Ask the Beast, of French fairy tale (and latterly Disney) fame.
Whilst watching this latest Hollywood retelling with The Bloke and the offspring recently, I got to wondering (and missed half the plot as usual) whether a brutal and prolonged moral lesson can really ensure permanent transformation from a snooty and self-serving bounder into a paragon of virtue? I am in two minds, as is my wont. But I promise a conclusion.
A few hundred years in beastly form with only a clock and a candlestick worth talking to (did I just diss a teapot and a coatstand? I think I did) would probably give one pause for thought. I imagine it’s a macro version of having D+V and resolving to change your life as soon as you’re off the closet (up at dawn, running shoes on, ayurvedic diet henceforth): you mean it at the time, but as soon as the memory of the cramps and the astonishing stench in the bathroom has faded, you’re eating kebabs, drinking absolutely no turmeric tea whatsoever and spending your evenings watching Judge Judy. And what’s to stop the prince reverting to type after the honeymoon period, when the banality of life sets in? I’ll give Belle a month – tops – before her newly transmogrified, less hairy spouse is looking down his nose at the locals, throwing obscenely lavish parties and leaving his socks on the floor for her to pick up. People like him don’t change.
So that’s one mind. Here’s the other.
I do believe under certain circumstances people can and do make changes. Positive, lasting ones. Consider this interaction from earlier today. But first, the backstory…
The Bloke read the last of the Adrian Mole books recently. He hasn’t read the first, or the others. Just the last one. Mr Mole is now a hapless socially inept man and not a naive schoolboy of 13¾. However, the Bloke loved it, laughed all the way through it, couldn’t put it down. But why didn’t he get the first one, first? The classic? Because he’s impatient, that’s why. It wasn’t in the library, simple as that. After he’d raved about this book, we discussed the fact that neither of us have the read the original (which I’m embarrassed as a child of the 80’s to admit. I was probably distracted by the rude parts in my mother’s DH Lawrence collection at the time). So, the next time I’m in the library, on a whim, I order The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, on my library card. Not the Bloke’s. Mine (The thrill of interlibrary loan requests, I can’t begin to tell you. Books for free! Library closures should be fiercely resisted). My email to herald the arrival of Adrian came yesterday. The Bloke and I, having a rare day together today minus our precious progeny nipped in the library on our way out for a luxury sandwich. He returned his copy of ‘Spitfires, Spies and Sheds for the Casually Interested’ and wandered off to the DIY section. I returned ‘100 Flowers Fairies and Cupcakes for the Emancipated’ and retrieved Adrian, which I then waved aloft with a gleeful ‘Bloke! Look what I’ve got!’ Then we went for our wildly anticipated lunch, the Bloke cutting a strangely silent, brooding figure.
More scene-setting required now. Patience, a conclusion is coming!
I have a list of books I feel I should read – classics, Man Booker winners, the Times list of ones to read before you turn your toes up, etc etc. I am slowly working my way through this list. It’s taking some time. There have been mishaps. I ordered Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only to find I’d ordered the easy reader version. Middlemarch on collection disappointingly turned out to be not the novel at all, but A-Level notes on the novel. This has set me back. What has also set me back is greed and laziness. I pick up too many at once. I read more than one at a time. I pick up ones not on the list. Adrian Mole is not on the list (although it probably should be). But I read the first paragraph, a fatal mistake, knowing that Horse Walks into a Bar (Man Booker winner, boring me to tears) is on the floor next to the bed, abandoned. I really should finish Horse first. Show some backbone.
So perhaps it was guilt that led to this exchange with the Bloke. We’re driving home following our aforementioned eating-without-children hedonism and I’m sniggering to myself already, reading snippets of Adrian out to him. He gets this wistful, sad look on his face and gazing at the book in my hands says ‘I wish I’d got that out’, in a tiny voice full of longing. We pull up and get out of the car and I hear myself say ‘Bloke, I am willing to let you read it first.’ A look of high suspicion first. A narrowing of the eyes.
‘Really?’ he says ‘You would do that for me?’
‘Yes’, I reply ‘because I am a good and kind person’.
The Bloke is transformed. A beatific smile, part joy, part disbelief passes over his face. St Paul himself could hardly have looked more radiant. He is clearly moved by this act of self-sacrifice, and, close to tears now he reaches his arms out for me and says ‘Wife, you’ve come such a long way.’ We embrace, I go and fetch the boring Man Booker from upstairs, he puts the kettle on, opens Adrian and promptly falls asleep with it on his chest. The end.
Now this says far more about me than it does about him. He is accustomed to my inability to share (especially food) and hotly debating the right to watch Twin Peaks before Game of Thrones, and refusing to let the children win at games unless it’s a genuine, unassisted win. The Boy has yet to win a game of snap, for example and I am steadfastly tolerating the hissyfits that ensue. This is not just about selfishness by the way, it’s about what is right and proper. Justice, that’s the word. I got that book out fair and square he was expecting me to say, fastest finger first, loser.
But no. For I have made changes. This does not mean that my value system has changed at all. I still think things should be fair. But now I’ve confused myself and I stupidly promised a conclusion (this often happens when I start writing – or is that righting? – about this sort of human-quagmire stuff). Was this a pure act or not? Or does it mean that I can bend my values when it suits me? Am I just helpless against the Bloke’s puppydog routine? Does it mean that I have not made any genuine changes at all? That I am just acting out another more subtle facet of my deep seated self-centredness? Was my first mind correct?
I don’t think so. I really have made changes. To my behaviour at least. It’s about flexibility. Having fixed ideas is not the same as a coherent value system and is nothing to be proud of. I can shift my love of fairness and act out of something else (kindness, love, generosity) without resentment and without worrying that I’ve lost face, or credibility. There are other small but notable shifts: I can admit fault more readily; I can wear clothes that are not black; I can challenge rudeness in others, sometimes without swearing. I like to think that this is due to having put in some serious psychological and emotional elbow grease over the last few years. Age might have something to do with it, and becoming a parent, but without the work I think The Bloke would be looking daggers at me right now with ‘Barbecues, Explosions and Boobs Through the Ages’ open on his knee whilst I would be hooting at Adrian’s Dad getting the dog pissed on cherry brandy.
Right, then. A conclusion.
Can people change or not? I believe people can make changes to their behaviour, with practice and a big dose of willingness, yes. In other words, a leopard can rearrange its spots on a temporary basis. But it will always have those spots and they will always gravitate to their usual position. The de-beastified prince will always be arrogant and vain at base even after the magical equivalent of gastroenteritis. But he might abstain from looking in every mirror he passes and the next time an elderly woman knocks at the door and asks for shelter on a stormy night he will probably welcome her in with great cheer and offer to rub her feet. Some will argue this would makes his behaviour invalid, inauthentic or even dishonest. and I would disagree. When it comes down to it, what matters is what we do and say, not what we think. You could even argue that we are even more noble when we are willing to behave in a way that is good – because it’s the right thing to do – even when our thoughts run to the uncharitable. When we do this, it’s acknowledgement of our basic human twattishness and aspiring to something better. When we are talking about behaviour, it’s what’s on the outside that counts.
One final note, for the benefit of the Bloke: Enjoy Adrian, my love. But please, hurry up with it.