Should you write? The fag-packet verdict

Man with face on keyboard
Man with face on keyboard
The harrowing spectacle of stage 4 RSI.

How do you become a successful writer? There’s enough advice out there on the subject to fill Tony Blair’s property portfolio, so I thought I’d kick off my new blog by tackling a different question: whether you should bother at all.

Clearly, a lot of people are considering it. In a YouGov poll last year that asked 14,000 people what job they would most like to do, author finished top by some distance, beating out Hollywood movie star, Formula One driver and astronaut. Fully 60% of those surveyed said that they would like to spend the bulk of their adult years alone, stuck behind a desk, torturing themselves for falling short of their 1,000-word target.

The literary life seems to me to have three main attractions. First, the bar to entry is low – no special training is required, and all you need to get started is a laptop and some fingers, which you probably had anyway. Second, the potential rewards are enormous. Even now, whenever I read the word “writer”, the image that springs to mind is of JK Rowling or John Grisham, rising momentarily from from their throne of cash to flick a duster over their bulging awards cabinet. And third, the lifestyle is appealing: satisfying work, you get to be your own boss, work where you want, etc.

The trouble, as I have realised after half a lifetime slaving over a hot keyboard, is that all these attractions are illusory.

(I’m aware that there are many different kinds of writing, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on two of the most popular, which happen to be the ones I know the most about: book publishing and journalism.)

Firstly, while the bar to entry for writing is low, the bar to success is stratospheric. And there’s one reason for that: the competition. Because, as we’ve seen, you’re not the only one who wants to make a living from the pen. Reliable statistics aren’t easy to come by, and some of the calculations below would probably disgrace the back of a fag packet, but they should give you a flavour.

Last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people in the UK employed as authors, writers or translators was 77,000 (half of whom worked part-time). Strip out the translators, screenwriters, playwrights, speechwriters, technical writers, video game writers, the fashion bloggers, food bloggers and mummy bloggers, and that leaves you with 25,000 Brits tops earning their crust from writing fiction and nonfiction books.

Now, how many people are fighting for those spots? It’s going to be a tad less than the 60% of the population revealed in the YouGov survey, because most of them will never put pen to paper. For my first attempt at ballpark figure, I looked to the blogosphere. It’s safe to say that few bloggers would turn up their noses at the prospect of earning a living from writing, and if they’re organised enough to set up an online presence, they’ve probably got the wherewithal to finish a book.

Most estimates of the number of blogs in the world are near the 200 million mark, of which 7% are UK-based, which would give us 14 million Britblogs. That strikes me as a little high, although someone put the figure at 2.5 million way back in July 2005. Let’s err on the low side, then, and assume 5 million bloggers; 5 million people vying with you for literary glory. Given that there are 25,000 places in the pantheon, that puts your chances of success at 1 in 200. This is broadly in keeping with the stats from most publishers, whose estimates of the odds of a first manuscript being published range from 100-1 to 1,000-1.

And then there’s my experience. In my first grown-up job, as an editorial assistant at a small fiction imprint, one of my duties was to plough through the “slush pile”, the unsolicited manuscripts from first-time authors. We received an average of two submissions per working day, and I was there for two years, meaning a total of about 500 MS. And of those 500 submissions, not a single one was of publishable standard. In short, then, you’ve got more chance of being born with an extra finger than you have of seeing that novel on the shelf at Waterstones.

Meanwhile, the number of journalists in the UK last year, according to the ONS, stood at 64,000. If you assume a 40-year career, that means around 1,600 journalists retiring per year. Yet the number of young ’uns signing up for full-time journalism degrees every year is 3,200. Add in those studying it part-time, those doing postgrad courses instead, and the significant number who enter the profession with a different degree (or none), and suddenly, even though you’re shelling out £27,000 for a degree in the subject, your chances of landing a job in the sector are in the region of 25%. A sector that, as all those within it will attest, is basically dying.

While writing might be a walk in the park, then, getting people to read what you’ve written is more like a marathon against 500 people armed with machetes. But what about the rewards? If all these people so desperately want to write, surely there’s one heckuva pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

For a fortunate few, writerly life may well be all battered Moleskines in bijou cafes, self-deprecating quips at the Hay festival and enough royalty cheques to wallpaper the billiard room. But these people are so exceptional that, to all intents and purposes, they don’t exist. Forget them. They’re a myth.

To work out how much you can realistically expect to earn, let’s return to the fag packet. Around 310 million books are sold in the UK each year, with a total value of £2.2bn. About 10% of the cover price goes to the author, so that’s £220m to share out between everyone. (I know you can also sell books abroad; but remember, foreign writers sell books here too, and I’m assuming the numbers roughly cancel each other out.) If we go with that earlier figure, and suppose 25,000 UK authors, that works out as £8,800 per head. That’s barely enough to cover your rent.

The fag packet’s probably not too far off the mark here, because a survey by Queen Mary, University of London last year found that the median income for writers (of all stripes) in the UK was £11,000.

But of course, the pot isn’t evenly split. The lion’s share of it goes to your Rowlings and your Grishams and your estates of Stieg Larsson. Of the authors featured in the QMU survey, 5% gobbled up 42.3% of all the available income.

Another poll in 2014 was scarier still: it found that 54% of traditionally published authors and almost 80% of self-published ones had earned less than £600 in the previous year. 17% of them hadn’t banked a penny.

And it’s not as if things are improving. In 2010, 40% of writers made their living from writing alone; by last year, that figure had fallen to 11.5%. Journalists’ salaries, meanwhile, have fallen or remained stagnant since about 2008, and they weren’t bank-breaking then.

So, let’s recap.

If you have decided to write a book, if you have got your shit together sufficiently to finish it, and if you’re happy enough with it to submit it to the judgment of your peers, then you have about a 1 in 500 chance of it getting published (unless you self-publish, of course, but then you’ve got about a 1 in 1,000 chance of anyone reading it).

But that’s not the end of the ifs. Even if you get published, there’s only a 12% chance that you will make enough to survive on; so you have a 1 in 4,000 chance of ever packing in that day job.  And your chances of doing a Rowling … well, forget about it.

By way of addressing the last illusion – the lifestyle – I’ll field another question that might have crossed your lips. “Why should we care what you think about writing, Bodle? You’re not a published author! You’re not a columnist in a national newspaper! You haven’t even written much for TV – just a couple of episodes of a US cable sitcom and a few questions for Only Connect! Who are you to butcher our dreams? You’re a fucking subeditor! We want to hear from Dan Brown!”

All true. By many people’s standards – certainly by my own – I am a failure as a writer. I’ve earned maybe £100,000 in about 25 years of wordsmithery, which puts me below the median. But that’s precisely why I’m qualified to talk about the pitfalls. Because whoever you are, if you are reading this, poised to launch your writing career, it’s immensely unlikely, laughably unlikely, that you are going to become the next JK Rowling. What’s infinitely more likely is that you are going to become the next me. And as the outgoing me, I am uniquely qualified to explain what that’s like.

It’s miserable. It’s lonely. You’ll probably never be able to afford your own house. And rejection becomes so routine, you start to wonder whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses will have you. If I could step back in time and have a word with myself about one thing, it would be my ambition to write. “Put the pen down, son. Mug’s game. Go and play football like a normal kid.”

When you spend years writing things, things you’re really proud of, and you have desperate near miss after desperate near miss, the pain, eventually, fades to numbness. But when you hit your late 40s, and you feel the marrow draining from your bones, and it’s too late to entertain any new ambitions, and you suddenly realise that even if you do make it big you’re too old now to really appreciate the benefits, and that your entire time on this planet has, basically, been wasted … That’s a ton of particularly pointy bricks.

