I’ve had a slightly strange 24 hours on the popular website Twitter dot com. Yesterday evening, while I was trying to distract myself from the psychological warfare of my kids’ bedtimes, I idly tweeted the following:
I’m really fond of Americans in a lot of ways but when they committed to saying ‘I could care less’ for ‘I couldn’t care less’, it was inevitable their society would fall apart.
I suppose ‘idly’ is the adverb for 90 percent of the tweeting that I do, actually, and that many of us do – those who aren’t activists or educators or other people using the internet for more respectable reasons than as a massive, free time-filler. It was not meant as a serious comment either on American idiom, or as a genuine survey of American society (I don’t think I’m in a strong position to offer that, it’s quite complicated). It was just a light-hearted response to a tweet from an American author I admire. He’d used the phrase ‘I could care less’ where we would say the opposite and I thought – not for the first time – ‘it’s a bit weird the way Americans do that, isn’t it?’ It wasn’t an original observation; David Mitchell, as it turns out, has done a fairly comprehensive takedown of the same thing. I wasn’t even offering it as an original observation. I was just tweeting it, the way you do, for a handful of people to be amused or diverted by for a few seconds.
For some reason, though, of all the things I have tried to communicate to the universe on this capricious platform, this mild remark was one of the most popular ever. Within a few moments people had started re-tweeting it at quite a rate – at a far faster rate than if I’d tweeted, for example, ‘please tell everyone in the world about this charity thing’ or ‘this man is threatening to push me over a cliff unless I get 1000 RTs tonight’. When I woke up, I found any number of comments under my innocuous tweet, and this has continued all day. At the time of blogging the tweet has been seen (however briefly, across a timeline) by about 900,000 people: I imagine more people, by some distance, than I’ll meet in the rest of my life. For some tweeters this is all fairly standard, but it was a strange experience for me.
And the strangest element was that, as happens in this situation, the conversation mutated without me – while staying under the banner of ‘my tweet’. People started echoing my sentiments in much more extreme terms, ones I wouldn’t have chosen myself. ‘OH MY GOD AT LAST! I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DO THIS, SOOOOO MUCH I WANT TO KILL THEM!!!!!!!’ Someone wrote: ‘it’s not their fault they’re all so f—ing thick.’ A few Americans started chipping in to defend their spin on the phrase and explain why it came from, and some other people started to argue with them. Meanwhile, the thread had become a forum for people to vent about dozens of other American expressions that bothered them – and, in some cases, supposed aspects of the American character which went quite a long way away from the original point. As we speak, and despite the fact I’ve slightly tried to distance myself from the tweet, all this is still going on, and my timeline looks like a flat the morning after people have had a party and all gone home without helping to clear up.
I’ve done my best to create harmony out of all this, in my slightly school-prefect way. (NARRATOR: he *was* a prefect at school.) I ended up chatting with various strangers about the phrase, learning about the different ways Americans inflect some common speech patterns and why, saying things ‘haha well we’re all different’, and using the brief exposure to continue my campaign of chatting privately to anyone who particularly needed it. Nonetheless, it was a real reminder of how the smallest thing online can spiral significantly out of your control, and how therefore we should treat Twitter – or any instant-chat mechanism – with more care than we all do.
So in the end I’ve sort of disengaged from it, stopped worrying about the responses or trying to follow the micro-chats that have broken out amongst them. Turned notifications off (obviously). To continue the party metaphor, there are still people sleeping in a puddle of wine on my sofa but I’ve told myself they’ll probably sort themselves out at some point and it doesn’t matter which one was called Niall, and also the sofa probably needed replacing anyway. And this is probably a good lesson also. The connected climate we’re in surrounds us all with a lot of noise. I see people driving themselves nuts trying to address all this noise, answer every loose end, rebut every criticism – online, and off. Sometimes it’s OK to just wander to the bottom of the garden, so to speak. Sometimes you just have to say good luck everyone and take the fresh air.
Of course, I could just delete the tweet. I mean, yes, it’s brought me all these new followers, which is nice, and this wave of reaction/attention which is, in honesty, what comedians pursue from morning till night. But it doesn’t feel like the right type of attention, and especially not if the price of it is that people start to piss each other off in the wake of it.
