Doing What Doesn’t Come Naturally

I do not mean this in a cruel way, but there is nothing funnier that someone who does something badly. I’m not talking about executing something in a half-baked, not-very-good-but-might-be-if-they-practiced way, I mean full on shocking, how can you possibly be so bad at that? And it is really only funny if they know; when they are in on the joke and are laughing along, otherwise it is just sad, like Princess Margaret singing at a party and believing she’s holding the audience enthrall whereas, in actual fact, she’s holding them prisoner. Take Les Dawson playing the piano with all those bum notes, which he was only able to do because, in reality, he could play the piano superbly well. Or my brother singing his party piece, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and murdering it, reducing it to such an abomination that it becomes something else: a glorious artistic expression of out of tune, unrhythmic, badly pitched joyous celebration.

Yes, it is wonderful to be moved and to feel deeply and to have one’s heart strings pulled by artistic expression that is near heavenly, but once in a while it is better again to have a good belly laugh at those who revel in failing marvellously and who embrace the slapstick entertainment potential of their art. And why do we love it? Because we can all relate to those who try and fail; they are much closer to earth, to us, we can see ourselves in a valiant effort that falls short. Which is why everyone adores bad dancing. Say what you like about Strictly, but I think we are far more interested in watching he who clanks around the floor like the Tin Man than she who spins gracefully like Ginger Rogers. That is – and this is an important proviso – as long as the Tin Man is in on the joke, which he invariably is, to the tune of many thousands of pounds.

We love people who rise above us and achieve greatness, we love those who are super-human and possess unsurpassable talent, but – as the saying goes – God loves a trier, and so do we. Take some of the disasters that emerge from the oven on Bake Off, cakes that look like cow pats, choux buns that look like melted candle wax, bread as hard a cricket balls, and the bakers (mostly) keep smiling through, knowing that this week’s airless Genoise sponge is not an end of the world fiasco

Last Christmas I watched Eddie The Eagle, the film about the ski-jumper who represented Britain at the ’88 Olympics, who embraced his bottom of the class position and we all loved him for it. Three generations of us watched, reliving his story from thirty years ago still relevant today, all of us rooting for him to be the stunning loser that he was: spirited; alive; full of love for his sport and for his supporters; aiming not to win but to stay upright; and, most importantly, doing it anyway. He is as inspirational as those with apparently super-human qualities and he teaches us that coming last isn’t necessarily a failure, and if it is, then failure can be triumphant too!

As I start a new poetry course and marvel at how I struggle to produce anything of worth, I think of all this stirring failure and I feel less alone in my efforts. I think of William Topaz McGonagall, who is still in print today one hundred and twenty years after his death all because his poetry is so downright awful that it is hilariously moreish. There is even a blue plaque on South College Street in Edinburgh commemorating where this man of doggerel used to live, and live he still does, as I grimace my way through his verses and think: yes, I too could be a bad poet.

Robert Burns, by William McGonagall (abridged)

Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,

There’s but few poets can with you compare;

Some of your poems and songs are very fine:

To “Mary in Heaven” is most sublime;

And then again in your “Cottar’s Saturday Night,”

Your genius there does shine most bright,

As pure as the dewdrops of night.

Immortal Bard of Ayr! I must conclude my muse

To speak in praise of thee does not refuse,

For you were a mighty poet, few could with you compare,

And also an honour to Scotland, for your genius it is rare.

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