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Dabbler Diary – A History of Failure

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‘I hate Cleopatra!’ says the precocious student and mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly in the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. She goes on to explain:

The Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors? How can we sleep for grief?

The mention of books and fire is Stoppard doing a bit of literary foreboding, since Thomasina is to burn to death, surrounded by her papers, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. Her tutor, the brilliant Septimus Hodge (Byron’s brighter classmate) is to spend the rest of his life trying to understand her proofs of fractal geometry.

The task will drive him mad and he will end his life a deranged hermit, a wasted talent, a failure.


What will Ed Miliband do next? His resignation speech, like his leadership, was quite remarkably stupid. Resignation speeches provide an opportunity for political failures to secure a second career as a professional Dignified Loser (patron saint: Michael Portillo). Nick Clegg’s was superb, a bright future on the self-deprecation circuit beckons. Ed Balls’ too was a good effort and I’ve no doubt he’ll be back, perhaps on Strictly, perhaps, even better, as a rictus-grinning First Spouse if Yvette becomes party leader. Galloway at least gave us all a good laugh (at, not with).

But Ed M blundered into the final hurdle as clumsily as he had all the others. He talked about himself. He mentioned Milifandom. He suggested the others needed to carry on his fight. He gave no sign of appreciating the scale of the devastation he had wrought in five short years on a great party of government because of his own misjudged and self-interested ambition.

To wit: he needlessly stole the leadership from a far better candidate (his own brother!) then fannied around for five years with a load of graduate seminar booklearnin’ political theory (predistribution!) that had nothing whatsoever to do with the life experiences of people he assumed would be pleased to vote for him. Like all academic Marxists he had a grand theory (that the country was broken and the Coalition had callously built a recovery on the backs of the poor while the super-rich got richer) and he selected ‘problems’ to fit that theory (zero hours contracts, food banks, non-doms) without troubling to consider that the relatively few voters who found his simple narrative convincing were going to vote for him anyway.

The result: worse even than Gordon Brown and he lost the whole of Scotland. It is inconceivable that any alternative Labour leader could have done more damage to the party. And there he was at the end, reading his little tin-eared speech as if the whole Labour-leading gig was a thing about him, and his career. Shed no tears for Ed; he couldn’t even fail properly.


‘He lost poetic ethic, and his songs were pathetic, he’s a failure now’, sings Laura Marling in the song Failure from her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim, which is currently on repeat play when my daughters are in the car. I took them to Bath while researching a hardhitting piece of frontline reportage called The 10 Comfiest Places to Sit in Bath. Man, that was a tough gig.

We went to the cafe at the Egg Theatre, and at a neighbouring table I noted that a petite blonde not unlike Laura Marling was sitting with two young men each sporting absurd mutton chop sideburns. Is that the Bath version of a hipster, I wondered – Shoreditch with a Regency twist?

On the way home, at the traffic lights approaching the Temple Meads roundabout, a siren blared somewhere behind and we all shuffled our cars into awkward positions to make a path.

‘Is it in ambulance?’ asked C from the back seat.

‘No, it’s a fire engine,’ I said.

The fire engine squeezed past us, loudly.

‘Oh!’ cried C suddenly. ‘I know what it might be… There might be a cat stuck up a tree!’


That peculiar tone that victorious Scottish Nationalist MPs use – somewhere between gloating and grievance – is already grating on me and they haven’t even arrived in London yet. I’m finding it hard to forgive the Scots this cake-and-eating-it business of voting against independence and then, knowing they’re safe, sending a load of nationalist windbags down to bat for them. But I suppose it’s rational enough, anyone might do the same. Hot air and brass necks were not invented in Glasgow…


In the regional heat of the 2015 FA People’s Cup (Veterans Category) the Boca Seniors scraped through to the final, thereby being just one victory away from the grand finals in Manchester and a shot at the top prize of a VIP trip to Wembley. Our opponents, a team from Portsmouth called Tuttle United were, at first glance, an almost comically motley collection of wiry beanpoles, bald dwarfs and fatties. They slaughtered us with contemptuous ease.

I can honestly say that in all my years of playing 5-a-side football I’ve never seen another team playing at anywhere close to the level of the Tuttles. It was, despite the pain and exhaustion of chasing around a team with 90% possession of the ball, somehow consoling to see such team harmony, skill and tactical cleverness amongst ageing misshapen amateurs. When the ordeal was over we applauded them off the pitch. One player in particular stood out, the wiry beanpole with the creased forehead who had the close control of a Brazlilian and passed as if he had eyes in the back of his head. As I shook his hand I asked him if he’d played at a decent level. ‘I played for England Schoolboys at one time,’ he said.

