“I might never again have anything else to say.

The Heroic Art of Losing is a series of interconnected, tragicomic essays about life, love and losing. The book is derived from an online blog written throughout 2008. These essays are, to varying degrees, funny, serious, personal, angry, anecdotal and entertaining. The blog posts, from which the essays of this book originated, can be found online at: www.theheroicartoflosing.wordpress.com

The Heroic Art of Losing


Michael Cunningham

A note from the author

I’m an insomniac. I’m tired. I’m tired now. I’ll be tired tonight. I’ll be tired tomorrow. I’m tired most of the time. Tired from not sleeping. But more than anything, I’m tired of winners. I’m tired of a societal obsession with winning. I’m tired of the connotations that are associated with losing and losers. I wanted to say that because I might never again have anything else to say. But in February 2009, I had something to say. And I said it in a book called The Heroic Art of Losing.

Michael Cunningham

The Author

Michael Cunningham was born in Waterford in 1979. His favourite mathematical symbol is Pi and it takes him a long time to grow facial hair. He can’t dance but he can run quite fast and enjoys saying the word “applicable” out loud. He prides himself on possessing good hearing and a keen sense of fair play. At no point in his life has he ever considered wearing a bowler hat. The Heroic Art of Losing is his first book.

Contact Details Email: mikeycunningham@gmail.com Website: theheroicartoflosing.wordpress.com Facebook: Mikey Cunningham Twitter: Michael1979

I’d very much like to extend my thanks to the person who invented Tuesdays. And to the person who invented purple. And not forgetting the person who created lampshades. Good work, all of you. Pat on the back and a hearty salute. It saddens me a little that none of you get the credit you deserve. I’d like to thank the space-time continuum and the concept of irony. I want to thank Sour Skittles. I enjoy you, Sour Skittles, and I want you to be aware of that fact. I’d also like to thank the Higgs boson. One day I’ll find you and thank you in person. I’d like to thank every individual who was bored enough to read a rambling, long-winded, occasionally amusing blog on Facebook throughout 2008. You made this book happen. And I’d especially like to thank Marian, Padraig and Olivia, who played an even bigger role in making me happen. Which, all things considered, is slightly more important. Finally, I’d like to thank my limited French vocabulary. I don’t know why. I just always wanted to thank my limited French vocabulary for something.

My name is Michael. You don’t know me. I suffer from insomnia, mild OCD, red-green colour blindness and an inability to dance with any discernible sense of rhythm. I have non-conformist leanings. I’m liked disproportionately more by the elderly than by the majority of the population and I was once hit on by a nun. She still writes. I was also once hit on by a now extremely famous television presenter. He never calls. I’m a nice person. I say that not to be facetious but because I think it’s important. I think it’s the most important thing about me. I think it’s the most important thing about anyone. Put it this way: If you knew me, I think you’d like me. I’m 29 years old. I live with a goldfish called Fernando. I’m not in a relationship and I’ve been fired from more radio stations than I care to remember. I enjoy the music of Hot Hot Heat and my favourite TV show ever is Freaks and Geeks. Hardly anyone has seen it. I worry about getting old and I feel deeply uncomfortable in social situations. I dislike the number 3 or any multiple of the number 3. I like relating sports events and pop culture to real life. I have naturally reclusive tendencies. I’m a strange person. Some say “endearingly odd,” some just say “odd.” I’m good with either. And I’ve written a book. It’s called The Heroic Art of Losing. It’s quite good.

And I say that as someone who’s continually wracked with selfdoubt and tends not to like anything he’s ever written. Could be better, of course, but it’s quite good. And in the last few days, while I’ve been editing this thing from underwhelming start to unconvincing finish, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions: - “What’s up with the Greenland national flag?” - “Do I suffer from dry, chapped lips because I mollycoddle them or because I don’t mollycoddle them enough?” - “Is it wrong to find some chimps more attractive than others” - “What’s a boy gotta do to get a drink around here?” - “While out shopping, I see a woman slip a t-shirt into her bag. Do I report her or not?” - “Think I should go with the red dress or the white one?” - “What’s the best way to make some money outta this pretty little face?” All sorts of questions. But most of all, I’ve asked myself this: “Is it funny? Is this book funny?” I’m a comedy writer at heart. You ask me what I do, I’ll say I’m a writer. You ask me what I write, I’ll say comedy. First and foremost. Above all else. I may delve in and out of uncomfortably personal anecdotes, pseudo-intellectual commentaries, tenuous sporting analogies and even the odd bout of poetry, but really, I’m all about the chuckles. That’s what I’ll say. Every time.

Then I’ll tell you to stop with the questions and let me get on with my life. Man’s gotta live, readers. A man’s gotta live. Don’t have time for these endless interrogations. My answer to the “Is it funny?” question is this: “Yes. It’s funny. I’m sure it is. Actually, I know it is. I’ve been bringing the funny long enough to know when something is or isn’t laugh-worthy. It’s funny. It is. I’ve showed bits and pieces to reliable friends to confirm that it’s funny and they think it’s funny, too. It’s funny. You have my word on that.” But then I ask myself a follow-up question: “Is it funny enough?” And I don’t know the answer to that one. It’s funny, yes. It’ll make you laugh. But is it markedly funnier than anything I’ve ever written? I’m not sure it is, you know. See, I’ve written some funny stuff. For a first-time author, my comedy bar is not low. And that’s not me being obnoxious or arrogant, that’s plain and simple truth. I’ve written some genuinely amusing material in the last ten years. TV sketches, radio sketches, magazine columns, articles, emails and even birthday cards (I give good birthday). Almost all of which you won’t have seen, heard or read, by the way. I’m cult classic, baby. I shun the mainstream because that’s just how I do. I’m also borderline unemployable. Admittedly, that’s played a part, too. The two may not be entirely unrelated. So, to ensure I wasn’t deluding myself, I emailed some friends and asked them “Do you think I’ve written some funny stuff in the time you’ve known me?” Here are some responses:

“Yes.” “Who is this? Stop emailing me. I don’t know you.” “Yeah, I suppose.” “Definitely. But I preferred your work with The Commodores.” “Not really, no. Now, clear off before I call the police.” “You’ve written a lot of funny stuff, Mike, but don’t quote me on that. If you do, I’ll deny it. Then I’ll hunt you down for sport. Try me, Cunningham, just try me.” “If I say yes, will you finally come visit me? We can shave each other’s shoulders like you promised.” I never made that promise. I swear. I can do funny. I know I can do funny. I can tell a humourous story, I can write gags and I’m above average with punchlines. All well and good. So, it’ll be funny. So what? Lots of things are funny. It has to be funny enough. Therein lies the source of a whole lot of self-doubt. Is this book funny enough? Might be. I’m not sure. Probably isn’t, though. Sorry about that. So then, my next question was: “Well, if it’s not funny enough, is it insightful and emotive enough? Will it spark feelings and passions within readers that make up for the shortfall in comedic reward by taking them to places deep within the very fibre of their beings and challenging everything they think they know about themselves?”

My answer for that: “Christ, no. Didn’t you hear the bit where I said I’m a comedy writer? Get off my back, will you? What do you want from me?” So, it’s probably not insightful enough, either. Sorry about that. Now, as we’ve fallen down on those two staples, what about good old information? Will it enlighten the reader on things he or she didn’t know before and will feel eternally grateful for now discovering? That the remainder of his/her existence would have been poorer for not knowing this potentially life-altering information? Answer: “Now you’re just taking the piss.” Well, is it at least an even, well-paced book with a clear structure and central narrative? “Nah, not so much.” Is it even any good? “Yeah, actually. It is.” And it is. It might not be funny enough. It might not be insightful enough. It might not be informative enough. And it might be uneven and amateurish in its pacing. But it’s good. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you think. And it’ll make you feel. Your life won’t be worse for having read it. Promise. It might even be better. I don’t promise that.

It’s good, though. In places, it’s even better than good. There are some real high points. Moments that’ll make you go, “Huh… that’s a hell of a piece of writing. I’m glad I read that.” And there are also moments that’ll make you go, “Meh… I think that’s wrong… he should have done it better.” And that’s okay. Because that’s what I’m like. That’s exactly what I’m like. High points and “meh” moments. That’s just me all over. Someone asks you what you thought of The Heroic Art of Losing, that’s your review right there: “High points and ‘meh’ moments.” Tell ‘em it’s worth it, though, and they should buy it. Man’s got a subscription to Bizarre Erotica Monthly to fund. What? It’s a highly informative publication. Anyway, I’m introducing myself for a reason. Because it’s important. This book is going to be direct. This is from me to you. One loser to another. See, I’m just going to go right ahead and assume that you’re familiar with the feeling of losing. If you’re not, shut this book and go about your perfect life. This isn’t for you. You just wouldn’t understand. For the rest of you, I felt it was important that you have some idea of the person I am. It’ll help along the way. So, hey. Welcome aboard. Let’s hug it out. You can even cop a feel if you want. So, yeah, I’m Michael. You don’t know me. If you did, there’s a decent chance you’d like me. You’d probably find me funny, insightful and informative. Just not funny, insightful and informative enough.

Sorry about that. But read on and decide for yourself. And then towel off afterwards. Trust me on that.

Why I Like Losing
I know exactly why I like losing. It’s because there's something about losing that is infinitely better than winning. Everyone wants to win. We all want the euphoria and that sense of self-worth. There's nothing quite like winning. The validation, the triumph, the delerium. It's all part of winning. It’s a fleeting feeling but it’s a lovely one all the same. And that’s fine. If you like that sort of thing. But there's something much more satisfactory and enduring about losing. It’s so much more heroic. Anyone can win. Anyone can enjoy winning. It's easy. There's nothing challenging or courageous about being a winner. Getting there might be tough but once you're a winner, no further heroism is required. Not so for the loser. The loser, who keeps on losing, is valiant, noble and lion-hearted for never giving up. The winner is rewarded. The loser is not. And that's the point. There is pride in the fight, no matter how futile. And the greater the futility, the stronger the sense of pride. I identify with that. Unequivocally. In career, in sport, in love, and in just about everything I ever do. And maybe that doesn’t say anything good about me, I don’t know. But I don’t care either way. Because there are far worse fates in life than fighting a futile battle. Yesterday was February 14th 2008. I spent it alone with a goldfish.

No, not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not that kind of book.* I spent Valentine’s Day alone with a goldfish and I loved it. I loved everything about it. The solitude… the poetic loneliness… the knowledge that others were doing better. They were doing what winners do on Valentine’s day. They were celebrating being part of a couple. Celebrating the fact that they weren’t alone. Eating at overpriced restaurants… exchanging extravagant gifts… reciprocating romantic gestures… having wild, sweaty sex that leaves one of the participants with a house plant lodged somewhere that’ll require medical intervention, the other needing a handkerchief to stem the flow and both with a permanently impaired sense of self-worth. Okay, maybe they weren’t all doing that but, in one way or another, they were all winning. They were being rewarded. I wasn’t. And I loved that. I loved it because I equate my situation to losing. And I’m a little bit in love with losing. I revel in losing. I can't help myself. I find indulgence in being recognised as a writer of highly-regarded but under-appreciated works that never quite reach a wider audience. I feel a sense of contentedness in the ongoing failures of my football team. I gain immense satisfaction in going close, but ultimately not getting the girl. I wallow in defeat. I make it taste better than it should. Because that’s what losers do. That’s why they’re losers. And that’s a word that’s got all sorts of negative connotations surrounding it. But not for me. I’m a loser and I’m proud of it. Not because I’m losing but because I’m trying to win. Just very unsuccessfully.

My favourite word in the English language is "hope". I don’t know of a more powerful, more emotive and more strikingly poignant word. I live on hope. I may be secretly in love with losing but that doesn't mean I don't dream about winning. If I didn't, I don't think I'd love losing anywhere near as much as I do. If, when February 14th next rolls around, I'm with the world’s most beautiful woman, after having spent a Valentine’s Day together so blissful that I’m the one requiring medical intervention to get the house plant removed, I’m so successful a writer that I can just churn out chick-lit and crime thrillers for the rest of my life, safe in the knowledge that people will buy it because it came from my pen, and my football team are marching relentlessly on a league and Champions League double, I have no idea how I'll react. Probably not well, if I'm honest. It’ll almost certainly feel too much like success for my tastes and I’ll do something to sabotage it. But I'm open to trying it. Because I’m a loser who’s trying to win. And I think that makes me just a little bit heroic.

* Kidding. It is that kind of book. See what you think.

Losing in Love: Valentine’s Day, Seven Texts and The Greatest Things About Me
I don’t do Valentine’s Day. Or crack, for that matter. Or jazz-dancing. Or the ancient art of Japanese marbling. I don’t do a lot of things. But I really don’t do Valentine’s Day. I do other things. Trigonometry, for example. I’m a master of trigonometry. Seriously, you got a trigonometry problem, you come to me. I’ve got skills. Triangular skills. I don’t do Easter, Halloween or New Year’s Eve either, for those of you keeping score. And I’d happily avoid Christmas, too, if I could get away with it. But you didn’t start reading this thing to learn about holidays that I would and wouldn’t snuggle with. You started reading after being sidetracked while searching for bizarre porn fetishes on the internet. Futanari, bukkake, scat stuff — Whatever you’re into. No need to deny it. I’m not here to judge. I’m here to talk about Valentine’s Day. And how I don’t like it. How I think it makes people feel bad about themselves. How I think it makes people who already feel bad about themselves feel even worse about themselves. And how that’s really pretty twisted. And this isn’t coming from some heartfelt, personal sorrow. Because February 14th makes no odds to me. I’ve got no axe to grind. I don’t care what the date is. I’m just looking out for the disaffected people who don’t have rambling, essayistic books, in which to vent. I’m a man of the people, you see.

A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me. I believe it was 1990s one-hit wonder and Eurodance numpty Haddaway who asked the question “What is love?” and while I suspect it may not have been one to which he was seeking a response, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And what better time to do so than the day after Valentine’s Day? Apart from, like, Valentine’s Day itself, of course. But that’s neither here nor there. Stop nit-picking. And just between ourselves, I also suspect Haddaway may not have been the first person to ask that question, either. Call it a hunch. So, I’m not saying I’ve never tried Valentine’s Day. I have. I’m not dismissing something I haven’t tried. I’m not like the kind of people who complain about controversial films and TV shows they’ve never seen. I’m all about open-mindedness. A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me. So, let’s go back a couple of years. And let’s bear in mind that, in all my time on this planet, there’s been precisely one girl with whom I gave serious consideration to sharing the remainder of my existence. Gorgeous, modest, intelligent and sarcastic as all hell, I could talk to her for days and not get bored. And she was right into me, too. I could tell because she didn’t make excuses to leave whenever I started going on about something odd, as is my wont -- Like how come the idea of “individually distinct footwear” has never taken off as a fashion statement and is instead derided as “odd shoes” -and laughed, instead of looking terrified, when I told her about a joke I wrote that had the term “child pornographer” as its punchline.

What? It’s just language. Don’t fear it. Embrace it. We’re all friends here. “Job Titles That Could Be Considered Less Embarrassing Than ‘Estate Agent’,” for those of you who care. And what the hell -- For those of you in need of material, too. You can have that one for free. Don’t say I never give you anything. I’m a generous, generous man. A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me. So, she’s into me, I’m into her. We’re all set. Buy yourself a hat, mum, the black sheep is the black sheep no longer. Get the champagne in, dad… looks like the family name is going to live on after all. Except, one slight problem. She’s engaged. Has been for over a year. Lives with her fiancé. Has done for two years. I’d never met him. Never wanted to. All I knew was that he wasn’t as good as me. An egotistical, baseless and unquantifiable claim, I admit, but this was no time to be rational. He was rubbish in comparison to me. So what if he had money and success? I could quote Descartes to her. And Yeats. Could probably look up some Wordsworth and Socrates stuff too if I felt it’d impress her. Philosophy and poetry -- What girl wouldn’t want an all-action gogetter like me? Okay, technically, the only Descartes line I can quote is “Cogito ergo sum” but it still counts. And frankly, I felt sure it was precisely one Descartes quote more than her fiancée was capable of reciting. We’ll call that a hunch, too. So, on Valentine’s Day, I got a text: “Hey Mike. Havent heard from u in a while wanna meet up 2moro?”

I kept the text. That’s exactly how it read. I was willing to overlook the dubious punctuation and txt-speak, just this once. And yet, if any of my male friends texted me like that, I’d bring it up the next time I saw them and demand an immediate grammatical improvement. Funny how flexible principles can be. For the record, she had never texted me to meet up before. Never. This was a groundbreaking moment. And on February 14th of all days. Why are you texting me on Valentine’s Day? Don’t you have disgustingly expensive restaurants to be ripped off by? Don’t you have tacky novelty soft toys to unwrap? Don’t you have intercourse to be having? That wasn’t my reply, by the way. I’m not completely fucking mental. But it would have been better than what I did send. “Yeah, definitely.” was what I went with. That was my reply. “Yeah, definitely.” And it’s good. It’s short, which suggests I’m doing something else - possibly even something interesting-- at the time of writing. I wasn’t but that’s not the point. It’s also casual. Very, very casual. But simultaneously enthusiastic. The “definitely” shows a lot of enthusiasm on my part. Not a trace of indifference to be found there. But most importantly, it didn’t sound desperate. I was always good at covering up my desperation. I was often desperate but I’d be damned if I was going to show it. And so, using all my skills as a linguist and a communicator, I had crafted the perfect reply. She had obviously fallen out -- and most likely broken up -- with the fiancée who wasn’t as good as me and who didn’t quote Descartes, and she had recognised that there was someone better

out there. Someone who could quote Descartes to her (even if he desperately hoped he’d never be asked to prove it). Someone called Michael John Andrew Cunningham. There would have to be some contrition, of course. She had, after all, led me a merry dance for the best part of a year and I would need to be compensated for that -- Not financially, of course. Male prostitution, while a fascinating subject, was not, I felt, a career to which I would be best suited. No, a heartfelt apology would be fine, followed by a week or two of obvious and occasionally tearful remorse. Then, we could move on with the rest of our lives. Together. And all-square. I’m a fair man, if nothing else. A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me. All I needed to do was send my soon-to-be-legendary “Yeah, definitely.” text. I looked at it once more before hitting “Send.” It really was a thing of beauty. Men would talk about the astonishing effectiveness and succinctness of this text for years to come. I felt sure of it. Fathers would tell their sons about it. Young Amazonian tribesmen would hear of it from their tribal elders. “This is how to capture a woman’s heart,” they’ll say. And over time, the story would get embellished and I’d be portrayed as a 6’4”, muscle-bound visionary, who fought wars, stole hearts and represented all that was good about the male species. Some unconfirmed rumours would also suggest I had massively oversized genitalia, too. And, really, who are we to argue with history? “His name was Michael,” they’ll say to their children, “and maybe one day, son, you might be nearly as great as he was. But you probably won’t.” I think I’d like that. And so, with destiny on my side, I hit “Send.” This was going to be great.

Slight problem. It wasn’t sending. I mean, it was trying to send but it wasn’t sending. It went on for ages, attempting to send, but I kept getting the “Sending” message and no subsequent “Message Sent” display. Not to worry. Just a minor hiccup on my road to greatness. I’ll come back out and send it again. And I did that. Same thing. One more go. Same thing. One last try for luck. Nope. Not a great time for it to happen, admittedly, but I didn’t panic. Heroes don’t panic. Visionaries don’t panic. So, I turned the phone off and switched it on again. It had probably just been cobwebs or something. It was, after all, quite an old phone. This would definitely fix it. But it didn’t. It was still going no further than the “Sending” screen. I tried it once more. Same thing. An ordinary man might crack at this point but I think we’d all agree that I’m no ordinary man. I would discard the phone, which had let me down in my time of need, and instead turn to my trusty computer. O2 gave me 300 web texts a month. I’d just use one of those. And that’s exactly what I did. Worked like a dream. Off it went at the first time of asking. Technology + Mikey = Friends for life. Now basking in the glow of my first step towards certain triumph, I flicked idly through my phone again. It had let me down, yes, but I’m not one to hold a grudge. A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me. I thought I’d clear my inbox ahead of the deluge of “I’m sorry, I made a terrible mistake… you’re the one”-style messages I’d be receiving any minute. “Might as well clear out the Sent folder while I’m at it,” I thought. You know what’s coming. “Why are there six ‘Yeah, definitely’ messages in my Sent folder?”

Surely they shouldn’t go in there when they haven’t been sent? I would write to Nokia to inform them of this glitch in their phones. Yes, that’s what I’d do. That would be very helpful of me. As a concerned customer, it was the least I could do… but when you think about it, it was also the most I could do. It was a nice paradox, that, and I always enjoyed a good paradox. People could be fooled into thinking something had been sent that hadn’t been. And these six “Yeah, definitely.” texts most certainly hadn’t been sent. They couldn’t have been sent. No way. Not a chance. That’s not the way phones work. There was nothing to worry about. They definitely hadn’t been sent. But I knew. They had all been sent. Fuck me sideways. In total, I had sent seven identical texts that had been crafted with the primary purpose of concealing my desperation. Seven. Jesus Christ. Who sends seven identical texts? She must have thought I had the self-control of a teenage boy watching Girls Gone Wild. “He gets one vaguely inviting text and his right hand goes into overdrive,” she must have been thinking. “Fuck this for a game of soldiers.” She’s married now. Not to me. A lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about her. But let’s go back to Haddaway and see if we can answer the man’s question. There’s two very different people I want to talk about. One’s called Thomas Aquinas. The other’s called Martin Sheen.

I used to be a Catholic. Not a devout one but a believer nonetheless. Not anymore. I now rest my head on a very different pillow. An infinitely more secular one. So, when I mention a thirteenth century Christian theologian by the name of Thomas Aquinas, you’ll know that he and I would not share a nice glass of Jesus Juice together. Unless he possessed a hitherto undiscovered fascination with bizarre animal facts and a fondness for indie music, I get the distinct impression that he and I just wouldn’t hit it off. He was a bigot, you see. Thought homosexuality was an abomination. Believed the worst possible sin was not believing in God. Claimed that heretics should be killed. A nasty, hateful, intolerant bigot by any reasonable standards you wish to apply. That’s Saint Thomas Aquinas, by the way. He was canonised in 1323. I’m just saying. Martin Sheen starred in The West Wing and Apocalypse Now, one of my favourite TV shows and one of my favourite films respectively. I like Martin Sheen. I’m just saying. Anyway, between them, I think Aquinas and Sheen provided the basis for a very good answer to Haddaway’s question. An answer as good as anything I’ve heard. Aquinas defined love as wanting the best for someone; for them to be everything they could possibly be. Regardless of how that affects you. Love, he argued, was the diametric opposite of selfishness. If you want to be with someone only because they make you feel good about yourself, or because they care for you

and you feel obliged to return the favour, or because they provide you with companionship and/or sex that you’d otherwise miss, then that’s fine. More power to you. But it’s not love. Not by Thomas Aquinas’ standards. He was a bigot, though. And probably never had sex. At least not with adult females. So, make of that what you will. He wrote it in a book called Summa Theologica. It’s probably available right now in your local library. Read it if you want. It’s all in there. But I’d suggest there are better ways of spending your life. Working on your trigonometry skills, for one. In a somewhat different setting, Martin Sheen said the following on a late-night British chat show: “Love is helping [your partner] to become themselves at all costs. And it’s not just about happiness. It’s about joy. It’s about realising with gratitude that the other person has allowed you to experience joy.” He played the seminal roles of President Bartlet and Captain Willard. So make of that what you will. Different people, different centuries and very different settings but those answers overlap. Both postulate that love, above all else, is an innate absence of selfishness. That it’s about wanting to help someone more than you want to help yourself. And that it’s not just a willingness to put someone else’s happiness ahead of your own, but a desire to do so. And I think there’s something beautiful about that. If you do have a relationship with someone in your life that passes either or both of Aquinas’ or Sheen’s “Love” tests, then the next

time February 14th rolls around, I think you need to be aware that you really do have a Valentine. And, if the police are doing their job, a restraining order. You sicko. But really, you should probably celebrate it. And not just on February 14th either. Regardless of what cynics like me think. And for the record, the girl in the “Seven Texts” story above? It was all about me. Not her. So I fail that test. Completely and utterly. And I’m okay with that. Because I don’t do Valentine’s Day. And a lot of people say that’s one of the greatest things about me.

Losing Touch: Moments, Nameplates and Beauty in the Banal
Jamie Gardner remembers me as the boy who kicked a football through the front window of his house. Jamie Gardner’s sister remembers me for something quite different. Heh, heh, heh. Good times. We all get defined by moments. Whether we like it or not – and whether it’s fair or not – we stand or fall in the opinions of others by fleeting moments. Think you’re not remembered for revealing that you think your brother’s wife isn’t good enough for him when you didn’t realise she was standing behind you? Think any of the people who only knew you in school consider you anything more than the person who was good at maths/bad at French/sick in the playground? Think you’re not recalled with contempt for ruining your grandmother’s 80th birthday party by getting drunk and feeling up your friend’s mother? Think again. Okay, maybe that last one was just me. Whether you care to admit it or not, you are that person. To them at least. To some, though, you’re defined by far more positive moments. The person who looked after them when they were sick. The person who was friends with them when no-one else could be bothered. The person who got drunk and felt up your friend’s mother at your grandmother’s 80th.

That would be my friend’s mother, by the way. Most action she got all year. See, it doesn’t really matter by what moments people define you. But it does matter what moments you define yourself by. And it matters a lot. At the end of my final year in college, my Head of Department's nameplate went missing and was never replaced. His name was Paul. He was a good Head of Department. People liked him. But one April evening in 2004, someone stole the nameplate from the door of his office. Ripped it off, ran away with it and gave it to one of his friends as a symbol of youthful rebellion. Did it because he and his friends knew they were within weeks of losing touch with each other. Maybe forever. Maybe just for a while. But he knew things were about to change and would never be as perfect as they were at that moment. I know this because I was that person. And it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done. It’s the moment by which I define myself. Whenever and wherever the point came in your life, joyful reader, that made you feel better about yourself than at any other time, that’s my equivalent. I planned it with military precision. I would wait until the cover of early evening darkness before making my move. A seemingly sensible, thoughtfully-considered plan, but this was a particularly bright, sunny day in late April. It didn't get dark in the early evening. As a military man, I probably should have thought of that. But I was undeterred.

I waited until the corridors were no longer a throbbing mass of people to ensure I had an unobstructed escape route. My friend Pete would stand guard while I procured the sign and ran in one direction. He would sprint the opposite way after the grab to cause maximum confusion amongst would-be nameplate-protectors. Because there would definitely be nameplate-protectors. I had seen how such things worked in slapstick comedy sketches and I had no doubt that they had represented a very accurate representation of reality. There would be two of them -- both stuffy and bureaucratic. They would almost certainly bump into each other at a crucial point in the chase, causing them both to comically fall over, leaving Pete and I to make our heroic departure, nameplate in hand. It would be glorious. So, at around 6.45pm, Pete and I stood outside the office door and adjacent to history and legendary status. We went over the plan, which, admittedly, amounted to little more than "I'll grab it and run this way... You keep an eye out and run that way.” It was simple, yes, but when you think about it, the best plans always are, aren't they? Think Churchill saw the plans for the D-Day landings and thought "Hmm, I need to complicate matters by adding a squadron of diversionary sheepherders to the ranks?” Think the authors of the US constitution thought it could benefit from a rule about robots being treated as human, just so long as they promised not to turn on us like they always do in cinematic representations of the future? Think Darwin thought a crudely drawn picture of some breasts would nicely augment The Origin of Species? Of course not. Simple was the way to go.

