Back Story

Back Story
David Mitchell


This is one of those misery memoirs. And it’s one of those celebrity memoirs. It’s also a very personal journey, a manual for urban ramblers and a weight-loss guide. Surely it’ll sell?

I realise the whole ‘Let me tell you about my pain’ thing is a classic envy-avoidance technique. What it’s saying is: if you envy me my interesting job, my relative affluence and moderate fame, then don’t. Because I struggle daily with a dark and terrible problem. With some it’s drugs, abuse, depression, the loss of loved ones, the terrible illness of a child – well, you can’t have it all, I suppose, and so I’ve made do with a bad back.

What do you reckon to that then, enviers!? Eh? You want to swap!? Ow, my back! You want to swap places!? Well go ahead, if you like terrible pain and misery, hardly assuaged at all by getting to be on TV! Eek, my poor spine! You want to take my place in the horror dome!? Ow, it’s creaking and spasming! Well, make my day! By which I mean life!

I’m assuming here that my life is enviable enough to require this mitigating strategy. Well, I admit it – I think it is. Aside from being born into the free and affluent West and never having had to worry about food, shelter and warmth, I do basically think I’m a jammy sod. I’m not saying there aren’t things that worry and upset me a lot, but I reckon everyone gets that. And I make a very good living doing something I love, a state of affairs that tends to be envied by those who don’t share it. Of course there will be loads of people who don’t envy me at all. I probably envy them. I expect they’ll have all yachts and kids and stuff.

What this book isn’t is one of those novels by David Mitchell. You know, David Mitchell the novelist. I’m sure he would never allow a sentence with ‘isn’t is’ in it like that. Everyone says he’s a very good novelist but I’ve never checked, partly because I resent him for sharing my name without asking and partly because I do a lot of my novel reading on the Tube and it would feel weird to be reading a book with my name on it in public. If one of the people who conflate me and the novelist saw that, they’d think I was sitting there reading my own book. ‘He might as well spend the whole journey admiring his own reflection in a hand mirror,’ such a person might think.

David Miliband is such a person (although he might take a less than averagely dim view of narcissism). I was once in a London park, on a crisp winter afternoon, feeding some bread to the ducks with a girl, when David Miliband wandered up with his kids. He stood there, a couple of yards behind us, for what felt like minutes. He was playing with his children in the park at the weekend, like a perfectly normal husband and father, who is being portrayed by a power-crazed Martian.

The woman I was with urgently wanted us to say hello. She was all interested, I don’t know why. I couldn’t see the point in bothering him. I thought it would be embarrassing. I was right.

‘Oh, you’re David Mitchell,’ said David Miliband, adding politely to my companion: ‘I love his books.’

This was nice of him. But it was a complicated moment. He can’t have known that there were a comedian and a novelist both called David Mitchell and mistaken me for the other one, because he recognised my face. He must have just assumed we were the same person.

Or he knew perfectly well I was only the comedian, and had particularly enjoyed This Mitchell and Webb Book, my most recent publication at the time. In fact, my only publication at the time. But he’d said ‘books’. Perhaps he was looking ahead? Yes, that must be it. He was so confident he’d enjoy my future volumes, he was already able to say he loves them. Thinking about it, I’d have been quite justified in putting that quote on the cover.

But I’m not the novelist, I’m the one who’s a bit known from TV. And of course there are millions of other David Mitchells who are neither. Was it the pain of my slightly problem back that gave me the need, the will and the focus to become one of the David