Helicopters in the stomach

Me age 13 on bike

Every time she smiled, my heart tried to jump out through the top of my head

Me on a racer aged 13
I got the racer two weeks later.

“He was so afraid of girls that he made a secret study of them. But the more he studied them, the more he feared them.”
Opening dialogue card, Harold Lloyd’s ‘Girl Shy’, 1924

Until that Monday, I minded my own business. I went fishing for minnows at the weir with Heath and Jez. I threw myself into my history homework with borderline pathological zeal. I got thrashed at contract whist by Mum and Dad and Nana Martin; skidded down the grassy slopes of Barbury Castle on old cardboard boxes; counted down the hours to the next episode of Doctor Who. In short, I enjoyed innocent, uncomplicated passions that I thought would last for ever.

Until that Monday.

She wasn’t what you’d call classically gorgeous. In fact, no one else seemed to have noticed her. She was quiet, slim, average height, with hypnotic, sparkling grey-green eyes, hair like burnt Shredded Wheat, and what seemed to be a giant steel girder attached to her face.

Yes, she wore a dental brace; one of those terrifying Disneyland monorail affairs going all the way round her head. But every time she smiled – even through all that scaffolding – my heart tried to jump out through the top of my head.

For the first few weeks, I contented myself with gazing across at Kerry in Geography, ignoring the teacher’s dronings about the formation of terminal moraines and wondering how it was that no one else could hear the tom-tomming of my heart and the Lynx attack helicopters circling in my stomach. Until that Monday, I had always been the first to raise my hand when the teacher asked a question. Now I waited for my beloved to raise hers, in the hope that her sleeve would slip a little and expose just a couple more inches of heavenly forearm.

With every passing week, the helicopters grew louder and the throbbing more intense – but I still had only the dimmest notion of what they meant. There was a rumour that Steven Foster, a loud, scruffy boy in my tutor group, had been seen holding hands with Lizzie Stutters, a skinny, spotty girl in the year below. And I’d heard other children talk about “fancying” girls – but somehow the word “fancy” didn’t quite cut it. After all, when people say, “I fancy a cup of tea”, it means they’d quite like a cup of tea, but it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t get one. But I knew it would be the end of the world if I didn’t get Kerry.

So, the day we broke up for half-term in February 1983, during afternoon break, I sought out Sharon Penney. Sharon was no great shakes at English or Maths; but when it came to Other People’s Business Studies, she was top of the class.

She was uncooperative at first, but an offer of two lots of maths homework soon loosened her tongue. Kerry lived on the main street in Broad Hinton, she said, a village five miles from mine.

So three days later, trembling with excitement and dread, I put on my only remotely trendy pair of trousers, gave my bike a thorough clean, and set off.

Five miles wouldn’t normally be much to ask of an able-bodied 13-year-old on a bicycle. But there were complicating factors. First, my chariot wasn’t exactly state of the art; it was a three-year-old Raleigh Grifter, a sort of bulky proto-BMX with none of the BMX’s ruggedness or manoeuvrability. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there. And third, it was -7 degrees C, and we were well into our third consecutive day of heavy snow. But somehow, two hours later, a pitiful snowman on wheels dismounted outside 76 Green Lane.

After I’d brushed off all the powder, I took a minute to catch my breath, and thought about what I was doing for the first time. I liked Kerry, but would she like me? I’d never really considered whether I was good-looking or not. Nana Bodle always called me her “handsome boy”, but she was biased. I was skinny. And ginger. And, according to Steven Foster and his mates, a nerdy swot. On the other hand, I was a nice boy from a nice family – well spoken, fairly intelligent. And I was wearing my trendy drainpipe trousers.

Oh well. There was only one way to find out. I screwed up my eyes and knocked.

After 20 agonising seconds, a young girl – a good two years younger than the one I was expecting – answered the door.


“Um … h-hello.” With the cold and the nerves, I was juddering like an arrow in an archery target.

“What do you want?” Very self-possessed, was this 11-year-old.

“Is this Kerry’s house?”

The doorman sneered. “Yeah.”