Also, Pete was a 38-year-old mature student and I feared that if I complicated matters too much, he might just forget and go to bed early. That came into it, too. We stood a few feet from the door for what seemed like an eternity. Or at least the length of time it takes to find a Meg Ryan film that isn’t shit. Quite a while then. “There’s no-one left in there. They’ve all gone home,” Pete said. “Okay, here goes…” “No, wait. I just heard something.” “Really?” “I’m not sure.” “What am I even listening to you for? Look at your grizzled face… your hearing’s bound to be fucked, too.” “People tell me I look young for my age.” “People lie.” “Pauline told me I look like a 29-year-old.” “Pauline has Alzheimer’s. She thinks I look 12.” “Yeah, well, you better hope you look this good when you’re 38.” “I’ll look better.” “Oh yeah? Prove it.” “Fine. I will.” “Fine.” “Erm… out of interest, how am I supposed to prove it?” “Meet back here exactly 14 years from now and we’ll compare faces.” “Deal.” “Deal.” “Wait. We may have overlooked some intricacies of the space-time continuum.” “Just grab the sign and let’s get out of here.” And with that final verbal nudge, I made my move. Using all my skill and delicacy, I pushed the nameplate free of its horizontal

placeholders and grabbed it. I hadn’t thought to wear a jacket of some sort in which to conceal it. As a military man, that probably goes down as an oversight. It’s possible, by the way, that I may have slightly overstated my military credentials. Think of me more as Goldie Hawn at the start of Private Benjamin rather than at the end. So, instead, I just ran. When I glanced back from the end of the corridor, Pete was still standing in the exact same spot. “I forgot to run,” he would later tell me. Senility is a terrible thing. I made my escape through a side door in the canteen. When stealing nameplates, readers, you don’t use main doors. Main doors become your enemy. Main doors are for ordinary people. People whose favourite flavour of ice-cream is vanilla. People who only have sex in the missionary position. With the lights off. And without any call for love swings and sex harnesses. People who live their lives, putting off things they could do today until tomorrow. People too scared to take risks in case it upsets the status quo. People who don’t steal nameplates from office doors. These people and I no longer had anything in common. We were diametric opposites now. So I left via a different exit. Not saying it necessarily makes me better than main door users, of course. But, well, I think we’d all agree the evidence speaks for itself. I made my way to the pre-arranged meeting spot and waited for Pete. He arrived about five minutes later. I saw him exiting the building. Through the main door. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered. I concluded that I was working with an idiot.

“So, what are you going to do with it?” he asked. “What do you mean?” “The nameplate. What’s the plan?” “Well… I’m… we could… well, there is no plan, is there? Why would there be a plan?” “So, what did we steal it for then?” “You didn’t steal anything. You just stood there.” “I helped.” “Did anyone come out of the office afterwards?” “No.” “Excellent. I think we got away with it.” “So, you just stole a sign from an empty office and you don’t know what to do with it?” “Yes.” “I’m getting too old for this shit.” With that, Pete went home. To bed. It had been a long day for him. I gave the nameplate to my friend Dave. We kinda lost touch after that year. Last I heard, he kept it in pride of place in his house. As a symbol of youthful rebellion, I hope. And maybe… just maybe… as a moment by which he defines someone he used to know. In 2004, I stole a nameplate and ran off with it. It was childish. It was ridiculous. It had no real point. But in every way that matters, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done other great things, of course. I once came up with the idea for a soundproof pram. I was the first person I know to realise how great The Office was. I invented the idea of shorts over trousers as a fashion statement (yet to catch on, admittedly, but

it’ll happen) and I once led India to independence from the British Empire through a concerted campaign of non-violence. Actually, wait. That last one may have been someone else, I can’t remember. But in terms of what it represented – a clarion call to the spirit… a celebration of a glorious moment in time… an expression of soonto-be-lost youth – that’s the highlight. A defining moment, if you will. To me at least. There’s a poetic theme that my English teachers used to bang on about all the time. It’s called “beauty in the banal.” The idea of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. “Magic in the mundane” is another favourite alliterative term for the same thing that you’ll rarely hear used outside of English class. Well, there’s a poet called Simon Armitage, who’ll never be on the school syllabus, but who expresses the concept of finding beauty in the banal infinitely better than just about any of the traditional, inaccessible and soulless Leaving Cert choices ever could. I’m talking to you, Austin Clarke. In his poem It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does To You, Armitage describes all the conventionally exciting things he’s never done, but speaks of the thrill and wonder he finds in the seemingly mundane things he does all the time. If it doesn’t make you feel the world is a more beautiful place for at least a moment or two, then you and I are very different people. Know those ‘100 Things To Do Before You Die’ lists that you tend to get forwarded by email a couple of times a year? I don’t read them. I don’t care if I never do any of them. I’ve never been in a hot-air balloon. I’ve never been to Australia. And I’ve never swam

with dolphins. I don’t care if I never climb a mountain. I don’t care if I never jump out of a plane or leap off a bridge. And I don’t care if I never run a marathon. Those things mean nothing to me. Because I once stole a nameplate. A nameplate that wasn’t very valuable. That no-one even chased after. And that I had no plans to use. And I wouldn’t swap it for anything. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done. Beauty in the banal. Magic in the mundane. Extraordinary in the ordinary. Whatever you want to call it. If you can’t find it, you’re not looking hard enough.

Gambling and Losing: Half-Arsed Revolutions, A Heroic Teacher And The Things I Know
There are things I know. Not many, but some. And in a universe where we can't even be certain of our own existence, well, that's no small achievement. That's worth considering, by the way. There's a very credible school of thought, which theorises that if, as is probable, we're not alone in the universe and there exist civilisations significantly further along the evolutionary path than our own, then they've almost certainly managed to create simulations of the universe and everything in it. Including beings who think they're real parts of that universe but aren't. They've probably even managed to create an almost limitless number of these simulations. You can see where I'm going with this, right? Yeah, we might not be here. You and I might well be part of a simulated universe. Everything we do might be decided by an incomprehensibly advanced computer program. The decision I took to not go to bed at 3am and start writing this instead may not have been mine. The impulse that told you to read it when you started reading it might not have been yours. And that time I fumbled unsuccessfully for several awkward minutes with Vicky Horgan's bra-strap before admitting humiliating defeat might not have been the fault of my inept co-ordination, after all, but rather the comedy stylings of a highly evolved computer programmer. Possibly called Gorgo. If so, good work, Gorgo. You should feel proud. That was some good comedy. Dickhead. So, yeah. I might not really be here. And you might not really be reading this. At least not in the way we think we are: As tiny -but real -- parts of a natural -- and real -- cosmos.

And that's before you take into account the fact that physicists now think it's likely that ours isn't the only universe out there. Maybe ours is just one of many, loving reader, just one of many. One of an infinite number, perhaps. And ironically, I still have the audacity to be uncomfortably wrapped up in my own self-importance. Weird. So, yeah, things I know. I know That's My Goal by Shayne Ward is the worst song I've ever heard and anyone involved in its writing, production, performance and purchase merits a slow and painful death. And yeah, I know that some of you will be thinking, "But Mike, If You're Not The One by Daniel Bedingfield and Dilemma by Nelly and Kelly Rowland were even worse. They were the most disgusting, insipid and cynical attempts at romance in song form of all-time," and you very nearly have a point. But That's My Goal was fractionally worse. “That's My Goal,” for goodness sake. Can you even say it out loud without dying a little inside? You know I’m right on this one. Deep down, you just know. I also know that in my final year of college, I tried to start a revolution. I attempted to lead a glorious and peaceful revolt over what I perceived to be a gross injustice. And I know that it failed. Dismally. It failed when my classmates and friends turned on me and sided with authority. They had been promised things that I couldn't provide. They chose the safe option. It was fine. It was a halfarsed mini-revolution anyway. I took a stand. They didn't. I'm okay with that. They did what they had to do.

I know that I took a stand, though. And I know that means a lot to me. I also know that teachers have the most important jobs in the world. And I know that most of mine weren't very good. I grew up being taught that I was never going to die. I grew up being taught by teachers that death is not the end, but the beginning of eternal happiness. That my natural life would go on until I hit somewhere between 60 and 100 and then I'd start a new supernatural one. One where I'd be blissfully happy forever and where Shayne Ward wouldn't exist. Presumably. I was not taught this as one viewpoint among many. I was taught it as fact. I resent these teachers. What a disgustingly dangerous thing to teach a child. Seriously, what a truly appalling thing to tell someone too young to know better. At a time in their lives when we should be doing everything we possibly can to teach kids the value of life, we instead trivialise it and tell them that it's a meaningless dress rehearsal. There are few things I find unforgivable but teaching that to a child is one of them. According to every piece of evidence and knowledge we're thus far aware of, that's their only existence being toyed with by someone they trust. And by someone who's hazarding a guess based on blind faith. Well, guess what? Blind faith isn't good enough. Not when it comes to teaching kids. It's not even nearly good enough. If you teach your unprovable beliefs as solid fact to an impressionable child -- regardless of whether it's your own or one whose care you've been entrusted with -- there is literally no chance that you and I could ever be friends. No way. No how. And I don't care what your own personal beliefs are; you have no

right to teach them to kids as incontrovertible truth. You don't. You need to assume that the years those kids are going to spend on this planet are the only ones they're ever going to get. Because that's what all reliable evidence suggests. If that changes anytime soon, we'll all change with it. But until then, you need to teach kids to value and treasure their finite lifetimes. If you don't, you're stealing from them. You're stealing part of their incredibly limited time and using it for your own ends. And I think that makes you a pretty poor excuse for a human being. We could not be friends. Never. I realise it's easier in the short-term to tell kids about life after death and that their existence is one big happy-ever-after storyline but it's doing more damage than you can possibly know. As someone who spent a long time coming to terms with the effects of a childhood of lies and wishful thinking being presented as wisdom and knowledge, trust me on this one. I know what I'm talking about. Here’s another thing I know. I know that any teacher who teaches this information to a child is guilty of criminal negligence, deceit and a gross abuse of authority. Bordering on child abuse. I know this. I'm not speculating about it. I know it. I've been there. I've been on the wrong end of it. I couldn't be more certain. But I want to take a break from talking about me and the things I know. Don't worry, though. We'll come back to me soon. Promise. But for now, I want to tell you about a friend of mine. He's a primary school teacher. In a Catholic school. He teaches 8 and 9 year-olds. And he’s exceptional at his job. He’s better than just about every teacher I ever had. He makes a point of never, ever lying to them. If they ask him a question, he answers it. Honestly. If he doesn't know the answer, he tells them he doesn't know. He tells them it's okay not to know the answer to questions and that it's far worse to pretend you do.

When they ask him about death, he tells them that, at some point, in the distant future, they’ll die. And that it’s a natural part of life. And that they should enjoy and make the most of their lives in the meantime. But yes, they’ll die. As will he. As will everyone. When asked about Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark or the parting of the Red Sea, he tells them that these are stories in a book and should be treated as such. Physically impossible fairytales. Not real-life events. Despite what some wilfully ignorant people might tell them at other points in their lives. I realise, of course, that somewhere, a creationist is launching a witch-hunt as we speak. "Find him! How dare he teach facts to children!" Morons. My friend doesn't care about people like that. He cares about teaching kids. Not lying to them. If there's a moral to be taken from any biblical story, he'll explain it to his class. If there isn't, he'll tell them that, too. And if his boss or his colleagues found out, he'd be fired. He'd have a metaphorical bullet in the back of his head within minutes and he might never teach again. He knows this. He accepts it. He knows there are more important things in life than job security. He stands up for what he knows to be right. I consider that the height of heroism. He knows he'll lose one day. He doesn't think it. He knows it. A kid will tell one of his uncompromisingly religious parents that Moses didn't wander the desert for forty years or that the concept of hell is a fabrication of cruel, self-serving men, rather than a reality they need to be terrified by. That parent will tell another parent, who’ll tell another. At some point, a complaint will be filed. The headmaster will call my friend into his office and ask him if it's true. He'll say it is. And he'll be fired. Instantly. He'll lose. He'll lose a lot. Maybe even everything. But he does it anyway.

He takes a stand. Every day. The heroic art of losing. What a stunning embodiment. Losing hurts. It’s painful and it’s hard. But never trying to win and never taking a stand hurts even more. It’s a duller, less immediate pain but it eventually catches up with you and it’s infinitely worse. I know that taking a stand is difficult. I know that most of us will never do it. No matter how passionately we care about something, we probably won't do it. It's just too dangerous. I know that everything about our day-to-day lives is designed in a way that actively discourages people from taking a stand. Why the hell would anyone open their mouth to say what's on their mind when they risk losing the pay-cheque they need for that month's mortgage repayment, for petrol, for heating bills and to just fucking exist until the next one comes around? Step out of line and you risk losing that precious pay-cheque. And then you're fucked. This is how it's been purposely designed. By people much less selfless than you and I. The less choice you have, the more likely you are to stay in line. And if you have no choice, you will stay in line. You won't risk losing the job you can barely endure to seek the job you really want because there's too much to lose. You won't leave the partner you're quite fond of to find the one you truly adore because you might end up alone. And you won't stand up for the things you know to be right because it could cost you everything. It's difficult. Pushing towards impossible. I get that. But I know that I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try. Here's a hypothetical scenario for you:

It's your second day working in a local radio station. It's something you've wanted to do for a long time. You're enjoying it. You feel at home already. You're sitting in on the longest-serving DJ's daily show. During one of the songs, he asks you if you've listened to his show before. You tell him you have. He asks you what you think of it. You hate it. You find it dull and soulless. The antithesis of good radio. "Death radio" is how you recently described it to your friend. "Radio for people who don't like radio." If you ever get any influence in radio, this kind of show will be first against the wall. So, bearing that in mind, do you: a) Tell him you love it and he's still doing a great job after all these years. b) Don't give a direct answer but give the impression that you like the show. c) Tell him it's not really your thing but you can see why others would like it. d) Tell him you find it boring and lifeless. That you find it the height of self-indulgent, unimaginative radio and you feel the station is capable of much better. Yep, 'fraid so. I really did go with option d. I went with honesty, hoping that it'd set me aside from the sycophants and politicking suck-ups, who inhabit local radio stations so parasitically. "I'm different" was the message I hoped to convey. "I'm Mikey Cunningham and I'm just a little bit better than everyone else you've ever had in here. I'm a visionary. A revolutionary. You can come with me or you'll get left behind. Those are the only available options. I, my friends, am taking a stand." I got fired the following day. Never speak your mind when you work in local radio. That’s another thing I know. Trust me on that one. Like I said, taking a stand is difficult. It's supposed to be.

In the normal course of events, the person taking a stand will lose. I certainly did. I gambled and I lost. But at least I tried. I'm proud of that. Sometimes I stand up for small things like a belief in genuinely engaging radio or a perceived injustice about college regulations. Sometimes I support my heroic friend and stand up for bigger things like breaking theism's stranglehold on people who've known nothing but continual indoctrination. And if I'm right or if I'm wrong, I always try. I have to try. You read any newspaper tomorrow morning and you'll read a hell of a lot of scary shit. Kids getting killed in pointless wars. Global credit crunches. Recessions and depressions. Massive multinationals posting bigger profits than ever before to the benefit of people who need it the least. Shayne Ward still having a record deal. Scary, scary shit. All of them a direct result of people not taking a stand. An idiot gets elected President and most powerful person in the world. And then, even more unbelievably, gets re-elected. People lose their homes because people, who already had more than they could ever spend, take reckless, self-serving gambles in order to get more of it. Kids get killed in the name of preserving freedom that's already been taken away. Young men blow themselves up because somebody, who doesn't know and who would never do the same himself, tells them they'll get rewarded for it. The rich get richer. The poor get more and more scared. You need to take a stand. If you're scared, you need to take a stand. And we're all scared.

Because, for every one person who stands up and says, "This isn't right. We can and must do better," that's a step in a direction filled with fractionally less fear. And that, caring reader, is a road down which the vast majority of us wish to travel. The same majority, incidentally, who find no silver lining to kids getting killed "in service of their country," "in the name of freedom" or "because it pleases Allah.” We are the majority. Reasonable people, who care about other reasonable people, are the majority. Don't ever think we're not. The only reason we don't get to show it is because we're too scared to take a stand. We're too scared of risking everything. As it's been designed. And you can go along with that if you want. Noone could ever blame you. Or, at some point, you could take that risk. You could take a stand. For something. For anything. Just so long as you believe in it. No matter how big or small, it makes a difference. If you take a stand, you make it easier for the person next to you to take a stand. And if they take a stand, maybe the person next to them takes a stand. And maybe then, the world starts to become a fractionally less fucked up place. Just fractionally, maybe. But it’s an important fraction. If you think you’re the victim of an injustice, fight it. If you think your boss takes advantage of your good nature, speak out. If you think you’re being ripped off, tell someone. And then tell everyone. If you think evils are being done in your religion's name, fix it. Or don’t give it your support. Just don’t be complicit. Don’t ever be complicit. If you think people in authority are self-serving, selfinterested cretins, challenge them. Take a stand.

Maybe you’ll win. Maybe you’ll lose. Maybe you’ll come out about even. But in all likelihood, you’ll probably lose. But if you never take a stand, we all lose anyway. I know that. It’s why I start half-arsed mini-revolutions. It’s why I tell radio DJs that I think their shows stink up the airwaves. It’s why I support my friend. I do it because I know what happens if I don’t. And now you know it, too. Do with it what you will.

Lost Patriotism: Parties, Individualism and Car-Sized Beavers
I think it went something like this: Mike: “The bonobo monkey is matriarchal, you know. Acts of aggression are extremely rare. They have a lot of sex. They sometimes even use intercourse as a form of greeting. When you think about it, there’s a lesson we could all learn from the bonobo monkey.” Tim: “Blind chameleons can still instinctively change their colour to blend in with their surroundings.” Mike: “Crocodiles eat rocks. Helps with diving.” Tim: “Evolution made beavers shrink.” Mike: “I don’t think it did.” I have pointless conversations with unusual people. And I like obscure animal facts an awful lot. That was what I did on Sunday. Turns out Tim was right, by the way. Evolution really did make beavers shrink. Seems they used to be the size of a car. A car, no less! Imagine that. But we’ll come back to car-sized beavers. Promise. I wouldn’t lie to you about such an important issue. First, though, there’s a date in the calendar that I sometimes like to call “March 17th.” St. Patrick’s Day. I spent it alone this year. Like every year. I always spend it alone. I’m Irish. I was born in Ireland. To Irish parents. I’ve always lived in Ireland. I’m about as Irish as it’s possible to get. But I didn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Never do anymore. A celebration of nationality, well, it’s just not my thing. Patriotism and I make uncomfortable bedfellows. If I were to wake one morning, wipe the

sleep from my eyes and feel patriotism spooning me gently from behind, I’d feel a little bit violated. In all kinds of different ways. “What the hell… oh, for fuck sake, patriotism! Not you again. I’ve told you about this before. Go on, clear off. Before I call the police.” Incidentally, for that situation to arise, patriotism would almost certainly have had to slip me a rohypnol at some stage the evening before. I’m not that kind of boy and patriotism knows it. Really, Cunningham? Date-rape jokes? A couple of paragraphs in? I’m sure these things were supposed to be classier. I used to be patriotic. I’m not anymore. Somewhere along the line, patriotism stopped being important to me. Other things took its place. People. Ideas, maybe. Things that matter, I’d like to think. Being proud of my nationality just seemed, well, kinda stupid. It’s a strange thing to lose your sense of patriotism. It’s not that you’re ashamed of your country or nationality. It’s just that you don’t find it worthy of pride, either. You value other things instead. You wonder when things changed. And you wonder how others can feel such pride in something so arbitrary and from which you feel utterly detached. Honestly, it feels kinda lonely. So, this March 17th, I stayed at home. I didn’t enter into the spirit of Irishness. I didn’t even enter into the spirit of a rare bank holiday. I did some work. I brought my goldfish into the room and let him watch me work. I considered the evolutionary journey of goldfish. I then pondered the evolutionary reasons why beavers are no longer the size of cars. There’s no beaver-based gag coming, by the way. They really did used to be car-sized. Beavers. Car-sized. I lie not. I spent a not-insignificant portion of Monday thinking about why beavers shrunk over time. “What,” I asked myself repeatedly, “could the evolutionary benefit of

shrinking possibly have been for the beaver?” And I do mean “repeatedly.” Yes, really. This is what I’m like. This is what I do. I worked it out eventually. It took me longer than is probably healthy but I figured it out unaided. It’s an interesting reason. I recommend looking it up. Although only if you’re so inclined that knowing about the evolutionary benefits of beaver-shrinking actually appeals to you in some way. Freak. I just can’t get with the idea of celebrating nationality anymore. It’s just not a teat upon which I can suckle. And it’s not even about my natural distaste for nationalism and jingoism in all their intellectually bankrupt forms. See, I’m all about the individual. I think it’s probably closely related to the reason I don’t like parties or any kind of large social gatherings. I feel awkward and uncomfortable at such events. Like I’m only existing as part of a collective. I just don’t want to be there. From the moment I arrive to the moment I depart – Early and usually with a transparently untrue excuse. A part of my soul dies every minute I’m there, enduring conversations I don’t enjoy, listening to music I don’t like and constantly wishing I was somewhere else. Somewhere quieter. Somewhere with less people. Somewhere with no people. “Let me go home to my goldfish and a bowl of noodles,” my mind will scream silently throughout. I like noodles. They provide comfort in the form of complex carbohydrates. So much better than comfort in the form of protein or condensed milk, I find.

I also like individualism. I love it in people. I struggle to identify with normal people. With balanced people. With socially successful people. With winners, really. I run out of things to say. I prefer the oddballs. Life’s natural losers. People who feel at odds with social conventions. People who fell -- and continue to fall -- through the cracks of society. People who feel they were born at the wrong time or in the wrong place. People who think the rest of the world is completely mental and they’re the only sane ones. People who feel like they just don’t fit in. I suspect a lot of these people don’t like parties either. I also suspect they don’t tend to get invited to many. Such is life on the fringes, I suppose. Probably has its disadvantages, too. I used to meet people like that all the time when I did radio vox pops. People with nothing, save for a mind filled with unusual opinions and a desire to share them. I gave them a microphone but that wasn’t what they were interested in. They just liked sharing. You haven’t seen gratitude until you’ve shared your time with someone with whom nobody ever shares anything. “I’d rather have nothing than everything” and “I feel closer to God than I ever have… I just don’t think he’s real” are two of most lifeaffirming and thought-provoking comments anyone has ever said to me. I didn’t hear them at a party and I didn’t hear them at some contrived Guinness-drinking depiction of self-interested patriotism. They came from homeless people, one of whom also told me he had had a premonition that he was going to die of cervical cancer. It took me several minutes to convince him that he probably wouldn’t. His name was Terry and he often spoke of the things that he felt had led to his downfall. “Shoulda spent more time on the important things. Got caught up with the ponies and the booze. Lost everything in four years. Won’t make that mistake again. I’ve learned my lesson.”

As he was telling me, he was accepting money from a group of teenagers to go buy cigarettes for them. He charged a small fee, which, after a few trips, came to just enough for him to purchase his usual at the off-licence – A bottle of vodka and a straw. “The kids get what they want and I get what I want. And it makes me feel popular,” he reasoned. I couldn’t fault his logic. The point is that Terry and people like him engaged me in ways that socially-accomplished party-goers never have and, I suspect, never could. How could they? They’re not there to share their inner thoughts and offbeat opinions. They don’t do things like that. That’s why they’re socially successful. I don’t feel like there’s anything positive that I can possibly gain from spending time with these people. Know what I don’t understand? The accepted universal connection between being alone and feeling lonely. They might sound alike but the two are worlds apart. I spend a lot of time alone. I never feel lonely. But put me in the middle of a party and I’m the loneliest person in the world. What’s that, faithful readers? Did someone say “issues”? Yeah, okay. I get that. I’ve got no comeback on that one. But tell me I should support Irish people, Irish teams and Irish ideas purely because they’re Irish? I do have a comeback to that: “Why?” And if you think “Because you’re Irish” or “You should support your own” are acceptable answers to that question, then you and I are very different people. My name is Michael. It’s a common name, I know, but there’s just one of me out there. I like being me. It works for me. Probably wouldn’t do much for you but it suits me. I like it. And chances

are, dear reader, that if you’re one of the small handful of people in the world that I know, I like you being you. Not because of where you were born and not because of anything your passport says about you. I like you for something much more important than that. The fact that you’re you. That works for me, too. I’d never insult you by saying I like you because of your nationality. I’d never support you simply because you and I were born on the same island. I’d feel that would be doing you a disservice. I’d feel like how I imagine I’d feel if I approached Nelson Mandela and told him I respected him for that time he met the Spice Girls. Nelson: “The Spice Girls? Really? But what about how I helped unite a country and bring about an end to apartheid? What about how I was my country’s first democratically elected President? What about how I stood up for the things I believed in, despite the personal anguish it brought me?” Mike: “Hmm… well… let’s think about this… unifying force… social activism… strength of character… Nah, I preferred the time you met the Spice Girls.” Nelson: “How did you get past security anyway?” To the eagle-eyed amongst you, this won’t come as news to you but we’re all just people. Clever people. Stupid people. Caring people. Selfish people. Beautiful people. Ugly people. Hurt people. Scared people. But just people. And I find that ideas of patriotism and nationalism get in the way of that. Because they commit the unforgivable crime of making us less individual. They categorise us. I like individuals. I like the people who feel as out of place at parties as I do. I like the people who don’t even get invited to parties. I like the homeless guy who thinks he’s going to die of cervical cancer. I like the people who don’t drink Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day because they’d never do something so conventional -

- Perhaps because they’re drinking vodka with a straw or because they’re busy joining me in concerning themselves with the evolutionary progress of beavers. I like the people who are struggling desperately to fit in. And failing. I like them because they interest me. Their struggle interests me. They interest me in ways that people who talk incessantly about their cars, mortgages and baby-induced sleepless nights never could. I like them not because we share a flag and common borders but because I like them as people. And I could pay no-one any greater compliment than that. Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” It might be. There’s definitely something in that. But to me, it’s just an irrelevance. A non-sequitur in the ongoing happenings of life. Something I lost along the way and don’t miss. Because I’m not proud of my nationality. No more than I’m proud of my eye-colour, my fondness for corn-based snacks and the fact that I’m currently wearing jeans. Well, maybe that last one merits at least a modicum of pride. I am, it has to be said, wearing them spectacularly well. They emphasise all my best features. Hear that, ladies? All of them. Form an orderly queue. But celebrating a nationality? Nah. Count me out. You do your thing. I’ll do mine. Wake me up on the 18th when we can get back to talking about things that actually mean something. And by that, I almost certainly mean car-sized beavers. Or who knows? By then, I might have discovered a whole new fascinating animal fact. Like whales being unable to cry. Or like octopuses having three hearts. They do, you know. Three.

I’ll be sure to use that as an opening conversational gambit at my next party. Bet it goes down a storm.

Football: A Game For People Who Like Losing
I don’t like football. I’m just addicted to it. It feels good to tell someone that. There’s a reason I need to resort to sports analogies in this book from time to time. It’s because sport is a preoccupation of mine. Vast swathes of my life are dedicated to following it and being utterly enthralled by it. And also because my mind isn’t welladjusted or mature enough to use more intellectual parallels. I guess that boils down to: “Mikey like ball. Mikey not like real. Mikey talk ‘bout ball. Much.” I might get there one day, I’m not sure. But that day is not today. Probably not tomorrow, either. And most likely not for quite a few tomorrows to come. Let’s deal with that fact, readers. Let’s celebrate me in all my flawed, intellectually-stunted glory. Perhaps we could arrange Mikey evenings? Maybe even an annual Mikey Day? September 24th is my birthday, you know. Can’t think of anything else that happens on September 24th, can you? It’s just an ordinary, runof-the-mill kind of day at present. Might be an idea to change that, you know. Just sayin’. Have a think about it and get back to me. The most surprising thing about me, in the view of many impartial observers, is that I spend a lot of time watching football. And that I harbour an obsession called Liverpool Football Club. They don't think it fits with the rest of my character. "You don't strike me as the football type" is a comment I've heard

more times in my life than I care to recall. "That's a hell of an ass you got there, Mike" and "Woah, look at that skinny, pale guy with the amazing ass" are others. Seriously, it's a work of art. It's firm. Like prime beef. You see it, you want to touch it. It's an uncontrollable impulse. Anyway. You might have heard of Liverpool. The football team, I mean. If you have, you’ll have heard of them because they used to be really, really good. For a time, they were by far the best team in England and Europe. Then I came along. Now their entire raison d'être is an eternally futile battle to regain former glories. They’re just not as good as they used to be. And probably never will be. It’s the human condition in football form. Back when I was six years old, on the prompting of my dad, I started supporting a football team. I picked Liverpool. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I liked them immediately. Loved them, even. Then fell in love. More in love than with any person I've ever met, truth be told. I'm fully aware that that's an indication of a huge void in my life, by the way. A massive, crater-sized void that negatively pervades all aspects of my life. I know. You don't need to point it out. I couldn’t define what it was that I loved about them when I was six and I still can’t define it now. It’s different from when you love a person. There, you can pinpoint certain qualities you find attractive – “I love your smile”… “I love your kindness”… “I love your touch”… “I love the way you’re willing to have hot, freaky sex with me in a way that a nice girl wouldn’t” etc.

