Mortification. ed Robin Robertson

The dangers of gazing too long upon the Queen of Pop's bottom
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The Independent Culture

The subtitle, "Writers' Stories of their Public Shame" sets out the field of play. The title, Mortification, lays down the precise challenge. The writers in this collection have been asked to summon a moment of shame from their past that goes beyond disappointment, failure, embarrassment or even humiliation, and ascends to the level of genuine mortification.

While gathering my thoughts for this review, mulling over the precise calibrations of shame, attempting to conjure up a definition that would distinguish mortification from its lesser siblings, I had the following conversation with a local shopkeeper:

Me: Oh, you've hurt your leg.

Shopkeeper: I'm an amputee.

Suddenly, I didn't need that definition any more.

In asking writers to relate their most mortifying moment, editor Robin Robertson appears to have set himself an easy task. Judging by the quality and range of contributors, from Julian Barnes to Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh to Andrew Motion, and by the zest with which these pieces are written, one feels as if everyone on Robertson's wish-list was just bursting to get this stuff out. Asking writers about embarrassment is, it appears, akin to asking fishermen about their biggest catch.

Many of the writers here seem to be positively boasting about how poorly attended, badly organised or aggressively populated their signings, readings and publicity tours have been. Some, I suspect, may even be a little well, mortified, to discover that their fellow contributors have had mortifications more mortifiying than their own. They seem to love their own shame, to the extent that this collection reveals a gap in the English language. We have already had to borrow the term Schadenfreude from German, but we still need a word for auto-Schadenfreude - for the pleasure one can take in one's own downfall. It is this subset of masochism that is on proud display in this anthology.

The majority of the pieces in the book relate disastrous book readings. The crown for the very worst event is probably carried off by Simon Armitage, who reads in a Portakabin in a car-park, introduced as "Simon Armriding", with a Fisher-Price press'n'play karaoke machine for a PA system, with a man (who passes out halfway through the event) signing frantically beside him despite the fact that there are no deaf people in the audience. The only interval refreshment available is Bovril, and a man in the front row (who subsequently turns out to be his host for the night) falls asleep and farts during a poem about death. Armitage is then driven to a curry house where he is told to go and have a curry of not above five pounds in value while his designated driver waits in the car outside, after which he will be driven to the house of the farter, who has "gone home to give the Z-bed an airing and to prepare a selection of his poems for [Armitage's] perusal, the first of which, 'The Mallard' begins, 'Thou, oh monarch of the riverbank'".

Curiously, one of the only writers who doesn't complain about having his name mispronounced is Chuck Palahniuk. It is only William Trevor who admits that his disastrous non-attended reading was "more enjoyable... than the tedium of what might have been." He attributes this to the "grist to the fiction-writer's mill" theory. In other words, failure is more interesting, more useful, than success.

Only a few of the contributors consider their most mortifying moment to have occurred in a non-professional context. For anyone with a rakish past, no mere book-reading is likely to provide a significant degree of embarrassment. DBC Pierre's account of a hunting trip with friends which culminates in the shooting of a fox who turns out to be his hosts' beloved farm dog is physically painful to read. Irvine Welsh's meticulous description of a complex struggle to clean himself up in a piss-flooded football stadium toilet after having "farted and followed through" is enough to bring tears to the eyes. Niall Griffiths, meanwhile, puts Margaret Atwood's rather genteel embarrassments into context with a tale of being found by a friend on the toilet with the magazine article "You Too Can Have a Bum Like Kylie's" in one hand, and an engorged item of his own anatomy in the other.

The relish with which the disasters in this book are related saves it from reading like an anthology of moans. These writers are bragging of their failures, not whinging about them. It is the essential masochism of writers, of people who live their lives seeking grist for the fiction mill, that makes this collection so enjoyable. Although, in fact, it isn't exactly enjoyable. It's painful. And the more it makes you squirm, the more you want to read out the worst bits to whoever is sitting near to you.

This is the perfect book to have by the loo. Unless, of course, Niall Griffiths is visiting.