The Brakes Off Brain and Social Conundrums Left in Silence

Well I’ve got no idea where this one is going, written speedily backstage at NN Cafe in Northampton. 

After almost any interaction with any human being, a review committee enters my head and starts to worriedly discuss just how I may have offended or bored those I have spoken to or waved at. A Newsnight review team mixing up Bonnie Greer and Sarfraz Manzoor with the 70s cartoon strip The Numbskulls run through all the different ways my intentions may have been misunderstood. 

It can be the simplest situation. While walking to the railway station today a white van stopped to let me cross. I offered the palm of thank you and mouthed “thanks”. Why I felt the need to do both I have no idea, one or other would have sufficed. Just as I reached the pavement and he drove off, my mind wondered, “you don’t think that ‘thanks’ looked like ‘wanker’. Oh dear, have I accidentally appeared to abuse a man who kindly let me cross a busy road. Will this change his future behaviour to pedestrian from kindness to animosity? A rage that could lead to a tragedy due to lip lazy mimed gratitude”.

Obviously, my thanks looked like thanks, why should such a preposterous fiction bother me. Being one of the more minor brushes with a what if paranoia, by the time I bought my ticket to Northampton this niggling scenario was gone. Hardly the makings of a sequel to The Man in the High Castle.

Much as I wrote before about how overactive imagination sees death possibilities everywhere, so this mindset sees every conversational ineptitude replayed over and over again and each time magnified a little more than last time. The first cough from a member of the audience and my brain already moves into, “uh oh, I know they were laughing seven seconds ago, but I think in the intervening time I have lost them. That cough was the sign that everything is crumbling. Have I lost my chutzpah?” The fact that it is midwinter and rough tickly coughs are rife does not come into the equation. 

That homunculus Ken Tynan the squats in my amygdala just won’t shut up. This is why I like staying in my bedroom, unobserved my sense of screw up is reduced to a poorly chosen novel or a poorly thought out tweet. Once in the open air and seeing neighbours it’s all “why did my voice squeak out like that? Oh god, do I know that man I just ignored? Why did those ramblers look so suspicious when I said ‘good afternoon’ to them on the tow path? Am I walking weirdly today?”

And to make make matters worse, I have to stick to my guns of being the odd boy or square peg, even though I may be more normal that I think. Okay, I do now know that the sexual behaviour of Bonobo apes and the importance of the evolution of concealed ovulation are not really considered to be conversational ice breakers at parties, but others will have to get used to that while I later depart and think, “why are you the human that you are? There is probably an easier way, but boredom may lie there”. What is better, boredom and bonhomie fakery or honesty and odd looks?

I was waiting outside my son’s school last week. Some people were waiting in the reception area but I was the other side of the doors watching a toddler entertain with professionally aplomb by distorting his face by pressing it at different angles against the glass, occasionally his mother would stop the show by warning him that he might get his fingers trapped in the hinges. He was young, he was prepared to risk these dangers of showbusiness to put on a good performance. A man next to me said, “you’re right not to go in there, mate. It’s full of women”. He was just saying what he thought you were meant to say, sterilised conversation, safe in most environments, the sort of things men are meant to say. I can’t recall how I reacted, I know I didn’t nod or smile, I was outside not because it was women in there, i would have been there if it was men. I was outside because I was avoiding conversation. I think the best I managed was “oh”, that non-committal response that says nothing and allows you to agree you can still be silent. 

I have found that age has made faking conversation so much harder. After the clumsy shyness of youth, every NHS specs stereotype ticked, I had a time when I was almost gregarious. I could wander around weddings and funerals and be jolly, maybe even charming, I could even dance. Well, not dance, but not mind standing in a disco lit area and making some forms of abstract shapes that occasionally matched the rhythm. 

Is it because my night life is perpetually showing off to people that I find showing off so much harder and more pointless on other occasions? Do we all become more niche as age advances? 

This the precarious balance – we want to be individuals, not like some herd, but we don’t want to be so individual that we end up living under a derelict and collapsing pier talking to limpets. We want to be just odd enough, the Goldilocks outsider. 

I am on tour and actually being very chatty after the show generally, you’ll find me in the bar with a soda water. I am off to Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Radlett, Exeter, Isle of Wight and so many many other places, plus Brian Cox and I are doing two grand shows at Hammersmith Apollo. Details HERE

DVDs available HERE

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4 Responses to The Brakes Off Brain and Social Conundrums Left in Silence

  1. The couple of times I have spoken to you briefly after shows in Cardiff, you’ve seemed disarmingly “normal” for a given value of normal. Perhaps we just have the same numbskulls, as I too find it hard to curtail the inner monologue on occasions. I recall slights from decades ago that I have given or received and relive the shame or anger as if it were happening now. If you do ever find a method of shutting inner-Kenneth up, please do share it.

  2. sam says:

    Great blog, if you want my advice stay away from mums at school gates, its a jungle out there

  3. lanceleuven says:

    “I do now know that the sexual behaviour of Bonobo apes and the importance of the evolution of concealed ovulation are not really considered to be conversational ice breakers at parties”

    I can certainly relate to this sentiment. It’s a lesson I sorely learnt at my nephews 7th birthday. I was never invited to his eighth.

  4. It all seems normal to me. I am not sure if it is age or not but I too have left the path of gregarious interaction. I used to be “a real party animal” I believe is the term but now I would rather stay at home let my wife represent us while I watch the complete series of Atom or The Cell, or hope it is a good night on BBC Four and not have to touch the remote until bedtime.

    I understand completely your concern about the crossing the road wave and thanks inbuilt gesture. When I have held up a few cars on the road while cycling I make a hand lift gesture from the hoods of my handlebars as the traffic passes. I always start to panic that this may have come across as dismissive? Mainly because the movement is more of a flick with all four fingers rather than a smooth raise of the hand as if to say go away.

    Some good things have come with age as far as odd paranoia goes. Until I was about 35, I would not throw any wrappers away of any multiple pack of anything until they were together at the end , be it sweets or individually wrapped Madeleines for fear that the one lone wrapper may get lonely without its mates…christ that is so odd!

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