All the things I have never done…
Joseph Connolly has never ridden a bike, drunk a pint of bitter or had a curry. Can you match his epic non-achievements?
This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Having recently notched up my three-score years and ten, and now that the awfulness of 2020 is finally behind us (O sunlit uplands, where art thou?) I thought the time might be overripe for me to take stock of all the things I have actually done during all these years on earth. Achievements. Realisation of grand ambitions — plans fulfilled, activities explored, experiences undergone. Jotting all these down on the back of the proverbial fag packet took no time at all, and although this was followed by a considerable age to further pummel my brain for fresh recollection, the list was remaining stubbornly and embarrassingly sparse. Pretty sobering, really.
So I thought a new tack was called for, and — ever resourceful — I turned my mind instead to everything I have never done at all, either through lack of desire, bravery, determination, ability and even, on occasion, principle. And oh Lord — now inspiration was coming thick and fast: I could have filled a book.
So now I know the truth: all those years have been crammed with not doing practically everything you can think of. My life, evidently, is no rich tapestry — the thing is threadbare, let’s face it: a bedraggled hanging that is shot through with holes. You could even regard this essay as the throwing down of a gauntlet, should you be so inclined to pick it up — and here is the challenge: I bet I haven’t done more things than you haven’t done.
So let’s take a closer look at this: it transpires that most of the glaring gaps in my curriculum vitae do not simply form a series of unrealised whims, but are actually quite hard-core: the sort of stuff that most people have done and continue to do quite without thinking, and just all of the time. Like driving a car, say. I have never done this — or, at least, not since completing my brief course of driving lessons in 1967.
Well, I was just 17 (you know what I mean) and obsessed with cars almost to the exclusion of all else. All I had ever wanted for my seventeenth birthday — I had been counting down the days — was to learn how to drive, while feeling absolutely confident that I wouldn’t actually require any tuition at all, so positive was I that I had been put on this earth simply to cruise the Corniche in a (convertible) Corniche, and even win a Grand Prix or two. So it came as a poleaxing shock to me when I sat behind the wheel for the very first time, and discovered in an instant that I did not at all feel at home: this duck just would not take to water. Checking the mirror — no problem at all with that. Everything else, though, felt completely alien to me, and gear changing in particular: the clutch and I were never destined to be friends.
The thing is, I never for a minute felt I was actually in charge of the car
During the second lesson, when I think he must already have had the measure of me, my silently despairing instructor suggested we try to reverse, and I just burst out laughing at the very idea: I knew from appalling experience that it was practically beyond my powers to make the car go at all, let alone bloody backwards. Having royally messed up the reverse, I gaily executed a 23-point turn in order to show willing, while my subsequent emergency stop proved to be actually rather a leisurely affair, taking the length of several streets to eventually accomplish.
My driving test — there was a memorable occasion. The thing is, I never for a minute felt I was actually in charge of the car — I was no more than a helpless and wide-eyed passenger in a vehicle which was simply rolling away with me inside it. At the conclusion, the examiner told me solemnly that I had failed, while seeming grateful and rather surprised to find that at least he was still alive.
So that was that. I have never ridden a bike either. Not a motorbike, I don’t mean (of course not) but merely the regular kind. As a child, I had coveted a Triang tricycle (it was the boot and the bell that both held special appeal) but was told that such a thing was for babies, which didn’t faze me in the least: I suffered from no delusions of grownupness. It was perfectly obvious to me that just the two narrow wheels was never going to work, and especially with me on top of them. The list continues: I have never rowed a boat; just as well, maybe, as I have never swum either. My non-swimming is probably explained by a deranged master at school who threw me into the pool, while fully aware that all I was capable of was drowning, with no time even for a wave. I have never entered the water since.
But then I have never been remotely intrepid. The fact that people will actually pay (as opposed to demand a considerable fee) in order to throw themselves out of an aeroplane, abseil, bungee-jump, ascend in a balloon — I just simply cannot believe it. I have never done any of these things, it goes without saying, and nor have I potholed or climbed a mountain (or wanted to. What? You go up, and then you come down? How stupid is that?)
I feel the same about skiing, with all the attendant splintered bones: après ski will do me very nicely, thank you. I would never go up in a helicopter either. Stars, plutocrats and oligarchs do this all the time, and rather often it is their last act (not) on earth. I once met a man who had spent his entire professional life servicing the things. Do you fly in them often, I asked him — and he laughed. Never once, he said, I know all the things that can, and often do, go wrong.
But even non-dangerous sports have always been a no-no for me. Never played tennis or ping-pong: you hit a ball, he hits it back — oh please. Golf? God, no; I mean, honestly. At school I did play a bit of cricket (badly, of course) merely because I rather liked the clothes. Never rugby, though: mud and pain. I have never caught a fish, largely because I could not think of going through the process of sitting damply from dawn till dusk, my line dangling, in order not to catch a fish. Nor, incidentally, have I ever gutted a fish. Or, indeed, cooked one.