What? You know what I’m talking about. Don’t act like you don’t. But with a football team, it’s very different. I love my team unconditionally. Why? I have absolutely no idea. I quite like the colour red, I think some of the players are fine talents, I think the club has dealt very respectfully with tragedy in the past and I enjoy the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry and the Pacemakers. But none of that is what makes me love Liverpool Football Club. I did once have a nurse with a hint of a Liverpool accent take a blood sample from my right arm but I suspect that’s not the reason, either. I could tell she was impressed by its distinct lack of muscle definition. "You're comfortable with your own body, Michael, and that makes you a real man" is what she was almost certainly thinking. Strangely, she never did text or call. Probably just lost my number. You know what those hospital cleaners are like. So, yeah. The point is I have no idea why I love my football team. Like millions and millions of others, I like one football team infinitely more than I like any other football team. And I don’t know why. I love them because I love them. And I can’t be any more specific than that. I love them to the extent that they have an unhealthy hold over my life. And while I’m not completely comfortable with that fact, I wouldn’t change it. My friend and I sometimes joke about it. Here we are, hurtling rapidly towards our 30s with precious few grown-up achievements to show for it. "We'd be married with kids now if it wasn't for our unhealthy obsession," one of us will say. And we'll laugh. Briefly. Very briefly. Because we both know it's a statement that contains

fractionally too much truth to be funny. Kinda like: "Hey, 44% of the population of the United States think Adam and Eve actually existed!" It's funny. Momentarily. Then you realise the repercussions. My friend's name is Michael too, by the way. He's a real person. He lives, he breathes and he gets turned on by rainbows. Probably. When we were kids, he was once given a hilarious knock-off O'Neills-manufactured Liverpool shirt as a Christmas present and tried to convince me it was the real thing, just without the Adidas logo. And the sponsor's name. And with a completely different shirt design. “Adidas make it in England… O’Neills make it in Ireland… Apart from that, it’s the exact same,” he lied. I shook my head knowingly. It didn't survive the first wash. Good times. "What would you do," he asked me recently, "if your dream woman asked you out on the night of an important Liverpool game?" How does this answer sound to you? "Sorry, I can't. I have to spend two hours watching a game I won't even slightly enjoy and that will bring out all the worst emotions I possess. Then, when it's over, there's a 50% chance I'll be inconsolable and utterly depressed. But I can do Friday. Does Friday work for you?" Snap me up while you still can, girls.

This book is about losing. Losing without losing hope. Losing with the determination to one day stop losing and finally win. But losing nonetheless. It terrifies me to think that losing might be the reason I love Liverpool Football Club. I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I want to believe I love them because they give me hope. Because they offer the potential for happiness, no matter how fleeting. Because they show that things can work out okay. That no matter how entrenched or desperate a situation, there’s always hope and the possibility of golden skies ahead. I want to think that they can turn the cynic in me into a hopeless romantic. But I really do fear it’s all about the losing. The height of my passion for Liverpool has been in the bad times. 1998-2001. 2002-2005. The 2001 and 2005 seasons ended in triumph. And it took me some time to regain the full extent of my passion afterwards. I’m keen to support no-hopers. I identify far more with losers than winners. Almost certainly because I recognise so much of myself in their losing ways. So much so that I get the feeling that if I ever get all the things I think I want – Girl of my dreams, a creative and recluse-friendly job and an all-conquering football team every bit as good as they used to be – then I’ll almost certainly wish I was back here, enamoured with continuously losing. Again, I’m aware of what that says about me as a person. Don’t feel any pressure to point it out. There are certain accepted, self-evident truths in football. One of them is that certain teams are, by their very nature, winners. Others, conversely, are natural losers. Brazil, Germany and Italy

tend to win World Cups. Similarly accomplished football nations like England, Spain and Holland tend not to win World Cups. They just don’t. It’s the way of the football world. It’s accepted. It almost always holds true. “Success breeds success” is one of the archetypal football clichés you hear smug, self-satisfied pundits say time and time again as they attempt to explain why some teams win all the time. They might be right. But you will never, ever hear any of them suggest that failure breeds failure. Because the idea that some teams (and, consequently, some people) might be natural losers seems too harsh and too offensive to say out loud. But it shouldn’t be. It’s not an offensive statement to suggest that there’s a very simple reason why talented footballing nations like England, Spain and Holland don’t win the competitions that their abilities suggest they should. It’s because they’re just too in love with losing to ever win. They’ve grown up on losing. They lose because they know exactly what losing feels like. It’s familiar. It feels like home. They experience the taste of losing and they grow to like it. Love it, even. And though they’d never admit it, they know that, while it hurts at the time, glorious failure can ultimately feel a lot like winning. Except better. Of course, the media pundits roll out the traditional excuses and stereotypes: • • • “England are a club-orientated nation” “Spanish players can’t overcome cultural divides to form a cohesive unit” “Dutch players are too intelligent, educated and individualistic to work together”

But the pundits are wrong. They lose because they’re in love with losing. In that context – of representing their country and attempting to win major competitions – they are in love with losing. Losing is their comfort blanket. They adore the security of defeat. Especially glorious, heroic defeat. And the exact same logic applies to people. Some people don’t want to win. Not in football. Not in life. I suspect I might be one of these people. Just like I suspect I support my team because I like losing. I take solace in defeat. I feel comforted by it. Loss after loss, I tell myself, makes me more valiant than someone who wins at their first attempt, or who wins after years of struggle. Because in my mind, the loser is more heroic than the winner. The loser tries just as hard and doesn’t get rewarded. Winners are victorious and dull. But a loser… a loser is interesting. A loser is so much more courageous than that. A loser is something to be. That I believe this worries me. Because if I ever happen to fluke a win, I’m pretty sure I’ll long to be a loser again. I’ll almost certainly miss the comfort and security of losing. Deep down, I don’t want to be Brazil, Germany or Italy. They’re too successful. I want to be England, Spain or Holland. I want to lose gloriously. That’s not saying I don’t want to give winning a try, though. Like I said, get in touch, girls. Seriously, I’m a tender lover.

I don't like football. Not really. It's not really my thing. It takes too long, there are too many times when nothing happens, it's an incredibly unjust sport and while it does occasionally produce moments of astonishing beauty and drama, they're far outweighed by moments of sheer ineptitude and soul-destroying cynicism. But I'm addicted. Addicted to a team to which I have no natural connection. Addicted to dreams of triumphs that will probably never come. And, quite possibly, addicted to losing. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. I’m not saying it’s a healthy thing. I’m just saying it happens. Losing can be as painful as you want to make it. But it can be as comforting and as consolatory as you want to make it, too. It can make you proud. It can even feel a badge of honour. Just takes a little imagination. And there’s one thing it’s definitely got going for it: It beats the hell out of winning.

The Nicest Form of Losing: Music, Lies and Unrequited Love
“Is This It” by The Strokes changed my life. There. I said it. And that's not an easy admission because I have a friend and occasional writing partner called Ben, who thinks that bands called "The [insert single syllable plural here]" are the worst fate to ever befall music, popular culture and the universe. He’s sometimes prone to hyperbole. Of course, Ben also believes that a global conspiracy exists with the sole intention of making his life miserable so it’s possible that his judgement is not entirely reliable. He feels this global conspiracy caused Coventry City's relegation from the Premiership, is the source of the bad luck that continually befalls him and it prevents him from having meaningful, long-term relationships. "The Cuntspiracy," he calls it. Fascinating theory. Fascinating man. But this isn’t going to be about my friend Ben. Much though the great big egotist would like it to be. This is going to be about unrequited love. Something Ben knows quite a bit about, incidentally. There’s something gorgeous about unrequited love. I really like it. It’s safe. It’s secure. It’s comfortable. It’s a really lovely form of losing. Loving someone who’ll never love you back is not just romantic. It’s heartbreakingly romantic. And nothing tastes more like glorious failure than tragically doomed romance. When you love unrequitedly, you know you’re going to lose. Deep down, you’re pretty sure you’ve lost before you’ve even begun. But it offers a tiny glimmer of hope. And hope means a lot to the loser.

The loser treasures hope. Cherishes hope. Lives on hope. Without hope, the loser’s existence would be pretty unbearable. When you’re unrequitedly in love with someone, the worst that can happen is that you’ll get your heart broken. And that’s tolerable. You can deal with that. You’ve wanted things you couldn’t have before and you can do it again. You can get over it. Not a problem. With other forms of love, though, the worst than can happen is that someone you care about will get their heart broken. And that’s much worse. You can’t control that. You can only feel despair and guilt about something you caused. And that’s a horrible thing. It’s why the loser prefers his/her love to go unrequited. After a lifetime of losing, a little more isn’t going to do much damage. Better that than inflict it on someone else. See, for all his/her failings, the loser is generally a fairly selfless creature. Too selfless, probably. It’s almost certainly one of the reasons he/she keeps losing. But it’s undeniable that someone who’d rather suffer pain themselves than put someone else through it is at least a little bit heroic. You know, important to give a modicum of credit where it’s due and all that. And not saying I’m a hero or anything (well, okay, maybe a bit) but I’ve loved unrequitedly. And I liked it an awful lot. Okay, I admit it. I’m definitely a hero. Now, let’s say no more about it, charming reader. My unrelenting heroism is, as of this moment, not to be discussed. Seriously now, not a word. For a little while. My unrequited love, on the other hand, shall be discussed forthwith. I loved her shortly after “Is This It” by The Strokes had changed my life.

Which, incidentally, was shortly before yogurt raisins had changed it again. Raisins covered in yogurt, for goodness sake! Did food hit its peak the day they were invented? I think we’d all agree it did. I never subscribed to the theory that albums change lives. I thought it was pretentious muso-nonsense. But they do. They really do. I liked music when I was growing up. But I didn't love it. Not until 2001. When I was 21, I heard the Strokes' debut album and it thrilled me. Like no album ever had before. And yeah, I know that more knowledgeable people than me will point out that it's derivative and it channels The Velvet Underground and myriad other bands of whom I knew almost nothing at the time. But I thought that album was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. And I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. Still don’t. It’s an incredibly important moment when you realise that what other people think of you and the things that mean the most to you is a complete irrelevance. It’s a moment of mental liberation. Being secure enough to feel immune to other people’s uninformed appraisals of you is a beautiful and laudable achievement in anyone’s life. It’s an image-conscious world. People make judgements about you based on the things you like. And nowhere is that better exemplified than when it comes to music. Musical elitism is a pretty horrible thing. Not because it means people get to make fun of Westlife (I think we’d all concur that’s a pretty positive thing) but because people view it as a legitimate way to look down at people and make themselves feel superior.

When you let go of that… when you realise nobody has got better or worse taste than you, that’s a pretty seminal moment. You should enjoy it. And you should be proud of it, too. Not everyone gets there. My moment came in 2001. I heard songs like The Modern Age, Last Nite and Hard To Explain and I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Music and I had connected. I finally got music and no-one else’s opinion mattered even slightly. I liked that moment. I liked it an awful lot. I also just liked the fact that I really liked music. That it made me joyful. That it made me feel the world was a more attractive place. And admittedly there was the small matter of it allowing me to connect with people in a way that had previously been impossible. A whole new avenue for forming bonds with people. And you know who are also people? Girls. Yes, girls are definitely people. Don't let anyone tell you different. This was a big breakthrough. I had gained a whole new focal point for conversation and potentially mutual interest. It was probably exactly how Marie Curie felt when she stumbled across radiation therapy or how Alexander Fleming felt when he fluked his way into his penicillin discovery. Yep, it was exactly the same. Now, we’ve already agreed that I’m a hero (yes, we have… don’t bother checking) but I’m not going to try sway you one way or the other, beautiful reader, but if you were to think that I might, for instance, be a modern-day equivalent of Curie or Fleming, well, it would be rude of me to try to dissuade you otherwise. All I’m saying, friends, is that the three of us are inventors… we’ve all done a lot for humanity… and the world would be a much lesser place for our absence.

But you draw your own conclusions. I won’t try to influence you. Not consciously, not subconsciously. That’s just not the way I roll. *cough*youwillnominatemikeyforthenobelprizeohyesyouwill*cough* The unwitting recipient of my unrequited love and the first big test of my musical prowess was a girl called Hannah. She was just ace. That’s all there was to it. She really was. Far too good for the likes of me. In a desperate attempt for us to find something in common, I set about discovering her musical tastes and it seemed as if I had struck gold when I concluded that she liked indie music. Well, she liked Travis and I felt that was enough for me to go on. Looking back now, that really wasn’t enough for me to go on. I decided, in that state of long overdue adolescence, which I had just attained, that I would impress her with a mix-tape. Better yet, I could start living in this century and make it a mixCD. Yes, that’s what I’d do. It was the perfect plan. It would be an emotional impossibility for her not to fall in love with me. God, I was good. So, when I included songs with such obvious romantic intent as Baby, I Love You by The Ramones (subtlety and I do not make good bedfellows), I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You by Tom Waits, Never Wanna See You Cry by The Verve and Run Wild by New Order, I suspect I wasn’t disguising things quite as well as I may have convinced myself at the time. And, by the way, if you've never heard that last choice, you should. Not only is it an under-appreciated New Order gem, it's also about as unambiguously amorous a song as you could possibly hear, filled with idealistic and quixotic yearning.

Sample lyric: "You're the kind of person that I always wanted to be with You're really cool and you always say the right things to me But now I'll tell you something: My heart beats for you deep inside You'll never be a burden and my love for you will never die" Reading it may make you vomit a little but in song form, it's gorgeous all over the place. I recommend it. But if someone ever puts it on a mix-CD they've made for you, I strongly advise you to call the police. There's a lot of weird people out there. Sick, twisted people. I decided to place it as Track #1 on Hannah's mix-CD. Like I said: A lot of sick, twisted people out there. A couple of days after I had given her the CD, I met her boyfriend. Yeah, that's right. Her boyfriend. Did I not mention him earlier? So what? I don't ever remember claiming to be a good decisionmaker. It's not like they were married. They're married now, though. Happily. And with two kids. But I fail to see how that’s relevant. What? Quit judging me. I had met her boyfriend before and, in my mind, he had proven himself to be an idiot. Friendly and wholly decent, mind you, but someone for whom TV channels like Discovery and The History Channel were probably considered a waste of a perfectly good slot that could be better occupied by another Babestation or XXX Live Girl Chat.

I also suspected that he had probably attracted Hannah in the first place by beating his chest furiously with his fists and almost certainly used his spare time to smash planks of wood with his head. Just to show that he could. He probably quite enjoyed the cinematic exploits of Vin Diesel, too. Nice guy, though. I liked him. I'll transcribe the conversation as accurately as I remember it, and bearing in mind my obsessive and terrifying memory for detail, this'll be pretty close to actuality. It should be noted that I lied in the course of this conversation. A lot. So, I'll put the more truthful answers (which never exited my mouth due to my extreme cowardice) in brackets. Him: So, we were listening to that CD the other night... Me: Really? Good. Hope you enjoyed it. ("We"? What do you mean "we"? She was supposed to listen to it on her own and fall in love with me. I didn't make that CD for plebs like you) Him: Yeah, I thought there some really good songs on it. Me: Nice one. Which ones did you like? (I don't give a fuck what you think about anything. Especially music. I might as well be asking you what you think of theoretical physics) Him: I liked the Ramones one. I don't really know who sang the other ones. Me: Yeah, good track, that. (Oh, you ignorant fucker) Him: And what was that song... Cannonball, was it? By The Breeding Ground?

Me: The Breeders, yeah. (Now you're just taking the piss) Him: I used to make mix-tapes to try impress girls in school actually. Me: Yeah, I think a lot of kids did that (And I bet you probably put Phil Collins and The Macarena on them, didn't you?) Him: So, that's not what this was about then? Me: Hmm? (Oh fuck, I've been rumbled by a moron) Him: You know... trying to impress Hannah... Me: Oh, come on. I must hand out a couple of dozen mix-CDs a year to friends. Hardly means I want to sleep with them (That's exactly what I was doing. I never give people mix-CDs. I mean, seriously, who gives people mix-CDs? It’s painfully obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot that I desperately want to impress your girlfriend… and then sleep with her quite a lot) Him: Oh, okay. Sorry, you know. I misread it a bit. Didn't mean to... Me: Nah, no problem. Probably did look a bit suspicious if you don't know me (No, seriously, I'd be willing to pay money just to see one of her breasts… I’m that desperate) Him: Yeah, just had to ask, you know. Me: Yeah, completely understandable... but no, she and I are just friends. (How much would it cost to have this cretin killed?) When I heard of Hannah’s impending nuptials to this anti-me, I worked past my initial devastation and consulted with my friend John. In a moment of poorly considered frustration, I told John, a

secondary school maths teacher, that I wanted her to marry this buffoon and that it only helped my chances. “How?” he asked incredulously. “Because currently the chances of her and I ending up together stand at, what, three percent? Maybe four?” “Four percent? You must be joking. No way. Lower. Much lower.” “Really?” “Yeah, I’d go with zero.” “Oh.” “Yeah.” “Well, okay then, currently my chances with her are zero percent.” “And that’s being generous.” “Yeah, alright. Jesus.” “Just trying to help.” “But… and I’ve got statistical proof of this… 50% of all marriages fail. Fifty percent, John!” “Oh… kay. Where are you going with this?” “Don’t you see? If she marries this idiot, my chances jump from 0% to 50% in an instant.” “Huh? Where are you getting that?” “Statistics, John. It’s all to do with statistics.” “I don’t think it works like that.” “Of course it does. I’ve done the mathematics of the issue.” “That’s not any kind of mathematics I recognise.” “Oh, what would you know about proper maths?” “I teach maths.” “To children.” “It’s still maths.” “No, it’s not. It’s not grown-up maths. And grown-up maths are what’s going to bring Hannah and I together.” “Well, it certainly won’t be your personality.” Neither my personality nor grown-up maths have yet managed to bring Hannah and I together. I suspect it’s just a matter of time.

I never did hear what Hannah thought of the CD. But I do know that the first dance at their wedding was Baby, I Love You by The Ramones. In the mind of this unrequitedly-in-love loser, it was her way of subliminally telling me that maybe that love wasn’t quite so unrequited after all. What? You don’t know. Not for certain. Leave me alone with my false hope. We’re happy together. False hope can be a nice thing sometimes. Music, though, is an incredible thing. Always. And not just as a contrivance to add to your repertoire for hitting on girls. It’s not that limited an art form. You can also use it to hit on boys. Or ladyboys. You can use it to hit on anyone at all, really. It’s very flexible in that respect. Or, alternatively, you can use it to enrich your life and aurally bookmark the moments that meant the most to you along the way. Whatever you’re into. Weirdo. Just as long as you don’t let musical elitist twats tell you what you should and shouldn’t like. Me included. Whether you feel cupped in all the right places by an impossibly indulgent Motley Crew 10-minute drum solo, whether a Radiohead song about the soulnessness of modern society thrills you to the point of arousal, or if you feel erotically charged by the sight of Westlife standing up off their stools for a chorus about imaginary girlfriends, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because it’s really all just part of the same thing. There is no such thing as good or bad taste and the idea of “credible music” is bollocks. You like what you like, I’ll like what I like.

And at some point, I might fall in love with you. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t return the favour. Thanks in advance.

Lost Youth: Science, Swimming and Funerals
“That vague, crepuscular time, the time of regrets that resemble hopes, of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has passed, but old age has not yet arrived.” - Ivan Turgenev (“Fathers and Sons”, 1862) Hell of a quote, that. Powerful. Erotic. Thought-provoking. Erotic. Striking. Not to mention erotic. Forget about it for a minute, though. Put it out of your pretty little head. We’ll come back to it. We have other, more urgent matters to talk about first. In the first twenty-seven years of my life, I attended three funerals. And in the last two years, I've attended five. Okay, the use of the word “urgent” two paragraphs up may have been a slight overstatement. I do enjoy a good exaggeration. Anyway, I know I shouldn't be surprised that I go to more funerals as I grow older but man, I didn't know the turnaround would come this quickly. I thought I’d have a few decades to adapt between the trickle and the flood. I even have funeral clothes now. Clothes that are in my possession solely because I use them when people die. Old people have funeral clothes. Not sprightly young bucks like me. I say that but I have my doubts about whether “sprightly young bucks” are supposed to do the little groan I’ve started doing whenever I bend over to pick something up. It’s kinda troubling. I've also started watching documentaries and reading more books; not for academic purposes, but because they interest me.

And I never thought I'd say things like that. But seriously, who knew the importance of volcanoes in the formation of the Earth's atmosphere? And what about the life of the emperor penguin? Definitely my favourite animal ever. Those guys are incredible. Or how about the fact that the moon is floating away from the Earth about four centimetres every year? Come back, moon! We need you for, like, tides and stuff. It’s amazing the things you learn watching BBC4. I don't feel all that old but the 15-year-old me would take one look at the signs and say "Volcanoes... Emperor penguins... that little groan you do whenever you bend over to pick something up? You're definitely getting old. What happened to fantasy football and professional wrestling?” Those were my areas of expertise back then. There’s a 99% chance that, even now, I’d beat you in a season-long game of Fantasy Football. And there’s a 100% chance that I know more variants of the piledriver than you. Yeah, that’s right, ladies. I can identify wrestling moves. Enticing enough for you? Call before you drop by. Really, though, the 15-year-old me was a bit of a dickhead, so what would he know about assessing the life of the 29-year-old me? Did he ever get fired for hiding in a drawer? Did he have an inclination to give people self-penned poems for their birthday, instead of proper gifts? Did he spend Valentine's night alone with a goldfish? Of course he didn't. What a weirdo. On the night of my fifteenth birthday, I attended my first funeral.

Not as some bizarre gift, I should add. We may not have been the richest family in the world but my parents hadn’t resorted to sending me to funerals to compensate for not buying me a MegaDrive. No, the timing was coincidental. The funeral meant nothing to me. Death meant nothing. I didn’t have to worry about stuff like that. I had my Junior Cert exams to worry about that year. My Junior Cert was much more important than life or death issues. Of course it was. One was relevant. The other wasn’t. In the end, I did okay in my Junior Cert. No better than that. And it didn’t matter. Because the exams you sit as a 15-year-old don’t matter. At all. But my Junior Cert mock exams, on the other hand, were a very different matter. They mattered far more to me. And I absolutely aced them. Science, in particular. Despite a history of scientific ineptitude, I swung a proverbial bat at my Junior Cert mock Science exam and knocked it several miles out of the park that we called CBS Secondary School. 91%, I got. My teacher, Miss Larkin, couldn't believe it. My average in science up to this point had been around 64-68%. And in the mocks as well. The most stringently graded exams of all. It was an astonishing effort by anyone. But especially for someone so mediocre at the subject. But there was a reason for it. I really fancied Miss Larkin so I actually studied for that exam. Solely because I thought it might impress her. I did more study for that exam that any other I ever took in school. I stayed up until 3am the night before, memorising vast tracts of my science textbook. And this was before insomnia had taken hold of my life and made 3am seem like an early night. Oh, and yes, I do mean “memorising vast tracts of my science textbook.” Because that’s how I passed exams. At 15, I felt that

learning and understand things was the arduous route to exam success, while last-minute cramming and word-for-word regurgitation was the pain-free short-cut. I’d like to say I learned my lesson over time but somewhere in my house, there’s a rolledup certificate that says I have a 2:1 degree in an area of computer science about which I know nothing. I memorised textbooks for those exams, too. I’m sure there’s a valuable lesson in there for us all. Although I can’t for the life of me think what it might be. So, we might as well go back to Miss Larkin. "This'll impress her," I thought, as I ingested another chapter of the Junior Cert Science curriculum. "If she's desperately looking for a shy, pale, skinny 15-year-old boy, who doesn't talk to girls but is suddenly -- and almost suspiciously -- good at science, I'm going to fill that void in her life." Total chick magnet, I know. And it did impress her. There was no mistaking the mild and pleasant shock on her face when she handed the paper back to me. For some reason, though, it didn't quite make her want to sleep with me. Women, eh? Who knows what they want? But while I may have been a bumbling, delusional 15-year-old, I was not easily deterred. If Miss Larkin wasn't going to be impressed by my academic prowess, I guess I'd just have to come up with a different approach. And luckily for me, Miss Larkin was also our PE teacher. Every Monday morning at 11, we'd show up in the sports hall and, unlike every other PE teacher I ever had, she bizarrely insisted on us doing things other than handing us a ball and letting us play

indoor soccer every week. Strange woman. Instead, she insisted that we try such ludicrous and unfathomably stupid events as unihoc, dodgeball and basketball. And for three consecutive weeks in the spring, we went swimming. If ever I was going to impress her, this would be my opportunity. Gloriously incapable of self-awareness, as only teenagers are, I mistook my skinny, muscle-deficient body for a lean and flab-free visual treat for ladies everywhere. "See this, Miss L? Built for speed and stamina... if you see which way the winds of change -and, admittedly, the potential shitstorm of statutory rape charges - are blowing." And while my strategy was sound, in a hopelessly uninformed kind of way, I hadn't reckoned on the reckless brilliance of my classmate Brian. A much more extroverted kid, Brian also fancied Miss Larkin. And he had balls. And, more importantly, he was willing to show them. On our last Monday at the swimming pool, Brian -- a similarly skinny 15-year-old -- chose to wear Speedos. He was alone in his choice of swimwear but clearly felt unphased by such minor issues as sartorial uniformity. "Watch this... she's gonna fucking love it," Brian said to anyone within earshot as he was preparing to exit the changing rooms. And with that, Brian poked his penis out the side of his eyewateringly snug Speedos and jogged past Miss Larkin. "Oops," he shouted to no-one in particular after he had passed her. "Just popped out a bit there," he said with faux embarrassment, as he unhurriedly tucked it back in. “I hate it when that happens.” He dived triumphantly into the pool. His work was very much done.

