This week, two women found themselves twisting and turning as the solid ground melted away beneath them. In the case of Natalie Bennett, leader of The Green Party, this was very much a metaphorical collapse; in the case of Madonna, a literal tumble.
These are the times when we discover the strength of our mettle. When the scaffolding of which we were so certain only moments before, becomes jelly, and all we have left is our character and fortitude. We’ve all been there.
As a boy, I was called to my school’s chapel to be told the lad nominated to deliver that morning’s reading had been taken ill, and I had been chosen as his replacement. In the last verse of the hymn, I was to walk to the lectern and begin the reading, once the singing concluded. The first part of these directions went without a hitch; I managed to adequately transport myself to the reading position. Then the trouble began. On the lectern was a Bible. A closed Bible. Of course the chaplain had marked the appropriate page with a piece of paper, but every other marking from previous assemblies remained in the book. I hadn’t bothered to note which marker was mine. As the hymn finished, a hundred pupils turned to witness me fumbling through the pages. The chaplain, seeing my panic, approached and calmly selected the chapter. His assistance was too late. My nerve had gone. I stumbled through several verses, as it dawned on me I had no idea when to stop. Then I lost my place, stumbled further and shuddered to a halt. Very kindly, the chaplain explained that he believed people paid more attention when a reading contained a few mistakes. He was fooling no-one. The entire performance had been a debacle and I was humiliated. Just recalling that morning fills my stomach with the worms of acute embarrassment.
“The potential for disaster doesn’t lie in the stumble.”
My youth was my enemy. As an adult I have addressed many gatherings, on many subjects. Occasionally I’ve lost my thread, or technology has let me down, but I am now sufficiently comfortable with the process that the situation rarely poses a problem. I’ve learned that the potential for disaster doesn’t lie in the stumble, but in the confidence of the recovery.
Natalie Bennett’s interview with LBC’s Nick Ferrari was toe-curling. A textbook example of the worst possible way to handle a political pitch. I was actually impressed by Ferrari’s restraint. He could so easily have eviscerated her; instead he coolly hung her out to dry. Perhaps that was worse.
Bennett was tripped by the facts. Nick demanded the numbers, Natalie didn’t have them. At that point, all she had was a challenge, the damage was done by the way she approached it. Knowing she didn’t have the answer, she tried to give one. There would have been no shame in telling her inquisitor that the detail would emerge later, and she was there to outline the general proposal; inexperience and mortal fear drove her in the other direction and the game was up. Claiming to have a heavy cold merely compounded her predicament.
I’m not gloating here. That terrified schoolboy in the chapel lives very close to the surface of my subconscious, so I know how she felt. However, politics is a vicious business and the slightest crack in the veneer will always be prised open by interviewers and opponents alike. The trick is to glaze over the fault before anyone can get to it. She’ll know better next time, one hopes.
There was a time when an appearance at The Brits would have been meat and drink to Madonna. A decade ago, she would have swooped into the 02, her ‘Queen of Pop’ crown immovable on her blonde curls, and with a flourish and slight sneer, she’d have conquered all before her. Times have changed. In 2015, she has something to prove. The hits are rare, and her stock much lower. The need to impress was palpable on Wednesday night. Most of the room would have been urging her on, but others would have been seeking a sign she had succumbed to the advancing years (this only happens to women, Bowie would have been universally hailed as the conquering hero). Then she fell over.
I’m sure you’ve seen the footage many times now. Having failed to release her cape in time, her dancers dragged her from the steps, slamming her into the stage. It looked painful, but more than that, it looked shocking. Anyone who’s ever fallen hard, knows the effect is an upsetting combination of physical pain and sickening surprise. This is the case if you slip on the floor of your own kitchen. To crash down while trying to entertain a few thousand industry peers, with a certain pressure to succeed, must be horrendous. Nevertheless, Madonna managed what Natalie Bennett – and the twelve year old Magnus – couldn’t. A fraction of a second after the fall, she was erect. Even while the audience was mouthing ‘What the fu…?’, she’d found her place, hit her spot, and was singing. I suspect many younger pop stars would have stopped the show and stalked from the stage in a fugue of shame, anger and bruising. Ms. Ciccone is built of sterner stuff. There’s no doubt she was rattled (who wouldn’t be?) and the incident distracted everyone from the new tune. But that didn’t really matter. A massive staging error had posed a very tricky question, and she had an answer. The peril and the glory lay in the recovery – and she recovered admirably.
To paraphrase Elvis, life is a performance and we all play our part. The leader of The Green Party, and one of our most venerable stars have proved that every performance has the ability to turn on its owner. We cannot avoid those pitfalls, but we can acquire the skill, steel and stubbornness to rise with grace and dignity. Just watch your step.
Magnus Shaw – February 2015