Grace Dent: why we need to embrace failure

Even when it involves seven terrible driving tests...

As I pulled into the driving test centre, in 2005, and the ashen-faced examiner handed me my seventh “fail” certificate, I couldn’t help but feel a quietly bubbling pride. Yes, I was a failure at driving. The two sluggish pedestrians I’d nearly squashed on a zebra crossing could attest to this.

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But I was the best driving failure I knew. The simple equation of “hours spent practising” + “earnestness of desire to succeed” x “number of official DVLA certificates clarifying I’m a road menace” = “epic-level failure”. There was a beauty in this.

My love of failure dates back to the 70s when, as a little girl, we kept The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile in the downstairs loo. Oh the joy! Tales like that of the world’s least successful kamikaze pilot, who returned home from supposed suicide missions 11 times and lived until he was 93 have always caused a flutter of unbridled glee in my heart.

Or Florence Foster Jenkins, the world’s worst opera singer, who, in 1944, sold out Carnegie Hall in New York, as fans of her utter disregard for tone, pitch and diction snapped up tickets. “People may say I can’t sing,” Foster Jenkins reportedly said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

So instead of being blue about my abysmal motoring skills, I decided to wear them as a badge. Anyone can be moderately good, I told myself – as I renewed my travel pass – but it takes real muster to be so chronically bad that your downfall actually cheers people up.

Failure, fecklessness and the right to be a shambles is a fundamental part, I believe, of Britishness. Oh, spare me those blustering ninnies on The Apprentice not content nowadays with “trying their best” but instead claiming they ARE the best. Or X Factor screechers who claim they’ve “got so much more to give”.

Over recent years we’ve embraced, as a nation, a rather silly, hollow, US-style chest-thumping, a hunger for perfection and “delivering excellence”. But let’s be frank: skim just below the surface and we’re more at home with “not terribly good”.

Back in 1988, when ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards went to the Winter Olympics in Calgary, we loved that he could barely afford skis, wore jam-jar specs and was basically just happy to be there. This was a time when the FA Cup final – where David might take on Goliath and lose majestically – was the most exciting day of the sporting calendar. 

Pile, who has spent his life collecting failures for his – rather ironically – successful career writing about them, blames our national rejection of the shoddy, shady and slovenly on Margaret Thatcher

Pile recalls watching a party conference speech in the 70s where the Iron Lady commanded Britain to be a nation of success. “I remember watching it and thinking, ‘Oh God, she’s onto us.’” He argues that this is where our pesky desire for perfection began.

But I miss a time when our favourite sitcoms were full of subdued suburban woe, like Ever Decreasing Circles, featuring sad Martin and his ineffectual residents’ association, and Carla Lane’s Butterflies, where Ria made a massive heroic mess of everything.

I miss the days pre-internet, pre-Twitter lynch mobs, pre-public shaming, when Britain was a gentler place and its people had the right to be a bit rubbish without the evidence “going viral”. So join me in my campaign to put the Not That Great back in Britain. I’m taking my campaign to Downing Street. The bad news for you all is I’m driving there. 

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Grace Dent presents Archive on 4: Epic Fail, Saturday at 8pm on Radio 4