Principal How to Grow Old: A Middle-aged Man Moaning

How to Grow Old: A Middle-aged Man Moaning

Intimate confessions and spit-your-dentures-out hilarious commentary – this is observational comedy at its best.

How to Grow Old is a stupid title, because the answer is obvious: Don't Die. Provided you don't die, you are growing old.

Don't come to this book under any illusions. It isn't going to tell you how to stay alive any longer. It won't help you understand the aging process from a sociological and anthropological perspective, and I'm not sure how much practical advice you're going to get.

However, if you happen to want to know what a white, heterosexual, middle-aged man thinks of getting old – from the struggle to stay fit, keep hold of your friends or stay relevant, to why I'm better at doing a dump now than at any time in my life – this book could very well be exactly what you have been looking for. You might even find it a bit funny.

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John Bishop

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A Middle-Aged Man Moaning



1. How to Wake Up Old

2. How to Dress

3. How to Be a Family Man

4. How to Be a Friend

5. How to Still Be Funny

6. How to Go On Holiday

7. How to Stay Fit and Still Love Sport

8. How to Stay Relevant

9. How to End This Book



John Bishop was born in Liverpool and grew up in Winsford and Runcorn, Cheshire. He started his career in stand-up after a chance performance at an open-mic night when he was 35. Shortly before his 40th birthday he decided to quit his job to pursue a career in comedy; within three years he was playing to sell-out arenas nationwide and had released the fastest-selling debut DVD in history. In 2013 he wrote the Sunday Times bestselling, How Did All This Happen. John has been married to Melanie since May 1993, with whom he has three sons, and wherever he lives John will still always support Liverpool FC.

I would like to dedicate this to the older people in my life, who are important to me every day.

Ernie and Kathleen Bishop, my mum and dad. I would not exist without them and I would not be a fraction of the man I am had they not been my parents. I love them more than I can ever say. Mike Cornall, Melanie’s father, whose sharp mind and quick wit I have always appreciated. I learn from him every time we speak. Eileen Garnett, Melanie’s mother, who we lost as I was starting this book. Not many people have a mother-in-law as a friend. I did. We miss her dearly. She would have loved this.


WHEN I DEVELOP A new stand-up tour, I tend to start from nothing. Some comedians carry a notebook around ready to pounce on anything that happens or is said, and which may be developed into ‘a bit’ – a bit being the universal comedians’ name for a piece of stand-up material. I have never operated like that, primarily because I came to comedy late and was too busy working and bringing up kids to be thinking what part of my life;  I could use on stage. I would go on stage, see what bits sprang to mind, and expand those themes further in subsequent gigs.

This is fine when you are doing ten-minute spots in comedy clubs. But when it comes to putting together a tour that needs two hours of new material, I often wish I had the discipline of noting down any bits that have happened. Essentially, I am not a joke-teller. When I am on stage, I talk about what has happened in my world: my life, therefore, is spent walking around, hoping that something funny happens. When something humorous does occur, I retell it on stage to a room full of strangers – as long as I can remember it, of course. As I have now reached the stage in my life where I can’t always remember what I did yesterday, that isn’t guaranteed.

Having no notebooks to start from, I basically do tons of smaller warm-up shows, where I always seem to find the main things that are playing on my mind at that point in my life. It’s a bit like therapy, as it helps organise my mind, if therapy consisted of standing in front of a room of unqualified people who I have asked to pay to attend. The process starts with standard room-above-a-pub gigs, moves onto small art centres with a few hundred people, and steadily grows in venue size as I develop the material into a full show.

I like this process more than if I prepared – or you could say, if I acted more professionally! I know it’s counter-intuitive, but the less preparation I have for those early warm-up gigs, the better the overall end result is when I develop the full show. In the absence of any prepared material to fall back on, I find I am forced to allow the adrenaline to kick in and stimulate the creative process. Nothing activates your brain more than standing in front of a room full of strangers looking at you with expectant faces, waiting for you to be funny while all you have to offer is a blank mind and a microphone. I seem to find the material quicker in those situations than I do sat at home looking at the wall with a blank page and a pen.

This approach also means the material is more ‘of the moment’. It is based on the stuff that is currently happening or currently in my head, which makes it feel fresh and relevant. On my last tour, Winging It, two main things kept informing the material. Firstly, I had just turned fifty, and secondly, my kids had left home (by choice, I might add: we didn’t just kick them out so I would have some material for the show, although I would probably have felt it was a price worth paying in the absence of any other bits).

When this book’s publisher, Andrew, watched the DVD of the show, he reported back that it was basically ‘a middle-aged man moaning’. However, this was much more of a positive than a negative, as he said there was a market for this as a book: many people were probably feeling the same, and Andrew suggested this could be used as a reference point for anyone in a similar position or about to face the same challenges. It was his suggestion to call this book How to Grow Old. It was my later suggestion to add the subtitle, A Middle-Aged Man Moaning.

I am now sat at home, tapping away at this introduction with the three-finger style I have developed as I never thought typing was going to be a skill I would ever require. I am part of the generation of men born in a time when only secretaries, journalists and authors knew how to type. Email, the creation of which has revolutionised communication, was not even invented when I entered the adult world of work, aged sixteen.

My first full-time job was as a mail lad (there were no mail girls, or mail persons of gender neutrality, in 1982) and my role entailed cycling around the ICI Rocksavage chemical plant in Runcorn, taking handwritten notes between the offices and plant rooms. The company sent its products all over the world and was regarded as the cutting-edge of technology, but could only operate because sixteen-year-old mail lads on bikes carried notes in brown envelopes between all the people involved in the production process.

ICI was regarded as a great employer, and often the old men I would see walking around the yard in company overalls and hard hats would tell me to stick with the company because I would get my pension, provided I progressed from the mail room and learned one of the skills the company required, such as operating some of the plant machinery. Nobody ever said to me, ‘Listen, son, learn to type! It’s the future and will change your life. It will save you from looking like a man with arthritis who can only use three fingers, when you’re fifty-two.’

Nobody ever said that because the office environment in those days really was ‘paper shuffling’. Today, I would imagine that the offices in ICI are filled with people on laptops typing away and communicating with the world instantly through their fingertips. Back in 1982, the phones had rotary dials on the front which meant even dialling a call would take five minutes. All written communication was on memo pads that had a space for the next person to respond to what was written in the box above, and to stimulate the next person in line to engage. What would now be done with a single group email would take days, as notes were carried from one part of the plant to another.

Part of me misses those times, because the frenetic speed we operate and communicate at nowadays doesn’t seem to have served us very well. Everyone is stressed and overloaded with information, and email means that you are never really away from work. It is too easy to be on a family holiday and let the ‘I just have to deal with this one email’ mentality creep in. Even if it is only thirty minutes away from the family holiday, it is still time lost you will never get back.

That never happened when I was a mail lad. Nobody ever said, ‘John, take this memo to Keith from accounts. He is in Malaga with his family, but if you can just cycle there, and wait an hour for him to read it and respond and bring it back, that would be great.’ Not only would that have killed me on my fixed-wheel butcher’s bike with my mail bag in the front basket, but Keith would almost certainly have said, ‘Fuck off! I’m on holiday!’

These days, someone would just ‘ping’ Keith an email and either through a sense of responsibility or a fear of being sacked (or to get away from his annoying family), Keith would find a quiet corner, read the email and type a response. Most of us do this without thinking about it, even though logic suggests it is an intrusion we should object to. And that’s despite the fact that many people’s typing skills, particularly people under the age of thirty, now mean they can communicate with their fingers quicker than their mouth – as any parent who has ever had a text argument with a teenager will testify. I have done that with my sons and it’s quite disconcerting when they reply to a text you have not yet finished typing.

Typing for me is like talking with a speech impediment: I can make myself understood but it takes me longer than I would like. The difference is that if I had a speech impediment (accents don’t count!), I would seek help, but one sign of aging is the acceptance that this is as good as you will ever be at something. Don’t believe people who take on new hobbies in their later years and pretend they are doing it as part of some journey of self-development. They just can’t be arsed getting better at the things they already do.

How to Grow Old is a stupid title, because the answer is obvious: Don’t Die. Provided you don’t die, you are growing old. You are already older than when you started reading this book, and that was only a few minutes ago.

In fact, getting old is not that difficult in the modern western world. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. Women’s life expectancy in the UK today is 82.9 years, and for men 79.2 years: back in 1841, it was 42.2 and 40.2, which means it has virtually doubled. No other creature in the whole history of the planet has managed to affect its own life expectancy in such a positive way and in such a relatively short space of time. If anything, the life expectancy of many animals on Earth has been adversely affected by the extension of ours: the longer we live, the more resources we will use.

Whichever way you look at it, a doubling of human life expectancy in only 178 years is incredible. There are many factors that have influenced this, and some we will pick up further in the book, but if the same thing happened again in the next 178 years, then in 2197 we could be expecting an average life expectancy of 160 years old. It will be like living in a world of Gandalfs, but it may well happen. Since the 1980s, life expectancy has continued to go up by around two months a year because of fewer deaths from smoking or heart problems, thanks to healthier lifestyles and better health care.

However, the length of time you can expect to be on this planet may be predetermined before you even get here. Where you come from defines how long you live more than most people would imagine. In 2017, the Office of National Statistics found males living in the most affluent 10 per cent of areas in England and Wales lived an average 9.3 years longer than males living in the bottom 10 per cent. Life expectancy is longer in the South than the North or the Midlands: kids born between 2010 and 2012 could expect to live an average of 80.3 years in the South East and 79.7 in London, but only 77.8 in the North East and 77.7 in the North West.

