Long ago, a friend warned me I was living in a J.G. Ballard novel, but only in lockdown has the plot of High-Rise started to unfurl on the banks of the Thames. Developers are forced to build a certain number of homes for Londoners who could never otherwise afford anything, and height comes at a premium. So we’re stuck on the lower floors, in small, airless flats, overlooking land we’re not allowed to stray on to, as the rich exist in splendid corona-isolation above, peer down from their balconies and call security — to persecute us by making hints and suggestions.
Ten days ago, a letter was stuffed underneath my door. ‘Complaints have been received regarding the strong odour of cannabis smoke being emitted from your apartment which is causing distress and discomfort to other residents,’ the denunciation read. If this went ‘uncorrected’, I was informed, I might lose my home.
I heartily wish I had been puffing a joint out of the window to spite the bastards upstairs. As I’ve not done anything of the sort, I wanted to know what gave the estate manager the right to hand-deliver threats on the say-so of anonymous accusers. But in this pandemic we’ve all been encouraged to denigrate, judge and expose others for anything and everything, so now I’m the one with the problem — for having a problem with it.
Those of us who have had no access to fresh air would dearly love the same privilege anyone with a garden enjoys: the ability to breathe it in. But for the whole of lockdown, every single bit of lawn here has been cordoned off with tape like a crime scene. Not to ‘keep off the grass’ was to declare yourself a disgusting individual, intent on causing death by dangerous sitting. So the corona-purists above (in spacious homes, educating their children with iPads, enjoying a banana bread-baking, sourdough-starting, gin-consuming, video-the-NHS-street–clapping existence) felt righteous in reporting it.
Many parks were closed by the police — and most were situated in working-class areas. This never made sense. We’ve shopped at supermarkets in hordes; it was far easier to social distance outside. But access to grass has always been a class concern. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus, the poor could never ‘afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passer-by: “I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.”’ Ultimately, Covid-19 has exposed the divide between those who have it and those who don’t.
The condemnation of ‘covidiots’ is classist and often racist. The last weekend we had sun, I watched a group of black girls valiantly trying to uphold some semblance of freedom of association while being screamed at by one of the residents and then warned off by security. Elsewhere, Patrick Bateman types spotted each other’s exercises with perfect impunity.
If we go into another lockdown, we’ve got to be more relaxed about parks. Those who make the rules may for the most part have gardens, but they should remember those of us who don’t. A few weeks ago an off-duty ambulance driver was detained on suspicion of sitting in the sunshine. ‘You’re here with your friends… and you haven’t really given me enough reason to believe that you’re not here just seeing them,’ the arresting officer explained before slapping the handcuffs on and searching him for drugs.
Three months ago, it seemed important to take as many precautions as possible. But you can only remain terrified for so long. While my friends (0.2 per cent chance of death) wore actual gas masks when shopping at the supermarket and disinfected all their purchases in the bath, I started committing constant minor infractions of stupid rules that made absolutely no sense in order to stay sane. So far I’ve lived to tell the tale.
No one has stood up for the gardenless covidiot’s right to sunbathe — because self-censorship is raging out of control. The R-rate for the transmission of an alternative point of view is at an all-time low.
‘Question lockdown and an old person dies’ has been the narrative. But I wonder if anyone has ever asked the at-risk age group what they would choose for themselves? ‘No pleasure,’ Kingsley Amis wrote, ‘is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.’
Before fear of a second wave shuts down discussion again, we have to conduct a full investigation into the social, emotional and psychological cost of lockdown. It’s a matter of life — and not just death.
I bought this book because it is one of those books forced on you by the bookshop. You know the books I mean. This one became a No5 Sunday Times bestseller after being on sale for three days. The cover spoke to me. ‘How to Fail’, it said, and I thought, ‘Yes. Always sacked. Ever dumped. Writing stuff I’m not even paid to whilst very clearly drunk – finally here’s the book for me. Surely it will have some galvanising tips…’ So I rushed home and read each page – with mounting bewilderment:
If Elizabeth Day knows the first thing about failure, I am going to have to kill myself.