Yeah, I could delete it instead of watching the numbers climb any more. I expect I’ll do it any minute now. Any minute.
Because of the events of last weekend, a lot people online have been saying that the biggest thing we need is a commitment to kindness. Those people have tended to get the piss taken out of them. Partly because logging onto Twitter to say ‘Be kind, guys!’ and collecting the likes feels like a pretty ineffective way to change the world, and partly because as soon #BeKind became a popular hashtag it was destined to look as disposable and faddish as all of Twitter’s brief obsessions do. But also because ‘kindness’, like a lot of life’s most valuable things, sounds as if it belongs on a fridge magnet. Part of the problem of this age, with its free and endless flow of information/ideas, is that important truths become over-familiar and end up seeming meaningless.
Treating other people as you’d like to be treated is one of the most important rules you can live your life by; ‘being’ the change you want to see in the world is a potentially life-transforming idea. Once you’ve seen these things on Facebook a dozen times, though, in a font that looks like it would be used in a health food shop and coupled with a Google Image of footprints on a sandy beach or Gandhi or something, your brain stops engaging with them. Some of the simplest and most crucial notions, things that ought to be motivating every step we take on this earth, have successfully disguised themselves as cliches.
Like the low-rent Alain de Botton I am, I would therefore like to say a few words about the way we could be treating one another differently.
Not long before Christmas, I tweeted this: Kindness and gentleness are often taken as an absence of personality. They’re actually qualities to be treasured. TREASURE A FUCKING KIND PERSON TODAY! I stand by this. I just wish I’d used the words ’empathy’ and ‘compassion’. Part of the problem with ‘kindness’ is that it sounds like some sort of cute hobby for a person who’s got a retro 80s pencil-case and has a Spotify playlist that is purely songs with acoustic guitars in. In reality, striving to understand and help your fellow humans is one of the most radical things you can do. Exercising empathy means digging deep into your humanity to grasp what it’s like in someone else’s brain. You don’t have to agree with anything they think, or support any of their opinions; you have to treat them as well as you can in spite of what you feel about those opinions. You can oppose them vehemently, in fact. If I meet a person who strongly supports Donald Trump or who rides everywhere on a zebra even though zebras are famously resistant to that, the exercise of empathising with them (‘what would make that person believe these wrong-headed things about society?’) and then applying compassion to them (‘I can see why he clings so strongly to the idea that he should be allowed the zebra’), is *NOT THE SAME* as giving them a free pass to do what they want. It just puts me on a footing where I am able to engage with their behaviour as what it is: a set of actions by a person not enormously genetically distant from myself, a person with needs and desires, who can be understood as such.
This flexing of key human muscles is a much braver act than digging your little trench, staying in it and screaming at anyone who doesn’t agree with everything you say. Yes, of course you have to stand up for what’s right. But we pretty much all think that our worldview is ‘what’s right’, don’t we. Almost by definition – or it wouldn’t be your worldview. However sure you are that you occupy the perfect position on every single issue, you need to understand that you don’t have a moral monopoly unless you actually are God, in which case it really would be great if you’d come forward sooner rather than later, because it’s been a fair old while since the last set of instructions and it’s fair to say we’ve drifted a bit in those millennia.
And even if you don’t agree with any of this – if you think this is the time to entrench even harder, turn your guns even harder on the people you don’t agree with – kindness is still something you can still change the world with every day, in a way that you cannot with angry rhetoric. Like it or not, it is unlikely there’ll be some sort of sea-change in the way the media are allowed to treat celebrities (if you’re as old as me, you will remember people calling for this since, at least, the time of Diana). It’s also reasonably unlikely that enough people will stop clicking on these articles to materially damage the papers who publish them (although it’s well, well worth a try). But what you can do every day of your life is improve something for someone who’s been left vulnerable by the toxicity of the air we’re all breathing. You can improve somebody’s mood, offer a favour, listen a bit. I’ve been trying to do this periodically on Twitter, these past few months, by offering an unofficial listening service (among other things). The good it does is tiny but it’s still more good than firing off 24 angry tweets about ‘the state of the world’ and then stewing for the rest of the day while others, maybe very close at hand, suffer.
