skip to main bit
a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



sincere thanks

“The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that, and you’ve got it made.”
– Bob Monkhouse

I remember hearing Monkhouse say this as a child, and even then it stuck with me as painfully self-referential joke. At the time, Bob Monkhouse’s performing career was stuck in the wilderness: not because he wasn’t quick, or funny, or prolific, but because he came across as appalling insincere. The secret of Bob Monkhouse’s failure right then was he was trying hard to be sincere, and looking more and more false the more he attempted it. Not because he wasn’t underneath it all, truly sincere – but because in England insincerity is best described as the presence of any sincerity at all.

A friend of mine came to America from Britain before I did. He stayed for a year in Houston, Texas in the Nineties. During Thanksgiving at a local’s house, he had to bear each of the assembled take a turn very sincerely expressing, in monologue form, what they had to give thanks for this year. They spoke of their health, their family, their neighbours, their friends. When it finally came to him to make his homily – and this, mind you, is one of the nicest politest people I know – he could only say “I’d like to give thanks that I’m finally getting out of Texas next month.”

Sincerity is physically painful to the British. Delivering a sincere statement in front of them is like spraying a mouthful of holy water in the face of a vampire. Americans, by contrast, use sincerity as a subtle rhetorical weapon. It was my wife who first demonstrated this to me, delivering an explanation of its place in American society with such doe-eyed earnestness that by the end I was screaming for mercy. She pointed out the little sincerity competitions Californians play; the subtle social markers open goodwill plays in the mid-west. How in Washington politics, there were five hundred flavours of faked sincerity, which, like eskimo words for snow, my English mind could only perceive as one gormless act of yokelism.

I’ve been here nearly seven years. I’m at Ascension Island in terms of my nationality. I’ve learnt some sincerity: used it to patch up the social graces that the English universal social solvent, making dumb jokes, don’t fill here.

While I’ve been gone, Britain has been turning slowly and ineradicably alien; it’s wandered plate-techtonically from where it was when I lived there. The vein of new-agism that was just beginning to pulse when I left has got more of a hold. The buses seem cleaner. Europe isn’t as scary. Sneering at underclasses is more socially acceptable. And people are noticeably more capable and willing to be sincere at me, even when not drunk.

But I’m not there yet, and I’m not here yet. It’s hard for me to sincerely say thanks, even though on this best of American holidays, I want to express some sort of gratitude for my genius wife, and my mischevious daughter, and my extended family, and my friends, and my co-workers: Suw and the hard-working people at ORG, and San Francisco, and the mailing lists, and my cat and my computer and music and all the absent friends.

So let me slip it in as a hypothetical at the end of this entry, and just take it as read that I did, okay?

Comments are closed.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.