Giving voice to despair: how a letter from John Osborne changed my life

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

Ihad completely forgotten about the letter. It’s not that surprising, as I’d received it in February 1981. I was 18 and living with my parents in Northolt, west London. And for at least the past 25 years it had been in the garage in a box. Forgotten.

That was until we decided something had to be done about the mess and had a good old sort out. My daughter found it and  asked: ‘Who’s this from, Dad?’

I knew who it was from the minute she handed it to me. It was from John Osborne, writer of Look Back in Anger. As a sixth- former I’d read the play and loved it. I saw myself in the character of Jimmy Porter, the original angry young man. I remember that I was terribly unhappy when I wrote to him — problems at school. I remember when the reply dropped through the letterbox and my father handed it to me.

But seeing it now was more than just being back there in the family home. It was more than this. The letter was like a prophecy, a fortune telling. Turning it over in my hands I marvelled at the embossed address: Christmas Place, Edenbridge Place, Kent and the all-caps simple header JOHN OSBORNE.

Somehow my letter created a strange bond with the playwright. In the first paragraph he told me that, ‘Well, Steve, I am indeed alive — although a few years ago I’d begun to care little one way or the other.’

Poignantly, he told me that he had never felt more full of energy in every way. That he was almost looking forward to his future and that his work was going well. That year saw the release of his first volume of autobiography, but soon afterwards he’d be struck down with diabetes. And the plays had dried up. Of course, he died young and hugely in debt.

I had lamented the lack of ‘good brave causes’ — Jimmy’s great line. I wondered if there were any. He told me not to take the line too seriously. ‘It is a cry of anguish,’ he said. ‘It’s true but so was, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Surely the most terrifying utterance ever. To give voice to such things in despair is — or may be — another way of expressing defiance. Life is indeed bleak and grey and, like others, I have spent long, bleak and grey nights without hope, peace, love or kindness. Only cruelty and one’s own desolation.’ Can you imagine a celebrity author writing with such intensity and honesty to a schoolboy he had never met? The letter is laced with references to God and the way he has blessed Osborne over the years.

But then Osborne set out to advise the young me and he did so with great kindness, despite his reservations: ‘I have had a fierce sort of life — not merely inner — and my advice may have little value but I was touched by the unusual openness of your letter.’

He told me that, ‘It takes a long time to discover that because of that very desolation, there may be fun, vitality and all sorts of comfort and delight. In the meantime get what you [want?] without hurting others. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Life will do that from what I can see in your letter. Don’t be cheated of that “grandeur and delicacy” you suspect is still there. It is!’

And then the most amazing part. I need to declare now that in the intervening years long after this letter I had a conversion experience and I am now a priest in west London. No one is more surprised than me. At the time of the letter I saw myself as an atheist. Osborne told me: ‘You are probably “religious” without being aware of it. You sound like it. It is no more than an awareness of the divinity of life and a belief that, in spite of all the lions, bureaucrats, schoolteachers, wayfarers, kings, deceivers and dissenters of all kinds, we do not have to be brutish and bullying like blind troglodytes. There is a world elsewhere. Again as dear Shakespeare said: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Don’t lose sight of it.’

But there was more to come. As I sit here reading the letter now it moves me tremendously. That Osborne would write to me and take such time to engage with my teenage angst. He had a premonition that I myself thought was nonsense at the time.

A few weeks later, the phone rang at home. My father answered it.

‘Son, fella on the phone says he’s John Osborne wants to speak to you.’

I walked gingerly to the foot of the stairs where we kept the phone. I can’t remember the call but I know I was tongue-tied and embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say to my hero. But I was grateful too. I know that Osborne asked me how I was doing and wanted to check that I was OK.

Over the coming years I would send him my poems. Heaven forbid! And he would send a kind card back encouraging me to write.

It was years later that I spoke to my father about the call we got that night. He remembered it for good reason. He was a Cockney and he had never been to the theatre. Well, he went once. My mother took him to see the original Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in the first few weeks of the run. He loved it. In fact he found the play funny and laughed a lot. He embarrassed my mother because other people weren’t laughing and they shushed him.

My father never went to the theatre again. I never took up John Osborne’s offer of going with my dad to have tea with him. I was too shy and I had a thought somewhere in the back of my head that it was dangerous to meet your heroes. I didn’t want to be disappointed.

But mainly it was because as a boy from a comprehensive school I lacked confidence. People like me didn’t go to tea with famous authors. I’ve regretted not going ever since.

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