This difference becomes more distinct between areas and even postcodes. Men born in Kensington live a decade longer than men born in Glasgow (73). However, this difference is outdone by that of the men living in Warfield Harvest Ride, in Berkshire, who can expect to live until 90.3, and men living in the Bloomfield area of Blackpool who live to an average 68.2. That’s a staggering 22.1 years’ difference between two places in the same country that are about 240 miles apart – nearly a year of extra life for every 11 miles.fn1

As shocking as this statistic is, I hope you haven’t bought this book called How to Grow Old looking for the answer. If you live in Bloomfield and are thinking, ‘That’s good, I could buy that book, read it and learn from the wisdom within its pages, and then I too can live as long as the people in Warfield Harvest Ride …’ then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. It is also worth pointing out that these statistics assume that where you are born or where you spend most of your life does not change. There is nothing in the genetic make-up of the people of Kensington that guarantees longevity. Should a child be taken from the environment of Kensington or Warfield Harvest Ride and placed in Bloomfield or Glasgow to grow up, one would suspect they would not outlive their new peers. In fact, arriving in Glasgow with a clipped, posh Berkshire accent? It’s fair to say your chances of longevity will be massively curtailed.

Living longer doesn’t always mean having a better life. It’s not as if the people in Warfield Harvest Ride have a longer period of life in their twenties and thirties, when they are fit, with tight stomachs and boundless energy which they can direct into having more sex, doing more travelling and learning new skills – which in turn leads to them meeting new people they can travel with, learn new skills with and have more sex with. It’s not as if they gain more time in the best years of their lives.

No, the people in Warfield Harvest Ride gain more time at the fag-end of their life. They have more time when they don’t understand the changing world, when less people are bothered about what they think, and when their only contribution to society is to carry on living to get statisticians excited. The older you live, the more time you spend in a body that is not what you ever thought it would be, looking at yourself in the mirror and remembering when all your skin used to fit your face instead of the saggy bag with eyes looking back at you.

This book will not tell you how to stay on this planet longer. Instead, it will attempt to look at the various aspects of being the age I am today – fifty-two, at time of writing – that make me see the world differently, and to share some of the things I have learned along the way. Some of it will be funny, hopefully, some will involve genuine lessons from my life, and some of it will contain elements that, as I sit here typing the first pages, I can’t anticipate.

I also need to point out that I am a white, heterosexual, middle-aged man: the exact demographic from whom the world no longer wants to learn anything. I am very aware that nobody is having marches for white, heterosexual, middle-aged men. There is no drive to ensure that we are we represented equally on television and in the media. Nobody is speaking up for us because we have had the patriarchal society for millennia, most people think we’ve made a bollocks of it and so now it’s someone else’s turn.

This is not a complaint but an observation. Straight white middle-aged men have had our time and so it’s only fair we hear some other voices. I only mention this here as a spoiler alert: I can only see the world through the eyes of my own experience and that will become more apparent through these pages.

Andrew, my publisher, is a white, heterosexual middle-aged man himself, so when he approached me to write this book, I knew I had probably struck a chord with him through my stand-up. As I am not a professional writer, Andrew thought it would make sense to link me up with an experienced writer and editor, and so introduced me to Ian Gittins. Ian has been very hands-on and the fact that this book exists at all is in no small measure down to him. He has given me feedback on what I have written, and suggested edits and other topics to explore. When I was halfway through the book and sent him an email with the subject title ‘I can’t be arsed …’ explaining that as a grumpy middle-aged man I was losing the will to live, or at least losing the will to try and fill any of the empty pages that were in front of me, he suggested we could keep moving things forward by finding other ways to get the material of the book down. Ian came to my house and recorded conversations we had, that he then wrote up and returned to me to use as I wished. This was an interesting process akin to developing a stand-up tour because I could read and reflect on what we had discussed and extract material to change or rewrite to include in the book. It kept my brain engaged when I had reached the conclusion that wasting my life writing a book about growing old was more irony that even I could stand.

As another white, heterosexual middle-aged man, Ian brought absolutely nothing new to the demographic of the team working on this book. Normally, if three white, heterosexual middle-aged men are working to put something on paper it is either government legislation, a fantasy football league or a pub quiz. Hopefully, this book will fill a gap in-between.

Basically, if you want to know how to grow old, I am not sure this book will help. If you want to understand the aging process from a sociological and anthropological perspective, I am not sure it will do that, either. However, if you happen to want to know what white, heterosexual, middle-aged men think of getting old, this book could very well be exactly what you have been looking for.



HOW DO YOU KNOW you are officially ‘old’? I think there is a very easy way to find out. Take your current age and halve it. If the person you were half a lifetime ago was still at school, you’re not old. If the person you were half a lifetime ago was, even then, grown up enough to have a job with a pension plan and a company car, as I was twenty-six years ago, then you are old. I do this exercise from time to time: pause and try to remember what stage I was at in my life ten, twenty or, in this case, twenty-six years ago. It’s an exercise which is always filled with both joy and sadness. Joy that the Me I was then would be pleased to see Me as I am today; sadness that I didn’t appreciate my life then enough.

The old cliché that ‘You are only as old as you feel’ always sounds great. It’s optimistic and suggests that your age is up to you: think positively and your age will be what you want it to be. Some people think that this is all that matters, how young you feel. Emile Ratelband, a Dutch TV personality, felt so strongly about it that he took legal action to get his age of sixty-nine reduced to forty-nine, to reflect more how he felt but also to help with his profile on dating websites. He argued that if he felt forty-nine he should be able to say he was forty-nine, in the same way that transgender people can change their sex legally. Life, however, is not an internet dating profile and he lost the case because the judges suggested it would open the law up to all sorts of abuse, because if people could reduce their age legally they could also increase it to break age restrictions to marry, drink alcohol or even vote. He also lost the case because it was a stupid thing to take to a court of law: you can’t just decide to be a different age, and there is not a direct correlation between actual legal age and how you feel. That would be like going to court and asking them to say you are taller and slimmer because you don’t feel small and fat. Comparing it to the experience of the transgender community is a staggering display of ignorance. It’s like coming back from holiday with a tan and saying you now know what it feels like to be black.

As you get older, everything about your life changes – including how you wake up. Waking up old is not the same as waking up young. When you are young, you bounce out of bed, do a few press-ups, and take your naked body to the shower to start the day. When you are old, you don’t even wake up naked. Somehow, on the journey to becoming older, there is a point in your relationship with your partner where sleeping au naturel seems completely unnecessary. The idea that you might just happen to have passionate sex accidentally – and so need to keep that option open – is not realistic after a certain age.

You and your partner accept that you are going to bed to rest, not to engage in the acrobatics that being under a duvet together used to entail. It makes sense to be as comfortable as possible, which generally does not include being naked. Instead, you might wear an old T-shirt, or some official pyjamas. By ‘official’, I mean the full matching patterned Marks & Spencer outfit, because for years I used to opt for just a T-shirt. That seemed fine until about five years ago, when my wife, Melanie, suggested I start to wear bed-pants.

Bed-pants are not pyjamas. They perform the same function of covering all the unacceptable parts of your body which gravity is doing its best to pull towards your ankles, but they are more like a cotton pair of shorts. In many quarters they appear cool, more like house shorts, or chill-out shorts to wear in front of the TV. Once you call them bed-pants, I realise, it sounds like I am going to bed in a nappy. I am not. I am going to bed in thigh-length cotton shorts that allow my wife to sleep in the knowledge that, should she kick the covers off to cool off during the night, she is not going to wake up and find she has my testicles stuck to her back.

How a couple undress for bed changes as they age. At the start of the relationship, you are driven by the desire to get your clothes off and jump into bed to have sex. In middle age, you have reached the stage where you can both get undressed in the same room and, once naked, start getting dressed again to go to bed. You are entering into a contract with each other, a contract that says, ‘You and I have agreed that tonight is about sleep, and all that other smutty stuff will just have to wait its turn.’

This may sound sad on one level, but it’s actually one of the most reassuring aspects about growing older together. Today, I could not imagine myself with a woman in her twenties, full of lust and adventure, lying on the bed in the best erotic outfit Ann Summers can offer, while I put on a T-shirt I wore on holiday three years ago and climb into my bed-pants. I think one of us would be severely disappointed.

One aspect about sharing space with another person is the acceptance of each other’s morning ablutions. I remember reading Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, in which he magically captured the intimacy of a relationship through the partners feeling comfortable having a pee in front of each other. I am not talking about in a kinky, golden showers sort of way. I am talking about, ‘I need a pee, and you know me so well I am not going to be embarrassed doing it in front of you, or you doing it in front of me.’fn1

In a relationship, you start out being icons to each other – as perfect as you can be, like two pristine Michelangelo statutes. Then the reality sets in and you stop thinking of poise and grace: you just become who you are, less something to wonder at like a statue but more something you would use every day, like a Hoover. There are, however, limits. I interviewed Miriam Margolyes a while ago. She was seventy-six at the time, and I asked her what she liked the most about growing old. She said, ‘Taking time to enjoy a good shit.’ It wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it was very funny. And it is true.

My interview with Miriam was for my In Conversation With … series on the W channel. I have interviewed quite a few older guests and they were all still extremely busy. That was definitely a good tip about getting older that I took from all of them: that you need to keep working, keep producing and keep being active, because then you will stay involved with life.

As you grow older, you become more aware of which of your achievements you should be most proud, and if I can digress for a second, I would say without doubt that my In Conversation With … series is the best thing I have ever done on television. It was just me and an interviewee for an hour at a time, and I loved it. Any TV host would be proud of the list of guests I talked to over four series. If you don’t mind me being self-indulgent for a moment, I am going to list all of the guests I talked to, just for people who never saw or have never heard of the series.

Over four series of doing In Conversation With …, I spoke to James Corden, Charlotte Church, Steve Coogan, Alex Brooker, Kirsty Young, Freddie Flintoff, Lenny Henry, Jo Brand, Rupert Everett, Miriam Margolyes, Lindsay Lohan, Olly Murs, Louise Redknapp, Russell Brand, Ken Loach, Davina McCall, Ellie Simmonds, Jason Manford, Meera Syal, Anna Friel, David Walliams, Nadiya Hussain, Jimmy Carr, Craig Charles, Melanie C, John Cleese, Katie Price, Sam Womack, Dame Joan Collins, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Green, Ruth Jones, Paddy McGuinness, Katherine Ryan, Brendan Cole, Will Young, Cuba Gooding Jr, Alesha Dixon, Gabby Logan, Martine McCutcheon and Jeremy Corbyn.fn2

The programme was an interview show rather than a chat show. None of the guests came on because they were plugging anything: they came on simply because I thought they had a story and would be interesting to talk to for an hour. They certainly were.

