Rachel Johnson: The ‘fail better’ message is exhausting. Why can’t we fail worse?

Last week I went to the funeral of a beautiful man who wore blue bespoke suits and drove a vintage red Mercedes convertible. A honky tonk band accompanied his weeping, jiving cortege from the Golborne Road to Kensal Rise Cemetery, where rastas chanted and passed the pipe and beat the drum as we milled around his willow coffin and hugged each other.

The crowd of mourners was so large that, as at Princess Diana’s funeral, the service and songs had to be piped to the overflow – which included at least one skinny-suited member of The Clash
in a black Homberg hat – standing in the graveyard.

During the funeral, I discovered there was so much more to Tim Burke than the cool Notting Hill community activist I knew.

He was in a punk band called Anarchy Street Army. In 1982 he co-founded the Grey Organisation, an “art terrorism” collective, as two fingers up to the Thatcherite free-market consumer culture; he was arthouse made flesh, the absolute beginner, and never stopped fighting the good fight against the ethnic cleansing and commercial sterilisation of Notting Hill.

Reassessing

I was stunned when I heard he’d killed himself in his flat in August.

He founded the Portobello Pop Up Cinema, had many girlfriends, an even wider circle of friends. It didn’t add up, and yet.

It is pointless and invidious to speculate why, but his death, and his funeral, have made me think about failure and success in a new way. Especially as since Tim Burke’s death – sorry, I know this sounds bathetic – I’ve been sacked and overnight lost my main source of income.

Kind friends have urged me to think this is because my face didn’t fit with the new right-wing editor, but the blow has landed. My conclusion must be that he thought my column was a bit shit, and got shot of me.

The “fail better” message: so exhausting. Too much pressure. Why can’t I – we – fail worser?

The funny thing is, nobody says “bad luck old bean” any more. It has become fashionable to claim there is no such thing as failure, that failure is “enriching” (tart aside: certainly not “enriching” when you lose a lucrative contract) As my brother once claimed; “There are no disasters, only opportunities – and only opportunities for fresh disasters.”

Cosmo’s coverline this month is, “Is success an illness?” There are many books – even celebrations – about failure, and this summer Elizabeth Day, the best-selling novelist, journalist and recent iweekend guest columnist, launched her podcast series, How to Fail, where celebrities talk about their failures (for example, the writer Sebastian Faulks laments the fact that he was bowled out at 98, and also once just failed to win a prestigious literary prize in Milan).

‘High-class problems’

This podcast could be a bit “high- class problems” but as Elizabeth Day insists: “I wanted to open up the conversation about failure and I think it’s empowering for people… to hear from highly successful people what failure has taught them.”

I’ll give her that, and when I do Day’s podcast, I’m going to argue for a redefinition of the terms.

I don’t think it’s helpful, for starters, that failure is only permitted to exist as a springboard for success, a teaching moment, from which you take away (awful word alert!) “learnings”.

We live in a “perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value”

The “fail better” message: so exhausting. Too much pressure. Why can’t I – we – fail worser?

But why I think the failure industry is ultimately worthwhile is because it encourages people to walk their black dog openly on the sunny side of the street, rather than paste their brave or game face on, just because that is what is expected of them.

The latter dictates conformity to a narrow definition of success, which has become very external-facing/appearance-obsessed/image-conscious, and hides from view how someone’s internal landscape can feel very different. And we know this way danger lies.

‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’

It’s very sad that only when someone dies, especially when they take their own life, that this danger becomes so clear and present.

It seems rather a waste that it is only then that we pause for a short time to give public recognition and proper acknowledgement to what David Brooks calls “eulogy values” rather than “résumé values” (career achievements, awards, money).

It also seems rather a shame that for the rest of the time, in Brooks’ words, we live in a “perpetual self-confrontation between the external success and the internal value”.

I don’t think it’s helpful that failure is only permitted to exist as a springboard for success

For one warm September’s afternoon, in Kensal Rise Cemetery, that mortal confrontation was resolved in the perfect equation in the Beatles song, “The End”. “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

In the end, whether we succeed or fail, win or lose, rise or fall, this is what matters.

RIP Tim Burke 1963-2018.

@rachelsjohnson

Rachel Johnson has donated the fee for this article to the charity MIND. To donate, visit mind.org.uk

This week I have been…

Reading…
Amanda Craig’s novel The Lie of the Land with great enjoyment while also gnashing my teeth; it’s just the sort of novel I long to write but probably haven’t the ability or the bandwidth (it took her seven years).

It’s about a couple who can’t afford to divorce and move to Devon and is both close to the bone and brilliantly observed and beautifully written and everything I want in a novel, basically.

I also have Alan Rusbridger’s Breaking News and Sebastian Faulks’ Paris Echo bedside.

Enjoying…
A fascinating tarot reading from Daisy Waugh, who does it as a sideline to writing novels and journalism.

She first did a quickie reading with three cards then I picked 10 for the Celtic Cross. I didn’t get Death or the Devil but I did get the Hanged Man, which Daisy said was harmless.

My biggest, darkest card was The Tower but nothing to frighten the horses. “In fact I was surprised by how undramatic your cards were,” said Daisy.

Watching…
The spiders on my ceiling. Most mornings when I first wake I look up and I see spiders the size of my fist scurrying across from the middle to the cornice, and then they disappear.

Sometimes they dangle from the ceiling and even move like jellyfish, their legs flexing and extending, towards me. I googled it to discover that my visions are “hypnagogic hallucinations” and reasonably common. However, it was a shock to go to our house in Somerset in the summer to find that there were actually huge spiders on the ceiling.

But still, not as shocking as it was to discover that even my hallucinations were “common”.

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