Edinburgh International Book Festival
Susan Calman: The Kindness Revolution
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Square
11:45 (22 August only)
***** (5 stars)
What is it about wee Glasgow wifies?? Susan Calman is, admittedly, a radical feminist lesbian ex-lawyer, currently a comedian: underneath all those layers is another indomitable wee wifie who does seventy-six incredible things before breakfast and then makes sure you have your piece and your mug of tea before sending you off to school… I’d heard a lot about her, but didn’t watch her on Strictly and haven’t seen any of her standup shows: I may have caught her on Qi or some such, but this was my first exposure to Susan the person – and it sure as hell won’t be my last.
In Susan’s previous book, Cheer up, love she looked at the subject of depression, and in writing about it discovered ways not to cure it, because she will always live with her type of depression, but how to deal with it. She had been extremely angry both with herself and with the world, and gradually she has helped herself to change, to become less angry. She no longer watches or listens to news programmes [unless she’s appearing on a TV news quiz], has stopped getting news-related Twitter feeds, and instead looks out for “pictures of kittens, and positive news”. This may sound trite or twee, but in fact makes good sense [I gave up following the news years ago for much the same reasons – you don’t waste energy on things you can’t do anything about, and thus have energy to give to things about which you can do something, however small].
In her new book Sunny Side Up she talks about kindness and joy. Kindness, she says, is not only doing kind things but doing them intentionally – harking back to her legal training, to commit a crime you not only have to do the thing but intend to do it: and she feels the same way about kindness. She is extremely shy, and has learned not to let her shyness prevent her from doing kindnesses, saying “I don’t want to regret not doing something”. This is an integral part of her newly-learned approach of being kind to herself – if you can’t be kind to yourself, how can you be kind to anyone else?
Joy she sees as being extraordinary, undefinable, and simple and complex at different times – clean pjs, a perfect cup of coffee, and something ‘just right’ on TV together contribute to a simple joy. Sheer rushes of joy can come unexpectedly and be fleeting: the important thing is to notice them, and focus on the joy rather than the negativity which inadvertently can become our default setting.
In her last tour she asked audiences to send her their “experience of kindness” – and brought tears to our eyes as well as her own as she talked of the person who had helped a woman in front of her in the supermarket queue who hadn’t enough money by leaning over and saying “Here’s that fiver I owe you”: a simple, thoughtful gesture which the donor may have forgotten quite swiftly but which the recipient had remembered and treasured. It’s impossible
to know the effect on the other of what may seem to us a trivial thing – all the more reason to do whatever we can whenever we can.
And then we got on to Strictly – and it was so interesting for me to hear Susan talking about her experience after having heard Judy Murray’s last week: she too found it a wonderful experience – and in this case, truly transformative. Like Judy, she said “you know what it’s about”, and in Susan’s case “if you get the call, you don’t say no” – but Susan had no idea of the effect it would have on her. Before Strictly she wore a uniform of waistcoats and jackets, terrified that people would laugh at her if she tried to appear feminine, thinking that she would look stupid in a frock. She had unbounded admiration for the kindness and helpfulness of the wardrobe department on the show – and slowly learned that she could be who she actually wanted to be, and not be afraid of it [the costume she’s kept from the show is the Superwoman one – how appropriate is that?]
She had such love and affection for her dance partner, Kevin – they are still friends and in constant touch. As someone who grew up in Scotland, where “social dancing is designed to suppress rather than encourage sexual activity”, she was overwhelmed to discover that “dancing with Kevin was the most joyous thing I’ve ever done in my life” – cue tears and smiles all round yet again: no wonder the Strictly audience loved her, loved seeing this amazing butterfly emerging from her tight-aced chrysalis, and kept her on the show for ten weeks! When asked by an audience member why, if she is so appallingly shy, she was prepared to come and talk to the Book Festival audience, she told us of her love letter to Strictly fans in Sunny Side Up, and added “you changed my life, and I’ve come out to say thank you”.
She sums up – “whatever gives you joy, go for it – don’t be ashamed of it – and don’t grade or judge yourself or others for it”. With joy and kindness we can slowly change the world, from ground level up, by doing simple things and not seeing people as labels or categories, but simply as people.
Susan Calman, you made us laugh and cry in equal measure: we love you!