I'm not entirely sure what Brian expected to happen as a result. Did he really think that this grown woman would take one look and go "Wow... barely pubescent teenage boy-cock... I must have him now!" Strangely enough, she didn't. Even though Brian had become a hero to his easily-led, romantically incompetent classmates, he had singularly failed to impress our Science and PE teacher. Women, eh? Who knows what they want? Miss Larkin left the school at the end of that year. I did significantly worse in my actual Junior Cert science exam than I'd done in my mocks and the following September, we got a new PE teacher. A man. Every week, he gave us a ball and told us to play indoor soccer. He never took us swimming. I think we were all glad of that. But that was fourteen years ago now. In a handful of months, I turn thirty and our absurd dalliances with a science teacher, who must have feared for the future of society when trying to teach that bunch of clueless idiots in the mid-90s, will mark the halfway point in my life. I have funeral clothes now. 91% exam results and Brian's Speedo-inspired bravado now seem a long way from home. For the first time, I don't feel like the clock is ticking infinitely towards a destination it will never reach. I feel like it's ticking down. To a very definite point. It may be a feeling you recognise, I really don’t know. What I do

know is that I have absolutely no idea how I feel about it. There’s a downward-moving stopwatch with my name on it and I can’t work out if that makes me sad, relieved or terrified. Or a combination of all three. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. And I think I will figure it out. Eventually. Remember that Turgenev quote back at the start that we decided we’d come back to? That would have meant precisely nothing to the 15-year-old me. Nothing. It wouldn’t have registered. Couldn’t have. It now speaks to me in all the ways that it’s possible for great writing to connect with a person’s soul. At 15, I wouldn’t have even cared enough to look up the meaning of the word “crepuscular.” Now, that quote sings to me. It feels like it understands exactly where I am. Or at least where I’m heading. And at some point in your life, I suspect it might resonate with you, too. And when it does, I think that’ll be a sign that you’re doing okay. That you’re making progress. And yes, that the clock is ticking for you in the same way it’s ticking for me but that you’re coming to some sort of understanding of yourself as it does so. And you should be proud of that. Of course, it’ll also mean that you’re probably becoming as preoccupied with morbidity as me. I’d watch that if I were you. You’ll have funeral clothes next. After that, you’ll find that you’ve started to do the little groan. All downhill from there.

A Loser’s Saving Grace: Connecting and The Art of the Love Letter
Since the age of 24, I think I’ve lost more friends than I’ve gained. Good ones anyway. I think I might be on a slippery slope. I don’t know how many I’ll have left by the end. It’s one of the most difficult things in the world to form long-term bonds with people as an adult. Part of it is social conformity. Who meets their best friend at 30? No-one, that’s who. It’s not allowed. Whose closest circle of friends are people they didn’t know for the first quarter-century of their life? People who’ve failed in life up to that point, maybe. Nobody normal. Or so we’re conditioned to think. “This is my best friend in the whole world… we met at the age of 37 and we’ve been friends ever since.” I have never once heard that sentence said out loud. I’d like to. I just don’t think I ever will. I’d also like to hear the sentence, “You’re not going to believe this, Mike, but you’re just been officially recognised as the greatest person of all-time… You beat Jesus!” I cannot and will not be happy until I hear that line. As we get older, we tend to become less trusting and more cynical. Perhaps because we’ve been hurt in the past or perhaps because life has an ability to grind the optimism out of us. Kurt Vonnegut posited it as the reason why people become unfunnier as they get older and why just about every comedian

eventually gets to a point where he/she starts producing increasingly inferior material. In A Man Without A Country, he wrote: “… humour is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally, you just get too tired and the news is too awful, and humour doesn’t work anymore.” I don’t think that’s right, incidentally. Too much of the finest comedy comes from people for whom life is already too hard for that to be right. For them, the news is already too awful. Comedy can and does come from dark places. The blunting of someone’s comedic edge is rarely down to a solitary reason. But it’s an interesting hypothesis nonetheless. And I’m sure that, for some, the further they get from the childhood ideal of believing the world is, at heart, a positive and happy place, the less likely they are to want to be funny. For them, perhaps it’s unavoidable. The world is a terribly cruel place. Eventually, maybe life just beats the funny out of people. Makes you think Joe Pasquale and Lenny Henry must have seen some truly terrible things in their time. So, yeah. Forming a real and long-lasting connection with someone? Difficult thing at the best of times. But it gets even harder the older you get. And it’s especially difficult if you just happen to be one of life’s natural born losers. As a loser, you’ve got to have an extra string to your bow. Life’s born losers don’t tend to have been blessed with natural charm, above average good looks, a body that looks like it’s been carved out of granite, the kind of self-confidence that makes you seem more attractive than you really are or even just an ability to bake cakes.

Nobody bonds quicker than people who bake cakes. As a loser, you have to find connections through different, more imaginative ways. You have to possess an unexpectedly useful weapon in your armoury. It can be anything. A deep understanding of the cosmos. An ability to run really, really fast. A natural affinity for South Koreans. Anything. Anything that allows you to form a bond with someone that isn’t entirely superficial. Mine is the love letter. You want a love letter written on your behalf? You come to me. You and the object of your affection will be married with kids within days. Guaranteed. Yes, that’s right. I can even circumvent the natural human gestation period. I’m that good. I’m tremendous at the art of writing a love letter. It really is a gift. If there was a demand for love letters in the same way there’s a demand for operating systems, I’d be bigger than Microsoft. I wouldn’t even need unfair and predatory business practices to corner the market. As soon as Dell start including a love letter-writing template with their laptops, expect to see me dressed in a suit of gold. I’ll also hire the actor who played Theo in The Cosby Show as my own personal food-taster. He will answer only to the name “Theo”. I’ll also hire the actor who played Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to be my own personal poet. As well as answering exclusively to the name “Carlton”, he will speak only in haiku.

There’s just one caveat to my love letter writing expertise. It has to be for other people. Can’t do it for myself. Just can’t. When it comes to my own love life, the love letter has all the potency of a child from a hitherto unmentioned previous marriage showing up on the doorstep, suitcase in hand. “Hola, Signor. Remember that time you and the waitress with the gammy eye got busy on the beach in Tenerife? Well, that’s kinda why I’m here… dad.” We’ll get to my failures. First, though, the art of writing a love letter. My friend James had asked me to help him write a letter to a girl called Alison. He had become infatuated with Alison and wanted to impress her. His usual avenues of seduction (getting drunk and harassing her) had, inexplicably, proved unsuccessful and so he came to me. By the way, when I say “asked me to help him write a letter to a girl,” I mean “asked me to write a letter to a girl and pretend he was the one who had written it.” Details, readers, details. Now, there are certain vital elements to a good love letter. It has to flatter the recipient and it has to sound humble. But more than anything, it must make the writer appear selfless. If there’s a trace of agenda or selfishness involved, it fails as a love letter. Selflessness, gentle reader. The key to the art of writing a love letter is selflessness. Or, at the very least, the appearance of selflessness.

If you learn nothing else from this book, learn that. You never know when it’ll come in handy. James and I planned it out beautifully: “Okay, what do you want to say?” I asked. “I want to make me sound good.” “Er… okay.” “Yeah, the better we make me sound, the less work I’ll have to do in person.” “But shouldn’t it, maybe, be a bit about her?” “Yeah, we can do that too. Maybe compliment her a bit. Tell her she’s got nice eyes.” “Okay, yeah. Good idea.” “And great tits.” “Oh.” “Tell her that I think about her all the time.” “Okay. That’s nice.” “At work. In bed. In the shower…” “Jesus Christ” “What? Women love that sort of thing.” “She’ll think you’re wanking to mental images of her.” “I am.” “Wow. Whoever said that romance is dead?” This is what we came up with (and by “we”, I mean “I”… James was despatched to the garden during the creative process): Alison There’s something I want to tell you. But I’m not good at verbalising stuff like this. You know it. I know it. It’s just not the way I’m built. So, instead, I’m going to write it down and hope you don’t discard this piece of paper without at least a brief glance at its contents.

I say this not to charm you or to alter your feelings about me in any way. That’s not what this is about. I’m saying this without a hint of irony and without any kind of agenda. I say this only because I need you to know it. I haven’t known you very long. Less than two months, maybe. But in that time, I think I’ve learned something about you that you don’t even realise yourself: You have no idea how beautiful you are. And I don’t just mean “pretty” because lots of people are pretty. I mean beautiful. Very few people are beautiful. But you are. You’re beautiful in ways that you don’t realise. And I hope there are people in your life who tell you that. If there aren’t, there should be. Because it’s true. James It’s a good love letter. It gets to the heart of the matter and hits all the targets along the way. And there was demonstrable evidence that it worked. James and Alison went out together for over a year. It ended acrimoniously but they were happy during that time. They were a good couple. She may have wondered why he never followed up the love letter with anything of the same romantic ilk – and indeed why his spelling went to pot from that moment on -- but if she did, she never asked him about it. Whatever way you look at it, it was a successful love letter. Thing is, though, it's easy to write love letters for someone else. There's no risk. Not for you anyway. It can’t end especially badly for you on a personal level. You really can’t lose. You’re just dealing in words. Not feelings. But it's different when you're writing one on your own behalf. That’s where things can go wrong. There you can lose. And lose badly. I ask you, members of the jury, to cast your gaze upon Exhibit A:

Exhibit A – Love Letter From Idiot To Victim (analysis included in parentheses) Sender: Michael Recipient: Ciara Purpose: Make Recipient fall hopelessly and tragically in love with Sender. Ciara, I don’t like housewarming parties (Dreadful opening. Completely irrelevant. Anyone with anything better to do would have stopped reading at this point). In fact, I don’t really like any kind of parties. I hate the contrived joviality of them (Wow. What a little ray of sunshine she’s dealing with here). But the one I attended on July 18th was worth it. Because I got to meet you (Actually not bad). I met you at exactly 9.42pm that night. I remember because you were standing immediately to the right of the oven clock when we talked (Catastrophic. I thought it might be nice for her to see that I remembered tiny details like that but it’s not. It’s just really, really creepy. Only psychopaths remember the exact time they met someone). Of course, that assumes that the oven clock was accurate. It might not have been. Oven clocks aren’t usually perfect timekeeping devices (Jesus Christ. What’s with the oven clock obsession? Stop talking about oven clocks. There are sexier and more romantic topics in the world than oven clocks). What I do know, though, is that it was the highlight of my evening (Quite good), the highlight of my week (Hmm, okay) and, come December, will have been the highlight of my year (Oh no. Too far. Way too far. A chat beside an oven clock was the high point of your year? Why don’t you just tell her you have no life and be done with it?). I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, by the way, but you’re very good at having conversations beside oven clocks (There it is. The confirmation that she was being written to by an idiot. There

could no longer be any doubt). I imagine you’re good at having conversations in other locations, too. A nice café… a quiet pub… a restaurant of your choosing. I’d certainly be amenable to finding out (Oh, that’s good. Come on, admit it. That’s not bad at all). I know you’ve been through a bit of a bad time lately but I think it’s high time you got over all that silliness (She had recently broken up with a boyfriend, who cheated on her. I knew about this. What I did not know was that her mother had died even more recently) and put that cretin out of your mind once and for all (Eek). No point letting the loss of people like that ruin your day (Yikes). Their absence from your life can only be a positive thing (Yep, that should do it. Not so much a final nail in the coffin, more a welding shut of the lid). Anyway, do get back to me. I won’t be offended by rejection, just a little saddened. Because I think it’s important for us all to embrace new moments with new people. We are, after all, only here for what amounts to a fleeting moment in cosmological terms. So, if you’re weighing up whether or not to accept my invitation, just tell yourself that you could enjoy it and you might as well do it for we’ll all be dead soon anyway (Wow. Just wow). I hope to hear from you soon (Yeah, sit by your phone, Cunningham, because that’s gonna happen). Warmest regards, Michael End Exhibit A Believe it or not, she never replied. I know. I was surprised, too.

She probably just had the junkmail filter on her email application set too high that day. You know what those things are like. Terribly temperamental contraptions. I can tell you how to write a love letter, vivacious reader – Call me, I’ll do it, too. I could probably even have a decent shot at getting you and the object of your desire together. Temporarily at least. But finding that added string to your bow? Finding the best means you possess of connecting with people? A bit beyond my capabilities, I’m afraid. I wish you luck finding it, though.

Lost Opportunities: The Critic, The Angry Woman and The Possibility of Beauty
“I looked at things that other people did and I criticised their work.” I’m not religious. Far from it. Don’t have time for prayers. Find the idea of sainthood offensive, fanciful nonsense. Would rather celebrate the power and glory of Johnny Marr and Marco van Basten than all the saints combined. Ever hear Saint Augustine produce something as sonically magnificent as “How Soon Is Now?” Nah, me neither. Guess he was too busy telling the world that heretics need to be tortured. He did, you know. That was his calling card. Probably reduced the amount of time he got to devote to guitar playing. You know how it is. Recommending torture can really eat into your chord practice. But while I’m unimpressed and deeply unconvinced by sainthood, I think it’s a nice idea that, at the end of our lives, we go and have a chat with Saint Peter -- or whoever’s on guard duty that day -about what we did with our lives and we evaluate how we fared. And when we’re done, we either say “Yeah, I think I did okay… I was a positive influence on the world” or “You know what, I fucked up. I wasted my opportunity.” Those are the two options. No in between. You either added to the world or you detracted from it. You either made it better or you made it worse. You took your opportunity or you let it pass you by. And it’s not about eternal punishments or rewards because knowing you had either got your one chance right or you’d got it wrong would be all the punishment or reward anyone would ever need. You go to sleep in the knowledge that you did good or that you messed up. You feel either pride or shame. You won or you lost. One or the other. It’s just a notion, of course, but it’s a lovely one all the same.

And I don’t know about you but I have no idea which side of the fence I’ll end up on. Between December 2003 and November 2007, I worked on and off as a TV critic for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. And honestly, I was exceptional at it. You’ll have to forgive the appalling self-praise but I was. I loved the medium of television and it showed. I was passionate about the shows that I thought were brilliant and I was relentlessly scathing about the shows I thought were lazy, intelligence-insulting drivel. Everything I wrote was written with good reasons to back it up. And I wrote some really good jokes, too. People liked my work. If you’d read it, I suspect you would have enjoyed it. I was an outstanding TV critic. And I hated myself for it. Every time I wrote that Loose Women, Baby Ballroom, He’s Having A Baby or Wild At Heart were the most offensive abominations TV had yet produced, I’d feel a sense of self-loathing deep within me. Not saying I was wrong, by the way. I wasn’t. That’s some pretty awful television right there. But the idea of telling other people what’s good and what isn’t, well, there’s something unsettling about that. It wasn’t up to me to judge these things. Beauty, eye, beholder etc. I worked through it. Ignored the voices in my head for a long time. How could I be so good at something and hate myself as a direct result? The answer is the quote at the start of the chapter. I may not have believed that St. Peter and I would ever meet up to evaluate my performance but that really wasn’t the point. Just because you don’t expect judgement from a higher source doesn’t mean your conscience will let you off the hook. At the end of my

life, when I asked myself what I had done with it, that looked set to be my answer: “I looked at things that other people did and I criticised their work.” What an appalling waste of a life. What a heartbreaking existence. How could I have been so profligate with my time? And don’t think that I don’t read critics’ reviews of books, albums, films and TV shows. I do. I appreciate them. I think they’re important. I just don’t know how anyone does that job without feeling like their life is slipping away wastefully one second at a time. In November 2007, I wrote a review of what was reputed to have been a new comedy show on Irish television. I hadn’t enjoyed it. I didn’t find it funny and I thought the acting would have seemed sub-standard in a children’s nativity play. I felt like I had wasted 30 minutes of my life. And that’s pretty much the tone that my review took. Two days after the review had been published, I got an email from a woman called Valerie. She was the sister of one of the show’s lead actors. It wasn’t the most polite email I had ever received and in it, I was referred to as, among other things, “gobshite,” “fucker,” “cretin” and “the world’s biggest dickhead”. And yet, tellingly, it was far from being the most impolite email I’ve ever received, either. Yeah, I’ve had some enemies in my time. So what? Superman had Lex Luther, did he not? Valerie also said that she’d like to meet me to discuss the issue in person. So, when an angry, vengeful, potentially violent woman asked for some one-on-one time, I did what any sensible, cautious, right-minded individual would do. I agreed instantly. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the wisest thing I had ever done.

And yet it wasn’t the most idiotic, either. Life’s funny. I recognised that I should never have agreed to the meeting approximately seven minutes after I done so. Which, of course, was far too late. So, I tried to improve matters. I called my friend Mark and asked him to come with me. He declined on the understandable grounds that he didn’t want to die. It’s good reasoning by any logic. I respected his good sense, dreadful cowardice and shocking disregard for friendship in favour of fainthearted self-protection. I met Valerie in a coffee shop the following day. To prove she wasn’t one to hide behind the anonymity of email, she repeated the same insults as before and even added a few new ones. Some were very inventive. But amidst the hostility, Valerie also made the point that she found my withering cynicism quite sad and asked “why don’t you do something constructive with your time?” It was, I think, intended as a throwaway remark, coming so soon as it did after she had referred to me as “a total tosspot” but it struck a nerve like you wouldn’t believe. I paid for her coffee and I left. I didn’t want to write reviews anymore after that. I wanted to do something constructive. This was not a concession to Valerie’s points, by the way. She was, after all, a quite deranged, furious and verbally abusive person, who was defending a terrible piece of television. But just because someone is often wrong doesn’t mean they’re never right. Valerie was right this time and I knew it. There is nothing beautiful about criticising other people’s work. Especially when you’re not even attempting to produce any of your own. It just makes the world an uglier, less appealing place. It’s a perfect illustration of, not just losing, but of losing and giving up.

In that hypothetical chat with Saint Peter, I don’t want to say I sat around critiquing other people’s efforts. I’d rather find myself saying, “I tried to contribute nice things to the world. And I don’t know if I succeeded or failed. I just know that I wasn’t content to criticise other people’s work whilst not making any of my own. And I’m good with that.” I’d still get a one-way trip to hell, of course. Not least because of the time I said I don’t recognise sainthood and that Marco Van Basten contributed more to the world than Saint Peter and all his buddies. I stand by that, incidentally. When Pete wins the European Championships single-handedly, maybe we’ll talk about reevaluating. ‘Til then, no deal. Everything in nature is unequivocally and unconditionally beautiful. Whether it’s emperor penguins protecting their offspring from the bitter Antarctic winter, snow on a mountaintop or a cuckoo usurping a nest of birds, nature is awe-inspiringly beautiful. The only things that we experience in life, which are ugly or dispiriting, are either man-made or the result of human interference. Like no other species, we are capable of uglifying the world around us. We have the potential to besmirch it and detract from its beauty. This does not, however, under any circumstances, mean that we’re not capable of creating beautiful things. We unequivocally are. Beauty is not a pipe-dream. It can be achieved. We are capable of producing music so gorgeous that it can reduce listeners to tears, of art so exquisite that we develop from it a new understanding of ourselves and of gestures so selfless that we inspire in others a level of faith in humanity that would otherwise never have existed. Beauty is possible. Beauty can be achieved. And it’s something we need to bear in mind. Because if we don’t, we’ll feel like we’re members of a pretty worthless species that only

ever defiles its surrounding environment. Which, in turn, will cause us to uglify the world around us even more. We’re better than that. When we try, we’re better than that. Quick story for you: I wasn’t popular in secondary school but I wasn’t particularly unpopular, either. Kinda flew under the radar. I didn’t enjoy it but I got by. Whole lot of kids got it a hundred times worse than I did. One of them was called Jamie. Jamie was a shy, slightly effeminate kid. Didn’t have many friends and those he did have were outsiders, too. Jamie got it in the neck from the popular, aggressive and bored. Came to school every day, sat at the front of class and didn’t really talk to people outside of his limited circle of similarly downtrodden social outcasts. And though he didn’t talk to others, others certainly talked to him. Rarely pleasantly. And I’m genuinely not trying to paint Jamie as a modern-day saint or a laudable martyr. He wasn’t. This is a story with absolutely no heroes. He was as capable of acts of aggression and unpleasantness as anyone. Just like most other teenage kids. Sometimes he took it out on the people who were never mean to him. I think that’s something we all do that from time to time. We feel like we can hurt those closest to us. Almost certainly because they’re the ones most likely to forgive us. When he was 16, Jamie came out. It was the talk of the school. A real-life gay person… in our midst. What drama. That Monday was a feeding frenzy for kids who were only capable of feeling good about themselves when they were making others feel worse. Jamie got it bad that day. And most of the days that followed. Sometimes he lashed out. Usually he didn’t.

I wish I could tell you someone did something. I’d love it even more if I could say I had done something to help. I wish I could say I effected some kind of change by speaking out when someone was calling him “bender” or “homo”. I wish I could say I stood up for a kid, who desperately needed someone to take his side. I wish I could say I did something heroic. But I didn’t. Like I said, this is a tale without heroes. No-one ever did anything to help Jamie. And while I may not have been the one shouting the insults or telling others to keep away from him in case they caught something, I did nothing to improve matters. And that made me entirely complicit. There’s a difference between a display of outright flag-waving support and silent complicity but it’s a small and insignificant one. Neither reveals anything good about a person. The day after his 18th birthday, Jamie committed suicide. Went home one evening. Walked to his room. Put a rope around his neck and kicked away the chair. His dad found him a few hours later. It was a big funeral. I didn’t go. I probably should have. Couldn’t face it. Maybe I felt guilty, I’m not sure. The thought that I couldn’t escape was not that too many people had said too many mean things to Jamie but that maybe not enough people had said enough nice things to him. Maybe that’s why I felt pangs of guilt. I never said anything nice to him. And worse still, it struck me that I rarely said anything truly nice to anyone. Professionally, recreationally or absent-mindedly, it’s easy to be a critic. It’s easy to tell people when they’ve got something wrong and how they should have done better. It’s simple. Trust me. I know. It’s also easy to go about our lives not saying unkind things to other people. It’s called common courtesy. And it just means you’re not a complete arsehole. That’s simple, too.

What’s not simple, however, is doing better than that. Saying aloud the nice things to people that we feel about them is a difficult thing. But it is possible. Beauty is possible. For some reason, we find it embarrassing to say truly nice things to other people. Even those close to us. Maybe even especially those close to us. Whether it’s shyness or misappropriated pride, we just tend not to do it. Somehow it seems to contravene at least a handful of social norms. Maybe because it makes us feel like we’re putting our head above the parapet for a fraction of a second. Maybe because we fear it won’t be reciprocated. Why tell someone that we think they’re an exceptional human being when we can compliment them on their choice of t-shirt instead? Why tell your favourite work colleague that you love that he’s part of your life when you could just ask him if he saw the match last night instead? Why tell your best friend that their friendship means the world to you and you treasure their presence in your life when you could just exchange air-kisses or high-fives every time you see them instead? Those aren’t ugly things. But they’re not beautiful, either. And beauty is possible. When Jamie put that rope around his neck, I wonder how many people had ever told him that they appreciated him, that they thought he was wonderful or that he made their lives better. At a guess, I’d say not many. I still don’t say enough nice things to the people in my life that deserve to hear them. It’s a character flaw, I know, but I’m working on it. Because every time we fail to tell someone we appreciate them when we could, we lose an opportunity. An opportunity to risk something, an opportunity to make someone feel a little better

about themselves and an opportunity to make the world a slightly more beautiful place. To add, rather than detract. And that’s a hell of a thing to lose. Because it’d be a pretty amazing thing to have on our hypothetical CV ahead of our hypothetical rendezvous outside the pearly gates. And more importantly, the effect it has on the people who mean the most to us will be anything but hypothetical. “Why don’t you do something constructive with your time?” Considering it came from a person who may have been quite insane, it’s really not a bad question, that. Give it some thought.

Losing Friends: Def Leppard, Kids’ TV Presenters and Cunningham The Gay
There’s something I need to get off my chest: I like the Pet Shop Boys. And that might not seem a big deal to you or to fans of highquality dance and electro-fused pop bands but it’s a hell of a thing for me. My own personal Everest, if you will. It’s big, readers. Bigger than the time I got Vicky Horgan to give me her phone number through an endearing combination of persistence and sheer desperation. Bigger than the interminable gap between each Everton trophy win. Bigger than the sense of self-delusion that causes Joe Pasquale to write “Comedian” in the box marked “Job Title” on official forms. That gag will also work with Newcastle United and Lee Evans, respectively, for those of you who wish to re-mould it and use it as your own. Use it, my children. Run free. Run wild. I give you the gift of mean-spirited but satirically accurate comedy. I went to a primary school of about 250 boys, where the worst insult that could ever be directed at someone was that he was gay. Or that he looked gay. Or that he talked gay. Or that his hair was gay. Or that his schoolbag was gay. Or that he knew someone who was gay. Or that he didn’t possess a natural aversion to everything even slightly gay. Know who my favourite band in the world were between the ages of 7 and 10? The Pet Shop Boys. Yeah, I know. Ever feel like you were just a little out of step with those around you? Maybe we could form a club of some sort? Get in touch.

At the same age, as if to further illustrate my incongruity with my peers, I used to spend my spare time writing to children’s TV presenters. And not just in a “please show my drawing on telly” kind of way. I wrote to them. Properly. My main focus of dissatisfaction was their insistence on treating children like children. I castigated them for it. Repeatedly and incessantly. But we’ll come back to that. First, you and I are going to chat about the Pet Shop Boys. We are, you know. And no, you don’t get a say in the matter. In the late 1980s, I had no idea that Neil Tennant even was gay, let alone that his band were a beacon of open-minded sexuality and that their songs were camp as all hell. And yet, for some reason, I never told anyone at my school that I liked the Pet Shop Boys. Not once. I listened to "Actually" for years after I bought it and I liked it. I'd still like it if I listened to it now. But under no circumstances was I was going to tell someone about it. It wasn’t socially acceptable. Not socially acceptable for a 9-year-old. If that doesn’t break your heart just a little bit, I’m not sure you and I have anything further to discuss. Seriously, we don’t. Go on. Go about your business. This book isn’t for you. Come back when you’ve learned how to behave like a compassionate adult. Def Leppard were the band of choice for my classmates back then. Def fucking Leppard. If you’re not familiar with them, think of an amalgam of Van Halen and Europe. Except without even the slightest ability to write any kind of melody. Hair metal minus any hint of irony. Music for people who hated music. And in my school, if you didn't claim to love Def Leppard, there was a high probability that you would be officially renamed "[Your Surname] The Gay." And there was no way back from there. It wasn't even acceptable to like credible indie bands like The Smiths

and New Order. They were far too thoughtful and melodic. It was Def Leppard or homosexuality. Those were the rules. So, I claimed to like Def Leppard. I’d like to say it was the only time I made a false claim as a schoolboy but I have a particularly vivid and unsettling recollection of trying to impress my PE teacher Miss Larkin (referenced elsewhere in this tome for unhealthily similar reasons) by claiming to know the rules of basketball. It was a move that backfired somewhat when she handed me her whistle and put me in charge of refereeing a game involving some terrifyingly competitive 1st Years. I believe I lasted approximately twenty-five seconds before I caused the first of several disputes that would ultimately lead to a miniriot. Who knew there’s no such thing as an indirect free-throw in basketball? Or that players are allowed to jump in their opponents’ faces as some sort of primitive-looking blocking manoeuvre? Or that you can’t move a free throw a few feet further forward as a punishment for dissent (calling the ref a “fucking wanker,” to be precise)? Ridiculous sport. So, despite claims to the contrary, I didn’t know the rules of basketball. And despite claims to the contrary, I didn’t like Def Leppard. And among my class, I now suspect I wasn’t alone. But you’d never have known it by asking anyone. We all claimed to be Def Leppard fans. We had to. We couldn’t run the risk of being “[Our Surname] The Gay.” And so it remained until someone found out that Def Leppard weren't cool anymore. That they were, in fact, unbelievably shit. “What? A one-armed drummer, a singer who appeared on gameshows like they were going out of fashion and songs that

made Kula Shaker look like musical craftsmen of the highest order… that’s not cool? Well, I’ll be damned. How come no-one ever mentioned it?” At which point, of course, any kid with any sort of social aspirations was required to immediately alter his outward musical allegiance. Nirvana were now the only acceptable band to adore and claiming to like Def Leppard, bizarrely, became a definite indication of rampant homosexuality. Kids are fuckers. They really are. But are they really any worse, any crueller or any more intolerant than their grown-up counterparts? Because some people never grow out of pretending to be Def Leppard fans. Not really. They don’t feel they’re allowed. Far too many people – seemingly mature, confident adults – are so terrified of the things they actually like that they prefer to never reveal it to anyone. As if their tastes will somehow make them lesser people. As if it’ll result in the grown-up equivalent of being called [Their Surname] The Gay. As if that fucking matters. Well, I don’t like Def Leppard. I’d rather slam my testicles in a car door than listen to one of their albums. I like the Pet Shop Boys. I think they’re tremendous. I like It’s A Sin, I like Heart, I like their cover of Always On My Mind, I like Domino Dancing and I especially like the delightfully ostentatious Go West in all its gayfriendly glory. Oh, man. It’s just so unbelievably gay. Like, astonishingly, jaw-droppingly gay. You might have seen gay before but nothing quite this gay. And the gayer it gets, they more I like it.

