Early trauma drives Izzard onward

British comedian Eddie Izzard. Photo: Getty Images
British comedian Eddie Izzard. Photo: Getty Images

Eddie Izzard's autobiography, Believe Me: A memoir of love, death, and . . . jazz chickens (with Laura Zigman) details the performer's painful motivation. 

A memoir of love, death, and jazz chickens
Eddie Izzard
(with Laura Zigman)

Penguin Random House NZ


Eddie Izzard says he doesn't want people to get the wrong impression about him from his stand-up routines, which can be somewhat rambling streams of consciousness that go off on whimsical tangents. He can make arena-sized audiences laugh for 90 minutes straight, but not by being the spontaneous and disorganised performer his delivery might suggest. This man is driven and there is absolutely nothing casual about how he has gone about building his career.

Izzard's success as a comedian, actor, fundraiser and activist has come to pass after years of doing the hard yards as a street performer and club-circuit comic and displaying a steely determination to overcome countless setbacks. His focus on goals is laser-like and he seems incapable of giving up, no matter how tough the circumstances, and his autobiography is filled with examples of his stoicism.

He suggests his need to achieve to a high degree, and to do so on his own steam, might be due to the death of his mother when he was only 6. He feels he has been trying to make her proud ever since and even, in a metaphorical sense, trying to impress her so much she would consider coming back from the grave.

The early part of his book deals with his childhood and family life, which by all accounts was happy and loving. His mother's death from cancer was a profound shock for him and his brother at such a young age, especially as they had no idea she was mortally ill. They went to school one day and when they came home she was gone.

In a sense, her loss has defined his life and everything since has been a response to it. Not only that, he and his brother were sent to boarding school after she died because his father, who worked as a senior accountant for BP, had to travel a lot. So, two little boys went from a warm and nurturing home life to the isolation of boarding school with no parents in sight in a matter of weeks.

That trauma taught Izzard many things, not least independence, self-sufficiency and mental toughness. These qualities didn't develop overnight but Izzard's book draws a clear picture of how they came about and how they have helped him.

Despite the compassion I felt regarding his mother's death, and the terrible loneliness that followed for the young Eddie (compounded by keeping the fact he was a transvestite secret until he was 23), the first part of his story seems a bit slow-moving. And, given the circumstances of his early life, there isn't a lot of scope for cracking jokes.

When he does lighten things up, some of the humour seems a bit childish, which is a surprise. What works on stage with good timing and vivacious delivery (not to mention Izzard's skill with accents and foreign languages) doesn't always work that well on the page.

However, as his accomplishments start to stack up, and the anecdotes of how he dealt with obstacles and disappointments accumulate, so did my admiration and interest in him.

His drive to succeed speaks of the better parts of a type-A personality. He has delivered shows all over the globe in English, French, German and Spanish, and is now learning Arabic and Russian. He has acted in television shows, plays and films, is an accomplished musician, has a pilot's licence, and has received multiple awards for his acting, comedy and humanitarian work. The latter has included running 43 marathons around the UK in 51 days and 27 marathons in South Africa in 27 days, the former for Sport Relief and the latter to honour Nelson Mandela. He is now planning a political career in the UK, although that is not mentioned in the book.

This is an account of a life well lived, one that has been touched by sadness but also motivated by it. Although the humour is uneven, there are good laughs as well as some moving passages, especially about Izzard's experiences as a transvestite.

But, mostly the focus is on what can be achieved with unwavering effort. You might need a lie down by the end.

Caroline Hunter is an ODT subeditor.

Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Believe Me: A memoir of love, death, and ... jazz chickens, by Eddie Izzard (with Laura Zigman) to give away courtesy of Penguin Random House. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor shane.gilchrist@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Izzard’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, September 5.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Crimes of the Father, by Thomas Keneally, courtesy of Penguin Random House: Andrea Watson-Smith, of Dunedin, Cleone and Peter Blomfield, of Queenstown, Suzanne Menzies, of Dunedin, Sue Duffy, of Oamaru, Ella O’Brien, of Dunedin.

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