That’s basically why I’ve set up this website; not so much as a showcase for my writings as a mausoleum. I will put up some new stuff, from time to time, when I can be fucked, but mostly it’s a warning to future explorers: all hope abandon, ye who enter here.

But enough about me. Writing about myself is even more depressing than being myself, if that’s possible. Back to you, and the positive bit! Because writing does, of course, have a fourth attraction: some people just love doing it. If you’re one of those people, then this number crunch will have done nothing to dampen your ardour. So in my next post, which will appear when I goddamn feel like it, I’ll talk about what you can do to maximise your chances of trouncing the competition.

Too many fish

Kid in sweet shop

More choice is always a good thing. Right?

Kid in sweet shop
“Mummy, why can’t I have them all?”

A version of this post first appeared on All Sweetness and Life.

I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Nicky – in her early 30s. Until recently, Nicky was seeing a great guy: handsome, athletic, kind, high-powered job. Then a couple of weeks ago, she ended it. What had scuppered this idyllic relationship, I wondered? Had he cheated? Did he have a drinking problem? “No,” said Nicky. “I just thought his nose was a bit wide.”

My initial reaction was: that’s a bit shallow, but understandable. I mean, she only wants the best for herself. She doesn’t want to “settle”. Isn’t that her right?

If so, it’s a right that more and more of us are exercising. In 1966, the average age at first marriage in the UK was 24.9 for men and 22.5 for women; in 2014, it was 32 and 30. (The equivalent US figures are 22.8 for men and 20.5 for women in 1966, versus 29 and 27 in 2013.)

It’s not just that we’re marrying later. The single population is growing at a giddying pace. The 2011 census showed that single households in the UK outnumbered households with couples for the first time. There are doubtless a number of contributory factors, social and economic, but a large part of it is that we’re all getting fussier about our partners.

Why? Well, technology, in the form of high-speed transport, social media and internet dating, has hugely increased the number of our potential dates and the speed at which we can date them. This, combined with social changes – less stigma surrounding promiscuity, open relationships and divorce – offers us a breadth of choice that no previous generation has known. And more choice is always a good thing, right?

A few years ago, scientists at Columbia and Stanford universities conducted a fascinating experiment. They gave two groups of subjects a selection of chocolates, from which they were allowed to choose one. One group was given 30 different chocolates, the other six. No one came out of the experiment altogether unhappy, of course, but the scientists’ surprising finding was that the people who had 30 chocolates to choose from regretted their choice more than the people who only had six.

Starbucks now proudly boasts that it offers drinks in no fewer than 87,000 combinations. Seriously? 87,000? If you properly weighed up all your options, you’d die of thirst before you ordered. Most of us deal with this information overload the only rational way possible: we order the same thing every time.

When faced with the bewildering array of wines at the supermarket, how do you whittle down your options? You go for a grape that you like, or a country; or, more likely, you choose by price. When you have thousands of people to choose from on an internet dating site, what do you use as a filter then? Height. Earnings. Looks.

Paradoxically, the excess of choice has led to a paucity of choice.

The American writer Alvin Toffler was one of the first people to identify a potential problem. Forty years ago, in his book Future Shock, he wrote: “Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralyzing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be the victims of that peculiar super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.”

Of course, we’ve always known that an excess of choice is not necessarily a good thing. Consider the phrase “spoilt for choice”. Spoilt, as in “spoilt child”. Spoilt, as in ruined.

For most of its history, mankind lived in small tribes. Even until halfway through the last century, most of us still congregated in tiny rural communities, and rarely travelled far. Bustling cities have only sprung up in the last couple of hundred years, and photography has only been with us since the mid-1800s. In short, until yesterday, from an evolutionary point of view, it was rare for any one person to see much more than a hundred faces in a lifetime. Now, thanks to city living, TV and the internet, we’re confronted with millions upon millions. Are our puny caveman brains adjusting quickly enough?

Some scientists think not. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, writes: “The more options there are, the more likely one will make a non-optimal choice, and this prospect undermines whatever pleasure one may get from one’s actual choice.” Essentially, when we pick something from a wide selection, we tend to appreciate it less, because we’re more worried about the opportunities we missed than about the thing we’ve got.

And the research of Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has led him to conclude that people presented with too many choices tend to make lazy and often poor decisions.

This doesn’t bode well for our happiness in the dating market. After all, when it comes to chocolates and coffees, you can just choose something different next time you go to the shop. That’s not a luxury you get with life partners.

All this choice has a second, more insidious drawback. Because the mass media aren’t just exposing us to more people than ever before; they’re exposing us to more absurdly attractive people than ever before. Most of the people we see in films, TV shows and adverts are young, clear-complexioned, improbably proportioned gods and goddesses. Beauty’s assault on the media has been swift and decisive: now most children’s TV shows are fronted by charisma-free shop window dummies; female newsreaders are sacked the second they hit 40; and we barely raise an eyebrow these days at the suggestion that a pop act might have been selected for looks rather than talent. Where once we had Michael Fish telling us how terrible the weather was going to be, now we have Sian Welby. For science, we had Magnus Pyke; now it’s Brian Cox. Goodbye David Bellamy; hello Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

It’s already been proven that the diet of improbable bodies is causing body dysmorphia – conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. Might it not also, then, be causing partner dysmorphia? Could this endless parade of washboard abs, hourglass figures and Hollywood smiles be making us more dissatisfied with the girl or boy next door? Judging by the ever growing sales of beauty products and the boom in plastic surgery, something is driving us to make more effort.

There’s a growing body of evidence that pornography in particular can have harmful effects on relationships. Zillmann & Bryant’s 1988 paper found that regular porn users often become less satisfied with their partner’s sexual performance, physical appearance, and willingness to try new sexual experiences. And according to a study by Grov, Gillespie, Royce and Lever in 2010, men who are involved in online sexual activity are less aroused by real sex, and initiate it less often.

The third downside of choice is the flipside of an upside. Say you’ve been with a gas supplier for 10 years. Suddenly, it puts its prices up by 10%; and all the other gas suppliers raise theirs by only 4%. Because you have the freedom of choice, you switch suppliers.

Dating seems to be going the same way. Say your current sex supplier turns out to have an annoying habit. One or two generations ago, you wouldn’t have been aware of many alternatives, so you’d probably have raised the issue, talked it out, or learned to overlook the flaw. But now, knowing that there are myriad potential mates, accessible in an instant, we’re more likely simply to ditch them for another provider. Excess of choice is making us less forgiving. We won’t tolerate imperfections any more, and we won’t work as hard to overcome obstacles.

For proof of the decrease in tolerance, you only have to look at divorce statistics. In 1971, just 1% of all marriages ended in divorce; forty years later, it’s 42%. Infidelity, too, is on the rise. Once upon a time, people split only over irreconcilable differences. Now we do so at the drop of a hat.

It’s a widely circulated statistic that arranged marriages are more stable than “free” ones based on mutual attraction. Most people assume that this is because there’s more pressure on the couple to stay together. But a recent US study found that couples in arranged marriages were just as happy as those in conventional western ones. The sociologists’ explanation is that both parties’ expectations start out low. I’m not suggesting for a second that we all start letting our parents fix us up; just pointing out that even an absence of choice is no barrier to happiness.

In a 2009 study, Denmark was found to be the happiest country in Europe. This was not, the researchers believed, because Denmark has the best weather, or economy, or scenery (it patently doesn’t). It was because they had good social cohesion – and the lowest expectations. Similarly, in the same year, Louisiana came out top in a happiness survey of US states, while New York – the land of opportunity – came bottom. It’s really starting to look as though the less choice you have, the happier you are.

I have another friend – let’s call her Lucy – in her early 40s. She suffers from what she calls “Groucho syndrome”, after the Marx brother’s famous comment that he didn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member. In other words, none of the people she fancies fancy her. Her standards, she says, are too high for her looks.

