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A look back at my Casanova years

IF WE WANT a good research topic we need look no further than under our own noses, that locus of all our perplexity and incomprehension, the place where we cannot see things even if they are there. The expression itself is a good place to start. Take an object. Now place it under your nose. Can you see it? Of course you can't. So why do we say "He couldn't see it even if it were under his nose"? The reason is simple: it's the sort of paradox we can't even see if it's under our nose. And while we're at it, why have we given computers a range of excuses we don't allow ourselves? Why, when we get some screamingly illiterate communication from the council, can we not simply say "Syntax Error" and refuse to deal with it? Why can't we write back to the Inland Revenue saying "Sorry. File not found. Error_Num 1833FF" and have them go away for ever? Why can't we just, you know, lock up, freeze, crash or hang?

Except we do. And then they shovel us into a hole, the rude bastards. Flu Epidemic Sweeps Country, Brings NHS To Its Knees (which it has been brought to so often one wonders how many knees the NHS actually has), while all the undertakers start ordering in bulk cerecloth and rubbing their hands in glee. They must buy the stuff in tubfuls, this time of year. Which leads us straight into another under-our-noses paradox. Lives, communities, nations, entire civilisations have been formed or disintegrated as a result of our desperate search for a second chance. What else is religion but a codified and institutionalised set of criteria for getting another go at things?

Yet whether it's straightforward reincarnation, metempsychosis, absorption into the Ultimate Great Cha'am or good old-fashioned heaven 'n' hell, we don't need any of it, because, right under our noses, there are second chances and third chances and nth chances, all the chances you'd like; it's just that we don't see them because they are - guess where? - under our bloody noses. Perhaps the thing to do would be to cut off the organ concerned, and if it turned out, as suggested, to spite our face, then so much the better. How do you feel about your face? Quite so. Me too. "No oil painting" doesn't even begin to cover it. And yet, the other day, I was looking at some photo-graphs of myself 15 or 20 years ago, and I suddenly thought, "Good heavens, I was rather a good-looking young man," which was quite the worst thing I could have thought, because there was suddenly borne in upon me an extremely irritating sense of time wasted and opportunities missed.

It was the spectacles that did it, I think. After spending the first seven years of my life bumping into things and not being able to see the blackboard, I was fitted out with a pair of bins and the world sprang into focus for the first time. Generally speaking, I liked what I saw, with the sole exception of myself. From then on, when I looked in the mirror (which I did constantly, drawn to it like a tongue to a hollow tooth) I saw, increasingly, a sort of human abomination best summed up in the venerable phrase "four-eyed git". Being a myope, I couldn't play manly sports; unable to play manly sports, I cultivated a disdain for them, and for all things of the body, with the result that, when adolescence kicked in with its hideous inexplicable growth spurts of things like the feet, the follicles and the nose (presumably the better to put things under in adulthood) I came to the view that my natural home was hanging off a parapet on Notre Dame with rainwater pouring out of my mouth. Self-esteem? Excuse me?

And so it went on. There's popularly a correlation between short sight and intellect, and I can tell you why: myopes feel excluded from the rough physical world of sport and manly endeavours. We can't play rugby, we can't get into fights, we can't become fighter pilots, we can't (or couldn't, when I was at the age when it was important) wear cool Ray-Bans, having instead to settle for ludicrous dark plastic flaps like prostheses which clipped over our specs.

Excluded thus from the world of butch physicality, of hanging out on street corners and talking out of the side of the mouth, excluded even from getting about in the rain because our glasses steamed up and left us bumping into things just as we did before we got the buggers in the first place, we myopes retreated into the world of books and I think I speak for all of us when I say you come out of that one with a fine line in intense and speculative animadaversion but no small talk at all, and the sense of oneself as a disembodied brain. And what woman would want to take a disembodied brain to bed with her, unless talked into a dazed and acquiescent stupor in which she neither knew nor cared what was happening to her, only that the endless talking - Brahms, Schopenhauer, the futility of human aspiration, eigenvectors, Scotism, Caius's expedition to the North, Samuel Beckett, the Krebs Cycle, you name it, I bored them with it - had mercifully stopped.

Do you know what would have been nice? It would have been nice to think, "I'm a nice-looking fellow, I think I'll go up to that woman over there and say, 'Hello, I'm Michael, what's your name?'" Couldn't do it. Sure she'd have said, "Never mind your bloody name, who the hell let you out like that?" But there are second chances. The photographs I saw at my parents' house were unequivocally those of a very handsome young man, and although I can't go back and be him, I can at least now have had his past, by a sort of process of self-hypnotic historiography. I can look back on years of effortless conquest and broken hearts, of women swooning, of unassailable self-confidence. I can shed all the strategies I constructed to hide my self- disgust and become someone who was in his youth a dreamboat, a matinee idol, a sex-god: monosyllabic, dim, sporty, arrogant. I can become rich. I can have a Porsche. I can hang out with women with plastic bosoms who don't understand a word I say; but that won't matter because all I'll be saying is, "I was really handsome when I was young! And now I'm rich! How much did you pay for your bosoms!"

Religion? Who needs it when the truth is right under our noses?