#Bookaday – 10 June 2014

I read a lot of strange books. Bizarre things, warped things, twisted things. That’s why I hesitate with today’s book; given my reading habits, would you want to be told what book reminds me of you?

I grew up in Paisley, a depressed post-industrial town suffering from the type of malaise that any town which has had its industrial heart ripped out of it suffers from. In place of the mills and the thread industry, the bread and circuses of a British town in decline filled the void; drugs and football. Typical of the west of Scotland a sectarian pallor ran over all facets of life. Who your friends were, where you went to school and of course which football team to support. Vital questions that make the difference between someone buying you a pint, and using a pint glass to carve you a new face.

I made valiant attempts to fit in with the others, and I succeeded for a time. I feigned an interest in football, finding a safe team to support which was a neutral in the wars of the Tims and Billys. I played in the schoolyard (always in goal, safe from the mêlée of 30-a-side lunchtime battle between the boys of Primary 6 and Primary 7) and for the school team. I would rather have been on the sidelines, but that was where the girls were, and even at that age I knew better than to make the mistake of engaging in “girly activities”. When you’re a child you can be excused some unmanly habits like reading books, crying when hurt, being childlike in your wonder at how things work, trying to see beyond the horizon; but not such a sin as turning your back on football.

Once in high school things change. There is no tolerance for unmanliness. Reading is for poofs. Internalise your tears, just like your pain and your emotions. That horizon you’re trying to see beyond, it’s just the top of a wall built to limit your vision and keep you in your place. Mon the Bhoys! Mon the Gers! Love the beautiful game and pick a side.

With no interest in football there was nothing to do at break times, and few friends to while away the moments. I fell in with the ones who weren’t good at football, who didn’t get picked to play. The outsiders. But their sin was simply not being skillful, whereas mine was indifference. They at least remained interested, and football dominated conversation.

By second year I was mainly on my own, and my solitude solidified my otherness. I was now the weird kid who sat by himself, another reason to avoid my company. Had I had more courage I would have been a goth; internally I was. My tastes in literature, music, my own morbid thoughts, hell I was even writing poetry (now mercifully destroyed).

And I think it was this point that I developed a perverse duality; a desire to be seen, recognised for what I was, to be praised, all counterbalanced by an intense desire to go unnoticed, safe in the shadows and out of the limelight. It’s a duality that continues to this day. I don’t take compliments easily. I am uneasy being the focus of attention. But I also need recognition that my efforts are appreciated.

This perversity can create delusions of grandeur that go unchecked in isolation. I wasn’t a bright kid, I was a genius. If I wanted to do something, it was not enough to do it, I had to excel at it. Throughout my life I’ve aimed my sights at a number of ludicrous career goals (creator of a cure for paralysis, youngest Procurator Fiscal, Secretary General of the UN) and given up on any number of hobbies (magic, the clarinet, painting) because I was not instantly a master of them.

All of which is a convoluted way of saying I can identify with Erik, the antagonist of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Isolated by his circumstances, he yearns to be recognised for the musical genius he is, yet keeps himself to the shadows. Hiding behind a mask to keep his true self unknown, he presents his persona of the “Opera Ghost” who haunts the theatre, none realising he is a man of flesh and blood. Arrogant, cold, petty and evil.

In my own solitude I cultivated an arrogance to rival my belief in my abilities. Petty spites and imagined slights drove me to plan how I would show up everyone who ever mocked me or failed to recognise how special I was. Arrogant, cold and petty. Evil may be a stretch too far, but there was a deep malice burning in me.

Yet Erik had redemption.

And it came in the shape of a woman who was prepared to see beyond the mask and persona and to see Erik for who he was. And to allow him to see a better side of him.

I found it too. Someone who saw me for me, and let me see a better me.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying why this book reminds me of my wife.

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