I tell her, as every good friend should, that she’s gorgeous and that there are loads of amazing people who’d want to be with her; she just hasn’t met them yet. But she hasn’t had a boyfriend in nearly 10 years.

So much for those who refuse to settle. What about those who did?

When I was in my mid-20s, only just out of university, a few of my friends got married. I was astonished. I mean, sure, their partners were lovely, but … they were 25! They’d met maybe a quarter of the people they were going to meet in their lifetimes. How could they possibly know they’d found their perfect someone?

The answer is, they couldn’t. They just knew they’d found someone good. Someone they had a reasonable shot at happiness with. And when I look at them now – nice house, lovely kids, someone to talk to, someone to hold them at night – I’m green with envy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. They bicker, they get on each other’s nerves, and I’m sure they cast the odd rueful glance at a third-party bottom. (Yes, two of them were divorced before the bride’s bouquet had wilted, although they were both safely remarried within a year.) On the other hand, they’re enjoying all the benefits that coupledom brings: physical contact. Emotional support. Sharing the chores. Tax breaks. Someone to look after them when they’re older. Studies have repeatedly shown that married people (and unmarried people in long-term relationships) are happier, live longer, and even earn more than singletons. These friends of mine “settled” because they wanted to reap the benefits sooner rather than later.

I’m betting at least one of your friends, at some point, has pasted William Arthur Ward’s adage into their Facebook status: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” I have an alternative version for the internet age. “The pessimist doesn’t join the internet dating site; the optimist joins the internet dating site expecting to meet The One; the realist joins the internet dating site expecting no more than having a few fun nights out, meeting a few interesting people, and maybe, just maybe, finding someone he can make a connection with.”

The word “settle” has so many negative connotations these days. It’s come to mean achieving less than your full potential; not trying hard enough; accepting defeat. Well, I think it’s time to reclaim it. Remember, the original definition of “settle” is to relax, to calm down, to stop worrying. To get comfortable. Perhaps we shouldn’t see it as defeat. Perhaps we should look at it as quitting while you’re ahead.

Conversely, “keeping your options open” is widely seen as a positive thing. But there’s another way of looking at it: you could think of it as indecision. Cowardice, even.

So what can we do about this? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. No one’s going to give up all this wonderful choice, even if it does have drawbacks.

Personally, I’d like the powers that be to take the initiative. I’d like to see a more representative range of faces in TV and film. Fewer supermodels, more Dove models. I’d like it if TV and music producers went back to picking talent on the basis of talent. But that’s not going to happen, because these companies are driven by public demand, and the public rarely demand what’s good for them.

It’s down to us, as individuals, to show temperance. And there are things you can do to deliberately restrict your choices – and to stop your standards shooting sky-high.

First of all, guys: don’t watch porn. Seriously. I refer you to the research above.

And girls: steer clear of girl porn. By this I don’t mean sexually explicit material, but the equally poisonous, quick-hit stuff that performs a similar function for you: chick lit, romcoms, glossy mags. They paint pictures that your life will never live up to.

While you’re at it, cut down on what I call “spiritual ass massage”: the you’re-amazing, never-compromise, power-of-you, self-help, horoscope bullshit. They’re the equivalent of taking painkillers when you need surgery. Sure, they make the pain go away in the short term, but they’re only making the underlying problems worse.

By all means use internet dating – it’s a fabulous, efficient, time-saving way of meeting people. But use it cleverly. When you sign up, fix a date in the future (I’d recommend no longer than six months) when you’re going to come off it again. You’ll be much more invested in the dates you go on knowing that your time is limited. And drop a couple of those boxes you want ticked. By insisting on a guy who’s 6ft or taller, for example, you could by denying yourself the 5ft 11in love of your life.

And Tinder? I wouldn’t touch it with a shitty stick. As long as there are thousands of attractive people available at the swipe of a thumb, you’ll never be happy with anyone.

Settle. Give up that pernicious, phantasmagorical notion of The One. No one’s perfect, no one’s perfect for you, and if they were, they probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. Of course I’m not recommending that you marry the first Tom, Dick or Harriet who looks at you twice. But try to be a little less exacting. Don’t rule people out because they wear the wrong perfume or sneeze in a slightly effeminate way.

And if you do find someone, for God’s sake, make more than a half-hearted effort to make it work. Try to overlook, or get used to their faults. Bring problems up, and try to work them out. Because while being in a half-decent relationship isn’t as good as being in an amazing one, it beats the hell out of being lonely.

I realise this message is not going to be a popular one, because it’s not romantic, or idealistic. But that’s my point: we’re fed too much romance and idealism and perfection these days. It’s raising our hopes so high that they can’t help be smashed to pieces when we’re confronted with reality.

And to be honest, I don’t care if this advice is popular. Because it’s aimed at my friends, Picky Nicky and Choosy Lucy, whose long-term happiness is important to me. And above all, it’s aimed at me.

Because I’ve refused to settle too. I moaned on my old blog about being rebuffed or rejected for trivial reasons – but I’m just as guilty of it myself. I’ve been out with three or four lovely girls who things might have worked out with; but they were never quite lovely enough. There was always the chance of something better round the corner. And now I’m rapidly running out of corners.

It’s not going to be easy to follow my own advice. I internet-date, I love romcoms, and I watch porn. But I know that if I ever want to settle down, I’m going to have to learn to settle.

Deja vu (2007)

Me and friend

“The only thing a girl needs to get a date is another date.”
– Carrie, Sex and the City, season 6, episode 1

Me and friend
Not the woman mentioned in the story. It is the man mentioned in the story, though.

“The only thing a girl needs to get a date is another date.”
– Carrie, Sex and the City, season 6, episode 1

Saturday 6th December
Actually made gym on a Saturday. 35 mins/450 calories. g.

A’s 35th birthday party. Terrified. Spent most of day frantically searching for sufficiently flash/thoughtful/original/appropriate present and rest of day rehearsing what to say to parents and friends, all of whom was meeting for first time.

In event, panic unwarranted. Party fun. Espresso maker and Lindor chocolates went down v well. Parents and friends loved me (except gay neighbour, whose comment was, “He’s not exactly Marlon Brando.” Rich, as he not exactly Maria Schneider). If A not The One, definitely A One. Although did not leap to defence over Brando comment.

After party, gave her massage and first proper orgasm. (One where accidentally stuck finger up bum does not count.) Still no actual sex though.

Sunday 7th December
A called, said she needed to talk urgently. Met in pub near hers. Said in early days of relationship I was v manly and decisive, but now am doormat. Give too much and do not take enough. Pointed out behaviours traditionally associated with previous day. Just about appeased her. However, just about appeased her last week, and week before. Looked up Relate website. Does not say if relationship of six weeks qualifies. Bit down.

Reasons to be cheerful:
1. Have written lots of good card columns this year.
2. Had short story published, sold one script for American cartoon show, and been commissioned to write second sitcom by BBC.
3. Have not drunk alone for 3 months.
4. Have not bought lesbian porn DVD for 3 months.
5. No computer games for 5 years (with occasional fleeting lapses).
6. Only smoke outside now (except when really drunk).
7. Down to 2 pizzas a week.
8. Am member of two grown-up and interesting organisations, choir and book club.
9. Have nice girlfriend. Just.
10. In pub last week, (drunk) Sian said she would have snogged me if she hadn’t had a boyfriend.

Monday 8th December
Tip for making Mondays seem better: have v stressful weekends.
New work experience girl on desk. Dead cute. Bit skinny but lovely peachy bum. Was v funny and cool yet assertive around her.
Bought Best of Human League. Does not have Don’t You Want Me on it. Bit like buying blow-up doll and finding does not have hole.

Tuesday 9th December
45 mins and 500 calories in gym. v.g.

