‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’ is a hideously repetitive nursery song many of us were brainwashed with as children – which perhaps explains the spontaneous applause when Speaker Bercow resigned in the House of Commons earlier this week.
Ultimately, it is a mass behaviour. Watching Bercow’s resignation at home, I almost found myself rising up to join in. Not because I felt he deserved any tribute but because whenever I hear anyone else clapping I can’t help but start clapping too. Like yawning, it’s irresistibly contagious…
7th September 2019
I loved this book so much I was appalled. Why, when bookshops are stacked full of memoirs by authors who can’t write, isn’t Alexandra Fuller heaped up in perilous piles so near the till it’s impossible to evade her? This is like one of the most alluring Svetlana Alexievich testimonies, as if it had wandered out of the USSR and got lost in central Africa by way of a hospital in Budapest. It’s packed with exquisite jokes, quotes and details — such as when a doctor appears and ‘his gauzy green scrubs puffed out in great billows, the surgical-garb equivalent of Princess Di’s wedding dress…’
31st August 2019
‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was a Christmas classic for more than half a century until people suddenly began to worry that it was about yuletide date rape. ‘It was because of the video Tom Jones and I made,’ says Cerys Matthews, in her smoky Welsh lilt. She recorded a cover with Jones in 1999. The video showed the craggy old Welsh crooner slip something in her drink that turns Cerys into a high camp vamp. ‘The song is really innocent and beautiful and fun — it’s got a huge heap of humour and wit and I love it. That song is not our enemy. That woman is a strong woman. She’s there because she wants to be! It’s cold outside. They’re making love. Come on!’
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.
At primary school, we were shown an educational video about children who strayed on to a farm and ended up hideously maimed in an industrial mangle and suffocated to death in a grain silo. Artistically, it wasn’t worth a damn, but I still can’t see a ploughed field without shuddering.
It’s taken me a week to puzzle out why everyone else loves Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, awarding it five stars and heralding it as some sort of masterwork, when it reminds me of that farm-safety video. I think perhaps the film’s best use is as a teaching tool for visiting policemen, traipsing round high schools, trying to scare kids off drink and drugs.
And I can see why Mitch Winehouse is so upset about it: Amy is not a film about his late daughter’s life, her transcendent voice, or the appalling brilliance of her songwriting; it is a long, laborious – at times, even dull – inquest into her death. It sets out to show us the ‘real Amy’ and ends up illustrating the cautionary tale of a girl who wanders into fame and ends up hideously maimed, by the men who surround her, and put to death by a toxic blend of success and her own excess.
Before seeing Amy, I didn’t think it would be possible to be unmoved by a film about her. I booked a seat in a cinema on the hottest day of the year, sat alone, an aisle to myself, mascara-free, ready to howl for an hour solid, at having to witness the death of the greatest talent yet produced by 1983 – a woman far more courageous than I’ve ever managed to be. I thought it was going to tell me all the things I didn’t know and wanted to – such as where in hell did she get that attitude and what was that voice? I thought it would tell me how she wrote those soul-sick, lust-drenched, spectacularly defiant songs which preserve – so exactly – what it feels like to be a woman on fire, in love, hopeless love, with entirely the wrong man. Instead, the film almost seems to denigrate her life, reducing it to a pathetic rampage, the moral of the story very clear: that it is far better to be, like the rest of us, healthy eaters, modest drinkers, sensible lovers, unoriginal thinkers, than to gorge and binge and worship and write.
Amy is such an incomplete film you could miss the most basic facts about her, like the fact she had an older brother, who introduced her to jazz and the blues, which I just learned from a much more interesting documentary about her on BBC iPlayer. It never mentions the fact she went to stage school, which seems – to me at least – to contradict the idea that she never, ever, in the slightest bit wanted to be famous. Most brilliant musicians, and, come to think of it, most bad musicians, want as many people as possible to hear their music, or so I thought, before I saw Amy.
The question it concentrates on, to the exclusion of anything else, is: ‘At what point could Amy have been saved?’ It’s a non sequitur – because she wasn’t – but, according to her first manager, a man who seems most interested in slagging off her second manager, it was just before the genesis of her second record, when he drove young Winehouse into the middle of nowhere and told her she needed to ‘go to rehab’ because she was drinking too much. He explains – rather smugly, to my ear – that if her father had supported the idea then Winehouse may never have written that record at all, ‘My daddy thinks I’m fine’, but she could be alive today. The fact that he has so little appreciation of the genius of what she did with Back To Black, on which the song ‘Rehab’ appears, suggests to me she knew what she was doing switching managers.
