‘As a teenager, I wasn’t cool. But being funny, I realised I had currency’
I was born on a lovely council estate in Winchester, but none of my mates at school lived there – they were middle class, went on skiing holidays and lived in detached houses. We went to the Isle of Wight on our holidays and lived in a semi. Dad worked for Ford in Southampton as a foreman, and my mum was a nurse for 43 years.
Our life was absolutely humdrum. I’d come home from school and Mum and Dad would be at work. I had my own key. I felt like I was my own little man. I’d make a cheese sarnie and watch telly while my sister – two years younger than me – hid in her room.
We had proper independence then – if I had a time machine, I’d go back like a shot. In the endless summer holidays, we’d just bugger off – with friends, or to the library, or to build a camp – and come back for tea. Mum would make me have a pint of milk before I left, though, as if that was enough to guard me against any horror that might befall me.
My sister and I got on, but we were chalk and cheese. She was introverted. She loved horses, but my BMX was my passion – I got it one Christmas, but I knew where it was kept before it was wrapped up, so I’d ride it when Mum and Dad were out, clean it up and put it back. I was still so excited on Christmas morning though.
Dad’s parents were Irish, deeply religious and very kind. Grandad was the caretaker at my primary school, and I would see them both a few times a week. When I got my first Saturday job at Woolworths, I could pop round and watch Football Focus with them.
My mum’s mum was Indian – but that was never, ever discussed. To me, she
My mum’s mum was Indian – but that was never, ever discussed. To me, she was Nanny Norma from Wales
was Nanny Norma. I was looking at old pictures with my wife when we met, and she asked who Nanny Norma was. When I said she was my grandmother, she said, “She was Indian – that’s amazing!” and I just said, “No – that’s Nanny Norma and she was from Wales.” Her heritage wasn’t mentioned, but that was the 1980s for you.
She met my grandad in India in the war – he fought with the Gurkhas in Burma. He died when I was young, but I remember his stories and medals. He was a big man – army heavyweight boxing and swimming champion – but very quiet. I wish my grandparents were still alive – the older generation have so many stories and so much wisdom. When we are young, they are just our relatives, and we never think of the person behind that.
As a teenager, I wasn’t cool, because I wasn’t good at sport – lots of masculine identity came from that. But being funny, I realised, had currency. So I made people laugh. Adrian Mole [Sue Townsend’s teenage creation] made me feel less alone. I remember thinking, “I get it now. Other people feel like this!”
Being a dad is the best thing that has happened to me. [O’Connell has two daughters, Ruby, 12, and Lois, 10]. For a long time, my wife and I didn’t know if we were going to have a family. We had been married quite a while, and we hit a bit of a crossroads. We wondered if that was it, really, whether there was something we were missing.
When you are young, you think it is the big things that matter – the job, the house – and that they will make you happy and fulfilled. But, with the children, the little moments are the best. Mine still like to be carried, usually when they are knackered and need to go to bed. I know they won’t ask me to do it for much longer, but they don’t know what it means that they still do – to me the day can’t get any better.