Wednesday 29 February 2012


In my second year at the Tollgate County Primary School in Bury St Edmunds all the children in our class were given a pen-pal each. Our pen-pals were from a school in Northern Ireland. I have no idea what the school was but I suspect that it was a protestant one given that I was educated in a state system that was heavily biased towards CofE. I have no idea where the school was either, but for some reason Craigavon sits in my mind poking me as if it should ring some bells. This was in the early sixties, so well before the troubles that erupted at the end of that decade.

As you might well imagine, at the age of around seven years old, as a lad more interested in the likes of Whirly Birds, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and American Civil War bubble-gum cards the thought of writing letters just didn’t figure on my radar. I was a boy. I was at a state school on the council estate where I lived. Boys like me didn’t write letters.

Our opposite numbers in Northern Ireland were charged with writing the first letter, and the day duly arrived when Miss Rous handed them out and we got to know who our pen-pal was. They had matched boy with boy and girl with girl. Names were read out and a letter was handed over to the lucky recipient. I waited patiently. My name wasn’t forthcoming. Even at that age I wasn’t perturbed. I was getting used to being forgotten, ignored and being left out of things. A state of affairs that has stuck with me most of my life, and not without its advantages I have to say. But on this occasion I hadn’t been forgotten. I was just left until last. Our teacher explained that there weren’t enough boys in the Irish school to go round all the boys in our class so I had being given a girl pen-pal. A GIRL! Bluueerrr! Oh how I was teased. Oh how I blushed. Oh how unfair the world was. A girl child? Why? I didn’t want to write to some smelly girl in a far off land. Now I know that from East Anglia Northern Ireland isn’t really a far off land. But as a young lad who had hardly travelled out of Suffolk and having very little knowledge of the world, Northern Ireland could have been another planet for all I knew. I don’t remember the poor girl’s name save that her surname was Cochrane. I remember this because it was a surname in my family and a surname that I had never come across apart from that. We had to write a letter back in class, which I did grudgingly. I remember that it was a very short effort and said very little. I remember we had to address an envelope and then hand it in to the teacher. This I did and then promptly forgot about it. The plan was that after this initial exchange we were to carry on at home writing back and forth. A couple of weeks after our letters were despatched an envelope arrived at home. I had post. I never had post! It was from that girl. I never wrote back. I was a horrible kid. I do hope she wasn’t too upset.

I’ve changed a lot since I was that scabby-kneed, scuffed shod schoolboy. It’s funny how puberty changes your attitude to girls. They go from ‘urrgh sissy’ to ‘corrr whoah’ as your voice breaks and your face erupts. “Now, is that green soap for oily skin or oily soap for green skin?” In my mature years thankfully I no longer go ‘corrr whoah’. I have a bit more respect for ladies, I hope. Although, should Christine Lagarde, Judi Dench and Celia Imrie walk by I might find it hard to contain myself. I value friendships, and feel particularly comfortable in the company of women. I wouldn’t be fazed at all about a female pen-pal now.

And, indeed I’m not.

I now have a female type human pen-pal. We came across each other in a slightly serendipitous way, like you do. It turns out we have a similar taste in music, we both have oddball and wacky senses of humour that appear to be derived from common comic reference points, and we have a few character traits that aren’t too dissimilar. We both love Under Milk Wood (a play for voices) which was one thing we discovered early on in our conversing. I’m left wing and she is just wing but that doesn’t really get in the way. We like to banter. It’s all very innocent and mature although far from stuffy, even though she has been known to refer to me as starchy pants. We’ve never met. I don’t know if we will. We’ve never spoken. I don’t know if we will. None of that seems to matter. We enjoy sending emails to and fro, gradually revealing bits of our life. It’s a bit less formal than letter writing but equally, if not more, valuable.

For me now having a pen-pal is very enjoyable. If you’d tried to tell me that when I was seven I’d never have believed you!

I feel quite lucky to found someone that likes communicating in a long handed sort of way. She is a very nice pen-friend indeed and a refreshing change from many of the numpties you come across on the jolly old interweb.


  1. American Civil War cards...sheesh you've just catapulted me to 1965.....

  2. Some were quite gory as I remember and you used to get dollar bills in the pack.