Uses of Disagreeable People

What is a disagreeable person? Defining one is not as easy as it sounds. There are ways of being and behaving which I find disagreeable – arrogance, intrusiveness, dishonesty, negativity – but am I to be the sole arbiter of this? There may well be an aboriginal tribe somewhere that values Dishonesty, or whose idea of Intrusiveness is far removed from mine. So much depends on the culture. I actually ‘did’ a bit about this in an Open University linguistics course.

In one culture, for example, it would be perfectly acceptable, even expected, when travelling on a crowded bus to instruct another passenger to Shut That Window! In a different culture – let’s take English, since that’s the one I know best – this simple, clear form of words is likely to land you in trouble. Speak to a woman that way and you’ll probably be met with a glare, the turn of the shoulder, the uncooperative stare into space. Speak to a man in such rough and ready terms and you’ll likely be told to get lost – one way or another. Speak thus to a very large man with tattoos and a shaven head who happens to be in a particularly bad mood that morning and you could end up with a punch in the snoot. Safer and more effective to haver apologetically around the subject for a while.

Um.. terribly sorry to interrupt but… I wonder if you’d mind if… its blowing right down the back of my neck, you see… frightfully chilly for the time of year… would you mind?

You never actually ask the person to close the window: you just kind of guilt-trip and nudge them into it. (If you’re interested in people-watching there’s an excellent book called Watching the English by the anthropologist Kate Fox.)

But cultural differences apart, and to save time, let us assume that a disagreeable person is broadly the same in all societies. What, if any, might be the uses of such a person? Do they have any uses, or would the world be a far better place if some disagreeability-sweeping alien spaceship were to make a pass over the planet and hoover them all up?

I find Blabbers disagreeable. They tend to be women, but not exclusively. Ultra-sociable, they’re on gossiping terms with every single person in every single house within a radius of several streets. No matter what it is you tell them – how trivial or insignificant – everybody knows within half an hour. They do have their uses, however. If there is something you do have to tell everybody, but can’t be bothered to – I’ve just got a monstrous big dog and he’s likely to woof a lot, say – just mention it in passing to the Blabber. Better still, mention it in confidence. Saves all the bother of saying stuff you already know over and over again. Also, having reached other people as gossip, dull facts appear far more interesting.

And then there are those people who go on and on and on about something – bores, in other words. I’d class them as disagreeable, although I forgive them, having been boring enough on many occasions myself. In ‘olden times’, when I was still married to my Artist, I would sometimes go with him to the local pub. He would talk to his friends and I would always get pinned against the wall by a chap with a big nose. You know the way they lean in at you, one hand on the wallpaper next to your left ear? That nose has stuck in my memory because I used to end up focussing on it, and the variety of open pores and stray hairs it included, unable somehow to look at away. He also smoked cigars, so every utterance was accompanied by a Churchillian whiff or two. He wasn’t a bad chap – in fact, I think he was lonely and quite liked me – and unfortunately he worked in some distant department of the place where I worked – so I felt obliged to listen, or at least to look as if I was.

Every evening I was treated to the story of how he had discovered a motor bike in his back garden, and dug it up. I was trying to remember the name of the motorbike, which he repeated ad nauseam, but it’s gone. It might have been Cherokee… I have a vision of feathered head-dresses. To make matters worse it amused my husband to pull faces at me from behind the poor chap’s back: of course I couldn’t allow any sign of this to appear in my face. It was a battle of wills – which I always won, because on balance my husband annoyed me even more than the bore with the buried motor-bike.

Another of my husband’s friends – a joyous, witty but eccentric Air Traffic Controller – after a few beers would enjoy telling a long, long story involving an Irishman and a cat. At some hideous point in this story the (hopefully fictional) Irishman would seize the (hopefully fictional) cat and hurl it out of the window. The thing was with this friend, he was clever. He’d lull you into a false sense of security by never starting that story in the same place twice. It was a story without a beginning and without an end and this story would appear to concern a completely different set of characters in completely different circumstances. But no. After ten, twenty, thirty minutes and several more beers, in would stroll the (hopefully fictional) Irishman and out would fly the (hopefully fictional) cat.

