The highs and lows of public teenage writing

Last week, work experience student, Holly Aston’s charmingly enthusiastic review of a Pizza Express for a local newspaper went viral on social media. First, with some smarmy mockery, soon replaced by good-natured amusement, genuine affection and people telling the detractors to buzz off. It was variously suggested that those who get paid to eat for a living might like to reflect on Holly’s enthusiasm and lack of cynicism (and that if you’re a wealthy celebrity who’s never had to work in it, making fun of regional news – which is skint and survives on plugs for local businesses – makes you look like a bit of a prawn).

The reactions took me back to my early online outings as a teen. As was the thing for swotty 16-year-olds desperate to escape small towns in the late ’90s, I ran fan websites dedicated to my favourite singers and thesps, and occasionally took to online fan forums and newsgroups with cringeworthily robust praise/denunciation of people in the public eye. At one point, a group of adults from a newsgroup began to speculate about my mental health and accuse me of being a deranged middle-aged man in disguise (you’d think nowadays people would have the nouse to twig when something on the internet has clearly been written by a student but the early reaction to Holly’s review, and the editor’s disclaimer, suggests not). When – unwisely – I tried to defend myself, backed up by some others, vindictive people took to analysing the message headers and IP addresses of postings to try to prove I was using multiple identities. I stopped posting there and completely withdrew from all fandom for good. You might ask who this says more about: 16-year-olds who write gauche things on the internet, or grown adults who drive them away from it. If you’re a 35 year-old parent and you’re visiting an online discussion forum about a TV show several times a day, really, do consider whether you’re in a position to take the piss out of a teenager for it.

I had the last laugh. Well, sort of. I had some lovely complimentary emails about my web and writing skills from other adults who shared my interests and/or knew the people I was writing about. A few months after the shabby incident, the subject of one of my websites adopted it as her official one, let me do a profile piece on her, and had lunch with me several times – funnily enough, once in a Pizza Express. To mock Holly’s review is to forget how sophisticated the place seems at that age, what with its pizzas that don’t taste of dough and a drinks menu that goes beyond Pepsi (though I still drink Coke rather than booze socially when I want to feel energetic, as opposed to flirt like a monster or fall asleep…). I’m sure if someone had invited me to at the time – and I hadn’t been too nervous to taste the food – I’d have written something similarly glowing about it. The profile piece I wrote, incidentally (all 5,000 words of it) was certainly disproportionately gushy enough to have gone viral on Twitter, had such a thing existed at the time. Regrettably, it took several difficult years for me to work out my interviewee had basically only stayed in touch with me as a polite gesture, and arguably I would have got more out of my career earlier on if I hadn’t been over-relying on that one connection. On the plus side, I got to do my first interview and write my first profile piece before my eighteenth birthday. There aren’t many journalists of my era who can say that. Indirectly, that interview also got me into my university and onto my journalism training, led me to two or three lovely acquaintances of recent years (one day I might actually pluck up the courage to tell them personally…), and inspired the novel I’m currently writing. So all round, not too shabby.

As has been noted, Holly could do with some pointers on style and structure, but couldn’t we all (after several years as a journalist and copywriter, my novel is full of bored journalese which sticks out a mile). I hope that she goes far. It’ll be nice if in ten years’ time she’s working somewhere fab and gets to write a piece on how a review of Pizza Express launched her career. Those of you over 35, please come away from this feeling grateful you never have to fear your youthful exuberances being dredged up with a click, and be charitable to everyone a couple of years or more younger than you who does.

And frankly, after nearly six weeks of barely being able to walk (foot finally recovering thank God) I’d be happy to eat a Burger King Veggie Meal opposite a vomiting drunk in Marylebone station at 11pm, and review it…


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