Monday, 9 May 2011

In praise of obsessions

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This post is liable to be rather confessional. I hope I don't embarrass myself too much.

My first confession is that I think that I am rather a negative person; I am often told off by my husband and friends for being very self-critical. I can probably think of 5 things that I dislike about myself for every one that I like - and that is on a good day.

But one thing I do like is my obsessive, addictive nature. This might seem like an odd thing to like. Thankfully my addiction has never been substance based - unless you count chocolate and, to a lesser degree, coffee - but has instead been more intellectual. When I have an obsession, it is normally with a writer or an actor.

My obsessions tend to be intense but often fleeting, lasting a few weeks, before they burn out into gently smouldering embers. My current one - the actor Jeremy Northam - is lasting longer than normal, and is probably starting to try my husband's patience more than a little. I was startled to realise recently how long I have been a fan of Jeremy Northam. I was reading through an old diary from 2001 - a funnier and less embarrassing experience than I expected - and found a birthday card from the people that I worked with at the time. In it, a girl I have since lost touch with had written "Expect a man-sized package on your doorstep soon, containing none other than Jeremy Northam!!" (Her 2 exclamation marks, not mine) "Well....I tried." I hadn't realised until reading her comment that I have been waiting for that elusive man-sized package to arrive on my doorstep for over 10 years. Instead I've had to settle for slightly smaller and less tactile packages of DVDs from (other internet sites are available).

I have a sense that this kind of obsession is something of which I should be ashamed. It isn't quite adult; it feels somehow immature and has a lingering whiff of the teenage crush. No matter how much I try to justify my obsessions in intellectual terms, I can't even convince myself of that, let alone anyone else. He is a brilliant actor who chooses interesting projects, but would I still seek out his films if he looked like Ken Dodd and sounded like Joe Pasquale? I would like to say that I have the wisdom and nobility of spirit to recognise talent and beauty in an unprepossessing package. I would love to say that the physical package - so to speak (sorry, smutty, I should have rephrased that when I realised that it sounded like a double entendre) - is completely irrelevant, but that would be dishonest. It is no criticism of his talent as an actor that I would be less inclined to seek out his films if he looked like a bus and sounded like a corncrake; if anything it reflects more on my shallowness as a person.

But I felt a bit less ashamed of myself when I reversed the question. Would I still want to watch his films if he seemed less talented, humourless, chose less interesting projects - but still looked the same, and had the same mellifluous voice? And it is probably more to my credit that I don't think I would. My teenage crushes were never typical; I was always more inclined to fancy someone for their humour and intelligence than just for their looks. I would rather have the variety of seeing him dance with William H. Macy in "Happy, Texas", scold Gwyneth Paltrow in "Emma," explode giant cockroaches in "Mimic" than see him as the latest, interchangeable, pretty face for hire in the most recent vapid, forgettable blockbuster. I'd be less inclined to watch his films if he fought against Michael Bay CGI monsters, rather than wrestled with his emotions with Jennifer Ehle.

I love my periods of intense obsession, although they probably get rather wearing for my very tolerant husband. They have a way of taking over, growing exponentially, and leading me down paths of enquiry that I otherwise might not have taken. I might not have read "Look Back in Anger" if I hadn't been obsessed with David Tennant at the time, and sought it out because I read that he had played Jimmy Porter. I might not have discovered "The Tempest" as a teenager - although I am sure that I would eventually have studied it - if I hadn't been a little obsessed with Frank Langella (who I knew had played Prospero) after seeing him on stage. (Although can you be a little bit obsessed? Obsession is all or nothing; it is as ridiculous as calling someone a little bit pregnant.) My recent Jeremy obsession led me to listen to his audiobook of "Our Man in Havana," which made me want to read some more Graham Greene (I haven't yet). I've just got playscripts of Pinter's "Old Times" and William Wycherley's "The Country Wife" from our local library after finding that he acted in these on stage. I may even try to read "Tristram Shandy" after finding out that Jeremy had read it when he acted in "A Cock and Bull Story," although this might be pushing it a little (I think, rightly or wrongly, of Laurence Sterne as being in the same vein as Henry Fielding and "Joseph Andrews" was one of the very few books that I was meant to read as a student but couldn't bring myself to finish). What starts as a shallow obsession can become a legitimate process of intellectual expansion and exploration. I don't know if I have convinced you on this one, but it works for me.

I found it interesting that this current obsession made me question the nature of my obsessions, although I realise that this is probably tedious self-analysis that is of little interest to anyone but me. My mind is more enquiring, more driven, my imagination more active and fertile when I am in the throes of an obsession. I started this post feeling a little bit ashamed of my shallow, obsessive tendencies - despite saying that it was something that I liked about myself - but after rationalizing this, I no longer see why I should be ashamed of something that brings me pleasure, and has led me to find films, novels and plays that I have grown to love for themselves alone when the original obsession has abated. So I embrace my obsessiveness with relish, while apologising to my husband for the Jeremy Northam films to come which I will subject him to. And the wikipedia entry on "Tristram Shandy" sounds interesting.


  1. I love this post, Amy, as (you can well imagine!) I can empathise! Let's face it, guys like Jeremy Northam (fabulous looking, outrageously talented, feircely intelligent, and gentle, funny, witty and good-humoured) do NOT come along every day, and we *are* only human! There are times when I think I could be more fruitfully persuing a far more intellectual interest, but, like you, Jeremy has introduced me to all sorts of mind-broadening, life-enhancing interests that I would otherwise have missed. So, it's a positive obsession, embrace it! LauraP calls Jeremy her 'intellectualiser' and wrote (at my blog) about all the things she has embarked upon through his work. So we're not just sitting drooling *all* the time!

  2. Apologies for the typos in above comment: suffering from migraine and can't see too well ..

  3. As one of the posters at the YahooGroup has said after we had all purchased a copy of a book which was to be made into a Jeremy N movie (I think it was Possession), JN (through his work on both stage and screen (large and small). Would I have purchased Lord Dunsany's book Dean Spanley on my own initiative..probably no. Or would we have all become members of chat and other groups and becoming internet friends without Mr. N, again probably no. Relax and enjoy the many cases, it may ebb and flow, but it is now part of your psyche whether you know it or not. Welcome to the Jeremyitis Obsessive syndrome!

  4. To clarify the first sentence, JN (through his wok on both stage and large and small screen) introduced all of us to books that would never have become part of our book collections without those movies or plays in which he appeared.