Maxxed out

Battling imposter syndrome in the brave new world

Man About Town

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.


A slight moment of imposter syndrome as I, your woman about town, remember that my idea of “town” is the habitation of 11,000 people near to the village where I grew up. Town, to me, is the place where the shops close at lunchtime on market day, rather than the home of sparkling cultural delights readers are perhaps hoping to hear about. 

Luckily, as a sophisticated adult, I now live in Bath, where it’s possible to buy almost anything up to as late as 6pm. Oh brave new world that has such retail in it! Although given the dire mutterings from my political friends about inflation, I’m trying to be prudent.

Which is how, while poking around discount department store TK Maxx, I discover that the book of my enemy has been remaindered (hat tip to Clive James for history’s greatest poem) and is now tucked up alongside The Crystal Bible Volume 2 and The Mindfulness Puzzle Book. If only I wasn’t also in TK Maxx looking for bargain basement packs of pens and cheap branded underwear, it would all be extremely satisfying. 

• • •

A further crimp in my schadenfreude: I still have to write my own book, having recklessly signed various contracts to that effect and taken the advance. The possibility of Russia launching nukes grants some brief respite from the horror of my own deadline. 

“Well at least I wouldn’t have to finish my manuscript if we all die,” I say in a WhatsApp group, hoping to inject some positivity into our discussion of potential nuclear apocalypse. “Ah,” says a friend who has been there before me, “you’ve reached that stage of the writing process.” Apparently seeing the destruction of all civilisation as an attractive alternative to work is a necessary step towards actually finishing something.

• • •

I am far too busy writing to go to any award shows this year. Also, I’m not invited. Which means I have to catch up with the entire nauseating business via social media. The theme this year seems to be “women saying things they think will sound good and then getting shellacked”. 

Jane Campion — director of Power of the Dog — got called “arrogant and ignorant” for an ad-lib in her Critics’ Choice acceptance speech calling Venus and Serena Williams “marvels”, but adding “you don’t play against the guys like I have to”. While this was an odd thing to say, it is true that tennis, unlike filmmaking, is sex-segregated. Yet it was interpreted as a diss of the Williamses, and Campion apologised. 

Meanwhile at the Baftas, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson used her moment on stage presenting an award to make what appeared to be a lame dig at JK Rowling over trans issues. “I’m here for all the witches,” said Watson — meaning, presumably, the ones with penises as well as the ones without. 

Cue a chorus of “yass queen” plaudits from the easily impressed of social media, and an answering howl of affront from the gender-critical caucus.

All this shows, as ever, is that it is a terrible mistake for celebrities to try having an opinion. Actors, remember your true art is saying other people’s words, and directors, remember to stick to the script.

On offer hitherto refused

To the cinema, to watch the 50th anniversary edition of The Godfather. This is my first ever viewing — shamefully, for a culture writer — and I reach the shocking conclusion that the critical consensus was right and it is in fact amazing.
My excuse for having taken so long to get round to it is that the Great Works can be forbidding: the weight of prejudgment hangs heavy, and the worry that you might be the one who doesn’t get it can easily overwhelm the artistic encounter.

Things usually only get to be Great Works by being enjoyable in the first place, though. It’s an experience I’ve been through as a reader with Moby Dick (great action sequences), Don Quixote (excellent fart jokes) and Dante (more excellent fart jokes). The secret of the canon is that it hoards all the basic stuff people actually like in one place and then erects a Keep Out sign by pretending you have to be clever to get it.

Inspired by my discovery that a three-hour film is completely bearable if it’s got a baller story and great acting, I rush on to the next available screening of the re-released Godfather Part II, and leave equally impressed. Now I’ve got tickets booked for a screening of Part III, and am hoping the rule of critical consensus might have a bit of leeway in it …

• • •

I flee the south west for a weekend and go to the small northern town where all my friends (well, three of them) have decided to move. It’s a beautiful place surrounded by rolling hills, none of which I go out to enjoy because Friday night involves drinking industrial quantities of champagne, meaning Saturday is spent schlepping around in nightwear drinking cups of tea. One friend stays in a sleeping bag all day and somehow makes it look elegant.

Has socialising gone full circle? In my pre-adolescence, the height of a weekend’s entertainment was a sleepover party with my BFFs. Then boys became interesting and it was all discos, nightclubs and tiny little dresses. It turns out that what I thought was true adulthood was just a brief interlude in a lifetime of pyjama-clad hangouts.

Recovery is slow-going these days and I wake up the Monday after still feeling not my best, to find my mood further punctured by an email from an aspiring journalist asking my career advice as someone “relatively successful” in the field. I have various pieces of guidance I could give, starting with “don’t insult people you want to help you” and ending with “why not ask someone you think is actually successful?” My imposter syndrome isn’t so bad after all, it seems.

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