The first and only time I went to a meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous, this chap stood up and gave a blow-by-blow account of his sexual history. He had started life as a heterosexual, he said, and became hopelessly addicted to pornography and prostitutes. Then he decided to give gay sex a try and soon became addicted to encounters with multiple partners in public parks. I forget how many times he said he was having it off every day, but it was heroic. He was out there day and night in all seasons and in all weathers and would go without lunch and dinner. In winter, he said, he was sometimes covered in snow. Then he caught pneumonia, then HIV. HIV became full-blown Aids. Finally, he decided enough was enough. And now here he was, relating his salutary tale in a church hall over tea and inexpensive biscuits.
The point he was making was that he now realised that his behaviour had been reckless, and that it was reckless because he was subject to a raging psychological addiction. What he had thought was merely a habit had taken him over and wrecked his life. This fragile-looking man with nothing left to lose except his humility was an impressive and convincing speaker. Unfortunately, I decided that I had now learned everything I needed to know about sex addiction and that was the last meeting I went to.
It must take a lot of courage to stand up in front of an audience and admit to helplessness in the face of an addiction. I don’t know whether I could publicly give an account of my own sex addition, for example, which took the form latterly of a porn addiction so bad that I used to petition God, even while looking at it, to help me to desist from this abject nonsense. Nor could I go on to state publicly that, when I was diagnosed with metastasised prostate cancer and chemically castrated as part of the treatment, I took it as an answer to prayer and a part of me was genuinely over the moon. Instead, I do my bit by telling people about my debacle informally, usually when drunk, guessing that a small percentage will be secretly living in a similar nightmare. If Facebook can filter a political bent into its news feed, and Google can disqualify content containing certain trigger words, why, I wonder, does internet porn flourish with few restrictions and little comment? If we could somehow harness the energy that is wasted in private on pornography, we might not need another Hinkley Point.
At Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, too, a member will stand up each week and give an account of his or her relationship with alcohol from the first taste to the present. I think it might be a requirement for the 12-step programme. At the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I attended, this guy got up and told such a harrowing tale I had to go to the pub afterwards and have a stiff one to cheer myself up. As was the case at the Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, the people I met there were serious about beating their addiction and a little dazed by their success. At that first meeting, a south London gangster from central casting said to me, ‘You’re a wanker, mate. But here’s my card. If you’re serious about being sober you can call me day or night if you need someone to talk to.’
A friend in AA for 30 years once told me a good story about a new AA member giving his testimony. That new member was none other than the great Barry Humphries. Mr Humphries, claims my friend, was so nervous about his forthcoming ordeal, that he went to the lavatory and fortified himself with a whisky miniature. As he tipped back his head to get the contents down in one, an air bubble momentarily blocked the flow. Barry Humphries tilted his head back as far as it would go to get the dregs, and a surge of liquid was released at such a speed that the next moment he was giving his testimony to an AA meeting with his head soaked in whisky.
It’s a favourite story. I’ve repeated it often. So when I met Barry Humphries last week before Taki’s splendid 80th birthday dinner party, and found myself tongued-tied at meeting a hero, I suddenly remembered this story and repeated it to him. He had expressed a degree of pleasure at our introduction, but as my tale progressed, I sensed it quickly evaporating. ‘Is that true?’ I said. ‘No! It’s not true at all!’ he said indignantly. ‘It never happened!’ At that moment we were called to the table. Embarrassed and ashamed at having defamed Mr Barry Humphries for years, I peeled off and went in search of my name card on table 1.