Saturday, April 12, 2008
After I finished my GCSE’s, I went into the 6th form at my school to study A-Levels. This turned out to be a very bad idea, as I was so disinterested in learning anything there I could barely muster the motivation to turn up. After a couple of rubbish months, I reached an agreement with my parents that I would take the rest of the year off, applying to go and take A-levels at a college where there would be more subject choice and crucially, it wouldn’t be a school.
Both of them doubted I would go, thinking I would become too used to a life of leisure as a teen, spending all weekend with friends and watching films on the telly during the week, but I proved I was as good as my word and went.
In the interim though, I found myself with a lot of spare time, as all of my friends were occupied in the week, my money was very tight as a jobless sixteen-year old and there were only so many films shown on terrestrial TV each week worth watching.
I was ‘into’ music back then, and found the now defunct Select magazine a decent periodical to cater to my tastes. It wasn’t too concentrated on any particular style, but at the same time it deviated decisively from the mainstream, nominally dealing with ‘indie’ music when that could be a catch-all term for anything from Radiohead and Pulp to Roni Size and Belle and Sebastian. In those pre-internet days, I would often give a band a go solely on a decent write-up, and discovered a handful of little gems in that way.
Devouring each issue cover to cover, I inevitably came across the pen pal section and with all the time at my disposal, decided to have a go. After placing an ad in the mag, people wrote in response and Select forwarded them to you, so you could then decide who deserved a reply. Over the next five years or so, I kept in regular contact with as many as a dozen indie girls at once, girls mainly as I am a straight male and also because my male friends far outnumbered the female. As a male I frankly didn’t see the point in writing to someone else like me.
The letters were a great way of making friends, of connecting with people over vast distances who you would likely otherwise never meet, and getting to know them far better this way even if you had. I shared tales of teen hedonism, private worries and anguish, hopes and dreams and hazy rambles, I talked people through problems with relationships and family troubles, and shared a lot of my own baggage at the same time. I ended up having serious relationships with two of my penpals (though happily not at the same time) and even today I have a tenuous facebook-based friendship with a (non-ex) penpal, even after about thirteen years.
Writing letters was also an outlet for creativity, with only the limits of the imagination as a barrier to experimenting with decoration and calligraphy and any number of things to entertain both my friends and myself.
As people went off to uni and became more strapped for time, the letters gradually dried up on both sides, but rather than just a sign of a passing phase or the end of an old habit, it also came about at the time when the internet and mobile phones had just started to gain a serious hold on the UK consciousness, the first inklings of the massive part of our culture that electronic communications hold today.
Now that people are able to instantly exchange messages, post their thoughts, photos and videos for anyone to see and can access the internet from anywhere via their mobile and be in touch literally 24/7, the letter now seems a particularly outdated institution, reduced to situations where you might want some official statement or document ‘in writing’, with some physical evidence of its existence.
In these days of Myspace, Facebook, Youtube and indeed blogging, the era of the penpal would seem to be utterly extinct.
And I’m not sure how to feel about it. It can certainly be argued that it is easier to keep in touch with people, and that geographic location ceases to pose an obstacle. It is now fairly straightforward to locate people with similar interests as yourself, and the idea of meeting someone you ‘met on the net’ should feel no less daunting than the days when the entire foundation of a friendship was based on words on paper, but I can’t help feeling like there’s some sort of lack of quality now, an indefinable dumbing down or drop in standards. I’m painfully aware of how the idea all sounds so utterly Daily Mail ‘back to basics’, but I do feel that there was an effort involved in letter writing that is hard to recapture in e-communication, an anticipation in the wait for a reply that has vanished thanks to instant messaging, and some sort of personal, private openness that would be generated when writing one letter for one other person, when poring over what to say and how to say it, that has disappeared and been replaced by e-mail dialogues and monologue blogs that do not become adequate stand-ins for that peculiar calculated to-and-fro that came from letters.
I guess it’s something you can’t help doing as you get older, looking back at how things were and feeling that they were better then.
But then back when I started writing to penpals, we had no South Park. So you can see how I also think some things are much better now.
After a good start, season 12 of South Park brought us Major Boobage, an episode that covered urban myths about homemade highs whilst heavily referencing the animated film Heavy Metal, and its predilection for top-heavy ladies. These sequences aren’t much more fun than the dull source material, but the episode scores huge points for the new way to get high at home.
Then episode 4, Canada on Strike! came with ups and downs. Revisiting Stone and Parker’s alternate vision of Canada as a country of flapping-head people who burst into song, it twins a nice idea of Canada striking and no-one caring with a swipe at the cult of internet and particularly Youtube celebrity, ultimately featuring a showdown between some such ‘stars’. Unfortunately your enjoyment will be directly related to whether or not you’ve seen the referenced clips, and a joke in the Canada scenes is repeated far too often, although does pay off a little at the end. Thankfully there is gold in the music video the kids make of Butters to put on Youtube and make “some of that internet money”. “What what in my butt” indeed.
I’m hoping that episode 5 will see the season hit the high notes, and the set up sounds promising as it involves Ms. Garrison deciding she wants to be a man again, and everyone in charge at the school seemingly forgetting what Eric Cartman is like and putting him charge of the class. Seeing as season 12 started with Cartman giving Kyle AIDS, fuck knows where this one is going to go.