Sunday, November 22, 2009

That extra weight really suits you*: the best backhanded compliments I've ever received

A good while ago now, Antonia put up a post about the nicest things anyone's ever said to her. Antonia comes across as the sort of person it'd be pretty easy to say cool things about, and the list was as you'd expect - articulate, and funny, and pretty moving in parts.

It got me thinking, as I suppose in part it was intended to, about the nicest things anyone's ever said to me. The more I thought, the fewer I could think of - the reverse of that "think of a carrot" thing. See, now whatever else you try to focus on, a carrot's floating there like an unasked-for mental episode of Bugs Bunny, isn't it?

What I did come up with made me giggle. Nothing as straightforward as praise. Mine are the nicest backhanded compliments anyone has ever paid me:

"You do the motorway driving, because you drive like you don't care"

In September of the year 2000, Alex and I went to Italy for a week. We've been friends literally since I was born, but we hadn't been away together for years, and this was a post-apocalyptic holiday for us both in different ways. My manifestation of the end of the world was best demonstrated by driving like a maniac on the roads, which in Italy largely went unnoticed. Which is why, when it came to driving, Alex very logically divided our duties. She took the cities.

"You've got the biggest knockers I know - help me out here, would you?"

Ol is part of my college gang and one of my closest friends - the type who's seen you at your very worst from every possible angle, and doesn't give a shit. There are a few people in my life for whom "boundary" is an utterly irrelevant word - we'll be honest about anything, any time, if the question is asked. Ol's one of them (no shit).
Back in 2001 we were both living in London and kicking around a lot together. I was in John Lewis one Saturday afternoon (I remember this because I hate shopping) when my phone rang. Ol, with a vital question, requiring knowledge he assumed I'd have. Apparently friendships can indeed be no holds barred - including asking for a quick 0898 impression in the middle of the cookware section. Nigella would have been proud.

"You? Seriously? I didn't know you went to Cambridge"

I last heard this one about a month ago, out for dinner with a group of friends I've known for a couple of years now. I'm always ridiculously pleased by it. Not that I have anything against my "Cambridge' tag. I made some everlasting friends there (yes, even the ones who phone with random questions in the middle of John Lewis) and got to read books for four years in one of the most beautiful settings you could ask for. For someone like me who aspired to live largely in dreamland, it was a great place, and my particular college wasn't too pretentious or full of those over-corrected public school types you'd see in their house scarves earnestly selling the Socialist Worker outside the arts block before jumping into Mummy's Merc to get to their "place" in the country for the weekend.

It's not like, these days, where I (one) studied exactly takes up much room in conversation either, let's face it. Still, I'm always pleased when people are surprised by this because I've always most felt I belong, as we are all sick of hearing about on this blog, is the forest. Oxbridge and the Forest of Dean aren't by any stretch mutually exclusive - look at Dennis Potter, for starters - but they aren't the most intuitive jump, either. And I'm prouder of my origins than any transitional seat of learning, so I'm glad that, essentially, that's what shows through first. Sure, if I need to, I can whip out the Ivy-league cred, but that's not what informs me for the most part.

*I've never heard this one personally, but it's still one of my all-time favourite "What now?"s.

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