Googled own name at work. No longer have monopoly on top 10 entries – number seven is speech by different Andy Bodle, human resources director of National Maritime Museum. If am not careful will soon not even be most successful person with own name.

Bought cup of tea for WEG. Seemed really grateful someone spoke to her. Name Kayleigh, 24, wants to be journalist. Bum dead peachy. Nearly had wank thinking about it. Managed to change it to A’s at last second.

Wednesday 10th December

Adam’s leaving drinks, Coach & Horses. K there. She v clever and sweet and witty. Spent all night talking to her, forgot to say goodbye to Adam.

After 2 bottles of wine each we went outside for fag. She kissed me. Kissed her back a bit. Felt awful. But then thought,

1. Things looking bad with A
2. It’s only a kiss
3. She is 24, gorgeous and has lovely peachy bum.

Eventually guilt took over so assertively ended kiss and told her about A. Explained am not cheating type. Offered to walk her to tube. Stupidly mentioned as we passed flat that we were passing flat. K stopped and eyes went all Bambi.

“I might have missed my tube. Is it all right if I stay at yours?”

Kissing strange woman just about forgivable in context of rocky relationship. Sharing bed with one who fancies arse off you probably not. “No, we should get you home. There are loads of black cabs round here. Look, there’s one now!”

“I can’t afford it.”

“I’ll pay. Here.”

“But there are roadworks so the cab can’t get to my house and it’s a really long walk and it’s cold and lonely and scary and someone was raped on my street last week.”

“OK. How about this. I get the cab with you, walk you to your door, then I get another cab back here?”

“I’ll sleep on the sofa. And I’ll make breakfast.”

Sigh. “All right then. Can I have the cab fare back now?”

Entered bedroom after brushing teeth to find K asleep (well, eyes closed) in bed. Started preparations for self to sleep on sofa, but reasoned v important that get sleep for work next day so climbed in next to her, resolving not even to glance at PB. Was mostly good.

Thursday 11th December
Made breakfast then walked K to tube. Told her really liked her and everything but could not see her again because am with A. She upset. Now guilty about her too.

Mixed feelings. Joy (and amazement) at fact that can pull gorgeous, funny 24-year-old. Vindication that am not doormat, or at least if am doormat, more than one person wants to wipe her feet on me. But mostly guilt.

Gym. Extra 3 mins on rowing machine as penance.

Tried to make today’s Countdown puzzle HANDABUSE (UNABASHED). Editor banned it. Guardian is repressive communist regime.

11pm: Text message from K saying how much she is into me and how much she wants me. Called A to try to scare thoughts into line. Voicemail.

Friday 12th December
Spent most of day editing massive article about writer’s block. Have now caught it.

Sex-Facebook messages (is there no shorthand for that yet? SFBMs?) from K:

“Someone asked for my number today but all I could think about was you. I haven’t felt like this for ages x”

“Mr Bodle, you make me blush. How are we to reconcile these mutual inclinations to fuck each other’s brains out? x”

“You go home and ‘sort yourself out’, sugar. Feel free to text if you need help x”

K just called and challenged me to make her say “fuck” on phone. Failed but enjoyed talking to her v much. Determined not to give in though. Am with A.

Saturday 13th December
Am no longer with A. Am dumpee.

Guy & Helen’s housewarming/Christmas party, Archway. Got flu. Proper, not man. A dragged me along anyway. V pissed and trippy with flu. Neil, Murray, Phil et al there.

In cab on way home, A revealed she was “in love with Murray, and always had been”. Pointed out he got married six months ago. She pointed out they had row last week.

Cried and coughed all night.

At least am not only dumpee. Phil single again. Ha.

Sunday 14th December
Called K. Told her I had dumped A for her. (Figured slight massaging of truth would make me look less like pathetic loser and more like desirable hunk.) K not as overjoyed as expected. Finally badgered her into meeting for drink. She quiet, awkward, said she “never wanted anything serious, only a bit of fun” and now feels pressured to go out with me. Reassured her no pressure. Had first legal kiss and grope of PB. V nice. Went separate ways at end as neither of us wants seedy rebound sex. Though one of us could probably have been talked around.

Monday 15th December
Film night at Neil & Yasmin’s. Jen, Tom, Georgie, me. Kids in bed, thank God.

10pm: A rang to say she wanted me back. Told her no longer wanted to be wanted back as had a gorgeous funny 24-year-old who is not in unrequited love with married man begging to shag me.

11pm: As if on cue, K rang to say she was getting in cab to come to mine. First booty call in 39 and a half years!

Made excuses and arrived home just before K. No sex though – K on her P, just wanted to “talk and cuddle”. Never mind, eventual sex will be better for anticipation. Still bummed about being recipient of world’s first booty call with no booty at end of it.

Tuesday 16th December
Met K for drink. She worried about age gap until I pointed out it is only same as Rhys Ifans and Sienna Miller. She stayed again. Still no sex.

Text from A:
“Hello sis. How you? Think am suffering withdrawal from A 🙁 tummy hurts and earache! Feel about 4 years old! Calpol 😉 Xxx”

Followed by:
“Fuck sorry WRONG”

If genuine mistake, fuck her. If cunning ploy to win me back, actually quite impressed. However, must remain firm. Am with K.

Wednesday 17th December
Now understand why men date younger women. Standards less freakishly high. To A, am slobby, penniless loser. To K, am well-dressed, confident, wealthy, sophisticated man of world who can cause orgasm with single touch (although have not had opportunity to prove this yet).

Thursday 18th December
Freezing cold. K’s for dinner. She alone in flat but still on P so no sex. She worried we are “going too fast”. Placated her for now. Shared Lindor chocolates. Curious feeling of déjà vu.

Friday 19th December
Went out, bought K Dictaphone for Christmas. Brilliant idea. Cool, expensive without being flash, and thoughtful/appropriate, as she wants to be journalist. We are spending whole weekend together in her (empty) flat as pre-Christmas Christmas. Sex tomorrow for sure!

Saturday 20nd December
No sex. No girlfriend. K “not in right place for boyfriend right now”. Have now been dumped twice in space of week. Week before Christmas.

Apparently average man cries seven times a year. At this rate, am seven and a half times as big a baby as average man.

Monday 22nd December
Producer called. Sitcom #2 rejected by BBC.
Bought new lesbian porn DVD and got drunk alone.
Dropped old Dictaphone and broke it. Unwrapped K’s and used it instead. Couldn’t think of anything to say into it apart from “Merry fucking Christmas”.

♥ Rhys Ifans and Sienna Miller’s relationship lasted 51 weeks longer than Andy Bodle and Kayleigh Silver’s.

Once more, with feeling

Rutting deer

Male competition means that males have evolved traits useful for competing with each other.

Rutting deer
Male competition means that males have evolved traits useful for competing with each other.

“Lovers who are young indeed, and wish to know the sort of life
That in this world you’re like to lead, ere you can say you’ve caught a wife,
Listen to the lay of one who’s had with Cupid much to do,
And love-sick once, is love-sick still, but in another point of view.”
– James Planché, The Golden Fleece

As I’ve explained in previous posts [now gone; I may put them back up some day], there are two basic principles governing sex in the natural world: female choice, and male competition. (It’s true that there are such things as female competition and male choice, but their effects seem to be far smaller.)

Female choice means that females have evolved preferences for certain characteristics in males: characteristics that either benefit her offspring genetically (strength, speed, intelligence, resistance to parasites), or materially (builds decent nests, brings food gifts, hangs around and protects/provides for a bit). She can opt for a strong, healthy male who will love her and leave her, but leave her with strong, healthy sons, who will in turn be attractive to the next generation of females (the “sexy son” hypothesis); or she can go for a male who will provide for her and her young and/or share some of the parenting, thus ensuring that more of their (slightly less attractive) offspring survive.