As a side note, the show sadly became a victim of its own success. In order for W to film the show, I had to agree that over the next seven years they could repeat any episode twenty times. It meant that, in essence, we reached a tipping point after we had recorded forty-one shows in two years: giving W forty-one shows to use twenty times each over the next seven years equated to 820 shows. It meant we came to a point where W simply didn’t feel they needed any more interviews and, also, I felt the guests deserved to tell their stories to bigger audiences than W tended to get. However, if you haven’t watched any of the shows, please do, or seek out the podcast version of the shows. I would stand by any episode, which is not something you can often say in the world of television.

At the time that I was doing those interviews, I had no idea that I would soon be writing this book about how to grow old. However, each of my more senior guests gave me some valuable nuggets of wisdom on the topic.

John Cleese has spent a few years waking up old by now. He was one of the people who said you have to keep moving and taking on new projects. As a comedy legend, he could have demanded anything from us, but all he asked for was thirty minutes peace and quiet so he could have a nap before make-up (he had been filming all day and he wore his slippers for the interview). I found him a joy to talk to: interesting, warm, funny and with many more layers to him than I initially thought.

Dame Joan Collins told me that she finds aging to be a strange process as she still feels young inside. She was eighty-four when I interviewed her and still had the bright eyes of a teenager. Her tips for growing older included not getting too skinny: being thin is what you aim for when you are young, she said, but as you get old, it makes you look weak and frail.fn3

Dame Joan was sharp, witty and a great example of the generation where stoicism and pride carried you through the tough times. She has certainly experienced some difficult periods and yet, like the old saying about the swan on the lake, nobody sees the hard work beneath the water as she glides serenely across the surface.

Despite being eighty when I talked to him, Ken Loach was also still incredibly busy. He had just released I, Daniel Blake, and after our interview was heading off to a community hall somewhere in London for a showing of the movie to people who worked in food banks. Ken said the most important thing about aging was to stick to your principles and have a cause and a reason to carry on. For Ken, social injustice drove him: not accolades and certainly not money or fame. As somebody who knows how seductive those two distractions can be, I greatly admire his choices.

This Is the Shit

But let’s go back to Miriam Margoyles’s pearl of wisdom about loving a ‘good shit’. As I have grown older, I am also in less of rush when I go to the loo. In fact, I have found a pleasure in taking a dump that I could never have anticipated in earlier years.

I think it started to happen when the kids were young and the toilet became a sanctuary of calm and quiet. It was a haven where, for a few moments, you could be alone with your thoughts while the mayhem on the other side of the door was kept at bay by a tiny lock. Now the children have grown up and moved out, however, my relationship with Mr Crapper’s gift to the world has evolved into one of a deeper understanding. The toilet is now a place where I can allow my body to catch up with itself and my mind can turn off all the multiple distractions that bombard it constantly during the day. I have even made a pact with myself to go to the toilet and leave my mobile phone outside (this only works at home: it’s not a very sensible thing to do in a public convenience). Anyone who has ever answered the phone sat on a toilet knows the awkwardness of the question, ‘So, what are you up to at the minute?’

My toilet at home has a magazine stand filled with copies of National Geographic magazine. I find it oddly reassuring to sit reading articles about the early humans and the division between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals while doing an activity that they too would have carried out. Admittedly, they would not have done so while perched on top of a porcelain throne, but at least while I poo I can sense some connection between myself and my primitive ancestors.

Allowing myself to take time over my dumps has also definitely increased my output. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am better at doing a dump now than at any time in my life – so much so that I class it as exercise. I even have proof of the benefits of this, and Melanie is a witness (not to the poo but to the facts). I weigh more than I look like I should. I always have done, and I genuinely have got big bones: I had a full body scan a few years ago which revealed I had the heaviest skeleton the radiologist had ever seen. These big bones are my excuse for being a slow runner, a slow walker, a slow cyclist and a heavy lover: fifteen stone of excitement is a lot for anyone to have on top of them (even if it is only for a couple of minutes). It’s also why scales are not my friend, because I am always heavy.

For the last few years, my weight has fluctuated between 94 and 100 kilograms, which is basically 15 stone. When I was at my fittest, I was 13.5 stone, or 85 kilos. I will never see those days again and I am fine with that, as long as I have more muscle mass than fat. If I ever got to 14 stone, or about 90kg, that would be an achievement, but it would mean giving up many of the things I enjoy, such as red wine, and I am not sure I can be bothered. I exercise enough to remain healthy and that is the point. Even my youngest son, Daniel, recently told me, ‘There is no way you should be that fat with all the exercise you do.’ I think there was a compliment in there somewhere.

When I was going through one of my obsessive phases of trying to lose weight, we had a digital scale in our bathroom. I stood on it one morning and weighed 96.7kg. This was more than I had hoped for, so I put my kit on to go to the gym. Before I went, I had a coffee with Melanie and revealed my weight gain as if I was in a priest’s confessional. I hoped she would forgive me with a few Hail Marys and I could avoid the gym. That didn’t happen, but she did suggest I drink the coffee, take a dump and weigh myself again. I did so and now I weighed 95.2kg. I had just taken a 1.5kg dump. That is one-and-a-half bags of sugar, twenty-nine Mars bars, or fifty-three slices of bread. There have been babies born who weigh less than that. I couldn’t believe it. There is no way I could expect to shift that much weight doing a session at the gym so, in celebration, I took my gym kit off and went out for a fry-up.

Every morning when I wake up old, I feel a mixture of joy, surprise and apprehension. The joy is there because, as a person, I am generally optimistic and have grown to love the fact that I wake up earlier than most people. I have never been somebody to lie in bed, an inability which used to really annoy me. I put this tendency down to my working-class genes, going back centuries, which have left me with the DNA of an eighteenth-century peasant farmer. This means that as soon I wake up, I feel I have to get up and start doing something to repay the tithes I owe to the landlord who rules the estate, and whose house I will one day burn down when I organise the other serfs and we take our pitchforks and claim back our rights. This is all a huge burden to have ingrained in my DNA particularly as I don’t have a landlord to attack and nobody else is awake to start the revolution. However, it makes for a satisfying explanation as to why I don’t lie in bed in the morning: it’s because I need to be ready for the revolution.

This revolutionary gene appears to have stopped with me in my family, because my children show no interest in getting up early whatsoever. Being the father of sons, it was no surprise to me when their teenage years saw them lying in bed all morning. However, when they reached their twenties, I was expecting a change. Instead, when the boys come to visit now, Melanie reckons they are not coming to see us but returning for a cheap spa weekend. They spend most of the time in their bathrobes or pyjamas, get up some time in the afternoon, relax, eat some decent fresh food and disappear again.

As people get older, they generally need less sleep. The fact that I am writing this chapter of my book at 5.32am is testament to that fact. You know your life has changed from your mad twenties into your knackered fifties when you wake up at the same time that you used to come home. I’m not alone in needing less kip as the years go by. A survey in America by the National Sleep Foundation found that while infants should get 12–15 hours of Zzzs per day, and teenagers need 8–10 hours, middle-aged and older adults can easily get by with just seven. Sometimes they may not even get that as, for reasons that nobody is totally sure about, as we get older, we find it a lot harder to fall asleep. Perhaps our unconscious knows that the long sleep of death is getting closer, so we should not waste time sleeping now.

I think as you grow older you value your sleep more, particularly if you can split the day with the magic of an afternoon nap. This is something I think we need to make compulsory because it’s like having two days in one. You spend the morning and early afternoon doing all the things you have to do. Then, after a nap, you can spend the late afternoon and evening doing all the things you want to do.

The Spanish are famous for their siestas, which began in rural communities as a practical way to deal with the searing midday heat. It was common sense that staying out of the sun when it was at its hottest would allow the workers to be more productive throughout the entire day. They worked a split day, taking a rest after lunch and working later into the evening. This lifestyle also matches the natural circadian rhythms that have been identified by scientists. Most human beings feel a dip in energy between 1 and 3pm but sadly in most of the industrialised world, bosses would frown on you hanging a hammock in your place of work. The British moved to industrialisation quicker than anyone and it was the industrialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who created the working day as we now know it. There again, back then working nine-to-five was considered part-time, and going home with all of your fingers intact showed a distinct lack of commitment to the company cause.

One of the biggest joys when I go on tour is my justified afternoon pre-show sleep. Being on tour means there is one single point in the day when I have to be at my best, and the rest of the day simply doesn’t matter. As long as I am on stage at 8pm and say funny things for the following two hours, I am not judged by what else goes on in the day. This is incredibly liberating for someone with my personality and work ethic, where I intrinsically think I have to be doing something all of the time or I am either a) going to miss out or b) cheating, and wasting my day.

The practicalities of touring mean that I do a lot of travelling, and more preparation goes on behind the scenes than people would expect. Happily for me, the majority of that is done by other people. All that I have to do is turn up, do a soundcheck, get dressed and go on stage. If I’m playing a theatre, the soundcheck can happen just before the doors open, but in an arena it’s normally done around 4pm, which is perfect. I will head off to catering to have something to eat, then I’ll go to a spare dressing room in the venue (there are always loads, as I am the only person on the night who needs one) and sleep on a blow-up bed. Or when I am not in too much of a rush, I’ll go back to my hotel, get into a proper bed and kip. On tour, I always sleep for forty-five to sixty minutes at some point between four and seven.

An afternoon sleep is the single biggest determining factor affecting a gig for me. People often ask me if the audiences around the country differ, and if it is massively different doing an arena show to 10,000 people compared to a small theatre with 500? The answer is no, not really. What makes the most difference is whether I’ve had a kip.

There are venues where the response may be better due to the architecture of the venue: a Victorian theatre built for the spoken word will always have a better feel than an arena that spends half its time as an ice-skating ring. That’s all to do with acoustics and atmosphere. There are also venues that, as a performer, will feel special to you. For me, it’s the Liverpool Empire, where I recorded my first DVD: the Royal Albert Hall, because I could not believe I was doing sold-out one-man shows and standing on the stage where legends like Frank Sinatra had stood; and the 3 Arena in Dublin, partly because it’s Dublin, and partly because it was one of the first arenas built in an amphitheatre style that makes even a huge gig feel intimate. I also have an affection for the Sydney Opera House because it is so iconic: to walk on stage there when they had oversold tickets to the extent that some of the audience were behind me was surreal to say the least.

