The Politics of Insecurity

I’m not a stranger to insecurity: that undermining sensation that whatever you say or do, you’ll reveal your ignorance, your inadequacy, your lack of… well, whatever seems important at the time.

But, years ago, I first noticed a form of insecurity that only seems to be growing, despite the fact that it’s based on massive, unalloyed success.

I’d moved to a new branch, done the usual ‘what do you do/what do you watch/what’s your music?’ questions, and slightly flummoxed my new manager by mentioning Shawn Colvin. Her reaction – as soon as she actually heard her first Colvin song – was to start having a dig at me every opportunity, over how Colvin was ‘bloody rubbish’. Then came the fatal moment.

Diana Ross was in town, and my manager was going. What did I think of Diana Ross, then? With some care, I avoided giving her a true but unflattering response and settled for the ameliatory, “She’s not my kind of music, really.” “She’s better than Shawn Colvin!”

After that, it got bad. I endured endless snide remarks, all aimed at one end: getting me to admit Diana Ross was the better artist.

What I couldn’t understand, then or now, was why my manager was so vehement in her efforts. Diana Ross was, and for decades had been, an international star, beloved by millions. She sold out concerts world-wide. Every album she released probably sold more than Shawn Colvin’s entire career. Even at the height of her commercial success, Colvin was, and would stay, a cult artist. And an enthralling one to this day, needless to say.

If you saw it as some kind of contest, Diana Ross had already won. My manager had backed the victor, agreed with the majority. So why did it matter so much to her that one person preferred a nobody? Make no mistake, this wasn’t fanaticism, which we more often see in the young, defending their choices against the most fleeting criticism. I knew insecurity when I saw it.

So, when you follow a mainstream, majorly successful artist, where does the insecurity that keeps you from just enjoying your favourite, that compels you to howl down even the slightest criticism, come from?

Multiple examples of this were seen in response to Alex Petrides’ review of the posthumous Michael Jackson CD ( Collectively, it can seem hilarious, but when you read fans proclaiming ‘My life is better for having lived during his era’, the laughter starts to sound hollow. The same fan, asked why no MJ fan seemed able to accept any criticism, replied that he ‘would defend MJ in the same manner (he) would defend a family member, such was (MJ’s) impact on (his) life.’  (He also claimed that MJ made Quincey Jones, which is equally worrying.)

It was the same as the cries of pain from Take That fans responding to Johnny Sharp’s article about Deep And Meaningless Pop Epics
( We can all cite similar examples (is life actually worth living when you cross a Robbie Williams fan?)

But whilst it can be amusing to watch fans of the biggest acts clamber over themselves to get a lonely non-believer to retract the mildest criticism, that still begs the question of why they can’t accept less than 100% approval. The religious parallel is immediate, especially given some of the comments of the Michael Jackson fans.

Worrying as it is to think of today’s Pop Idols – even the dead ones – becoming the fount for someone’s spiritual needs, it is equally worrying to recognise the even greater depths of insecurity underpinning religions themselves. The women of Aasia Bibi’s village claim that “She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion.” Yet they also demand, “Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” If their religion is superior as they state, why are they afraid of the ‘damage’ one woman can do?

The East is not the only part of the world where superiority hasn’t managed to convince the superior that they are actually so superior after all.

Can we think of a country, not further than an ocean away, which has enjoyed unparalleled military, economic and cultural dominance over the whole planet, for more than half a century, yet acts with childish bafflement and complete incomprehension – shortly followed with anger, outrage and rank bullying – whenever someone so much as smiles, nods and says, ‘very nice, but I think we’d prefer to keep doing it the way we’re used to, thank you.’

And given that this country is going to lose it’s economic supremacy in the foreseeable future, are we entirely comfortable at how it’s going to react?

Would you find Take That fans quite as risible if you knew they were armed, and really, really wanted you to take back what you just said about Gary Barlow?

(An unpublished essay, suggested and sent to Jessica Reed/The Guardian, but not acknowledged)


In Praise of Rick Geary


The person I admire is someone you probably have never heard of. He is an American writer and artist by the name of Rick Geary.

Technically, Geary should be described as a comic book artist and writer, but that is to do him an injustice, as his work is so far away from the orthodoxies of telling stories in a sequence of pictures as to be almost unrecognisable. Geary is unique and inimitable. The picture I’ve brought is a perfect example of his style and imagination.

His career can be broken down into two broad phases, represented by the two books I’ve brought along today.

For the first fifteen years of his career, up to about 1990, Geary wrote and drew and published surreal and strange short stories. None of these were longer than five pages. They might only occupy a page, a half page, but to read any of them is to walk through a mirror, into a rounded, cartoon shaped world, usually not contemporary, oddly midwestern, and looking absolutely normal.

People would go about their business, completely unselfconcious, but then something completely unbelievable would happen, and they’d take it as normal. Things would be done and the story-tellers would talk as if it was humdrum. One young man, wishing to be an artist but pressed by his parents to get a job, marry the girl next door, reports as if it were the most normal thing in the world, “So one nite I decoyed her into the garage and brained her with a shovel.”

Other stories would feature nothing unusual at all, except that the very normal people are looking at things at something of an odd angle to you. Reading a Geary story was like wandering through a dream, after which you come out looking at things a bit strangely.

And his art, both colourful, cartoonish, but full of expression and weirdly real, was a joy to look at. There’s a one page piece in this book called “Presidents of the USA” which goes from Washington to Reagan, except that every president is a different animal, bird or insect, all in the clothing of their time. Each creature is bizarre, expressive, striking, and there are hours of fascination in pondering the significance of the choices.

The latter phase of Geary’s career has seen him tackle longer, more conventional stories, with a dark undercurrent, in his series ‘A Treasury of Victorian Murder’. Some are famous victims, such as Abraham Lincoln, in this book, or Lizzie Borden, or Jack the Ripper, some are unknown cases. All are thoroughly researched, scrupulous in presenting the evidence, put the case in it’s context, and    deal with all the oddities surrounding the crime. Geary’s interest is in the psychology of the people involved, killer, victim and onlookers alike, but his approach to each story is to set out what happened.

I have a taste for American history, so I have read about Lincoln’s assassination several times, but I have learned far more from Geary’s book about the planning of the assassination, the actual event, and the tracking down of the plotters than I have from every other book put together.

What I admire about Rick Geary, as an aspiring writer myself, is not just his talent, but the fact that someone so individual, in fact so contrary to the established methods of art, story-telling, subject, someone like that has led a successful career for over thirty years without once compromising what he wants to do.

I don’t just admire him, I envy him.


(Originally prepared as course work for a presentation, hence the reference to books being to hand: October 2010)