I terrify myself but nobody else

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It was Halloween and I was trying to carve a pumpkin, with the help of the internet, so that it had the elegant quizzical features (if not the nimble tread) of a certain Mr Fred Astaire. The face, not massively recognisable, was framed by the outline of a top hat. Why not?

The rusty grapefruit knife was remarkably flexible but one of these years I must get some proper tools. My friend was carving the letters “DOOM” into her pumpkin, in bold caps, with a border of deranged looking kittens and mean snakes. It had a lot of personality.

I was complaining to her about some pesky episode in which I considered myself to have been, in a small way, mistreated. “I mean” – and this is what it came down to – “why is nobody scared of me?” (I terrify myself.)

“Well,” she said, “you are right. And of course, no one could possibly describe you as a diva.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Of course not.” And then, “Couldn’t they? Couldn’t they just a tiny bit?”

“No,” she said, and laughed.

I thought about going at her with the grapefruit knife but it isn’t my style. As I am always saying in this column, all any of us can do is live our lives in our own character.

Yet the fact remains that five times in the past week I have been described as modest, thrice in print. Twice people have told me I mustn’t hide my light under a bushel. I don’t! I used to like the idea of modesty, it seemed to indicate a position of quiet strength and dignity but now it feels as though patting me on the head is everyone’s favourite pastime. How dare they? Why is no one intimidated by me? Why have I no power to spook or cause alarm?

Why would a newspaper interviewer arrive 20 minutes late for our meeting to discuss my new book, without apologising, then ask me if my mother’s children were by different fathers? (Isn’t that actually some kind of famous American rapper insult?) Why would I not slap him round the face? Fling the tea he made me pay for in his eyes?

When I am cross with people I instantly feel rather protective towards them (against my anger) and then compassion kicks in. Arrgh!

Did I make a great mistake in sanding down my rougher corners and sharper instincts early on in life? Should I have kept more of my crinkle-cut savage side? Am I just too civilised for my own good? A victim of too much superego and not enough sugar? When I was a teenager I used to throw drinks over people, hurl insults, get in the odd fight, now and then. (Not often, it’s true.) Could I get away with that kind of carry-on now? Or would people just call me a big silly and pat me, thinking dimly of their favourite pets?

I read an article recently that said writers have to decide, early on, whether they are going to be nice and placate and accommodate, or whether they are going to be demanding and difficult and high-handed. The people in the second category, the author said, would probably get more respect. Is it true? And not just of writers but all people?

Carving my pumpkin, I thought to myself: could I make a sort of Halloween resolution to be more high-handed and frightening? Have I not seen Joan Crawford in all her films? I could emulate Crawford’s elegantly deranged flashing eyes; copy her imperious elbows, which throb in the full knowledge that they are unequivocally in the right. I could mimic, with cosmetics, her mouth that looks as though it could bite through or at least suck the blood out of a smallish continent. I am quietly confident about the shoulder-padded-black-crêpe-gown look. I own many and they suit me. I even have one with a cape fitted into the bodice but it doesn’t frighten anyone. I think it’s hugely severe but people say it looks sweet.

I watch the film Mean Girls regularly with my daughters, who adore it, and I study the carefully honed mind-games of Regina George, the queen bee friend-crusher, who can kill a pal with a glance at 40 paces, and turn a cheerleader into a fat pool of despair while smiling and saying, “Love ya!” The little girls I see at the bus stop think nothing of greeting each other with devastating pleasantries such as, “Hi babe, no offence but I hate your shoes.” You’d think some of it would rub off on me, but no.

I’ll have to practise in the mirror or get a coach or something. We teach people how to treat us, they say. But then they would, wouldn’t they?


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