Thursday, September 21, 2006

Happy Days.

Modern readers and theatregoers seem obsessed with tales of unhappiness and poverty. Take Les Miserables, for instance, which is still packing them in at the Queens Theatre in London’s West End. My first thought was that the impresarios had forgotten to close it down, you know how these little things tend to slip one’s mind, but, no, apparently the public are still showing up in droves and the cash registers at the box office are alive with the sound of moolah.

If they’d named it Les Heureux, it would have closed within a week. Rather as George Bernard Shaw’s note of regret when offered tickets to the first night of someone else’s play. He apologised for not being able to attend but said he would love tickets for the second night, “if there is one.”

Autobiographers have been busily mining this unhappy seam of life just recently. It seems that the only work that will get a publisher to leap from behind his desk, chequebook in hand, is to dish him up a story of unremitting hardship and deprivation, coupled with a few other undesirable and unsavoury facts of life.

Ireland seems to be the locale of choice for these memoirs, which regale the reader with exciting tales of lack of shoes, clothes, beatings and a diet of potatoes. A picture of a runny nosed kid on the cover is mandatory.

Now I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, both north and south, and I can’t recall ever meeting a truly miserable Irishman. I suppose, when I was visiting, they were all closeted away in their garrets penning their memoirs.

And this is the crux of my problem. My autobiography could only contain details of my very happy childhood. I always had shoes, as far as I can recall, my parents never argued and never struck me and, if not wealthy, we never had to survive on a diet of potatoes. My only unhappy experiences were when I was sent away to boarding school.

In other words, my autobiography would probably not even merit a rejection letter by today’s standards.

There is a solution. I could lie about my early days.

And this is, apparently, what a great many of these biographers have done when recounting their earliest days.

One particularly successful work in this style (you can pick it up at any airport bookstore), has found its way back to the village in Ireland that was the setting for the author’s sad and sorry tale. And the graphic description therein do not jibe with the memories of the locals, none of whom seem to be lacking in the appropriate brain cells to be able to recall the shoeless lad (allegedly) who now writes of his unhappy childhood.

This is not an isolated instance either. The falsifying of life stories seems to have become de rigeur if you want to get it published. And the proposed equation that poverty = misery is hardly accurate. Often quite the reverse is true.

I remember sitting in a café in Mexico City watching a kid playing in the gutter with an empty Coca Cola can. His eyes were alight with excitement, the excitement of imagination and he must have spent a very happy hour there (I know I had three beers whilst watching him). Compared with the zombie like expressions of the children in wealthy and developed societies as they play their mindless Nintendos, it was revelation. But perhaps the Japanese will soon be able to implant their microchips directly into the kid’s brains, thereby, so to speak, cutting out the middle man. As a bonus, perhaps they could programme them to do something useful.

Thus it was with great pleasure that I received a request from a gentleman to help him write his autobiography. He has had a difficult but interesting life for sure. But it was his last couple of lines that struck a chord with me. He wrote:

“I have been used and abused, faced prejudices but always kept faith and always kept smiling, even when confronted with situations which would be most people’s worst nightmares. But as every good story should have, there is a happy ending!”

As he says, that’s what every good story should have.


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