Know what else I like? I like the first series of Dawson’s Creek. I like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane, Thirteen Senses and loads of other bands who get ripped on for being tuneful, overly-sensitive rock balladeers. I like E.T. I like American reality show Survivor. I have a thing for power ballads. All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You by Heart cups me in all the right places. I like Call The Shots, Life Got Cold and No Good Advice by Girls Aloud. I thought Caught in the Middle by gayest boy band in the history of gay boy bands ever, A1, was a really good song. I liked it. A lot. Jesus, Cunningham, this was supposed to be about the value of individualism and non-conformity, not an all-out campfest. But I’m okay with that. You should be, too. You can be yourself, you know. It’ll be okay. It might even be better than that. No matter how judgemental the world gets. You don’t have to wear anything you don’t want to wear, you don’t have to do activities you don’t want to do, you don’t have to do a job you don’t like doing, you don’t have to be with people whose company you don’t enjoy and you don’t have to say you like things that you don’t actually like. Or you can just keep on saying you like Def Leppard for the rest of your life. Whatever works for you. The first time I ever wrote and published (and by “published”, I mean I uploaded it to the internet… Actual publishers didn’t tend to like me all that much) something that wasn’t played entirely for laughs and actually had a non-ironic and non-sarcastic point, I got three types of reaction: • • Friends who supported and encouraged me (and offered constructive criticism) People I didn’t know, who commended and encouraged me

Friends who offered no encouragement and said things like “No-one’s gonna read all that shit, Mikey” and “You don’t half drone on, Cunningham”

That third group were the large majority. I don’t like to think of them as friends anymore. Acquaintances, yes. Friends, no. We still talk and still recommend music to each other from time to time. Sometimes we even get down together to our favourite ultracamp records. Because, you know, that’s just how we do. But as friends, they were lost to me from then on. It was a loss but not a terrible one. Incidentally, there was also a fourth group, which consisted of one Indonesian girl, who sent me a message saying “u r cute… u have shamrock?” Best chat-up line I’ve ever heard. We’re getting married in the Spring. If there are people in your life who you consider to be your friends, despite the fact that they don’t support your attempts at selfimprovement, they don’t encourage you to achieve the things you’d really like to do or with whom you’re uncomfortable revealing the things you truly like, do me a massive favour and take stock of those relationships. Because can these people really be considered your friends? Aren’t they stopping you from being you? Or at least the version of you that appeals to you the most? As someone who can count the number of genuine friends he’s ever possessed on a single genetically mutated hand, I’m certainly no expert. But I think it’s worth considering. Your friends are the people who don’t want anything in exchange for spending time with you, for consoling you and for thinking

you’re just a hell of a person to know. They do it not because they feel obliged or because it makes them feel like good people. They do it because they like you as an individual. They do it because their lives would be poorer for your absence. And if that definition reduces your collection of friends to a number you consider inadequate or socially unacceptable, then you need to stop judging yourself by non-existent standards. Because it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. About anything. There’s a particularly applicable Robert Louis Stevenson quote that I find all kinds of lovely: “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying ‘Amen’ to what the world tells you you ought to prefer is to have kept your soul alive.” Keep your soul alive, delightful reader. Or resurrect it. Whatever the case may be. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to like Def Leppard. And don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t like Def Leppard, either. They are a bit shit, though, you have to admit. Go on, admit it. I wanna hear you say it. From childhood onwards, we get told that you just need to be yourself in order to be accepted and loved. Be proud of yourself, kids, and all your dreams will definitely come true. It’s not true. It really isn’t. The world doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t. It’s crueller than that. It’s more complicated than that.

But it’ll work that way with your friends. You’ll find acceptance with them. The real ones anyway. And they’re the ones that count. Anyway. Children’s TV presenters of the 1980s. I believe that’s pretty close to where we came in. I used to write to them. Personally. I had no time for lackeys or institutions as a whole. I needed to talk to the front man. That was, I felt sure, where I’d get results. My letters generally went along these lines: Dear Ian/Ray/Tommy/Philip etc. My name is Michael Cunningham and I am 9 years old. I watch your show after school every day and I enjoy most of it. But not all of it. I think you show too many cartoons and not enough dramas like Woof and Jossy’s Giants. Also, some of us know about Santa, the tooth-fairy and the Easter bunny so please stop treating us like we’re stupid. If you want to talk to me about any of these things, you can ring me on 051 81832 but I am not usually home until around 3.20. Except on Fridays. We usually get let out of school a few minutes earlier on Fridays so I could probably be home for about 3.10 to take your call. Yours truly, Michael. They never called. It bothered me at the time but looking back now, I realise the inherent social difficulties that would have been involved in a grown man phoning a 9-year-old boy for advice on how best to satisfy other 9-year-olds.

I once told my friend Simon about my preclusion for writing to kids’ TV presenters. He thought it was weird. Creepy, even. He just didn’t understand. “Woof isn’t even that good,” he ludicrously claimed. I also told my friend Michael about it. He agreed wholeheartedly with everything I had said. “Yeah, there should definitely be more shows like Woof,” he said. “I might write to them, too.” One of them is still my friend to this day. One isn’t. And it’s got nothing to do with an appreciation for 1980s’ kids’ TV drama Woof, in which a boy occasionally turned into a dog for no good reason. When you think about it, figuring out who your friends are really isn’t that difficult.

Losing Everything: 2nd Class, High Points and The Unfunny Joke
There’s a joke I can’t write. Okay, there are plenty of jokes I can’t write. Know that Two Ronnies jokes about the “fork handles”? Couldn’t write that. Know the Bill Hicks one about anyone who’s in marketing or advertising? Not within my repertoire. Know the Ricky Gervais one about the Special Olympics? Beyond me. Couldn’t write any of them. Even if they hadn’t already been written. I can write other jokes. Abstract ones, too. You want a joke about the Romanian revolution? Fancy laughing heartily at a gag about flotsam? Care to hear some comedy about platypus semen? Get in touch. I’ve got all three areas comedically covered. I also do a joke about a dinosaur called Jason. I’ll be honest. It’s not great. But there’s another joke. A joke I can almost write but not quite. No matter what I try, I can’t get it to work. I can’t make it funny. And we’re going to come back to the unfunny joke because it’s kinda important. For all manner of reasons. First, though, I want to talk about 2nd Class. Has there ever been a point in time when you felt you were really good at life? A time when you were on top of your own small but important world and nobody could do it better than you? No? Really? Never? Oops. Awkward. Go on. Think of one. You know you want to. It’ll add to the fun.

My time was 2nd Class in primary school. 1987 – 1988. I was 8 when I was in 2nd Class. And in American sporting parlance, I brought my A-game that year. I was exceptional at 2nd Class. We had maths competitions that I tended to win, to much adulation. We did spelling tests that I usually aced. We played football for P.E. and I was really good at football. I had two best friends who meant the world to me and I had a teacher that I liked an awful lot. And just between ourselves, I’m pretty sure the sentiment was reciprocated. Possibly even more than reciprocated if you get what I’m saying. The way she sometimes asked me questions about capital cities was a dead giveaway. “That’s right, sweetcheeks, the answer is Oslo… now how ‘bout you tell me what you’re doing this Saturday night?” It’s possible I’m not recalling it with 100% accuracy. But I knew what I was doing in 2nd Class. Good at the 2nd Class staples, essentially. Excellent at basic maths and very proficient at reading out loud. Still am, if you must know. Need someone to multiply 6 x 7 and then read a paragraph of Sinbad The Sailor to a group of 8 year olds? Call me. I work cheap. So, yeah. I loved 2nd Class. I think I was about as good as it’s possible to get at 2nd Class. I don’t remember any other sustained period in the first quarter-century of my life, where I didn’t want to be someone else. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. We’re all envious. We all want to be other people, at least occasionally. Prettier people, smarter people, happier people… people who aren’t us.

From September 1987 to June 1988, I was content just being me. And that was a pretty amazing thing. And then life just moved on. Like it has an enduring tendency to do. See, life has an uncanny ability to take things from you. One at a time. People. Hopes. Looks. Abilities. Youth. Our natural distaste for Cliff Richard and Perry Como records. Everything. Things you care about, things you don’t. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s the same for you, it’s the same for me. Regardless of how much you win, you’re destined to lose. And lose big. Because we’re all losers at heart. Maybe not at the moment. But we will be. Guaranteed. That’s the way it works. No way around it. Pray to a supernatural deity for a life without death… stockpile all the money in the world… cryogenically freeze your head… Do whatever you want to do. Know what it’ll get you? Not a whole lot. Same as me. Same as everyone you know. Sorry if I’m the bearer of bad news. Life’s about losing. Ultimately, it is. Undeniably. Any alternative viewpoint on the subject is mistaken. For all the happy times; for all the hours spent eating yogurt raisins in front of box-sets of The Wire; for all the days spent sexually experimenting with people who enjoy that weird pubic robot stuff as much as you do; for all the years spent kicking back in just a sombrero and a particularly fetching pair of socks; ultimately, it comes down to illness, pain and loss. I don’t know when that point comes. When the curve takes its downward turn. When losing starts to outweigh winning. It’s not an obvious thing. Life doesn’t signpost things the way it should. There’s no definitive point at which you stop being a child. Nor

when you become an adult. Or when you’re no longer young. Or when you start being old. You just realise it. One day, you just realise it’s happened. And there’s no way back. Of all the things that life throws at you, I can’t help thinking that’s probably the cruellest. Well, that and the Sex and the City movie. That’s Abu Ghraibesque in its propensity to inflict cruelty. In April 1988, while I was excelling at 2nd Class, Liverpool won the English First Division (the equivalent of what’s now called the Premier League). They won it at a canter, taking a recordequalling thirty games to suffer their first defeat. They were beaten only once more and won the title weeks before the end of the season, playing what many, including the legendary Nat Lofthouse, considered to be the finest and most beautiful football ever played by an English team. And with good reason. They were exceptional. If you’re someone who dismisses the idea that football is a sport that can be poetic and artistic and life-affirming, watching that team play would change your mind. They were that good. Their final game of the season was the FA Cup Final against a notoriously un-lovely and un-artistic team called Wimbledon. They were serial underdogs. Big. Strong. Robust. Unskilful. Highly effective purveyors of a less than beautiful game. Liverpool missed a penalty and had a goal wrongly disallowed. Wimbledon won 1-0 in one of the biggest upsets the competition has ever seen. Liverpool lost their hold on the league the following season to the final kick of the final game of the season in the most dramatic finish to a football season in the sport’s history. Things went downhill for Liverpool from that point. They were never, ever the same.

Players passed their peak; a tragedy struck; a young manager, struggling to cope, was replaced by an incompetent one; other teams improved; their fiercest rivals achieved a type of structural dominance that’ll almost certainly outlive me. Everything went wrong. Things just disintegrated. It was a slow, sad decline. And as a result, Liverpool will never again be as good at football as they were in that 1987/88 season. And I’ll never be as good at life as I was in 2nd Class. I mean, I think I’m okay at it now. Not great, but not terrible either. But as good as I was at 2nd Class? Nah. Not even close. Can’t get that back, you know. Once it goes, it doesn’t come back. Two decades later, the kid who was unbelievably good at 2nd Class is now trying to write a joke. And failing. Quite a comedown, I concede, but hey, I’ve had time to come to terms with it. Not like it’s just been landed on me without warning. I’m a writer of comedy, kind-spirited reader. Above all else. It’s what I do. It’s what appeals to me and it’s what I find more rewarding than anything else. There’s nothing I would rather do with my time. Except perhaps be the recipient of Rachel Bilson’s unrelenting, shamelessly brazen advances. I think I’d slightly prefer that. I suspect, though, there’s even less remuneration in that than comedy writing. Call it a hunch. But yeah, a comedy writer. That be me. And here’s an honest confession from a comedy writer: I don’t know what funny is. Not really. I mean, I think I recognise funny when I see it. I think I can tell you the reasons why The Office and Seinfeld are funny. And I

know with absolute certainty that I can tell you why Joey and Two Pints of Lager aren’t. But I couldn’t define it. My best attempt would go something along the lines of: Funny = The ridiculous infiltrating the solemn. Something absurd corrupting something serious. Or vice versa. It’ll work in reverse, too. I think that’s as good as I could come up with. At its most rudimentary, that’s how I’d distil it into a bite-sized paragraph. Want to be funny? Put the ludicrous someplace dispassionate. That’ll come pretty close. Guarantee it. I recognise, of course, that that’s still a terribly incomplete explanation. But put a gun to my head and demand that I define funny, that’s what I’d tell you. Well, just as soon as I had cried a lot and offered you all manner of sexual favours in exchange for the sparing of my life, I would. Trust me, I’d be the most sexually adventurous hostage you ever let off the hook. Nothing would be out of bounds. Nothing. Even all that freaky stuff with battery acid you’re so into. Hey, not judging, just saying. Pervert. It’s a weird thing being a comedy writer who’s trying to write a joke and can’t get it to work. It feels like a waste. Of energy. Of effort. Of time. I’ve got the set-up done and I know exactly what I want the punchline to be. I just can’t find a way to integrate the two into one standalone, laugh-out-loud joke. However much I try to make it work, it just isn’t funny. It doesn’t sound right. It’s missing something. I don’t know what.

And it’s been missing something for the last six years. This is a problem whose solution may not even exist. Don’t feel any pressure to point out, by the way, that I might need to consider doing something different with my time. Know-it-all. Point is, the gag doesn’t work. And I’m leaning towards the likelihood that it never will. Sad, I know, but it’s okay. I can deal. Anyway, here’s the thing about writing comedy. Like most art forms, it originates from isolation, unfulfilment and desperation. That’s where it comes from. Almost always. Its origins have to lie in such raw and pure emotions. There’s no getting around that. It doesn’t come from content, well-adjusted people with content, well-adjusted family lives. As a result, and quite paradoxically, people only tend to be good at it until they become successful at it. Genuinely innovative, challenging comedy invariably comes outsiders. From outcasts. From pariahs. From peripheral figures. From losers. But what happens when you write something funny? You make people laugh. And when you do that, you immediately become less peripheral. Less of an outcast. Less of a loser. You start to become popular. And popular people become accepted. Accepted people start to integrate. Integrated people become fulfilled. And fulfilled people don’t produce innovative, challenging art. Because they’re no longer desperate enough. Therein lies the paradox of comedy writing. As soon as you get genuinely good at it, the closer you are to losing it. And everyone loses it.

People stop being funny, you know. They just do. At some point, they all lose it. Name me any veteran comedian and I’ll show you someone who’s not as funny as they used to be. At some point, their ability to craft the standard of material that’s brought them their success becomes blunted. In the end, it goes. And it doesn’t come back. Funny comes with an expiry date. And that’s an important thing for a comedy writer to bear in mind. At any time. But especially so when there’s a joke he can’t write. The gag isn’t funny, you know. A blip? An aberration? A joke with a poor construct to begin with? Maybe. But you can see why it’s a problem, right? Everyone loses it. Because everyone loses everything. I excelled at 2nd Class because that was the year in school that almost perfectly matched my skillset. But it could only ever be fleeting. And so it proved. 3rd Class was far more complicated. Things just weren’t the same. Liverpool were so good that year because most of those players peaked simultaneously. They couldn’t have been that good otherwise. And therein lay the problem. They couldn’t be that good again. It had to be fleeting. Things could only go downhill from there. But here’s the thing. It’s not restricted to comedy writers, football teams and geeky kids with moderate sporting abilities and delusions about their teacher fancying them. See, I kinda suspect that most of us have something we want to do that comes with an expiry date that precedes our own. And it’s almost always the thing you want to do more than just about anything else in the world. Because life wouldn’t have it any other way. A person’s high points are destined to be fleeting. Yours… mine… everyone

you’ll ever know. Whatever it is you’re exceptionally good at, it’s not meant to last. That paradox? Not just related to comedy writing. As soon as you get genuinely good at something, the closer you are to losing it. Ultimately, life’s about losing. Any other viewpoint on the subject is mistaken.

Lost: 2 Jobs, 1 Friend. Found: 1 Oversized Certificate
“Some days you’ll be the hammer and some days you’ll be the nail. That’s just how it is.” That’s the advice given to my class at initiation on our first day in college. It wasn’t bad advice. I’m completely in love with the idea of finding good things in bad places. Hope amidst darkness, I suppose. I love the thought that situations are never so entrenched that they’re beyond rescue. That ugliness is never so ingrained and widespread within a subject that beauty can’t be located within. I don’t know if it’s real. I just know that I like the idea. The cruellest and most violent war can produce displays of breathtaking heroism. The unhappiest relationship can yield at least a fleeting instant of joy to its participants. And the worst day of your life can provide a single moment that makes you smile whenever you recall it in the years to follow. It was a Monday afternoon. About 3pm. I was in a local radio station. In the office of Jon, the Assistant Head of Programming. He had asked me to wait there while he got some notes from upstairs. I looked around the office. I was struck by the sight of a large framed certificate, hung in pride of place alongside some photographs of Jon at a staff party. It was big. Too big. Especially considering what was written on it. “This certificate is awarded to Jon Brady, in recognition of having successfully completed a 3-day course in Microsoft Excel.” Completing a course in Microsoft Excel? Surely a giant certificate was going a bit overboard for knowing a bit about spreadsheets? And how could it have taken three days? What could you possibly learn on the third day that hadn’t been covered on Day 1 or Day

2? I’d never known anyone to be so proud of something so unworthy of pride. It really was enormous. It was bigger than any degree certificate I’d ever seen. And it was framed. He had actually gone to the trouble of getting it framed. And then deliberately placed in a position that meant it was the first thing seen by any visitor to his office. I concluded that I was dealing with a madman. I had become so perplexed by the colossal certificate that I decided to take a picture of it on my phone and send it to my friend Declan. He liked weird things. He’d definitely appreciate it. Jon arrived a couple of minutes later, carrying a large bundle of notes and, bizarrely, an empty picture frame. “What’s he got that for?” I thought. “Had he just got back from a month-long course in Powerpoint that he wanted everyone to know about?” Ridiculous man. But he was also a direct man and got straight to the point: “We’re looking to revamp the breakfast show. The current producer, Thomas, isn’t really working out and we were thinking it might be something you’d be interested in.” Interested? I’d been trying to get my hands on a producing gig for months. And the breakfast show? People actually listened to the breakfast show. This was the greatest moment ever. Better even than the time Suzanne Jenkins had repeatedly and “accidentally” brushed her breasts against me for the best part of an hour to signify that she wanted us to be something more than merely friends. I’d like to say I took the hint but her intentions had to be pointed out to me the following day by my friend John. “I thought she was just clumsy,” I told him. He shook his head and wandered off,

muttering the word “clueless.” I wonder what he meant. Strange character. Regardless, it had all led to this moment. A man, who was ludicrously proud of his spreadsheet abilities, was offering me control of a radio breakfast show. “Yeah, we know you write comedy sketches and we’d like you to have a regular slot at around 8.15 every morning, in addition to producing. We’d particularly like you to develop a recognisable character that we could build some promos around, if you have any ideas in that area.” This was unbelievable. The term “big break” was invented for moments like these. Producing duties… comedy writing… It was like a beautiful dream. And I had character ideas, alright. Oh, I’d show them character ideas. They’d go crazy when they saw them. They were hilarious! “Martin’s not here today but if you come in on Wednesday morning, we’ll get everything sorted out officially.” Martin was the Head of Programming and general manager of the station. His temporary absence might not seem like a major obstacle in this story but, alas, it is. Not to spoil the ending, but it’s the source of my downfall. The forty-three hours between Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning’s meeting proved too long for me to ride the wave of my good fortune and just enjoy it. I had to do something. I left the station on Monday afternoon and told the good news to three of my friends, my mother, my sister and a few acquaintances on the internet that I’d never met. “Keep it to yourself for now, though,” I told them. “It’s not being rubber-stamped until Wednesday.” This was really a very considerate thing to do as I felt sure that Thomas, the current incumbent of production duties on the breakfast show, hadn’t been told the bad news yet and I

didn’t want him to hear if from someone else. Yes, this was particularly magnanimous of me. There’s a right way to lose and there’s a right way to win. I was giving the perfect example of how to do the latter. It would be up to Thomas to exemplify the former. A lesser man would have blabbed to all and sundry, oblivious to the plight of his less fortunate predecessor. Not me, though. I cared about my vanquished rival. And I’m not saying that necessarily makes me a hero… but, well, you know, sometimes the evidence speaks for itself. I wondered if Thomas would resent me for usurping him by being so much better than him. He probably would at first. He was only human after all. But in time, after hearing some of the things I’d got planned for his old show, he’d almost certainly send me a congratulatory note -- “Well done on the show, Mike. You’ve reinvented the industry and will probably go down in history as the finest breakfast show producer of all-time, as well as the sexiest. They were right to fire me and hire you in my stead. In many ways, you’re the closest thing we have in this crazy, messed up world of ours to a modern-day Jesus.” And he’d be right. When you think about it, I was a modern-day Jesus. I might even have been better. In fact, I was definitely better. I was now a messianic figurehead for local radio in south-east Ireland. I considered growing a beard and allowing my hair to reach shoulder-length. I might even begin a recruitment drive to find twelve eager and devoted followers. And to prove I was a step ahead of Jesus, I’d flip his sexist ways on their head and insist that mine all be female. Solely as a gesture of solidarity with the feminist movement, you understand. I’m all about the feminist movement. But first, I needed to fill those forty-three hours.

And that was no easy task. You’d be surprised at how hard it is for an overwrought insomniac to go forty-three hours without doing something stupid and reckless. I think I managed about eleven. It was just after 2am on Monday night when I came up with an idea. An idea so brilliant, so ingenious and so innovative that it would change the way in which companies recruited people in the future. “He’s good,” managing directors would say, “but he didn’t do a Mikey… Let’s take a look at some of the other applicants instead.” I decided to send my new employers some sample sketches of what I had in mind for when I gained control of the breakfast show. Just to speed the process along. It could only enhance their already sky-high opinion of me ahead of Wednesday’s official handover. What a wonderfully proactive thing to do. I truly was pushing all the boundaries here. History, I felt sure, would recognise that. It wasn’t easy deciding which sketches to send. I had written one about a character called “The Bad Doctor,” which was, I felt, a little risqué for daytime local radio. It could never be said that I’m not sensitive to broadcasting guidelines. There was another with a working title of “Uninformed Holiday Guide” but that was so good that I didn’t want to give it away too early. I’d save that one. Instead, I sent the opening two sketches in a 6-part series, called “The Strolling Lovers.” It was perfect. Clever, concise and each with a killer punchline. They’d love it. I should probably mention, by the way, that those punchlines would occasionally involve less than wholesome subjects. Sketch #1, for instance, involved an incest reference while sketch #2 went big on the prostitution angle. They were funny, though. That was the important thing. Well, to me, that was the important thing.

Then, to top things off, I also sent the outline for a character I had created that would be a parochial Irish version of Fox News cretin Bill O’Reilly, who had his own phone-in show on local radio. It was solid gold. It might have even been platinum. Wait. Is platinum better than gold or is it the other way around? I’m not sure. Whichever is the best, it was that one. The character did, admittedly, contain certain mildly offensive resemblances to the station’s real-life host of a very similar show but I’m sure they weren’t recognisable. Well, I was fairly sure they weren’t recognisable. Nah, I’d definitely get away with it. And even if I didn’t, they’d be laughing so much they wouldn’t care. I really was a magnificent bastard. They were lucky to have stumbled upon this unpolished diamond. I would remind them of that fact when the station was receiving awards for its era-defining comedy output and I was being coveted by every broadcasting company in the western hemisphere. I sent the email at about 2.30am on Monday night. I was a little surprised when I didn’t get a response on Tuesday but I didn’t worry about it. They were probably reserving their gushing praise until Wednesday so they could hail their new messiah in person. I respected them for that. I didn’t walk into the office on Wednesday morning. I strutted. I was finally home. I considered how I’d arrange my desk. It would be the first permanent desk I had ever had. I had thought of a great gag a year or two earlier that I always wanted to implement but it required a permanent workspace to pull it off properly. I would place framed pictures of some smiling kids on my desk, facing outwards. Then, when people saw them and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you have kids,” I’d look them squarely in the eye, with a slightly quizzical, slightly creepy expression, and say, “I don’t.” Oh, how we’d laugh!

My strut was diminished somewhat, however, when I entered the office and detected the coldest, most uncomfortable atmosphere I had ever walked into. It was horrendous. If I had seen an inscription on the door, saying “Arbeit Macht Frei,” I wouldn’t have been altogether surprised. Jon was at his desk and his boss, Martin, was sitting opposite him. Neither seemed entirely filled with the joys of spring. I felt sure I knew the reason why. “They’ve probably just been through the traumatic experience of informing poor, unfortunate, not-asgood-as-me Thomas of his plight,” I thought to myself. That couldn’t have been easy for them. Oh, well. Onwards, upwards etc. His far better (and significantly more handsome) replacement had arrived. Everything was going to be okay. “Michael. Come in.” “Morning, men.” “Have a seat.” “I thank you.” “So, we were thinking… people would probably prefer comedy on the drivetime show.” “They would?” “Yeah, they definitely would.” Jesus Christ. Thirty seconds in and I had lost my comedy slot on the breakfast show. “I wonder was it something I said,” I thought to myself. Nah, of course it wasn’t. If it had been, I wouldn’t still have the gig as producer. And I definitely still had the gig as producer. No, it was nothing I had done. Definitely not. “Also, Thomas has got an idea for the 8.15 slot that we think might work.” “Thomas?” “Yeah.” Thomas was being kept on as the producer. “Oh, for fuck sake. What a bastard… he won’t be getting a congratulatory note from

me, the little dickhead,” I thought to myself. “And after I had been so good to not tell anyone about how I was replacing him as a direct result of his inability to be as good as me, too. Or as handsome, for that matter. Ungrateful git. I’ll get him for this. I don’t know how but I’ll definitely get him. He’ll have to be punished. That’s all there is to it.” So, while I was taking losing to whole new levels, my adversaries had a backup offer. “We were thinking… maybe you could do some prank calls or something… they’re always funny.” Prank calls or something? Comedy writer was gone. Breakfast show producer was gone. I was going to be Guy In Charge of Prank Calls or Something. And all I could think was “How does a son tell his mother that he’s lost two jobs before he started either and will now be in charge of prank calls or something?” I imagine it’s the broadcasting equivalent of a girl telling her mum that she’s quit her law degree to join a travelling freak-show as a bearded lady instead. I went home. My head was spinning wildly. I called my friend Michelle. I had met Michelle about a month and a half earlier. She was a fascinating person. I liked listening to her stories. She had been addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers for two years and was now in recovery. She had led an astonishing life. She had once tried to steal an unmarked police car in just her bra and knickers. I liked that she did weird things. She was, I felt, a kindred spirit. She had also been privy to some of the comedy sketches I had written, including the ones that had been sent. And in a situation like this, she was the obvious person to call. She’d definitely understand. “So, you’ve lost a job you hadn’t even started?” “Well, technically, I’ve lost two jobs I hadn’t even started.”

“Did they say why?” “No, they tried to pretend they hadn’t even offered me the job.” “Why would they do that?” “…” “Did you do something?” “What do you mean?” “Between Monday afternoon and this morning, did you do anything that could have caused them to change their minds?” “Definitely not. As if I’d do something like that. Give me some credit.” “So, you had no contact with them?” “Well…” “You did, didn’t you?” “Pfft. No.” “Mike.” “I just emailed them, that’s all. It was just an email.” “What did the email say?” “Not much. Almost nothing. Just a few ideas for segments and some employment information.” “And that’s it?” “Yes… well, apart from the attachments.” “Jesus Christ. I’m almost afraid to ask.” “They were just comedy sketches. I thought they’d like them.” “Not The Bad Doctor?” “No, not The Bad Doctor. I’m not a complete idiot.” “Which ones were they?” “I can’t remember.” “Which ones were they? “The parochial Bill O’Reilly.” “The one that’s based on…” “Yes.” “Fucking hell.” “And two of The Strolling Lovers sketches.” “Which two?” “The incest one and the prostitution one.” “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “What? They’re funny.”

