January Books 21) Starter for Ten

21) Starter for Ten, by David Nicholls. (.co.uk, .com)

I picked this up in Vienna, thinking, oh well, it’s the book of the the film, and I’ll probably never see the film, so it’s a heavily-discounted and thus acceptable substitute. But in fact it turns out the be the source on which the recent film was based. And Dear God, I enjoyed this book.

OK, the plot is pretty thin – as soon as 18-year-old Brian Jackson gets to university in October 1985, you can work out pretty rapidly that of the first two girls he meets he is going to fall in love with one, yet end up with the other. But it is told with such gusto, such humour, such toe-curling excruciating accuracy, that I actually forgot as I neared the end that I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And there are some great lines in it too. For instance:

The DJ is playing ‘Tainted Love’ now, and the atmosphere in the room seems to have got darker, more sexually predatory and decadent, and if it’s not quite Weimar Republic Berlin, the it’s at least an East Sussex Sixth-form-college production of Cabaret


I walk into a university library that’s almost audibly groaning with the huge weight and breadth of human knowledge, and the same two things always happen: a) I start to think about sex b) I need to go to the toilet.

But I guess what really made it for me is that Brian Jackson and I are the same age; he celebrates his nineteenth birthday in late 1985, I celebrated mine in April 1986. As

  was writing earlier today about her feelings for Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’, that really makes it feel more like a flashback to my own life. Thank God, the details are a bit different; but I realised on the train that people were casting wary glances at the way my body was clenching in vicarious embarrassment for poor fictional Brian.

Oh yes, and it all ties in to University Challenge as well. I missed out on participating in the original Bamber Gascoigne series; but I did captain the Queen’s University team in the first year of the Jeremy Paxman revival, 1994-95. We lost our first round match (can’t remember against who, now), but came back as highest scoring losers and then lost again in the second round to Trinity College Cambridge. My fault – at the crucial moment I said “Nasser” instead of “Gaddafi”.

Nell McCafferty wrote in her TV review the following weekend that if she’d been watching in Belfast she would have been out on the streets looking for Cambridge graduates to lynch. (Ironic, given that the QUB team’s captain was a Cambridge graduate.) But I realise now that engaging in it as a lofty postgraduate student I missed out on the true University Challenge experience. I was gratified, many years later, to find out that two of my fellow team members did indeed manage a brief romantic fling while we were in Manchester doing the recordings. But that is enough reminiscing for now.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. America (the book) : a citizen’s guide to democracy inaction by Jon Stewart
  2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  3. Night. Foreword by François Mauriac. Translated from the French by Stella Rodway by Elie Wiesel
  4. A swiftly tilting planet by Madeleine L’Engle
  5. A wind in the door by Madeleine L’Engle

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