Amy Winehouse lived – at a frantic pace and with great gusto – for her music, throwing herself into life, recklessly plunging into experience and emotion. Kapadia portrays her as the victim of uncurbed urges, while I see her as the heroine who transcended them. Her life was a tragedy in the true meaning of the word – a woman brought to ruin by the flaws which made her self. ‘Love’, she wrote and smouldered-sang on ‘Love is a losing game’, ‘is a fate resigned / Over futile odds / And laughed at by the gods’. I wonder: had she been offered the choice – like Achilles at the gates of Troy – between living to a ripe old age without ever meeting her Blake Incarcerated, or transforming what ensued into a work of art that sizzled and burned, which will be played – like the records of Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf – to console girls not even born yet, who have fallen into a hopeless state, and feel desperate and ashamed of it… would she have chosen to do it all again? Or would she have preferred to pour out her gift, to a lone audience of one, a therapist sitting in a chair, at a rehabilitation centre? Don’t get me wrong, I wish she had never died, but had emerged from the blackness, to spend a lifetime plump and happy and singing the blues for fun. But if you offered me that choice, between contributing something great or living until I’m 80, I’d have been lying in a grave for the last four years with a very good grace.
It’s not that Kapadia is incapable of telling a story like this. In Senna, he took a man I’d never heard of, who was vital to a sport I couldn’t care less about, and made me feel like I was personally undergoing a bereavement just watching him drive so recklessly you knew he’d crash and die. Kapadia took a totally pointless activity – racing round and round a track as fast as possible – and made it seem like the way Senna understood it: as noble and integral to the human race. Part of the sadness, the cathartic experience, of watching Senna was that you knew just by looking at him that if Ayrton Senna had been given the chance to live again, he would have spent all his time figuring out how to drive even faster.
But Amy is so focused on laying bare the agonies of drug addiction that it doesn’t bother explaining that the demons which ate her up also made her great. There are millions of drug addicts alive today who you could make this sort of film about – you don’t have to be winning Grammy awards, packing out stadiums, or having 10,000 flashbulbs going off in your face for this to happen to you. And Kapadia never pauses to wonder whether Mitch Winehouse, and everyone else close to her, didn’t step in to ‘save’ her because her death was an unfortunate accident. Debbie Harry turned 70 last week, having spent years frying her innards in heroin with Blondie’s Chris Stein. Marianne Faithfull, whose voice only seems to improve with cigarettes, had drug problems so terrible she unravelled into homelessness, with no one caring for her at all. In the early scenes of Amy, Winehouse is portrayed as ballsy and headstrong. Watching her face crinkle with disgust as an interviewer compares her to Dido, or hearing her describe how she ‘hates’ the man who put ‘fake strings’ on her debut album Frank, you can’t imagine her doing anything she didn’t want to. She is arrogant, in the very best sense, full of cleverness and cutting wit.
It also seems a bit much for Kapadia to shovel blame on to everyone – from her fans upwards – for exploiting Winehouse, when he is making a film that does exactly that. For we are treated to exhaustive images of her harrowed, emaciated face, without ever revisiting her most blistering performances, or letting us hear – in decent dollops – that voice of hers, so rich I could sit here all year and still fail to describe it. It doesn’t suggest how she put together that unique image: of a chanteuse in cinched-in skirts, with tattooed arms and ‘Blake’s’ hoisted boobs, eyes triple the size of any other girl’s, with great dark swoops of eyeliner, and that neverending mass of backcombed hair, which wobbled slightly as she sang, like a towering black jelly. It does not dwell on that mouth, those teeth, as they devour one microphone after another. Halfway through, her voice melts to nothing – it’s like making a film about Paul Gascoigne and leaving out the goals.
Whether we live for two-and-a-half decades or the full 10, we are none of us on this Earth for very long, and this film cannot convince me that Winehouse didn’t make better use of her time than most. The songs she wrote mean something to girls in a way that Rihanna’s latest riff – on being defrauded by her accountant – never will. So I hope Mitch Winehouse makes good his threat and starts work on his own documentary. For I was in love like she was, once, and ‘Wake up alone’ is what captures it. ‘Love is a losing game’ is a poem at its simplest and most beautiful. There is a truth to her that most stars lack. Reading her lines over, I can’t think even Blake Incarcerated can have been quite the devil he is painted here, since he proved so useful as a muse.
Throughout, Amy plays various voicemails Winehouse left, to those she loved who did not pick up the phone. In one she declares: ‘It’s your favourite Jewish girl, apart from your mum… The burning love I have for you will not be dampened… I don’t care if you never answer the phone. I will love you until the day my heart fails and I fall down dead in the road.’ Yes, there is a recklessness to that, which could have been carefully plucked out of her, with prescription drugs and talking therapy. But to take all that love and pour it into Back To Black… is there not something brave in that, and at least a little bit wonderful? Everything that happened to Amy afterwards was bad and brutal and awful, but that act of defiant love and creation – the ability to make something good from something bad – represents, to me, the greatest triumph of the human spirit I’ve found outside of books. Not a waste or a shame, or life at its most bathetic; a life truly lived.