Review: Eddie Izzard – “Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens”

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

OUR MUM DIED on the fourth of March 1968.
Martin Luther King Jr. died on the fourth of April 1968.
Bobby Kennedy died on the sixth of June 1968.
But Apollo 8 orbited the moon on the twenty-fourth of December 1968.
So that was better.

This autobiography succeeds and fails just on the same basis that Izzard’s stand-up comedy does; it works very well within the constraints that his world of stand-up comedy provides, but on the whole, it fails somewhat and gives off a very fragmented feel. Like life is, I suppose, however, that’s not my cup of tea.

There are a lot of footnotes throughout this book, of which some are hilarious, like this one:

But stinging nettles: They just love existing, don’t they? They’re bastards. Stinging nettles are the Nazis of the weed world. If stinging nettles didn’t sting, then they’d be fine, they’d just be stuff. But in fact, they sting and they sting children, and they make them cry, and then you can’t get the sting away, and then you have to get a dock leaf, which is some other weed that grows near the stinging nettles, and then you rub it on the stinging bit on your body, and then nothing actually happens. The dock leaf doesn’t work—but I was told that it did work—all kids were told this. So yes, stinging nettles. They were there. Death by stinging nettles was our fear.

Brilliant, this line: “And I remember the very small third of a pint of milk they would give you at break time.”—followed by this footnote: “Mrs. Thatcher eventually got rid of those little third-pints of school milk because she hated children.”

Aah. Makes me think of Izzard’s stand-up comedy at its best.

By the way, Izzard spent a little time in Gothenburg, and likes to write of it:

The people in Gothenburg call their city “Ye-ter-bor-i,” which seems wildly different from the word Gothenburg, especially since the Swedes call Stockholm “Stockholm,” but that’s what they call it, so there’s nothing to be done about it.

I also like how the book is riddled with anti-God sentiments such as this one:

If there is a god they need to come down to Earth and explain WWII, Hitler, bowel cancer, and Croc shoes. But no god has ever come to Earth.

There’s quite a lot of writing on the importance of making things happen. It’s nicely written, where Izzard points out the powers of positive thinking, e.g. the following:

Later, when I was working in a restaurant, first as a barman and then as a waiter, I told someone that I wanted to be an actor, that my dream was to perform. “Yeah, yeah,” this guy said. “That never happens.” And I thought, I can’t be here. These people don’t believe that you can do what you want to do, so I cannot hang out with these non–dream believers. I quit within a week.

This bit, on being “emotionally dead” and getting out of it, was beauteous:

Starting to cry, falling in love, and feeling sick in cars are three things that, once you start doing, can’t be switched off. If there were a god he’d surely give us controls for all of them. As I mentioned earlier, from ages eleven to nineteen I didn’t cry. Just paint all those years in using a non-crying paintbrush.

I would get pissed off, I would get angry, but I would not allow myself to cry. Interestingly, I don’t think I allowed myself to be homesick after that point, either. In the early years of my life, in boarding school, I used to cry on the first day back. I always felt very sad. It reminded me of my mum being dead, not being able to see my father for weeks—and so I was sad—and so I cried. I know after the age of eleven I didn’t cry, so not crying was a safer way to exist in the “jungle” of boarding school. It is easier to survive in a tough emotional situation with no emotions. I worry that most kids who go to boarding school, like I did, have to switch off their emotions and become emotionally dead people as adults.

I started to cry again when I was nineteen, at Sheffield University. One day I saw a cat trying to cross the road rather too slowly for the cars that were bearing down on it. I made a noise to try to scare the cat out of the road and get it to safety. But I quickly realized it wasn’t going to get out of the way fast enough from the cars that were traveling very fast and it was run over.

The cat dragged itself off the road and through the little gate of a walkway leading up to somebody’s house. It lay there, dying. I remember I tried to comfort it. But I don’t know if he ever had a chance. The cat died and I picked it up but I felt absolutely nothing. And I realized then that I was emotionally dead. Maybe I had blocked all the connections to feeling anything. It was a safety mechanism and it had served me quite well. It’s what happens in extreme circumstances like accidents, but in that moment I thought, This is wrong. I need to be able to feel things. I need to be able to empathize again. So I forced myself to cry. Not in a fake way of crying as if I didn’t care for the cat but because I did like animals and I wanted to cry and I’d just forgotten how.

