Christina Patterson: Just what's so great about self-confidence?

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The Independent Online

In a hotel in Coventry a couple of weeks ago, I addressed a roomful of teachers. They were all involved in Writing is Primary, a project to inspire children in primary schools in their – guess what? – writing. I was there, I think, as pre-dinner light relief. Asked to talk about My Life as a Journalist, I told them about the heart-stopping glamour of sitting in front of a computer screen for 10 hours a day – glamour enhanced by the thrill of occasional trips to the canteen.

I also told them about a little writing residency I'd done in a school in Yorkshire. Three days, in fact. In journalistic terms, that's world-class expertise. At the end of the session, there was "time for some questions". Did I like my job, asked one young man, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of irony. Would I come and speak at her school, said a sleekly coiffed woman with a dark tan. How, asked a woman with a geometric haircut, would I go about building children's confidence in their writing?

For a moment, I was baffled. I thought about the really good writers I've met over the years, and I thought about some of my cockier colleagues in the media. I thought about the school assemblies I'd attended during that little residency – assemblies in which almost every child seemed to receive an award – and I thought about the sports reports the children had written, singing the praises of their own teams, which had lost. "Confidence," I replied in the end, "is overrated".

In writing, certainly, confidence is usually in inverse proportion to talent. It's the people who hurl their thoughts, and their less than finely crafted prose, or poems, into the blogosphere, or self-published volumes, or minor literary journals, who often have no hesitation in calling themselves writers – or in demanding that their doggerel be published. "A real poet," said the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once, "doesn't draw attention to the fact he's a poet". Indeed. Many great writers and poets and artists think they'll never produce anything half-way decent again.

Sometimes, when I meet the shiny, privately educated children of friends or colleagues, I find myself tongue-tied. They can, at 14, 15, or 16, hold forth on politics, or literature, or the media. They can talk the hind legs off a Nobel prize-winner. These are children schooled in the baton-passing of conversational ebb and flow, children schooled to ask polite questions, and to charm. They believe that the world is their oyster, and it probably is.

Confidence, however, has its limits. Boys, according to research presented yesterday to the Royal Economic Society, are more confident in their academic abilities than girls. They are also less likely to go to university. They are, in the words of the report, "over-confident". The other word for it is wrong.

It's a word you might use, too, of the supremely confident (but conspicuously unintelligent) George W Bush when he launched his little adventure in the Middle East. It's a word you might use of his much brighter British buddy, Tony Blair. It's a word you might use of the multi-millionaire bankers who packaged up bad debt in pretty little packets and sold it on.

It was Keats, of course, who talked about the importance of "being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts". Clearly, it's a balance. No one wants a nation of Woody Allenesque neurotics. But a soupcon of self-doubt is usually accompanied by a soupcon of sensitivity to others. Which is clearly good news for the people around you – and the ones you might otherwise kill.

Cry the beloved country

"This is the saddest day of my life," said Madan Gurung on Wednesday, as he placed his medal in a wooden box. Like many of his friends and colleagues, he had decided to hand it back. After 24 years' loyal service as a Gurkha, the country to which he pledged allegiance, and for which he risked his life, is spitting him out.

Gurung, who left his wife and family in Nepal to fight wherever the British army chose to send him, is now living in one room in Tonbridge and surviving on hand-outs. His application to stay in the UK has been rejected, but his pension (£131 per month, compared with a standard army pension of about £1,000) is too low to live on, even in Nepal.

Yup, you can die for Britain, but you can't live here. Makes you so, so proud to be British.

* If you're a writer, it seems, you can't win. Never mind the prose, it's your world-view that really matters. If you've spewed your life into the open sewer that is the "misery" memoir, you're wallowing in self-pity. If you've opted for a more soft-centred, more warm and celebratory view of the human race, á la Armistead Maupin, for example, or á la Alexander McCall Smith, then you're naïve.

It will be interesting, then, to see what the Zeitgeist makes of Thomas Hardy, set to be relaunched this autumn by a new BBC adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbevilles. As an angst-ridden adolescent, I couldn't get enough of the polysyllabic prophet of gloom, whose densely descriptive prose was studded with gems like "Out of the frying pan and into the fire!" and "O!, you have torn my life all to pieces..." I suspect I could now.

But if it's a tenth as good as the BBC adaptation of Cranford, then misery or not, it will be well worth the odd evening in.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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