There is one use for boring people – as a kind of shield. They make excellent fodder for other boring people. Introduce them at some length (that way each has plenty of ammunition to use against the other) and slip away. One or two might also come in useful in Parliament, now I think about it – for those occasions when MPs need to ‘talk a bill out of time’. I believe it’s known as filibustering. Like a secret weapon: just set them going – on buried iconic motor bikes, fictional (hopefully) flying cats or whatever, put your feet up on that famous green leather upholstery and take a little nap.

(Uses of Disagreeable People is number 11 on Tanner’s 1917 list of 250 Topics for Familiar Essays)

Lying Fallow (2)

You may well be asking by now what sparked off the previous cake-mix of reminiscence and New Age flummery, and I am about to tell you. Are you sitting comfortably? It’s having read The Art of the Personal Essay, selected and introduced by Phillip Lopate. Lopate, an American now aged 71, has been a film critic, essayist, fiction writer, poet and teacher. One of his own essays Against Joie de Vivre is included in the book. It’s worth buying the book for his lengthy introduction alone, by the way.

Until fairly recently, being Tech School (syn: sketchily; inadequately; unambitiously; unimaginatively) educated, I thought of essays as tedious items that people of school age were forced to knock up in order to pass their GCEs, having titles such as The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was Quite a Good Thing: Discuss and Virginia Woolf Drowned Herself Just in Time: Ponder. The essays in this anthology are anything but tedious: funny, sad, illuminating and revealing, taken together they’re a masterclass.

This is not one for reading in the bath or brandishing airily in the tube; you’ll need something to prop it up against. I measured it against my shamefully unread paperback copy of The Bible and equally unread paperback Complete Works of Shakespeare and it’s bigger than both. Published in 1994, it’s one of a series called Teachers & Writers Collaborative Books (www.twc.org) starting with Seneca’s On Noise and Asthma and proceeding by way of Plutarch, Montaigne, Addison & Steel, Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, Ivan Turgenev, Roland Barthes, Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin and a treasure chest of others to Richard Rodriguez in Late Victorians writing about gay life and death in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. Essays only started to be called essays after the publication of Michel de Montaigne’s three books of Essais (‘attempts’ or ‘trials’) around 1580 but this volume includes personal essays, or personal essay equivalents by both male and female writers from such diverse origins as tenth century courtly Japan and twentieth century France.

Lopate has also provided not one but two handy Contents lists, the first divided into more historical/geographical movements such as The Rise of the English Essay, Other Cultures, Other Continents and The American Scene, the second grouped by subject matter or theme – Ambition, City Life, Education, Family Ties, Memoir, Portrait, Analytic Meditation, Consolation, Book Review and so forth. So you don’t have to schlep from start to finish or, as one Amazon reviewer boast of having done, from finish to start. You may chart your own course, devour, dip in or maybe read an essay a day, like those people who set out to read the whole of Samuel Pepys’ Diary date for date or the whole of The Bible from Genesis to Revelations.

Finding this book was an epiphany for me. Oh that’s what I’ve been writing all these years – the Personal Essay. Not only does the sort of stuff I’ve been writing have an actual name but it’s OK to write like that. Real writers do it. Yaroo! Or should it be Yahoo? No, that sounds like email. So many years on this neglected outpost of the Vogon Empire and only now do I discover that I fit – really, genuinely and totally fit – into some kind of genre. I’m not claiming to be the next Michel de Montaigne or Virginia Woolf but…Yaroo! Virginia Woolf didn’t just write To the Lighthouse and that thing Mrs Thingummy about the poor man who jumped out of the window and landed on the railings, she wrote Personal Essays too. Good for you, Virginia! Yaroo! Sorry about the drowning an’ all.

Maybe if I’d started young…but then I did start young. I just didn’t know how to describe, even to myself, the thing I was writing – or what to do with it ‘having writ’. In any case it could be to one’s advantage to have grown old and wise before essaying the Personal Essay. Yes, that’s the thing – experience, worldly wisdom, the essayist maturing like a fine old…camembert.

Or something.

Old.

And maybe not so stinky.