Being Adrian Mole (1983 – present)

Grange Hill Diary Secret Diary Adrian Mole

Best Christmas ever.

I attempted a pastiche of Adrian Mole in one of my early posts. But as tributes go, it’s pretty lame, so I thought I’d tell this story instead. 

Christmas, 1983. I’m still just young enough to feel that full-body thrill, when the seven hours to morning seem like a geological era, and I screw my eyes shut in a vain bid to make sleep come more quickly.

I wake to find the traditional stocking at the end of the bed. It’s mostly familiar stuff: box of Neapolitans, puzzle, satsuma. But there are two square parcels at the bottom. The first is a Grange Hill Diary: a really rather well-produced tie-in with my new second favourite TV show. The second is a book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13 and 3/4. Because there is no Dalek on the cover, I toss it to one side. 

After dinner, Mum asks me what I think of my book, knowing full well that there is no way I can have yet formed an opinion. I reluctantly hunt it down and start flicking through. Well, I suppose he is about the same age as me. (Strictly speaking, I was 13 and 7/8.) Two hours later, I turn the last page, having laughed out loud, several times. 

It’s not a proud boast – I’d give anything to be able to derive a little more joy from the world – but I have an exceptionally high laughter threshold. Nothing makes me laugh out loud. The only time I’ve laughed out loud since (apart from the five times I’ve re-read Mole) was the day I played Pictionary with nine friends in an Oxford attic in 1991 after a couple of joints, and three consecutive people tried to draw clues from the card that tells you what the categories are. 

Yet somehow Sue Townsend, this middle-aged woman, from the Midlands, had depicted to a T what it was to be a male teenager in 1980s Britain, in a way that was moving and engaging and original and which also happened to be hilarious. Even if some of the events were implausible, the overwhelming impression was one of truth. She captured the confusion, the pomposity, the soaring highs and crashing lows of adolescence, and she did it without artifice or cruelty. 

I felt a particularly close kinship with Adrian, and not just because of our ages. Like Adrian, I was conceived (but not born) out of wedlock. Like Adrian, I was the school swot. Like Adrian, I fancied my chances of worldwide fame, albeit as a writer of Doctor Who scripts rather than as a poet. I shared his anxiety about the size of my penis, I shared his intractable fear of authority figures, and most of all, I shared his complete and utter bafflement in the face of the opposite sex. (If anything, Mole was more successful than me, insofar as he, at least, fathered three children.) 

Although I knew immediately that Adrian was someone to be pitied rather than emulated, the next day, I opened up the Grange Hill Diary and started recording my own, vastly less interesting experiences. The two top entries on my Christmas list for 1984 were the 1985 Grange Hill Diary and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. 

And I’ve kept a diary ever since. I haven’t always updated it every day – and many of the entries, particularly from the early days, are little more than lists of girls’ initials alongside a score based on how long they talked to me – but I always come back to it. It forces me to write regularly, it forces me to reflect on my decisions, and other people’s reactions to those decisions, and it has, I  think, made me a wiser (but not necessarily cleverer) man. 

Diary open

All anyone will ever see of my diary till I’m dead.

But it was the world-view, rather than the form, that had the most profound effect. When writing my diary, I could never altogether shake off Adrian’s – or rather, Townsend’s – voice, with the result that in the spring of 1986, in the course of a particularly self-pitying entry, I came up with my first joke. It was a terrible joke, but it made a couple of girls at school laugh, and so my path was set. 

That playground joke gave me the courage to write and perform a Romeo and Juliet parody in English class. That led to a part in the school play, which led to a comedy double act at a crammer course at Eton, which led to stand-up at university, which led to sketches for Radio 4, TV reviews for the Guardian Guide, five stage shows at the Edinburgh festival, two in London, and a writing credit on an episode of the ABC cartoon Slacker Cats, and to this blog, which may yet (fingers crossed) lead to my own sitcom.

For someone who had children at a young age and was afflicted with a battery of physical ailments, Sue Townsend was monstrously prolific. I wasn’t quite so mad about The Queen and I (although many swear it’s the funniest thing they’ve read), and the Mole sequels never quite attained the giddy heights of the originals – how could they? – but she never lost her love for her subject. And I raced through her sizeable last offering, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, in under a day: at its best, as sharp and warm and insightful as those first two career-shaping books. 
Further, judging by the flood of anguished tributes washing across the internet this morning, it seems Townsend was one of the world’s more accessible authors, replying to all fan mail, often at unnecessary length, and endlessly supportive of aspiring writers. 

