The Success of Failure

Failures, not all that they are lived down to be

Even Folkestone Harbour fishing boats remain tied up at 4am. The few souls who expected to venture out at that sadistic hour do so for reasons imposed by nature; they need darkness or tides, though Smugglers, thieves and scallywags were in absence. Instead one Channel swimmer and his entourage, readied themselves and an old trawler, ‘The Alice’, for the long choppy cold day ahead.

The Channel Swim Association adjudicator, Brian Leech, a rotund man with a clinging smoking habit, slowly repeated the rules, his Dover accent rising and falling as if with the waves.

‘No touching boat, no ‘quipment ‘cept goggles, regulation size trunks and swim hat. When at Shakespeare Beach, swim to shore. Signal when ready. Once in France stand on shore and wave both hands in air.’

No one took much notice as it was too early and everyone knew what to do. Tom Dagger, the boat pilot of ‘The Alice’, had heard the rules many times. He knew what swimmers go through when they attempt to swim the English Channel. The main thing they had to bring with them was a positive attitude, without that no one makes it, no matter how good a swimmer they are. He searched for signs of negativity for his usual wee punt on the chances of success, with his boat hand, Alex.

 ‘Any questions or comments?’ shouted Brian.

Seamus ‘The Thrasher’ O’Boyle shook his head and laughed and Tom Dagger stopped his prep to wait for a reply. It was slow in coming as O’Boyle thought the matter was too obvious to require further explanation. He seemed to sense the others waiting for his comments and keen to avoid the obvious he said.

‘The sooner we feel comfortable with failure the easier it is to get on with life.’ He commented at last.

‘Really?’ replied Tom with a grin and looked at Brian.


‘That’s your advice?’ Tom asked and winked to the boat hand before returning to his task.

‘Aye, it is,’ said O’Boyle.

‘You are going out there with that on your mind?’ Tom pointed over the swell of the busiest shipping lane in the world towards France.

‘Not just on my mind.’ Seamus pulled his T-shirt over his big bald head to gasps from the crew.

‘Whoa! Were you in some Russian Gulag or something?’ said a startled Tom.

‘Nope, never been to jail.’

Tom paused his tinkering to look closer. ‘I have never seen so much writing on anything. You look like a telephone directory. Yo, Alex, look at this.’

The boat hand Alex joined them from the front deck, where he had been waiting to let them loose from the pier. ‘Hey you’re an walking encyclopaedia, man’.

‘Turn around?’ asked the pilot, sheepishly, incase Seamus took the hump. ‘There’s barely a bit of skin left.’ He read aloud from O’Boyle’s right pec squinting to see the tiny print in the morning light, so his words were deliberate, becoming louder in succession. ‘There is nothing that fails like success.’

‘Wow he said,’ then read the next.

‘Try to do something and fail or try to do nothing and succeed.’

To ensure he had the pattern interpreted correctly he felt compelled to read the third.

‘Failure is not the falling down, but staying down.’

‘Are they all like this?’

‘They are,’ said Seamus as he stuffed his shirt into his bag, peeled off his leggings into the same bag and ignored the stares of the pilot.

‘Legs, too?’

Seamus didn’t reply, there was no point. It was obvious his legs were covered with tinny blue scrawls. Tom stared at him as if he wasn’t able to get on with things without an answer. After a moment O’Boyle obliged. ‘Well, there are a lot of quotes about failure.’.

‘Are any two the same?’

‘Nope. I ran out of room before I ran out of quotes.’

‘Isn’t that all a bit negative?’ Tom wondered again if he should take bets with Alex later.

‘Not a bit. ‘The fastest way to succeed is to double your rate of failure.’’ Seamus pointed to the tattoo under his arm. ‘Failure keeps me going because when I get knocked down I know I am in good company. Look, that last one was Thomas Watson, this is Churchill, this is Napoleon, Henry Ford, Johnny Cash, Bill Gates, Benjamin Franklin and look this one, Abraham Lincoln. I love this one -  ‘A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame anyone else’ - John Burroughs.’

‘What a collection,’ said Tom.

