March 2011

How I Love Lucy was born? We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them.
Lucille Ball

Janice Dickinson, who British history mainly records as slightly less popular than Christopher Biggins, has said she sees herself as having been “shaped by my mistakes”. (We can’t find any interviews, but we’re sure that her plastic surgeons speak fondly of her in public too. Perhaps if she’d been in The Rocky Horror Show in her youth…?) Staying with the arts (and continuing the spirit of generosity), many musicians have spoken about their attitudes to mistakes. Miles Davis simply said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none”, while Ornette Coleman’s approach was perhaps a little more humble:

It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.

Coleman’s imply one common view of mistakes – that they are an opportunity for learning from direct experience, a way of finding out both about whatever area of life you make the mistake in and about yourself. (Indeed, in another corner of the arts, James Joyce called mistakes “the portals of discovery”.) With mistakes, a lot comes down to how you view them – both in the abstract and in the aftermath.


Conflict is never attractive, even to those that are merely onlookers. If you watched the BBC’s recent screenplay based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin diaries, Christopher and his Kind (on iPlayer for a few more days), you may remember his mother’s words at the dinner table to her son and his German partner: “That’s what wars do: kill people.” Raising arms against another – as individuals or nations, as acts of aggression or of intervention to help protect the beleaguered – raises a dense moral cloud. The current action in Libya is proving to be no exception. The situation in Libya is one in which many world leaders have clearly – and entirely understandably – felt that “something needs to be done”. The difficulty has been to decide exactly what.


In his 1960 novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth posed a question about manners:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?”

Either way, I can’t help but feel that they are innate. Manners – like grace or ‘cool’ – are one of those things that either you possess or you don’t: they cannot truly be feigned. They are something you evidence, rather than something you simply ‘do’: manners are not a form of karaoke. Needless to say, Oscar Wilde had a relevant quote – “A true gentlemen is one who is never unintentionally rude” – but opinions on the importance, meaning and role of manners are as variable as standards of behaviour themselves.


The Guardian recently ran a feature article about great speeches – a timeless topic, even in an age where – despite the dreams of the digital prophets, and the predictions of the demise of language under an onslaught of little dancing icons – words are probably being read more than ever. (Is it just me, or is the Kindle the most ironic invention yet? Wireless connectivity, USB, cloud computing, mobile that, digital the other – and it does what: mimics a book? Mmm.) So, still timeless, but let’s ignore the fact that the times are changing. Significant moments still call for The Big Speech – usually now televised (and then YouTubed and viralled off across the Internet’s virtual pontoon of social networking platforms): Kennedy in Berlin, Obama in Tuscon, Gaddafi in Tripoli, Cameron in Battersea Power Station …

Some situations – whether they are a time of crisis, a sense of a crisis that may occur later unless they are pre-empted, or an urgent desire to kindle change (rather than merely changing Kindle) – demand a response. As there is only so much that any of us can achieve single-handedly, that response is very often a statement: the first action is the call to the action that will – it is hoped – follow. It helps to be mindful of the ‘meta message’ you’re sending, of course.


Are you getting your five a day? No, not fruit & veg. Not even superfruits. Emails. That little red light lighting up on your crac … sorry, BlackBerry to help you feel needed, wanted, useful: after all, if you’re on call 24/7, you’re somebody, right? Having been totally absorbed for the last few days, using both thumbs to navigate my way through Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I’m wondering if the question isn’t actually how much of a somebody you might be becoming, and what your Blackberry says about you – and your relationship not so much with technology, but with the rest of humanity.