Chubby Checker saved my social life

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The Independent Online

Guess who started the dancing at the launch party for Martin Amis's new novel last week? Yes, yes, if you're going to be literal it was actually my partner who started the dancing, since it was she who dragged me on to the the empty floor. But that makes for a less remarkable story. Dancing is second nature to her. She salsas, waltzes, gavottes, you name it, and once go-go-danced her way through Sheffield University, financing her graduate year by performing in a cage in Barnsley. White boots, hot pants, animal gyrations, all that.

Whereas I did not. I have railed against dancing all my life, called it the employment of the devil and declared that the human body is never more ludicrous than when it moves to music. So for me to have initiated the dancing at Martin Amis's party is an event. A small step for mankind maybe, but a big one for me. And a big one for the profession of novelist, as well. For novelists tend not to like moving their bodies in public places. That's why they become novelists.

Why it's taken me so long to release the hobgoblin of revelry locked away in my nature I do not know. Mine isn't a Billy Elliot story. It wasn't as though my parents gave me no encouragement. My father loved dancing, and as a senior figure in the Manchester Taxi Drivers fraternity was for ever organising black-tie events in the course of which he could show off his skills, steering other taxi drivers' wives around the floor as though negotiating sharp bends, and as often as not coming skidding with his hand on an imaginary gear stick and his foot on the accelerator into my table, where I sat with my chin in my hands, muttering about the devil.

My mother too had high hopes for me, and to this day will suddenly look me up and down and shake her head, unable to figure it out. Why I didn't become a professional dancer, that is. "With your legs!" she says.

Adolescence finished off any chance I ever had. Even with my legs, adolescence was too big an obstacle. Why it is that some boys handle the shame they feel about their bodies by exposing them to ridicule on sports fields or in discotheques, and why others just want to go away and hide, I do not know. But I chose the latter and more reasonable course. The more socially considerate course as well. For it is isn't a pretty sight, a blushing boy contorted like Richard III, flailing his burning limbs and dripping his mortal embarrassment over everybody's shoes.

But then came Chubby Checker and respite in the form of the twist. Don't ask me why, but the twist was a dance I didn't mind being seen to essay. It seemed to accord with something in my nature. Something devious, maybe. Or maybe just something retarded. As a bookish boy, I also liked the idea of records coming with instructions. At last, a dance you could read! "Pretend you're putting out the eyes of a spider with both feet," I recall the instructions saying, "while you're drying your back with a dish rag."

If they'd only explained the conga to me in such language I might have run screaming from family gatherings less often.

The twist had my name on it, anyway. And not only did I do it, I taught it - for I was at Cambridge in the twist years - to others still more awkward than I had been. Indeed, so widely was my twisting admired that a party of Newnham girls, all Iris Murdoch lookalikes, and therefore all hot as hell for sex, actually petitioned me in my rooms and offered me money to coach them in private.

The money, though I needed it, I refused. "I twist for the love of it," I told them. "But love is the hardest thing to teach."

I noticed them looking me up and down, the way my mother did. I knew what they were thinking. "Exactly," I said. "And you also have to have the legs."

I persisted with them for a term, nothwithstanding their physical unsuitability, their ignorance of dish rags ("Think your Newnham scarves," I suggested) and their unwillingness to countenance putting out the eyes of spiders; then exams got in the way. By the time I was free to twist again, the craze was over. Now people were stomping to "Glad All Over" and coming back from holidays in Spain, clicking their heels and singing "Viva España". The flake was happening, the flea, the hully-gully, the locomotion, the wah-watusi, the zizzle, the bunny hop, the ska, the slide, the jerk, the hippy hippy shake.

"Woke up this morning and my mother was gone," I heard drifting in from the Master's Lodge. "Ooh wee chirpy chirpy cheep." And rather than be a chicken I went back into hiding.

What brought me out briefly was the bump. An Australian I knew had brought it back with her from Los Angeles. "It hurts," I told her. But that apparently was the point. You did it to hurt and be hurt. "Think of it as sumo set to music," was her advice. "So it's competitive?" I wondered. For which curiosity she bumped me off the floor.

And what became of the Australian? Reader, I married her. But what starts in bumps will always end in them. And until the other night I had thought never to dance again. If you ask me what's changed, the quick answer is having a partner who once go-go'd in a cage. The longer answer is to be found in the sociology of our times.

I danced because I was sick of all the maundering self-criticism to which we, as a nation, have reduced ourselves of late. I danced because the slipper-tongued Andrew Gilligan had egg on his face. I danced on the coffin of the odious smugness of the BBC. And I danced to assert the vitality of the novel over all this other bumf.