A few days after my novel was published, my father asked me how much I might earn from it.
I told him.
‘That’s good,’ he answered.
He was lying of course. His facial expression said it all: ‘God, son! You could earn more than that gutting fish.’
There then followed a long silence, only broken by a cat running across the garden, prompting my father to talk about his thirty-year war against the moss in the lawn. A war which he will never win judging by the spongy mass of bright green outside the window.
After he’d told me all the names of the various moss killers he’d used over the years, he asked me what I was going to do now.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, slightly baffled by his question.
‘I mean, what are you going to do. As in a job?’
I nearly started laughing and wondered if my father had misread my situation. He’s 78 and in good health, but perhaps in this instance, he hadn’t understood me. ‘Dad,’ I started, slightly wearily, ‘I’m writing another book — It’s called Le Chemin. It’s a follow up to Le Glitch. I’m hoping it will be out next year.’
I knew he was disappointed. Compared to the earnings of my brother and sister, what I earned was small beer. Almost nothing. And I knew he secretly hoped — now I’d got this ‘writing business’ out of my system — that I would buckle down and get a real job. Go back to teaching perhaps, or back to cheffing, or something else. Anything, as long as it earned a steady and preferably higher wage than writing books.
In short, I wasn’t a success, because I didn’t have a well-paying job. Not that I was surprised of course by his assessment. I’d heard it a million times before: ‘He’s so successful. She’s so bright. He’s so clever.’ The endless chatter at my parents’ dinner table over the years.
All meaning, of course: ‘He’s so rich.’
Not once did I hear: ‘So successful. So poor as well!’
Have you ever heard that?
I doubt it. This notion of success is so intrinsically linked to money that without it I doubt western Capitalism could function. How would success be measured? On favours done, strings pulled, certificates, grades, awards, knighthoods, honours? No way. The only currency of success is money. Earned, inherited, robbed, or even found. It doesn’t actually matter. If you’ve got it, you’re regarded as successful.
Even the really good people, even the saints, don’t get this successful tag. How about Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi. Were they successful? Or were they just great leaders? Or does leading their respective nations out of darkness and tyranny not qualify them for successful status?
Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and politicians can’t be successful. It’s not their job. They are there to make things better. They can become iconic or evil but not successful. Maybe success is confined to the business world and anyone outside it is left with other labels: ‘Hard worker, a tryer, a good person, or simply a loser.’
Later in my visit to my parents (I was there for the weekend), I mentioned to my father that I’d love to make money selling books and I don’t want to be a starving artist. But equally, I don’t want to be gutting fish either. Or teaching. Or cheffing. I’d given up too much already, to simply let writing go now.
‘If I did that,’ I told him, as we were enjoying a beer in his local pub. ‘I would consider myself a failure.’
That hit the spot. And it wasn’t the beer.
When I mentioned the word failure to my father, his eyes darkened and his forehead wrinkled up into a deep furrow like it had been ploughed over. If there’s one thing my father hates more than anything, it’s the word failure. And it was in that moment that I think my dad got what I was talking about.
They say there’s not much difference between success and failure. But it depends on who you are. A wealthy businessman who is only successful through having money can become incredibly unsuccessful if he loses it all. Overnight he can go from a successful businessman to a nobody just like that. Stock market crashes and the poor guy is sweeping up parsnips out of the gutter.
But can the same be said for a novelist, or an artist, or a great leader, or a saint, or a nurse, or a fundraiser?
The answer is probably no. Because their success is built on more than money. Even when their money is washed away, and even if they are also sweeping up parsnips out of the gutter, at least they have something left. They endure. And this is probably my point. Money and success can only carry you so far. There has to be something within, something tangible you’ve created. Whether it’s a nation or a simple novel.
When my father said goodbye to me at the station, he reminded me, quite forcefully, to start that other novel. ‘Don’t let it slip,’ he scolded me as though I was four-years-old.
Thanks Dad, I thought, as the train pulled away. As if I’m going to forget.