Someone asked me what I was good at at school and I had to think. I did okay at school, had my moments in both history and maths but I never succeeded so well as to be top of the heap and so could never, in my own estimation be that good. It’s the old perfect is the enemy of the good, isn’t it (wise chap that Voltaire).
‘Surely,’ continued the kindly meaning friend, you were good at writing? Not really. It wasn’t something I excelled at – as you can already see, it won’t be me and grammar (grammar and I? Oh sod it.) at the top of the pile. I’ve never ‘got’ grammar. Never the top dog, or cat in Eng Lit and Eng Lan. There are grammatical phrases and constructs that, to this day, pass me by.
When Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle created their hero, Nigel Molesworth in Down with Skool, How to be Topp and Whizz for Atoms etc, they included the ‘Private Life of the Gerund’. That was the first time I had heard of it, the Gerund, and I loved seeing it battle with peaceful pronouns. Chiz chiz. But I still look up what a Gerund is (what is…) and why we care.
So achieving perfection, that elusive ten out of ten for anything, in nursery school, at Primary school, at Senior school, in Scouts, anywhere… it was all a bit Molesworthian – i.e. highly improbable. My earliest school report said I came into my own at playtime. By eight, I received an ‘I don’t know how he did it’ when given a ‘C’ for my handwriting exam and, more tellingly, in Geometry I received this comment: ‘Good term’s work; utterly confused in exam’. Always showing my human side, that instinctive need to be fallible.
Things did lurch to and fro, rather, so far as academe was concerned. A failed eleven plus, was followed by a place at a Grammar school after I was interviewed (at 11, mind you. Bloody ludicrous). I was asked what I enjoyed reading and said ‘Paddington Bear’. The lady on the panel of three interviewing me loved the little bear so I secured a place. Heaven knows what might have happened had I confessed to my real love – Tintin. Perhaps, even then, my innate craftiness and duplicity carved me out as having ‘lawyer’ potential.
So where have I ever excelled so much that I can justifiably claim a 10 out of 10? Nowhere, really. That’s not false modesty, just a realistic assessment; I can always improve. Academically, at work, at home, at sport, in my writing, in my relationships, as a dad and husband, as a gardener cook handyman (blimey me and handyman in the same sentence, now there’s a joke) – everywhere really. I love that, in truth. I’m not sure I want to achieve the ultimate, to be the best, because then I’ll have no room to stretch that bit further. If I do crest a summit, it’s always a false horizon and there are more summits ahead. And while at times that brings on a dog-tiredness and enervation it soon passes and I tighten the straps on my metaphorical rucksack, take a sip of tea and set off for the next peak. I don’t want my life to be any other way (well, no, not quite: I do want to cook the perfect brownie).
So I ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’. It’s one thing to keep on striving but there comes a point where you need to let go – I’ll never master the quickstep for instance (and while I wouldn’t sell my soul to do so, I might mortgage it for a fair while..). More pertinently that thought should act as a brake on my passion for tinkering. Particularly with my writing; I need to remember that aphorism, it should be written over my desk. The only way I’ve found to stop myself tinkering, seeking the elusive perfection, is to publish and then it’s more that I’ve abandoned the current WIP for others to work on than decided it’s actually finished.
So where, in all my years did I get as close to a moment of perfection? When a little piece of me achieved a momentary state of grace, if not perfection? This little piece best sums it up.
It’s 19th May 1984. My hired morning suit itches my thighs; I have both relations and nearly in laws watching so I can’t scratch. Just bear it. My watch says three minutes past, an acceptable lateness but I’d rather she didn’t go for a new personal best. It’s sticky today – the day will be bookended by rain – and I’m sweating.
The organ groans into life; there’s a rustling and movement and a vision in white, silhouetted against the door.
I face front as I’ve been told to do; soon enough she slips to my side. ‘Sorry. Needed a pee.’ I nod. So do I.
Michael, the vicar steps forward. ‘Did you check for labels?’ The man is neurotic about the happy couple showing the soles of their shoes with price tags still attached when they kneel for the blessing; too much sniggering is a bad thing. I should have drawn a smiley face. It would reflect my own.
We kneel; I smile. I don’t stop smiling for hours. Yes that’s as near perfection as any man is entitled to get.