“It’s a conservative local radio station.” “I suppose it’s possible I may have overestimated their levels of open-mindedness.” “Right. That’s it.” “What?” “Look, I’m really sorry but I can’t do this anymore.” “Do what?” “You. This friendship… it can’t go on.” “Huh?” “You have self-destructive tendencies. I’m not supposed to be around people like you. It’s not good for my recovery.” “Eh? You’re giving me up?” “Yeah, I have to. You self-sabotage everything. I don’t feel comfortable being around this kind of behaviour. It’s too close to home.” “This is a joke, right?” “No, Mike, it’s not. I can’t do this. Not at the moment anyway. It’s too reminiscent of how I used to be.” “I’ve never been given up before.” “I’ll call you in a few months… maybe.” Time scale: Approximately two hours. Total loss: Two jobs and a friend. I’ve had better days. I rang my friend Declan to tell him of my woe. I told him the whole story but most of it didn’t register with him. He was really only interested in the picture I had sent him earlier. “That giant certificate… Why did he have a giant certificate? It was just an Excel course. That thing was enormous. I mean, I’ve seen some big certificates in my time but Jesus Christ…” Declan was always good with priorities. I appreciated that. It helped.

Now, whenever I tell that story, all I can think about is that oversized certificate and the sheer needlessness of it. Always makes me smile. We all have rubbish days. There’s no getting around that. You might be having one now or the universe might have one in store for you tomorrow. The day I lost two jobs and a friend was certainly a rubbish one for me. In fact, it was a nadir amongst rubbish days. But no matter how many dreams get shattered or how much you lose, there’ll almost always be something about even your worst day that makes it just a little less rubbish. You just have to look for it. Hope amidst darkness. Nothing is ever so ugly that beauty can’t be found within. Real or not, I love that idea. Some days you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. That’s just how it is. But thanks to one pretty dismal Wednesday, I get to spend a whole lot of other days not being either the hammer or the nail, but instead being the guy who gets to laugh about a ludicrously large, embarrassingly overexposed certificate. And honestly, that doesn’t seem like such a bad deal to me.

Lost Consciousness: Delusions, The Abyss and The Existence of Santa
I’m just going to come right out with it: I really like the fact that we all end up dead. There. I said it. You and I, beautiful reader, are intelligent people. Thanks to our hominid ancestors’ need to outwit predators, learn how to use fire and develop and maintain complex social structures, you and I each possess disproportionately large frontal lobes as part of an extremely complex and sophisticated brain structure. And it’s an amazing thing. I like it a lot. I’m sure you do, too. There’s just one drawback, though. Our intellect comes at a price. And it’s no small thing: You and I both know we’re going to die. Know that weird feeling of sadness in the pit of your stomach when you're confronted by something staggeringly beautiful? It can be anything - A picturesque view from a mountaintop, a piece of music that touches every fibre of your being, the smiling face of the person you love more than anyone else in the world and knowing that you caused that smile. Know how the overwhelmingly joyful and uplifting experience is accompanied by a deep and powerful sense of sadness deep within you that seems incongruous and inexplicable? It occurs because we possess an innate knowledge that this beautiful thing, like all beautiful things, is transient and that we're going to die and we won't be able to experience such beautiful things anymore.

At the age of 18, I underwent a 5-hour operation. Well, I was told by a nurse that it lasted five hours. I can’t be certain it took five hours due to my lack of consciousness at the time but I have no reason to doubt her. I can think of no agenda she could possibly have had that would have been strengthened by misinforming me of the duration of my unconsciousness. Well, unless, of course, it really only lasted three hours and she used the other two to take advantage of me. Maybe she got a quick glimpse under my hospital gown and couldn’t help herself. If so, could anyone truly blame her for her inability to control herself and maintain some professional decorum? I think not. She was only human, after all. Hi, girls. Still on the market, believe it or not. Promise me you won’t show up unannounced. I remember two things about the operation: • • Thinking the anaesthetic wouldn’t work Waking up

That’s it. In that order. I remember both vividly. I didn’t dream. Lights out. Lights on. Nothing in between. For those five hours, life just went on. I wasn’t part of it. Know those scenes in cartoons, where the viewer is watching first perspective through the eyes of one of the characters? They close their eyes, the shot goes dark for a second and we open to a different location or situation a few hours later. That’s how it was. I think about that a lot. Almost certainly because that’s what I think death is like. Man, that’s one morbid opening. Even by my standards. I’m not trying to depress you, hopeful reader. We’ll get to the funny in a

minute. Promise. For now, though, better do a quick sporting analogy to balance things out. It sounded like this: “Sheffield Wednesday are staring into the abyss.” There’s a Leeds United goal, scored by Harry Kewell, in the last few weeks of the 1999/2000 season, against Sheffield Wednesday. It’s the third in a 3-0 win and it just about seals Wednesday’s relegation from the Premier League. The audio backdrop to the goal is that piece of commentary. As the ball hits the bar and bounces down over the line, the Sheffield Wednesday players sink to their knees, realising their fate and Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler says: “Sheffield Wednesday are staring into the abyss.” It’s a moving and powerful moment that instantly transcends sport. It’s a truly great piece of football commentary. Forget “They think it’s all over,” “A nation holds its breath” or “Your boys took one hell of a beating.” “Sheffield Wednesday are staring into the abyss” is infinitely superior. It elevates a football moment to something universal. For that moment, you don’t have to be a football fan to understand. We all just get it. Something deep within us gets it. Sheffield Wednesday were staring into the abyss and we all knew how they felt. We’ll come back around to facing the abyss, though. We’ve got other things to discuss first. Namely my goldfish Fernando. My goldfish is a boy. I have no evidence for this. In fact, the small amount of evidence that I do possess seems to suggest that Fernando might more probably be a girl. I have disregarded this evidence. It doesn't fit with what I want to believe. I named him Fernando in homage to footballing demi-god Fernando Torres and I have used only masculine terms when referring to him. Fernando can't be

female. It just doesn't work for me. Hence the appalling disregard for evidence. On the topic of Fernando's gender -- and this topic alone -- I have adopted a creationist-like viewpoint of "there are some things we just weren't meant to know.” And don't think I have anything against female goldfish. I really don't. Quite the opposide, in fact. I'm suffragette-esque in my continuing support of equal goldfish opportunities. As well as in my willingness to disrupt the Epsom Derby at a moment’s notice. But there are some truths from which I feel it better to shield myself. Confirming that I gave a girl goldfish a boy's name and repeatedly referred to her in masculine terms for the first ten months of its life is one such truth. It's a trivial matter, I recognise, but not a wholly insignificant one. We all lie to ourselves. Pretty much all the time. About small things, mostly. "Wow, this tastes great… you must give me the recipe”… “I really like what you’ve done with your hair”… “I couldn’t be happier”… “What’s that, Mark? The guy who spent your entire wedding chatting up your married sister, indirectly leading to her separation from her husband? Nah, didn’t get a good look at him. Wasn’t me, though. Definitely not.” Hi, Mark. Friends? We lie to ourselves and to other people. Because it’s easier. At least it feels that way. It was a Tuesday morning in early December 1987. Upon arrival at school, my friend Gerry rushed towards me. He was breathlessly excited. This was always an indication that he had either left his inhaler at home or that he had news. On this occasion, he had news. I felt a sense of relief at that. Though it wouldn’t last long.

“Rob… Neil… found… guitars,” he spluttered. I struggled to make sense of Gerry’s drivel. Rob and Neil were twins and had joined our class a fortnight previously. They had moved from Dublin and, as such, possessed infinitely more wisdom on the machinations of the world than either Gerry or myself. They were very much our go-to guys when a question cropped up that was beyond our limited understanding. But I had no idea why their discovery of guitars was being treated by Gerry as a cataclysmic, life-defining moment. “Rob and Neil found guitars… in school?” I ventured. “No. At home. In their mother’s wardrobe.” “Does their mother play guitar?” “I don’t know.” This was turning into a hugely unproductive Gerry-Michael conversation. Even moreso than usual. I began to long for the days when Gerry had left his inhaler at home. I tried to help him reach some kind of vaguely coherent point. “Well, if she has a guitar in her wardrobe, she probably does,” I ventured, hoping that would be the end of it and we could both move on with our lives. Alas, no. “No. Two guitars.” “She plays two guitars?” “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Jesus Christ. This was getting worse by the second. Gerry had never been good at relaying information but this was unquestionably his low-point to date. He wouldn’t sink this low again until the time he got confused and tried to tell everyone that 6th Class Sex Education was taught by a travelling nurse, who flashed her breasts at anyone who asked to see them.

“She does… I swear… She just shows you them… It’s part of her job,” he’d say. I wish I was making that up. “No… see… Rob and Neil… they asked for guitars… for Christmas,” said Gerry. “So… you think Santa might have left them there a few weeks early?” Admittedly, this was a dreadful misinterpretation of the key element of the story on my part. The issue, of course, was not why Rob and Neil’s Christmas presents were already in their home but the fact that they were there at all. It was three weeks before Christmas. The idea that Santa would need to deliver early to one house in south-east Ireland to save himself some time on the evening of the 24th was a preposterous one. Even I could recognise that. No, this could only mean one thing: “Maybe their mother bought the guitars as presents for someone else?” I may have been an academically talented 8-year-old but I really wasn’t all that clever. It was a point that was becoming increasingly apparent. Gerry shook his head solemnly. The term “blind leading the blind” had never been more apt. He would have to break this to me gently: “Look, Rob and Paul say the reason the guitars are in their mother’s wardrobe is because… well, because there’s no Santa.” I looked at my best friend, horrified. We had all heard whispers and rumours in the past about the possible non-existence of Santa Claus but they were wildly unsubstantiated. All available evidence – i.e. I wrote a letter to Santa, asking for presents each December

and presents duly arrived – pointed to the great man being a definite real-life entity. Yes, the evidence was definitely on Santa’s side. Any reasonable person could see that. In retrospect, I can see how this logic was fundamentally flawed. Not only does it assume a connection between the presence of gifts and the existence of a deliverer (in much the same way as many adults commit the logical fallacy of connecting their own existence to that of a supernatural creator), but it fails to take into account the potentially duplicitous nature of parents. I remained wholly unconvinced. At break-time, I sought a power summit with Neil. Rob was unable to attend due to a prior engagement that involved attempting to obtain an opponent’s marble by striking it with his own marble. “Marbles,” I think he called it. It seemed appropriate somehow. Yes, I could think of no better name for a game centred so fundamentally around the presence of marbles. Rob’s absence could be accepted and excused for he was engaged in truly the noblest of arts. Neil would have to do. “Neil, I’ve been hearing this guitar story and, well, I’m worried.” “About what?” “I’m worried you’re not going to get any presents.” “I’ve already got my present. It’s in my mum’s wardrobe.” “No, I mean presents off Santa.” “Santa’s not real.” “See, that’s why I’m worried. Santa doesn’t give presents to people who don’t believe in him.” “Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” I recognise that my “You must believe in order to be rewarded” tactics towards Neil could be seen as not at all dissimilar to those of overbearing clergy members all over the world but I was just going on the information that had been supplied to me over the previous eight years. I felt I was doing him a favour.

The blind had now started attempting to lead the partially sighted. Things were going rapidly downhill. On our first day back in school after the Christmas holidays, Rob and Neil were the people to see. They could give us the definitive proof we needed. I felt confident that Santa would have overlooked them this year as a reprimand for their lack of faith. I would try not to gloat but I suspected I wouldn’t try all that hard. “We got the exact guitars we had seen in our mother’s wardrobe… Told you Santa wasn’t real.” I really hadn’t seen that coming. This put a whole new spin on things. I would need to consult my own mother on the issue. She’d know the truth. It wasn’t as if she had a history of lying to me on the subject. “Mum, Rob and Neil saw their Christmas presents in their mother’s wardrobe three weeks before Christmas.” “Well, maybe he had to deliver them early… to save himself some time on Christmas Eve.” “Hmm… yeah, that’s what I thought. That would make sense.” “Of course it would.” “But it wouldn’t really be saving him much time, though, would it?” “Well, maybe they were presents from their mother for someone else.” “Yeah, that could be it. Thanks, Mum. Just going out to play football.” “Phew… I mean, okay.” Tangible evidence? Uncomfortable truths? No, thank you. I preferred the comfort of the lie.

I carried on believing the lie for a few more months before the sheer weight of evidence proved too much to ignore. The Santa story just didn’t add up anymore. Eventually, whether we’re 8 or 78, we realise the simple truth that ignoring facts doesn’t make them any less factual. A further consultation with the all-knowing Rob and Paul, followed by another interrogation of my mother, proved enough to send the stack of cards tumbling. Christmas was never the same again. I was eight at the time. But hey, let’s not pretend we don’t lie to ourselves as adults, too. We do. We tell ourselves things that make life a little more comfortable. We lie. About the little things. It’s what we do. It gets us through. And sometimes we lie to ourselves about bigger things. About our own abilities. About whether we’re the people we thought we’d be at this stage in our lives. About the fate that’s awaiting us. About the abyss. It’s what we do. It gets us through. Told you we’d come back around. I’m nothing if not circuitous. Here’s the thing. We’re all in deep shit, ladies and gentlemen. Deep, inescapable shit. When Sheffield Wednesday were staring into the abyss of a financially uncertain future outside of the top flight of English football, we understood. That piece of commentary made sense. We empathised. Because we're all staring into the abyss, too. A slightly more existential one, but an abyss nonetheless. Every minute of every hour. We can put it out of our minds for a little while but it's not going anywhere. It can wait. Existential abyss is extremely patient. It stalks us all the time. And soon, it'll take us warmly into its home, make us feel cosy and welcome... and then it'll break our ankles with a sledgehammer to prevent us escaping.

I’m relatively certain the abyss hero-worships Kathy Bates. Call it a hunch. We can tell ourselves that the anaesthetic – that seems to work on everyone else – won’t work on us. But it will. The abyss wins. You and I lose. Inevitably. In the meantime, we deal with it. As best we can. In whatever way we can. And sometimes that involves lying to ourselves. Lying in the same way we lie about the meaning of Rob and Neil’s guitars and about goldfish genders. It’s just that these lies are a bit bigger. They have to be in order to deal with it. Some of us deal with it by not thinking about it. We put it to the back of our minds and get on with our lives like it's not there. It’s the “ignore the evidence and continue to believe in Santa” way of thinking. And maybe it's the best way, I'm not sure. It certainly makes things less complicated. Most psychologists would tell you that the happiest people in the world are idiots. Well, maybe ignorance really is bliss. I don't know. Because I can't do it this way. I can't just put it out of my head. Regardless of how much I'd like to. This way doesn’t work for me. Some of us choose wishful thinking as our way of dealing with it. "The abyss isn't really there... Something lovely and eternally beautiful is there instead." It's the "Fernando is a boy" way of thinking. But applied to something infinitely more important. There's nothing to back it up. In fact, all the evidence seems to scream at us that we've got this one wrong and we should change our minds immediately. But we don't. Because that would involve changing everything that's fundamental to our existence. That would involve facing the abyss. And that's not something we’re prepared to do. Instead, we turn the unpleasantness of the abyss into something not just palatable, but desirable. And maybe it’s the best way. I don't know. Because I can't do it this way, either. I can't ignore the evidence when it comes to something this important.

And some of us deal with it by trying to accept it. Even though it’s painful and terrifying, we try to come to terms with it. Try to face what seems to be the reality of our situation. No matter how grim that reality might seem. We admit that the anaesthetic is going to work. We can lie to ourselves about goldfish genders and guitars in wardrobes but not this. Here, we metaphorically sink to our knees like those Sheffield Wednesday players and face up to what awaits us. I have absolutely no idea if this is the best way. It’s certainly not the easiest. So, why do we do it? Well, maybe we enjoy it. Just a little bit, perhaps, but in a world that occasionally makes enjoyment seem like a distant dream, a little is sometimes enough. And that’s the point. I really like the fact that we all end up dead. Life can be cruel and harsh and painful. Not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. But sometimes. And I can’t help feeling that those of us, who look upon the end as The End, might actually be subconsciously relieved and grateful that there does come a metaphorical chequered flag. Because a race without one seems kinda worthless. Especially one that’s sometimes so unpleasant. We’re still scared, of course. That doesn’t go away. I think that particular fear is pretty universal. Even to those who try not to think about it and those who believe utopia awaits them. But is it any worse than the alternative? Is it really worst than a race with a starter’s pistol but no finishing line? The abyss seems like a pretty scary thing, I agree, but without it, wouldn’t things be

a whole lot scarier? Inescapable eternity with a celestial dictator, for example, seems a much more terrifying prospect to me. When the anaesthetist is standing over us, it’s a scary moment. Doesn’t matter who you are. That moment is a terrifying one across the board. For five hours in 1998, I didn’t feel like I was anywhere. Physically, I was in an operating theatre. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, though, I was nowhere. The abyss, perhaps? I don’t know. Kinda seemed like it. And know what? It wasn’t scary. At all. Wasn’t even anything. Certainly wasn’t something worth lying to myself about.

Lost Inhibitions: Reclusiveness, Boobs and Speed-Dating
“Might as well do it. We’ll all be dead soon.” - Mikey Cunningham “If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin.” - Ivan Turgenev Now, I admit that the latter quote is the more articulate and considered of the two. I admit that it’s better on almost every conceivable level. And I concede that it sounds significantly less morbid. But – and I may be a tad biased here -- I kinda like the simplicity and directness of the former. Everybody needs something to tell themselves when they’re debating whether or not to do something they feel like they don’t really want to do. Some people may take inspiration from the Turgenev quote. I remind myself that I might as well because we’ll all be dead soon. Different words, same point. I’m a naturally reclusive person. You give me a choice between attending a party with 500 beautiful, interesting, Mikey-fixated women or a night at home, eating noodles and pottering around an empty house, then those 500 ladies are going to end up disappointed. I’m fully aware that that’s not the sign of a healthy, fullyfunctioning human being. And I’m okay with that. Because healthy, fully-functioning human beings with proper social lives tend to be winners. I’m not one of those.

If I were to construct a league table of all the best relationships in my life, an uncomfortable majority would be those that are conducted almost exclusively by email, phone or text messages. Anything that reduces the number of face-to-face encounters I have to endure while still maintaining some kind of human contact. Alone, I can relax. I can be me. In company, I usually feel inhibited. I think it’s because I’ve come to realise that I’m better in virtual form than personal. It’s far more probable that you’d find me more likeable, charming and endearing when I’m not in the same room as you. Not that I’m horrendous in person or anything. But I’m just particularly good at virtual communication. If there were a prize for it, I’d win it. Via email, you’d probably find me very chatty, absorbing and charismatic. I’m an amazing emailer. Sharp, articulate, inventive and downright hilarious. You’d recognise someone, who enjoys forming bonds with people and interacting with them in all kinds of creative and challenging ways. In person, you’d think of me as something of an oddball. A mild OCD-sufferer; A quiet, high maintenance individual, who struggles to sit still; Someone who, after some brief interaction with someone he doesn’t know, can’t wait to get away and be alone again to recharge his exhausted social batteries. This is not an easy conclusion for any human being to accept, by the way. Don’t think for one second that I don’t occasionally weep for the tragedy of it all. So, when my friend Sharon called me one Friday afternoon to tell me that the speed-dating evening she had arranged had an uneven female-to-male ratio and needed additional men to balance things up, you don’t need to have known me since the days when the highlight of my week was the Wednesday afternoon purchase of Whizzer and Chips to be capable of predicting my response.

These days, the highlight of my week is quite often the time I spend chatting inanely to a goldfish. I may not have made as much progress in the last twenty years as I had hoped. So, my response. “Not a chance in hell” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Well, it does. But add more swearing. Much more swearing. Unfortunately, however, Sharon had come with a plan: “Tell you what… If you do it, I’ll show you my boobs.” Now, I ask you, handsome reader, what kind of system is that? How are we to ever progress as a society when an intelligent and educated young woman deals in this kind of appalling, antiquated barter system of the flesh? How can we ever become a fullyformed, well-rounded and truly equal civilisation when the brief viewing of breasts can be proposed as an alternative to a rational, sensible, grown-up discussion? Naturally, I agreed to Sharon’s proposal instantly. But that’s really not the point. Oh, what? Like you wouldn’t. Until you’ve been a mile in my shoes, don’t judge my pathetic, adolescent-like eagerness to see breasts. Any breasts. It only resulted in one slight problem. I’d have to go speed-dating. There are few things more terrifying to a recluse and a person with non-conformist tendencies than the prospect of a speed-dating evening. Not only would I not be able to spend the evening alone with my thoughts, I’d have to try fit in with societal norms. It was

how I imagine Superman would feel if he were told he’d have to spend some time in a building made entirely of krypton. Not that I’m comparing myself to Superman, of course. That would be a tad arrogant. You, the unbiased reader, will have to be the judge of that one. Go on, admit it. I’m a lot like Superman, aren’t I? Better, in fact. Much better. There. I’m glad we got that settled. A speed-dating evening, of all things. In a terribly judgemental manner of which I’m not proud, I felt like I might as well hold up a big sign saying, “I’ve failed at life and now I’m going to join others who have been equally unsuccessful. I’ll just leave my pride, sense of self-worth and personality at the door.” And if I had actually done that, maybe it would have gone okay. But I didn’t. In a situation so far outside my comfort zone, I felt I had nothing to lose. It felt like something that didn’t matter. For once, I felt uninhibited. So, I decided to be myself. Mistake. Big mistake. People attending speed-dating evenings want normality. They want to be assured they’re not dealing with a sociopath. I know this now. I did not know it then. I pitched up at exactly 8pm. I even wore a tie. Man, I looked spectacular. I don’t care what way you swing; you would’ve been aroused. My first speed-dater was a woman called Andrea. And I do mean “woman”, rather than “girl”. She was in her mid-40s. “I’m separated from my husband and I have three kids. Two girls, one boy,” was her opening gambit. Mine was: “I live with a goldfish and enjoy acts of defiance and rebellion.”

Never be eccentric when speed-dating. It just doesn’t work. Trust me on that point. “What sort of acts of defiance and rebellion?” “Remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the ’68 Olympics?” “No” “I thought that was pretty cool.” “Oh. Right.” “Yeah.” “What did they do?” “Held up a gloved hand each as a symbolic gesture of black power.” “Oh.” “Yeah.” “Right. And were they black?” “Yeah. Of course.” “That’s good.” “Yeah. It was a pretty big thing.” “I’m sure it was.” “I’m surprised you don’t remember it.” “Oh, that’s charming.” “No, I didn’t mean you’re old… just that it was… you know, famous.” “Yeah.” “Besides, you’re not even the oldest person here.” “I’m pretty sure I am.” “Nah, the doorman must have at least a couple of years on you.” “The doorman’s about 70.” “Yeah, just… you know… bit of a joke.” “Hilarious.” “You’re not going to be ticking my box, are you?” “Nope.” “Right.” “Yeah.” The second one didn’t go quite so well.

“Hiya, I’m Karen.” “Heya. Michael.” “So, tell me… what brings you to an event like this?” “Funny story, actually. I’m only here because the organiser promised to show me her boobs.” “…” “I need a new opening line.” The next couple passed without incident and one even ticked my box. And no, that’s not a euphemism, you despicable perverts. It means that she found me so desirable and brimming with sexual charisma that she had no alternative but to put a tick in a small box on a piece of paper. This is what it’s like to be a chickmagnet, readers. You probably wouldn’t understand. Then came Gloria. Ah, sweet Gloria. How you must wish we had never met. “Hi. I’m Michael. Nice to meet you.” “You too. I’m Gloria.” “Tell me stuff about you, Gloria.” “Well, I’m 29 and I’m a secondary school teacher.” “What subjects do you teach?” “Geography and religion.” “Religion?” “Yep.” “And are you a religious person yourself?” “I am, actually. I know it’s a bit untrendy, but yeah, I go to mass and I try to live in a Christian way.” “Intolerant, judgemental and violent?” “Excuse me?” “Well, you know, people who say they try to live in a Christian way don’t usually appreciate that a Christian lifestyle, as defined by any unbiased assessment of the bible, involves a belief that some pretty nasty things need to be done to homosexuals, adulterers, non-believers and people who gather sticks on the Sabbath.”

“I don’t interpret the bible like that.” “How do you interpret it?” “In my own way.” “Ah, DIY Christianity. I get you. Say no more.” “Pardon?” “You know, cherry-picking… make it up as you go. I get you.” “I don’t see it like that.” “Really?” “I like to think there’s a bit more to it than literal, uncomplicated interpretations of Scripture.” “I sometimes like to think my right hand is Elle McPherson’s mouth… Doesn’t make it so.” “…” “Hey, where are you going? I thought we were having a nice chat?” “…” “Does this mean you’re not going to tick my box?” I’m quite the charmer, I’m sure you’ll agree. Still, onwards and upwards. I was on a roll now and was relaxing into the evening. I had noticed I was starting to get a few hostile glances and some of the women seemed a touch wary before meeting me. Fortunately, such things tend not to bother people who have no real interest in forming any kind of romantic relationship and will probably spend every night for the next month at home with their goldfish. Next up was Janine. “Hi there. I’m Janine.” “Hey Janine. I’m Mike… but my friends call me Michael, for short.” “But Michael is longer than Mike.” “Well, yeah. That’s kinda the gag.” “How do you mean?” “Well, you know, Mike has one syllable, Michael has two. So, I pretended I didn’t appreciate a basic tenet of the language for humourous purposes.” “Oh, okay. I see. Very clever.”