Never played tennis or ping-pong: you hit a ball, he hits it back — oh please
Actually, things I have never cooked could go on for an eternity. You might think that I can’t boil an egg, but it isn’t true — never poached one though, nor ever “whipped up” an omelette. Never made bread, never baked a cake. I have never stalked an animal, nor shot one: the plummet of a bird from the sky is just too awful to behold; although grouse remains one of my very favourite dishes. I’ve never killed anything, apart from wasps, obviously: wasps just have to die, for they are truly evil. Never killed a person, certainly (wanted to, from time to time) though in this I suspect I find myself firmly with the majority.
And what about technology? Oh dear me. Having never had a fax machine, I resisted having email for as long as I possibly could — that is, right up until the point when telephone messages were never responded to because no one any more was listening to telephone messages, and letters were going unanswered, possibly due to their never being opened, so unexpected was their sudden appearance. Proper letters, I mean, handwritten with a fountain pen on decent stationery.
For a good long while, the most modern innovations for me were envelopes and stamps which no longer required the dispensing of much saliva. So yes, I do email, and I Google, and that’s about it. Do you actually need me to tell you that I have never Skyped, tweeted or Instagrammed (being actually unsure what any of those mean) and nor have I Zoomed, pandemic or no. I have no Kindle, because obviously I continue to read books, magazines and newspapers in the time-honoured and traditional way. I have never owned an iPhone or an iPad or an iAnythingElse, and of course have never even so much as thought of taking a selfie.
Other everyday accessories I have never owned include a car (self-evidently), a dishwasher, a microwave or a cat. The list of perfectly ordinary things which I have never had truck with is practically endless: a lottery ticket, for instance — never occurred to me to buy one: it could be Me, but it Won’t, will it?
Gambling, I have to say, is the one vice that seems to have passed me by. Never done the pools, bet on a horse, played poker (clad or stripped), baccarat, roulette, nor any of the other impossibly glamorous-looking things that 007 gets up to in enviably louche surroundings. And nor that thing that Americans appear to be very given to, rather disconcertingly known as “craps”. All this goes a very long way to explaining why I have never won anything, this to include all raffles and tombolas: not even a wooden spoon. Nor have I ever won a competition, though to be fair, I have never entered one.
I have never shaved. Not really
I have never shaved. Not really. The few odd little downy hairs that sprouted on my face up to the age of 17 or so I initially allowed to flourish as best they may, but when it became too horribly clear that the five on the left side of my upper lip were just never going to join up with the seven on the other side and put their backs into becoming a gently drooping moustache just like Paul McCartney’s on the gatefold of the Sergeant Pepper LP, I attacked the, with a very malevolent electric razor inherited from an uncle: it leapt about in my hands — the very devil to control it. And oh my God, did it burn — my poor cheeks and neck soon came to resemble just so much pork luncheon meat.
So I simply determined to stop hurting myself in this way, and my face has been obliterated ever since. I did not contemplate giving a “wet shave” a go because it struck me as messy, and I knew that every single morning I would be alive with “nicks” and their attendant squares of lavatory paper: whereas a cutthroat would have done just that.
What else? I would love to be able to say that I have never ventured on to the Underground — I have, of course, though not since 1976: I am told it is no nicer. I have never ironed a shirt. Let me be plain: I have never plugged in an iron. Never changed a nappy. When I was at that stage of my life, you could still call it “woman’s work” without being vilified, cancelled and lynched from the nearest tree by the virtuously feministic and baying mob.
In similar vein, I have never knitted nor sewn: not even a button. And although I am a stranger to plumbing and wallpapering, let it not be thought that I am just another of these effete little arty types who could not put a nail in the wall. I have put plenty of nails in walls, not to say rawlplugged screws as well: done a lot of carpentry and room painting. Not at all sure quite how these two endeavours managed to slip beneath the wire: my guard must have been down.
As to things I have never been, one right up there at the forefront is a graduate. More or less at the very last minute, I decided on a whim to forego the opportunity to go up to Oxford — to the dismay and disbelief of many — and instead signed up for what turned out to be the very last apprenticeship in British publishing, this very possibly saying rather more about me than it does for the state of British publishing.
I needed to be away from a scholastic environment, having spent nearly the whole of the groovy Sixties in a boarding school. By the time I returned to it, Swinging London had ceased to oscillate: for me, the whole thing had been no more than a rumour — not unlike women, actually. I don’t think I was wholly convinced that they could actually exist. I was swiftly disabused of this notion by the sight of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, and Playboy magazine (it cost 8/6d, though I deemed this a wise investment).