But even if she’d achieved nothing of note after Adrian, her immortality would be assured. In two slim volumes, Sue Townsend taught me that books can be fun. That humour can be gentle and biting at the same time. That gender need not be a barrier to piercing psychological insight. And that comic storytelling can be a kind of alchemy, a way of turning shit into gold (or in my case, into a cheap and rather flimsy base metal; tin, perhaps, or aluminium). I no longer fear adversity, because I know humour will take away the sting. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether I now unconsciously invite calamity, just so that I’ll have something funny to write about. 

It’s a relatively minor tragedy, in the scheme of things, that I never got to thank Sue Townsend in person. I approached her, via her agent, a couple of years ago, telling her about the blog and what Adrian meant to me, and asking if she’d mind being interviewed. She agreed, but was continually forced to postpone because of her illness. 

So I shall just have to shout it to the world instead. Thank you, Sue Townsend. You made me laugh. Out loud. And if I’ve ever made anyone laugh, it’s largely down to you. 

The wrong trousers (1985)

Wendy house

*Girl not included.

“Women cannot complain about men any more until they start getting better taste in them.”
Bill Maher

There’s one episode from my distant past that I’ve put off sharing, partly because most of the details are blurry, and partly because the few that aren’t are, shall we say, near the knuckle.  On the other hand, it was a pivotal moment in my sexual development, so share I shall.
It was a blistering hot summer’s day in 1985. Or possibly 1986. My friend Ady – the absurdly good-looking bastard – was visiting for a couple of days, and teenage boredom had driven us out of our minds and on to the mean streets of Wroughton. We loitered at the shops, dallied in the playing fields, and were on our way to dawdle at the weir when bumped into a girl. 

Now, Wroughton is a big village, by village standards (population: 7,000), but since I’d lived there for seven years, attended the only school for miles around, and spent every moment not essential for the completion of homework out of the house, I thought I knew pretty much everyone under 18. But this face was unfamiliar.  

She was about our age, with golden hair, golden skin and a languid, cocky gait that would have been mesmerising even if she hadn’t been wearing a micro-skirt and a crop top. I was desperate to engage her in conversation, but since I didn’t know her, and struggled to elicit a grunt from the girls I did know, Ady, with his usual maddening nonchalance, engaged her instead. 

Pippa, it emerged, was not a Wroughtonite, or even a Swindonian; her parents were divorced, and she was staying with her dad for the holidays. She was every bit as bored as us, and when she heard about our complete lack of plans for the day, she was eager to join in. 

And so we three sauntered on, Ady talking about himself, Pippa laughing uproariously, and me shuffling forlornly behind. 

I can’t remember whose idea it was to get booze. But I do know that it was Pippa who went into the International to buy the cider, and yours truly who footed the bill. The combination of sun, failure to lunch and total inability to hold our drink meant that we were all merry within minutes, at which point Ady somehow convinced Pippa that it would be in her best interests to take off her crop top and walk around in her bra. My contribution to the banter duly dropped from minimal to zero.  

When we’d emptied our cans, Pippa revealed that her dad was out for the day, and suggested going back to hers to raid the drinks cabinet. Ady jumped at the idea; I made vague noises about returning to my own home alone, but the other two would have none of it.  

The house was on the opposite side of the village from mine, and unexceptional but for two things: a boy of about seven (Pippa’s little brother, Robert), and a wendy house in the living room. The brother was technically in Pippa’s charge; the wendy house she didn’t attempt to explain.  

There was a VHS in the VCR, and since Ady’s anecdotes were apparently beginning to bore even him, we poured ourselves some sherries (and a lemonade) and started watching. It was Poltergeist, or The Thing, or something else that was going to give Robert nightmares for years. Anyway, within about 10 minutes of the start, Robert and I were the only ones left watching, because Ady and Pippa – their top halves, at least – had disappeared inside the wendy house, next to where I’d propped myself against the wall. 

