Elizabeth Day: ‘This is why I got a tattoo’

A few years ago I got a tattoo. To anyone taking a sharp inhale of disapproval and saying ‘but a tattoo is permanent’, I reply ‘only as permanent as life itself’. My view is that life is too short not to do the things you want. So yes, I have a tattoo. Actually I have four, discreetly placed, but that’s for a different column.

Dan Kennedy

The tattoo in question is E M Forster’s quote ‘Only connect’. It’s a maxim made famous in his masterpiece Howards End. In that book, Forster writes about connecting our inner and outer lives as well as understanding each other as individuals beyond class or social divides. Over the years, it has become something of a mantra for me. I use it to remind myself that the motivating force behind everything I do – writing, speaking, feeding the cat – is connection. I seek understanding of others and, by extension, of myself.

I got it tattooed on my left wrist after I’d published a memoir to remind myself that whatever someone’s reaction might be to my work, the most important thing was connection. In the best-case scenario, someone would read my books or this column and feel seen and less alone. Connection, after all, is the opposite of alienation. And, I reasoned with myself, even if a reader hated what I was saying and left a one-star review comparing me unfavourably to a weighted blanket, at least they felt something. I’ve had to remind myself of this in the anxious run-up to the publication of my new novel Magpie.

So I was intrigued by a recent newspaper profile of the successful young Irish writer Sally Rooney, author of Normal People. I admire her novels and think she writes very well. In the interviews Rooney gave to mark the publication of her new book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, she criticised the culture of fame she had experienced and claimed that she didn’t see why she had to talk about herself in order to promote her books. She added that it was not a footballer’s job ‘to reflect your life experiences’ in much the same way as it was not an author’s job ‘to populate my books with particular types of characters that I imagine other people might find relatable. It’s my job to write about whatever comes into my head, to the best of my ability.’

I respect her stance. Besides, the great beauty of writing is that there is space for all kinds of writers. But I find myself slightly at odds with the implication. My feeling has always been that a writer should look outwards at the world and seek to engage with what’s going on, rather than gazing at their own navel and describing what they find there.

Of course, the two aren’t incompatible: you can gaze at your navel and also grapple with what it is to be human (step forward Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard), but it upsets me to think that there are young writers out there who, so bruised by their own celebrity, find it unsettling to look beyond a narrow canvas.

I actively want to connect. I want to share my own experiences and my own vulnerabilities so that someone else I have never met can find themselves in my words. That act of imaginative empathy is, for me, the entire point of writing.

I have lost count of the number of letters and cards and emails I’ve received from readers of this column. They are among the most precious things I own. They come from all over the country and all different age groups. I’ve heard from women who’ve been through miscarriage. From grandfathers who miss their grandchildren. From an 88-year-old lady who says I’ve kept her company through the pandemic and that she feels like she knows me.

In our understanding of each other, we also understand what it is to be human. That’s why I write.

This week I’m…


Sidesplitter by comedian Phil Wang: a funny and moving look at what it means to be of dual heritage.


Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, riveted by whether or not Kerry Katona will get a green beret.


The Queens of Archive ‘Gloria’ dress. The sleeves give new meaning to ‘statement’.