I have a visceral fear of boredom, not on my own account but on everyone else’s. I never get bored myself. This isn’t because I’m always super busy doing lots of interesting things. I’m not. It’s just that I can always fill the quieter minutes, hours and days, which could be boring, with dark thoughts of fury, anxiety, regret, sadness or outright panic about something or other. There’s so much rich material to draw on. I’m resourceful in these matters. It’s enervating, distressing and even crippling, but it has this much going for it: it’s never boring.
My fear of boredom comes from a horror of being the source of anyone else’s boredom. I believe this started 40 years ago during a conversation with my history teacher, Miss Finney. I was banging on about something rather clever, I thought, when I saw the beginnings of a yawn stirring on her face. These stirrings soon hardened into a firm setting of her jaw. She had plainly resolved, bless her, to do everything in her power not to let this yawn out. I heard tedious words continue to tumble out of my mouth while I watched her face spasm in an ecstasy of desperate, tiny contortions. I wanted to scream: “Just yawn!” but I was too scared of her.
I suppose it might not have been my fault; it’s possible she’d had a late night, but she didn’t look the type to have ever had a late night. I was emotionally scarred by the conviction that I was responsible for this fight to the death between Miss Finney and her yawn.
I’ve been on red alert looking for yawns ever since, especially stifled ones. A live audience is traumatic for me because one yawn, just one, will destroy me. I would rather they just walked out, yelling abuse. Anything but the yawn. I fully appreciate that – bitterest of ironies – you could well be bored reading this, but that’s OK because I can’t see you, you poor thing. This allows me to suspend my disbelief and kid myself that all is well.
The truth will always intrude in the end, though. A couple of months ago I was told that something I had written here had been clicked on more than any other story in the Guardian that day. But in the next breath this data purveyor added: “Not many read it to the end, though.” Despair and humiliation prevailed; I could see the yawns as they clicked their escapes from me. I’d much rather they had not clicked at all than got too bored to finish it.
In live television I have often broadcast to many millions of people, but that’s fine because, again, I can’t see any of them. In the studio itself I only have to keep, at most, a dozen people awake. But if I catch one of them doing a Miss Finney, I am crushed. I was once – I felt – playing a blinder while talking into a studio camera. I glanced at the cameraman for approval, hoping to see him all of a-snigger. But he was oblivious, engrossed in a copy of Woodturner magazine. I was less interesting than a piece of wood. This was hard to take.
It’s one of many reasons I can’t throw parties: one yawn from anyone and I want to throw everyone out.
No good comes of this nonsense, of course. It is psychologically ruinous to waste your head space doing other people’s thinking for them; in setting so much store by their feelings. It can lead you into all manner of ludicrous places. Therapy is an excellent example. It’s no good being worried if your counsellor is finding you boring. I fear there have been a few occasions when, upon seeing a shrink stifle a yawn, I’ve added just a little top spin on my troubles to keep them interested.
I saw a brilliant, attentive, compassionate German psychologist for a long time. He listened to me drone on, apparently fascinated, for hours and years on end. Once, only once, I saw him stifle a yawn. And now, when I picture him, that’s all I see.
This will be the death of me, possibly literally. My gravestone will read: here lies someone who can bore no more. Mind you, even that’s not true. Henry James, among others, has been boring me from beyond the grave for years.