These days, it’s not just superhero movies that spawn franchises. How to Fail is the book based on the phenomenally popular podcast. (You can also go on the tour and buy the t-shirt.) When the first episode went live, Day recalls, ‘it attracted thousands of listeners overnight. The second saw it catapult to number three in the iTunes chart… By the end of eight episodes, I had somehow accumulated 200,000 listeners and a book deal.’ Every week, she interviews a famous person who – on this evidence – has never failed at anything, either.
Bestselling author Jessie Burton confesses:
‘When The Miniaturist [her first novel] was hugely successful, the biggest success I’ve ever had, it was almost too much. “Well, I’ve tried to write a book and, oh, it’s an international bestseller.” What now? Who am I’
Bestselling author Sebastian Faulks laments of his time at Cambridge University:
‘I thought perhaps I ought to get a first… I was just confused… I wouldn’t say I have got over it really.’
Actress Nicole Kidman admits that ‘instead of rejoicing’ when she won an Oscar, ‘she felt flat and disillusioned’.
While poor Phoebe Waller-Bridge reveals ‘wretchedly’ that she no longer has ‘an alabaster forehead’ and ‘struggled to get the parts she wanted at RADA and felt so broken down by her tutors that she lost confidence and spent much of her twenties failing at auditions or being typecast as the posh, hot girl until she began writing her own material’.
David Baddiel failed to score a goal for Comic Relief and so on and so on and so on until – finally – someone flashes a bit of backbone, admitting, yes, she had failed but overcame the ordeal:
‘When [Gina Miller] took the government to court over Brexit, she simply didn’t have time for a bikini wax or a pedicure – and she was fine with that.’
The theory behind all this cunningly disguised boasting is that it will be helpful to us – the fast failing masses. ’When you hear a successful person – someone who, from afar, might seem to have everything – be open about their failures, it is inclusive, not exclusive’, Day explains.
‘Maybe so, maybe so’, I muttered, while trying not to throw myself out of the window, ‘if your notion of “failure” consists of walking around with an unkempt undercarriage and 10 toenails-worth of chipped nail polish, this book must be a very great comfort.’
For the rest of us (who fear that we really are, in various senses too sad to rehearse, big fat fucking failures) the experience is much like thinking you can rid yourself of violent back pain by paying someone to pummel it out of you, only to lie there feeling a thousand times worse and struggling not to scream. Perhaps this book is intended to help us let go of all our pent-up feelings of failure by fully immersing us in the fact that, no matter how hard we try in life, we are none of us, ever, going to get to be Elizabeth Day. So why bother trying at all?
But this is not an opinion that has been expressed – anywhere – in the ecstatic reviews, and I did start to worry that my perspective might be tarnished by psychotic jealousy. So I did what I always do when no one agrees with me about the books that strike me as over-hyped: I looked at the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon.
‘I don’t think I’ve read about so many achievements – professional, academic, sexual and social’, says one woman, who spends a lot of time apologising for her point of view which she knows to be wrong. ‘Nearly every page there’s a reminder of one or more triumphs, including how well Day did at Cambridge, how many amazing and utterly devoted friends she has (many of them celebrities), how well her career as a journalist has gone, how short her periods of singledom have been (two months only until the age of 36…), how admired her novels are and how easy it was to get freelance work once she’d left the Observer… it can certainly (unintentionally, I’m sure) make readers feel inadequate – I ended up in tears and had to be comforted by my partner at one point, as I felt that I’d clearly failed in various aspects of life.’
For me, there were several passages that really took a plate of biscuits. Such as the chapter ‘How to Fail to be Gwyneth Paltrow’ in which Day steam-cleans her vagina.
Or the blow-by-blow account of the (only) time she failed her driving test:
‘The examiner turned to me, unclicked her seatbelt and uttered the words “I regret to inform you…” as if she were a telegram boy delivering news of a dead soldier on the Western Front.’
