Objectively, of course, I am far from being a failure.

I am alive - just turned fifty years old - am in good health, have a reasonably well paid full time job which I enjoy, and live in a nice flat in North London with my wonderful partner. I have no children or pressing family obligations and I have enough free time to continue to pursue my musical and literary ambitions.

Despite this, I feel like a massive failure all the time.

I was supposed to be such a gifted child.

Top of every class at the state schools I went to, I managed to get a place at Oxford. Once there I soon started to learn that I wasn’t as nearly as clever as I’d always been told I was. Demonstrably. This was my first major experience of failure.

I’d arrived to read Maths and Philosophy, armed with straight A’s in Maths, Further Maths and Physics, only to find that mathematics as taught at university level is essentially a completely different subject from anything taught in schools.

The philosophy was ok - a mixture of pure bullshit and formal logic, neither of which are hard - but all I’d learned of mathematics was how to answer A level exam questions correctly. That wasn’t remotely enough to come to grips with maths as taught at Oxford. For the first time I was meeting people who actually understood maths itself deeply, and all they could help me with - from colleagues on the course to lecturers alike - was explaining that they got it and I didn’t. Maths was a secret language that - like swing in music - either you already had or you never would. I struggled, and I flailed, and I failed to make any progress at all in my first two terms.

I panicked - I also wasn’t all that interested in maths any longer - so I gave up, and changed course.

Now I was reading Oriental Studies, in which I studied Jewish History and Hebrew Literature, both of which I was, at the time, very much interested in. Nevertheless, I was ultimately left feeling disappointed both in the course and in myself. I was studying Jewish History without studying History more generally, and I was studying Hebrew Literature in the absence of a more general education in Literature. Although I ended up with a 2:1 - missing a First by only a few marks, apparently, and yes, it still smarts - I was left with the impression that anyone doing a straight History or Literature course could have covered everything I knew about the specific Jewish or Hebrew stuff very quickly, while I had not actually learned anything at all about either History or Literature in the more general sense, and that what I had learned, without a broader context, was fairly worthless in the scheme of things.

After university I had the vague idea that I wanted to write, make music, and live in Israel. A year on the One Year Graduate Programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem soon disabused me of the latter ambition - I left early and have never returned - but I have at least carried on trying to write and to make music, with or without success, depending how you count it.

In music I have written, produced and released four albums of my own original music and have contributed to numerous recordings by others. I still play regularly (modulo COVID) in various band projects and occasionally stand-in for absent members of others. I’ve played at Glastonbury and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and at numerous small venues up and down the UK as well as occasional ventures to Europe. I was a licensed London Underground busker for some years - which was its own education in feeling like a failure and fighting it - and am certain that this experience has taught me more about music and its role in human life than anything else.

In writing I have been less prolific, but I have written and (vaguely) self-published a novel that I remain pleased with each time I reread it, and have written several short stories and numerous poems that I still feel stand up, not that these are available anywhere. None of my fiction or poetry other than the novel has ever been published outside of student magazines, with the exception of the Perl poem for which I won a prize in the Perl Journal Poetry Competition back in 2000, but that was a translation of an existing Yeats poem and it doesn’t feel like it really counts. I have also contributed sporadic articles to magazines and newspapers including the Guardian, the Independent and Wired UK, over the last thirty years, but it doesn’t feel like that counts either. If I’d really wanted to be a journalist, I like to think I would have become one. I didn’t, not really, not enough, I sort of gave it up, and I’m not bothered about it.

The way you count it is of course the key to staying sane when it comes to measuring success in things like writing or music. I have friends who are genuinely objectively successful in both - widely distributed and widely well reviewed and widely loved, but who also nevertheless still manage to feel like failures. I cannot be described as objectively successful in either. Compared to them I am indeed a failure. But at some point in the last twenty years I found myself redefining ‘success’ as ‘still alive, still doing it, and let the rest of the chips fall where they may’.

Sure, it hurts like hell when you put on a gig and no-one comes. When you release the best album you ever made and no-one listens to it. But it doesn’t matter in the long scheme of things.

I’m still alive, and I’m still doing it.

Yes I feel like a total failure, and - objectively - am. It gets harder. I get crankier.

I am also increasingly aware of my privilege - cis, het, white, able-bodied etc - and the fact that as such I get to live life on ‘easy mode’, as John Scalzi puts it. I’m pushing against doors much less heavily weighted against me than for others. And still can’t get arrested. That’s all on me. Mediocre white men succeed wildly all the time, but I can’t. That means either that I’m not even mediocre, or that I need to just keep trying and not disappear down that shit rabbit hole.

One key to dealing with feeling like a failure - especially when, like myself, you objectively are one - is to realise that plenty of people who objectively aren’t also feel the same way.

So there’s no connection between how you feel about your own success or failure and the objective truth. The former is all in your head and the latter is out of your control.

The trick is not to give up either way. And I won’t.

So here we are.

New album coming as soon as I’ve written it. New novel same.

You probably won’t hear about either, but that doesn’t matter. My job is to get on with the difficult ‘doing the work’ part.

And that’s the /really/ hard bit.

But that’s a matter for an entirely different post.