By Peter Lyle: I can't pretend this was my idea. The inspirational, successful, strong and handsome founder and editor of Manzine, asked me if I'd like to write it: The Limits Of Self-Deprecation. I felt that I would, and I quickly began to formulate some pretty obvious observations around the subject. I then sat around for a few days, which soon became a number of weeks, and now it's a couple of months.
It was when I finished that paragraph. Another fortnight's passed now. I'm going to just write it anyway, because I think the title merits it. The Limits of Self-Deprecation, once someone puts it to you exactly like that, is an interesting thing to ponder. I knew that right away, but what it was was, I didn't know if aforementioned editor Kevin had any specific thoughts or referents in addition to that title. He didn't - not to share anyway, he just let that title hang there for me, like some mystic cryptic master of Wu-Shu taking me up a few Dans or whatnot. The phrase must just have unfurled in his mind, like a quivering curlicue of airborne cherry blossom drifting into the view of a priest sat crosslegged on a meditation mat atop an unmapped misty mountain.
Also, really the whole point of Manzine and the fun of it for us was to not have to write those stories where we say Oooh, this place/person/trend is interesting, because, and then give newsy celebrity examples 1, 2 and 3 and boom – you've got your trite cultural phenom. And that's relevant because I started trying to write this a bit before the Oscars. Knowing Colin Firth was the favourite, and hearing all his twinkly self-deprecating wit and understated charm and that in the build-up and at the Golden Globes, I worried I might end up starting this like an ES column. And of course, at the end of February, he's gone and won it and gave it, "I have a feeling my career's just peaked", and then he went on to paint himself as a pathetic specimen in words so carefully and wittily chosen that you knew, as if you didn't already, that he was quite the opposite.
So I left it, then I was busy, and then in April I tried again, but then who comes along but the beta version of Firth, Hugh Grant, and his amazing WCW-style reverse on the News Of The World .
For the edition of The New Statesman guest edited by Jemima Khan (still would), Hugh Grant wrote an account of his encounter with a retired tabloid photographer and journalist, whose revelations about the methods used to get stories were taped by Grant, who thus both flipped the script on the whole NOTW/celebrity phonehacking/Keystone Cops saga, and got documentary evidence of some shocking (if not surprising) contentions about how that newspaper used to work. So Hugh's got the scoop of the week, Divine retribution on the tabloid mentality if you will LOL, and the first paragraph of his article begins and ends with these words:
"When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought… I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift."
So you see, that was some widescreen self-deprecation, and I stalled because suddenly I didn't know how to do it Manziney, because suddenly it was like a proper magazine kind of thing.
MARK RONSON IN A SUIT • BROCOLLI 3.0 • ALPHA SELF-DEPRECATION
So to solve the problem of the beginning I bored your moobs off instead. I just didn't want to start like, "Between Hugh Grant's hack-taping scoop and C-Fir's balletic mastery of knowingly hyperbolic, amusing and inherently reassuring self-mockery, self-deprecation has had one hell of a late Q1/early Q2 ride in mediaville."
The other option of course, was to actually try to embody self-deprecation in the way I wrote about it. That is to say, to critique myself in such an arch and exaggerated way that I actually hope to make you like me, admire me, want to be like me, a little bit more.
The Limits of Self-Deprecation, I realised when that title was put to me, are about acknowledging what self-deprecation is. In acknowledging that it has limits, you are acknowledging that it is not a general state of mind, but a distinct tool, a circumscribed construction, an operational mode. And it is ultimately a strategy for protecting yourself and propelling yourself forward, not doing yourself down. It is a kind of charm, and so like any kind of charm, it is a kind of confidence trick. A weapon, not a weakness.
I looked it up in the Dictionary, and wondered why I hadn't before. It always irks me when people use "self-deprecation" as something interchangeable with self-loathing, or self-disgust, or any other actual feelings, or suggest it can be a direct manifestation of them. And sure enough, the etymological basis of the phrase is as an invocation, a prayer said to stop something from happening.
