Monday, 5 September 2011

On Failure: A Few Words, via the Inimitable A.A. Gill

This is not a historical post. Well, not an overtly historical post in any case. But it is about failure, a subject that underlies much of history. While the victor and the conqueror are celebrated (and write the history books), the vanquished are of equal import. The pretender who failed to retake the throne plays as much a part in the history of the nation as the claimant who keeps it. Recently I came across some old restaurant reviews by A.A. Gill, perhaps one of the most wide-ranging, provocative (and controversial) writers today. From The Sunday Times of 29 August 2010, it prefaces a review of a restaurant in York. The restaurant is, apparently, forgettable, the prelude less so:

"I am compiling a list of the most agreeable attributes of failure. If you get knocked out in the first round, at least you don’t have to go on playing the stupid game. Indeed, being a habitual failure means that you can play all games altruistically. Just for the fun. Without the stress and suspense of being a winner. Not getting a promotion means that you don’t have to face that first-day-in-a-new-job panic, where everybody hates you and is just waiting for you to fail. You’ve already done the hard bit. You’ve already failed. And being a failure means that people like you for who you are, and not for your money or your status.

Your children want to be with you because you’re fun. You have all the time in the world, and they can beat you at Scrabble.

Your failure makes other people feel better about themselves. They look at you and know that their lives aren’t that bad after all. Failure is character-building. Any fool can cope with plaudits, and the joy of being number one. It’s failure that hones you, with humility, stoicism and polite applause. Failure relieves you of ambition. It may be the great engine of the collective, the propulsion of humanity and civilisations, but ambition is the bane and the curse of the singular. Human ambition is hell, with its unnatural demands, its sleepless nagging, its constant doubt and consuming insecurity. It is the cancer of the soul, and the poisoning of the convivial hearth... To fail is to be ahead of the curve...

But [death is] what failures have been training for all their lives. They breach the final tape with a noble equanimity. Failure is meeting destiny halfway."
From the famous "demotivational" posters from

Interesting and poignant thoughts indeed. For we all fail, at least some of the time. And what is courage but the ability to stand vanquished on the field of battle and yet somehow manage to take it all rather lightly.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

What a wonderful piece of writing by A.A. Gill who we always much enjoy but cannot remember reading this before. And how true it is. If one can bring oneself to resign oneself to failure, then life really does become so much easier and more enjoyable.

People today, or so it seems to us, are obsessed with 'winning' [whatever that may actually mean] and are driven in such a way as to become quite unpleasant, and uninteresting, as individuals. But that is just our view.

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comment, and I quite agree! It is all good to have goals and attempt to do one's best, but the way some people change in their singular pursuit of winning is indeed quite sad.

Living far away in Vancouver, I get my fill of A.A. Gill columns by subscribing to a 24-hour pass to The Times and The Sunday Times every few months or so. It's rather expensive for a constant subscription, but I find that this method does the trick to look up my favourite columnists.

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