A Word to the Wise – The Power of Mottos, Aphorisms and Bon Mots

Back in 1980 I was gripped by the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon.  The match was between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe and is often described as the greatest ever played.

McEnroe, the twenty-one year old ‘enfant terrible’ lost to the good-looking, muscular Swede and it clearly hurt.

I was in my final year at Junior School when that match took place. My bedroom was still in its pre-teen state with pull-outs from ‘Horse and Pony’ magazine on the walls and a giant Snoopy poster on my wardrobe.

The poster depicted Snoopy (of whom I remain a huge fan) stomping off the tennis court wearing his visor and clutching his racquet.

“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose… Until you lose!” Read Snoopy’s thought bubble.

The newspapers were full of the momentous battle between Borg and McEnroe and, the day after the match, I cut out a picture of a very sullen looking John McEnroe and stuck it in the bottom left hand corner of the poster.

I think it was the first time I appreciated how a bon mot could fully express a situation that was both personal and universal.

And so my love of the aphorism was born.

Around my house I have lots of text-based graphic art. I love words.

I was totally on board when the whole ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ thing began. And yes, though now I grow weary of seeing the many, many reinventions of ‘Keep Calm’ (‘Keep Calm and Teach Maths/Drink Gin/Play Football/Eat Cupcakes/Avoid Zombies/Hakuna Matata’) it just goes to show how a simple phrase can burrow its way into the brain and indeed, into the collective consciousness.

I collect words which comfort and reassure me. Often they will be lyrics from songs, and especially songs from the world of theatre.

As an avowed atheist, my personal ‘holy trinity’ comprises William Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim and Tim Minchin. They’ve pretty much got the human experience covered.

(Interestingly, all three have beards. I wonder if this is meaningful?)

But because the lyrics of not-so-well-known musicals rarely make it to Athena, or whoever it is that creates posters these days, I have had to make my own lyric-based artworks.

In my kitchen you’ll find the words, ‘What am I doing here? I’m in the wrong story!” from the Sondheim musical, ‘Into the Woods’. They’re framed in perspex and hang in the window.

I like these words particularly because, on the days when I wonder why I have to work three jobs to pay the bills, I remember the parallel life I could be living. The one in which I married the hedge-fund manager and filled my wardrobe with Manolo Blahnik shoes.

I sure am in the wrong story some days.

But for brilliant, go-to, neatly-packaged advice, I turn always to Baz Luhrman’s ‘Sunscreen’ song.

It’s based on an essay by American journalist Mary Schmich (universal truths are not the sole preserve of men with beards). In it, she offers advice to the young on how to live a life without regret.

It starts with the injunction ‘Wear Sunscreen,’ and goes on to dispense all sorts of help and guidance which I have internalised since I first heard it in 1999.

I urge you to listen to the song yourselves if you don’t already know it. In Executive Youth you’ll understand just how pertinent some of the advice is. You’ll find yourself offering it to others.

The line: ’Do one thing every day that scares you’ has resonated with me in particular. Every time I find myself agreeing to something I know I will find hard, I say it to myself.

I’ve been saying it to myself quite a lot recently. Because I have agreed to do a very scary thing indeed.

As I write this, I am hurtling inexorably towards this evening. And this evening I will be appearing on stage in a provincial theatre (seating capacity 2,300) as part of a comedy show with a line-up featuring established comedians I have paid to see in the past.

I have agreed to do a ten minute stand-up routine. Only the second of my life. And I am scared. Very scared. 

I wonder if Mary Schmich meant for me to do something that scares me this much? 

Frankly, if I die on my arse tonight, I’m coming for her.

In the meantime, I’ll just Keep Calm and Carry On, right?



*** Update 02 October ***  Mary Schmich, you’re safe. It was the best performance experience of my life. Scary is ok by me.

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