But because I was a teenager in the 1960s, everyone since has automatically assumed that here was wall-to-wall psychedelia. Well no. I went to the sort of old-school school where a chum of mine was actually expelled because in his study was found a packet of ten Gold Leaf and a tin of Watneys Pale Ale. I never smoked pot — never even saw pot being smoked — and since that time I have never had any illegal drugs at all. If the middle classes really do round off their parties with cocaine all round, they are not the parties I am invited to.
The list of unmissable films that I have missed would be utterly eternal, and certainly includes Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago and all of the Harry Potter and Star Wars series
Around that time (and seemingly ever since) it was everyone’s ambition to go to India: I wouldn’t have gone if you’d paid me. Heat, dust, poverty and — I have always thought — perfectly unspeakable food. I have never eaten a curry: the smell, the very opposite of appetising, is quite enough to repel me. But there are loads of things, quite as you might expect, that I have never eaten, or else just spat out the first mouthful and avoided ever since (which is odd really, as I spent seven years as a restaurant critic). Any sort of offal comes into this category (steak pie, yes please — but no kidneys in it, thank you): I make the sole exception of paté de foie gras (goose, for preference).
English mustard, baked beans, treacle, syrup (golden and maple), coconut, ginger, rollmops, gherkins, Twiglets, gravlax, pretzels, goat cheese, digestive biscuits, honey, marmalade, chilli, Weetabix — oh no. Booze? Wine is my thing — largely Bordeaux — and I have never drunk a pint of bitter: just one sip was more than enough. I’ve had port and sherry just the once, and that was that. Never drunk vodka. Nor, in cosier vein, have I known the apparent comforts of Bovril, Ovaltine, cocoa or Horlicks. And here’s something — I have never smoked cigarettes, largely because I am physically incapable of inhaling: immediate bulging eyes and convulsive hacking. I like Havana cigars, though, because those you merely sip.
In what other ways would my life appear to be deficient? Television to me is simply the recording of ancient films on the Talking Pictures channel. I have never watched EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing, The Great British Bake Off, Gogglebox, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Big Brother, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Line of Duty or The Crown. And no quiz or game shows since Take Your Pick and Call My Bluff.
The list of unmissable films that I have missed would be utterly eternal, and certainly includes Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago and all of the Harry Potter and Star Wars series. And although I love the arias that everyone does, I have never been to an opera. At the other end of the scale, I have never attended a pantomime, and feel not in the least deprived. Do you really have to ask whether I have ever taken myself off to a rock festival, such as Glastonbury? No, you really do not.
Is there more? Of course there is more. I have never lived abroad — or, indeed, outside London. I have never mastered a second language, but continue to cope as well as I can with the first one. Never had a second home, never had a second wife. Other little bits and bobs? I have never been a Best Man, supported a football team, taken a gap year, been camping, had a massage, joined a union or a political party, been on a diet, ridden a horse, voted Labour, attended a séance, foraged, played an instrument, gone jogging, gone dogging, shot a gun (aside from at the funfair), read the Guardian, set a bonfire, taken an Uber, used Airbnb, had a tattoo (or a piercing), lived in a bedsit, digs, flat-share, or even a flat.
I never liked Jane Austen (nor, while we’re at it, Milton, Hemingway and Tolkien). I have never danced — properly, I mean: knowing the steps and with a partner, as opposed to simply jiggling around inanely. I have never wanted to try vegetarianism (let alone go vegan) and nor have I ever had the tiniest hankering to be a woman.
And amid it all, I shelter not a single lingering regret for avenues un-explored: looking back on the list, I think that all in all I have had a lucky escape
How to round off? I think with a list of everything I have never worn, and nor would ever wish to: trainers, a T-shirt (and certainly not one emblazoned with a “joke”, an advertisement or the name of a band), a tracksuit, a tie-pin, a Christmas sweater, sandals, a bowler hat, decorated socks, boxers, white tie, a man-bag, a shell suit (obviously), a hoodie, a fleece, a Barbour, a cap (neither flat nor baseball), a tank top, shorts (since prep school), a backpack, a cummerbund, flip-flops, an anorak, a sweatshirt, a biker jacket, loafers, Lycra, a padded coat (nor a quilted gilet), a wedding ring, reading glasses, a uniform, make-up, anything sporting a “designer” logo, nor anything (apart from trousers) with a zip.
So there we have it: the gaping emptiness of all my life. And amid it all, I shelter not a single lingering regret for avenues un-explored: looking back on the list, I think that all in all I have had a lucky escape. And how about you? Did you take up the challenge? If so — well I have won, haven’t I? You may well have started the thing with a certain gung-ho confidence, but now you just have to admit defeat, yes? Own up to it: I haven’t done far more things than you haven’t done.
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