Male competition means that males have evolved traits useful for competing with each other: strength, aggression, cunning, a willingness to take risks. But they have also had to factor in female choice; building good nests and bringing food gifts might bring more rewards (and have fewer costs) than duffing up all your rivals, depending on the species and the environment. Pair-bonding and parenting are also valid choices, but this is highly susceptible to abuse, because of paternity uncertainty, as I mentioned last time.

Evolutionary biologists call these mating strategies. They’re not strategies in the sense that they are plans that have been consciously worked out; animals don’t teach them, or show them to their young. They’re just drives and patterns of behaviour that spontaneously appeared at some point, and were then inherited. The successful strategies, the ones that are still with us today, are the ones that have developed, over millions of years, to produce the largest number of fit, healthy offspring.

So what strategies do we see at work in modern humans? What do men and women want?

The clues point in contradictory directions. We know, for example, that height is definitely a thing for women. There isn’t a culture in the world where women prefer shorter men; taller men are far less likely to be childless than shorter ones. Human beings are around 50% taller than their ancestors from 3 million years ago, and it’s not just down to better nutrition. Since height is a good indicator of strength and of social status, this suggests that there is widespread demand among females for a strong, dominant partner.

Then there’s the enduring appeal of the “bad boy”. Russell Crowe, Russell Brand, Robert Downey Jr, Charlie Sheen, Darren fucking Day, Ashley Cole, Chris Brown: despite their inability to be faithful, or even fleetingly pleasant, none of them is likely to go without a date for long.

On the other hand, nice guys don’t do too badly for themselves. Sure, they’re not lusted after as much as bad boys, but I’m willing to bet that in most of the happy long-term heterosexual relationships you know, you’d describe the man as a reasonably good egg. And when you look at the basic mating system of the vast majority of human civilisations – monogamy – it’s tempting to conclude that on the whole, the female strategy has been to go for commitment, generosity and “niceness”, and the male strategy has been to go along with that.

But … you guessed it. Things aren’t quite so simple.

Because for men, there’s a strategy that’s better than being a bad boy and better than being a nice guy. It’s pretending to be a nice guy and actually being bad: namely, cheating.

If cheating behaviour ever came about, in a population where most of the partners were trusting, it would spread through the population like wildfire. (Until, of course, a behaviour evolved that counteracted cheating, such as mate guarding, mentioned last week.) Even if it’s eradicated completely, as soon as it appears again, it will spread like a plague.
One thing’s for certain: we’ve all got a lot of cheating men in our family tree.

Similarly, from the woman’s perspective, the choice needn’t be just between the stud who leaves you up the duff and doesn’t give you a penny and the besotted, committed wimp who devotes himself to your children. From an evolutionary point of view, the best thing to do is shag the stud and dupe the wimp into bringing up his child. Best of both worlds!

This is exactly what happens with a lot of “monogamous” species, notably birds, such as the blue fairy wren. And as we’ve seen from results of DNA fingerprinting studies, it seems it’s more common than we’d like to think in humans.

Most biologists don’t actually class humans as monogamous. They describe us as mildly polygynous, or selectively promiscuous. Helen Fisher’s theory is that we’re serial monogamists; after studying the brain chemistry of attraction, she has concluded that humans are designed to stay together for only about four years – just long enough that the child has a good chance of surviving with one parent.

The more attentive among you will have noticed that we have drifted somewhat off the point I was originally driving at: the differences between men and women. But it’s been a detour with a purpose: to illuminate some of the contrasting challenges that face males and females in the mating arena.

I hope you’ll agree, for example, that our little thought experiment goes some way towards explaining the following phenomena:

  • Why it is overwhelmingly men, not women, who initiate courtship
    Why so many women can’t stop dating bastards
  • Why coyness is virtually unheard of in men
  • Why there’s no such thing as a subtly wealthy man, only a conspicuously wealthy one
  • The otherwise incomprehensible popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Why, now that women’s earnings are almost on a par with men’s, some women are writing about the “new scarcity” of decent marriage options
  • Why men, on average, have a higher sex drive (I’m not going to get into an argument about this. It’s been proven over and over again. Let’s just say that if the female sex drive were as great as the male, we’d still be living in caves)
  • Why looks matter more to men than to women (health and fertility are all they need to worry about; women have a more extensive list of requirements)
  • Why women tend to prefer older men (status, ability to provide) and men to prefer younger women (fertility)
  • Why twice as many men as women remain childless
  • Why men take more risks
  • Why women are more worried about emotional infidelity (risk of losing resources) and men are more concerned about sexual infidelity (risk of wasting resources)
  • Why women’s tastes change according to the time of the month: they prefer more masculine (alpha/sexy son) faces when ovulating, and kinder, gentler faces for the remainder.

Let’s look at it from another angle. We’ve already seen how, anatomically speaking, men and women are virtually identical – except when it comes to the sex parts.

In the realm of sensation and perception, comparisons are harder, because there’s no good way of measuring them, but based on subjective reports, we seem to be cut from more or less the same cloth. There is, however, one obvious difference: the way we experience orgasm. There are huge disparities in frequency, duration and intensity (the theories as to why will have to wait for another day). So in terms of how we feel and interpret the world, men and women are highly similar … except when it comes to the sex part.

Doesn’t it make perfect sense, then, that when it comes to our behaviour, to our drives, our motives, our goals, men and women should be more or less indistinguishable … except for the sex part?

For my final exhibit, I call not on biology, or mathematics, or economics, but on some simple observations.

If men and women are so similar, why don’t we understand each other? Why are there so many thousands of books telling women how to trap a man into marriage, and telling men how to trick women into bed? Why do we find romantic comedies funny? Why are there so many man-hating women, and so many women-hating men? Why are we all – even feminists – so ready to make sweeping generalisations about the opposite sex (“All men are rapists”)? Why is gender such an integral part of our identity (anthropological studies indicate that it is among the most important of our ways of defining ourselves, above national identity, ethnic identity, religious identity and occupational identity)? Why do men tend to prefer more feminine women and women to prefer more masculine men, ie types as unlike themselves as possible?

We’re not brought up segregated from our opposite-sex siblings. We’re not taught different syllabuses. We’re not exposed to different TV shows or newspapers (true, many choose to consume gender-specific material – lads’ mags, chick flicks. But that’s their choice, not something they’re railroaded into). And yet, when it comes to matters of the heart (and groin), we still don’t have the faintest clue how the opposite sex operates.

Of course we’re different. There’s a yawning chasm between us. Which is why it feels so magical when, by whatever means, and for however short a time, we manage to bridge it. And the differences are not learned, they’re hardwired. They’re clearly and firmly rooted in our evolutionary past.

The problem I think most feminists have with evolutionary psychology is not with the information per se, but with how it might be used. They’re concerned, perhaps unsurprisingly, about the agenda of those carrying out and quoting the research.

But for most of us, it’s not about returning to a world where men can pinch women’s bottoms with impunity. It’s not about dragging women out of boardrooms and throwing them back in the kitchen. It’s not about banning women from map-reading and men from verbal communication.

My concerns, at least, are far pettier. I started my first blog because I wanted to figure out where I went so spectacularly wrong. I wanted to know why women I thought attainable spurned me, and women I thought unattainable spooned me. I wanted to know how a woman could choose a misogynist ratbag over a pretty decent guy, how a woman could change her mind completely overnight, and how the hell pouring a pint of beer over a woman’s head could transform someone from scum of the earth into cock of the walk. I wanted to know what, if anything, I could do to maximise my chances of being held again. That’s all.

We need to shut up about Elliot


Some people might have expected me to weigh in on the debate about Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Santa Barbara…

elliot_rodger3Some people might have expected me to weigh in on the debate about Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, on May 23. After all, this is one subject I might seem vaguely qualified to talk about.

