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Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Going back a few years, when stamp collecting, Subbuteo and Airfix models were the hobbies of most young boys, most young girls were collecting penfriends. I had another hobby at that time which was sending off for free samples from comics and magazines like Jackie. Linco Beer shampoo and Albion Milk of Sulphur soap stand out, and you could always get free stamps from some outfit in Goole, but they would then pester you for money and you would have to get your mum to write them a letter.

Anyway, back to the penfriends. For some reason the centre of excellence for penfriends was somewhere in Turku, Finland, which was the name of the company or exchange that matched you with appropriate penfriends. They were usually the same age and sex. It was all very genteel.

There was no Internet then, or texting, or even PCs, so having penfriends meant writing in longhand, fortunately not on papyrus, and sending photos.

The good people in Turku provided me with two penfriends, Helga Kunz in East Germany (before the Wall came down) and Cheryl Morris in Massachusetts, US. You couldn't have had two more different girls - you could tell that by their photos alone. Cheryl looked very pretty and wholesome, posing confidently like a trainee cheerleader. Helga stood cowed, her eyes fixed on the floor, flanked by two enormous breasted women, her aunt and her grandmother.

I didn't write to Helga or Cheryl very frequently and the letters were mostly formal exchanges. I was then introduced by a teacher to a penfriend in France called Marie-Claude, but our letters soon petered out because I was supposed to write to her in French and she was supposed to write to me in English. As soon as I had asked her about Johnny Hallyday (who according to my French text book was a teen French idol, but illicited a "bof!" from her) and how you cooked artichokes, I had exhausted my possibilities.

As I got into my teen years, I wanted penfriends who were a bit more like friends, giggly and like minded, willing to talk about boys and pop groups and clothes. Through the auspices of magazines like OK (not the current version) and Hi! I got matched with Karen Walker in Swindon and Julie Cox in Pevensey, Sussex.

Karen was the only penfriend I actually met. We were both about 15, and she and her family came to visit me in Plymouth when they were on holiday in the area. Karen lived in Swindon - I had no idea then what a big role that town was to play in my future life. We used to write quite frequently and she would tell me all about her outings to the Brunel Rooms in Swindon and the boys she'd kissed, and I no doubt did the same, referencing Rees youth club and the Lutheran Church youth club (I didn't go to the church, only the club, honest).

But when we met, it was a big letdown. We were both quite shy. I was newly permed, I recall; it was de rigeur then to have a perm like Kevin Keegan. Our mothers did all the talking, and I don't think a further letter was exchanged after the meeting so you can tell it didn't go well.

Julie Cox, meanwhile, she was a blast. She was freckly with long brown hair. We wrote huge long gossipy letters to each other and sent postcards from holidays. She was 18 months older than me, which seemed a lot then, and she was a huge Queen fan (I didn't see the attraction). She used to tell me all about life in Pevensey with her friend Anita, who lived in Polegate. Her longest letter was about seeing Queen in concert. By contrast, I had only seen Sailor and Andy Fairweather-Low in concert, and for both I had to leave early to catch the last bus.

I was reminded me of Julie Cox recently when J and I drove through Pevensey not long ago. I'd never been there before - it has a very scenic castle. I've often tried to locate Julie through sites like Friends Reunited, but no joy. We had a fairly short lived correspondence, and sadly I don't have any of her letters. But I always remember my excitement when a big brown envelope with her chaotic right hand slanted writing fell through the letter box. Julie Cox, what are you doing now?

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