I’ve heard it said that every person has a novel deep inside them, just waiting to be written. To be honest, I can’t remember who said it or in what context, but this doesn’t really matter, what with it being total bollocks. Take me, for instance. If I were to try writing an extended work of fiction it would be breathtakingly awful. I can’t do plot, would get bored midway through and am so self-absorbed that every single character would, essentially, be me, except for some token additional detail (having different colour hair, for instance, or a third nipple – no, wait, that’s still me).*Anyhow, the truth is, while I don’t believe everyone on the planet is a secret Charles Dickens (finger on the pulse, yet again), I do think there’s one literary capability which we all share: all of us, each and every one, could pen a “tragic life stories” autobiography. I’m not kidding – I seriously think we all have that potential (apart from Andrew Collins, but then that was the whole point of the rather wonderful Where did it all go right? He’s the only person, ever, not to have several tons of crap from childhood just waiting to gush forth).
Since starting to blog I have written about some of the Terrible Things That Have Happened To Me And/Or Those Close To Me. I’ve not written about all of them – oh no, there are more! – but I’m not about to add any here. It’s neither the time nor the place, and when I mention these things, I like it to be in a relevant, serious context, as opposed to one in which I just show off about how much I’ve suffered and, by extension, the degree to which I’ve overcome the odds. Besides, while I could still do this, it all depends on the spin you put on things. I’ve also written about how I’m white, middle-class and Oxbridge-educated, and have a job, a partner I love and two brilliant kids. All of this sounds sickeningly perfect. But then again you could say the fact that I have all these things now is testimony to my ability to face down adversity. You could say that, or alternatively you could say that my life just hasn’t been all that shit after all. It’s up to you (presuming you are arsed – and I suspect you’re not). Anyhow, I don’t care – I am assuming that when I die, I’ll just be dead, and there won’t be any “odds overcoming ability” appraisal to which ghost me will then have to answer.
The tragic life story genre is easy to criticise as mawkish or self-aggrandising or, worse still, awash with self-pity. I don’t have time for such criticisms. If anything, I wish people were more open about the bad things that happen to them. I wish that, rather than reading about it in a book, we felt more able to approach family, friends and colleagues and to talk about pain, trauma and loss (and when I say “colleagues”, I don’t mean I’m picturing project meetings in which AOB becomes “that thing which happened to me when I was six and which is the entire reason why I fluffed that PowerPoint presentation just now”. I mean smaller, more pointed things. I for one always regret being afraid to approach a colleague who’d just had a miscarriage. It was only when it happened to me – <sad thing alert> – that I understood how much the silence hurts). All the same, context matters. For instance, if I’d just smacked you in the face, it would be neither useful nor relevant for me to reveal that I’d once been smacked in the face and kicked up the arse on the same day. Playing Tragedy Top Trumps is meaningless, especially when you’re partly responsible for your competitor’s tragedies.
All of this (well, some of it) went through my mind when I was flicking through a copy of the Daily Mail while waiting to get the keys for my new car (new car! Is it privilege? Or triumph over tragedy? You decide!). I found myself reading about David Cameron’s conference speech – the one in which he dwelt upon his father’s “difficult” background – and becoming more and more infuriated. While I think it is perfectly possible for an Eton-educated stockbroker to face challenges and to work hard, I am seriously pissed off at the yarn Cameron seeks to spin from this:
Recalling a conversation with his father, Mr Cameron told the conference: ‘He told me what he was most proud of. It was simple – working hard from the moment he left school and providing a good start in life for his family.
‘Not just for all of us, but helping his mum too, when his father ran off. Not a hard-luck story, but a hard-work story.’
Hmm. Have to say, it sounds rather like a hard-luck story to me. A socially, educationally and financially privileged man works hard to support his family – well, good for him (but not that much good, seeing as he managed to raise David Cameron). But to suggest that because his parents divorced when he was young his later success has a moral dimension – he did it, so you can too – is complete rubbish. It meas nothing to those who work hard but aren’t Eton-educated stockbrokers. It means nothing to those who are raised by single parents who genuinely lack money and support. It means nothing to those living now, under this government, beyond telling them that if something feels wrong, those in power don’t take you seriously. It’s just your “hard-luck story”.
My father’s parents were working class (and are now divorced – do I get bonus points?). Dad left school with two O-levels. He managed to become a barrister, although not before he was in his forties. Is this a magnificent testimony to hard work and an absence of self-pity? Well, yes, in part. But the fact that once he’d completed his A-levels at night school he didn’t pay fees to attend university – the fact that, on the contrary, he received a grant to support his living costs – had quite a lot to do with it, too. Would he have been able to follow the same path now? I’m not so sure, but if not, what would be to blame – a shift in personal morality or the decisions made by governments such as Cameron’s?
I’m not even going to mention Cameron bringing the death of his son into his speech. Well, okay, I just have. But what can anyone say? It is such a terrible thing. But also an irrelevant thing if what you are meant to be discussing is how people with disabilities are valued by the Conservative Party – and your government stands accused of making cuts and failing to meet desperate needs. I don’t have a huge amount of respect for Gordon Brown, but one thing that always stood in my mind during the pre-election debates was the way in which he never exploited his own family tragedies for political gain while Cameron stood right in front if him and did just that regarding his own. It impressed me because I imagine that hurt, a lot. It’s not necessarily a reason to vote for a person but I still think it shows genuine moral strength.
Anyhow, what do I know? Maybe it is a reason to vote for a person. Maybe it’s all about touchy-feely narratives – sharing your pain with others while in day-to-day, practical terms, you’re making their lives a living nightmare. Still, I suppose it gives the rest of us more to write about when we compose our misery memoirs. Thanks, Dave – I’m sure there’ll be a special place for you in the acknowledgements.
* Having written all this, I’d like to add that should I change my mind and write something which, against all odds, has a 50 Shades Of Grey-level of success, look at it this way, critics – I’ve just done your work for you.