I too was serially rejected as a teenager, and was terrified that I would never lose my virginity, to the point where I tried to kill myself three times (although in my case, the desperation stemmed more from the fear that I would never experience love than the fear that I would never get my end away). I too have spent a lot of time reading about and engaging with the Men’s Rights Movement – albeit as an observer rather than a member. Until about a month ago I was following and followed by PUAHate, one of the forums Rodger visited, on Twitter. And since starting the blog, I’ve had quite a few messages from young men with similar experiences: 21-year-old virgins asking for advice, sexually frustrated young men wanting to know if it was all right to pay for sex.

But I’m not going to talk about Elliot Rodger. And nor should anyone else. Not yet.

I’m not going to start pointing fingers when there are still six families grieving. I’m not going to call for stricter gun control laws (although I do like living in a country where those laws are already strict). I’m not going to call for reforms to the United States’ mental healthcare system. I’m not going to propose the banning of all violent films or computer games. I’m not going to pin the blame on society’s culture of misogyny. (I’m no advocate of woman-hating. But if institutionalised misogyny was really the sole cause of this incident, why weren’t there more mass shootings like this when society was even more misogynistic than it is today?) I’m not going to try to hang it all on Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, however tempting that might be. And I’m certainly not going to write a horribly misguided “open letter to Elliot Rodger” practically empathising with the guy for being a virgin at 22.

I might just as well demand the sterilisation of all Hollywood executives – that would certainly have prevented this tragedy – or the banning of all BMWs.

You get the impression that some of these people had template articles pushing their own agenda ready to go, and as soon as news of the attack broke, they simply filled in all the blanks with the name “Elliot Rodger” and fired them off.

There’s a simple reason why I’m not doing any of these things; why I’m not hitching this gruesome wagon to my own political train. Because we know practically nothing.

The vast majority of the information we currently have about Elliot Rodger comes from Elliot Rodger himself: his videos and his 141-page “manifesto”. This is a man who couldn’t be trusted to observe the most fundamental tenet of human society: don’t kill people. How the hell can we trust him to tell the truth? Judging by the videos, it seems quite likely that Rodger was a psychopath (although again, we mustn’t presume), and one of the defining characteristics of psychopaths is their tendency to manipulate and deceive.

For starters, I see no compelling reason why we should accept Elliot Rodger’s word that we was a virgin. Sure, he might not have had sex with the women he wanted to have sex with; but does anyone really believe that a 22-year-old man, with his own BMW, his own gun, a high sex drive and a colossal sense of entitlement, had never paid for sex at least once?

Even if the likes of Rodger, and Anders Breivik, and Seung-Hui Cho, are saying what they believe to be the truth, why should we accept their version? How can you trust someone who is out of his mind to know his own mind?

After events such as these, newspaper editors, legislators and the public clamour for facts, opinions, and action. But the responses should come in that order. Opinions and legislation should never be formulated without facts. Hysterical knee-jerk responses turn the debate into a series of petty rows and risk sidelining the critical issues. Look at what happened with MMR: when Andrew Wakefield published his 1998 paper suggesting a link between the vaccine and autism, newspapers disseminated it uncritically and people stopped vaccinating their children in droves. Wakefield’s methodology and results have since been systematically discredited time and time again, but no matter how often or how comprehensively the link is disproven, many people still doggedly refuse to vaccinate their children. As a result, the United States is on the brink of its worst measles outbreak in 20 years.

And if I was to ask you what the motives of the Columbine killers were, how would you reply? Probably something about video games, or bullying, or the “Trenchcoat Mafia”, because those were the memes circulating in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. The truth, in the end, was rather different.

Any or all of the issues raised by the commentators above may have been a factor in this tragedy. It might be something else entirely. We don’t know. We may never know.

But until all the evidence is in, and all expert testimonies have been heard, I’m going to resist the urge to speculate, and to campaign for changes to laws that may have had nothing to do with the deaths.

I’m going to show some fucking respect, and I’m going to show some fucking patience.

I’m sorry, but I love you

When Harry Met Sally

“He’s another one I wish I liked,” she said, without any apparent premeditation.

