Battling over Brexit made me ‘famous’ – then I found an argument I couldn’t win

When one of the people I love most became seriously ill, I proved woefully incapable of providing the support needed

James O'Brien@mrjamesob
Thursday 13 May 2021 13:53
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<p>‘You can’t argue people better’</p>

‘You can’t argue people better’

I had my first manicure yesterday. Not because my “metropolitan elite” credentials need burnishing, but because I’m awful at cutting my fingernails. I was always a terrible biter: the full, often bloody, monty. Consequently, I have never got the hang of nail scissors.

About two years ago I noted (mid-scratch if you must know) that I possessed proper nails. I had stopped biting them, I realised, about six months after starting therapy – and I mention it here to introduce the much more profound changes therapy has made to my life. Changes that I never thought possible.

I have long made my living arguing with people, and I was, I thought, delighted with the arrangement. Brexit, and viral clips of me disabusing people of various bonkers notions, had made me moderately “famous” and the publication of my first book, How To Be Right, realised a childhood dream even before it became a bestseller.

My LBC radio show was galloping and I’d had a well-received crack at presenting Newsnight. I was married to the love of my life, had two wonderful daughters and a small circle of really good friends. I thought I was winning. It had never crossed my mind that the game I played was optional.

When one of the people I love most became seriously ill, I proved woefully incapable of providing the support they needed. I approached the mounting crisis like every other challenge in my life: with verbal aggression, quick wits and “public school swagger”. These tools had never let me down before, but they sure did now.

You can’t argue people better. You can’t mould an immovable world to your own desires. You can’t debate or punch away your own troubles, let alone anybody else’s; and I had no idea how – or where – to find a new toolbox. More in hope than expectation, I met a therapist and barely suppressed a snigger when she said that I might soon be talking to my 10-year-old self. Thankfully, she glimpsed something beneath my bluster that she could work with and two sessions later, tears streaming, I was doing precisely that.

My whole approach to life, it emerged, had been defined by the adrenaline-dependent highs and lows of my earliest boarding school days, where regular beatings were inflicted upon a small number of boys by a headmaster with a particular dislike for Irish surnames. The effort I’d put into convincing myself and everyone around me that this had done me no harm became a suit of armour that I spent almost 40 years believing to be my skin.

Shedding it has been a glorious liberation and it is changing every aspect of my existence. I no longer live with fists permanently raised, braced for the next “attack” and nursing an almost constant ball of tension in my tummy that I had no idea was optional.

At the beginning of the first lockdown, I started to write about the whole, still unbelievable experience; determined to dig deep into other areas of my life where I had been “wrong”. The plan was to use radio arguments I’d “won” without being remotely “right”. But almost immediately, David Cameron claimed that Boris Johnson would “beat” his coronavirus infection because of the way he “played tennis”; and I heard a horrible echo of my previous mindset.

I wrote about worries that Johnson, if he recovered, would address the pandemic with the pathetic skillset, the “public school swagger” with which I’d approached family crisis – but with catastrophic consequences for an entire country. I’ll let you decide whether my fears were justified.

‘How Not To Be Wrong’ by James O’Brien is published by WH Allen. It is out now in paperback

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