The Ugly Truth :: Out of the Bag

To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.’ – Vladimir Nabokov

bulk :: 12st 5
age :: 42 (as of yesterday)
elbows :: 2
elbows in head :: 0
regrets :: a few
pretentious quotes :: 1
marital status :: single
children :: 0
% of physical truth in Bête de Jour :: approx. 75%
% of emotional truth in Bête de Jour :: 100%
occupation before Bête de Jour :: TEFL teacher
occupation after Bête de Jour :: up in the air

As the many ham-fisted, wrong-footed or otherwise abortive attempts I’ve made over the last couple of years testify, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. (So hard in fact, that in the end, rather than just blurt it out, I disguised the reveal in last week’s hitching trip.) Just in case there’s still any doubt, however, or just in case you’re more confused now than you were a week or so ago, let me just clarify:

I’m not the ugly brute I’ve been claiming to be for the past couple of years. There. I’ve said it.

I know a few of you had your doubts, some of them verging on the vociferous. Well, congratulations. Your cynicism was not unfounded – at least not entirely.

Right. So. Where to start?

First, I think, with an apology. I know that some of you who’ve come to know me as Stan Cattermole will be upset to think that I don’t exactly exist. It’s happened before on the few occasions I’ve come clean to readers of the blog. A couple of times the reaction has really surprised and shocked me. I’ve encountered feelings of anger, betrayal, humiliation and even bereavement. And before I begin to explain how all of this came about, I would just like to apologise to anyone who feels hurt, angry or cheated at this point. Especially those of you who have felt close enough to me to share some of your own lives and emotions in private correspondence. I’m sorry if you feel double-crossed because of this revelation, but really, nothing has changed. I’m still exactly the same person underneath. Exactly the same. And I hope that by the time you finish reading this, you will accept that.

Leading on from that point, I’d like to properly introduce myself to you, finally. My real name is Karl and although I may not be the freakish deformed character I made myself out to be, I have had my moments…

…and perhaps more pertinently, I certainly felt ugly for most of the first twenty or so years of my life.

I wasn’t ugly though. I was just an average-looking kid with dodgy eyes, a concave chest and an enormous inferiority complex.

I grew up feeling terribly afraid of people, and more generally of life as a whole. I went through a lengthy phase of vomiting every morning before I went to school, simply because I was so daunted by the daily confrontations that school-life tossed into my face. For a long time after that, I was afraid of going into shops – essentially, I was afraid of people. Without wishing to allocate blame, I blame my parents. A kind of non-blaming blame, because it wasn’t their fault that they were trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage, dominated for the most part by my father’s alcoholism and concomitant vileness. But I think it was because of all that, and because of never feeling particularly wanted or loved by my parents, that I turned in on myself and became terrified and self-hating.

And the reason I mention all of this is to try and show that some of what fuelled Stan’s story was very closely associated with my own childhood, and my adulthood too.

To tell the story more specifically of how Bête de Jour came about, we have to go back to September 2007, when the London-based social networking site I’d been helping to run was falling apart, and I found myself moderately depressed and totally lost, clueless as to what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It was around then, with my future splintering around my ears, that I had a dream.

I dreamt that I was talking to a funny-looking friend of mine, and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you write an ugly man’s guide to finding love?’ In response, my friend looked vaguely offended and said he would be too embarrassed. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And I thought about it – still in the dream – and I thought, ‘That’s actually not a bad idea.’ Then I woke up, still thinking about it, and still fairly convinced it made sense for me. I needed something to write, and also, I needed somewhere to hide. I’d had an unpleasant experience with the internet which I’m sure I’ll talk about before very long, and I felt very strongly that I needed to distance myself from it. So what followed was a combination of autobiography and fictionalised autobiography – sometimes highly fictionalised autobiography, and a bit of straight fantasy for good measure. Plus lots of straight, daily-bread blogging.

The main difference between Stan and me at the time was that Stan was depressed because he was 30, morbidly obese and loveless, whereas I was depressed because I was 40, a little bit fat, and somewhat broken, very much reeling from a four-year odyssey through the rancid lower intestines of internet businessland. We both needed to write something. By that point, I had been writing fairly aimlessly and certainly without any palpable success for over 20 years, and teaching English as a foreign language to scrape a living. I was actually pretty close – certainly closer than I’d ever been – to finally giving up the dream of writing for good, and getting a proper job.