When Harry Met Sally
The fact that both actors turned out to be wankers should not put you off this great film.
As a boy, I was an Arsenal supporter. I made the pilgrimage to Highbury more than once, and was riveted to the Grandstand videprinter every Saturday evening. But being an Arsenal fan in Swindon in the 70s and 80s was a dispiriting experience. With the exception of the FA Cup in 1979, they won nothing; they were a mediocre, mid-table side, capable of impressive victories over top teams on their day, but just as capable of being stuffed at home by Watford. There wasn’t even anyone to share my pain with, as everyone else at school carried a Liverpool bag.
In my early teens, I devised an ingenious coping strategy: I stopped caring. It was hard at first, but after a few months’ practice, the agony of defeat had faded to a pinprick. From then on, whenever I did watch Final Score, it was with a serene disinterest.
But the strategy had an unexpected side-effect. In 1989, when, thanks to Michael Thomas’s stunning last-gasp goal at Anfield, the Gunners became champions again, my celebrations were strangely muted. In deadening myself to the pain of my team’s failures, I had lost the ability to feel any joy at their victories.
At the age of 32, I worried that a similar process was affecting my love life. I was now so practised at handling rejection that even the cruellest blow barely left a dent. I was sick with terror. Well, a dull unease. Was my toughened hide, impervious to  harm, now equally impervious to love?
The Guardian’s 2002 spring drinks at the Saatchi Gallery was a turgid affair even by the standards of Guardian drinks. The venue had all the intimacy and ambience of an aircraft hangar; the music was muffled to an intermittent thud; the majority of my coworkers were too busy applying the 12 Tenets of Effective Networking to contemplate having fun; and most of the people I liked had sensibly arranged prior commitments. Even the B-list celebrity count was abnormally low, thanks to last-minute cancellations by Maureen Lipman and Germaine Greer.
Just as I had resigned myself to an evening of solitaire Name That Tune, I saw her.
Lucy had joined the company three weeks earlier. In her mid-20s, petite, with long brown hair, huge eyes and a life-affirming, whole-body smile, she managed simultaneously to evoke my paternal instincts and some entirely contradictory ones.
I’d been praying for a chance to talk to her ever since. But while her desk was only yards from mine, she worked on a different section of the paper, so opportunities for interaction had been scarce.
Now here she was, six feet away, engaged in awkward conversation with Adam from the website. The manner in which I interposed myself between them is unlikely to be remembered for its nonchalance.
Minutes later, Adam obligingly departed in search of a refill.
Lucy was lovelier than I’d hoped: bright, modest, unpretentious, curious about the world. Although I wasn’t on the best form of my life and she was on her guard, our backgrounds were just similar enough and our opinions just different enough to keep the conversation lively. We didn’t click so much as slide gently into place.
The next day, we took two cigarette breaks together. The day after came our first lunch. That was swiftly followed by an evening drink, which became an impromptu meal, which, being round the corner from her place, became an impromptu tour of her flat. After introducing her cohabitees, Lucy ushered me to her bedroom. Then she made us coffee, invited me to lie on her bed, and read me intimate passages from her diary.
In the normal scheme of things, I might at this point have attempted to lower the tone of the evening. But I had come to a decision. Even though Lucy was more or less my idea of perfection; even though we fitted together so well in so many ways, and even though I wanted to hold her until gangrene set in, I had already resolved that I would never make a pass at her. Because whichever way you sliced it, I did not deserve this woman. I wasn’t young enough, I wasn’t handsome enough; I wasn’t rich, successful, well dressed or well tressed enough to assert the right to take Lucy in my arms. It would be reward enough, I told myself, for her to call me friend.
Over the next couple of weeks, we started emailing regularly – nothing flirtatious; just thoughts, anecdotes, background info. The fag and lunch breaks became routine, and we shared a post-work pinot once a fortnight. It seemed I’d got my wish.
The lights of a descending jet glimmered in the distance as she gazed out breathlessly across the sleeping city, replaying the night’s events in her head. Dinner at Sheekey’s, cocktails at his private club, then a romantic moonlit walk along the river back to his place. And what a place! A spacious, exquisitely decorated pad on the top floor of an exclusive harbourside development, with a view that would have had Sex and the City’s Mr Big spitting out his single malt. Even though she’d known he was a high-powered broker, she hadn’t dared hope for anything as opulent as this.
She darted her eyes to one side to drink in his toned six-foot-plus frame, immaculately clothed in bespoke Armani suit and handmade Ferragamo loafers.
“It’s a beautiful apartment,” she gushed, barely able to keep her voice steady.
A lock of his thick, dark hair flicked across his forehead as he turned and speared her with his smoky gaze.
“I designed it myself,” he crooned, with an irresistible hint of braggadoccio. “Although I’ve never really felt at home here. It’s always felt … empty somehow.”
His deep blue eyes twinkled as his strong, manly arm reached out to pull her towards him. She couldn’t have resisted if she’d wanted to. His breath flashed hot against her delicate alabaster skin.
“But you know,” Ben growled as his lips closed on hers, “suddenly it doesn’t feel so empty.”
After about a month, Lucy asked me to accompany her to a birthday bash in Islington. Since neither of us knew many people, we both drank too much too quickly, and after about an hour and a half she confessed to feeling unwell. “Would you please take me home?”
She fell asleep on my shoulder almost as soon as we got in the cab. I asked the driver to wait outside her place while I helped her to bed, then continued home.
At work, we were inseparable. The frequency with which we smoked and lunched together prompted more than one colleague to ask whether something was going on. Their suspicions would have been raised further if they’d seen the emails – 30, 40, 50 a day were zinging between us. We left no subject uncovered: hopes, fears, secrets, how the Romans would have played bingo.
What endeared and annoyed me most about these exchanges was Lucy’s absurd lack of self-esteem. If she wasn’t down on her weight (“Aargh! Eight stone!”), she was fretting about her job, her hair, or what others might think of her. Her bum wouldn’t have looked big in the Greenwich Observatory telescope, but I had to remind her of the fact at least once a week. It made me angry with her sometimes, but, as I was usually able to put her mind at rest, it also made me feel needed.
It must be said that Lucy wasn’t always the most conscientious friend. She cancelled our arrangements at the last minute with exasperating regularity, and two or three times forgot them altogether. But she usually made it up to me; and I always forgave her.
A tendril of cannabis smoke drifted lazily across the ceiling lights as the tanned, powerful hand that had been so deftly manipulating the instrument panels returned to its owner’s dimpled chin.
“And that, gorgeous,” crooned Carl, “is how we make a hit single.”
The corner of his mouth kinked as he leaned forward, probing for her reaction.
The day had been such a whirlwind, Lucy didn’t know what to think. Three hours before, she’d been walking along Oxford Street, window-shopping and minding her own business, when a limousine had pulled up to the kerb and the window wound down. “Hey, gorgeous. Come here!”
She wasn’t particularly into chart music, much less boy bands, but even she couldn’t fail to recognise the cheeky grin that beamed from within. Carl, the one member of Hi5 who could actually sing; and also, she now noticed, the best-looking.
She’d declined at first, of course; one doesn’t simply jump into a strange man’s car, even if he is impossibly rich and famous. But when he had gone on to reassure her that there was no pressure, that he’d just thought she looked like fun, and that she might like to do something different this afternoon – and more importantly, when the grin widened to reveal those gleaming, spirit-level teeth – her resolve had dissolved. Well, you only live once.
Now here she was, sitting in a state-of-the-art recording studio, having just watched one of the bestselling groups in the country lay down a track for their new album. She barely knew Carl, he was fully two years younger than her, and he was maddeningly cocksure. But he had behaved like a perfect gentleman, he was talented, and he was undeniably cute.
Lucy blushed slightly as she murmured, “It’s fascinating. I had no idea so much work went into three minutes of music.”
Carl flicked a speck of something from the chest of his T-shirt, then inched closer. “The guys are going to a party later tonight if you want to tag along, gorgeous,” he purred, his masculine fingers snaking forcefully but gently between hers. “Or if you like, we could just stay here.”
Lucy was disarmingly upfront about her love life. While she spared me the graphic details, she rarely wasted any time in informing me when there was a new suitor on the horizon. And it was an exceptionally busy horizon. Every two or three weeks, it seemed, she’d be fizzing with excitement about some new stolen kiss or scribbled number. For a few days, she’d speculate breathlessly on how much he liked her and whether he might be The One; then the name would suddenly fade from her lips and our conversations would revert to normal – until the next intoxicating prospect.
I did feel a twinge the first time she mentioned another man. But with each successive annunciation, the sensation dimmed a little, until the advice I was able to give her was almost entirely objective. And since none of them lasted long enough for me to meet them, they somehow never felt real.
In any case, the point became moot when there was a brief resurgence in my own love life. For six months, I pushed my feelings for my friend further to the back of my mind. But when Rachel and I split up, the person I called to pour my heart out to was Lucy.
A couple of weeks later, after working late one evening, I decided to surprise Lucy on my way home. The voice on the intercom was breathy. “Come up!”
I was greeted at the door by Jennifer Beals. “Sorry,” said Lucy. “Yoga.”
I offered to come back in a few minutes. “God, no – exercise is so boring. I could do with the company.”
So as Lucy stretched and sweated and moaned and the smooth, firm flesh of her arms glowed in the light of the TV, I made small talk, and tried my hardest not to think bad thoughts.