“Just a very basic comedy construct. I’ll probably never use it again, though. Ever.” “Probably for the best.” “I’ll bear that in mind.” “So, you like comedy.” “Yeah, I do. Big comedy fan.” “Ever watch any Lee Evans shows?” “I make a deliberate point of not watching Lee Evans shows, in order to protect precious brain cells.” “I love Lee Evans.” “I don’t think we can be friends.” See what I mean? On a roll, readers, on a roll. I may not have been getting many box-ticks but I was challenging viewpoints and attempting to effect meaningful change in all kinds of critical areas – Civil rights, religion and comedy, to name just three. If there were more people like me, the world would undoubtedly a better place. And nightclubs would always be empty. So, my final repartee was with a lovely young lady by the name of Alice. Yes, Alice. And yes, she was young. I found it a bit odd, too. “Hi, Michael. I’m Alice.” “Nice to meet you, Alice. You don’t meet a lot of people under the age of 50 called Alice.” “Yeah, I was named after my grandmother.” “Was she called Alice?” “Yeah, but people called her Elsie.” “And do people call you Elsie?” “No. Just Alice.” “Huh.” “What?” “Seems strange. If your parents were going to name you after your grandmother and give you an old-fashioned name, I’d have

thought they’d have gone the whole hog and referred to you as ‘Elsie’.” “Yeah, well, you’d have to ask them.” “Maybe I will, Alice… maybe I will.” “Oh-kay.” “Pearl.” “What?” “Pearl. That’s another name you don’t hear young people being called.” “Yeah, I suppose.” “Bridy… Eileen… Doris… Nancy” “Yeah.” “Albert… Stanley… Roger… Bert… The list is endless.” “Right” “Or what about Humphrey? I dream of one day encountering a young Humphrey.” “Well, it’s been nice meeting you, Michael.” “Do you mean that?” “Not really.” “I suspected as much.” Strange woman, that Alice. Imagine being on the receiving end of that barrage of charm and not wanting to sleep with me. Very odd. No accounting for taste, I suppose. It was shortly after this point when chief organiser and soon-to-be breast exposer, Sharon, took me aside. “Look, you’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but I’ve had a couple of complaints about you. One girl said you creeped her out and another said you made some offensive remarks about her religion.” “No, I believe that,” I replied. “Sounds about right, really.” Sharon looked at me in a manner, which I’ve since come to understand means “I’m so tired of knowing you and I wish we had

never met.” She is far from the only person to have used that look. She dragged me further to the side of the room. “What have you been doing?” “I’ve been speed-dating. It’s not as bad as I expected.” “Have you been trying to wind people up?” “No.” “Have you been taking it seriously?” “I think you know me better than that.” “You couldn’t even make an effort? For one night?” “I came, didn’t I?” “Only because you thought you were going to see some tits.” “Yeah, but even so… Wait… What do you mean thought? You make it sound like the tits were just an elaborate ruse?” “It was a joke. Of course I’m not showing you my breasts.” “Huh?” “I can’t believe you didn’t know that. It was a joke.” “Well, that’s hardly fair, is it? That’s dishonouring a verbal contract. I have a good mind to speak to the ombudsman about this bosom-based deception.” “It was a joke.” “I’m not sure we can do business again, Sharon. Your credit rating has taken a real hit here.” “I can’t believe you wouldn’t do something purely because your friend asked you to do it.” “That’s not a workable system, is it? If I did things solely because I was asked to do them, then I’d just spend all my time helping people.” “And that’d be so terrible, wouldn’t it?” “Kinda. Yeah.” “You’re such a dickhead.” “But you love me anyway?” “Not tonight I don’t.” “Should I go back and talk to ladies?” “No, you really shouldn’t. You should go.” “Am I in the bad books?” “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“We’ll still make love, though, right?” “Never, ever going to happen.” We have still yet to make love. I suspect she may be playing hardto-get. Inhibitions are a strange and powerful thing, effervescent reader. They can stop you from doing some really stupid things and they can stop you from offending some perfectly nice women, searching for the partner of their dreams. But they can also just get in the way. If you let them, that is. “Might as well do it. We’ll all be dead soon.” Tell yourself that next time you feel your inhibitions are preventing you from doing something and see how it turns out. Well, unless it’s some desperado trying to persuade you to sleep with him or show him your breasts. In that case, just stop taking his calls and maybe ask for an extra police patrol around your neighbourhood each night. Just a suggestion.

Losing Faith: Religion, Shoe Salesmen and Teen Dramas
Some losses are better than others. They’re easier to take. Maybe because we know we tried. Maybe because we lost to someone who deserved to win more than we did. Or maybe because we know we’re not really losing anything. Possibly because some losses involve gaining far more than we lose. Some losses don’t feel like losses at all. There's a story I really like about Dr. Bart Ehrman, a history lecturer in America, who, on the first day of term every September, asks his new class two questions: 1. How many of you believe the Bible is the inspired word of the creator of the universe? This takes place not in one of the Bible Belt states but not too far from them either, so, generally, 90-95% of students tend to raise their hands. He makes a note of it and asks the second question. 2. How many of you have read the Bible? Out of classes of 200-250 students, he says he's never had more than a small handful raise their hands in any one year. I love that story. But it makes me sad. Not least because it reminds me of myself. I would have been one of those people on my first day of college. Probably for the majority of my time as a student, in fact. I would have claimed to believe a book I'd never read. I'm not ashamed of much but I'm ashamed of that.

I'm also ashamed of the ludicrously vast amount of teen dramas I've watched in my life. Dawson's Creek, Party of Five, Skins, One Tree Hill, Sugar Rush, Life As We Know It, The O.C.… you name a teen drama, I've probably seen it. And not just an occasional episode here and there, either. If I say I've seen it, I've seen a lot of it. What? I said I'm ashamed, didn't I? What more do you want? I still think My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks were two of the greatest things TV ever did, though, so I tell myself it's all been worth it. You need to see those two shows, by the way. They're works of art. I'm also ashamed of the time I got confused and brought a broken vacuum cleaner into a shoe shop and asked them to repair it, instead of the home appliances shop next-door. Yes, really. Shut up. But more than anything, I'm ashamed of my time as part of the unthinking majority. Maybe it's my love of the underdog, my distaste for the unjustly privileged or maybe it's just my natural fondness for nonconformity and revolution but that part of my life doesn't sit right with me. I love a good revolution. My favourite is definitely the French, but I've got a lot of time for the Romanian one, too. That’s some good rebelling right there. I'm also keen on the rebellion in Orwell's Animal Farm, although I suspect that was, in some ways, fictional.

And it's that fondness for revolution and mutiny that makes my time as a Christian something I regret and feel decidedly embarrassed about. Because I supported the establishment. I supported the powerful ahead of the disaffected and powerless. I supported winners, rather than losers. Not ostensibly. But I acceded to what I assumed was their greater wisdom. "If they say the bible is right, that's good enough for me"... "If they say I'm going to live forever in perfect bliss because I believed some stories, that's all I need." I'd have raised my hand for Ehrman's first question and not the second. And that makes me sad. But know what makes me proud? I don't support the establishment anymore. I don't believe them anymore. And perhaps more importantly, I can't believe them anymore. I can no longer take their claims at face value and when I can't do that, I have to evaluate them on different grounds -- Logic, truth, morality and downright decency. And they don't stand up on any count. By the way, this isn't some "I'm right, they're wrong" diatribe. I don't swim with that current. I don’t know. Don’t claim to, either. This is just about someone choosing a side of the fence to stand on. Not because he knows he's right, but because it's something he feels he has to do. This book is based on the idea of losing. Losing in love, losing in sport, losing in career and losing in any other area you can navigate your route away from success. Its primary theme is that losing in life can be a heroic and funny and admirable thing. That

losing in life doesn’t have to be a sad or lonely experience. Losing in death, however, has no such recompense. I might be wrong. And if I am, I'll know about it. If it turns out that I'm wrong and the religious are right and above us is a lot more than sky, then I'm fully aware that I'm in trouble. Never-ending trouble. I'll feel like I've been caught holding a blood-soaked knife, standing over the dead body of a guy who's been sleeping with my wife for the last twenty years, while all the while spreading increasingly scurrilous rumours about just how "close" my goldfish and I actually are. We're just good friends, by the way. Although, I can't deny that he's very attractive by goldfish standards. Seriously, he's lean. Fast. Toned. I bet he was a devil with the lady goldfish in his aquarium days. Anyway. The point is that I'll have no comeback. No justification. I’ll lose and I’ll lose worse than I ever thought possible. "Hands up, Supreme Deity... I didn't think you were real. I didn't say my prayers, I didn't go to church, I didn't pray to Mecca, I didn't think cows were all that sacred, I felt the concept of a 'Holy Land' was perverse and I thought Ron Hubbard and Tom Cruise were complete knobs." I'll probably get a few years knocked off my sentence for that last one. But generally speaking, I'd be fucked. And I fully accept that. Because it's worth it. Worth the risk. The tiny, infitesimal risk.

See, while I might not be right, I feel pretty certain that institutions and ancient books that promise a fiery and eternal torment to people who disagree with them, while still claiming to be peaceful and loving, aren't right, either. That sort of hypocritical bullying and fear-mongering just can't be right. No way. Not a chance in… well, you know. And even if it were, I still wouldn't want any part of it. I still couldn’t support it. And that’s the point. I can’t support something I don’t know to be right. Not anymore. I did too much of that. And I have a hard time understanding how others don’t feel the same. Except people who benefit from it. I can see how they could support it. That'd be the establishment, by the way. The establishment I once supported. Every religious leader, who lives in palatial luxury and every elected official, who got there by bragging about just how strongly he/she believes in something unknowable. Like it's some kind of badge of honour. They spend their lives benefiting from it. I can completely understand how they can support something so unsupportable. I'm big on sport analogies. Sport fascinates me in ways that real life doesn't. It's not a sign of a healthy, fully-formed adult, I accept, but it's true. I love the drama of it, I love the artistry of it and, maybe more than anything, I love the psychology of it. There's an old joke among football supporters that you can change your job, you can change your wife and you can change your religion but you can't change your football team. It's an antiquated, borderline sexist joke, of course, and no properly-functioning grown-up would agree with it. But I kinda do.

I could never stop supporting my team or switch to another team instead. It would be emotionally impossible. I'm stuck with my serial underachievers until the day I depart for what Henley called "the horror of the shade." The real “horror” to me, incidentally, is the prospect of living with Christian evangelicals for all eternity. Makes the red-hot pitchforks seem strangely delightful in comparison. Just sayin’. I know that people who don't like sport and people with proper lives will never understand the concept of a lifelong affinity to a sports team but some of you will. And as someone who's been known to write gags so obscure that less than 2% of any potential audience would have even the slightest hope of getting them, I'm okay with that. You can't change your football team. They're your team. From the moment you fall in love with them to the moment you stop existing. And, depending on what you believe, that moment is either going to arrive sometime in the next few decades or never. Just in case you didn’t catch it the first time, that’s never, by the way. Sounds stupid when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? Incidentally, that's another reason I'm glad I don't believe. The thought of being stuck with my footballing lot for the rest of my life is bad enough. There's no way I could handle an afterlife of eternal football-fuelled disappointment. Existential abyss or unending football-based despair? I'll take Door A, please, Bob. Shut it behind me. But while you can't change your football team, you can change your religious beliefs. And don't let anyone ever tell you different.

Especially if it's fear that's being used to keep you as part of the flock. "You'll go to hell"... "Your kids will go to hell"... "Everyone you love will go to hell." Anyone who tries to scare people like that -- even if they only do in subtle, unspoken ways like the priests and teachers I knew as a kid used to do -- doesn't deserve your patronage. Because they don't know. If you can be certain of one thing, it's that they don't know what they claim to know. And that makes them liars. Do whatever you want to do with your life but please don’t support liars. They don’t merit it and you can do better than that. The term “losing faith” is rarely seen as a positive step. As if possessing faith is, by its nature, a healthy trait, rather than a character flaw. Not necessarily so. Belief without a shred of evidence is not something to be proud of. Asking for that shred evidence is. All I’m saying, kind-hearted reader, is that if you’re going to believe something, have good reasons for believing it. And if asking for those reasons seems like a loss of faith, it’s really just a case of perception. One person’s loss of faith is just another’s gaining of understanding. I don't care what anyone else chooses to believe in. It's none of my business. If you want to have faith in a supernatural being that created the universe and everything in it and now needs to be worshipped for doing so, you go right ahead. If you want to think this life is just a practice swing, that's up to you. And if you want to believe and revere a two-thousand year old book that says that homosexuals, adulterers, blasphemers and non-believers should be put to death for not believing the same thing as you, then don't let anyone stop you. But even if, for one moment, that it's all true, how could you support it? Morally, how could you not speak up against it?

And, for the record, "because I think it'll lead to me being rewarded" is not a good answer. In fact, it’s a terrible answer. It’s an answer that, in my eyes, would make you guilty of the very worst type of moral cowardice. If you're a Christian, there's a part of your book that I like to call Deuteronomy 13:7-11, which is quite explicit in its contention that I should be killed for my non-belief. There's another part -- let's just call it Leviticus 24:16 for kicks -that says I should be killed for taking the lord's name in vain. Just so you know, I do that on a regular basis. Or what about Numbers 15:32, which forbids me from collecting sticks on the Sabbath under punishment of death. Sabbath stickcollecting is one of my favourite hobbies. Okay, that’s facetious. I know. Accurate, by the way, but a bit facetious. The first two, though? Very, very real. I may not be your favourite person in the world but come on. Do you not find that morally reprehensible? And if you do, how can you not feel an irrepressible urge to distance yourself from that book and that set of beliefs? Because one thing's for certain in my mind: I'd do it for you. I may not even know your name but I'd do it for you. I've loved a lot of books in my life. But if any of them claimed that someone should be harmed for not believing one specific thing or for saying "Jesus fucking Christ" when their inalterable football team concedes another heartbreaking last-minute equaliser, then I couldn't have any respect for that book, much less reverence.

I'd take your side. Friend or foe, I would take your side. No need to thank me, by the way. Unless, of course, your way of saying “thanks” involves cash or cheques. I'm a whore for gratitude. Like I said, I don't care what you believe. You can believe that you got lucky and the only religion you've ever been force-fed is the right one. You can decide that Jesus really did come back to life and take a holiday in America before ascension day rolled around. You can believe that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse. You can believe Xenu ruled the galaxy for all I care. Alternatively, you can believe that this is the only life you're going to get and you should probably make the most of it. I really don't care. Not even slightly. But I do think you need to make a choice. Believe it or don't. Decide if your book is exactly as the creator of you, the planet and the universe intended it to be or if it's a collection of morally ambiguous fairytales and outright lies. Decide if you’d rather support the establishment or the heretic. The establishment or the blasphemer. The establishment or the gay guy. The establishment or the guy who just can’t support the establishment. The collective or the individual. The powerful or the powerless. The strong or the weak. The winner or the loser. Pick a side of the fence to stand on. It’s not good enough to do nothing. You need to make your choice. You need to support your team. If you think the god of the bible is a little too violent, a touch too intolerant and a tad mean-spirited, then make a conscious decision not to support him. Don't invent a friendlier version in

your head and worship him instead. And if you think he's a perfectly reasonable supernatural being, then you should have no problem at all with the thought of people like me being killed for not thinking the same way as you. Me? Cute, endearing, lovable, ever so slightly odd Mikey Cunningham? The guy who puts a smile on your face with his cheeky grin and jaunty stride? The guy who’s too old to be so uncomfortably fond of teen dramas? The guy who asked the shoe salesman to fix his hoover? Shut up. I just got confused by the doors, okay? It could have happened to anyone. Killed, no less? Really? Solely for what I do or don't believe? Remember I mentioned Orwell a while back? Well, let's go again because the idea of not opposing something that seeks to punish people for thought-crimes is an anathema to me. And if you told me it’s not an anathema to you too, at best I’d call you a liar. At worst I’d never want anything to do with you. In 2001, I listed myself as a Roman Catholic on a national census. And I was proud of it. "Good to believe in something"... "Nice to be honourable and principled"... "This makes me a good person." I probably thought all of those things. By the time of the next census, the thought of labelling myself in the same way repulsed me. My thoughts had changed to "I don't believe it so I won't claim I do"... "I don't want to be associated with these institutions and these people"... "I can't give them my support anymore." And I'm proud of that.

Because I wouldn't put my hand up for Dr. Ehrman's first question anymore. If I haven't read a book, I'm not going to say I believe it. And if a set of beliefs claim that someone should be harmed for not agreeing, I want to support that someone. And I want nothing to do with those beliefs. Because I can do better than that. And in this, my one and only existence, I think I have a moral obligation to do better than that. Much better. Deep within me, I have an innate urge to back the powerless guy over the powerful one. Maybe you do, too. I really can't say. That’s very much your decision to make. And you know what? There’s no time like the present...

Sitcoms, Michael Owen and The Nature of Failure
Michael Owen will never win the Champions League. And I’m a failed comedy writer. The former statement makes me smile. The latter eats away at the very fibre of my being. All day. Every day. It’s not the only thing, of course. I’m also haunted by memories of 5th Class when we were asked if we could name any parts of London. When my classmate Aaron hit an immediate jackpot by answering “Highbury,” I thought I saw a very simple game and I wanted in. I raised my hand and said “Stamford Bridge.” Yeah, I know. You may begin the ridiculing now. Mock me. Deride me. Pour scorn over my metaphorical bosom if you must. Just touch my cheek before you leave me… baby. See, it’s not like failing is even all that unique for me. I fail at lots of things. This whole book is largely about failing. I fail in my haphazard attempts to impress girls on an uncomfortably regular basis. I fail to hold down my dream jobs. I consistently fail at real-life relationships, meaning that my most successful ones are invariably conducted via phone, email and text. And none of those things bother me. Because I don’t think any of those things are what I’m supposed to do. When I’m trying and failing with a girl, I don’t feel it’s something I’m intrinsically intended to be good at. When I play football, I don’t feel like there’s a fundamental part of me that’s destined to

score goals that no-one else is capable of scoring. Armed with a paintbrush and faced with a blank canvas, I don’t feel like I possess even the slightest potential to create a piece of art that’s unique and worthwhile. In no other walk of life do I feel I’m capable of achieving something that no other person could achieve. But give me a pen and some paper and I feel instantly at home. I feel like something exceptional will come from that pen. Not necessarily today, but I’ll feel like it’s within my capabilities. I don’t know why but I’ll feel it. It feels like some kind of purpose. And in a world where not knowing your purpose is a truly terrible fate, it feels like a hell of a thing. I even think it’s real this time. I don’t think it’s like my ambition as a 14-year-old to be a professional wrestling commentator – Know the difference between a superplex and a brainbuster? No? I do. I know lots of things like that. I’d have made a pretty decent wrestling commentator. I don’t think it’s like my ambition as a 7year-old to be Ian Rush, either – I’m very close to coming to terms with the fact that such a goal is unrealistic. My first touch isn’t good enough for a start. And I definitely don’t think it’s like my first ever life ambition as a 5-year-old to be a Rebel Transporter. I knew I’d prefer to be an At-At Walker within a matter of weeks. Rebel Transporter, indeed. What was I thinking! Yeah, that was one well-balanced, emotionally stable kid. Jesus Christ. Eventually, though, I think I worked it out. “This is what I’m supposed to do with my life” – The feeling we all seek. I feel it when there’s a pen in my hand or a blank document open on my computer. You probably have an equivalent. Maybe you’ve already figured it out, maybe you haven’t. But that does it for me.

Which is why I struggle to come to terms with the fact that I’m a failed comedy writer. Twice over. In 2001, I wrote a sitcom script called “Normality’s Overrated.” It was the first thing I ever wrote in a non-academic context. It was okay. Gained a bit of interest from a couple of companies, got shortlisted in a couple of places. Nothing earth-shattering. Got about what it deserved. I also sent it to RTE, the state broadcaster in Ireland. After a few weeks of deliberation, it was rejected. I think they were right, by the way. There's no bitterness here. The script was uneven, one of the characters was flimsily developed and it would have added nothing new to the genre. It did contain the most disturbingly heart-warming story of friendship between a man named Taylor, who had fallen between the cracks of society, and an easily corruptible boy with a speech impediment, though. Yeah, you probably wouldn’t have watched it with your kids. The “with your kids” in that sentence is almost certainly superfluous, I recognise. I showed the script to my friend Stephen after it had been turned down. He immediately spotted an additional flaw: “The relationship between Taylor and the kid… it seems kinda… dodgy.” “How do you mean?” “Well, you know… man in his twenties befriending a young boy for his own selfish purposes… dodgy.”

“Hmm, well, how about I make Taylor older? And maybe give him a beard? You know, to make him seem more authoritative.” “And perhaps make him wear thick-rimmed glasses?” “Well, if you think it’ll help, okay.” “And give him an electronic tag, maybe?” “Huh? Oh.” “Yeah.” “They think I wrote a sitcom about a paedophile, don’t they?” “I would have thought so, yes.” “Oops.” I may have made a misjudgement, I admit. But no moreso than the people who commissioned eight series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. In fact, comedy fans might even suggest that their misjudgement was far more offensive than mine. But as an addendum to that story, that same department that turned me down produced a sitcom called “The Cassidys” three months later, which is widely regarded as the worst show in the history of Irish television. Hey, guys. That paedophile sitcom doesn’t seem so bad now, does it? Call me. We’ll do lunch. So, yeah, the failure of The Cassidys makes me smile. Almost as much as the fact that Michael Owen will never win the Champions League. In late summer of 2006, I was writing comedy scripts for an Irish radio station that were intended to run every Monday and Friday morning between September and December. And in the intervening five years, I think I had become pretty good at writing comedy. All 22 of the scripts were funny. Clever, well-crafted and quite often laugh-out-loud funny. Some were even better than that. Some, I felt, were exceptional. I was proud of all of them. They were really good work.

They never made it to air. Most were never even produced. The station manager didn’t like the time it took to get each one just right for air. Didn’t like that each one cost money. The conversation went something like this: “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Michael, but we won’t be going ahead with the scripts.” “Really? Why not?” “They’re just not working out. We don’t have the time or resources to invest in this kind of project at the moment.” “Time… resources… inclination… courage of your convictions. I get you. Say no more.” “No, it’s not that at all. I like comedy as much as the next man-” “Ha!” “… but sometimes finance has to take precedence.” “Yeah, well… you just missed out on a bargain, mister!” With that, I stormed out. Yes, I stormed out immediately after using the line “you just missed out on a bargain, mister!” It was, without question, the least impressive exit I had ever performed, a fact I realised approximately twenty seconds after I had shut the door. I knew I had to go back in. I couldn’t leave it like that. I had my pride to think about. I had nothing else to say but I knew I couldn’t exit on that pathetic note. So, I returned to the scene of the crime, knocked once and entered. I spoke with clarity and unmistakable authority: “By the way, if you happen to find a key-ring anywhere, that’s mine.” “Okay, what did it look like?”

“ALF.” “Alf?” “ALF. You know, the eighties TV show… ALF… it’s an acronym. Stands for Alien Life Form. He, er, he lived with a family.” “Okay. Well, if I find it, I’ll send it out.” “The Tanner family, I think they were called.” “Right.” We stared at one another for a moment, perhaps questioning whether this conversation was actually taking place in reality, before I made my second exit in the space of just over a minute. On the plus side, at least the “you just missed out on a bargain” debacle was now only the second worst exit I had ever performed. A letter arrived a few days later. I was thanked for my services, which, naturally enough, would no longer be required. I was okay with that. Also enclosed was a cheque. Payment for “the eight scripts we felt were of the required standard,” it said. I wasn’t okay with that. That kinda broke my heart. To have work, of which you’re genuinely proud, discarded like that by people who only care about far less beautiful things, well, that’s a hard thing to take. It makes you feel dispirited and disillusioned. It makes you feel disposable. And that’s a horrible feeling. But it only matters if the opinions of the people rejecting you are ones that you respect. If they’re not, it’s a setback but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a pretty irrelevant one. Chris Rock once said that when an executive is evaluating any of his work, he reminds himself that he’s being graded by someone who just happened to be the hardest worker in the mailroom. Someone who may be qualified to shuffle mail, but who’s no more

qualified to evaluate artistic endeavour than any of the current mail-shufflers. If you’re a creative person, that should remain etched in your mind. The person deciding if you’re talented enough to invest in possesses talent only in post-sorting. Or marketing. Or financial management. Administration, essentially. He or she specialises in admin. And don’t think I’ve got anything against admin. Big admin fan right here. If there were an admin fan club, I’d most likely join it. I’m sure the meet-ups would be very professionally organised. But when you take time to create something that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, one person’s opinion means more than anyone else’s. And it’s not someone whose talent lies in admin. It’s yours. You need to be proud of your work. And if you are, then you’ve already won. If you take pride in something you created, the rest doesn’t matter. Because the rest is just about admin. Admin, marketing and financial viability. Things that are wholly irrelevant to the creative process. Unless, of course, you think there’s mileage in a sitcom about financial management. Might not sound like much fun but then, neither was a single episode of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps or The Cassidys. This may come as news to some of you but we all end up dead. So if, in your finite lifetime, you manage to create something that wouldn’t have otherwise existed and that no-one else could have done, then that’s a pretty amazing thing. It instantly means that it hasn’t all been for nothing. And yes, sometimes criticism from others should act as a wake-up call and a catalyst for you to change and improve. But sometimes

it’s just a reflection of some money-obsessed executive’s inability to recognise valuable creative enterprise. And that should just inspire you to do even better work. Alternatively, it could just inspire you to start a rumour about said executive’s propensity for sucking off otters in his spare time. I did that, too. That was a fun week. But this isn’t just for people who consider themselves creatively minded. This is for everyone. If you’re reading this, I’m speaking directly to you. Creative, uncreative or somewhere in between. If you don’t feel you are a creative person, do something creative anyway. It’s easier and more important than you think. Sing your favourite song as loud as you like. Dance an unusual dance. Hug someone who never gets hugged. Kiss someone who never gets kissed. Write a poem. Write a story. Draw a picture. Take a photograph. Tell a joke. It doesn’t matter in the slightest how good it is. Just do it. You’ll feel better for it. Because you’ll have made something happen that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred. And that’s creativity. That’s the point. It’s important, it’s valuable and it’s worthwhile. Do something that only you could do. Do it now. Do it later today. And do it again tomorrow. It matters. What other people think of it doesn’t. I’ve never been more sure of anything. Anyway. Time to work our way circuitously back to where we came in.

Remember Michael Owen? Remember how he’ll never win the Champions League? It’s true. He won’t. After spells at Liverpool and Real Madrid, he now struggles forlornly with Newcastle United in the middle echelons of the Premier League. He doesn’t even get to play in the Champions League anymore. In 1998, he was the brightest young prospect in world football. In footballing parlance, he had the world at his feet. He left Liverpool in August 2004 to join Real Madrid, Europe’s most historically successful club, stating that he needed to win the Champions League in his career. But the club was a mess at the time. He spent most of his time on the substitutes’ bench and Madrid were eliminated from the Champions League in the first knockout stage. The club he had just left won that very competition three months later. That makes me smile. For all kinds of reasons. Schadenfreude’s a beautiful thing when you’re not the recipient. So, Michael Owen’s dream will never come true. He’s scored 40+ goals for his country, he’s won the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup and a couple of League Cups. Does that make him a failed footballer? Yeah, kinda. In the same way that I’m a failed comedy writer. We’re failures by self-imposed standards. He’s a failure because he left the wrong club to join the wrong club at precisely the wrong time. Twice. I’m a failure because my work was evaluated by people not best qualified to evaluate my work. Twice. He’s still a footballer, who’s been wildly successful by almost any other footballer’s expectations. And I’m still writing comedy, some of which I occasionally think is quite good.

It’s failure, I agree. Mine more than his. But there are worse kinds of failure. It’s failure after we tried to succeed. Which is a whole lot better than failure after we didn’t. Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail Again. Fail better.” Next time – and it may even be this time – I’m going to fail better. Because real failure happens only by failing worse than before. Chances are, fair reader, that I don’t know you. You could be an accountant, an S&M mistress or a Buddhist monk for all I know – If it’s the second one, by the way, call me. We need to talk. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know if you prefer tea or coffee, I don’t know if you think the word “apocalyptic” is just a word or the height of euphony. I don’t know if you like it when someone watches excitedly and creepily from the end of your bed while you sleep. Of course, that’s not to say I’m unwilling to find out. Like I said, call me. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life. But I suspect you do. Perhaps definitively. Perhaps not. I don’t know. But deep down, I suspect you know. I suspect you know what gives you that “this is what I’m supposed to do with my life” feeling. And when you realise what it is, I think you should probably give it a go. Because the absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll fail. And in that case, join the club.

No, seriously, join it. There’s a certificate, a membership badge and everything. Not to mention a sexually adventurous induction ritual. Give it some thought. We meet up on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wear something loose-fitting. So, yeah. We might never accomplish the things we want to do but every time we fail, we can at least do it a little bit better than last time. And if that doesn’t count as some kind of victory, I’m not sure what it does.