It was clear they were up to no good, because one of the protruding pairs of legs was pointing up, the other down. However, it must count as one of the least passionate make-out sessions I’ve ever witnessed, because the legs remained rigidly immobile for the next half-hour, and not so much as a sigh, rustle or squelch came out of the plastic tent. This made it relatively easy for me to ignore them; Robert, glued to the TV, was oblivious anyway. 

I was descending into a self-pitying doze when I felt a tap at my hip. On looking down, I saw, with some bemusement, that a hand had emerged from under the wendy house wall. A small, dainty hand, with pink nail varnish. A female hand. And it seemed restless. 

Being tired, drunk, and having my hands latched behind my head, I wasn’t ideally positioned to react, so I watched, confused, appalled and increasingly turned on, as the hand crawled up the side of my jeans, over my hip, and on to the base of my stomach. 

I held my breath and prayed that Robert wouldn’t turn round. And any residual doubts as to the Beast with Five Fingers’ intentions were soon dispelled, because first one digit, then two, and finally all five, pushed down inside the front of my jeans. 

What the hell was going on? My first theory was lust. I’d heard stories about girls like this, and suspected that’s all they were: stories. But thank you, gracious Lord in holy heaven, they exist! She’s a dirty, filthy, nasty strumpet, and she’s actually being dirty with me!

Then came a more dreadful thought. Maybe Pippa was so drunk that she thought they were Ady’s trousers. I spot-measured the distance from where the hand was to where it was supposed to be, and concluded that the level of intoxication required for an anatomical error that large would be near-fatal. 

In the end, I settled on pity. That’s what this was: a consolation prize. “Sorry for shunning you all day – here’s a hand shandy.” 

Whether it was pity, lust, or drunken misdirection, I wasn’t about to intervene. What could I do, anyway? Grab the hand, gently slip it back under the wendy house wall and say: “Excuse me, I think this belongs to you”? 

Oh my. Contact. Not direct contact, granted, since my boxer shorts, although stretched to full capacity, were still technically separating skin from skin. Nonetheless, this was a milestone. It was the first time in my life that a member of the opposite sex had willingly – though perhaps not intentionally – put herself within spitting distance of my sexual organs. 

No real manual labour of any sort ensued. The Hand just sat there, rather limply, tucked inside my fly. What motion there was was limited to a sort of consolatory pat – ”There, there, little penis” – which rather added weight to the pity hypothesis. 

Nonetheless, I was electrified. Not only was I receiving my very first sexual attention, but a girl was cheating on Ady, with me, while she was getting off with him. The impossibly good-looking, inexplicably charming rake, the guy who always got the girl, had, on this occasion, only got about 85% of the girl. 

My joy was soon forgotten, however, as I noticed, after a couple of minutes, that the area around my belly button was glistening. 

Now, no amount of protesting on my part will prevent some readers from jumping to a certain conclusion here. I shall protest quite a lot regardless. First, the substance in question had leaked out, rather than gushed, and was transparent, not opaque. (For those who are unfamiliar with the workings of the male anatomy, this generally means that only seminal fluid, or “pre-come”, has been released, not sperm.) Second, there was none of the pleasurable feeling generally associated with such events. Not a dicky bird. I’d been self-abusing for over 10 years by this point, and had never once produced an end result without an orgasm. Third, and I believe most crucially, I have never, before or since that day, been afflicted with premature ejaculation. If anything, I’ve suffered from the opposite problem – what you might call mature ejaculation: probably the single complaint I’ve heard most in the bedroom is “Haven’t you finished yet?”

That said, there was an awful lot of the stuff. And it soon became clear that I was not the only one to notice what had happened, because seconds later, Pippa snatched away her hand, leapt out of the wendy house, and ran to the bathroom to throw up. 

Ady and I, mortified, took the opportunity to slink out. I don’t think he knows to this day why his snogathon was so rudely interrupted; and despite spending several evenings conspicuously hanging around outside the house, I never saw Pippa again. 

♥ I’ve written before about the difference in rates of infidelity between men and women; how men were historically the bigger cheaters, at least according to self-reported surveys, but how the gap was narrowing fast. 

