace; my mother had a photo album; Victorian young women had autograph books.
It’s the same impulse that drives them all: an impulse towards making an identity, the impulse towards working out the differences between who you are and who other people think you are and who you want to be. I know every teenager thinks nobody understands them but for me it’s really true: you could copy that line over to every teenager in the world. Who am I? Who is she?
When I was 14, my sister and I used to wait until my parents had gone out and watch Big Brother. I didn’t really get it. But it was the year that everyone was watching it, and you couldn’t not know something about it. You probably watched it that year too: it was the year that Nikki Grahame threw her arm back, and declared “Who IS she? Who IS she? Where did you FIND her?”
I don’t remember, now, who she was talking about. I don’t think it mattered. What mattered, of course, was who she, who Nikki Grahame was: who we watching at home thought she was; and who we thought we were, watching so that other people would think we were the kind of people who watched. Who are you? Who am I? What will the biographer make of this? Who might I be?
It’s that Big Brother moment that I think of when I read this poem, and I love it. I love the tender way that Berry catches that feeling of high-pitched, high-wire, sexy, dangerous potential: a spoon that’s almost like a knife.