I could easily list more venues and favourite cities, because I have great affection for many around the country, but the reality is that I have never found much of a correlation between geography and an audience laughing. In my experience if you are funny, they laugh; if you are not funny, they don’t. Nobody arrives at a venue and decides that what they used to find funny is no longer funny or what they found to be unfunny is now hilarious. Laughter is too instinctive and spontaneous for that.

From my perspective, the size of the audience makes very little difference. Making 500 people laugh feels just as good as making 10,000 (although obviously that is assuming there are only 500 people in the room: only making 500 people out of 10,000 laugh would not be great). What I am trying to say is that the size of venue does not matter. I genuinely get the same level of enjoyment from all sizes of audiences. The two things that do matter are getting some sleep … and the day of the week.

I do all that I can when I am on tour to avoid playing shows on Mondays. Nobody wants to laugh on a Monday. Years on the road have taught me that squeezing one extra night into the schedule is never a good idea if the extra night is a Monday. I would guess that at least 75 per cent of the audience buy the tickets so far in advance that they don’t even realise it is a Monday. You walk on stage knowing that they looked at the tickets the week before, and stood in their kitchen saying ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s next Monday. That’s your fault! I don’t even like him …’

I end up standing on stage knowing I have been the cause of a domestic dispute which has not been alleviated by the need for most of the audience having to start their week by running round trying to get all the domestic duties done just so that they can spend two hours listening to someone else moan about domestic life. This irony is not lost on me or the audience. It means that the essential ingredient that makes observational comedy work, where you say something about the tensions that you find in domestic relationships that the audience recognise within themselves and laugh in recognition, is instead greeted with blank stares that say, ‘Tell me something I don’t know.’

I am not the only advocate of a daytime nap to enhance performance. Winston Churchill was another famous believer. He is said to have built it into his daily routine even during the tense times of World War II. He wasn’t taking just a little doze in an armchair with his brandy in one hand and his cigar burning down to the fingers of his other. No, Winston was a professional sleeper. He would undress to his underwear and climb into bed, where he would then lie still and take twenty deep breaths. If he had not nodded off by then, he would conclude he had too much to do that day to sleep, whether it be defeating Nazi Germany and saving the world from unimaginable tyranny, or sending British troops to crush the striking miners in Tonypandy, thereby giving tacit state endorsement to the horrendous working conditions of those miners. Whatever it was, something was putting him off his sleep, so he got up.

Thankfully, I don’t tend to have such considerations when I have my afternoon nap on tour. There is way less historic significance in what happens in my day, so I tend to nod off well before I have reached double figures in deep breaths. The only problem for me is that I do not live permanently on tour. I eventually have to come home after weeks or even months and have a period of reacclimatising to normal life. During this period, my wife, Melanie, regularly finds me curled up in different corners of the house, like a cat, having a sleep while more important things are happening, such as the rest of the family sitting waiting for me so they can start dinner.

Afternoon sleeps definitely get more valuable as you grow older, not least because, as a short interlude in your day, they do not require the same ‘post-sleep warm-up’ you have in the morning. As I said, when I wake up I am filled with joy, surprise and apprehension, and the surprise is mainly that I am still here. It’s not that I have the fear of death in my head when I go to bed – it’s more that, for years, I have gone to bed thinking I will wake up in another life.

I never expected to be a comedian and never expected to have this life where someone would pay me to write a book. I never expected to have three sons who, by the time I am in my fifties and just working out who I am and what it means to be a man, are young men themselves. I never expected to still be married to the girl I met in the library when I was twenty-two years of age and full of hormones and dreams.

I never thought I would be The Me I Am Today. I often wake up surprised because, in a parallel universe, I know I am waking up as The Other Me. Because I can decide what The Other Me is like, I generally make sure that The Me I Am is better than The Me I Could Have Been. This morning, The Me I Am woke up in a gorgeous house with one of our dogs asleep at the foot of the bed while my beautiful wife lay fast sleep as sunlight was trying its best to seep through the last vestiges of the night’s darkness, like a kitchen light through a net curtain. I walked downstairs, went to my study, opened my laptop, put the radio on Classic FM and sat writing this book.

The Other Me of my alternative life woke up in his dingy bedsit with a car alarm going off in the street outside and dogs barking. He could still taste the beer from last night’s empty cans festooned around the room as he sat up and rubbed his hand over his bald head (I have decided that The Other Me does not have my genes and so has gone bald: not a stylish Pep Guardiola bald, more like a Bobby Charlton combover bald). He lowered his varicose-veined legs to the floor and, with a painful effort, rolled his twenty-stone frame off the bed to go to the bathroom for his morning piss. This always results in some slight dribble on his boxer shorts because he cannot actually see his own penis beneath his massive hairy belly. His phone was full of text messages from the various baby-mamas that he owed child support to, and his boss at the second-hand car dealership telling him he is likely to miss his monthly target again, so he is going to have to let him go. The Other Me glanced at his watch, sighed, farted and went back to bed.

That is the way I see The Other Me today, because I have made a conscious decision to make it a good day. There are other days when my wife won’t talk to me, the kids think I’m a knob, my jeans feel too tight and I glance at myself in the mirror sideways on to see that I have changed shape and it looks as if I was once a foot taller and then a house fell on me and made everything about me more dense. I am thicker in just about every part of my body and what has not been squashed down is rolled up into a ball and fastened to the front of my belly.

Catching a glance at the decay of a once semi-athletic body is a unique form of sadness. I am used to being looked at on TV or on stage and so I have subconsciously learned to position myself front and centre of vision all the time, never sideways on. This means people see the mass of my body and the outline of my shape but can’t see my hidden contours. A suit jacket can help maintain the myth that I am still in shape, and as I am fortunate enough to have broad shoulders there is a lot of cloth covering my midriff.

When I am alone, however, there is no escape. When it is just me in my underpants, trying to pull on a pair of jeans, and in the mirror I see the soufflé of fat that fills the space between the top of my underpants and my ribcage … well, those days I know that The Other Me is stood holding a gun to Robert De Niro’s head, finger on the trigger while he looks straight into my eyes. I lower the gun, ‘You know I wouldn’t do it … not now I know you are my father.’ There is a gasp in the audience, a knowing look from Robert De Niro with his head bowed and his mouth is in his classic half smile. We hear a gun shot, the screen goes black, the title music plays and the curtain closes. The Other Me is led on stage with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to take questions as the standing ovation is ringing out. ‘John, may I ask you,’ begins a journalist, ‘do you feel objectified because you perform the majority of this film naked from the waist up? Is that simply the studio using you as a sex object to sell the movie?’

Before The Other Me can speak, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino both respond with ‘no’s’. ‘He is much more than a perfect torso,’ says Al, to some amusement. ‘Let me tell you something,’ says Bob, ‘I have waited years to work with this guy. When I heard he wanted me to play his father I was overjoyed. When I found out the lead character was a lifeguard and so would have his shirt off for most of the movie, I knew this guy could do it. But more than that … I have played many father-and-son scenes in my life,’ he swallows hard, ‘but this guy … this guy got me.’ With tears in his eyes now. ‘If I could have a son that was half the man this guy is, I gotta tell you …’ Tears prevent him finishing his sentence, and as The Other Me moves to hug him to the applause and cheers at those gathered at the Cannes Film Festival Premier, he says in my ear ‘Don’t forget me at the Oscars!’

I feel apprehension when I wake up because I know I have to get up and I know something will hurt before I manage to get to the bathroom. With me, it’s usually my feet. I have no explanation for this, but my feet, and in particular my heels, always hurt for the first few steps in the morning. Perhaps it’s the fact that I am standing upright, which allows all of the hopes for the day to drain to their lowest natural point. By the time I have reached the bathroom, they have loosened up sufficiently to send the pain to my left knee on cold days, and to the space between my shoulder blades on every other. Pain in some part of your body is just something you get used to as you get older and your body breaks down. Knee and hip replacements become like love bites in your early teenage years; they are something you think you should be getting because everyone you know has them.

It used to be a different story. There was one particular part of my body that would wake up every morning before I did. Now, when I go for my morning pee, I sometimes feel I am waking up a sleeping mouse. It’s not that all functional use has gone, despite the fact that testosterone falls in men in middle age and erectile dysfunction is nowadays so prevalent that foreplay has been replaced by taking a little blue pill.

This is all down to testosterone levels, which are highest during the madness of adolescence. As men get older their testosterone levels drop by about 1 per cent per year after the age of thirty. Women’s hormonal levels decline after the menopause, which usually begins somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five. So men decline earlier and for longer – in fact, given that the male peak is around thirty and most of us may make ninety, we spend two-thirds of our life in decline. Accepting that most boys are useless till they are around twenty that means most men only have ten good years. Most dogs have more than that.

Happily, without being too boastful (I’m definitely not going to say, ‘Touch wood!’), I have managed to swerve erectile dysfunction so far. My cock seems to have the work ethic of a touring comedian and thus does very little until required to perform. However, it has also developed its own form of jet-lag. Since I turned fifty, it seemed to have developed its own circadian rhythm and its ‘morning glory’ actually comes whenever it feels like it.

This would be wonderful if I knew when it was on the horizon, but I can be about to stand up in a café, or by the graveside at a funeral, and discover that the tightness in my trousers is no longer confined to my waist. I must admit that this has at various times led to feelings of both anxiety and pride. I have no doubt that when I am eventually in a nursing home, being wheeled around the garden not really knowing who I am, I will be the one the nurses will avoid like the plague. Because I will bore them with assertions that I used to be funny, while at the same time asking for a bed bath.

One thing that is certain about waking up is that every day you do it you are a little older than you ever have been before. But considering the alternative option of not waking up, I will always be grateful for the day ahead.