‘Sure is. However today is the last day. I have gone, to quote Churchill, from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm, all my life. Now? There is no room for failure. Unless I tattoo my face, which I won’t do.’

Tom, a craggy seafaring man with a sun dried face resembling a fat ET, studied Seamus long and hard. ‘I thought being a fisherman required perseverance. You? Well you win, you haven't failed at trying, have you?’

‘Sure haven’t’

‘Do you remember which quote relates to what?’

‘Oh aye. This one here, it was my first, penned when I failed my exams at 16. This one is for when Rosin Duffy dropped me for the cheat’n bastard Mick Maguire.’ Seamus pointed to a line just below his belly button.

‘What happened to Rosin?’ asked Tom as he revved the engine and Alex untied the painters to head for the nearest bit of land to France and the starting point for most Channel swim attempts, Shakespeare Beach.

‘Rosin, eh? Maguire is serving ten years in Mountjoy for armed robbery. Rosin won’t wait for him. He was never too reliable with her, if you know what I mean?’

‘And Rosin?’

Seamus looked up with a smile the width of his face. ‘There she is,’ and Seamus waved up at a lonely dark figure standing at the edge of the pier.

The pilot laughed. ‘Success, Seamus, success after all. She must love you to be out at this time of the morning.’

‘Aye, you could say that.’

‘What’s that one for then Seamus?’ The pilot had lost his caution about Seamus’s obsession now that he realised that O’Boyle was proud of his history of failure.

‘That one? That’s for missing out on the Hurley final.’


‘Hell no, Croke Park, the all Ireland final. Beaten by one point. I lost that finger there too.’ He held up his left hand to show the missing digit.

‘Argh, tough game eh? Still you reached the final, that’s hardly amounts to failure.’

‘Expectations define failure.’

‘Who said that one?’

‘I did,’ replied O’Boyle.’

The pilot gunned the engines as they left the harbour and the old fishing boat roared East along the coast away from Dover and Folkestone. Wind and salt replaced the calm oily smell of the harbour. They had to shout over the noise of the diesel engines. A few seagulls followed out of habit, hoping there would be a bit of fishing going on.

‘That’s what this one is about. O’Boyle pointed to a line of script on his right bicep.’

You never fail if you keep your expectations low.’

‘What was than one for?’


‘Dare I ask, did you climb it?’

‘God no, a few hundred feet to go, the air pressure dropped and my partner collapsed and slid.’

The pilot stood mouth gaping waiting to hear the rest.

‘Well, we were running out of oxygen. The unspoken rule is that you leave him. Otherwise you both die.’

‘God rest his soul,’ said the pilot, looking at Seamus in a different light.

‘I couldn’t do that. I climbed down to him. He was hanging by a thread, his rope near cut through. It had snagged thank God. He shouted at me to leave him, to save myself, the weather was closing in fast. That means death up there. You are on your own.’

O’Boyle started fatting up for the swim, smearing a special cocktail of sheep fat, lanolin and goose fat over his body to help keep out the chill and hopefully fend off the jellyfish stings.

‘So what happened him?’

‘Oh he was fine. Had some frost bite and bruising but apart from that ticketyboo.’

‘Well that’s hardly a failure.’

‘Well, like the tattoo says, it depends on your expectations, doesn’t it?’

‘Gee whillikers.’ Shouted Tom.

O’Boyle laughed, ‘Gee Whillikers? That’s funny.’

‘It’s from my wee daughters book, Katie Morag. Have you any children Seamus?’

‘No.’ Seamus blanked for a moment hiding a painful emotion. ‘I always wanted kids. Another failure. Still, not for the want of trying.’ He grinned. ‘That’s what this one is for.’ O’Boyle pointed to his left pec. ‘It’s not a failure if you enjoy the journey.

Tom laughed loudly. ‘Who said that one?’

‘Me. That’s another one of my own.’

‘Is there anything you haven't done?’ asked Tom.

‘I haven't done anything,’ Seamus said matter of factly.

