Right up to my teenage years reciting a poem out loud or acting in the school play were essentially impossible. Learning lines was difficult enough but even if the words were memorised, the presence of an audience would strike me dumb. Performance and I were incompatible. Similarly, pretence and deceit were an anathema. One of my first memories was of breaking off a friendship with our gardener when I discovered he had told me a lie. I was three and he was a gentle hero but from that day on I refused to speak with him. Performance, pretence and deceit are still pivotal to me but the roles they have played have changed.
But first to their possible origin. I strongly suspect that their roots can be traced to my mother’s profession. She was an actor and I never really knew exactly who she was. In the theatre or on the radio she could be anything from an eccentric Russian governess, to a homely Welsh mother, or a louche Parisienne, and seeing or hearing one’s own mother in these different guises confuses and unnerves. But aside from these professional displays, her mercurial qualities also invaded our day-to-day family life. Without warning she would switch seamlessly from mother angry, to mother sad, loving, attentive or (very) funny and I never knew which would surface next – or why. How different life might have been had she stayed a more constant self; if she had stopped pretending.
One way I found to handle the pretence was to keep a watchful eye on her behaviour so that I could see through it and so try to neutralise it as it arose. But all too often this failed and I came to despise such behaviour, and this despisal spread to cover pretence in any guise, so pretence in appearance, substance, fact or form. And it did not matter much whether its effects were trivial or profound or were intentional or happenstance. In keeping with this I developed, and still have, a general antipathy towards artificiality of image, as with men wearing hairpieces, women having breast and lip (and now buttock) enhancement, and either gender having face lifts or using de-wrinkling botox. And, while all this now offends me less, it is still a puzzle as to why people want to pretend in these ways and why society panders to such behaviour. Who are we fooling?
But it has also been important for me to avoid the pretence of substance. For years I have made a very conscious effort to buy shirts made of cotton or linen rather than nylon; to buy shoes of real leather rather than some polycarbon-resin mix; or use real timber rather than ‘combo’ wood. How I hate ‘milk’ drinks which have never seen a cow, or artificially yellowed fish or cheese rather those of natural colour. But such vehement opposition is now changing; witness the bouquet of a dozen scarlet silk poppies given to me by one of my sons for Christmas that has pride of place in my study.
In the greater scheme of things pretence of image and substance might seem trivial when there exist forms of pretence that include deceit, fraud, plagiarism or dishonesty, and the distinction between these is sometimes fine. In one way or another all of these existed in my professional world of medicine, science and education. In some countries and for certain medicines, most products are counterfeit. Manipulating results in science and medicine is commonplace. The sales person’s (drug rep’s) dishonesty is so common it is taken as the default. Plagiarism by students (and others) is now endemic and sometimes comes dressed up as flattery. This was certainly the explanation given when I happened to be in the audience to hear an MP present as his own, and word-for-word, a key section of one of my articles. All of these deceits I have abhorred and still abhor, and my struggles against them shaped much of my working career.
The performance side of my life had a different story. This had the potential for being a career wrecker – a lecturer who could not lecture would have been a nightmare. Here the change began in my early 20s, and oddly with my mother’s help. I met, and fell for, my future wife at a party in London and a few days later she was off back to her Paris home. I was determined to say goodbye and decided to present her with some flowers as she waited to catch the bus for Dover.
For some reason, I decided that it would be a good idea if I presented them anonymously. With the help of my mother I was metamorphosed overnight into a bedraggled bearded tramp and, with a beard and moustache glued on at the National Theatre and a scruffy coat from its props department, I did the deed.
Somehow it worked, and in performance terms, in life and in lecturing, I never looked back.