#BeKind might not be a very helpful label to put on what we need to do better, but – again – clichés are often really good ideas in bland boxes. What ‘kindness’ means at its core is the opposite of a cop-out or a liberal whine. It’s one of the things we exist for. This would be a good time for us all to start looking into it more.
I’ve made a gigantic fuss of mentioning on all possible outlets, February 13th
was my fortieth birthday. In the past I’ve tended to play down birthdays, as
people do as they get older. Not because of some shame about my advancing age –
on the contrary, I think it should be seen as an achievement to rack up the
years, when you look at what life throws at us all – but just because it comes
to seem embarrassing to be skipping around on a particular date like you’re
still 11. This, though, leads to a mentality of middle-aged resignation that
I’ve been criticising a lot on stage recently, as I see it more and more among
my peers. ‘No, it’s a lot of hassle going away for the summer’. ‘Oh, I didn’t
bother staying up for New Year, I didn’t even stay up till 9am, in fact I went
to bed on December 28.’ And so on until you’re on your deathbed and someone
says ‘congratulations, you managed to avoid doing pretty much anything in your
don’t want to be that person, not any more; I want to make the most of what’s
gifted to me. So, what I’m saying is, I’ve gone to the other extreme, hyped the
hell out of my birthday and have applied for it to be recognised as a full
is ‘just a number’ in the same way that January 1st is just a date,
but – however arbitrary – time is where we live, and I believe in using its
random promptings to measure progress and spur ourselves on. I set out to
chronicle my thirties on this blog and after less than a couple of years it
became untenable, because those years were so chaotic and – often – emotionally
difficult. But things are a lot more settled now (if I was a touch-wood sort of
person I’d be absolutely hammering on a Grandfather clock or something) and so
I’m reviving this tradition. Here, in my newsletters and on Instagram I’m going
to record as much as I can of the chunk of life between 40 and 50.
is something I’ve barely touched so far and the traditional way is to rail
against these pointless egoistical platforms as you get older, so I’m going
fully against the tide and having a late online teenage as part of my forties.)
this is a massive act of ego: in the same way, you might say, as most of a
performing career is. I’m mostly putting it up here so that I can get something
out of reflecting on myself, track the way things change over a big stretch of
life, and – one day – massively cringe reading back through it all, including
this bit. But I also hope other people will get something out of it and that,
over time, I can build some sort of ‘platform’ which allows us all to get in
touch and pool the resources of support/inspiration that exist out there. When
I started this in 2010 I passionately believed in the internet’s ability to
transform lives by connecting people. I’d underestimated the aspect of it which
is just people screaming at each other for spelling things wrongly or not
liking the right albums or using a plastic fork. All the same, ten years on, I
believe it as firmly as ever.
of the few things I’d say I’m truly proud of in my career so far has been that
on occasion I’ve helped to build surprising bridges between like-minded or
complementary people, who might otherwise not have met. Something that I’m
hoping for, from my forties, is to be more of a force for good than I succeeded
in being in the last section of my life. If anything I can write here ever
helps or inspires just one person that’s… well, yeah, a colossally long-winded
and inefficient way of living my life. So, pretty much on brand. Not everything changes on your birthday.
reading if you are and we’ll continue this public, but secret club together.
I wanted to write a few words about the tour I’m doing this year. It’s a smallish tour by my standards: those being the standards of a man who has wandered the country relentlessly for the last twelve years like some spirit in a folk tale trapped in the Underworld, except instead of the Underworld it’s Gordano service station. This is because it’s a different type of show for me. It’s a little bit like a TED talk meets an inspirational address meets a comedy show. What can I say: I’ve never been asked to do an actual TED talk so I’ve basically taken matters into my own hands. Come to think of it, I suppose nobody’s ever really asked me to do an inspirational chat either. Or, technically, stand-up comedy. And yet here we are.
The show, ‘How You Can Almost Win’, is about my time on Bear Grylls’ Celebrity Island show in 2017. This is a famously gruelling series where a number of (surprisingly available) ‘celebs’ get taken to an island, dumped there and forced to find their own food, water and shelter until either four weeks pass or they lose their sanity and walk into the sea. I wasn’t one of the original ‘stars’ on their wish list, you might not be surprised to hear, but I came in as a late replacement. What followed was the toughest few weeks, physically and psychologically, of my life.