‘Let me rephrase that. Is there anything you haven't failed?’ Tom asked, stuffing his hands into his coat pockets against the breeze. It was cold enough morning and Tom wondered as he watched Seamus limbering up what drew these people to want to swim the English Channel.

‘There can’t be much. Bull Fighting, parachuting, I haven’t failed them,’ Seamus said laughing loudly.

‘There is no room for failing them, is there?’ Tom Laughed along with him.

‘Aye, you are right about that.’

The boat motored on the mile or so to Shakespeare Beach, famous among distance swimmers as one of the starting points for the swim to France.

‘More people have climbed Everest than have swum the Channel,’ shouted Tom

‘Aye, that’s right,’ replied Seamus, nonplussed by this fact.

‘Nearly there. Have you tried this before Seamus?’

‘Not the full thing. I did a relay last year.’

‘Well done.’

‘Naw, we didn’t make it. A storm blew up when we were 20 miles over and the coastguard made us get out.’

‘No way.’

‘Yes way! We were close enough to see the waves against the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez . Thats what this one was for.’ Seamus pointed to a note on his left triceps. ‘Ambition is the last refuge of failure’. - Oscar Wilde.’

‘The weather halts most Channel attempts. You shouldn’t look upon that as a failure. What will you get the next time?’

‘There won’t be a next time. Either I get across or I die.’

Tom had heard that before and automatically raised his eyes then lowered them abruptly as he realised that the gesture was rather rude. He slowed the boat as they approached the beach and let the engines idle a few hundred yards out.

‘I mean it. I have nowhere to put anything. ‘There is no room for failure.’ Said O’Boyle and pointed to another line on his stomach.

Tom smiled and said. ‘Well, Good luck,’ and ushered O’Boyle over the side and into the cold gloomy waters.

With that Seamus dived into the sea, an uncomfortable cool 14 degrees in early July, and started the short swim to the beach. The Pilot observed why Seamus had inherited the name Thrasher as he watched his arms windmill about.

‘Hey captain,’ shouted Alex, ‘funny sort of stroke. Is he alright?’

‘Well he has made it in to shore.’

Seamus turned and waved to signal that he was okay and waded back in to begin the 22 miles of jelly fish infested, current dragging, swim across to France. There was a freshening breeze and Tom worried about the length of their weather window.

Seven Months Later

‘You look well Rosin,’ said the tattoo artist, as he prepared his inks.

‘Thanks, I think they call it blooming,’ Rosin smiled.

‘So. What is it going to be?’

‘I thought ‘In memory of a man determined to fail.

The tattoo artist placed his thumb and forefinger under his chin in thought. ‘It’s not right to say that about ‘The Thrasher’. It sounds a bit negative.’

‘And?’ replied Rosin.

‘That’s harsh. He just had high expectations. He died trying to swim The Channel for goodness sake. In fact! Not trying, don’t forget he swam it alright.’

‘Yeah and he died in the process,’ Rosin became bleary eyed at the memory.

‘Not until he was out of the water. He was found on the beach in France. The thing is he believed he failed everything, but we know better.’

‘Well he made a success out of failure. And you should know, after all Paddy, you marked him with all those tattoos.’

‘Oh he was always too hard on himself Rosin.’

‘Can I let you into a wee secret Paddy?’

‘Go on. My lips are sealed.’

‘His favourite expression was that failures are not all that they are lived down to be. That’s what he used to say to me with a twinkle in his eye.

‘Show me a completely contented person and I'll show you a failure.’ Thomas Edison said that one. I should know cause I put that on Seamus’s ass.’ they laughed at that.

‘He was a happy man alright. Success made him feel depressed. If he succeeded at something he felt he had nothing to aim for. So he aimed high and always failed. At least he beat everyone who didn’t bother and that’s most of the world,’ said Rosin

‘Can I suggest something Rosin?’

‘Go ahead.’

‘In memory of Seamus ‘Thrasher’ O’Boyle, The Man Who Beat Most of the World.’

Rosin thought about it for a few moments. ‘Yes, his wee girl will be proud of that. Success at last.’ She said, patting her stomach in response to the little kicks inside and smiled.