The biggest difference between Stan and me, however, was that I was in a relationship at the time. And at the time, it was going very well. Mostly. My girlfriend went on to become the basis for some of what happened with Sally and Morag, and when we actually began to break up at the end of 2008, our break-up morphed into Stan’s break-up with Morag, dead fox and all. Except we’d been together for two years by then, and Stan and Morag had only managed a couple of months.

Oh, and another significant difference was that Stan, as you can see from this photo of me, aged 23, is significantly better-endowed…

So, in December 2007, I became Stan Cattermole and started blogging about my life, dressed up as Stan’s life, and for a long while I assumed that like most of my other projects, it would just dry up and fizzle out, uninspired  and unregarded. But then people started to read, and more importantly, people started to write to me. At first, this made me feel terribly guilty because I knew that our correspondence was based on something that wasn’t entirely true. But then I felt very strongly that everything I wrote as Stan was at the very least emotionally true, entirely so. It was me. So I put my guilt to one side and I did what came naturally. I wrote back, and I made friends.

Also, for a long, long time after starting the blog – at least for the first year – I kept expecting to be found out. Every time I clicked on a new comment, I imagined someone declaring that Stan was obviously fake and that I was a despicable charlatan. But it didn’t happen. It just kept going…. At the time, I used to dread being outed, but when I found myself alone in London at the beginning of 2009, I began to will it to happen. I wanted to be me again and able to write about my real life, which was suddenly much more desolate than Stan’s. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I’d written myself into a corner and was trapped utterly by this large, elbow-headed man. By then of course, I was writing the book, and had signed a contract with Harper Collins which said I wasn’t allowed ‘to alter the direction of the blog before paperback publication’. So I was in it for the long haul. As they say.

I want it to end now too by the way. Now is approaching the end of August ’09, which means I’ve got at least another nine months of pretending, and maybe occasionally appearing in public with a bag on my head. Last week I was on GMTV, my true identity hidden by a paper bag. Although I can’t deny it was fun, it was also painfully ridiculous, and I still find it difficult to believe that the whole thing has gone on for so long.

I’m not complaining of course. Well, not much.

And if you are actually reading these words, then I guess it’s over. Cattermole is out of the bag. And although I am doubtless feeling highly relieved, I don’t want to give the impression that I in any way regret Stan and everything he’s done for me, because of course I don’t. He’s been wonderful therapy and I really think he’s helped me evolve to some extent. The only regrets I do have concern the extent of any hurt caused by the upheaval of the truth, something of which as yet I’m completely unaware.

I hold out hope, however, that the upset will be minimal, because – as I see it at least – the truth isn’t that staggering a departure from the lie; to reiterate, the truth is merely that I’m not the brutal, brutal physical mess I was pretending to be. On the other hand, lots of the old stories, ninety per cent of the day-to-day stuff and the vast majority of the relationship stuff was pretty much verbatim.

So, really, ultimately, this is not so tragic. Is it? No, of course it isn’t. In fact, it’s positively Good News. Especially if you ever cared for Stan. Just think: he was never tied to a chair as a child – that was my father; he never had plates thrown at him by his mother – that was my brother; and he never coerced a kitten into licking his nipples and penis – it was a puppy, and he did the licking. Actually, that already sounds worse. It should give you some idea though, of the difference between what I wrote as Stan and what actually happened, so…

I was thirteen when I licked a dog’s balls. I don’t know why I did it. It was just a weird teenage experimentation thing, and I was lonely. It was on the living room floor of my sister’s house in Chatham. I was alone in the house, just me and my only friend at the time, a red setter called Boot. Here he is. Bless him.

So Boot was lying on his back with his legs open – gagging for it, he was – and I leant over his genitals, slowly, and I licked his balls. Just once I think, and believe me, it held no pleasure for me. I don’t know if you’ve ever examined a dog’s scrotum – maybe you’ve even licked one yourself – but it’s not an attractive thing. At least Boot’s wasn’t. It was all sparsely haired and liver-spotted, much like the balls of a tired old man. I imagine.

This is the two of us together. Don’t we make a lovely couple?

I loved that dog.