I had rehearsed everything up to this point. But it now dawned on me that I had no idea what was supposed to happen next. Should I ask to come in? Should I ask if Kerry wanted to come out? What if she was busy? My mind was as blank and skiddy as the country lanes I’d just cycled over.

So I mumbled, “OK, thanks,” jumped back on my bike, and rode the five miles home.

I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d had the courage to say something that day. But it presumably wouldn’t have involved the entire population of the school laughing at me for a week.

 Charles Darwin hated peacocks. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” he wrote to botanist Asa Gray in 1860. 

The previous year, Darwin had published Origin of Species, setting out his theory of natural selection – a theory 20 years in the making. His idea, with all that it implied for the story of the Creation, had been greeted with predictable howls of rage from the church, but its reception in the scientific community and the general public was much warmer. No one could point to anything that seriously undermined his simple, elegant argument. 

Except for the peacock. 

If Darwin was right, and all the traits of modern animals were adaptations that had evolved over millions of years to maximise their chances of survival, then what was this ridiculous bird doing strutting around showing off its elaborate, brightly coloured feathers, which are not only useless and cumbersome, but actually reduce its chances of survival by making it more visible to predators?

In fact, natural selection struggled with sex differences generally. It couldn’t, for example, explain the southern elephant seal, the males of which are five to six times heavier than the females. It couldn’t explain deer antlers, which are good for nothing but fighting other deer with. And it certainly couldn’t explain the green spoonworm, a type of marine worm in which the male is a glorified, brainless pair of testes that spends its entire life inside the female’s genitals.

By the rules of natural selection, males and females ought (sexual organs aside) to be identical. After all, they face identical challenges: they share the same habitat and the same diet; they have the same predators, succumb to the same illnesses. Adaptations that are useful to one sex should be just as useful to the other. 

Sex, Darwin realised, was the key. The ultimate test of evolutionary success is not how good you are at surviving, but how good you are at reproducing. From a genetic point of view, it’s better to live a short life and produce some offspring than it is to live to a ripe old age and have none. 

The peacock’s brilliant plumage may work against its survival – but because big, showy tails happen to appeal to peahens, they increase its chances of mating. The same is true of the male elephant seal’s bulk, the male deer’s antlers and, in theory, the small male human’s trendy trousers. 

Darwin presented his theory of “sexual selection” in The Descent of Man, in 1871  and was roundly ignored. The biologist RA Fisher revived the idea briefly in 1930 with his book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, but it was another 40 years before anyone realised just how powerful a light this insight could shine on human relationships – and on human nature in general. 

Cometh the hour

Wheatsheaf pub

A sea shanty about the night in 1987 when I lost my virginity

Wheatsheaf pub
Where boys become men, apparently.

“What people say they find attractive does not always correspond with their actual sexual behaviour.”
– Sign at ‘Sexual nature’ exhibition, Natural History Museum, 2011

When I was a young lad, no sorrows to drown,
At weekends we’d paint the town red;
We’d head to the Wheatsheaf in old Swindon town,
And drown our tomorrows instead.

One fateful night three companions walked in,
Corina, who kept glancing at me;
Nancy, not quite as attractive as sin,
And Rob, a tall bloke with bad acne.

Oh fair Corina, Corina my love,
Why couldn’t you be my first?
With your laughing green eyes and your stonewashed Levi’s,
You would have rocked my universe,
Oh, you would have rocked my universe.

We talked, laughed and danced, and we shared a cigar
I downed eight pints of ale, then upped nine;
And after three more they called time at the bar
And Corina said, “Let’s go to mine.”

Once we’d arrived she took Rob to her bed
To embark on a night of romance.
Then Nancy she yawned, cracked her fingers, and said,
“Well, come on then, take off your pants.”

Oh fair Corina, Corina my dear,
Why couldn’t you be my first time?
With your soft golden hair and your pert derriere,
We could have been partners in crime,
Oh, we could have been partners in crime.

Now I’d spent five years with my flag at full mast
In readiness just for this day;
Now it was called for, the stiffness had passed
But she put it inside anyway.

(sotto voce)
It wasn’t the ale, nor the Marlboro Lights,
Nor my first sight of a lady’s doodah;
Twas the thought of the angel I’d prayed for all night
Being jackhammered by Freddy Krueger.

