09 November 2015

Book Review | Back Story: A Memoir by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s hard-won crown as champion of tweediness, along with his largely unremarkable upbringing, make Back Story: A Memoir something of a novelty in the otherwise misery-sodden world of celebrity autobiographies. Much like the man himself whenever he appears on television, this life story belongs to a world that’s gone, if it ever really existed at all. Not even a surfeit of complaints about a bad back can make it blend in amongst today’s juiciest rape and heroin misery memoirs.

This, the shrewd amongst you may have already inferred from my tone, is not a bad thing. In fact, like just about everything that the man has ever put his name to (except, perhaps, the majority of his history essays while studying at Cambridge and, obviously, Ambassadors), Back Story is an unqualified triumph; an expected comedic delight that, to boot, also offers some intriguing insight into the man so often confused with his Peep Show character.

Whilst Mitchell may take undue delight in calling a spade a spade (a carrot a splandeb and an apple a dugnid…), his book is innovative in its format, which eschews linear convention in favour of wandering around London and remarking upon structures that have been the stage to important scenes in his life, before launching into anecdotes about them. A great gimmick in of itself, this literal and literary walk down Memory Lane offers the reader an illusion of familiarity and informality that its rivals lack, but without losing the broadly progressive thread of the story altogether.

   “‘Oi, there’s that bloke off the telly!’
        I smiled and, as far as was possible with an arm weighed down by beer and ready meals, I waved.
       ‘Twat!’ one of them shouted.”

Mitchell’s prose, whilst sometimes a bit cap-happy for such an outspoken linguistic pedant, is laced with acerbic humour, making even the most tawdry of events – such as being recognised by some builders in the quote above – entertaining, as well as enlightening. His description of the mind-boggling level of worry and self-recrimination that goes into his fear of / desire for public recognition, for instance, feels incredibly refreshing and honest compared to the usual trite extremes so often trotted out in these things.

More enjoyable still are Mitchell’s trademark comic tirades - “That’s how far we’ve come in the last ten years: televisions used to work without telephone lines and now they don’t. Well done everyone...” and the like - which I find especially amusing as they generally unravel exactly the sort of absurdities that rankle me on a daily basis. Even when he’s outright wrong and he knows it - his mooted reclassification of public toilets into “gent-fuckers” and “lady-fuckers”, a system clearly rife for abuse, being a pertinent example - his wry arguments are so eloquently cloaked in quiet outrage that you still half think he really means it.

“No one, I thought bitterly, can have had a higher percentage of their life’s snogs appear in the paper than me.”

Throughout the book Mitchell maintains an admirable silence on personal matters - crushes and obsessions are alluded to at times, but there’s no namin’ or shamin’ beyond mentions of a relationship with a woman that he refers to only as ‘Meryl Streep’ and his spouse, Victoria. I welcome this as I didn’t buy this book (well, borrow; I’m quite the library user these days. It’s free, y’know) to read about his love life - I read it for laughs, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied on this front.

“Getting laughs for your material and your performance isn’t just twice as good as one or the other. It is roughly 3.2 times as a good.”

Yet surprisingly, where the book really excels is in Mitchell’s digressions into more serious spiritual and political matters. A fellow agnostic, in just a few paragraphs he manages to encapsulate exactly why atheists and religious zealots manage to be just as annoying as each other, for example. With the same barbed vehemence, he then exposes and destroys many of the cruel lunchtime practices that I recall from my own primary school days; it’s an almost cathartic read, at times.

A good, strong cup of tea in a cafĂ© full of creamy lattes and antioxidant smoothies, Back Story is a must for anyone who wants to like porridge but can’t. It’s the story of a boy who wanted to be good and to conform, only to find that those traits set him apart from his peers. It’s the tale of a jobbing writer without a pen; an actor looking for stage; a lonely guy who wasted his three wishes on his career, only to have his “sneering genie” silenced out of leftfield in the final act. There’s more to this El Dude Brother than being one of the Men with Ven – he’s a “man of consequence”, and Back Story is the evidence to justify that claim.

Back Story is available to download from iTunes and Amazon’s Kindle Store for £4.99. Alternatively, you can get the paperback from Amazon for £8.99 with free delivery if you buy another book at the same time for £1.01 or more, or for free from East Riding Libraries on a short-term loan. You just go in, scan the book in a little machine (like at Tesco), and walk out with it. No currency changes hands at all. You don’t even have to give your card details.

Peep Show returns for its ninth and final series on Wednesday night at 10pm on Channel 4. It’s going to be messy...