So there you go. We’re equally troubled, Stan and I. And equally flawed and equally furnished.

Of course, I realise that now the truth is out there, you might tend not to believe anything I say. I’ve probably given up a certain amount of my privileges when it comes to being believed. I am the Elephant Man who cried wolf and I guess I’m going to have to live with the consequences of that. And it’s a shame because I’m actually one of the most scrupulously honest people you’ll ever meet. No, honest I am. It’s just that, for the purposes of this blog, I gave the truth a little tweak, that’s all. Just a little tweak.

I realise also that for many of you, none of my attempts at justification will cut any ice and my apologies will ring hollow and meaningless. Well, I’m sorry. All I can say is, none of this was ever meant to be deceitful. Despite the lies.

So. What are your thoughts? Are we still friends? I’m still having a party on Friday if you fancy it. Partly to celebrate my birthday. Partly to celebrate the publication of the paperback. But mostly to celebrate the fact that, for the first time in my life, I am actually ready to accept who I am. (Before I was Stan Cattermole by the way, I was Graham Pond for six years. Before that, a whole bunch of other people. I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis, pretty much since I was a child. But I’m done with it now. And I feel really good about that.)

Anyway, there it is. Make of it what you will and if it’s at all possible, I hope to see you on Friday. At the Royal George on Charing Cross Road. Please don’t stab me.


129 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth :: Out of the Bag

  1. Wow! I am dumbstruck by some of the comments. I get the impression some of the ladies who read your blog have romanticised a bit too unhealthily, which may explain feeling ‘bereft’.

    Perhaps Stan filled a void in them, and now they blame you for having left a gaping hole.

    It makes a fascinating sociological study.

    Have fun on Friday and I look forward to more from Karl

  2. Oh, I fully admit to the unhealthy romanticisation! There was a bloody enormous void in my life (having a boyfriend who is in fact gay does that to you), and Stan was what I filled it up with. Unhealthy in many, many ways.

    I know that a lot of the people who are upset had been corresponding with Stan, which I do think makes a difference. Getting attached to a character who isn’t real is one thing, but being able to interact with them shifts things onto another level. And I don’t think feeling bereft is unreasonable. I still feel heartbroken at the end of Villette (the students I teach think I’m insane) and I’ve never had a note from Monsieur Paul. That’s the power of good writing.

  3. I only ever seem to find out about great anonymous bloggers through their outings! First Girl One Track, then Belle De Jour, now you!

    I admire anyone who writes deeply personal material online, whether anonymously or not. I hope this process of transition is not too difficult.

    Now I know I am late to the party but I don’t mind. I have never been cool.

    Look forward to reading the book.

    All good wishes

    Elly/Quiet Riot Girl

  4. @Wellington, I hope you’re not lumping me in with the people who are/have been ‘sad’ about Karl’s deception. I was not, nor am I, sad about it. And I stopped being angry about, ooh, about 30 seconds after I replied to Karl’s email to me. Where I got to tell him that I never bought his book. Petty, non? But ever so right.

  5. Sally, I think it’s a bit reductive (not to mention sexist, even if you are a woman) to suggest that people who are female and disappointed about this were “romanticising” the Stan character.

    Hope the weather looks nice from your ivory tower where you are conducting your high-minded sociological studies.

    (Though it is brave of Pearl to admit that it was the case for her.)

    Anything you care about and which disappears leaves a hole, however big or small.

    If a friend dies, it leaves a hole.
    If a favourite television show jumps the shark or is cancelled, it leaves a hole.
    If a favourite novel turns out to be plaigirised, it leaves a hole.
    If a public figure you hold in high regard says something unpleasant and crass, it leaves a hole.

    I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to be emotionally involved with something to the point where you feel some kind of sadness when it is either taken away or you are forced to look at it from an unpleasant perspective.

    This emotional engagement is the stuff of life, and well done to Karl for creating something that can actually move people.

    I still can’t make up my mind whether to come tonight, I am in the area.

  6. Ultimately although I am still a bit sad, I’m not at all angry. Karl is by no means the first author to invent a persona and write as if they were real.

    Would the blog have been as successful if either a) Karl wrote as himself or b) wrote about the fictional adventures of fictional Stan? Probably not.