So I took the cat back to my room in the Sorby annex and called a vet. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I have a cat who has died.” They told me to bring the cat down to them and they would take care of him, which, in part of my mind, I hoped meant they would save it, even though I really knew they couldn’t, because the cat was already dead. Since then, I feel my emotions have reacted more like a real human being’s. It is sad that it took a cat’s death to get through to me.

There are a lot of thoughts involving the social stigmas that come with anything that differs from the binary way of gender thinking that spoils society, e.g. this:

You can say, “Masculine is strong and determined and brave and physically tough.” But then, many women are also strong and determined and brave and physically tough. If you say, “Men have bigger muscles,” is that it? That’s the whole bloody thing? That is masculinity? Just bigger muscles in your arms, your legs?

By the way, “tv” is “transvestite”, abbreviated:

I WENT TO THE TV/TS Help Group regularly for a number of weeks, maybe even a number of months. Eventually I was working on the phone help line, encouraging people who called to come down and visit the group. The first time I went, I just hung out. The second time I went I brought a dress, heels, and makeup for me to wear. Back then, I bought my first dress from a catalog, not from a shop, because you have to have a lot of guts to go into a regular shop and say, “I will try this dress on in this changing room now.” And most trans people won’t have that kind of confidence at the beginning. In fact, we are, understandably, at the bottom of the confidence mountain.

To come out takes a lot of guts and determination, but at the beginning it’s very difficult to have confidence. Because the fear of coming out and getting negative reactions in the streets is so unbelievably high. Which is why I say the defining moment of my life was walking out the door in a dress and heels from 37 Calabria Road, Islington, in 1985. It took me twenty-three years to develop the guts to do that. Anyone who’s ever done it knows that it is just so fucking hard that anything else you do after that seems almost easy. You think, If I can do something that hard, but positive—maybe I can do anything. And maybe you can.

In 2016 I reported someone to the police for shouting homophobic abuse at me near my home in London, and a case was made and passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service. It went to a magistrate’s court and the man in question was found guilty on two counts. So one always has to be wary, and standing up in court and putting over your side of the story can often be a tough thing to do. I’d rather not do this. I’d rather we all just have respect for each other on the streets, but some people just don’t.

On meeting and speaking with Robin Williams:

I’d met Robin Williams previously between the stand-up shows I was doing in London, when we were both shooting the film The Secret Agent. I knew he was filming in London in a scene that I wasn’t in, so I decided to go and visit him and say hello. I walked up to him and said, “Mr. Robin Williams.” And he looked back at me and said, “Mr. Eddie Izzard.” And that really did blow me away.

Robin’s material had been discussed at the stand-up workshop at the Jacksons Lane Community Centre back in the winter of 1987–88, and just to be working with him about seven years later was amazing. Later I handed him a copy of my first video, Live at the Ambassadors, and said, “Would you look at my video?” It was such a crappy thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself. He went and watched some of it straightaway. I knew this because about an hour later I was watching him act on set and, between takes, he made a joke to me that referenced my material. Again, this was all quite surreal to me. I asked him if he thought my comedy would work in America. He said, “Yeah. With the smart people.”

Altogether, he faintly runs towards some kind of better-lay-the-big-truth-on-thick moment at the end:

I’VE SAID THIS BEFORE, but I feel this maxim is true. When it comes to human beings, we are all totally different, but we are all exactly the same. Even if you’re visiting tribes in the rain forest of Cameroon in Central Africa, as I did for the BBC when tracking my DNA back two hundred thousand years. There you will discover that even if you think they are totally alien to us, you’ll soon realize that they’re the same as we are, even if they’re doing things in slightly different ways.* I suppose this is obvious if you think about it: Two hundred thousand years ago we were ten thousand people and now we’re seven billion people. And that number is increasing at a fast rate. In fact, if you look at what makes us all similar instead of looking to find what makes us different, you’ll see that there is one thing that is the same for all of humanity: And that is love. Parental love, romantic love, familial love: love matches up wherever you are. If you’re a loving parent, a loving child, a loving partner with a partner who loves you back, then that is the same all around the world. And you know that if you went into a native tribe and you saw love there, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, your love is totally different.” It would be the same thing, and people would fight to defend the people who they loved.

All in all: an interesting read, but I’ll wager the video documentary with nearly the same name as this book is quite as noteworthy, and may even be a good replacement for the book.

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