WHEN I WAS FORTY, I did some stand-up about my son taking my new training shoes and wearing them. The stand-up basically went like this:

When a man reaches forty, you know you have reached the stage in your life where wearing brand new white training shoes is a gamble. Any man in his forties wearing brand new white training shoes is taking a chance because, instead of looking cool, there is a very good likelihood that by wearing brand new white training shoes you will look like someone else dressed you, and that you should be holding hands with another responsible adult. I recently bought a brand new pair of white Adidas that I thought were a new style but the assistant told me was a retro look. I still took them to be a new style because they had been in fashion and out and back in again without me noticing.

A few days later I was getting the lads together to go out for a pizza when my fifteen-year-old son walked down the stairs wearing my new training shoes. My brand new white training shoes. That’s how big he is: size nine.

I told him: ‘Son, take them off, they are my brand new shoes.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘No-oo!’

His voice was breaking, which made him sound like Scooby Doo. It also made it hard to argue with him, because it’s difficult to be angry and laugh at the same time.

I said, ‘Listen, I am not asking you, I am telling you! Get up those stairs and take them off.’ To which he just looked at me and said, ‘No. I won’t.’

That is the moment that every father of a son knows will come one day but it still hits you like a train. It’s the moment the little lion takes on the big lion, like in a David Attenborough documentary. I knew that if I backed down, he would be the big lion and I would be the old lion who has to watch the other lions eat the zebra. I would be in our garden on Christmas Day looking through the kitchen window while he would be sat in my seat.

So, I said, ‘Son. Do what I say and take those trainers off now!’ And he just looked in my eyes and said, ‘Make me!’

For the first time in the fifteen years of his life I could see in his eyes he was thinking: ‘I can take you!’ And, for my first time in the fifteen years of his life, I was thinking, ‘There’s a chance he could take me!’

There is nothing more humbling than thinking you are about to get your head kicked in … with your own shoes.

That piece of material was true. The incident actually happened and I did think buying white training shoes were a gamble because I found not knowing what to wear harder at forty than I did at fifty. This was is in large part because my life was changing so rapidly at forty. I was going through a sort of mid-life crisis and it changed how I wore clothes. I didn’t start wearing tight jeans and pointy shoes to attract a twenty-five-year-old secretary and run off with her in my open-top sports car. My sort-of mid-life crisis was less predictable than that – although it was possibly a bigger gamble.

A month before my fortieth birthday, I cut all ties with my previous life to become a full-time comedian. My previous job had been as the sales and marketing manager of a specialised division within a pharmaceutical company. I say specialised because I was responsible for a team selling a product called Tacrolimus (Prograf), which is part of the immunosuppression family of drugs, and was licensed for use in organ transplantation to stop patients from rejecting their organs.

At this stage, I had been doing stand-up in my spare time for nearly five years. This involved working in the day and then driving in my company car to the venues, changing out of my business suit and going on stage in jeans and a shirt. To me, it had felt too much of a clash of worlds to walk on stage in the Marks & Spencer suit I had been wearing all day. In my head, suits were for work and jeans and the like were for on stage – what you wear when you are not working and you’re enjoying yourself.

As I turned forty, I went into a new reality where my after-work wardrobe became the one I wore all day. I could now wear jeans all the time, but I soon began to feel that I wasn’t ready for ‘work’ if I wasn’t getting changed before I went on stage. I had a wardrobe of suits that I had worn in my old life but it was apparent to me that turning up at a comedy club dressed like a sales and marketing manager was not exactly the showbiz image I was striving for.

Then I saw it. It was in a dress agency shop in London. Dress agencies are basically posh second-hand shops that only stock high-end clothes that are no longer wanted by their previous owners, but which are too good to be lost in the piles of tatty old clothes in a normal charity shop. The dress agency will either buy the clothes from the owner outright, or sell them on their behalf and give them a cut. It’s far less benevolent than donating your clothes to a charity shop but they do provide an answer to the question of, ‘What shall I do with this? It’s just too expensive to give away for the benefit of others!’ The answer is to sell it to someone who appreciates its expense, and who will be the conduit between you and the charity shop by wearing the clothes in front of everyone they know, so they can present themselves as someone who would buy such a thing new. Once everyone they know has seen the item, it can be passed further down the second-hand line.

I saw the suit in the window of a dress agency and it was love at first sight. It was a purple suit with a turquoise lining that I would never have been brave enough to wear in my previous professional life. To be fair, I suspect that talking to a Professor of Transplant Surgery about their immunosuppression regime while dressed like a sax player from a 1980s ska band would have been frowned upon. But to be dressed like that standing under stage lights in a comedy club … that is what I was born to do, and it is what that suit was made for.

I immediately went in and asked to try it on. One good thing is that I am not in any way averse to wearing second-hand clothes. I did plenty of that for most of my life as a kid. I was the youngest of four, with my brother Eddie being five years older than me and my sisters Carol and Kathy being in-between us. So, for a large part of my life, hand-me-downs formed most of my wardrobe (not always an easy process when inheriting clothes from two older sisters).

That was in the 1970s and the 1980s, when clothes were a major investment for the family and would be worn to the extent that, by the time they were thrown out, they were totally worn out.

Today, cheap clothing is the norm and people have many more clothes than they need. But with less than 1 per cent of the world’s clothing being manufactured with any consideration of environmental sustainability, I guess there is a duty for us all to try and extend the life of the clothing that passes through our hands.

None of those things, I must confess, were going through my mind when I saw the purple suit. I just thought I would look cool in it, so I went in and tried it on. The label said that it was made by Ozwald Boateng and, well, that said it all. Ozwald Boateng is a tall, slim, handsome black man: a renowned fashion designer who has won many awards for his designs, which tend to be sharp-cut suits with bold and creative colours. Basically, he makes clothes that look great on tall, slim, handsome, black men. I was a slightly squat middle-aged white man and yet, despite suspecting the suit was not owned by anyone who looked remotely like me, I could not wait to put it on.

I had no problem with the jacket. It fitted like a glove. The trousers were more of a challenge and had clearly previously been owned by someone taller and thinner than me. However, the shop offered to arrange the alterations. This is another brilliant thing about a dress agency as opposed to a normal charity shop. I can’t imagine Oxfam being able to cope if people started asking for extensive alterations on a pair of trousers that they were buying for £1.50. However, in a dress agency, where you are paying a decent price (the suit was £145, with £12 for alterations), it’s all part of the service.

I don’t know if the suit’s previous owner was a tall, slim, handsome black man, but as soon as I saw myself in it, that is what I felt like: smooth, cool and invincible. It was the perfect suit to wear ‘going to work’ in my new life on stage. It said everything I needed it to say. In every dressing room where I wore it and looked in the mirror, the suit spoke to me, in the voice of Barry White, saying, ‘Uh-huh, Johnny, you look cool. You look like you belong, baby. You look like you‘re going to make the audience … aaah … laugh. You got this and don’t forget, sugar, if you wear a purple suit and you ain’t funny … there’s nowhere to go, baby. So, don’t be shit.’

I loved that suit and it is one of the last items of clothing that I did virtually wear out. In fact, in my early years as a professional comedian, I knew I could never afford another Ozwald Boateng suit so I made the mistake of trying to get an imitation.

Hong Kong Foolery

I had been booked to do a weekend of gigs in Hong Kong with two other comedians. There was a UK-based Canadian, Sean Collins, with a very sharp, laid-back way of telling stories that I never tire of listening to, and Steve Royle. Steve is a physical comedian from Lancashire who was the court jester at Camelot Theme Park before becoming a circuit comedian. I have never seen anyone as good at telling jokes while juggling.

The weekend shows in Hong Kong are part of the odd world of gigs you sometimes get offered on the circuit. They were booked by a UK promoter whom I immediately didn’t like as he flew in business class while telling us we had done well to be upgraded to premium economy. I’m also pretty sure he made a lot more from the gigs than we did.

We did three gigs in Hong Kong in an Indian restaurant to expats who wanted a reminder of what they were missing by having a curry and listening to some English jokes. They lacked many of the reference points of recent British life because they weren’t in the UK, so once the joy of hearing an accent from the homeland had waned, they were a good but rather passive audience.

These gigs paid £250 each. You flew out on Wednesday and back on Sunday night to arrive in the UK on Monday. This meant you earned about £300 more than you would on a normal weekend in comedy clubs at home and as you were fed, and the flights and hotel were paid for, it was basically a free, well-paid weekend away.

The other big plus point of the trip – and many of the comedians who had been before us had done this – was that you could take advantage of being in Hong Kong by getting a suit or two made by the super-quick tailors there. It was the only real chance for a circuit comedian to get a genuine made-to-measure suit and, as my purple Ozwald Boateng number was on its last legs, I was looking for a replacement.

We had the name of a tailor and so Steve and I set out to find him. Sean was too cool for a suit in those days, preferring to do his act in a black three-quarter length leather jacket. Now, you can get away with that with a North American accent, but I knew it would not work for me as I would both look and sound like Jimmy Corkhill.fn1 The taxi driver dropped Steve and me outside a small shop. It didn’t appear to be an establishment that was likely to be an outfitter to the comedians of Great Britain. Nevertheless, we went straight in and, sure enough, we were in the right place. It was like a Bond film where Daniel Craig arrives in Hong Kong in disguise as a Chinese peasant farmer. Once he knows he is clear of anyone following him, he walks into a nondescript door to find a world of activity inside. They would already know his suit size, and he would walk out minutes later, looking charismatic, without a hint that he had ever even seen a paddy field.

The shop we walked in was almost like that. Almost. Before we had even said a word, the proprietor knew why we were there. He knew we were English comedians who – like those who had come before us – were doing gigs in an Indian restaurant to a barely interested audience, but who had aspirations that one day a made-to-measure suit would benefit our developing careers – provided, that was, that a tailor could do it for £200, in three days, from one set of measurements.

