January 10, 2014 6:56 pm

When being wrong feels so right

‘When you realise you have been guilty of misplaced certainty, it’s an awful feeling, an ugly sensation’

In those empty, drawn-out, dressing-gown days that follow New Year’s eve, I came to a complete standstill. A feverish cold had given me the perfect excuse not to do or be anything. Things slipped, trading ceased, meals, merriment, typing – everything was cancelled, including, it seemed, my personality.

One afternoon I began to watch Oliver!, reviewing the situation. More specifically, I was thinking about those times in life when you are certain you are right, when you have insisted on it quite vociferously to others, only to discover, hours, days or years later, that you were, in fact, quite wrong.

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Susie Boyt

You see, my first remembered instance of being sure I was right when I was actually wrong – false certainty syndrome you could call it – relates to Oliver!. I was seven, and had been taken as a great treat to see the show at the Albery Theatre with my brother, by the love interest of my mother, a noble man with ruddy cheeks and shaggy hair. A foreign correspondent on this newspaper, if you please. We were going places. It was dark, and I was thrilled.

Even then, sad to say, seeing a child star in a show was a little bit painful for me because I couldn’t help noticing it wasn’t me up on the stage. I was brave but these things cost me something. Watching Annie, in which the cast is largely comprised of small girls, was quite horrific. “What have I ever done to you?” I wondered of the apparently kind relative who had brought me to see the show, tears of envy rolling down my cheeks.

Of course, as far as Oliver! was concerned, I could hardly have passed for a male orphan boy, especially a starving one, for I was a girl of girth, but I noted the name of the child who was living my dream as I walked in, and recorded it in my mental notebook: Lionel Bart. “He’s very good, the star, the Oliver, Lionel Bart,” I said to my brother.

“No,” he said, “Lionel Bart isn’t the name of the Oliver. He’s the guy who wrote it.” “No, no,” I said, “it says so outside on the thing. He’s the Oliver.”

“No,” my brother said.

“Yes,” I said.

Then, being a supremely kind and mild-mannered person, my brother let it go.

Some years later I discovered that Lionel Bart was not the winsome star but the show’s writer, just as my brother had told me.

Knowing I’m right while actually, factually, being wrong is all bound up with Oliver! now. When you realise you have been guilty of misplaced certainty, it’s an awful feeling, an ugly sensation, humiliating and lowering, the only upside being that you may feel a tiny bit of a hero – to yourself – for admitting it. For there are many people out there, or for that matter in here, who simply cannot ever admit they are wrong. It would be worse for them than death by rusted sharks’ teeth. It is commendable not to be of their number.

. . .

You can allow yourself an inch of moral high ground for confessing it, but no more than an inch, for people are inclined to take this concept of being right for admitting they’re wrong far too far. Murderers on American television, philandering boyfriends on talk shows, dishonest antiques dealers in radio dramas, warm-hearted British gangsters who commit heinous crimes but love their Mums, they all sometimes say, “I hold my hands up. I am big enough to admit it,” as if they want a round of applause or an Order of Merit. We don’t want to be like that, do we?

Do we?

These days, when I am very, very sure I’m in the right and am busy telling everyone, I sometimes force myself to think of Oliver!gate. I bring to mind Mr Bumble and his “long thin winding staircase without any banister”; I conjure the Artful Dodger, whose first words to Oliver in the book are: “Hullo, my covey. What’s the row?” (This is how I will greet everyone in 2014, maybe.)

I think of Fagin recoiling with horror at what having a wife might entail. I think what a good name for a dog Bullseye is. I even think of Nancy and her extremely feminine fidelity to fidelity, which is something I was brought up to have, but which isn’t brilliant, because, truth be known, it kills you. I think of my kind brother agreeing to disagree about Lionel Bart. But mostly what I think is: enough of this insisting you are right all the time. Sometimes you, we – OK then, I – need to entertain the possibility that the reverse is true.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

More columns at ft.com/boyt

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