Stephen McGinty: If you fail do so with flair

Success is the goal, the be-all and end-all for many in this life, but a fine list of glorious failures cannot help but raise the spirits and make us feel that we belong to a select group

IF THE months of the year corresponded to times of the day, I would propose that January is the equivalent of three o’clock in the morning and nobody thinks good thoughts at three o’clock in the morning. January is the month of bloat and bleakness, when in the dark we slap our bellies, watch them whibble then contemplate our failures and resolve to this year be better.

After all, 2012 is Britain’s Olympic year, when we must all strive to be winners. However, if even the thought of victory and the effort involved in achievement leaves you wishing to pull the duvet over your head, then I’d like to offer an alternative perspective, an antidote, if you will, to the “poison” of positivism: the celebration of heroic failure.

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While it is said that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, I would argue that failure, the ugly red-headed moppet that it is, clings to the hem of all our kilts. Yet it took one man, a visionary to recognise the truth of Max Beerbohm’s words that: “there is something to be said for failure. It is more interesting than success.” Stephen Pile, the founder of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain saw poetry in the preposterous and a form of art in the truly incompetent. Failure, to his mind, was not something to sweep away, not for him the words of Homer (Simpson, that is) that if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried, no, failure, he believed, should have its own “Hall of Greats”, a palace (crookedly built and wildly over-budget) where future generations could gaze in wonder at roughly hewn statues of figures such as Sue Evan-Jones, the Least Successful learner driver who took 27 years, and spent £20,000 on 1,800 lessons before successfully running over her L plates.

Or the Least Successful Burglar, a glue sniffer, who, in November 1993, broke into a glue factory in Brazil, but was so overwhelmed at the sight of his favourite brand that he began inhaling straight from the vat. Unfortunately he partook so deeply that he passed out, toppled the vat over and awoke to find himself stuck to the floor where he remained imprisoned until freed the next morning by staff and the police.

Like his subjects, Mr Pile failed in his plans to erect an Acropolis to the truly awful and so has had to make do preserving their inverse achievements on paper and ink within the pages of The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures, whose entries have certainly brightened up my week.

Could you resist the temptation to discover that the Least Successful “Eternal Flame” was erected in a cemetery in Kalingrad in Russia and which, lit in 1945 to commemorate the millions of Russian soldiers who died during the Second World War was turned off in April 1993 to save gas?

Or that the Least Successful Lecture was when Professor A C Grayling accepted an invitation to give a lecture at Birkbeck College on the subject of duty. He forgot to attend.

As Scotland is, officially, The Best Wee Country in the World, I fully expected the pages to riffle past without a single mention of our nation of winners, but was secretly delighted to see that in terms of herculean duffness we can also hold our heads high, or should that be low? No, high.

Gertrude Stein insisted that “a real failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself” and surely this applies to the towering achievement of Cree MacKenzie who is now recognised around the world for the Longest Cow Round-Up in history, after it took him two years, and the assistance of the British Army, to put just nine cows into the same pen.

The fiasco began in 1992 when the cattle were put out to graze on Little Bernera, a small island off the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and the blame fell on the haunches of a new rogue bullock. As Mr MacKenzie said: “He was from Oban. He was not local and did not have the same manners.” Like a bovine pied-piper, the bullock led the cows on a merry dance which lasted 24 months and was only concluded when the Army offered to help and succeeded in coaxing one cow into a stockade baited with food.

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The others eventually followed. “It has been a hard slog” said Mr MacKenzie before adding in true Scots thrift: “But at least I didn’t have to feed them for two years.”

Scotland also holds the winner’s cup for The World’s Worst Prompter, a, sadly, unnamed pupil at Gordonstoun who failed to appreciate the true artistry of Jason Connery, the son of Sean and the actress Diane Cilento, who, when cast in the drama society’s production of the Pilgrim’s Progress as the monster Apolloyon decided to invest the part with series of dramatic pauses. Unfortunately each time young Jason paused for effect the prompter assumed he had forgotten his lines and hissed them loudly from the winds. In frustration Connery eventually stalked off and lamped the prompter, sending his book flying. However by the time he made it back on to the stage he had forgotten his next line. Alas, the prompter was now indisposed.

Then there is the title of The World’s Worst Missionary which has been awarded posthumously to David Livingstone on account of the fact he spent 30 years spreading the word of God in Africa and attracted one solitary convert, King Sechele of the Bakwena tribe, but even he didn’t last long and was soon excommunicated for setting up his own church which favoured polygamy and magical rain-inducing incantations.

Then there are failures which occurred in Scotland, but were not our creation, such as The Least Successful Show at the Edinburgh Festival, which was achieved in 1988 by the Empty Space Theatre Company who managed to attract not a single person to the entire run of their show A Parable of the Blind.

The show’s eloquent flyer may have contributed to their accolade, reading, as it did: “Blind, blissful, medieval figures dance towards Brueghel’s inevitable ditch, while in a mythical East goldfish have their eyes plucked out in order to sing better.” In desperation the company began showering Edinburgh with free tickets and two people did actually show up at the venue, but were ushered into the wrong theatre.

Football, as you might expect, secured a few of Scotland’s places such as The Worst World Cup match which was deemed to have been Scotland versus Estonia on 9 October, 1996. After going to all the bother of borrowing floodlights from Finland so as to illuminate the match, which was expected to kick off at 6:45 pm, Estonia were irritated by Scotland’s suggestion that as large swathes of the pitch still remained shrouded in stygian gloom it might be best to move the match forward to 3pm.

FIFA agreed, however Estonia, who had arranged lunch at that time, did not and so refused to play. At 3pm the whistle was blown, Billy Dodds passed to John Collins and then a second whistle was blown and the game was abandoned on account of Estonia’s notable absence from the field of play.

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East Stirlingshire, who came bottom of the lowest league for five years until their goalposts were stolen, was listed with Northend Thistle from Arran, who did not win a game for 16 years in the entries on Britain’s worst football team. However, it was scandalous to read that Scotland had lost one accolade, that of The Biggest Football Defeat.

For over a century this title belonged to Bon Accord who were trounced 36-0 by Arbroath in 1885. The new holders are Stade Olympique de L’Emyrne who lost to their arch-rivals AS Adema in the Madegascan national league by an astounding 149-0. But every one was an own goal in protest at the referee’s decisions in a previous match and, so, to my mind, is inadmissible and Scotland’s honour should be restored.

So as we venture out on to the playing field of 2012, let us remember the rousing words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”