Or the point at which she goes to a public school in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, insists on speaking in a cut-glass English accent and discovers (‘shatteringly’) that a boy in her year ‘doesn’t fancy’ her because ‘she’s English’:
‘He wasn’t even a particularly attractive specimen. I didn’t fancy him because he had a ruddy complexion and always smelled vaguely of uncooked sausages. Still, his rejection cut me to the core.’
Or the time she gets 47 per cent in a Chemistry exam:
‘A shame so acute it haunts me still, three decades later.’
She begins sentences with lines such as:
‘I have often been asked at literary festivals…’
‘I thought that if I put enough time in, worked hard, did my best and if my parents threw money at any given problem, success would automatically follow…’
[Spoiler alert: it does.]
There’s also a chapter on ‘Failing at Sport’:
‘I flounder sweatily at the other end of the court missing every single shot and then being forced to pick up the balls like some humiliated dog collecting sticks thrown by a sadistic owner…’
‘I just wasn’t very good at tennis… I wasn’t even properly bad. Instead, I was just mediocre, which was almost worse.’
It is hard to choose the custard cream, but for me, I think, it’s when Day opines that her new (amazingly amazing) boyfriend has called her ‘big’. Now Elizabeth, as she frequently reminds us, is very, very tall. Whereas I am knee-high to a garden gnome. So I did think the boyfriend meant ‘big’ like in the film Big in which Tom Hanks stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries. But then I’m always kinder to men than the bastards deserve, so I would have got on board with Day’s interpretation…
‘I couldn’t let go of the “big” comment, of the idea that he might think of me as some lumbering, flubbery creature who could barely roll out of bed owing to the gargantuan weight of her thighs or the unappealing broadness of her shoulders.’
…had she not followed up, mere paragraphs later, with:
‘I was once scouted by Select as a teenager and had a brief stint as a model when I was at university.’
(In her You magazine column, she still looks like a supermodel.)
Amid all this, there are also very moving passages in which I felt desperately sorry for her. IVF treatment doesn’t work, she suffers a miscarriage and a broken marriage. And though these are misfortunes, not failures, I would have continued feeling desperately sorry for Day if she had said that – deep down – she felt this all so keenly. But she soon insists that none of this is failure at all, blames the fact that she’d temporarily thought so on ‘society’, and I reverted to wondering why in hell she’s produced a whole book on failure when she has never, in any meaningful way, ever failed at anything at all.
But then, it’s part of a trend. There used to be a vogue for misery memoirs – now we have middle-class memoirs. According to the Sutton Trust’s report on the elite in 2019, 13 per cent of people who work in publishing are working class. Judging by the sheer number of books like Day’s, I can’t help but suspect that very few of the remaining 87 per cent even went to state school – like 93 per cent of the rest of us.
‘I wouldn’t have the published books, the journalism awards, the joy of seeing my name in print without a borderline-obsessive work ethic fuelled by outsidership. And maybe I wouldn’t have such a wonderful circle of dear friends’, Day concludes.
‘Outsidership’? One howls at the moon. ‘You’re the emblem of the all-conquering English public-school system in spoken word poetry.’
So if you’ve googled how to cope with failure and have ended up here, here’s my advice on how to overcome the odds you face. Look to those who experienced failure in the past, who can tell you what it means. Then repeat to yourself:
‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
‘Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…’ – no matter how unequal you feel.
Emily Hill is author of the short story collection Bad Romance, published by Unbound.
Call me grossly out of touch, but I miss the days when ladies never talked about their masturbatory habits in public. I’m not keen on sexual equality; total mastery sounds more like it to me – but what is the point in trying to outdo men when it comes to obsessing over one’s genitals? Recently, it seems like feminists prove their worth by penning a memoir that hinges around their vajayjay, which is one way to introduce this book by Lena Dunham, the American auteur behind the HBO drama series Girls. This 28yearold is so devoted to exposing her private thoughts for the feminist cause that she may commence with mere navelgazing but she quickly gets down to a full colposcopy.
