Date Started: 22nd December 2022
Date Finished: 23rd December 2022
Rating: 4 stars
(Note: this book has been published under two different titles. The original one is in the title of this post – the copy I obtained was called “My Mad Fat Diary”, and was published as a tie-in to the E4 TV adaptation of the same name)
Ahh, teenage diaries. I kept quite a lot of them, but sadly they no longer survive. I’m not sure if that’s really sad or not, but I do regret getting rid of them – I’ve got a crap memory, and I’m sad I can no longer see what I really thought about things at the time I experienced them. I’m trying to make sense of various things that happened to me when I was younger, and it would really help if I could see what I was really like. Oh, well, never mind. I got rid of them mainly because I was embarrassed about what I was like when I was a kid, and that’s quite sad really. I’ve always had a brutally harsh inner critic, and being nicer to myself (as I am now and as I was in the past) is an important resolution I’ve made recently.
Excuse the preamble there. I think it explains why I felt drawn to read this book, which I found in a charity shop a couple of days ago. There’s been plenty of fictionalised teenage diaries over the years (Adrian Mole being a classic), but this is a real one – it’s Rae Earl’s actual diary from when she was 17 years old in 1989. Apparently it’s only been very lightly edited – a few “names have been changed to protect the innocent”, and one character (“Bethany”) is a composite of three different people, but other than that, we’re told it’s the genuine article. It was published in 2007. I’ve been aware of it in all of that time, but hadn’t read it until now.
Oh, boy! I really enjoyed this. I found it an astonishingly relateable and sympathetic read. Rae is three years older than me so was doing somewhat more adult things in 1989, like going to pubs, but besides that, it felt like one of the most authentic and accessible texts I’ve ever read. All the cultural touchpoints, all the music references, so many of the thought processes, the situations she found herself in at school…I could understand all of it. I found myself thinking “yeah, I’ve been there!” so many times.
Rae grew up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, a part of the country long joked about as being somewhat backward and isolated. It’s not the same as Kingston, the suburb of London that I lived in at the time, but there was an interesting common reference point in it all – Rae lived in a council house and came from a very humble background, but passed a scholarship exam for a private girls’ school. Her mum pushed her to do it in an effort to try and help her get on in life. Oddly enough, my parents did something very similar, trying very hard to get me through the eleven-plus exam and into a boys’ grammar school, so I didn’t have to face the hardships and uncertainties that had blighted their lives. My upbringing wasn’t quite as hard as Rae’s, as far as I can tell, but I totally get the feeling of being at the bottom of the social pile in a very rarified and privileged environment. It isn’t fun, and it’s a constant reminder that you don’t belong.
I realised as I was reading that the name “Stamford High School” rang a bell, and then remembered that I had a childhood penpal who went there, and would have been there at the same time as this diary was written!
The title of the book refers to two significant things that had affected Rae’s life – she was somewhat overweight and struggled to control her diet, and also had suffered a mental breakdown a year or two earlier, resulting in her spending time in a psychiatric hospital. It’s quite clear throughout the book that she isn’t particularly well, but doesn’t get any support or help, and also lives in a time where people were FAR less sensitive or aware of others’ problems. There’s a lot of fatphobia on display here, in terms of the snide remarks and bullying that regularly drive Rae to tears, and she’s pretty brutal on herself too. It’s quite hard to handle in places, and sad to witness, but unfortunately a lot of us have been there.
One of the things that really strikes me is how isolated Rae was. Because of circumstances, money, geography and simply the way things were at the time, she only leaves her hometown on a tiny handful of occasions over the course of an entire year. I was a bit luckier than that, I used to travel around quite a lot. She also grew up in a house without a phone. I only experienced that for three months when I was younger, but even in 1989, that was a very rare thing and could massively exacerbate feelings of being cut off from the world.
There was no internet or social media, of course. This really feels like bit of a double-edged sword, looking back on things. In a lot of ways I’m really glad I got through my teens without the horrors of Facebook and Instagram, but in other ways the internet has made life much easier for those struggling with things. Rae clearly struggled with things like depression, low self-esteem, OCD and possibly a whole slew of other things. Reading her troubled thoughts made me remember feeling equally fucked up about a lot of things myself as a teen – the self-hatred, the misery, the isolation and the dark places my mind went when I felt really alone. Back then, if you were struggling with something you couldn’t easily talk about, you were completely on your own. You were left stewing in your own juices, not knowing if anyone felt the same as you, and completely unable to access any support. That feeling of being alone was utterly horrifying, and it left me thinking I was a weird, isolated little freak. The ability to find community and like-minded people online nowadays has done a great deal to help the marginalised.
Teenage Rae doesn’t always come across as a particularly likeable person, and she’s done a brave thing publishing this in its entirety, but I’m glad she has. The big takeaway I get from this is that I was much more like other people than I ever realised, and that back in 1989, a lot of us were sitting in our bedrooms thinking the same things, listening to the same music, enduring the same struggles, and that eventually we all turned out (mostly) alright.
Young people face similar struggles the world over, and I don’t need to feel shame or embarrassment about how I was back then. I was just a kid trying to deal with difficult circumstances, and make sense of the world as best I could, and Rae was just the same. Some of the things that upset and triggered her were different, but we were both facing a lot of similar things, and even many years later, it’s comforting to know that however messed up I was, I wasn’t bad, stupid, wrong, etc. etc. Perhaps therapists should prescribe this book!
It was a wonderful read, and felt like a very authentic look at what my generation lived through, endured and came out of. It was a tough time to be a teenager, and it was often hard, but there was good stuff in there too, and we can be proud of what we were, and what we became. Some wonderful funny moments (the “Smiths reunion” is hilarious), touching and moving stuff, plus some really incisive cultural commentary – oh, yes, Rae, Jive Bunny really WERE shit.