In fact, the tailor didn’t even have to measure me, I just gave him my purple Ozwald Boateng suit and asked him to copy it in a different colour. I settled for red with yellow lining. Steve went for light blue but he also showed the added commitment of getting measured properly rather than lazily handing something else over and asking for it to be reproduced. Steve’s attention to detail was to prove time well spent. The suits were delivered to the hotel as we checked out and I took my first ever made-to-measure suit home with pride. I had visions of being known as The Comedian in the Sharp Suits. After all, I had a purple suit that was being hammered yet still looked great under the lights, and now I had a red one to add to the collection. It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered that my new made-to-measure suit had clearly been made-to-measure for somebody else. There was no way it was even close to being like the Ozwald Boateng suit it was meant to mimic. The sleeves were not even the same length. One barely showed my fingers and the other was halfway up my forearm.

I am not entirely blaming the tailors because I know plenty of comedians that they made great suits for. I even saw Steve a year later, doing his act with his light blue suit on, and it looked great. I looked at his arms closely, because one thing I am pretty sure of is that when you are juggling, having arms the same length is fairly essential. As for me, I only wore that red suit once. I used the long arm to hold the microphone to see if I could get away with it and try to disguise the sleeve length, but it just didn’t work. Wearing a red suit with the sleeve of the other arm halfway up my forearm made me look like a Duran Duran tribute act paying homage to the ‘Rio’ video.

The episode did teach me a good lesson for my stand-up career. Stage clothes should not distract an audience. As soon as an audience is thinking ‘Why is he wearing that?’ you have started to lose them. At the time, I could ill-afford to write off the £200 but the suit was beyond hope and so off it headed to Oxfam. I just hope that a colour-blind person with one arm longer than the other found it and made the most of it.

I had to wait patiently until my career had moved on sufficiently to get a made-to-measure Ozwald Boateng suit. It was for my first BBC Saturday night series, John Bishop’s Britain, in 2010. The production company had a clothing budget and I made it clear that I craved an Ozwald Boateng made-to-measure suit. It had to be a quick turnaround as production was about to start so they told me it would cost a premium but they would push it through. I was measured a couple of times, had the suit delivered and wore it for the shows.

I was told afterwards that the suit cost £6,250. It was the most expensive piece of clothing I have ever owned, or intend to ever own. Had I known it was so much I would have said no, but I didn’t and so the suit was delivered. It was an absolute disaster. It looked terrible. I have no idea why my purple suit, which I assumed was originally made for a tall, slim, handsome black man, looked fantastic on me, while the one made-to-measure for me, bespoke for a squat middle-aged white man, was so awful, but it was. I only wore it for the first half of the series and then gave up.

How could this be? Perhaps longing to fill the purple suit had made me hold myself differently? Perhaps in the intervening years I had changed shape so much that it was like putting a tie on a giraffe – there was just too much to cover? I don’t know, but that suit hardly got worn, and pound-for-pound it is probably the most expensive thing I have ever owned, including a house, unless I ever buy a house where I have to pay £2,000 every time I walk in the door. And the production company had stumped up for it! I have never been so bold as to request anything like that since and I never will.

To be fair to Ozwald Boateng, he has invited me in to have another suit made as a replacement and said he will personally oversee the manufacture to ensure it is as good as it can be. However, I haven’t yet managed to find the time … or, should I say, I haven’t yet managed to get the body shape that I am happy for a tall, handsome, black man to measure. There is a special kind of disappointment to have someone whom you want to look like measuring you. It’s like Robbie Williams standing in front of you while you sing ‘Angels’ at him. No matter what you both say to be nice, both of you will be disappointed.fn2 So, I will carry on looking in the dress agencies for another cast-off.

XL Is the New XXXL

The changing life expectations of the middle-aged in the twenty-first century have created a whole new industry: fashion for those whose looks and bodies require clothing to flatter and hide, rather than enhance and reveal. When I was growing up, my mum and dad seemed to decide what clothes they liked when they were thirty and stuck with them. Now, it’s acceptable to try and keep up with trends you see in magazines, even though there is nobody in those magazines who looks remotely like you. The fashion industry in the UK is said to be worth £32 billion, and older people account for an ever-growing percentage of that. Even over-sixty-fives spend £6.7bn a year on clothes in Britain. Clothing the grey-tops is big business.

It’s not just the market that is growing: the size of the clothes is, too. You can now buy men’s clothing in XXXL sizes in standard high-street shops. Just think about that. Enough people buy these sizes for retailers to think that it is worth holding them in stock for the next wave of massive people that come in through the double doors and up the (very slow) escalator. In the past, to be that size gave you a chance of getting on the regional television news and becoming a local tourist attraction. Not any longer. The level of obesity in the UK has reached epidemic proportions, with the middle-aged definitely more than playing their part.

The average waist size of men in the UK is thirty-eight inches and the average dress size for women is sixteen. Obviously, some people have medical issues that affect them, and I don’t want to get into fat-shaming, but on a national level we can only assume nowadays that the people singing ‘Who eat all the pies?’ are asking a rhetorical question – because statistics suggest that we all did.

Clothing brands have not failed to notice this trend. They have taken the very canny move of encouraging more shoppers to buy their brands by flattering them that they are not as big as they actually are. As average clothes sizes have gone up, people prefer to lie to themselves that they can’t be fat if their clothing label says they’re not. So Small has become XS, Medium has turned into Small and Large has become Medium. Extra-Large (XL) is Large, XXL is now XL, XXXL is XXL, Massive is now XXXL, and Size-That-Is-Worthy-Of-A-Channel-4-Documentary has now got its own page on the Jacamo site.

The challenge of when to wear age-appropriate clothing is a difficult one because we keep changing what is age-appropriate. There are many men who are still in the clothes that they wore when they were twenty-five when they looked like the Modfather himself, Paul Weller, with a feather-cut hair style, tight trousers and Fred Perry T-shirt. Twenty-five years later, when not even Paul Weller dresses like that, they look too old for the clothes that they are wearing. Their faces are too wrinkled and their clothes don’t hang right. Like Yoda at a Jam concert they do look.

Often, these men make the terrible mistake of combining the clothes of their youth with a desire to maintain the hair colour of their youth. I have never understood men who dye their hair. Very few of them look good. Those who commit to dying their hair also need to consider how their face looks and attempt to keep that young, or at least make an effort. A baggy, wrinkled face hanging down below freshly dyed black hair just looks wrong. If you are not careful, you are in danger of making your face look like a scrotum with a big nose, and that’s not a look anyone can really carry off.

In middle age, women do at least seem to have more advice and a whole industry dedicated to helping them with their clothing choices. They have magazines, online articles, fashion tipsters and friends who will go with them, help to choose clothes, cajole them into trying new things, give honest feedback and do all they can to help each them look good. Men have some of those things – there are style magazines that helpfully tell us where we can spend a few hundred quid on a pair of socks – but what we lack, particularly in middle age, is the support of the people who know us best – friends.

This is because most men don’t notice what any of their mates are wearing. It would be a generalisation to say that gay men dress better than straight men at any age, but I would suggest it is certainly true in middle age. Were it not for wives and children buying things for birthdays and Christmas, most middle-aged men would walk around naked, or in something they bought with their first wages thirty years ago.

We simply don’t have the interest in fashion that I think we should. I have never seen a group of middle-aged men walking around the shops together, looking to help get their mate Kevin a new shirt. None of my mates have ever picked something off the rack and brought it over to me, saying ‘You have to try this – it will work great with the jeans you’ve got, and you can wear it to the darts match next week!’

But times are changing. The days when middle-aged men simply bought trousers with elasticated waistbands and cardigans have gone. Cardigans, for a start, are now called knitwear, which is the fashion equivalent of putting up a white flag. Once you realise that your best look is knitwear, you have effectively given up on fashion. In wearing something where it is impossible to see where you end and the clothing begins, you are accepting that you have no shape of your own: you simply have a body mass that needs covering.

The Waft of Shame

When the first hints of summer arrive, so does the moment of truth and disappointment that can best be summed up by … the waft of shame.

I first experienced the waft of shame about two years ago. I had been on tour in the winter and had an injury in my left knee which prevented me doing my normal exercise. When you are over fifty you can’t get a note from your mum to excuse you from exercise, so I have always found a ‘knee problem’ is generally the best excuse. When you say, ‘I have a knee problem’, nobody is surprised. You are in your fifties: it’s expected.

When my tour finished, I had a knee operation, and so began the spring on crutches with nothing to do except relax and recuperate. As soon as the first sunny day arrived, I couldn’t wait to put on shorts and a T-shirt and sit in the garden. The shorts fitted fine. Like all of my trousers and jeans, the shorts decided where my waist should be and stopped there. This means my waist is now on a slant: slightly higher on the back and lower at the front where the shorts provide a platform for my tummy to rest on.

I put the T-shirt on. My head went through its hole fine. My arms did the same, and I pulled the T-shirt down. The shoulders sat where they should, and then I rolled the T-shirt over my torso. Looking down, it seemed OK. I couldn’t see the bottom of the T-shirt so I assumed it was where it should be. It was then that I felt the waft of shame – a light frontal breeze between the base of the shirt and the waist of the shorts.

The two items of clothing sat comfortably together at the back but at the front it looked like they had had an argument. My T-shirt seemed to be pulling itself away from my shorts and using my belly to climb up. I have had many disappointments in my life, but few matched the moment I looked in the mirror and saw that my favourite T-shirt from the summer before now looked like I had stolen it from a child. The three-inch gap between the bottom of the shirt and the top of my shorts allowed a draught to circulate and gently stroke the hairs on my belly in a way that would have seemed relaxing were it not so tragic. I had become that man: the one who wears clothes that do not fit because he is deluded enough to think the world will not notice.

Here’s the thing: the world does notice. I notice when I see the classic middle-aged man look, standing with a pint in one hand, slightly leaning back for balance, a gap between his trousers and T-shirt that allows the world a glimpse at his flabby tummy. The sad thing is many men don’t see this in themselves, and that is partly because it literally feels like it comes overnight. You wake up one day fatter than you were when you went to bed, and then that trend continues forever.

It doesn’t help that we are bombarded with images of men like Tom Cruise, Bradley Cooper and even Hugh Jackman. These are men who are past forty but who somehow got there without picking up any belly on the way. Woman have been pressured with images of how they should look for decades, but this is a new thing for men and we don’t really know how to handle it. In fact, judging from what I see on a day-to-day basis, we do our best to ignore it completely. Given the effort it takes to look like Bradley Cooper does on magazine covers, it is easier just to carry on eating buns and buying XXXL clothes.