There were thunderstorms all night every night and I’m pathologically terrified of them. I lost three stone because we didn’t have anything to eat. We licked raindrops off leaves and, when we finally did find a water source, had to spend all day purifying and distilling it because it had been in a little swamp where caymans and other creatures lived. We were all ravaged by insects and the itching was so bad I went ten days with only two hours of sleep in total, eventually beginning to hallucinate. One of our team hit her head slipping on a rock and we thought she’d drowned. Several of the toughest people in the group left before the end. And all this, of course, was without any contact with loved ones back home, and potentially without many people even watching or caring about the show when it did get aired.
So it wasn’t very pleasant, all in all.
But it had been a rocky few years for me; I was in the middle of a divorce; and a lot of the issues which made me divorce material were still affecting me on a daily basis. I had poor self-esteem, little sense of achievement from the 35-plus years I’d walked the earth, and a sense that I wasn’t a good member of a team or a society. Over the course of my time on the Island – before I collapsed, this is – I started to rethink these things, and find ways I could live more successfully with myself and with other people.
So this show is the story of that process, and what came next. But with jokes.
I’ve performed it a handful of times in London and Edinburgh to test what was possibly the delusion that I had anything of worth to say about life (mind you, that’s never stopped me before, has it) and also that I could make it funny. The show has passed both those tests to our reasonable satisfaction and that’s why I’m taking it out on tour, in quite a small tentative way. As I say, a little bit different from the sort of thing you’re used to if you’ve seen me before. Normal service will continue with Melbourne/Edinburgh festivals 2020 and then a proper big tour next year. But in the meantime I hope that this will interest some of you.
Tickets are here: markwatson.seetickets.com.
See you there, unless you don’t come. In which case see you somewhere else, or – worst case scenario – goodbye forever but thank you for reading this blog.
Is this a good time?
It’ll only take five minutes. I know, yes – people say that kind of thing all the time, and the next thing you know you’ve signed up for a standing order with a charity you’re only half-interested in/are taking part in a consumer survey about ‘your A+E experience’ which turns out to have 70 questions; have joined the Army. But this WILL be quick. We’re both busy. I’m currently on tour – markwatson.seetickets.com/tour/mark-watson – and you’ve got your saxophone lesson.
I just wanted to say that the project I’ve spent the last few months on, Mark Watson’s Comedy Marathon, is now available in its entirety on Audible. If you haven’t got an Audible account, you need to set one up in order to gorge on my writing, but it is FREE to do that when you subscribe to a 30 day trial.
NOW AVAILABLE ON AUDIBLE >>
The series is themed around the London Marathon (but – phew – the funny side of it) and it brings together a cast the likes of which I’ve never had the privilege to work with before. If I said Derren Brown was in it, Sara Pascoe, Romesh Ranganathan, Harry Enfield, Angela Barnes, Adam Kay – I’d still only be scratching the surface of the talent involved. If I went on to name David Tennant and Olivia Colman, reunited for the first time since ‘Broadchurch’ – well, that would be going too far because neither of them is in it. But the original list, that was all true. And many more amazing people besides. In fact several of the best ones, I’ve deliberately not mentioned so that you can gasp when you encounter them in the series.
It’s designed to be listened to as one great big slab of fun, the way people consume TV series in the modern world, but you can also dip in and out as much as you please. I mean it’s beyond my remit to tell you how to use your time. You might not HAVE six and a half hours to binge-listen to something. I know you need to work on the saxophone and stuff. But whatever you’re up to, if there is a podcast-type gap in your life, please consider this as a possible solution.
And – I am cringing as I write this bit, but – if you DO manage to listen and you find yourself enjoying it, it would be massively appreciated if you left a nice review and rating on Audible’s site. This will counteract the damage done by the inevitable people who listen to 20 seconds, find they haven’t laughed yet, and take a sledgehammer to my three months of work. What an industry!
There, that was about five minutes depending on your reading speed. Thank you and good luck.