Book Review: ‘What does this button do?’ by Bruce Dickinson

It would be almost impossible for Bruce Dickinson to produce a book which was not a massively successful bestseller. As one of the most recognisable frontmen in heavy metal with legions of fans clamouring for an inside look at the famous polymath’s life, this memoir could only be a surefire commercial hit.

Beyond being simply a world-famous singer, Dickinson has also managed to find success as a high level fencer, a commercial pilot, author, radio presenter and brewer. My interest in his life is far more concentrated on this ability to master several domains at a high level. Sacrilegious confession – I like metal, and admire his musical work but Iron Maiden were never really my jam.

The book itself is a pretty straightforward autobiography, running through his life as a precocious young upstart at a private school with some initial montages of his early family life.  Here is where the writing starts to lose me. Through all the various events that follow in Bruce’s life, we’re only given an outsider’s view on what’s happening – who did what, when it happened, what the outcome was.

As the progresses,  there’s rarely the feeling that you’re being allowed into the mind of the man himself, or given any indication of how he feels about what’s going on around him. One chapter describes a solo flight which left him shaken. The small plane he was flying hit severe turbulence and uncontrollably dropped thousands of feet in a matter of minutes. He talks us through the event as it happens, mentions that he’s terrified and sweating, and that soon he landed successfully and went and got himself some breakfast. It’s billed as a ‘memorable event’ but there’s no life lesson, takeaway, or view into his inner thoughts, just descriptions of his physical response.  His successful battle with cancer is similarly devoid of insight – no introspection on the things left to do or words left unsaid, just the physical symptoms and the events of his treatment.

My confusion is cleared up with his confession in the afterword:

I made a personal executive decision when I started to write. No births, marriages, or divorces, of me or anybody else.

If you ask someone for the most memorable events in their life, typically you will hear about the births of their children and their marriage to their significant other (or at least a story about the day they met). You might hear about the death of their parents, and the effect it had on them.  As per his ‘executive decision’, all of this is omitted – and with it everything that makes him human and relatable. His guarded style of writing turns what could be a view into one of the most interesting people on that planet into just a story about a man with enough time and money to partake in a series of cool hobbies.