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Monday, November 29, 2021

Nerdiness is making a comeback. And about time too

Twice in the past two weeks, I have seen groups of young people playing Quidditch in the park. They looked handsome and happy and perfectly normal, except for the fake broomsticks they clasped between their thighs as they galloped about in pursuit of the “golden snitch” (a player dressed in yellow with a tennis ball in a sock dangling from his waistband).

“How ridiculous,” tutted my husband as we drove past. But I found it impressive. What dedication it must have taken to create a real game out of Harry Potter’s flying sport. And what fearless nerdery to then go outside, in public, and actually play it!

You couldn’t have got away with that when I was young. Back then, you had to be cool. The only socially-acceptable pastimes were smoking, snogging, taking drugs and dancing. If, like me, you couldn’t dance and didn’t like to lose control, you just had to hide in the nightclub loos and wait for your youth to pass.

Now, though, it’s cool to be uncool. The traditional hobbies of the lonely nerd – puzzles, video games, fantasy role-play, Dungeons and Dragons – are being embraced without irony by the masses. Last year, sales of D&D sets reached their highest level in the game’s 50-year history. The latest craze on TikTok is a literary puzzle called Cain’s Jawbone, first published in 1934, which requires the reader to rearrange 100 random pages in order to solve six different whodunnits.

My children no longer ask to go paint-balling or trampolining: they want to go to an “escape room”. I was doubtful at first – it sounded claustrophobic and boring. But my 11-year-old nagged me into taking him and a friend to an escape room in an abandoned tower block in east London. “What are we going to escape from?” asked the friend querulously, as we tiptoed up the echoing stairwell. “A gang of crackheads?”

In fact, we spent an absorbing hour in a beautifully staged room, pretending to be Edwardian investigators of the paranormal. I couldn’t solve a single puzzle, but I watched in awe as the boys darted round the room, turning over boxes in search of serial numbers, deciphering the different knots in a length of rope, layering pieces of vellum on top of each other to reveal hidden images.

It’s the perfect activity for a generation raised online. It uses the amazing powers of pattern recognition and problem solving that they have acquired through hours of gaming, but makes the experience tangible. Crucially, it requires them to collaborate to succeed. They have spent so much of their short lives house-bound, atomised and online. Now they are finding ways to connect with others, using the ancient, ingenious tools of the nerd.


Hardcore driving

As a terrible driver myself, I can’t help admiring the amoral aplomb of the late Lucian Freud. The artist’s daughter, Bella Freud, has revealed that her father paid the getaway driver of a criminal gang to take his test for him. That done, Freud seemed to adopt the gangster’s “driving style”.

He would tear down the streets of Notting Hill at night, flashing his lights on and off to imitate a police car so that others would scatter. He once roared down a narrow mews street where a father was extracting his child from a car. Freud smashed into the open car door, lopping it clean off, and drove on without a backward glance.

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