    Can’t help but think that the blog’s (and thus the book’s) success is due to people’s natural voyeurism (mine included, of course). Why else would reality TV be so popular?

    Karl, you managed to tap into something a little ghoulish (people’s endless bug-eyed fascination with society’s apparent rejects) and turn it into something heartwarming, funny and with literary merit.

    * * *

    There are ethical grey areas (the “donate” button springs instantly to mind), but I’m not sure what to make of them at the moment.

    * * *

    Interesting that no-one has really raised any objection to Karl appropriating the life of a person with a facial disfigurement. I think it’s actually quite encouraging to note this because it suggests a healthy “blindness” on the part of his readers. I mean, when inventing a character, fiction writers should feel free to explore any persona regardless of gender, race, sexuality etc. I don’t think you have to “live” it in order to write it.

    (incidentally, although I was fairly skeptical about many – or most – of the events in Stan’s story, I never really questioned that I was reading something written by someone with a disfigurement, testament to the quality of the writing)

    I haven’t studied the comments Karl, do you know if any people with facial disfigurements got in contact with you? If so, how did you feel about it? Did you ever feel in danger of being held up as an example, positively or otherwise?

    Does anyone here have a facial disfigurement?

    I’m uncomfortable with the suggestion that physical disfigurement (or indeed being overweight, as Stan was) is somehow a metaphor for any kind of emotional/mental repulsiveness/abnormality or “otherness”. It’s just a part of the character.

    Stan’s disfigurement formed his character (just as all our environmental influences – be it background, home, family, race etc – are part of ours) and his being fictional doesn’t make that any less authentic.

    Does it? Doesn’t it? Too much narrative theory now, I am confused and tired.

    Karl, thoughts please.

  7. As you said on b3ta … ‘a small minority of haters’ … is that what you think of the people who felt betrayed by you?


  8. I too pottered off when you moved away from the personal stuff – at that point I sensed you weren’t who you claimed, and retrospectively felt a bit uncomfortable about the people who unburdened themselves to you in the comments section. I’m not one for opening up my innermosts on the internet, and now I’m very glad of that fact. No doubt a good few more people will be equally wary now. I enjoy your writing though, so in a way this makes me feel I can come back to a clean slate.

  9. Just saw that on B3ta too.

    Who are the haters? I presume I’m included.

    I don’t hate. Nothing of the sort. I just think this whole exercise was misjudged, so I used the comments to tell you that. Right from the off.

    Rampant egomania on display, right here. ‘They all hate me’ often translates as ‘some of them are indifferent to my showing off’.

    Anyway, opinions aside, have a lovely night. I hope nobody gets too angry with you, because it’s sunny and Friday and it’s only the internet.

  10. I’ve been mulling this over for the last few days. I really enjoyed reading about Stan, and although from time to time I thought that his exploits were just too coincidental to be real (like meeting Sally in a park), I just assumed that most of what Stan wrote was true.

    Nevertheless, I wasn’t particularly upset when you outed yourself – it was more a sort of shrug and the feeling of “Oh….OK….”. And then I thought about it a bit more, and I came to the conclusion that I admired Stan’s blog for its willingness to be very open and frank about his faults, triumphs and defeats. And now that it seems that it was all made up (yes, I know that there was at least an oblique dalliance with the truth, but it all still rings a bit hollow to me ), I can’t help wondering whether there’s any point in continuing to read about Karl. Because no matter how good your writing is (and it really is very good indeed), I will always wonder whether any of Karl’s stories, opinions and feelings are really genuine.

    I know that the same could be said about anyone’s personal blog. But perhaps naively, I have always made the assumption that people who claim to be writing about their lives are more or less telling the truth most of the time, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I tend to believe them.

    I just wanted to let you know how another long-time reader is feeling at the moment. I think I’ll just try and keep an open mind and check in with you every now and then. In the meantime, all the best and I hope your party was fab.

  11. Its quite amazing you got away with the con for so long, I’ve read your blog from the start and even brought your book, but like others I kind of wished you never revealed the truth because it kills all the suspense and alluring mystery that was Stan Cattermole, I think It would have been more fitting killing Stan off Sherlock Holmes style and leaving it at that.

    I properly won’t be following this new blog but wish you the best of luck.

