After about 10 minutes of interviewing William Leith on the telephone, I gave up and put down my pen. Trying to record the author’s answers was simply not happening and I resorted to having a good old fashioned chat.
Leith –author of the wonderfully named memoir Bits of Me Are Falling Apart – is prone to rambling and it’s something he readily admits to doing. Both in conversation and his writing, Leith is easily distracted and often finds himself riffing on something completely different from what he began talking about. Bits of Me Are Falling Apart details Leith’s failing, ageing body and also allows him to take a long hard look at his failing, ageing life.
Me: “William, are you looking forward to being 50?”
William: “Err, no, perhaps, sort of yes, definitely. Kind of. You know when you look into a shop window and you feel fat, and you realize that you are middle-aged, that you are a failed young person? I think I’m there. Um. I haven’t got to the part when old people accept they are old and wear those tweedy clothes, you know those tweedy jackets, and don’t worry about it. I’m rambling aren’t I?”
We then have a discussion about the meaning of the phrase ‘working your t-shirt’ but neither of us – me, a low 40-something sitting in Canada, and Leith, a slightly higher 40-something sitting in Sussex - can really figure it out. I gave up caring about what clothes I wore when my first child vomited milk across the shoulder of my favourite blue sweater several days after her birth when I was still learning the ropes of fatherhood. I don’t know what Leith is wearing but I can’t see him appearing in a Gap ad in the near future.
“It’s a bit like the phrase ‘She rocks that dress,’” says Leith. “I think it’s about catching yourself looking in the mirror to see how that t-shirt looks. Older men wear funny hats and don’t mind. That sort of shows the older guy thing. As a child, I remember envying my parents because I had to go out to discos and it was a trial, a battle, and they could just stay at home and slump in the chair with a whiskey, not caring about anything. I look forward to not caring – old people are so lucky.”
In Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, Leith details his middle-aged body as it begins to crumble and haunt him with false alarms of possible tumours or worse. He memorably compares our bodies to the famous opening 40 minutes of the Saving Private Ryan movie. The Americans are the germs attempting to invade our bodies and steal our health – the Germans are the parts of our bodies that fight off the germs and keep us healthy.
At first, the Germans can simply mow down the advancing Americans before they can even reach the beach but eventually the Germans make mistakes and allow the invaders to advance. Leith believes his body is now making too many mistakes, it’s wearing out and tiring from its relentless defence.
About halfway through the book I began to wonder if Leith was simply feeling sorry for himself, and, as my mum would say, why didn’t he just pull himself together and get on with it.
“That’s how it all started,” admits Leith. “I wrote the book because I was feeling sorry for myself. Yes, it was self-indulgent. It’s all I could write about. I had the feeling of being doomed and did a lot of lying there and worrying."
I brought up the subject of Lance Armstrong, who famously recovered from cancer to win the Tour de France seven times and documented his story in It’s Not About the Bike. But Leith doesn’t bite – those headline-grabbing stories of overcoming adversity are not his style. He prefers to look internally at himself and understand every small detail he is feeling or experiencing.
Leith wrote Bits of Me Are Falling Apart at a particularly low point in his life. His relationship with the mother of his son had collapsed and, in the book, he takes a searching look at everything from his finances to the fact he’s sleeping on a mattress in his office. “I’d be lying there and thinking what’s that twinge? I’d say to myself I’m OK, but then I’d think I’ve messed everything up.”
But in our rambling transatlantic telephone conversation, Leith is almost bubbly. “I’m back with my ex now,” he says. “Everything is alright. I was in the pits of depression when I wrote that book. But there’s a happy ending now. Tomorrow, I’m even going on the family holiday that I was so depressed about missing when I was writing the book.”
Leith was in the process of packing for the holiday when I called. I can’t help but smile. He tells me his body is holding up pretty well although his heel is sore. He thinks some muscle has been pulled away from the bone, but his chiropractor told him to just leave it. Leith has treated himself to a new pair of comfortable Nikes.
Leith, who has been a columnist or feature writer for many of the UK’s major papers since the late 1980s, loves books. One of his passions are novels that show men falling apart in the suburbs. Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, Saul Bellow, and John Updike – he’s reading Updike now. Before Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, Leith wrote The Hungry Years – an examination of being fat so you can see how his mind works.
He is currently working on another book but it’s an up-hill battle. “I’m writing a book about economics,” he said. “The funny thing is that I started it about a year ago and it began as a kind of warning about a crisis that was coming up, then it became a book about how we going to have to patch this thing up and now it’s becoming a book about how this really is the big one. It supposed to come out in 2010. I’m supposed to guess what things will be like then.”
Not an easy task and I fear Leith is already fretting about trying to predict the future. I let him continue with his packing.