It's a trick, but don't get me wrong, once you acknowledge that, that doesn't mean you can't acknowledge that it's a great one. I'm no High Firthian practitioner, but I nevertheless owe it. I suspect I'd still be waiting to have my first sexual experience with someone other than myself if it weren't for self-deprecation, I'd be even more of an insufferable one-note bore if it weren't for self-loathing, Yada etc.
It's a trick, but I enjoy Hugh Grant's tricks more than David Copperfield's, and I'm not saying their signature conceits are comparable. I think self-loathing is a knowing, adult conceit with its roots and its magic in its adolescent emotional origins. Shyness and smartness, intellectual egotism and interpersonal self-effacement, often seem to go together. You're the eloquent schoolboy who thinks he's clever - knows it, perhaps - and knows doing well at school is the grounding for getting what he wants in life. Then puberty begins its operations and then lots of the things you want change and your old being clever and nice doesn't quite have the same currency in a world where fringes and rutting could mean more than gold stars and parents evening.
After your school years, you repackage your insecurities into a stand-up act that you increasingly lean upon, because it get results - if adolescence is the realisation that life is one big scrap for firewood and females in heat, then adulthood, which in men occurs at 25, is the moment at which you can start develop an alternative acquisitional technology.
You are not the strongest, tallest, richest, fastest, or most conspicuously handsome, but you have words, and you make people laugh. You embrace the fact that you will never make the biggest, most animal first impression. Relieved of all that pressure, and of the pressure to live up to an instantly attractive, magnetic first-impression, you pursue a slower-burning methodology.
Relentless, waggish self-denigration gets tedious and starts seeming weird, but properly-executed self-deprecation has multiple virtues. Instead of being secretly gnawed at by your insecurities, you construct armoured gags out of them, presenting them to your interlocutor as intimate confessions and objects of amusement, transforming them from ongoing neuroses to resolved stories. Because you're always amusingly dismissive about your own wretched little life, you invite your interlocutor to fill the void with his or her own.
Probably her, because, let's be honest, if you're working it rigorous and funny, there's probably a her there. And the cliché, which is probably terribly unfair, is that women do like to talk about themselves, and that it's so rare to meet a good listener, and before you know it, they really like talking to you.
When she's a total eye-searing nymph of a woman your childhood anxieties come back to magically transform your life like some shit with a trail of sparkles out of Harry Potter. Your sincere adolescent self-doubt becomes the wingman of your calculated adult performance. You don't entertain the idea this creature could adore you of all people, so you simply covet the idea of not being regarded as a friend. This enables you to make meaningful eye contact and the whole thing, because a little snotty, bowl-haired part of you is just glad like that. It also enables you to continue the role when reasonably inebriated rather than forget all about it.
That, plus the sheer freakiness, for a total eye-searing nymph at being interacted with by a heterosexual male who never seems smarmy or excited or overattentive or keen or in any way, of a kind of confessional closeness with no whisper of the Matador-like gestures and flourishes and risks of a transparently carnal courtship.
Just as your comfortable affectation of awkwardness makes you an easy, unthreatening presence, so your baroque and entertaining doing-down of yourself enables you to be equally hyperbolic in your compliments without being clammy or overwhelming. You work at them, because of your wingman. He wants to impress. But you throw them out as though you find them in your pockets.
Then you can just drop in the odd sincere or "unwittingly" sensual utterance and - Boom! There it is. Which is to say, if you are in no way exceptional, self-deprecation is perhaps your strongest asset for making exceptionally foxy, universally-fancied people fall in love with you.
You say you're rubbish and in the process prove you're brilliant. Just too humble and funny about it, that's all. That's self-deprecation. It's the vindication of your tentative, alienated, adorable inner little boy who just wants everybody to love him, as refracted through the desires of your egomaniacal adolescent self, and refined by your adult experience. And yeah, the limit thing, I suppose I take that to just mean admitting it.