Der, der, der, derrrr!!
Remember the man - and his red book? Remember the theme tune? The one that would break out into a joyful climax of musical splendour, just as that week’s gimp, ‘ I had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen’, would step out from under the sweaty lights of a television studio only to be greeted with a roll call of life in the form of friends, neighbours, aunts, uncles, and pets? All freshly washed and brushed, and here for YOU! You wonderful person!
‘This is Your Life’ was the televisual highlight of our week when we were growing up, and yes, I do realise how bad that sounds – but its true – and it worked for one simple reason. There isn’t a person alive who didn’t watch that programme and wonder what their own life might look like under the spotlight. There isn’t a single one amongst us who didn’t sometimes think to themselves, I wonder which highly amusing anecdotes they might they pull to illustrate my own rather marvellous life? What frothy vignettes might they select to speak volumes about ME?
Because how we see ourselves, and what we actually are may well be two different things, but stories marry these ideas together. We create stories to explain ourselves, to illustrate ourselves. Sometimes we stick to them for years, and occasionally, over the passage of time, we allow them to change. As Benedict Carey, a journalist with the NY Times suggested in an article earlier this year, ‘every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life – and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave,’
Carey goes onto confirm something that I have long held to be true – that people are wonderful storytellers, or, as he puts it, ‘the human brain has a natural affinity with narrative construction’. I concur. As you probably know, for the past eighteen months, I have been interviewing a cross section of people about virginity loss, about the circumstance which surround this event, what do people think when they look back at this time…and what changes along the way?
I am a lucky person with a brilliant brief because there can be few moments that will elicit such an array of emotion as the recollection of virginity loss. Music is frequently involved. Heightened senses remember the tiniest of details. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told precisely what piece of music was playing in the background as someone gently slipped their way into adulthood, ‘The Ace of Spades’, by Motorhead, being one such unforgettable instance.
The point is, that losing virginity in and of itself is frequently dull, unexciting, un-sexual even. What brings the story alive is the sheer dichotomous detail, the joy and the pain, the fear, excitement, anticipation, naivety, expectation and frequent plain stupidity that helps to push and pull this experience into a 360 degree reality that ends up becoming our story. Our passage into adulthood, our crazy, fucked up, beautiful, loving, rubbish, thrilling first time. Lets face it, its never going to be a dull story.
What makes it all the more special, at least in my case, is that there is very little room for artifice. A while back I did a podcast with my good friend, Charon QC. Charon is a man of the law. ‘Do you think that people tell you the truth when you interview them?’ he asked me. I was stumped. ‘Yes, of course I do’, I answered. ‘Because there is nothing to be gained by lying.’
Who’s going to know? Names are changed, even place names are swapped. There is nothing to connect anyone to themselves and their story. The real truth is that people gravitate towards the tape recorder because they have something to say, whether they know it or not – and they frequently surprise themselves with what comes out.
Last year, I encountered a young woman whom I shall call Jane. ‘I’ve found someone for you to interview’, my friend Nick said to me one day. ‘I work with her and she’s dying to tell you her story’. Apparently it was a ‘fairy tale’, the experience that she had always dreamt of. I was intrigued, who wouldn’t be. This was a first.
I went to her house one evening to commit the tale to tape. And yes, sometimes I do feel a bit like that creepy character out of ‘Perfume’. Stealing people’s inchoate sexual secrets, taking their tales and editing them down to the very essence of themselves..…a post for another day no doubt. I rung the doorbell and an attractive young woman answered the door. I knew straight off that this would not be a short story. Don’t ask me how you know, you just do.
And so it was that we sat on the sofa, I pushed the record button and off we went into fantasyland and the journey of a person with a perfect tale to tell. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even close, but she didn’t realise that until I, a person with nothing vested in any particular outcome, marched into her life and asked her to tell me her story out loud, for the very first time. It was no nightmare either. It was simply the tale you would expect from a lovely teenager, desperately in love - desperate being the operative word, and ready to do anything to ensure that her perfect boyfriend had perfect sex with her in the perfect place whilst wearing the perfect outfit – before he dumped her. Recalling these details bought the facts to life and as she finished, I could see that there were tears in her eyes.
Storytelling can be a powerful experience and for the first time I felt uneasy. Who am I to expose people’s dreams for what they really are. But I hadn’t planned it to happen this way. I genuinely wanted to hear what a real fairy tale looked, sounded and felt like. It’s now a year since I met Jane and yesterday I phoned her because I wanted to know what had happened after that experience. Had the ‘treatment’ of her own life story changed as a result?’
‘It didn’t make me feel happy’, she started. ‘I felt exhausted and confused after you left, in fact I called my ex boyfriend straight away. But it felt like a release. I unravelled feelings that I was too scared to admit to at the time. Telling you the story doesn’t change anything, that’s the disappointing part, but I know that it took me to a different point of understanding.’
Story telling fulfils many functions. For some of us it’s a gentle way of explaining to our children how our world works. For many, it’s a crucial method of documentation, a way of preserving historical and cultural detail so that future generations can see what we see. Story telling is also a way of unpacking ourselves, of making sense of our inner world, and of taking a step backwards, in order that we continue forward. My work, at least for this day, is done.