A famous critic once wrote a book called “Keats and Embarrassment”. I have never read it but remember thinking that’s something really important you’ve stumbled on, the importance of embarrassment. For those of us who suffer from it, it is something we spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking to avoid interspersed with periods of insane self-confidence when we feel we have risen above it, like reformed alcoholics, and can run greater risks – until we next experience it and feel once again that awful sensation of public shame. It’s a sensation I hate so much that I can’t even bear to watch episodes of embarrassment on TV: what others find funny, I simply find excruciating.
What is it about embarrassment which is so difficult – for some people? Other people can have the same experience and not feel even a flicker of embarrassment. It’s simply not in their emotional repertoire. You can feel embarrassed for them, but you needn’t. I had an unembarrassable boss once. He would be late for meetings with very important people, make preposterous remarks, exhibit untidy personal habits, and never wavered from an unrufflable nonchalance. Other people might think him a buffoon, but that didn’t matter, because he never did. He scudded through life, like a yacht with billowing sails, inflated by his unshakeable self-belief. Lucky so and so.
But for us mortals who are prone to embarrassment, it is public deflation which we dread.
In my last job I had, occasionally, to meet famous people. As director of a grant-making trust, I received an endless stream of invitations to fundraising events. The bigger charities often had a celebrity guest of honour, as a pull for potential donors. When I attended these events, I spent most of my time studiously avoiding the queue forming to talk to such characters. I had a special phobia about powerful politicians, and once spent a very anxious evening trying to work out where Gordon Brown might head next, so as not to be cornered.
Just once, I failed. I was at a reception for a charity, located in an old Baptist chapel in Islington, which rehabilitated offenders after release from prison by training them in the art and discipline of acting whilst giving them other support to re-settle. One of the founders and directors was a former speechwriter for David Cameron, and so it was no surprise that he had secured the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to make a speech. I joined a crowd of people sipping cheap wine and eating sausages on sticks while things warmed up before the formalities. I had just finished speaking to somebody and was wondering whether there were any alternatives to sausages when I looked up to see Ken Clarke making an apparent bee-line to me. I stood my ground presuming there must be somebody behind me who he wanted to speak to when, to my horror, he greeted me cheerily. I replied in kind and waited for him either to move on or ask me something. A posse of people followed him and looked at me with curiosity. “You’re not Jim Phillips, are you?” he asked with an irritable edge. “No, I’m not,” I said and revealed my identity. “You look just like him,” he said, accusingly, and moved off. Several people had been looking at me, assuming I was an old friend of Ken’s. I saw their interest evaporate as he walked off, and felt the prickle of red corpuscles swarming around my face.