The biggest paradox of all is the number of overweight people in sportswear. By its very name, sportswear should be something you wear to play sport. Yet walk around any shopping centre in the UK and you will find this is not the case. Go into Greggs and you will see more tracksuits than you will in the local gym, even though the only muscles being exercised in there are the many jaws chomping down on doughnuts.

I totally understand people wearing sportswear for comfort. As I write this, I am sat in shorts and a Nike tracksuit top. This is partly because it’s comfortable, and partly because I always go through this ritual of putting on gym kit just in case I might go to the gym. For anyone who has ever suffered from anything like writer’s block, the best way to resolve it is to put your gym kit on. It’s surprising how motivated to write you get when the alternative is going to the gym.

Wearing gym clothes is fine if you look like you might actually know where the gym is. But wearing gym clothes when you are the size of a small bungalow is disingenuous. Your clothes are making a promise that your body simply cannot keep. This is even worse when it comes to replica football shirts. I assume that all of those replica shirts are made in the same factory as the actual team kit, probably in China. What on earth goes through the minds of the people who have to pack a XXXL shirt with a number eleven on the back? Some of them must be thinking, ‘That Mo Salah hasn’t half let himself go!’fn3

Death to Smart Casual

The very worst option when it comes to men’s fashion is ‘smart casual’. Just what is that supposed to mean? You can’t be both: it’s like being a small-tall man, or fat-thin, or fast-slow. They are opposites, and when they are not opposites then it’s just confusing. Men see clothes as a binary choice. Smart is suits, trousers, neat jumper, jacket, shirt and shoes. Casual is jeans, T-shirts, trainers and a sweatshirt. The bit in the middle is just too confusing.

I was still working in the real world when Dress-down Friday was born. The idea was that people in offices could ‘dress down’ for the day. It’s a bit like ‘Own-clothes Day’ at school, except that you don’t have to put a pound in company funds and the boss doesn’t let you play board games for the last hour of the day. The idea was basically: Hey, let’s all relax and see ourselves as real people and not corporate squares!

The downside of this innovation was that, for a man, a suit hides a multitude of sins, including his lack of fashion sense. Unless you put it on backwards it’s hard to get a suit wrong. When Dress-down Friday began, however, we all got a glimpse into the world of work colleagues that changed how we saw them forever.

I had one boss who seemed to think that Dress-down Friday really meant Golf Clothes Day, as that was all he ever wore on these days. At first I assumed that he must be playing golf on the way into work or on the way home. But when he continued coming into the office dressed like Seve Ballesteros in the winter, when it was still dark when we got into work and dark when we left, I realised that that wasn’t the case. Now, as we all know, golf clothing has a fairly wide spectrum. You can look sporty and athletic like Tiger Woods, or you can look like Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. My boss tended to lean more towards the latter, and soon it became increasingly difficult to take him seriously, dressed as he was halfway between a clown and a pimp.

Once we had to have a disciplinary meeting with one of our sales reps, and my boss walked in wearing yellow trousers and a pastel blue T-shirt, with a red pullover hanging across his shoulders like a shawl. We sat the sales rep down to review his previous appraisal and how he wasn’t performing against the objectives that he had been set. It wasn’t easy for me to tell him with a serious face that he was not meeting the company’s expectations when my boss was sat there looking like a fruit pastel. His yellow trousers had no place being worn by anyone who was not a Motown backing singer and, while the polo shirt was almost acceptable, the red jumper most certainly wasn’t.

The main problem wasn’t the colour – although the clash of primary colours of the yellow and red was an eyesore – but the way he wore it. Sometimes a middle-aged man has to carry a jumper that he is not sure he is going to wear. As you get older, you are not as sure as you were in your youth how hot your body is going to be as the day goes on. You are no longer sure that a T-shirt will do the job because your wealth of life experience has taught you that it might get a bit chilly during the day, and then you will wish you had a pullover. So you face the dilemma of having it with you but not actually wearing it.

You could carry a bag, except that you clearly won’t because you are a man, and you know that if you decide to wear the jumper you will end up having the new problem of carrying an empty bag around. Not only is this something that never looks cool, but an empty bag also suggests that you have forgotten something, or that you have been kicked out of home without enough time to pack. But in the absence of a bag, you then have to decide how to carry the pullover. You could simply carry it, but that would mean that one of your hands is then permanently full. There is every chance that you will put it down somewhere, because carrying something all day is annoying for anyone, and once you put it down there is at least a fifty–fifty chance you are going to lose it.

Men have an incredible ability to lose things. In any house, it is always the man looking for his keys, his wallet, his phone, his ambition, his sex drive, his energy and his sense of meaning (well, definitely the first few, anyway). My theory is that it’s in our DNA as part of the evolutionary process. In most ancient societies, men were the hunters and so it is within our nature to need to hunt. That’s why we lose things: we need to be hunting something, and in the absence of hunting for food or being chased by a lion, hunting for your car keys while the wife and kids are waiting at the door gives us the same adrenaline rush.

Sadly, the chances of you losing the jumper increase the older you get. If you accept my theory, as an older member of a caveman tribe you would need to continually show yourself worthy of remaining in the group by proving you could still hunt. And the older you become, the more annoying it is to go shopping to replace anything. Your clothes become moulded to your shape, so going back to the same shop to buy the same thing in the same size does not always yield the same result. It feels too small, it doesn’t suit you, and you end up not replacing the thing you lost as you realise you never actually looked good in it anyway.

To avoid having to go shopping for another jumper, men have decided that the best thing to do is to wear the jumper without actually wearing it. We tie the jumper somewhere on our bodies, using the sleeves to keep it in place. There are only two basic ways of doing this and they say everything about a man’s social class and his age.fn4

The first option is to wear it around the waist, where the neck of the pullover is placed on the small of the back and the sleeves are brought round to the front and tied in a double knot. This is the way to carry a jumper if you are young and/or working class and I would always go for it. It leaves your hands free, the pullover is immediately accessible, and ever since I was a kid, I have liked the idea that I might look like a Red Indian from behind.

The other option was the one chosen by my boss with his red pullover – in fact, with any pullover he wore on Dress-down Friday – and is the preserve of middle-class, middle-aged men. Here, the pullover is placed on the shoulders so that the arms hang in the front of the torso. Then you take one sleeve and gently overlap it with the other to hold the jumper in place. The waist method requires a serious knot, whereas the shoulders method needs greater subtlety: a tight knot would bring it to your neck and thus lose the casual effect desired.

When men employ the shoulder method, they seem to be saying to the world, ‘Hey, that’s right, I am ready for minor changes in the climate, and I have the clothing at hand should I require it, but let’s be cool and not mention it, because I am just an ordinary guy like you, even though we both know that I am better than you at just about everything.’

When I see someone wearing their jumper like a shawl, I just immediately think, ‘Cock.’

I am not for one minute trying to justify my prejudice – it’s stupid to judge a man purely on the way he carries a jumper – but I can’t help it. There is just something about seeing a pullover on a man’s shoulders that says something about them as a person. Oddly, I find it much less offensive if the person wearing his pullover that way happens to be European: for some reason that’s what I would expect of them, because I have always thought that European men were simply better at wearing clothes. They have tanned skin and waist lines that suggest they can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner without thinking that if the bottle has been opened, it may as well be finished.

This was brought home to me in my days in my sales job when I used to have to go to international business meetings. I soon discovered that my European male counterparts always looked fabulous. They didn’t wear anything overstated, just well-cut suits, trouser–jacket combinations that matched perfectly, and shoes that looked like they had never been worn in the rain. At every meeting, I always felt their crisp, sharp clothes resonated class, while my clothes seemed to hold self-doubt and low self-esteem in their very fabric. The difference was so pronounced that I began to think they were receiving a bonus clothing allowance.

I actually asked one Italian colleague how he always looked so smart and he gave me a really interesting answer. He said that because the weather is so warm in Italy, people sweat more and so wear out their clothes more quickly. This means they buy new clothes far more often than we do. What he was really saying was, ‘Go and buy some new clothes, you scruffy bastard!’ but he was far too diplomatic for that.

Vest Intentions

As you get older, the question of what you wear every day to face the world gets easier in some ways – you can always just give up and retreat into pullovers and slacks, though I’m not ready to do that yet – and harder in others. Some of life’s eternal questions get more pressing as you hit middle age, and one of them is that eternal quandary – is it ever OK to wear a vest?

For me, it’s a straight no. I have never seen a middle-aged man wear a vest as an outer garment and look good. If you wear a vest like that, it is like wearing your underpants on the outside of your trousers. They are just not meant to be there. For a man in his fifties, going about your business in a vest is akin to a statement. It’s putting yourself somewhere between a wife beater and a social outcast. You’re telling the world that either you live on your own, or you don’t live with anybody who’s prepared to tell you just how bad you look.

Wearing a vest with no shirt might be OK when you are twenty and you are in a nightclub in Ibiza but it’s not when you are a middle-aged man. For one thing, your body is working against you. When you are a middle-aged man you have hairs growing out of your body that you don’t even know about. Unless you are very unlucky, you don’t tend to have hairy shoulders in your twenties. It’s a very different story in your fifties. Once you see hairy shoulders, you know all you need to know about their owner. Nobody has hairy shoulders and grooms their other areas of body hair – the shoulders are a window into the pubic foliage that you know will cover the rest of their body. They are basically Chewbacca in a vest.

I have a gay friend who has told me that such hirsute men are regarded in some quarters as attractive. In fact, they are seen as an ever better catch when they are big fellows, and are known as bears. Some gay clubs have specific bear nights where I would imagine it’s almost obligatory to wear a vest. You are definitely getting what it says on the tin when you wake up next to a fat, hairy bloke after a bear night. My friend is a slim, hairy man so I asked him if men of his type had a name. He said, ‘otters’. I had no reply.

