Where would we be without the women in our lives? It looks like our columnist is about to find out….
Why, why, why must all the women in my life abandon me? I found myself pondering this, the great recurring question of my mid- (to late-) twenties, while rereading an old essay that I’d submitted for an English literature class back in 2001. The subject of the essay was the great Romantic poet Mr John Keats, who was just 25 when he died from consumption. It pondered the effect that a heightened sense of mortality would have had on his work. He was a trained doctor who had just watched his younger brother lose his life to the same disease.
I’d forgotten just how good it was: fluent, impassioned and displaying an emotional intelligence far in advance of my years, it remains to this day one of the very best pieces of writing I’ve ever put my name to. “Loving something that cannot last forever, or that by its very nature is temporary, is surely the bittersweet essence of life,” it read. “How true!” my English teacher had scrawled in the margin. I was awarded an “unprecedented” 24 marks out of 25 and an enraptured note from the teacher describing the essay as one of the most mature pieces of writing that he’d ever received from a student. Mature? I couldn’t help but chortle as I read it back. Of course it was. My mother wrote it.
What’s that phrase? Behind every successful man is a strong, wise and hard-working woman? While I’d hardly go so far as to call myself successful – these things are all relative, aren’t they? – I’ll be the first to admit that whatever measure of success I’ve enjoyed in life has had nothing to do with me. Instead it had everything to do with the succession of strong, wise and hard-working women who have taken it upon themselves, for no apparent benefit of their own, to drag me out of bed, push me out of the door, remind me about the things I’ve forgotten, nag me about the things I can’t be bothered to do and otherwise grease the wheels of my minimal-effort approach towards life.
Looking back over the past 20 years, it appears to me as a series of nests: I’ve been kicked out of one only to fall straight into another. From mother to girlfriend to girlfriend to boss, the women in my life have always seemed to be more emotionally invested in my own future than I have. I call it the “Bel-Ami” trajectory, after Mr Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel of the same name, in which the lowly journalist Georges Duroy climbs to the top of Parisian society by leeching off a series of intelligent and influential women. Granted, the desires I’m exploiting are more maternal than romantic, but my approach seems to be working all the same. So well, in fact, that I’ve started to suspect that I might be on to something.
Over the past few years, I’ve received the uncorrected proofs of a number of new-age, self-help, pseudoscience business books: the kind with titles that urge you to “unlock your potential” or “find the key to your success” or words to that effect. You’ve no doubt seen them lining the bookshelves of your less – how can I put this nicely? – worldly friends. Having flicked through a few of them on the train – don’t worry, I spared my blushes by hiding them inside a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey – I can confirm that they are generally bereft of any useful or interesting information whatsoever. That doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the publishers, though, who keep on sending them, and, by all accounts, keep on selling them. And it’s got me thinking.
To a normal human with a normally functioning brain, this sort of trend in the literary marketplace might seem like yet another sign that we’re living out the last days of Western civilisation, and of course you’d be correct. But what it really illustrates is one of the fundamental laws of marketing, which is that success, just like sex, sells. Success, as a measure of social standing, is right up there with being young and beautiful. Success, or the possibility of it, is what we use to justify to ourselves the repetitive tasks that fill our days and collectively amount to our jobs. And if you can discover the secret to success, or at least fool people into thinking that you have, well, grab your typewriter, my man! You’ve just hit pay dirt.
Seeing as I’ve achieved – allow me a passing moment of self-congratulation – a small degree of success in my life, and seeing as I’ve done it without the tiniest bit of effort, I feel at least as qualified to write a self-help book as these quack professors. It’ll be on the short side, though. More of a pamphlet than a book. Actually, I’m pretty sure I could fit it onto a napkin. I’ll be called The Young Man In A Hurry’s Fast Track To Success, and it’ll go something like this:
01. Find a strong, wise and hard-working woman, ideally with a keen unfulfilled maternal instinct.
02. Present yourself to her as some sort of unpolished diamond.
03. Cling onto her coattails until such time that she abandons you, either out of boredom, frustration or both.
I can hear the cash tills ringing already. There’s just one problem, though, and it’s that third step: the inevitable abandonment. It’s a recurring theme in my life, as regular readers of this column will be well aware, and it appears to be happening again right now.
For the past three-and-a-half years, while my work hasn’t been written by my mother, it has felt the benefit of a strong and steady guiding hand in the form of Ms Jodie Harrison, editrix extraordinaire, who had the unbelievable gall to pack up her desk and leave MR PORTER this week. She’s been offered a highfalutin job at some fancy hotel group or members’ club or other. I’m not sure of the details, and to be honest, I don’t particularly care. I’ve got more important things on my mind right now, such as how on earth I’m expected to do my job without someone there to pick up the pieces. A quick opinion poll confirms that the majority of the MR PORTER office is feeling the same way.
To return to that “series of nests” analogy, if feels like I’ve just been kicked out and I’m not entirely sure if there’s another nest beneath me. In fact, I’m pretty certain that there isn’t. And my wings have withered through lack of use to nothing more than vestigial stumps, and I’m plummeting, plummeting like a stone. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if this piece feels a little more slapdash than usual, or if it lacks some of the easy elegance that you’ve come to associate with my writing, or, indeed, anything that we produce here at MR PORTER, then you know who to blame. Thanks, Jodie. Really, thanks a bunch.
Illustrations by Mr Giacomo Bagnara