I don’t know where to start with Not That Kind of Girl. And I probably won’t know where to stop, either. With the back cover, where ‘praise for Lena Dunham’ includes a quote from her father? With the chapter headings, which include ‘My Worst Email, With Footnotes’, ‘I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me’, and the sadly unresolved conundrum, ‘Who Moved My Uterus?’? With the chapter devoted to what the author ate in 2010 (‘1am — Smooth Move laxative tea… 6.30pm — 6oz filet mignon (348 calories)… one bite escargot, 1/4 snail (43 calories?)’? Or with the vast canvas of crapulence itself, which begins, oh so enticingly, with ‘I am twenty years old and I hate myself’ and concludes 261 pages later with a list of acknowledgements even Gwyneth Paltrow clutching an Oscar might think a little gushy:
‘I would like to gratefully acknowledge… the best editor a girl who uses the word “vagina” a lot could ever ask for your friendship and wisdom have been a balm to my soul… I love you, Mack and Coco!… These words would never exist were it not for… the brassy folks I interact with every day on the internet… the New Yorker magazine, Glamour magazine… Zadie Smith…’, and so on, and so on, and so on. Or shall we commence with Caitlin Moran, thirdwave feminism’s onanist in chief? ‘There has never been anyone like Lena Dunham’, Moran explains. ‘To a generation of girls, she is the thing. The very thing. The absolute thing.’
Who are these girls, this generation of girls, for whom Lena Dunham is the absolute thing? The 872,000 viewers who tuned into the first episode of Girls on HBO in the US? Or the vanishingly smaller number that caught Girls on Sky over here? Am I, three years older than Dunham, one of them? (Or perhaps, past 30, I’m a woman?)
I watched Girls. It all seemed a bit reminiscent of the structured reality show, Made In Chelsea. A bunch of girls, talking about boys, and boys, talking about girls, falling out and making up, while not bothering –oh so hilariously – to get an actual job.
Dunham freshens up the mix with her own body (a revelation to many because it is normal sized rather than undernourished), a unique style mantra (of ‘things I might wear if I worked in a bowling alley’ and ‘shorts that are too small for me’), and forensically detailed shag marathons that look so little pleasurable (to the female involved) that you can see why they appeal to aesthetes of the female experience, such as AA Gill.Yet if Random House paid, say, Binky Felstead $3.7million to write an advice book about being a ‘young woman’ for young women who are (presumably) totally mystified as to how to be a young woman, you might assume that someone, somewhere would snort: ‘You have got to be fucking kidding me.’
This has not been the response to Dunham’s memoir. Rather, the argument that has gained currency is that no one would carp about the sum if it were paid to a man. But then, men who command huge advances are rarely paraded about in the press as the voice of just 50 per cent of their generation; they’re laden with the whole caboodle. Here in the UK, the comedian Russell Brand has produced a book equally zeitgeisty and at least twice as absurd as Dunham’s, and no one blames men his age. It has, to date, outsold Dunham’s book 3:1.
If anything, up to this point I think Dunham has been given more, not less, leeway than a man her age could reasonably expect. In the first series of Girls, criticism was levelled at her for not featuring any black characters in her conception of modern Brooklyn, where the series is set. (I probably should have mentioned already that as well as being privately educated, ‘overweight’, in therapy since the age of eight, and liable to wonder things like ‘what would it feel like to be the face of AIDS in the industrialised world?’, ‘our generation’ would also appear to be very white.)
In the second series of Girls, a black character was duly penned into the drama in the form of a man Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is sleeping with. In the episode in which he appears, Dunham’s character realises her new beau votes Republican and dumps him. This may be brilliantly illustrative of the essential vacuity of Hannah Horvath, but if a man had responded to his critics on the issue of race by writing in a hot, black woman for the hero to sleep with and then discard, never to appear again, I doubt he’d have gotten away with it.
This would all be by the by if the book were more insightful than the TV series, but its focus is, if anything, narrower, since there is only one character, and that’s Dunham. It isn’t exactly fresh, either, since it has been chopped up already, incident by incident, for use in Girls. The 28-year-old very rarely refers to anything that does not relate, explicitly, to her own life. There are no big ideas, no calls to action; instead, Dunham explains, her story should be read simply because it is her story.
