The Importance of Not Being Ernest

by Max Thackara, with art from Aneta Swianiewicz

I work in a pub in Mayfair, it’s called The Iron Duke, pay a visit if you fancy. The typical customers are the rich office workers who pile in on Thursday and Friday nights, building up monstrous tabs and hanging around late into the night after we’ve basically finished closing and very much want to go home. But, they are nice enough people. Throughout the week the pub receives an eclectic mix of visitors, from lost tourists, American travelling parties, sweet old regulars and stragglers who have accidentally stumbled out of SoHo.

One recent Friday night before the bank holiday weekend the pub was pretty dead, mainly because of all the moneyed Mayfair dudes getting out of London for a few days. The rain then brought in some very odd people, a group of chanting middle-aged Leeds fans, three young guys who were sporting the ‘Meet me outside McDonald’s’ haircuts, and three girls drinking Sambuca and only Sambuca, like it was water. They were all pretty amicable and left at around 10:30, the place was dead again. Then waltzed in six theatre goers, the leader looking like Gandalf in a Metallica T-shirt. They spent over an hour stroking each other’s egos and sharing (all-be-it very interesting) stories about the different musicians they had interviewed. One described meeting Kurt Cobain before Nirvana were big, she said he had ‘Star-shine’. I’m sure he did, whatever that is. But I’m also sure there were many earnest, caring, poetic young men and women whom she interviewed back in the day who didn’t go on to anything big. They weren’t famous, and maybe their tragic deaths occurred too, but no-one on the world stage knew, and no-one said they had ‘Star-shine’. She certainly didn’t have any stories to tell of amazing individuals she remembers who didn’t go on to anything.

This little preamble raises an issue for me, I can’t stand earnest people. Proper overly serious, care about everything kinds of people. Often, they are good people morally, I’m sure. But I just want them to shut up. One woman out of the group told me to do my job differently because putting cling film on the beer taps was ‘killing the environment’. Yes, m’lady, you’re certainly right. It is terrible for the environment, but it’s good for the pub, and if you hate it so much, don’t spend your money here.

Because I’m aiming to be brief, I’ll got to a further example of earnestness, a rather random one. A friend of mine told me a story where she was having a drink with her friend and some guy the friend was ‘seeing’. The guy allegedly sat leaning back in his chair, scarf draped over his shoulders, talking in great detail how he had never failed to bring a girl to climax. Now, fair enough, the guy is clearly a wanker. BUT, I simply refuse to believe that he is that way all the time. Is it really possible for someone’s resting state to be so earnest? Was it some sort of performance art? Does he sit at home alone being like that? Does he talk to his dog like that?
Probably not, but to the outside world that is the image he’s giving off. It’s not real.

It is us the listeners, fans and followers who keep them in this perpetual state of seriousness. If I were to find myself in some afterlife room filled with the Jim Morrisons, Kurt Cobains and John Lennons of this world, I’m sure I could hold my own in the drivel that would be being battered back and forth. At times I am definitely guilty of being terribly pretentious. However, at some point, because I wouldn’t be able to help myself I would say “Jesus, aren’t we talking a load of old bollocks?”. I like to think they would say something similar at some point too. There, at that moment I would lose my position as Godly, as untouchable. All of my morally ambiguous behaviour and questionable treatment of loved ones would be taken into consideration, I’d be mortal again. That is not to say I do not totally respect these individuals, John Lennon is certainly one of my favourites. There are huge elements of me that I recognise are just jealous of the handsome, thoughtful, forever serious types who can sing. Of course part of me wants to be like them, but I’m not.

So, thrown out from this room, cast aside by the Earns, and standing right next to Alex Salmond. Why Alex Salmond? Salmond, who I am by no means wishing to align myself with or show any support for his possible actions, and because he is a politician, not the best looking man in town, and didn’t write Imagine, will rightfully not be held as any sort of a prodigy. Alex mate, you weren’t earnest enough, you didn’t leave us any poems in your liquor stained notebook and you haven’t preached saving the world, but you have possibly sexually harassed two individuals – and you will be held accountable. Good.

These people, these earnest people, I guarantee you they all have to take 10 minutes out of their day to go to the toilet and do a no.2, it’s not dignified and it’s not pretty. I like having ‘movie moments’ in my life which are terribly emphatic and poignant, but the fact is that the first time I realised I loved my first girlfriend, I was sitting on the sofa in my pants eating Special K. We are real people, it’s okay to be only 65% polished sometimes.

I realise I have jumped around all over the place in this piece, but I’m writing quickly and it’s the way my mind works. Anyway, please, as much as I try to in my daily life, avoid taking yourself too seriously. Of course, we have to take some things seriously, and there certainly are times for earnest behaviour – I’m not going to belittle anyone on their deathbed for announcing their one regret at not asking Susan Shepherd out when they were 10. And if you are familiar with Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, hopefully you’ll agree with me too that Algernon was clearly much more fun – Jack (Ernest) was, well, just too earnest.