It's daring to confess your sins, but uncool to have regrets. Yet I'm teeming with them. Why, for instance, did I turn down the offer to be the lead singer of the Krautrock band Can?by Duncan Fallowell / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
There are plenty of things I’m happy to admit: I loathe Beethoven’s 9th symphony; that the spectacle of the disability Olympics makes me feel ill; that I wish I had a foreskin (consequently I’ve spent a lot of my adult life seeking the foreskins of others); that I am ashamed of my back—which is bowed, not flat. I should be happy to extend the list except that it would begin to involve other people (I’ve written somewhere that maturity is the growing capacity for candour, but that’s not the same as unnecessary betrayal of those close to us).
But the one thing it remains uncool to do is to have regrets. To the “do your own thing” generation, this was inconceivable. You could confess to the most appalling sins, but regret was another matter. It was a denial of selfhood; it was emotional suicide. For waverers there was propaganda: Edith Piaf’s song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: “Regrets, I’ve had a few/ But then again, too few to mention.”
For years I followed that path, but a few months ago I seemed to fly right into an asteroid belt of, well, regrets. I don’t actually wish I were another person—I simply can’t get my head round a question like “If you weren’t you, who would you want to be?” But I’m also a man for whom life and work, life and art indeed, form a seamless continuum. And that, it struck me, has been my big mistake.
It began quietly. I was lying in bed one night and thought—I wish I’d joined the Groucho Club when it asked me to become a founder member all those years ago. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t be battling for every damned book I write. From here, it wasn’t far to an orgy of cold sweat and self-pity. Why have I never had any recognition? Why am I still a struggling author? Why have I never been shortlisted for anything or even longlisted? Then it swerved back to—why didn’t I say yes when Mark Boxer asked me to become features editor of Tatler? Why did I refuse when Emma Soames asked me to be a restaurant critic? Pitiful, isn’t it. These weren’t regrets about people—only about work, career, worldly success.
Then the regrets about people arrived—and it got worse. People as a resource. Why did I never exploit my connections? Why did I say no to Anton Dolin and Ozzie Clark when they asked me to write their biographies? Why did I reject Richard Cohen when he offered me £40,000 for a biography of Jan Morris? Most of all, why on earth did I turn down Harold Acton when he asked me to be his authorised biographer and spend time with him on the project? I would have gone everywhere and come to know everyone.
I try to justify it by thinking, oh, if I’d gone to live with Harold Acton in his palace outside Florence, it would have turned me into some piss-elegant art queen, it would have fed my poncey side, I’d never have pushed the boundaries, I should have had to dance attendance on his every whim, I’d have been suffocated in archival drudgery and lost my independence. But now I think that’s not true. It would have enlarged my field of operations enormously. Harold would have opened for me the jewelled casket of secrets which he has since taken to the grave. I could have written a small masterpiece for posthumous publication.
No—the real reason I didn’t take on these biographies, and his in particular, was vanity. I’d already written one, of a transsexual friend of mine. It was my first book and I’d done it because I’d screwed up in London and needed to escape. But I wanted in future to write books which were devoted to my glory, not the glorification of others. I wanted to be the centre of attention. Which brings us to another big regret. In the 1970s, I worked a lot with the avant-garde German band Can. Their Japanese lead singer Damo Suzuki left in 1973 to become a Jehovah’s Witness. I was invited to replace him and— after a long dark night of the soul—turned the offer down. If I hadn’t, I might now be filling the Dome along with Kylie Minogue!
After the Can offer, I hopped over to India, for a year, whereupon my editor at the Spectator accused me of neglecting my career. I was their film critic at the time but, you see, I had never had a boss or been part of an organisation. When I returned I became involved not with the straight press but with the punk glossies Deluxe and Boulevard and was still self-employed. This led to burnout and moving to Hay-on-Wye for a bit which brings us, soon afterwards, to that golden arm of Harold’s extending out through the doors of the Villa La Pietra, the kingdom which I spurned. That is what lingers most among the regrets, the rejection of Harold Acton’s proposal. His life was fascinating and he was fantastically rich. I’d be in clover by now, instead of worrying about who will publish my next book and how I’ll survive. So many great opportunities scorned by my prattish self-regard! Why the bloody hell did I have to do it my way? Why?