Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations by Craig Ferguson

★★★★★ (5/5)

One of the interesting quirks of the aging process is that events that seemed to have little or no impact at the time resonate with a thunderous importance later on, like an expertly constructed detective novel.

From the very beginning, I settled on two words which described this book perfectly: delightfully sad. Craig has a unique way with words. He spins and weaves intricate emotions with exceptional brevity and boundless wit. As evident from his most notable stint as a host for a late night talk show and his previous writings, Craig really is unapologetically himself – conscientious, illimitable and of course thoroughly entertaining. From the profane to the most discerning of life’s elements, Craig writes his memoirs with a charming nonchalance that I attribute to his Scottish heritage.

Action creates thought, not the other way round. Not the rather grand Descartian proclamation “I think, therefore I am,” but rather a more pragmatic philosophy of “I am, therefore I think.”

In a brief unraveling of his life, he sheds light on what it means to be an assimilated immigrant, a self-destructive dipsomaniac, a loving father and husband with a marred albeit joyous childhood, an introspective aging adult and an empathetic society man. His sage anecdotes are not didactic but hold an endearing familiarity. There are no high-falutin ideals pursued, just a fantastic truth molded from nostalgia and the past. One of my favorite passages from the book is when Craig describes a particularly inconsequential yet gratifying experience:

“I remember standing in a fantastic, congenial crowded pub at about 1 in the morning when a little puddle of seawater that had been lodged in my ear canal ran out. The water had been heated by my own body temperature, and the sensation of it trickling out is still one of the most delicious physical experiences I have ever had. I will remember that moment until the day I die. To this day whenever I take a swim, it crosses my mind that I might get lucky again.”

The narration is so sublime, so scintillating, the words so lofty and full of purposeful expression that I am tempted to read the lines over and over.

Having read his previous autobiography American on Purpose, blanks left in this memoir are filled with ease. Both memoirs complement each other. The former being a chronological narration of his life, the latter being a collection of anecdotes and incidents that have perhaps contributed to Craig’s perception on a life lived and loved. The very last chapter of this memoir is a testament to Craig’s talent as a storyteller. He is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite authors to look forward to reading and I hope I get to revisit Between the Bridge and the River soon.

In my memory now I still do as I did that day. I brush off the loose stones and debris that attached to me after my fall, and this can’t be true but it is. In the clouds ahead I see your face and the faces of our children and I smile and then I roar with delight as I run as fast as I can toward you.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Aging

  • It seems to me people make up stories to fit their perception about you. They don’t just do it about me, of course. It happens to everybody. I do it to myself. I’m getting older now and the shadows are getting longer. When I look into them I see shapes move and stir and I think I remember what they are, but maybe I’m just making it up to suit a reality about myself that I find comfortable.
  • I want to grow old like Dennis and pantomimes. Busy, enthusiastic, noisy, colorful, politically incorrect, and singing.
  • Old people are from a different tribe than the young. The young are in firm denial of their own mortality. That’s why they can be talked into being kamikaze pilots or suicide bombers, or take shocking risks with their own personal safety through stupid stunts and excessive alcohol and drugs. The idea of not being is incomprehensible to them.
  • An odd but, I’m assured, common phenomenon of the aging process is that childhood memories long thought to be forgotten seem to resurface with shocking and vivid clarity. I am unsure whether to believe in the verisimilitude of these recollections or whether they are just one of the entertainments of a decaying brain.

Wise Gems

  • I’ve never found the notion that “things would have worked if circumstances had been different” to be particularly helpful. Circumstances are what they are.
  • These people were great artists despite their appetite for self-destruction, not because of it.
  • The acquisition of power tends to draw the worst people in our species. The narcissistic, sniveling demagogues who are so insecure about themselves and their ideas that they have to oppress all discussion and dissent, whether by force or by decrying any contrary opinion as treason or lunacy.
  • Fear doesn’t deal in fact. It lives in untruth and rumor, like a modern politician. It’s a voracious weed that needs just a whiff of uncertainty to thrive, because fear needs to conceal itself from plain sight in order to be really effective.
  • In fact, going by feel without having an idea of where you are in the scheme of things will often get you in very big trouble in life

Astute Observations

  • As my late-night show came to an end, I kind of went to pieces. It’s not that I didn’t want to leave; I did, but even if I had not, I felt that there was a change in the wind, that the late-night television world was resetting itself and there was no longer a place for someone like me.
  • Loyalty is not borne so much out of admiration or respect for their candidate, but more out of the hatred of the opponent.
  • The look of utter terror on that poor man’s face. It wasn’t a face built for fear; it was a face for beer and fun and laughing and life. Maybe sadness, but not fear. Seeing fear on that face was an abomination; it was terrifying, but it was the noise that shocked me more. Davie was wailing like a giant terrified child.
  • But more importantly he taught me about connection, that sense of cheeky impudence that I believe is essential for a comedian.
  • So in order to keep bad things from happening, it would seem to make sense to worry about them as a preventative measure. If you don’t worry about things, then they happen.
  • I began to realize that I had a responsibility toward him that transcended my own comfort. I believe this is at the core of real love.
  • There’s nothing sexual for the victim of a so-called sexual assault. That experience belongs to the predator. Call the assault brutal or criminal or disgusting, but calling it sexual in a headline is disingenuous.

Across the Atlantic

  • James Joyce said of sentimentality that it was “unearned emotion,” which I imagine is a belief he must have picked up from his Irish mother.
  • I reject the idea that inheritance is worthy of social status. I resent that the old-boy network propels others forward while leaving others behind regardless of ability.
  • My father always told me, “If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late,” and I believe that to be true.
  • There is the notion that if you have to be diligent and industrious and persistent at a creative venture, then you must not be very good.
  • He and his hundreds of thousands of brothers-in-arms who marched away to war and never returned are at the root of a titanic melancholy and despair which is still palpable in Britain today. Not just because of the horrific carnage or the despicable propaganda that they were laying down their lives to end war in the world rather than being abused in the death throes of feudalism in service of a twisted spat between Victoria’s children.
  • I believe the real reason that the Brits love the monarchy is their inherent love of theater and gossip, both of which the royal family provide. The pageantry and ceremony of the religious and military roles played by the queen and her family is nice, especially along with the more relatable but still salacious family tribulations.
  • Like most Scots I have a profound emotional connection to this time of year; it plays into our dramatic, cinematic sense of ourselves and affords us the opportunity to gaze glassy-eyed into the distance and feel emotions about loss and hope that frankly we don’t usually have time for.
  • “The best thing that ever came out of Scotland was the road to England.”

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • It also seems to me that the phrase riding the elephant contains a perfect description for a life which seems to take any direction it chooses, paying scant attention to my instructions or commands. The big gray fucker just goes where it wants.
  • In the time before I loved you, I never thought of the world as precious. It had value to me only in its sensuality and its ability to satiate my appetites. This was the time when I was ruled by the tyranny of desire. If I couldn’t eat it or snort it or own it or drink it or make it cry or laugh or give me money, then it was invisible to me. I had no empathy, but used sentimentality and wit and slurred prose to cloak my ugliness.
  • A job on “ra mulk” was highly prized among my contemporaries. I remember the solitude of these mornings as some of the most beautiful and evocative moments of my early life. The sunrise in the west of Scotland is incandescent and sometimes—often—it’s the only time of the day when it doesn’t rain.
  • It horrifies me now to think of the amount of nighttime drunken swimming I’ve done in my life. I wouldn’t so much as take a bath in candlelight these days, but I was a wilder version of myself then.

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