When I relayed this news to the rest of my teammates it was agreed that that was a bit unfair. We thought this was a competition for pretend failed footballers, not real failed footballers!


In January this year Toxic Tony told The Economist magazine that the 2015 election campaign would be one ‘in which a traditional Left-wing party competes with a traditional Right-wing party, with the traditional result’. ‘A Tory win?’ he was asked. ‘Yes,’ Blair replied. ‘That is what happens.’

Do we ever really learn from the past, or do we just repeat it, thinking that this time is different, because we’re cleverer, or the fundamental principles don’t apply in this case? Were the Athenians essentially fighting the same political battles? Were Ed’s vacuous pledges inscribed on papyrus as well as on a big stone tablet? And will some dunderhead in the year 3000 think that what the people really want is a good dose of predistribution?


To Oxford, to see a production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia with my sister. Next door to the Oxford Playhouse the Randolph Hotel was on fire, and had been for the last four hours after flames from a beef stroganof flambee were sucked into the extractor fan, the resultant inferno ripping through three floors and burning the roof. Fourteen fire engines were at the scene. Nonetheless the police let us through the cordon. The show must go on. In the Upper Circle bar displaced guests from the Randolph were sitting glumly, one lady in nothing but a hotel bathrobe. Heavy-booted firemen tramped up and down stairs amidst theatregoers holding G&Ts. It was great fun.

We took our seats on time and when the lights went up to reveal Thomasina and Septimus I realised that they were the petite blonde and one of the mutton chop Regency hipsters from the Egg Theatre cafe in Bath. Arcadia had previously played at the Theatre Royal, the Egg’s parent.

Delighted to have this troubling facial hair problem explained, I settled back and enjoyed Stoppard’s modern masterpiece.  When Thomasina asks, “Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors? How can we sleep for grief?”

…Septimus’ reply is both comforting and devastating:

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?…I have no doubt that the improved steam-driven heat-engine which puts Mr. Noakes into an ecstasy that he and it and the modern age should all coincide, was described on papyrus. Steam and brass were not invented in Glasgow.

We are doomed to failure and we are doomed to success.

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

5 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – A History of Failure

  1. henrycastiglione@hotmail.com'
    Henry Jeffreys
    May 11, 2015 at 10:48

    Nats are currently engaging in a Doublethink. They have to pretend to sympathise with all their brother workers down South about the success of the hated Tories but at the same time being delighted by it as it’s one step closer towards independence. Indeed without the SNP, Labour may have won the election and we’d all be in one big bankrupt socialist paradise together.

  2. Worm
    May 11, 2015 at 12:03

    yep I thought the mention of Milifandom was mega-cringe. I must say though I have been enjoying reading the comments section of the Guardian over the weekend. Much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth – and lots of blame being heaped at the Guardian’s doorstep for having backed Ed so strongly instead of admitting early on that he was the wrong man for the job.

  3. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    May 11, 2015 at 12:58

    I don’t know. In 1962, Richard Nixon, having lost a race for governor of California, to cap his failed 1960 run for president, told the press that they wouldn’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, and was deservedly mocked for it. But it turned out the kicking was just getting under way.

    Some years ago, working for a government contractor, one of our challenges was to keep the government employees within strict quotas for file storage–less than one thousandth of what Google gives me in return for snooping my email and serving me ads. I grew to have a sneaking sympathy for all those who contributes to the destruction of the library at Alexandria–much remarkable literature and learning must have been lost, but also great quantities of nonsense and unreadable pedantry. So I don’t wholly disagree with Septimus.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 11, 2015 at 17:06

    Man the barricades, good citizens of sudGroßbritannien, the forces of darkness will shortly be among you, the chief gobshite and her pet elephant Salmond are conducting exercises at the bunker-at-the-bottom-of-the-Royal Mile.
    At a restaurant in Edinburgh’s Morningside last evening, the joint was full of SNP chatter, all with English accents, the cowardly custards are running scared.
    Where’s a hammer of the Scots when you need one, come back Eddie one, your services are required.

  5. May 11, 2015 at 20:52

    David was better, but he would have alienated the Scots almost as much as Ed. I can’t think who could have led Labour back to victory. As for the forthcoming leadership election, the fact that Rachel “Boring Snoring” Reeves is even casually mentioned as a potential candidate doesn’t fill me with hope.

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