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Spectator survey: What would you tell your 14-year-old self?

Answers from Justin Welby, Joan Bakewell, Giles Coren, Jonathan Sumption, James Rhodes and many more...

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Joan Bakewell

Broadcaster and journalist

Those early teenage years are a time of doubt and discovery. Take time to be alone and speak honestly to yourself. Weigh up what you think others — family, friends, teachers — think of you. Then consider what you feel about the world and your place in it. Read the world’s great books and see the best of theatre and cinema. Take time to be thoughtful, and then come out bold and confident in yourself. Aim for the good things in life, which are not money and property, or even travel and glamour. Instead learn to value friendship, the beauty of nature, kindness across generations and the deep pleasure of the arts. Then get on with enjoying life to the full.

(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty)

(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty)

Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Justin,
You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry — it does not measure who you are. Keep on dreaming of great things, but learn to live in the present, so that you take steps to accomplish them. Above all, more important than anything, don’t wait until you are older to find out about Jesus Christ and his love for you. He is not just a name at Chapel, but a person you can know. Christmas is not a fairy story, but the compelling opening of the greatest drama in history, with you as one of millions of players. Life will often be tough, but you will find more love than you can imagine now.

With my love to you, Justin


‘High life’ columnist

My advice to my 14-year-old self would be to read more and play less. If I had paid more attention to my studies rather than trying to impress girls with dumb stunts, I would have written something of value by now. I cannot stress how important the right education is for a 14-year-old. But I wasn’t paying attention, despite the brilliant teachers I had. All I thought of was girls and to be captain of sports so I could impress them. Worse, I continue to do this today and have only arthritis to show for it.

David Cameron Visiting Oxford University

David Cameron

Prime Minister

I was a late developer — I only came good academically when I was studying economics and history and history of art, subjects I loved. My advice would be really -boring: keep on with science subjects, because understanding of science will be so important in your future life. I’ve held seminars in No. 10 about graphene and quantum theory, which I love doing. But I have to read up a lot before I get started. So: a little more on the physics and chemistry, please, David.

James Rhodes


The drugs, the drink, the dodgy relationships — it’ll be a hell of a mess, so brace yourself. But hold tight and stay alive for the next 25 years and think of them as a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Then you can relax and start living sanely, promise.

BBC One Strictly Come Dancing 2011 - Press Launch

Edwina Currie

Former MP

On the whole, kid, be confident. You’re not going to be stuck in Liverpool for much longer. You’re right to follow your heroines: Marie Curie, the great woman scientist, and that other intriguing scientist, Mrs Thatcher — in Parliament and a government minister even with a husband and two small children. If she can do it, so can you.

Hard work and determination will get you anywhere, especially combined with a total lack of interest in football. Once you escape you’ll find rugby players much more to your taste. And don’t worry when your mother says: ‘Boys don’t like clever girls.’ You’ll find a clever boy who does. In fact, during a lifetime, you’ll find several.

So look up, look forward, and enjoy your life.


Giles Coren


What my 14-year-old self would have wanted for Christmas was comics. Specifically, American superhero comics published by DC, featuring The Flash and dated between 1956 and 1970. He had nearly all of them and was missing only about ten for a full set. The 200-odd he did have he paid about a pound each for, but in total they are now worth something like ten grand. So now I cannot afford to complete his -collection. I especially cannot afford Showcase #4 in ‘near mint’ -condition, because it would cost around £50,000. So in an ideal world I would advise my 14-year-old self to buy the copy that he saw on the wall behind the till at the old Comic Showcase on Monmouth Street in 1983. Not only would this make my 14-year-old self the happiest boy in England, but it would enable me, now, to go upstairs to the loft, where it would be gathering dust with the rest of my comics, bring it down, dust it off, sell it, and buy a Range Rover.


Kirstie Allsopp

Television presenter

I have lots of advice for you, but I’ll try to only give that which you are likely to take or believe. You are competitive, hugely so. Embrace this now while you are still able to channel it into doing well academically. The world is far bigger than you think and the life your parents lead is a good one. But it is not a blueprint for your life, so don’t waste too much time trying to emulate it. Your mother is right about a lot of stuff but by no means everything. Children are not the be all and end all; it will happen in good time. Have patience and don’t wreck your twenties trying to find a father for your children. Never cut your hair short. Follow your instincts about drugs, you’re on the right track. If he doesn’t call, forget him. And one day you will have every pair of expensive shoes you have ever desired.

Simon Callow

Actor and writer

Play, I would say to the hypermanic 14-year-old, trapped inside his imagination and his uncontrollable and largely incomprehensible body. Play games, play sport, play music, play parts in plays. Fortunately, and rather surprisingly, I ended up doing the latter for a living, which saved my life. But I never learned to play music, which I have always bitterly regretted; I never found a sport that I was any good at or that I wanted to follow; I never played chess or draughts or cards or scrabble or charades or even snakes and ladders. They made me feel oddly self-conscious, these games, forcing me to pretend to want to win. I could never bring myself to care. Maybe I thought my opponents would always be better than me.

