DISCLAIMER: re-reading the post below, I realize it sounds a bit like I’m having a breakdown (and it’s hard to judge, on a blog, what is “for real”). This is a framing device so that you can read it without being worried for me. I’m not actually having a breakdown (at least, not here and now, while I’m writing this). I wanted to write something that conveys the strength of emotion which, for me, is associated with notions of success and failure. I have actually felt a lot of what I write about here, but not in an all-consuming or paralysing way: at the same time as feeling it, I’ve been able to gain perspective and distance, to contextualize it. I imagine a lot of people who live in precarious conditions (and I know that many people live in more precarious conditions than me) will be able to recognize the stuff below. So please read this as if you were reading a character.
END OF DISCLAIMER
I have failed at life.
I write that in jest, but (to misquote Stewart Lee) coincidentally, as well as writing it in jest, it’s also what I happen to genuinely believe. By any objective measure of success and failure (and there are objective measures, you know there are, so don’t pretend) I have failed. Granted, I have failed in a relative way. There are people who are far greater life-failers than I, and I’m grateful not to be in their place, but that doesn’t stop me from falling firmly into the camp of failure. The line between failure and success may be fuzzy; it is difficult to ascertain whether certain people have failed or not. But I am not one of those people. I am one of the ones that has failed.
At the age of thirty, I do not own any of the following: a house, a car, a motorbike, a boat, a swimming pool, a property portfolio, land, shares, my own cutlery or china, wines, a record collection, a sound system, a TV, a sofa, an armchair, furniture (apart from an Ikea bed which my parents helped me buy last year and a couple of bookshelves from Argos), white goods or electrical appliances, livestock, jewellery, life insurance, collectibles, branded clothes, a hat stand (or a hat), nice bedlinen, a spare room, an office, a small business, a rug, pot plants, art, a lamp, a toolbox, curtains, a mirror, a clock, a watch, scented candles, a wastepaper bin, a vase, a picnic basket, a beanbag, a barbecue, an iphone, an ipad or, indeed, any Apple branded computer or device. If you own any of the aforementioned things, you have failed less than me. I have no savings. I cannot afford to eat out in restaurants, let alone ones with small portions or where we all pretend the food is being cooked by someone who has been on TV. Sometimes my friends will ask me out for Sunday brunch, and I am too embarrassed to tell them I can’t afford it, so I dig a little deeper into my overdraft. I occasionally find myself on a bus, but more often I cycle (on my second-hand bicycle) because public transport is too expensive for me. I don’t have children, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to support them unless I fundamentally changed the way I live. Sure, I could spend time with them and play with them and teach them stuff, but I couldn’t get prams and toys and cots and a baby room and baby clothes and all the paraphernalia. I couldn’t take care of them, materially, and if I wasn’t able to take care of my (as yet theoretical) children, you would think “fine, be a failure, if you can’t get yourself together, if you’re too lazy, or sad, or broken to do otherwise. But don’t impose your failure on your children. That’s not fair. At least give them the chance to succeed where you couldn’t. You don’t even have an excuse, mate. There’s nothing even wrong with you. Think of all those people who are ill, or disabled, or haven’t had the same opportunities as you. At least they have an excuse to fail. You don’t even have an excuse.” And you would be right: I am even more of a failure for imposing my failure on my made-up children. Even by the standards of my own choice of career – working in the arts, working in theatre – I have failed. On a personal level, this is what hurts most, because I have convinced myself (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that I am good at making theatre. But a good hard look at reality compels me to face up to the fact that there is little to suggest this: my work has not been reviewed (favourably or not) in national newspapers, I have not been given any awards, I have not won any competitions or prizes, I am the only person who seems to want to employ me as a director, assistant director or performer, my work is not recognized by anyone in the “industry”, let alone respected, nobody wants to fund the work I am proposing to make. Apart from a couple of “work in progress” performances, I haven’t even had anything on for over a year, and I have no immediate prospects of working in a rehearsal room (this has to do, in the case of my own work with the fact that performers and creative team need to be paid, and in the case of working on other people’s projects, that other people don’t want me to work for them).
I’m not complaining, by the way, like “ooh, it’s not fair, everybody else has got stuff and I haven’t”. That’s not what I’m saying, not at all. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m just explaining why, according to all objective measures (that we all accept) I am a failure.
And you will say: “But, Ben, the things you’re talking about, those aren’t the things that really matter. All those material things (that we have and you don’t) all those trappings of success, all that praise and recognition that people who are good at the job that you want to do get, all that doesn’t really matter. That’s not real. What really matters is love and friendship and beauty and ethics and working hard at things.” And I totally agree with that. But at the same time, that isn’t what you really believe, is it? It isn’t really what you think, otherwise you wouldn’t spend all your time and energy working to get all that stuff – all the houses and cars and gadgets and careers and professional recognition and all. Would you, you hypocrite?
In theatre, in the arts, amongst artists, we talk about the “right to fail”. I mean, I don’t, but it’s a phrase you hear a lot. It’s like “taking risks” (I’ll have a rant about that some other time). Lyn Gardner, who writes about theatre for the Guardian, uses it a lot. And if you go to any theatre workshop or talk or whatever, you’ll hear lots of people bandying it about. And to me, that phrase, the “right to fail”, is really upsetting, right, because being a failure is fucking terrible. What kind of a right is the right to fail? I don’t need your permission – my failure is a fact. It’s like telling a tramp they have a right to be homeless. It’s very insensitive. Because it implies that not only do I have to live with failure, not only do I have to pretend that I’m OK with it, but I have to defend it as a right? Compound my misery, why don’t you.
In the utopia (when it comes) the concept of failure will not exist (just like the concept of shame does not exist for Tories). In the utopia, every time something doesn’t work, we’ll remember that “there’s been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn’t work“, and just get on with it. Until then, any art which is made in a capitalist society must grapple with conceptions of success and failure that capitalism imposes. Within the system, these describe an objective reality, and since we cannot remove ourselves from the system, QED. David Lan has suggested that the theme of all Western art is suffering. I think that’s pretty much what I’m trying to elucidate here.
So yes, I am a failure. And my work is about failure. But please don’t tell me I have the right to fail.