BIOGRAPHY
It’s embarrassing, of course, to talk or write about oneself, to show off, to presume that other people might be interested in one’s own sad and wasted life, when clearly other people have sad and wasted lives of their own to be getting on with.

As a child it was always impressed upon me, as a matter of the utmost importance - more important almost than any other virtue, in fact, the first of the commandments - not to be a ‘big head’. There was no greater a slur, no more forceful a dismissal when I was growing up in the Sansom household, around our tiny blue formica-topped kitchen table, or later - when we had the extension put on – around the smoky-brown laminate breakfast bar, than for my mum or my dad to describe someone, politicians usually, but often also teachers, and doctors, or indeed anyone in authority, who presumed to speak out on behalf of themselves or others, as a big head. Indeed, my dad even taught us an old music hall song, which began ‘Why does everybody call me “Big Head”?’, which we used to chorus whenever we felt someone was boasting unnecessarily of their achievements: Mrs Thatcher; Arthur Scargill; Jim Callaghan; Robert Robinson; Benazir Bhuto; and anyone who’d passed the eleven-plus.





So writing about myself does make me feel uneasy and uncomfortable, like I’m running a slight temperature and am about to do something I know I really shouldn’t be doing or don’t know how to do: kissing a woman who is not my wife, say, or operating some kind of heavy machinery, or examining the following diagram and calculating its perimeter; it makes me apprehensive. It makes me want to check over my shoulder for God, or the invigilator, or at least my parents, or my sister, or my own younger self, either seething and sniggering at my arrogance and pretension, or just ashamed at this big galoot up front who’s assuming that anybody cares about what he has to say; I mean, really. To take up other people’s time, talking and writing about oneself as if in some way it mattered, as if it had to be told, as if it had to happen, the fulfilment of manifest destiny, as natural and as inevitable as for some other people it is natural and inevitable to have to get up every morning and go to work at the post office, or fitting tyres and clutches, or cleaning out septic tanks? It’s ridiculous. It’s just too much. Whenever I read or hear anybody – with the possible exception of, say, Nelson Mandela - writing or talking about themselves I find my inner Essex teenager rising up within me, my censor and my guide, banging on the blue formica and shouting out, Why does everybody call me ‘Big Head?’?

It’s a shame. Because if you were raised from an early age in the tradition of what one might call radical English modesty, as I was, and yet nonetheless you have dreams and desires and ambitions – and, frankly, who doesn’t, even people from Essex – and let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you work hard and stay up late at night and get up early in the morning and do whatever is necessary to make your way in the world and that you find one day, by sheer luck and dogged determination, that you’ve done it, that you have achieved at least some of your dreams and desires and ambitions, then what you’re going to feel is embarrassment.

Not that embarrassment is all bad; indeed, to be forever unembarrassed must be worse; to be forever unembarrassed would be to become a monster of egotism, or someone on the telly. Embarrassment is not a necessary qualification for becoming a writer - not like, say, raging narcissism, which is pretty much an essential - but I have come to believe that it’s probably a big help. I find that I’m often easily embarrassed, even in my own company, and particularly when I’m writing. It often seems when one is writing, in fact, that all one is doing is learning that one can’t write – just as when one is learning to love what you’re really learning is that you can’t love, you can’t do it, but you swallow your pride and keep on trying to do it regardless. This may make writing sound like some kind of disorder or tendency, but I would regard it more as an excuse – a kind of mitigation or an apology for not doing something else; for writing something else; something better. When you’re writing you’re not really learning about characterisation, or plotting, or morality – pah! - you are learning, literally and simply, how to write, how to get a particular phrase or sentence or paragraph to move and make sense. And when one is writing about oneself what one is doing is recording something that both does and doesn’t quite exist; what you’re writing, in fact, is an excuse for the past.





Writing about oneself is also, it seems to me, an act of self-sufficiency, like wanting to have your own acre of land, and a tethered cow and some chickens and beehives, and to mash your own beer, and to bottle your own jam and preserve your own tomatoes. It’s a kind of recycling. It’s like home cooking. I gave a reading at a public library recently and a lady in the audience got up and quoted to me something I’d written about reading and writing being a form of ‘mental knitting’. Didn’t that denigrate reading and writing, she asked? Didn’t it make it sound worthless and pathetic? Didn’t it in fact demonstrate precisely my own obvious superfluity, and my limited grasp of the potential of great literature to transform us and to make us anew? Yes, absolutely, I agreed, because I was too embarrassed to disagree. She had a point: ‘mental knitting’ is maybe not quite right. I think it would be better to compare writing as an activity to making flapjacks. It takes longer, of course, but the ingredients are similar – sugar, syrup, oats and butter - and one hopes it gives people a little something to chew over. I think I could stand by flapjacks, even in a heated debate; no need to apologise for them, because I believe in the making of flapjacks in exactly the same way I believe in writing, as a small gesture of hope in the face of the unbeatable and overpowering logic of despair. The trouble is, you can never make enough flapjacks; they’re always gone before you know it; the air-tight container has emptied. By writing, one hopes, there’s more than enough to go around.

Ian Sansom is from Essex.







 
The only good advice my first agent gave me: don’t staple manuscripts. Then he dropped me like a hot potato.



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