This is not going to be one of those critical reviews. Firstly, I like this book. It’s funny. Secondly, I like David Mitchell. He’s funny.
The title of the book refers not only to Mitchell’s reminiscences on growing up, attending Cambridge University and forging a comedy career, but also to the chronic back problems he’s suffered over the years and how he’s solved those problems by taking up walking. Queue the opportunity to take a walk through west London, from Mitchell’s bachelor pad in Kilburn to the BBC Television Centre at White City. Mitchell uses what he sees on the walk to frame his “back story” from childhood to maturity and career success with such programs as Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, both with his long-time comedy partner Robert Webb. As a reader familiar with Mitchell might expect, there’s no small amount of humorous self-depreciation.
Back Story is terrific at debunking the glamour of television production. The unreal, or surreal, if you prefer, is what appears on television screens. The real is endless rounds of production meetings, long shoots, long waits between shoots, even longer waits between commissions and re-commissions. Mitchell captures the uncertainty that surrounds it all. What he is also good at is conveying the reality of a career in television, or, dare I say it, life as a celebrity – that for the overwhelming majority, it is not instant X-Factor-type fame but a long, hard slog that doesn’t feel at all inevitable.
The narrative beneath the narrative in this book is Mitchell’s love life, or rather lack of it. References are made every number of pages to a date or a short-lived relationship or an occasional, guilty one-night stand (Mitchell seems particularly apologetic about them). Then, in the final chapter, the book takes an unexpected turn when the author describes how he fell in love. With remarkable candour ( I really can’t emphasise enough how honest he is), Mitchell opens up about how he fell for the columnist Victoria Coren. Heartbreakingly for him, she didn’t feel the same way and a burgeoning relationship petered out after a few dates. But rather than move on, Mitchell waited. He waited three years, during which time she was with someone else. In the normal course of these things, the spurned lover would eventually cop on and go find someone else. But Mitchell waited, and waited and then.. Well, then Coren came back. What? Yes, she came back and the book ends with the couple engaged (they married in a ceremony last month).
The impression that Mitchell gives, as noted earlier, is that of a nerdy, awkward loner (that his character in Peep Show, Mark Corrigan is desperately unhappy and needy likely adds to Mitchell’s own image). But the real Mitchell is, I think, a rather purposeful and certainly confident person in that “I’m going to make it in television” sort of way, which, of course, he has. He crafted a public persona of this rather sad singleton, he says, because he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he’d fallen in love and that it was unrequited. But anyone who waits three years for another person has to have a certain inner-confidence, don’t they, a conviction that everything will turn out all right? You’d go mad otherwise! I’m not saying Mitchell is deceiving people, but crafting a public persona is something a person in the public eye might well do, because it allows the private self to remain exactly that – private, separate. It’s a defence mechanism, and a useful one at that.
The book ends with Mitchell quoting the oft-heard saying “If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards” before admitting that for the first time in a long time, he’s standing still. Well, as I once heard someone say, there’s nothing wrong with treading water, as long as it’s purposeful treading. And Mitchell’s is certainly purposeful.