  12. Oh I’m really relieved! It would be terrible to have a face like a bag of elbows, I’m very happy that you don’t have such an affliction after all. Congratulations!

  13. Whoa! I’ve been busy the last week, just look at what has transgressed in the meantime. I think that this might actually be your longest comments section ever Karl (It feels weird using that name but at least I always knew Stan was a pseudonym).

    I’ll admit to feeling a little disappointed.. a little of the bereavement some of your other readers expressed. The best way I can think of describing it is that feeling you get at the end of a very touching book in which you really connect with the characters and suddenly find that their story goes no further. The only difference is that here it happened so much more suddenly and without us expecting it (at least in the case of myself and Beleaguered Squirrel).

    Despite this, I will continue to read your blog Karl. I believe that you’re a truly gifted writer and am also curious as to what extent Stan’s personality converges within yours.

    I’m sorry I missed the pub meet, was out of town.

  14. I crafted and attempted to post a response to your blog to the effect that:

    a) I had enjoyed Bete de Jour (too lazy for accents, sorry)
    b) I didn’t feel cheated by the revelation of its fictional basis, indeed
    c) I had kidded myself that I had long suspected it wasn’t 100% “from life”
    d) I know someone with the same name as you (Karl not Stan) but I am almost certain it isn’t you (well, not if those really are Karl’s pictures.

    Did it get lost in the ether, or have you had so many comments that it is stuck in some pipe waiting for you to clear it for publication, or did you veto it for some reason? If the latter I am wondering why.

    Anyway, thanks and good luck and I suppose I’d better buy the book now…

    Also try not to make it too difficult to find you wherever you decide to blog next.


  15. I always believed. But then again, I didn’t see any reason not to.

    You are an incredibly talented writer, Karl. I’d go to the pub on Friday were I not heading to Birmingham that same day.

    I’ll miss La Bete.

  16. Hi, Rachel. a) b) and c) Good. I am pleased. d) They are me in the pictures, but mostly not massively representative. Representative enough though, I should think, for you to recognise me if I were the same person you know. As for the last comment, I guess if it didn’t get approved, it must have got lost in the ether. I certainly didn’t see and reject it. And new blog won’t be too difficult to find. It’s here!

    Innocent Loverboy, thank you very much. Pub was last Friday but come to the next one. Now that I’m out, I intend to be out and about frequently. I bet you don’t miss La Bete, you know. We’ll see.

  17. I came here hoping to find answers only to find more questions. I still can’t believe it. But I forgive you, and you’re still my blog crush😉

    And if I may say…This is the move that only a few can pull off ;)…I’ll bookmark your page and come by when I can, take care!🙂

  18. Stan, I thought we’d agreed you’d hold back on rolling out this “Karl Webster” nutjob project until after we nailed down HBO on the rights to Sexy. You’re cocking it all up. Jesus! Monday’s a holiday. We’ll grovel on the 6th. Say it’s just an inside baseball trial balloon. Until then, zip up.

  19. Having bought and read the book version before visiting your blog, I’d periodically summarize particular episodes to my wife, as I worked my way through the narrative. On one occasion, my wife asked why Stan didn’t just get plastic surgery. I said that Stan couldn’t endure the resulting loss of identity. “This guy’s not for real,” she replied. “That doesn’t sound like what a person in that situation would think.” She was right, it turns out. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the story and, I hope, learned a heap of wisdom from it. Thanks.

    1. There’s another reason, Dean. Plastic surgeons by and large have developed procedures to fix specific defects – a broken nose, sagging skin, and so on. Despite what happens in the movies, there is no established procedure for “give me an entirely new face.” I’ve checked.

  20. Damn😦

    just read the bit about pablo dying and then decided to check the blog and VERY much wishing I hadn’t !

    deff not the same reading when you know that it is fiction …..

  21. Just stumbled across this after seeing my name in the thanks section of the book when i spotted it in the library.

    I’m not hurt, but I do think it was a bit of a dickish thing to do to people who considered your fictional creation their friend.

  22. I am glad I came across the book before the blog, it is a little disappointing that stan does not exist but at the end of the book I had come to the conclusion that he never was as ugly as he thought. I thought it was just the lack of motherly love and his ugliness became real only as long as he believed it. I don’t really read fiction but I did really enjoy your book, thanks.

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