‘There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman’, she explains in the introduction. ‘There are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed and we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.’
She then demonstrates said gravitas and profundity with observations such as:
‘“When I’m bad”, I announced, “my father sticks a fork in my vagina.”’
‘Joaquin was almost ten years older than me… and possessed a swagger that seemed unearned considering he was wearing a FUCKING FEDORA.’
‘We ate nothing but hummus and drank nothing but beer. We went to his neighbour’s funeral and sat in the back row and got the giggles, sprinted out.’
Dunham mentions her vagina so many times it seems at least as finely nuanced a pen portrait as that of her younger sister.
‘Last summer my vagina started to sting… It was like someone had poured a drop of vinegar inside of me, followed by a sprinkle of baking soda. It bubbled and fizzed… I associate pain in the vagina with weakness and sadness… So what could I be suppressing that was filling me up with pain? Was it ambivalence about sex? Was I ever molested? (If so, that would explain some other things, too.) Was I afraid of where my career might be taking me, and was I running so far ahead of myself that I couldn’t catch up? Do I even know the difference between my urethra and my vagina?’
Who knows? And more importantly… who cares?
Had Not That Kind of Girl been billed as the greatest satire on her generation, it might one day be appreciated as a masterwork. But despite the fact Dunham mentions irony (as in ‘my parents… played tennis ironically’), I’m not sure sentences such as ‘Mike was the first person to go down on me, after a party to benefit Palestine’, ‘Why spend $200 a week on therapy when you can spend $150 once a year on a psychic?’, or ‘Emotions are exhausting to have’, are that way intended.
Lena Dunham must be bright, ambitious and ferociously talented – you don’t get your own HBO show if you’re any sort of dolt – so why doesn’t it come across in this accursed book? Instead the book just consists of what we saw already, on TV (‘It’s all fodder for A and B stories…’); a discussion of the feminist ‘canon’ which mentions three writers – Gloria Steinem (yes), Nora Ephron (uh…) and Helen Gurley Brown (what?). I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry, but, at times, I was howling bored: finishing ‘Hello Mother, Hello Father: Greetings from Fernwood Cove Camp for Girls’ ranks as one of my more serious achievements.
Not a lot happens, really. Dunham gets her period (‘If my father asked whether I was possibly menstruating I screamed in his face so loud his glasses shook’). There is solipsism (‘In the summer your grandfather dies and you’re secretly glad. You have a place to put all your sorrow now.’) There is narcissism (‘When my grandmother died, I was fourteen. I had recently coloured my hair and bought a satin tube top, a transition I considered to be evidence of irreversible maturity.’) Plus gratuitous boasting (‘When I was 17 years old I even had a vegan dinner party that was chronicled in the style section of the New York Times’). There are attempts at humour in questionable taste (‘I’m afraid that I am infertile… And so I will adopt, but I won’t have the sort of beautiful, genetics defying love story that People magazine chronicles. The kid will have undiagnosed fetal alchohol syndrome. He will hate me, and he will nail our dog to a board.’)
Is there method in this madness? Do they laugh at this in America? Will this memoir really shift the 500,000 copies it would take for Random House to break even on that preposterous advance? In an age when publishers routinely reject good manuscripts, multiple times, and then pay minuscule advances, chances are the writer who will, actually, make a decent crack at defining our generation is probably quietly getting on with it and will be appreciated only long after she is dead. What worries me is that paying silly money for Dunham’s memoir is just delaying the publication of something genuinely original.
And would it be possible, in the meantime, for contemporary feminists to stop sharing stuff any rational person would keep to themselves? Read Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, George goddamn Eliot — feminism did not begin in the era of When Harry Met Sally. At 28, Lena Dunham is clearly very talented, and as a writer she’s just starting out. If she could stop looking to her vagina and start using her brain, and maybe, just maybe, have a think about something other than herself, she might one day write a book that might help us take over the world. And that would be worth reading.