The Moment of Defeat: Lists, Barnacles and Hiding in a Drawer
I’m really good at memorising lists. I have a diploma and a degree in different areas of computer science but my knowledge of Multimedia Development and Commercial Computing isn’t much better than anyone who’s regularly used a computer for most of their adult life. I can maybe search for unusual animal facts and bizarre sexual fetishes quicker than most but that’s about it. Barnacles have, proportionately, the longest penises in the world, by the way. Just in case you’re interested in the former. And, depending on what you plan to do with that information, possibly the latter. Hey, I don’t judge. I just inform. You do as you will. Give me a list to memorise and I’ll have it down within minutes. If a series of points are written down vertically on a page, they’ll enter my brain smoothly, gracefully and effortlessly. I don’t know why but they will. Yet, arrange the same list horizontally or in groups and I’ll still be unsuccesfully trying to memorise it four hours later. It’s just how my brain operates. That diploma and that degree are not proof of any ability I possess in computer science. They are evidence only of my ability to construct and memorise vertical lists. And you can take any lesson you want to learn from that information. There’s a lot in there: • The education system is broken

• • •

My academic qualifications need to be revoked immediately You’re sick in the head, Cunningham… Sick! Huh? Say that again… The barnacle and I were gettin' busy

I spent five years in college, feeling blissfully happy because I didn’t need to fully understand any of the subjects or information I was being taught. I could just make up for it when exam time rolled around when an ability to memorise lists became a panacea for a year of ignorance. And honestly, I could have done that forever. If third-level education didn’t eventually insist on forcing students out into reality to try to contribute something to society, then I’d still be there. Still not understanding things I should have understood and still memorising detailed vertically-arranged lists to make up for it. It was an undemanding cycle of events, all conducted in a very pleasant environment. I was content. It felt like home. I’m guessing you can probably identify with that. Not saying you can commit a vertical list to memory like me – Hey, you’re only human. A barnacle-loving human but a human nonetheless. But I bet there’s something in your life that you’re capable of doing better than anyone you know. Something that you do effortlessly well. Maybe you’re exceptional at long division. Perhaps you do a hell of a Funky Chicken. Or you might just be able to recite the entire pilot episode of Cagney and Lacey. Whatever it is, you’re probably good at something at which you don’t even have to try. And if you had the opportunity to do it for a living, you’d probably take it. Five months after third-level education thought it had seen the back of me and turfed me out on to the rough streets of the real world (I would later worm my way back in), I had found something equally comfortable and untaxing.

In late 2001, I was working as a glorified secretary in a large, uninspiring company. I was twenty-two years old and an idiot but I was good at my job. It wasn’t particularly mentally stimulating and it didn’t involve me having to learn anything I didn’t already know but I was good at what I did and I quite liked it. I was content again. And though I’d left college with ambitions of doing so much more, it was enough. It was enough because I convinced myself it was just a stop-gap until I moved on to what I really wanted to do. Deep down, though, I’d probably have stayed there forever. Because it was easy. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do but it didn’t make me unhappy. Plus, I constantly told myself that I’d soon move on to my real goals. And that seemed to be enough. I could silence the voice inside my head that was screaming “I was supposed to be someone different” with a comfortable lifestyle, an overly-generous paycheque and a lie that I’d eventually get around to being that someone different. And when I wasn’t appeasing my conscience with self-delusions, I spent the majority of my days trying to chat up a secretary so far out of my league that, to the neutral observer, it must have borne a striking resemblance to watching Ed de Goey (Google Image Search is your friend, dear reader) trying to persuade Elle McPherson of his manly charms. I amused her, I think. Attracting and arousing her, on the other hand, well, not so much. I also had a female boss. Rebecca, she called herself, so I assumed that to be her name. For a person in authority, she was surprisingly fond of me. I say that because I’m not usually popular with people in any kind of authoritative role. It’s as if they somehow manage to sense my anarchic ideals. As well as my high levels of incompetence. Rebecca was one senior figure, however, who appeared to appreciate my endearingly unusual ways. She knew that I had more creative long-term ambitions, even if she suspected I’d never achieve them. She even asked me about them from time to time. She understood. I liked Rebecca.

So, naturally, I had to go and ruin it. It was early November. The clocks had gone back the weekend before and winter was encroaching in a way that appeals to people of my anti-summer persuasion. It’s my favourite time of the year and the prospect of dark evenings and a dearth of sunlight for the next several months has a tendency to cause hyperactivity in every fibre of my being. It was just before 2pm. Rebecca had gone to a lunch meeting. I was sitting on the secretary’s desk, impressing her with my limitless array of conversational witticisms. “Think Superman wears anything underneath his suit?” “Superman’s not real.” “What’s the deal with nunchucks?” “I don’t care.” She was a tough nut. “Hey, know how Rebecca’s due back at quarter past?” she said. “Is this your unsubtle way of telling me to get back to work?” “No. Just thinking… it’d be really funny if you hid in the drawer in her office.” “It would?” “Yeah.” “I don’t think I should.” “What if I dared you? Would you do it then? You could just jump out when she’s been at her desk for a few minutes.” “I’m not hiding in a drawer. I have some standards of acceptable behaviour.” Ten minutes later, I was hiding in a drawer. I had needed to remove some folders in order to clamber in but it was a quite a spacious drawer. Far from unpleasant. I’ve been in worse places. It was a bit childish, I suppose, but at least this was

a jape with a point and good reasons for doing it: It would make both the secretary and my boss laugh… and might make the secretary want to sleep with me. What? I was a 22-year-old idiot hiding in a drawer? You expect proper, well thought-out reasons? Please. I wasn’t entirely certain of just how ventilated office drawers tended to be so I asked the secretary to leave a small opening as she pushed the door in. It was a reasonable request, I felt, but she thought it might give the game away too quickly. Thus, she closed it all the way. In retrospect, I can appreciate her unwavering quest for comedic perfection. It was admirable, really. If you’re going to do the gag, do it right. I’m with her on that. The fact that I was now stuck in an airtight drawer with diminishing oxygen levels was little more than a minor inconvenience when such lofty entertainment heights were taken into consideration. Rebecca was late getting back from lunch. This hindered the joke slightly. She also brought a client back with her. This hindered the joke enormously. I heard them walk into her office and shut the door behind them. It was at about this point that I realised the gag had gone awry and was probably beyond rescue. It was a couple of minutes later, however, when I realised that the gag now actually had the potential to kill me. So, I decided to get out. Except, as I was quickly realising, large office drawers weren’t built to be pushed open from the inside. The joke had hit a new hitch. I now required external assistance. I’ve had many career low-points but this may well have been the nadir. This was a tricky one. Rebecca and her client could be there for the rest of the afternoon. But, equally, is death really worse than the alternative in this situation? “Am I willing to die of oxygen-

deprivation in the name of comedy?” I asked myself several times. You see, when you’re trapped in a drawer, you sometimes talk to yourself. It’s an occupational hazard. If you’re someone who doesn’t hide in drawers, you probably wouldn’t understand. “I should be willing to take an existential hit in the name of comedy,” I told myself. “Bill Hicks did.” “Bill Hicks died of cancer, you idiot.” “He did? I thought he hid in a drawer for a joke and slowly ran out of air.” “You’re a moron.” “Okay, well, just knock on the drawer and let’s end this thing… alive.” “Alright, but my comedic integrity might never recover from this.” “Just do it.” And so I did. I have no idea what Rebecca’s face looked like when, sitting directly opposite an important client, she heard a feint knock from the inside of a drawer. Several seconds later, there was another knock. And then another. About a minute and a half after my first call for rescue, I saw my first chink of light in the best part of half an hour. This light was soon primarily obscured by Rebecca’s face, which gazed down at me with the type of expression that one might reserve for a homeless man, who’s just offered you a ride home in his private jet. “Oh, you’re back,” I said with feigned surprise. “Have a nice lunch?” She shook her head in astonishment. “I have literally no idea what to say.” It made matters worse that she had to help me out of the drawer. It was too narrow for me to do it single-handedly. I offered a quick

apologetic wave to the client, who had been a spectator to this farce. I then tried to help matters by making light of the situation: “Just back from Narnia,” I said sheepishly. In more favourable surroundings, I think it might have gone down better. It really wasn’t a bad gag. I was dealing with a hostile audience here, though, so I took some advice I once heard offered by a stand-up comedian I had once encountered: “If they’re not laughing, get off the stage. And if they are laughing, get off the stage.” They weren’t laughing. I got off the stage. I was summoned to Rebecca’s office an hour and a half later. I was fired. Obviously. There was no dodging this bullet. And yet, at the time, I couldn’t help but feel a little hard done by. Yes, really. “It was a joke,” I muttered to myself on the bus home. “Some people have no sense of humour.” As I mentioned, though, I was twenty-two and an idiot. I spent the next fortnight expecting a call from Rebecca to apologise, to tell me she had finally got the joke (which she had since realised was so hilarious that it merited a comedy award of some sort) and that she wanted me to come back. Possibly with a pay-rise for the inconvenience. Strangely enough, that call never came. Maybe she just lost my mobile number. And my home number. And my email address. And my postal address. Yep, that’s almost certainly what happened. The thing about losing is that you don’t always realise you’ve lost until well after the moment of defeat. That girl you turned down when you were 18 can turn out to be the girl who wouldn’t touch

you with a bargepole at 26. Despite your desperate pleas and embarrassing attempts at love letters. Hi, Jen. Call me. I’ve changed. That’s a defeat eight years in the making. It happens. To just about everyone, I’d imagine. And for most of that time, you don’t even know you’re losing. That’s just how it works out. My brush with life as a glorified secretary goes down as an “L” in the win/loss column. But I kinda think I got lucky. It was a defeat five months in the making. And I can live with that. Because if I hadn’t decided to hide in a drawer that afternoon, it might well have been a defeat forty years in the making. And I’m not sure I could live with that. I’m not sure I could have woken up at 60, never having tried the things I truly wanted to try, and not resented myself for it. I don’t know this for certain yet but I’m guessing that one of the saddest things anyone can ever experience is what might have been. Especially if what might have been has turned into what can never be. That has to bring with it a torturous sense of regret and shame. Regret at not trying to be the person we always imagined we would be. And shame for not being the person we felt sure we were capable of becoming. Six months after I stepped out of that drawer, I got to work in radio for the first time. I was fired on my third day. A year later, I got my first proper writing gig. The magazine folded within weeks. Okay, I admit that neither really worked out but they were things I had wanted to do. Things I had put on the back-burner. Things over which I had let life take precedence. Things I’d almost certainly never have done if I had remained content in an office job

I found easy and unchallenging. I got lucky that November afternoon. It just took me a while to realise it. It’s a very seductive thing to be content in your job. But contentment isn’t necessarily fulfilment. That’s a much harder thing to find. But I think it’s something that’s worth looking for. If we never try the things we’ve always wanted to do, it’ll eventually go down as an “L”. The moment of defeat won’t be today. And it won’t be tomorrow, either. But as soon as we can no longer try what we always promised ourselves we’d try, that’s when the “L” gets etched in the win/loss column. And it’ll probably be the most painful defeat we’ve ever suffered. Because we could have prevented it. And those are the worst defeats of all. The things we want to do are things that we choose for a reason. And it’s incredibly easy to lose sight of those reasons and prioritise other things instead. We excuse ourselves by saying things like “I was doing other things” and “life just got in the way.” But those reasons are a fundamental part of who we are and they’re not something that should be given up lightly. If at all. Finding some kind of contentment is a really difficult thing and it’s not something I currently enjoy or something I’ve ever enjoyed. But giving up on the dreams and ambitions that I’ve treasured for so much of my life? Well, I kinda think I’d enjoy that even less. Like I said, noble reader, I don’t know what it is but I suspect there’s something that you’re capable of doing with effortless ease. Nor do I know what brings you contentment or if you’ve found fulfilment in your life. And I don’t know what things you’ve always wanted to try. I just know that whatever they are might be worth hanging on to. Even if it involves giving up a little contentment at some point.

And especially if it involves you finally giving that poor barnacle a break from being the unwilling recipient of your sordid advances. Sicko.

Losing in Victory: Winning, Being Alone and The Human Scarecrow
“Do you think this makes me a loser?” I took a moment to consider my reply. “I really don’t know.” My best friend in school was a boy called Gerry. Though not stupid, Gerry was some distance from being the cleverest person I knew. He was easily confused and possessed an uncanny ability to make the wrong decision in any conceivable situation. His first job was with a local farmer at the age of 12 in the summer of 1992. On his first day, Gerry was assaulted by a cow. On his second, the same cow was assaulted by Gerry. Did I mention that Gerry held grudges? On his third day, perhaps realising that he was employing a boy of extraordinary incompetence, the farmer gave Gerry a new role. Handing his young charge a bucket and a stick, he sent Gerry to one of the farm’s more remote fields, telling him that he’d been having some problems with birds eating his crops. They would, he told Gerry, need to be dispersed before they did any further damage. Delighted by what he considered an early promotion, Gerry happily went about his new task. Yes, for those of you keeping score, Gerry’s new role came with a job title that could most accurately be described as “scarecrow.” He spent the day – and several subsequent days – in the same field, performing the same job. He scared away birds. He bounced

up and down, he made noise and he chased after them. Anything he thought might help to protect the crops. He was an excellent scarecrow. And he loved every second of it. He said it was the best job he could ever imagine. It was outdoors and not particularly labour intensive. “What else could I want in a job?” he asked. It may have been a slightly flawed argument, yes, but it was still one of his better ones. He liked his job so much he told others about it. He expected them to be jealous. They weren’t. When the similarities between him and an inanimate, more traditional scarecrow were pointed out to him, Gerry started liking his job a lot less. He phoned me one evening and asked me a question: “Do you think this makes me a loser?” I said I didn’t know. There’s an incredibly thin line between winning and losing. So thin that sometimes it’s borderline impossible to figure out which one is which. It’s a difficult thing to ascertain whether you’re doing one or the other. It can be hard to know if your life is finally coming together or if it’s coming apart at the seams. Gerry was doing fine. He was 12-years-old and he was doing better than me and the vast majority of his peers. We just missed the point. We were too concerned with what we thought constituted success. “Being a human scarecrow… that couldn’t equate to winning, could it? Nah, definitely not.” We didn’t know anything then. Not sure how much better most of us would fare now.

Not saying Gerry was some kind of unappreciated visionary, by the way. He definitely wasn’t. As an adult, Gerry once simultaneously overcooked some noodles and undercooked some chicken. He ate both because he convinced himself that the two would cancel each other out at some point in the digestive process. Trust me. We’re not dealing with a visionary here. When it came to his job as a scarecrow, though, he knew more than we did. Life’s difficult. If you can find something in it that makes you happy, you should continue doing it. Because you’re doing okay. How it comes about is pretty irrelevant. And how others feel about it is completely irrelevant. We live in a world that’s obsessed with winning and being successful. Anything else is thought to be somewhere between unimportant and worthless. So, this might seem like a strange question: Is winning even all that desirable? Seriously, is it? If it is, I just don’t get it. I think it seems to miss the point. Why are people obsessed with winning? I need to know the answer to that question. Why is everyone so preoccupied with winning in their career, with winning in their love life and with winning in every mildly competitive situation in which they manage to entangle themselves? What’s so good about it? Got a theory for you. Now, admittedly, it won’t be as allencompassing as Relativity, Gravity, Evolution or Heliocentrism and, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t actually done any proper

research on it. So, in a way, it’s not even a theory at all. More of a hypothesis, really. Let’s call it “The Hypothesis of Winning.” Yeah, I like that. We’ll go with it. The Hypothesis of Winning – An uninformed, ill-researched stab in the dark by self-confessed loser Michael John Andrew Cunningham: Winning is vulgar. It’s ugly. It’s terribly unlovely. People want to win because they’re taught that they should want to win. It’s a matter of social conditioning. But really, winning just compensates for deficiencies. A winner needs to win because it makes him/her feel better about his/her life. A loser has to find it in other, more meaningful ways.

∴ Losing > Winning
It is ill-researched. It’s not the work of an impartial observer. Or even of someone who has any idea what the difference is between the words “further” and “farther.” Honestly. Not a clue. It probably wouldn’t take you all that long to mount a counterhypothesis that offers a contrary viewpoint. But whatever you’d come up with, I kinda think you’d be wrong. You’d probably suggest that winning makes people feel good and that it elevates a person’s confidence and self-esteem. You might say that the desire to win acts as a motivating factor in a person’s life and drives him/her on to better things. And I’d suggest that those are all temporary things and that the rewards of losing are far less cosmetic and short-term than the accolades of winning. And you’d disagree again. That’d be fine. We’d never settle it. I could spend hours telling you why I think you’re mistaken but I doubt I’d have enough evidence to persuade you that you’re wrong. And you could probably never convince me that you’re right.

We’d be at a standstill. And then we’d just have to have ourselves a good old-fashioned tiebreaker. Thumb-wrestling, penalty shootout, medieval jousting, general knowledge quiz… whatever. I’d probably win. I’m above average when it gets down to sudden death. Everything we’re ever taught tells us that winning is better than losing. That every loser wants to become a winner and that every defeat is a victory that, had we been smarter/faster/stronger/more lithe/better able to sexually stimulate an otter, we could and would have achieved. What? Otter copulation competitions exist. Not knowing that doesn’t make you better than me. It just doesn’t. Less damaged, maybe, but not better. There’s a very narrow definition of what constitutes winning in life. Winning, it seems, carries with it certain pre-requisites. Society appears to have determined a fairly inflexible set of achievements that need to be accomplished before any loser can justifiably shrug off his/her tendencies towards failure and declare themselves at one with their new, more triumphant brethren. A certain degree of wealth is implicit. Winners tend not to be on the breadline. Equally, some element of prestige generally needs to come from a winner’s job/house/car/material possessions. A winner has stuff. Good stuff. Better stuff than his losing counterpart. Goes without saying. But more than anything, a relationship, it seems apparent, is a fundamental part of a winner’s existence. Winners tend not to be single. The relationship has to be reasonably long-term and it must achieve the goal of making the winner, at least in some ways, better than he or she would be on their own. Happier? Yeah, that’ll work. More fulfilled? Yep. Less lonely? Most definitely. But most of all, a relationship gives the outward

impression that its participants are not such dreadful failures as people that no-one is willing to spend vast quantities of time with them. It’s a superficial effect, yes, but it’s an important one. Because the loser doesn’t have the apparent validation of being to someone’s taste. That seems like quite a testament to have in your favour. A person thinks you’re worthy of that most precious of things -- their time. Seems like a hell of thing, that. It may even be the crucial difference between being considered a winner or a loser. It means pretty much nothing, of course, but without pause for analysis, it looks fantastic. See, people get lonely. People get desperate. They make bad decisions. Happens all the time. Deciding that someone’s worthy of your time doesn’t really say all that much about that person. They could still be a cretin. A cretin in a relationship, maybe, but a cretin nonetheless. And yet a relationship is a fundamental part of a winner’s armoury. Funny, that. Of course, there are reasons for it. We live in a society that tells “happy ever after” fairytales to children, in which the “happy ever after” almost always involves a boy ending up with a girl. Ours is a world that stares distrustfully at unmarried middle-aged men and that pities their female counterparts and assigns them derogatory labels like “spinster” and “old maid” and the ever-so-trendy “cat lady.” A collective belief exists within our communities that singledom is a form of punishment but a relationship is a reward for being an acceptable person. Being alone, we convince ourselves, is just a prelude to loneliness. Winners get married and settle down. Losers and freaks end up sad and alone.

Directly or indirectly, this is the message we teach to children so forcefully that they feel compelled to act on it and perpetuate it as adults. And why wouldn’t they when they’re been conditioned to believe that the worst possible fate is ending up alone? And this is winning? Really? Seems to me that losing may not be so bad after all. Because honestly, if that’s winning, I’ll take losing and I’ll mould it into something palatable. You can keep your success. Thanks all the same. It’s understandable, of course. A consumer-based society will naturally want its inhabitants to be in relationships because people in relationships are far more likely to form nuclear families than single people. And if we know anything about nuclear families, it’s that they buy stuff. Lots of stuff. It’s what they do. They can be marketed towards. And they’ll respond. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, engagement parties, weddings, house-warming parties, family holidays. You name the occasion; nuclear families spend money on it. Single people might do too but to nowhere near the same extent. And their spending is far more difficult to build marketing strategies around. So it’s fairly obvious why we’re taught that winners get to have relationships while only losers have to endure the terrible fate of being alone. Because people with money would like more of it. And they’re quite prepared to prey on a natural human fear of loneliness to get it. It’s cynical, it’s soul-destroying and it’s disheartening. But it’ll never change. Not while people remain afraid of being lonely. And people will always be afraid of being lonely. But just because it won’t change doesn’t mean we have to keep perpetuating the lie. Being single is no better or worse than being in a relationship. Being alone is no indication of failure. Being part of a couple is not a goal for which to strive. It’s not something that lifts a formerly single person to previously unscaled heights of

joy and contentedness. One relationship status is not intrinsically better than another. “If you are lonely when you’re alone,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, “you are in bad company.” He was right. How you feel when you’re alone is all about how comfortable you feel with the person you are. And that’s the most important relationship in your life. Is now. Always will be. When it comes right down to it, it’s just you. Wherever you go, there you’ll be. And yet, we continue to breed generation after generation of young adults so terrified of life on their own that they consider a longterm romantic relationship to be a pre-requisite for any kind of happiness. We’ve fucked up here. Badly. If you’re alone and you don’t like being alone because you feel you need companionship in order to make yourself happier than you are now, that’s fine. Go look for that relationship. I hope you find it. But if you’re alone and you don’t like being alone because it makes you feel like a failure and you think that escaping from singledom amounts to social salvation, I hate to break it to you but you’ve been cruelly misled. Happiness is whatever you want it to be. If you like spending your evenings alone with your thoughts, alone with tonight’s episode of Coronation Street, alone with your goldfish or alone with an inflatable Tom Sellick doll and an extra-large tub of Vaseline, go right ahead. Life’s short but there’s a lot of pain and a lot of tears contained within. How you find happiness is very much up to you. Tell anyone who thinks otherwise that they’re wrong. Really, really wrong. So wrong they make creationists look right. And tell blow-up Tom I said ‘hi’. Been a while, Tom, been a while. Miss you. xx

We make a point of preaching the value of independence to young people but only to a very limited extent. “It’s good to be independent, kids… Oh, but not too independent. Only weirdos and psychopaths are too independent. Watch out for that.” We teach kids that it’s vital they learn all the physical and social tools they need to exist and thrive on their own. But emotionally? We do the opposite. We tell them fairytales like there being one perfect partner out there for everyone… that all they need to do is look for him/her and fate will do the rest. Well, how about – just from time to time – we spread a little reality on the bullshit sandwich by throwing in lines like this: “Or, alternatively, kids, maybe you don’t need a partner to be everything you want to be in life. That’s an option, too. Don’t ever think that your life would be any less worthwhile or any less meaningful if it’s spent without a partner.” You know, just for something different. And maybe so that their self-esteem isn’t drowned at birth by lies and misinformation that encourage dependence on another person in order to elevate and maintain their sense of self-worth. If you’re in a relationship because you think that it implies some kind of success, I’d suggest that you’re losing far worse than the person on their own with the blow-up Tom Sellick doll. And infinitely worse than Gerry the human scarecrow, the man who thought overcooked noodles and undercooked chicken made for a balanced meal. Others would disagree. Maybe even the majority. They might be right. Or they might be incredibly wrong. I honestly don’t know. And there’s a reason for that.

Because what counts as winning and what counts as losing is really just a matter of perception. Life’s difficult. Regardless of whether you’re a human scarecrow, the head of a nuclear family or somewhere in between, it’s hard. So, if and when some modicum of happiness comes about, you can spend your time fixating on what preceded it, how it came about, what people think of it and what you’re supposed to do next. Or you can just get on with appreciating it and being glad that it’s come about at all. It’s entirely your call. At a guess, though, I’d suggest that doing the former would equate very strongly to losing. And not in a good way.

Losing: The Heroic Art
When I started writing this book on February 15th, I wanted it to end with the hero of the piece (that would be me, by the way... just in case you weren't paying attention) graduating from loser to winner. I wanted something to have been achieved that elevated a serial loser to heady new heights. The losing/winning equivalent of a central character changing from bad to good or from boy to man. A destination to bookend the journey. “That’s a solid, identifiable storytelling arc right there,” I thought. Thing is, though, I soon realised I’ve got precisely zero interest in solid, identifiable storytelling arcs or happy endings. A solid story arc? Nah. Not what I’m into. A happy ending? No, thanks. Life doesn’t do that so neither do I. See, I’d much rather we all put our differences aside, came together as one, joined hands, formed a trust circle and asked ourselves what we’ve learned. There’ll be no criticism within the trust circle. Just honesty and some stray hands doing some serious wandering. We can speak openly in the circle while we longingly caress. We’re all friends here. For a start, I think we’ve learned that the Red Sea can be parted with one wave of a magic stick. I think we’ve learned that two of every species of animal on the planet can fit on a single boat and live there for forty days without a single one dying. And I think we’ve learned that Barabbas might have been the wrong choice. Wait. Actually, no, that’s a different book. Sorry. My mistake. Okay, now I remember. We’ve learned that children are the future. We’ve learned that it’s possible to teach the world to sing in perfect

harmony. We’ve learned that it’s not in his eyes or in his sighs. And it’s not in his face or in his warm embrace. It’s in his kiss. No, that’s not what we’ve learned, either. My apologies. I was thinking of something completely different. We’ve learned that it’s heart-breaking that we lose everything. It is. It’s terribly cruel that we lose everyone we love and that everything we ever possess in our lives will, sooner or later, slip through our fingers. That’s utterly harrowing. If that doesn’t make you feel like crying, then, in all the ways that matter, you’ve already lost. We’ve learned that we’ll suffer all sorts of minor defeats over the course of our lives. The boy or girl we love will love someone else, our favourite football team will never be as good as we hoped, we’ll fight battles that can’t be won and we’ll get fired for hiding in a drawer. It’s life. If you’re not losing, chances are you’re not doing it right. But so what if we’re always losing? Losing’s not so bad. It’s got a dreadful reputation but if you ask me, it’s a little underrated. As far as I’m concerned, losing involves a concerted attempt at winning, glorious failure, acceptance of that failure and then trying to improve enough to win next time. And if we never win, big fucking deal. Because really, we only truly lose when we stop trying to be the best possible version of ourselves that we can be or when we give up on the things that matter the most to us. And most of all, we lose when we lose hope. When we hold our hands up and tell the world we’re not prepared to lose anymore because we’ve lost one too many times already and the prospect of suffering one more defeat is just a little bit too painful.

Losing is one thing but losing and giving up is quite another. The former can be done beautifully and heroically. The latter can’t. Real defeat comes only when we stop trying to win. A whole lot of pages ago, I introduced myself. Told you some stuff I like, mentioned a few character flaws I possess and did a very decent joke that centred around the visual image of two men shaving each other’s shoulders. It was a good gag. I liked it. I also said that I’m a loser. Said that I lose far more often than I win. I stand by that. I am and I do. And every time I lose, I find a way of taking comfort and hope from it. Because that’s exactly what losers do. And you can look at that in one of two ways: You can think it’s the most tragic, defeatist thing you’ve ever heard and you’re above such things. Or you can think it’s just a little bit heroic and ever so slightly lifeaffirming. I don’t care which one you choose, by the way. Makes no difference to me. We don’t have to find agreement on every subject. We can still make love, though, right? If it’s the former, by the way, I really couldn’t argue with you. You might well be right. Probably are, in fact. And in that case, good for you. Give yourself a pat on the back and go about your life. I’m sure it’s nice. I would suggest, though, that you lack imagination. That you might not be as in love with life as you could be. Perhaps winning has dulled your senses, I’m not sure. What I do know is that I would hate to be you. No offence – you probably like your life – but I’d really hate it. I’d find it soulless. It wouldn’t appeal to me at all.

If it’s the latter, I’d just kinda like to give you a hug. I think you and I could be friends. And I really hope the world feels like a slightly less lonely place now than it did all those pages ago. Moral of the story? There isn’t one. I probably should have worked on that. Sorry. Okay, maybe there is. Kinda. Life’s hard. Really, really hard. Bad things happen. Simple things get complicated. Dreams go awry. Nice people fail. Horrible people succeed. Between now and the end, you’ll lose and you’ll lose a lot. But if you can get through all that and never stop hoping, that’s really all that matters. Hope’s important. The rest isn’t. Because it’s okay to not achieve the things you want. Not having anything you want to achieve in the first place, though, isn’t. Winning… losing… it’s really all just part of the same thing. Winning’s not so great. Losing’s not so bad. Hope matters, though. Maybe more than anything. Of all the things you lose, make sure hope is the last one to go. That’s it. That’s the point. Hope. Everything else is just details. Right, I think we’re pretty much done here. I think it’s time we got ourselves out of these wet clothes and lathered up. I’ll shave your shoulders if you shave mine.