The 40 In 40 Days Project.

21. The Incompetencies (1962-2002)

Main Index

The Au Pairs
The Step-stepfather
The Simulated Wank
The Toy Store
The First Single
The Queeny Put-Down
The First Hissy Fit
The First Gay Club
The Rent Boy
The Heterosexual Phase
The Lifestyle Switch
The Empty Floor
The First Poem
The Amsterdam Weekend
The First Time
The Perfect Moment
The Year In Berlin
The Trade Years
The First Memory
The Anniversary Party
The Incompetencies
The Pricking Of The Bubble
The Club Residencies
The "Tales of the City" House
The Musical Epiphany
The Worst Thing I Ever Did To Anyone
The Royal Procession
The Parental Disclosure
The Concept Albums
The Romantic Obsession
The Failure
The Apotheosis of Queer
The Shove From Above
The Interrogation
The Professional Rut
The Rebirthday
The First Boyfriend
The "Catharsis Of Joy"
The Funeral Address
The Falling In Love

Chronological Index

troubled diva

There is something very important which you need to understand about me. In a large number of life’s most basic practical skills, I am quite staggeringly, hopelessly incompetent. My relationship with the physical word is…well, “troubled” is a good word for it. Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

The Swimming.

My father was a keen boatman, and so a large proportion of our weekends and holidays were spent afloat – first on a succession of cabin cruisers, then on the family narrow boat, and eventually on a small sea-going vessel. You might think, therefore, that ensuring his two children could swim at the earliest age possible would have been one of his top priorities.

Well, no. And this despite his son’s unnerving propensity for falling in the canal at regular intervals – most spectacularly at a boat rally, in front of a crowd of hundreds. My father had to jump in to save me. “Solicitor saves drowning son” ran the headline in the local paper.

After the boat rally incident, you would think that the case for swimming lessons had become unarguable. Well, no again. My parents instead hit upon the curious solution of first placing me in my lifejacket, and then tying me to the roof of the boat with ropes. If I needed the loo, I had to shout for someone to come and untie me. The rope solution was eventually dropped – after which, I fell in the canal yet again. Each incident was progressively scarier than the last. A phobia was developing.

Eventually, aged eight years old, swimming lessons started at school. I wasn’t the only non-swimmer in our class, of course. Four years later though, and I was the only one still thrashing around in the shallow end, terrified of getting his head underwater. The humiliation of not being able to swim was bad, of course – but the terror of taking my feet off the bottom was far, far worse.

Swimming teachers came and went. At the start of term, they would be all hearty, strapping confidence (“We’ll have you swimming by the end of term laddie, or my name’s not…”) - I broke then all. By the end of term, they would be burnt out, gibbering wrecks, who had resorted to desperate tricks such as trying to bribe me with Mars bars.

In four years, there was just the one breakthrough: the cork mat. If I held onto a cork mat, I could – after a fashion – just about manage to propel myself along, legs kicking wildly, water splashing all over the place. But progress was slow (a width of the pool could take several minutes), and I didn’t like to move too far away from the end wall of the pool, just in case I felt like grabbing the handrail at any time.

One morning, my swimming teacher (actually a rather bored history master who’d been drafted in to help out), who had been watching me doggedly ploughing along in this manner, unexpectedly creased up with helpless laughter. I clocked his reaction and looked up quizzically, thinking I’d actually been doing rather well that morning. He leaned over the side of the pool, and beckoned me over. Apparently I had suddenly reminded him of a paddle steamer - and a rather clapped-out one, at that. “There are two old ladies on your starboard side who want their money back”, he joshed. “They haven’t had a view yet!”


I still can’t swim. The idea terrifies me as much as it ever did, if not more so. As for the smell of chlorinated water, it chills my blood to the bone. The flashbacks! Oh God, the flashbacks!

The Driving.

I was bad enough on a bike, not having cycled on the open road since one disastrous trip in Summer 1975 when I nearly caused three road accidents in the space of twenty minutes. And behind the wheel of a car, I was not much better.

On my first ever lesson (1985), having been driving for less than two minutes in my entire life, I attempted my first gear change. Only I got the pedals mixed up and braked instead. Causing the car behind to smash into the back of me. The next ten minutes of my first driving lesson consisted of swapping names and addresses. This wasn’t what you might call a confidence booster. To put it mildly.

I changed instructors soon afterwards. The second instructor quickly realised what a nice little earner he had found, and let me drive around for week after week, making all my decisions for me, with copious use of the dual controls (“Don’t worry – I’ve got it for you!”). One week, months later, he didn’t show up. I changed instructors again.