In early January 2003, after a swift one that turned into a slow five, Lucy was in even more candid mood than usual. She told me about an incident a couple of years before, when she’d been to a party with someone, and even though she wasn’t interested, he’d talked his way into her flat, then her bedroom, then her bed. He had suggested sex; she had declined. He had suggested it again, and when she had declined again, he had had sex with her anyway. The craziest part was, she was worried that she had done something wrong.
I walked the three miles home that night planning in minute detail the alterations I would make to the scumbag’s anatomy if he ever had the misfortune to cross my path.
 Lucy’s face fell as she saw the steel chain fastened around the gatepost.
“Locked,” she sighed. Well, it was two in the morning.
Harry’s limpid blue eyes twinkled in the lamplight as he shinned up a tree and leapt athletically over the fence and into the park. “Not to us it isn’t!”
Lucy couldn’t suppress a girlish giggle as his powerful arms reached over and hauled her in.
“We’ll get into trouble!” she squealed, half seriously.
“Funny,” teased Harry, his strong hand brushing her hair from her eyes. “I thought you liked trouble.”
Now that he mentioned it, after three hours guiltily bopping to an anarchic psychedelic rock band and a further two knocking back champagne on a yacht moored in St Katherine’s Dock (not, sadly, Harry’s – it belonged to one of his advertising colleagues), Lucy was in the mood for a little bad behaviour. Especially if it was with this sport-loving, smooth-talking, fast-living hunk of a man.
“Race you to the swings,” barked the floppy-haired executive, setting off like a thoroughbred before she could respond. He slowed down to let her catch up, then accelerated effortlessly to the finish line, and turned so that she fell breathless into his arms.
The swing chain creaked gently in the breeze as their mouths met hungrily, and she melted in his controlled yet passionate kiss.
“And now,” said Harry, as he forcefully guided her hand down over his collarbone, his manly chest, his heaving six-pack, “now, you’re going to do something really naughty.”
I hadn’t wanted to do anything special for my 33rd birthday. I’d already seen enough to prove my Theory of Diminishing Turnouts – 200 guests at my 18th, 100 at my 21st, 30 at my 32nd – and wasn’t eager to test it further. But Lucy talked me round. It had been ages since she’d had a good knees-up – and anyway, wasn’t it about time she met my friends?
So one evening after work, after scouting the neighbourhood for suitable venues, we booked a pizza place in Angel for the Saturday night.
The invitees filed in bearing the usual burnt offerings: mugs, clockwork penises, the books they’d got for their birthdays. Then Lucy arrived, looking unbefuckinglievable, and handed over a bag containing not one, but five parcels. She called it a “writer’s kit”: bottle of wine, wine glass, gourmet coffee beans, silver coffee cup and saucer, silver ashtray. I’d been harping on about writing my sitcom for too long, she said. This might be the kick up the arse I needed.
I was speechless. In all my born days, no one, but no one, not girlfriends, not parents, not even Nana Rose, had put that much thought into buying a present for me.
The rest of the evening passed in a pleasant daze; no one got punched or poisoned, and everyone seemed to get on.
As I lay in bed that night, the cogs refused to stop turning. I’d established nine months before that I wasn’t good enough for Lucy. But with the presents, things had changed. More to the point, I had changed. Round about the time I’d met Lucy – perhaps not, it now occurred to me, coincidentally – I had cut out the excess boozing and started going regularly to the gym, with the result that I could now face the mirror again. I’d started to put more thought into the way I dressed. I’d joined the office choir and discovered a reasonably impressive tenor voice. I’d had a couple of half-decent articles published and was building a reputation as one of the more able subeditors on the paper. I’d had one relatively normal six-month relationship; and as my party had just proved, there were still at least 25 people in the world who liked me. Most of all, I’d got my confidence back. I was, as much as I’d ever be, a marketable proposition. Was there a glimmer of hope after all? Was it time to reassess the situation?
Five days later came the perfect opportunity to do just that. Lucy and her flatmates had decided to flick the Vs at the accursed saint by throwing an “anti-Valentine’s” party for their single friends. Since available men were in short supply, Lucy asked if I could help. Only two candidates sprang to mind: Guy and Phil. While Phil wouldn’t have been my first choice for Phone a Friend on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, he was usually a fun addition to a gathering, and was as far from Lucy’s type as I could imagine; and Guy, for all his flaws, wouldn’t dream of screwing me over.
Things warmed up fairly quickly thanks to a crate of champagne courtesy of Lucy’s rich friend Quentin and Phil’s patented icebreaker games. Then, after about an hour, Lucy retreated to her room. Personal phone call? Makeup adjustment? Five minutes passed. Was this the time to say something? I might never get a better chance.
I was steeling myself to knock when a squeal came from behind the door: “Phil!” I’d never heard her sound so … girly before. “Come in here.”
As I stood frozen in the hallway, Phil strolled up to the door, winked, and pushed past me into her bedroom.
An ambulance wailed in the street outside as Phil closed the door behind him. Lucy, glancing up from the bed, tried to look as insouciant as possible.
“What’s occurring, babe?” drawled Phil, depositing his can of lager on the bookshelf and wiping a blob of guacamole from his lip.
“I wanted to talk to you … alone.” Lucy rose from the bed and wafted elegantly across to where he stood.
Phil gazed up at her through his inch-thick glasses and smiled, revealing his crooked, yellowing teeth. “Phwoarr. D’ya fancy it then?”
He stroked his hand contentedly over his paunch as Lucy stepped back and unhooked the straps of her dress.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” ejaculated Phil. “Well tasty!”
I recognised the feeling straight away. It was the same twinge that had hit me the first time Lucy mentioned another man, only a thousand times more powerful. It was all I could do to stop myself throwing up on the spot. I asked Guy to pass on the message that I wasn’t feeling well and ran into the street to find a cab.
That night, unable to sleep, I weighed up my options. The correct thing to do, clearly, was nothing. The grown-up course of action was to take a deep breath and keep quiet. Except something wonderful had happened.
I felt shit.
It was as if I’d been Arsenal’s most loyal, most passionate supporter my whole life, and they’d just been beaten in the Champions League final by a last-minute goal from Man United. There was a cavernous void in my stomach. I was crying. Heck, for the first time in 15 years, I actually wanted to kill myself.
If I could still experience misery this profound, this intense, then I could also, theoretically, still feel joy. And if it was Lucy who was inflicting this misery on me, then surely she was the key to any possible future happiness. I had to tell her how I felt.
Besides, this was Phil we were talking about. Phil, who openly boasted of having bedded more than 300 women. Phil, whose reaction on meeting Mirjam had been to pull a face and suck air in through his teeth. Phil, who was, in short, exactly the sort of womanising throwback that I had vowed just weeks before to protect her from.
So on Monday morning, at work, I asked Lucy to join me for a cigarette in the corridor. “I’m sorry,” I said as she took her first puff, “but I love you.”
I admitted that my timing could have been better; and I assured her that I was not deliberately trying to undermine her budding relationship with Phil. (Although I may have let slip that if she did carry on seeing him, I couldn’t see them lasting more than two weeks.) I was simply acquainting her with all the relevant facts so that she could make an informed decision.
Lucy’s initial handling of the situation was masterful. She took me out to lunch for a sneaky couple of vodka and oranges. Her emails were sweet and perfectly judged: she was “so flattered”, she said. I’d made her feel “amazing”. She promised she wouldn’t see Phil again for a while, at least until she’d had some time to think. And she agreed to go on a “zeroth date”, a no-pressure drink and meal that ended up back at her place with Lucy sitting on my lap as I read parts of her novel on her computer.
I also, of course, had to explain things to Phil. He was less understanding. But eventually I persuaded him that the matter would be settled more conclusively by Lucy than by fisticuffs.
The games evening we had scheduled for the following weekend turned into an emergency summit meeting where the rival parties put their cases. Lucy’s options, essentially, were to choose neither of us; to go for a short, thick Essex paparazzo who’d known her for 90 minutes and wanted her because she was, and I quote, “a fit bird”; or to go for the nice, intelligent guy who had been her closest companion for nine months, who had seen every side of her, and who loved her more than life itself.
She pleaded for more time to think.
The first clue as to which way the wind might be blowing came a couple of days later. Lucy was telling me about another male friend who had fallen for her: “He’s another one I wish I liked,” she said, without any apparent premeditation.
But things were not yet set in stone. There was still time for my closing statement, and I knew just when to deliver it. Lucy’s birthday party was the following weekend, and Phil wasn’t going.
I took the three days before the party off work. I got out the wine, the glass, the cup and saucer, coffee beans and ashtray, threw in two bottles of vodka, and buckled down. Sod the sitcom – this was my metier, my chef d’oeuvre, my raison d’etre.
I’ve explained how Lucy, despite her abundance of natural advantages, suffered from a crippling lack of confidence. A large proportion of our emails and most of our conversation had consisted of me reassuring her about her weight, her looks, her writing ability. But as I wouldn’t always be there to give her that support – even if we did get together – I figured she needed a more permanent resource.
And at 8am on the morning of her party, the “Little Blue Book” was finished. A handmade volume of 366 pages – one for every day of the year – each featuring a different reason to be cheerful. So if ever Lucy woke up one day and felt a bit down, she could open it to the relevant date and find a joke, an aphorism, a poem, a memory or a cartoon reminding her how special she was.
And she took it, and spent so much time reading it that she hardly spoke to any of her guests, and at the end of the night she looked up at me with tears of gratitude and begged me to hold her all night long.
Well, that was the plan. In the event, of course, she had no time even to open the book. In fact, she didn’t get back to me the next day, or the day after that.
When we did finally meet, she was odd, terse, guarded. She loved my present, she said, but … yes, she was seeing Phil. And she had been since Valentine’s Day.
Their relationship lasted 13 days.