Well, a 2011 study published in Psychological Science claimed to explain why. It found that the strongest indicator of cheating behaviour was professional or social status: that is, underlings aren’t very likely to cheat, middle managers cheat a middling amount, and bosses are serial philanderers. So it’s not maleness per se, the researchers argued, that drives cheating: it’s power. The paper predicted that as women gain more power in society and in the workplace, so too will the frequency with which they are unfaithful.

The death of romance (2014)

Patrick McGoohan Prisoner

‘So as I was saying to Number Two the other day, I am, in actual fact, a free man …’

This blog isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. True, it’s impossible to produce something that will be universally loved; even tea isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I know, from a few exchanges online and one in real life, that some of my posts have left some people genuinely upset

I can see how, if you stumble across these pages never having met me, you might, beneath the torrents of self-loathing, perceive a trickle of misogyny. (Most of you, I think, will have worked out that I’m not quite as bitter as I sound. It’s just that serenity and forgiveness are just so damnably unfunny.)

But the chief beef, I suspect, goes something like this: “You can’t reduce human behaviour to a set of simple rules. By analysing, enumerating and categorising people (and by people, I mean women – you can say what you like about men), you’re stripping them of their diversity, their individuality, their free will. I am not a number!”

To which I reply: we can predict human behaviour, we must, and we do it all the time. 

We can
Human behaviour is not, of course, infallibly predictable – but there are many observable patterns. Yes, we have free will. The sobering fact is, though, that we exercise it only a tiny fraction of the time. The vast majority of our decisions are guided by our instincts (read Daniel Kahneman’s stupendous Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this), and our instincts, being largely shaped by evolution, tend to be pretty similar. This goes double for dating, where all rationality goes out of the window. You can’t decide who to fancy any more than you can decide when to sneeze. 

Even when we do make conscious choices, they are usually made from among a very limited set of options, and according to rational criteria: ie, they serve either our own interest or the interests of people we care about. When was the last time you saw someone doing or saying something completely unexpected (without pharmaceutical assistance)? 

While you might not be able to foresee what any one person will do in a given situation, the more information you have about that person, the more confident your prediction will become. And with enough research, you can reach a pretty high level of accuracy when it comes to knowing what percentage of people will react in a certain way.  

We must
For policymakers, lawmakers and health professionals, for manufacturers, marketers and architects, having some insight into what the populace might do in any given situation isn’t just desirable – it’s essential. If you want to run a society successfully, then you have to have some idea of the expected range and frequency of possible reactions. The reason communism was such a catastrophic failure is that it took a completely false view of human nature. A better understanding of the human psyche could reduce suicide rates, prevent wars, school shootings and ecological disaster. 

And this is what the social sciences are for. Economics, sociology, geography, and more recently game theory and evolutionary psychology – they’re young disciplines, they’re imprecise, and sometimes downright wrong, but they can and do give us increasingly valuable cues about human motivations and actions. 

We do
When meeting a person for the first time, most of us will happily make colossal deductions from the tiniest informational cues. We are constantly making assumptions about people based on their mode of dress, their accent, whether their eyes are too close together (and for some benighted souls, based on sex, race and sexuality). In everything we do, we are constantly weighing up, without necessarily being aware of it, costs against benefits, risks against rewards. And on the whole, we’re pretty good at it. (We are prone to egregious mistakes, though, such as the halo effect, and a hundred other cognitive biases, for an exhaustive and fascinating survey of which I refer you again to Mr Kahneman’s book.)

In the dating sphere, we’re particularly ruthless. In most cases, we rule people in or out as potential mates almost instantaneously. If you’re single and you walk into a room full of strangers, you’ll have decided within seconds exactly how many people you would like to sleep with, and in what sequence. (This sequence is of course susceptible to later modification, once you’ve smelled them, seen them move and heard them speak, but such discoveries don’t often result in any seismic changes to the necking order.) 

In evolutionary psychology terms, what you’re doing here is assigning everyone a mate value. Although you’re probably not keeping actual numbers in your head, you are subconsciously ranking everyone, and comparing their estimated value with your own. Do I have a chance with that person? Is he beneath me?

It’s precisely concepts like mate value – the idea of giving someone a score, a number, based on their qualities as a partner and a human being – that exemplify everything that is, for some, so repellent about evolutionary psychology. So that’s what I’ll be talking about next time.