The truth is that I thought all of these things were substitutes for art. Something which I believed, even then, was better left to the professionals. And now after a lifetime of playing for a living, I look forlornly and enviously at chaps who fill in the few minutes of a break on a film set by kicking anything spherical they can find, at people eagerly whipping out packs of cards to play bridge, or, above all, at those who sit down at a piano and knock out a tune. Playing for play’s sake. So, young Callow, get over yourself and join in: be playful. It’s what makes life bearable.

Niall Ferguson


1. Never, ever drop maths.
2. Start supporting Arsenal now. Scottish football is doomed.

Griff Rhys Jones

Comedian and actor

Do 14-year-olds want advice, let alone take it? Only a few casual maxims remain from my teenage years. ‘Don’t sit on radiators, they give you piles.’ ‘Always step in the middle of a boat.’ ‘Lime green trousers don’t suit you.’ I probably still follow them all. I might throw in ‘sugar makes you fat’ and ‘you will grow out of nearly every belief you have now, so don’t base your life on it’. All else was ‘instruction’ and I ignored it.

My main advice to me should be ‘become a lawyer’. Lawyers are universally convinced they are doing the only worthwhile job in the world. They are self-satisfied, assured of their own intellectual detachment, morally patrician and wealthy. All qualities indicative of middle-aged happiness. Mind you, quite a few of them are bored. But there will always be a downside. That’s a good maxim to remember.

Roger Moore Honored With A Star On The Walk Of Fame

Roger Moore


I should say: now listen son, save your money, respect your elders, and do not make the same mistakes that I have or will do. Happy Christmas!

Fraser Nelson

Editor of The Spectator

Learn stuff. Consider the possibility that your life might not be a complete failure, and that you may one day have use for the stuff you’re being taught at school.

Failure to learn the basics now will mean you’ll spend your adult years reading books like Gwynne’s Grammar. And don’t worry about not enjoying your teenage years too much. If school days were the best days of your life, then your life started heading downhill at the age of 18. And subscribe to The Spectator. Life’s too short not to.

Jonathan Sumption

Supreme Court judge and historian

Don’t give up the piano too soon.


Marco Rubio

Florida senator and presidential hopeful

My first piece of advice is do everything you can to avoid student loan debt. My second: don’t be in such a hurry to get to the future. Even now, I’m always thinking about what I am going to do next week, next month, next year. I’m 42 now, and when I look back to when I was 32, I see that I was always in a hurry to get to where I am now. When I was 14 I was in a hurry too — to finish school, to go to college. Sometimes you allow life to pass by so quickly.

Jeremy Clarke

‘Low life’ columnist

Everything is at least as unfair as you think it is. Most people tailor their perceptions to fit their beliefs rather than the other way around, so you can discount most people’s opinion. Bobby Moore, however, is as noble and great as you think he is. If you are drunk when you first have sexual intercourse, remember it’s the second hole from the back of the neck. And if you really must put all of your eggs in one basket labelled ‘West Ham United’ you would be wise also to dabble in a little Buddhism or stoic philosophy. Everything changes except the avant garde. Freedom is a slave word. Wine after beer, queer. And you really are all right, you know. So chin up, old son.


Rory Bremner


Life is full of opportunities and possibilities, but take the time to look around you and take in everything that is around you. The people. The buildings. The landscape. The changing seasons. Talk to your dad about his life: he’ll be gone in four years, and much of his story will die with him. When the time comes that you want to know where you came from, he won’t be around to ask.

And don’t try and do everything at once. On second thoughts, do. You’ll never have this much energy again. Keep taking those piano lessons, and stop cheating by copying the teacher instead of reading the notes.

(Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty)

(Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty)

Alexandra Shulman

Editor of Vogue

The music you listen to, the books you read and clothes you wear at that age will probably influence your taste for the rest of your life so have as much fun with them as possible while you still can.

Michael Heath

Cartoon editor of The Spectator

Good God, look at you! Stand up straight. Get your hair cut — you look like a girl! Take your hands out of your pockets! Bring back national service, I say; my old sergeant would put you right. Stop lounging about! What is so funny? Why are you laughing? A good day’s work wouldn’t do you any harm. And stop talking into your phone when I’m speaking to you! And take Mr Punch’s wise advice about not getting married.

Clare Asquith

Deputy literary editor of The Spectator

Forget Mr Darcy’s formidable expectations of a young woman. If you can do just one thing well, master one subject, however obscure, it will make you happy. As for shyness — it is just you thinking about yourself. See it as insensitivity, even as bad manners, on your part. And wherever you go, look upwards. There’s nothing interesting on the pavement. Strewwelpeter’s cautionary tale of Little Johnny Head-in-Air — who half-drowned because he loved to watch the clouds, and ‘the swallows trying/ which was cleverest at flying’ — got it all wrong.

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