back story

It’s not often that I’m drawn to the memoirs or autobiographies of celebrities, public figures or the rightfully famous.  Not really since footballers’ autobiographies when I was a teen, in fact – namely Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, the two players culpable for my lifelong love of the stupid game.  Looking back, I’m not sure why I did then.  Fandom, I suppose.  But the comedian, writer, actor and comedy panel show regular David Mitchell was different (not David Mitchell the author, who I also like despite his wearying recent novels).

This David Mitchell I consider to be funny and smart and in many ways probably not unlike me.  You could say that as well as respecting his work I identified with him somehow, his middle-class background and.. and some other things.  Perhaps.  What immediately struck me though, was how his recently released memoir (somewhere around October or November 2012) Back Story is savagely under-edited.

There’s a considerable amount in it which can’t possibly be very interesting to anybody who isn’t David Mitchell, or maybe a Mitchell family member.  Reading it is like being trapped in a darkened room, bound and gagged, while the man himself is high on caffeine or ecstasy and has been actively encouraged to talk as much as possible, ripping off on as many zany contrived tangents as humanely possible.  It’s often entertaining and amusing, watching these tangents within tightly edited half hour panel shows.  Not so much here.  Few of them are that interesting; I couldn’t will myself to care much about the characters of his childhood.

In his defence, this is probably what happens in memoirs and autobiographies.  It sounds about right. I am intolerant and impatient and easy to bore.

While it was certainly a book I found myself skim-reading more than usual, there was content which made me think.  This usually happened when Mitchell discussed broader topics than himself and his anecdotes.  Not always but usually.

In speaking of humour, for example, he discusses how some people have no sense of humour at all but disguise the fact by laughing at absolutely everything.  It’s very true but I’d extend this to cover the cracks of nervousness and social embarrassment. I think women tend to do this in offices with people they’re not familiar with, quite often. Isn’t it cold outside!? Bwahahahaha!. And also megalomaniac CEOs with not an ounce of sensitivity or empathy.  It is deeply unsettling, especially if you’re not that way inclined in the least, if you struggle to feign even a polite laugh, or actively don’t wish to, as much as it seems appropriate.

Another section made me recall my own early school days and social embarrassment, especially where girls were concerned.  I didn’t think I was that awkward at the time, I’d talk to any of them happily and remember having small crushes on one or two girls at primary school.  But at my first comprehensive school in a not particularly nice provincial town where being without a local ‘varest’ (forest) accent counted against you, I didn’t go to any school discos or show much attraction towards any of the girls.  Not after the first year, when a girl I fancied (and who I had excruciatingly been outed as fancying) left the school.  I wasn’t into any of the boys either and was pretty confident I preferred girls to boys, like that.  Just none of the girls in  my year.  They were mostly charmless.  So I was subjected day-to-day to fairly constant accusations of being gay (they felt like accusations) as well as name calling.  Sometimes subtler baiting from the girls themselves: “ooh, innit cold in here?” they’d say to each other in my presence.  “Yeah, freeeezing!”  This was supposed to allude to my apparent frigidity (aged 12 or 13), then they’d peel into secret laughter at my expense.

I moved away from that school at the start of the third year, went to a school disco there and snogged my first girl.  It was quite easy.  As was she, apparently.

Mitchell speaks of how he couldn’t be direct and speak to girls he fancied, even at university, which was something I empathised with.  I was fairly closed and repressed at university.  Struggled to ‘let myself go’.  Mitchell’s coyness surprised me because he describes himself as confident and with general self-belief instilled by his parents.  My brother bludgeoned that out of me; or I always used him as the explanation for never believing myself worth much; there would always be plenty of other better candidates, more likely winners.

I wonder if having a female sibling or just being comfortable having girl friends as young as possible makes you less awkward.  What is it that cool kids have?  Just a lack of care about everything?

Anyway, the book was ok.  It didn’t make me like Mitchell and more or less.  Possibly it made me envy him even more, because although he had the passion and desire to be a success and he worked extremely hard for his success, it seems like he also never had any great plan or organisational skills.  An Oxbridge background and the contacts and belief that gives a person probably helps, but he was also subjected to luck and fortune and misery.  He had to wait a long time for both personal and professional success.

The book felt like it was probably his agent’s idea.  For a clever, literate man like Mitchell: a reasonably simple, easy way to make some more money.


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