Close, but no e-cigar

It’s 5.04 am and I’ve been failing to sleep for some time now. I’ve actually been considering how I have managed to reach the grand age of 52 and a half without much in the way of success at all. This is not what has been keeping me awake so much as keeping me company in my insomnia. It seems that if there is one area in my life in which I may legitimately call myself successful it is in failing. I am remarkably consistent in getting so far but no further. There are no laurels of victory for me, no spoils, just the nagging feeling that I have made under-achieving into something of an art form. I write this not out of self-pity or in a plea for sympathy, but more in the sense that perhaps, just perhaps, under-reaching is the default human condition. After all, as a species it appears as if we may well have failed in making the best of what, let’s face it, were a particularly glorious set of circumstances, and our continued refusal to accept this fact is merely damning us to an increasingly embarrassing exit from the stage we created. But enough about humanity. How have I failed me; let me count the ways.
I failed at school. I failed as a musician, an academic, a writer, a journalist, a playwright, a sound engineer, a cricketer, a husband, a father, an author. As a healthy human. A sad litany perhaps, but what is failure?
At school (an institution one teacher opined ‘were not designed for the likes of me’, though I’m still not entirely sure what he meant), I ended up being asked to leave the highly competitive military academy I had succeeded in winning a place at because I realised that I actually wanted to be a musician, something my father suggested might be a more viable option for my sister as ‘at least she has talent.’ It’s true I then experienced a short spell of success as a painter and decorator in Norwich working for NACRO, but, well, that wasn’t a particularly high bar.
As a musician, I managed to be called ‘the best guitarist I’ve heard in this country in fifteen years’ and ‘just like Randy Rhoads used to be’, but that was by two drummers, so I’m not sure whether that counts. In ten years I managed to appear on exactly zero commercial recordings and a similar number of tours. Ok, so I did appear on Radio 4’s consumer programme You & Yours but I’m not sure that was a compliment. My career is best summed up by a comment made by the head of a very large guitar company when my name came up in conversation. ‘Great player but a total c**t.’ A friend of mine, at whom this comment had been directed, laughed and said ‘Oh, you know Pete, then?’ (I confess I was a pain in the arse to work with). ‘Never met him,’ came the reply.
Academia was an interesting experience. Having written two unpublished novels, I decided to read for a bit. Cue a period of great success: prizes, degrees, grants. I was adopted by a very powerful academic who then used me in a power struggle with another. Strangely enough, I didn’t come out on top. My PhD submission was delayed by six months by the combination of my supervisors hating each other and having cancer, meaning I did not hand it in until the November rather than the scheduled September. That month, my university advertised two entry-level positions in my field. I was told, face-to-face, not to bother applying ‘as we have two very strong candidates’. Two years later, my basal ganglia failed. My academic career then stuttered a little, and when I failed to get an article that I had been asked to submit published by a journal because the reviewer didn’t want me to compete with them for an upcoming position the writing was on the wall (they also later wrote, in a footnote, that while I was the only person who had written on a particular subject, my conclusions ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nice. Bollocks, but nice). Later I applied for a position under the two ticks scheme (whereby applicants who are disabled are guaranteed an interview if they meet the minimum criteria) but was not shortlisted on account of (amongst other, even more ludicrous excuses) lacking expertise in renaissance literature. My PhD in the subject was apparently irrelevant.
In the interim, I almost got a job with Bloomsbury, but the wages were so poor that I spent the summer as a sound engineer in the West End instead. I then did sound for The Snowman for a couple of years but the production company changed and I refocused on the PhD.
Once my academic career fell apart (I did manage a couple of posts, but couldn’t quite climb onto the merry-go-round that is the sorry lot of the early career researcher these days), I went back to the written words. After all, I had managed some measure of success writing for Guitar and Bass magazine, publishing seventy or eighty pieces with them. Things didn’t go well. I managed to get paid nothing for three articles for Prospect (which are now behind a paywall), a whole season of columns for All Out Cricket (they eventually gave me a paid gig. One. For which I had to drive to Manchester. No expenses. Cheers), nothing for a piece in the Guardian and several offers of more work for nothing. I did nail a short-lived space on CricInfo but that soon fell away. In terms of paid work I managed the guitar stuff, 8 or nine pieces about cricket and three about having Parkinson’s. Not a great return.
In the meantime I also played a lot of cricket. I love the game. Sadly, the feeling does not appear to be mutual. Let’s leave it at that.
Self-publishing. It’s fair to say that Slender Threads: a young person’s guide to Parkinson’s Disease has been much appreciated, and The Country House Cricketer was also much lauded. Neither of them earnt me much in the way of money, mind (though a couple of charities did quite well). I might also ask for two further novels, a children’s book, a play about Shakespeare and a radio script for a cricket-themed murder/mystery to be taken into consideration when it comes to unpublished works.
My failings as a husband (two) and as a father (ongoing) are best left unexplored. Not least because they are dull.
My most recent exploits involve trying to re-record and re-release an album of guitar instrumentals for charity (ongoing), and the recent publication of a novel of an historical hue. Neither can yet be categorised.
The question, I suppose, truly revolves around whether it’s the cigar that counts. In one sense, I’ve failed at everything I’ve attempted: in another, my life has been a rip-roaring success. It’s been unpredictable, never dull and rather broad in its compass. It’s a pain in the arse that my body is increasingly falling apart but it is the universal condition. Only the timing varies.
Perhaps mankind ought also reassess the meaning of success, too. After all, considering our frailties and our instincts, we’ve done pretty well to make it this far. No species, no environment lasts forever, and everything that now is was always destined not to be. Beauty will cease the moment the things that invented it pass. Beauty is species deep. The only thing we might save is ourselves. We may, or may not, be worth it.
I still, however, have failed to get to bloody sleep. I thought writing this may have worked – you may already have found reading it successful. But no, I’m as awake as ever.
Now, what shall I almost achieve next? Breakfast? Here’s betting I fall asleep now it’s 6.30am and bloody miss it …

1 thought on “Close, but no e-cigar

  1. Boof. There’s a punch in the guts for a Monday morning. I’m tempted to suggest that you fail to recognise your successes. But only to poke fun. Actually, I think you’re right when you say ‘mankind ought to assess the meaning of success’. What even is it? Do we mean social standing, financial reward? Sometimes success for me is getting dinner on the table and I say that as someone who, rightly or wrongly, considers herself to mostly bask in good fortune. With luck flowing my way, dinner might not seem much of an achievement. But nevertheless some days, it feels like a minor, if bitter, victory. Ditto for finally falling asleep.
    However we define it, success is not static. You list lots of successes and I can Iist a few (some that exceed preparing dinner), but sometimes those moments aren’t what we imagined or fade or even turn sour in retrospect because of what comes with them or next.
    I recently watched the film ‘Diego Maradona’. Seriously successful footballer with disaster zone on the flipside of that coin. Pablo Escobar, seriously successful drug dealer. All went tits up in the end. I’d like to reference a loftier, classical example but I’ll fail at that one. The point is, ‘success’ ebbs and flows and rarely arrives alone. And failure, disappointment, is where we learn. It’s the nitty gritty of life. The interesting stuff.
    Fucking hurts sometimes, though.

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