“Success”, according to the 19th century satirist Ambrose Bierce, “is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows”.
Bierce, whose acid tongue earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce”, was famously cynical but his observation is as accurate as it is cutting. Success is difficult. Quite frankly, it’s a touchy subject. It is closely related to failure but a million miles away from it. Success can be fleeting or problematic but then again, it’s also pretty good, which, understandably, makes it the focus of envy. We are only human after all. But while most of us are all too familiar with the sting of failure, does it automatically follow that we despise success? Or, more accurately, people who are successful? Is it a singularly British affliction?
The actress Miranda Richardson believes it is. Richardson, who is a judge on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, felt the need to highlight the “hideous” and “disgusting” trait after shortlisting the author Hilary Mantel for the award.
Some of the book world’s dustier tomes criticised Mantel recently for being “too successful” after she won the Costa Book Award and the Man Booker Prize – not once but twice. This week Richardson said it would be unfair to expect those who had been “lauded” before to miss out on further recognition: “I was very keen to keep a balanced approach about Hilary Mantel because I’ve heard what we call the ‘tall poppy syndrome’, particularly in Britain.”
Richardson, who is best known for playing Queen Elizabeth I as a squeaky-voiced, teenage tyrant in Blackadder, enacted the twisted logic: “‘You’ve already had too much you can’t have any more. Go away and die now.’” I wonder if she sounded just like Queenie when she said it?
However, Richardson – a tall poppy herself – could almost have been describing her own experience. She went on to much bigger, starrier vehicles after Blackadder, leaving Merrie Olde England behind to pursue a successful Hollywood film career. Richardson has two Oscar nominations under her belt and has been a winner at the Golden Globes and the Baftas but isn’t really a household name. Perhaps she feels her success has slipped beneath the radar; that Britain failed to really celebrate her achievements when it had the chance.
She isn’t the first actor, or singer – or member of the royal family come to that – to suggest that shabby old jealous Britain has a problem with success.
Indeed, the sentiment is usually followed with a comparison of how they do things in America. It’s different there. Success is celebrated. Achievement is applauded. Winners are worth their weight in gold. And they even say nice things about you. It’s a land of opportunity where careers can take off and, if necessary, be brought back from the dead. From disgraced duchesses (Fergie) to sacked newspaper editors (yes, Piers Morgan) America has flung open the doors of its television studios and rolled out the red carpet for the Brits we no longer needed or cared for.
And who can blame unwanted royals, unloved celebrities and neglected millionaires for feeling undervalued? Scything the heads off budding – or wilting – success stories probably is a bit of a British past-time.
But is pricking pomposity, cutting people down to size and reminding winners they’re really losers, a bad thing?
It’s certainly true that Scots have no time for “making a show”. We find such displays acutely embarrassing and let’s face it, most of us are only one drink away from tipping into maudlin introspection at the best of times. Adding prizes and praise to the mix could prove dangerous. That, of course, doesn’t mean to say that we’re not proud of the achievements of Andy Murray or Ryan Mania – we just don’t need to make a song and dance about it. At least not after the parade is over. And while we may view success with a degree of cynicism, we certainly don’t hate it or despise successful people. Not much. Not really.
Perhaps the last word on the subject of tall poppies should go to Mantel. She is, quite rightly, unapologetic about her hard-won success. While collecting her last award she said: “I’m not sorry. I shall make it my business to try to write more books that will be worth more prizes.”