As you get to the age I am now, hairs grow everywhere. I look at our holiday photos and I have hairs that amaze me. I even have hairs in the small of my back – Melanie noticed them the other day. I have absolutely no idea where they have come from: it’s like somebody must have just come along in the night and stuck them there. What can you do about them? No barber that I know offers a shave-the-lower-back-service.

And I do know some amazing barbers. I went to a Turkish barber just the other week. He did the wet shave, which is great, and then he did this thing where he got cotton buds used for cleaning ears and asked me, ‘Do you want the wax?’ I had no idea what he was talking about, so I said, ‘Yes, whatever.’ He got the cotton buds, put them in a hot tub of wax and then shoved them right up my nose. I wasn’t expecting that. I sat there for a few minutes with the earbuds hanging out of my nose and then, when they had gone hard, the barber yanked them both out, pulling all the hairs from the inside of my nose out as he did it. Jesus, it was painful! And so it should have been, bearing in mind that it had taken me fifty-two years to grow those nasal hairs. Some of them were longer than the hairs on my head.

That’s the kind of service that Turkish barbers provide – but not even they will invite you to take your shirt off and lean over their chair so they can take care of the hair at the bottom of your back. Nobody is doing that. Maybe there’s a gap in the market, because all men of my age will have those hairs on their back. Maybe we need to visit a sheep shearer.

I’m not trying to get all of the vest factories closed down here. I think it is fine as an undergarment, whatever age you are, as long as other people can’t see it. Maybe it’s a nationality thing. I remember as a kid seeing the Fonz in Happy Days in his skimpy T-shirt and he looked really cool. But a middle-aged British man in a vest will always evoke either Steptoe & Son or Stan Ogden.fn5

A similar garment that I don’t get on with as I get older is the gilet. The gilet seems to be for people who have decided that their arms are in a different climate from the rest of their body. They think as long as my torso is warm, my arms will automatically be warm too – well, how exactly does that work? I reckon you should only wear a gilet if you are French and pissed off enough to speak while waving your arms to get them warm.

A Load of Pants

But it’s not just deciding how to cover your torso that can be a nightmare for middle-aged men. Your bottom half can be a minefield as well. And in moments of doubt and insecurity, who else would we turn to but fashion designers?

Tom Ford is one of the best male fashion designers in the world. I read an interview that he did not so long ago, where the journalist asked him a very good question: ‘Not every man can afford to go out and buy a Tom Ford suit or an entire Tom Ford wardrobe – what is your advice to those people?’ And Tom Ford said, ‘Every man can afford to make sure that they buy fresh underwear every year. They have to clear out their underwear and make sure it’s fresh. When you put on fresh underwear, you are starting the day by telling yourself, “I’m worth something.”’

A big part of me buys into what Tom is talking about. When I was a lot younger and just married, I was a semi-professional footballer playing in the Northern Premier League for teams like Southport, Hyde and Winsford. We would be getting changed before the matches, and I’d have a glance around the dressing-room at the other lads’ undies. This was when Calvin Klein and the like were just coming in, and everyone else would be proudly wearing them. I would be there, thinking to myself: You spend £25 on a pair of undies? You must be fucking mad! Then I would look down at my own pants, and I’d be wearing a tattered old pair that had ‘Birthday Boy’ written on them.

Before Marky Mark started advertising it, male underwear wasn’t a fashion and I think that was probably not a bad thing. When I was first married and we didn’t have a lot of money, I distinctly remember thinking that the last thing I wanted to spend money on was something that nobody would ever see. Why would I waste money on pants? I was married so the element of surprise had gone and so why spend what cash we had on new underpants – it would be like wrapping a present up after it had been opened and then doing it again and again. Once you know what is inside the package (as it were), it becomes much less important to have it wrapped up.

I remember having a very bizarre underpants-related incident on a work trip to Spain. While I was still working for the pharmaceutical company, I went to a conference in Barcelona. I was going to be there for three days. Melanie and I had just had our first baby, everything in the house and in our lives was chaos, and I had packed and left in a rush. I got to Barcelona, unpacked my bag and found I hadn’t packed any underpants.

This didn’t seem like a big problem. I was staying by the Nou Camp stadium and just down the road was a department store called El Corte Inglés, which is like a Spanish take on Marks & Spencer. I wandered down to the store and up the escalator to the menswear department, where I found myself amidst a vast array of Catalonian underwear.

I managed to find an assistant who spoke English and told him, ‘I’m after underpants.’ He nodded, took me over to one side of the section and showed me a box with some pants in. ‘These are perfect for you,’ he told me. I lifted the pants out of the box and there was … a weight to them. I thought, hang on, pants don’t usually weigh this much. I had never held underpants that weighed anything.

I looked at them more closely and they were padded in the rear. Padded! They were like an underpants version of a Wonderbra! I looked at the guy, and I thought, you cheeky bastard! He had obviously looked me up and down and thought, you need a lift. Your arse is saggy. I just couldn’t believe that a) he thought I needed them, and b) that anybody bought them, ever.

The disappointment factor must be huge. It’s like when you meet a girl in a Wonderbra and you get to take it off, and you realise, Oh … there’s nothing there. So imagine the disappointment for a poor man or woman who thinks they have copped off with a really fit Spanish waiter, gets to the bedroom where he drops his kecks and his arse is hanging down past his big, baggy scrotum? It’s not going to be a good moment, for either of them. I didn’t buy the padded underpants.

Now I am in middle age, I have gone totally the other way from the days when I was frugal about my pants. Over the years, I have tried out various different kinds of underwear. I wore boxer shorts for a while, but I found it was just like wearing a pair of curtains. They were too loose and I didn’t like them. I feel like I need someone, or something, to give my bollocks a cuddle, so I’ve settled on wearing clingy hipster pants. I’ve got way too many of them. It’s bonkers. Joking aside, I probably have a pair of pants for every day of the month.fn6

I’ve got a bit of a thing with shoes, as well. When you’re a kid – and this was particularly true for me, coming from a not well-off family – you have two pairs of shoes. You have your winter shoes and your summer pumps. The best shoes I ever had as a boy were black school shoes that had animal footprints moulded into the sole so that when you walked through mud it would look like there were tigers about. Our council estate was covered in tiger footprints like it was a safari park. The shoes also had a compass in the heel. This was the most useless place imaginable to put a compass in a pair of shoes, as there is absolutely no chance of seeing the compass when you have your shoes on, but it gave you a sense of adventure that you were not just wearing a pair of shoes, you had part of a survival kit on. I suppose, for a manufacturer to go down a similar route today, they would have to put a satnav in the heel.

I also remember having a pair of orange pumps with black stars on. I have never worn any garment since that I loved more. I happened across an old photograph of me wearing them recently and somehow all of the happy memories of my childhood felt encapsulated in that pair of tatty orange pumps. That is what shoes can mean to you, particularly when you do not have dozens of pairs and getting a new pair is always such a big deal.

When you’re a teenager, you get into fashion and the whole trainer thing comes in, of buying Kickers and Adidas and Gola. Nowadays, now I’m in a different financial position, I think I have probably got too many shoes and trainers. In fact, I know I have, because Melanie and I counted them up the other day and I have thirty-two pairs. I know that’s a bit silly, but in fairness to me, a lot are just ordinary black shoes. There’s a reason for that. When I go on tour, I wear a suit and black shoes, and you would not believe the number of times I’ve turned up at gigs and forgotten to take shoes. I realise, Shit, I’ve got to go and buy another pair of fucking black shoes! I’ve literally got about eight pairs that are all the frigging same, so you could count them all as just being one pair.

Mind you, there’s still room in my wardrobe for at least one more pair, because I’m trying to find a decent pair of vegan shoes. Having been a vegetarian for over thirty years, I don’t like wearing leather. But I haven’t found any decent vegan shoes yet. I’m still looking.

I suppose I’ve gone through different stages of clothes-buying in my life to date. In a funny way, I grew old quickly, because I was in Marks & Spencer suits in my twenties, when I was doing the pharmaceutical job. Then I got into stand-up and went through all that caper of trying to get a showbiz suit. Now I’m kind of back to normal suits again. The truth is, like most middle-aged blokes, I don’t think about buying clothes all that much. I buy my own shoes, but other than that, I’m often just wearing things that my family have given me as presents. I guess that means that like all dads I am handing over a huge responsibility to my family because they could make me look shit. In fact that is the best excuse for wearing anything that looks a bit shit: put on a pained smile and just say ‘it was a present’.

Just Say ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

A lucky aspect of my job is that people give me free stuff. I’ll go to do a television show, walk into the dressing room and somebody will say, ‘Look, we’ve got the choice of these three jumpers to put on.’ I love that – and it’s not just the fact that it’s free. It’s the fact that someone else has gone to the shop for me and chosen them for me, and that’s great. They have saved me two days of angst, wondering what to wear on TV.

The first time I got offered cool free stuff, my working-class roots definitely kicked in. A mate of mine, Jodie, is in the music business and he had a contact at Nike who he introduced to me. Jodie used to get in all the bands and sort them out with Nike gear and Nike trainers and he said that he would do the same to me. It was like going for my Hong Kong suit all over again. Jodie told me, ‘Go to this street in Soho and find a black door, No. 75. It’s nondescript, a little doorway with no logos or anything. Knock, go upstairs and they’ll sort you out.’

When I got there, I walked into a room with wall-to-wall cupboards that folded out into a whole cave of Nike gear.

‘This is fantastic!’ I said.

‘Well, take what you want,’ the guy told me.

‘I don’t want to take the piss, or anything …’ I said.

‘No, take what you want,’ he repeated. ‘When you’ve finished, we’ll have it all downstairs in a bag for you.’

I just couldn’t resist. I spent ages trying on trainers. In the end, I think I took nine pairs. I’ve never been asked back. I suppose the guy had meant, ‘Take what you want, as long as it’s two pairs’ – but I had that working-class poor lad thing of, Fucking hell, I’ll never get another go at this! And I was right.

But everything changes as you get older. When I think about clothes now, the phrase I keep coming back to is ‘age-appropriate’. I don’t want to dress like a grandad, but I also don’t want to commit the worst sin of all – dressing too young.

I want to dress like a fifty-two-year-old because there is a r