Unfair Corina, Corina, you cow,
Why couldn’t you be my first chick?
You left me with Nancy, who I didn’t fancy,
And slept with that pizza-faced prick,
Oh, you slept with that pizza-faced prick.

 There is a conflict at the heart of the human mating system.

The optimal mating strategy for males (and thus their more “natural” behaviour) is to take lots of short-term sexual partners. The optimal mating strategy for females is to have one (or  few) long-term sexual partner. Clearly, when men and women hook up, something’s got to give.  A compromise is called for; and it turns out that, surprise, surprise, it’s the least  attractive people who do most of the compromising.

Individuals of higher mate value – more attractive people – are more likely to achieve an arrangement closer to their preferred strategy. So desirable men (looks, money, high status) are  more likely to play the field; desirable women, meanwhile, are more likely to insist on commitment (and on a longer courtship period before sex, of which more anon).

Conversely, men  of low mate value will more willingly accept a long-term relationship, while women of low mate value will more often accede to requests for casual sex.

As Herold and Millhausen put it in their 1999 study, most women adopt a “restricted sociosexual strategy” – ie, they prefer long-term relationships – but there are some who prefer an unrestricted strategy.


Ode to Brexit

Fucking terrifying picture of Theresa May, as most of them are

The UK may well end up hopelessly broken – but no turning back now! The people have spoken!

Ode to BrexitI

A ham-faced PM (one of Bullingdon’s worst),
On deciding that party, not country, came first,
Promulgated, to silence a sceptical few,
A vote on our membership of the EU.

So everyone picked a side: Leave, or Remain –
Some on principle, others for personal gain.
In a landslide the like of which no man has seen,
Leave triumphed by seventeen points to sixteen.

When Hamface stepped down, we were short of a Tory
To guide this now unshackled nation to glory.
Johnson? Gove? Leadsom? No; I was the Don
(Cos no one was quite sure which side I’d been on).

Brexit means trade with the whole human race!
(Apart from the neighbours we slapped in the face.)
Brexit’s a vow we won’t break – but hey presto!
We’ve scrapped all the pledges in our manifesto.


Some want a new vote. They say Leavers told lies!
Well, perhaps one or two comments were ill-advised:

The lawmakers in the EU are elected,
Passporting will be adversely affected,
Turkey’s not joining, we can deport crooks,
The EU’s accountants aren’t cooking the books,
We could have controlled borders (if I’d been arsed),
Leaving might reignite strife in Belfast,
The UK’s rebate isn’t going to be cut,
Gibraltarians might well get screwed in the butt,
We’re not bailing Greece out, we don’t get outvoted,
And bendy bananas? Well, he was misquoted!
The UK may well end up hopelessly broken –
But no turning back now! The people have spoken!

Brexit means Brexit, means fields of spun gold!
(With no one to pick it; migration’s controlled.)
And fishermen, able to fish as they please!
(Till 2019, when they’ve emptied the seas.)



Of course, for such marvels, a price must be paid;
There will be some downsides to our bold crusade.
But so what if some students from France are deterred
And tuition fees rise from insane to absurd?
Never mind if the banking jobs move to New York
And you pay a quid more for your leg of roast pork.
Meh, so tourists get spat at for speaking their tongue
And holidaymakers to Europe get stung!

Big deal if your freedom to travel is dead –
Just look at the sovereignty you’ve gained instead!
Don’t be sour that some millionaires sold you a pup;
Get over it! Move on! You lost! Suck it up!
Who cares if we’re furthering Putin’s agenda?
We took back control! Let’s go on a bender!


We’ll get the best deal cos we’re strong and we’re stable.
Just look at the team that we’ve sent to the table!
There’s Johnson and Davis, disgraced Liam Fox!
(Forget, for the nonce, that they’re all massive cocks.)

I’ll show them who’s boss! I’ll be stable and strong!
Cos 17 million folk can’t be wrong!
I’ll give you the freedom to excoriate
The 1.6 billion Muslims you hate!

The SS Britannia will unfurl her sails
(But without Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales)!
Brexit means mind-blowing plans for the nation!
There’s only one problem –

The implementation.