The first time out with instructor #3, we got onto a dual carriageway. “Look in the mirror, and pull into the right hand lane when you’re ready.” Look into the mirror? Huh? I’d never had to do that before. In fact, I’d always wondered what it was there for – rather an overrated instrument, in my opinion. Useful for checking your hairdo every now and again, (well, there had never been much else to do), but not for anything else, surely? Well, I looked. And could make no sense whatsoever of what I saw. How was I supposed to know when to change lane? Help!

Instructor #3 was a competent and patient soul who had Seen It All Before, and I made enough progress to be put in for the test. Thirty seconds into the test, we arrived at a roundabout. I did not give way. I drove straight on. There was a car going round the inside lane. I was heading straight for it. “WATCH OUT THERE’S A CAR IN THE WAY!” shouted my examiner, and slammed his brakes on. We came to a halt just inches away. The rest of the test was something of an irrelevance.

However, I passed on the second attempt. Thank God for that, I thought, now perhaps everyone will get off my back – and promptly gave up driving altogether for another eight years. However, in the Spring of 1995, I decided to give things another shot – after all, it hardly seemed fair to K that I should be chauffeured everywhere I went. So we went out for a few spins together – and actually, I wasn’t too bad. Until, once again, at a large and busy roundabout, I showed no intention of giving way. “FOR GOD’S SAKE HIT YOUR BRAKES NOW!”, K shouted – and just in the nick of time, I did. But it was too much for him, and for me. We never went out in the car together again.

Bloody horrible things anyway. Just ugly lumps of metal, basically. And so terrible for the environment, of course. Well, one tries to do one’s bit for society, whatever the sacrifices…

The Cooking.

You would not believe my cooking. Honestly, it’s pathetic. I can boil an egg, and I can do toast on the Aga. And I’m a dab hand – nay, a maestro - at following the instructions on the back of ready meals. But that’s basically it.

An early indicator of this came in Autumn 1981 – my first term in a shared student house. It was early days, and we were still attempting to cook for each other. This was my second attempt (my first being a ludicrously ambitious home made quiche, whose pastry had crumbled away in the oven, allowing the yellow gloopy stuff to leak out all over the kitchen floor). This time, I was attempting spaghetti with cheese sauce.

I went into the larder and grapped the pack of spaghetti. Unfortunately, it was already open, and I’d grabbed it by the closed end of the packet. Result: the spaghetti tipped out, and all over the larder floor. Which was, of course (this being a student house) absolutely filthy. So I decided to wash the dirt off the spaghetti before boiling it. Under the hot tap. Meaning that the strands all melded together into a large lump of solid pasta. Which I then proceeded to boil.

Meanwhile, I had decided to make the cheese sauce out of Cheshire cheese – thereby ruling out the possibility of it having any flavour at all. I took the recipe from something I had copied down in an exercise book. Unfortunately, I had mis-transcribed the amount of flour required for the sauce. By a factor of four. Meaning that I ended up with a flavourless mixture of flour and water, with a hint of Cheshire cheese. Glue, in other words.

Which I then proceeded to spoon over the solid pasta lumps, and serve to my incredulous housemates. Who, one by one, abandoned their meals and went down the chip shop instead. Leaving me sitting there, angrily insisting that there was nothing wrong with the meal that a few dollops of tomato ketchup wouldn’t put right, and that they were wasting perfectly good food, and mmm, I was really enjoying this, OK?

The communal cooking rota fell apart forthwith, and I was never, ever allowed to live the incident down by my housemates, who took great delight in reciting it to everyone who came round for the rest of the year.

K does the cooking in our household. He’s bloody brilliant at it, as well (everybody says so). Good job, under the circumstances.

The Football.

Team spirit. That’s what they said football was supposed to teach you at school. Well, phooey to that. In my experience, “team spirit” meant ten other people (all of whom had been picked before you) groaning “Oh no, we’ve got Atkinson again.”

In my entire school footballing career, I scored a grand total of two goals. The first was an own goal (cue more massed groaning). The second was essentially a fluke – my foot was in the wrong place at the wrong time (I usually went to great lengths to keep well out of the way), and the ball simply ricocheted off it, and into the goal. I was ecstatic. Finally, I had done something useful! I ran back across the floor of the school gymnasium, to get in position for the next kick-off.

And tripped, and fell, and fractured my wrist.

Just. My. Luck.

I took this as a sign from the Almighty that I had no business trying to be good at games – and promptly went back to being crap again.

The Cricket.

The highlight of my school cricketing career: finding a four-leafed clover while fielding. Which, I think, tells you all you need to know.

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