The dressing down from hell (in Inferno by Dante)
He's rightly revered as one of the finest poets of all time, but the portrait Dante paints of himself during his 14th Century perambulations through hell, is of a relentlessly cringe-inducing buffoon. When he's not fainting or falling over (he does both regularly), he's boring on about the hellish traffic flow systems, like a kind of infernal Alan Partridge. His most embarrassing moment, though, comes when his own hero and guide - the poet Virgil - gets so frustrated with his constant fecklessness that he bawls him out in front of every condemned soul in earshot. Says Dante: "When I heard him use that angry tone/To me, I turned to him so on fire with shame/It comes over me still, though all these years have flown".
The unorthodox fire fighter (in Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift)
Swift's brave explorer Lemuel Gulliver pitches up on the faraway isle of Lilliput to find its inhabitants are roughly the size of his big toe. All well and good, until a fire breaks out at the emperor's distinguished palace, and Gulliver decides, instead of labouring all night with thimble-sized buckets of water, to urinate "in such a quantity... that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished". While the emperor is pleased his palace is still standing, his wife understandably takes issue with the method of fire fighting employed and resolves that "those buildings should never be repaired for her use."
The unfortunate hospital incident (in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Ages 13 & 3/4 by Sue Townsend)
Dante and Gulliver may have been making spectacles of themselves centuries earlier, but acne-riddled Midlands schoolboy Adrian Mole is the undisputed king of literary embarrassment. The apogee of his humiliation comes at the very end of his first diary when, in a botched attempt at teenage rebellion, he sniffs the glue holding his Airfix model plane together. We then cut straight to the A&E department of the local hospital to find poor old Adrian sat in the waiting room with the minature Spitfire stuck to his nose while his fellow patients fail miserably to control their mirth.
The mother of all embarrassing mothers (in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
There is a reason teens shudder when they read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. She might be 201 years old but Mrs Bennet is still unbeaten as the most embarrassing Mum that ever was. When she’s not boasting loudly about how her daughters are the best looking at the ball, she’s yapping on to anyone who’ll listen about who she can marry them off to and how much their prospective husbands are worth. Every moment with Mrs Bennet is a cringe one. And although her daughters beg her to, she just won’t listen, leaving them to “blush and blush again with shame and vexation”.
The crushing rejection (in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling)
No list of cringeworthy moments would be complete without a soul dampening romantic rejection, and the one bestowed on Harry Potter in JK Rowling's fourth instalment almost sees him transformed from "the boy who lived" to "the boy who died of embarrassment". Up in the owlery Harry just about overcomes his sandpaper dry mouth ("The words came out before Harry had quite his tongue around them") and scarlet cheeks ("Why did he have to go red now?") to ask Cho Chang to the Yule Ball. Cho tells him she's already going with his Tri-Wizard rival Cedric Diggory and Harry's insides "felt as though they had been filled with lead". Happily, Harry encounters Ron minutes later to find he's just suffered an even keener humiliation by trying his luck with the hectares-out-of-his-league Fleur Delacour.
The world's worst poetry reading (in A Heart Under a Cassock by Arthur Rimbaud)
This short piece by French Symbolist Rimbaud would put most people off public speaking for life. Rimbaud's luckless poet takes to the stage, and immediately sees "that the chairs were moving away from me, and I was the subject of their whisperings". He begins to lay bear his soul, and even thinks he's won over the girl he fancies in the audience ("the glances she casts on my feet are a token of her love. She worships me!"), until "some slight smell seemed to come from my shoes", and he remembers he's been wearing the same socks for a month. Suddenly the whispering, glancing and chair scraping make sense, and the crowd bursts into vindictive laughter as he legs it out the door, "the tails of my black habit [flapping] behind me like sinister birds!"
The nightmare morning after (in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh)
There are plenty of grim moments in Irvine Welsh's brilliant 1993 debut but this one may well take the cake. A short snippet entitled "Traditional Sunday Breakfast" finds a chap called Davie waking up in monstrously soiled bedsheets at his girlfriend's house after a big night out. He slopes downstairs - sheets in hand - to find her and her parents mid-fry up at the breakfast table, and insists on taking the sheets home to wash. His potential mother-in-law is having none of this, and a tussle ensues, ending with the sheets flying open and spraying the entire family with various pungent bodily fluids. "Gail shot me a look of loathing and disgust", says Davie. "I can't see our relationship developing any further now."
The inappropriate seduction technique (in Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding)
If Mole is King Awkward, Bridget is his bumbling, bungling queen. And never do we love her more than when she wears her "genuinely big knickers" on a night out and ends up in flagrante with the man of her dreams. The moment he pulls up her dress that inch too high, you have to shut the book in horror to try to stop the scene unfolding. There isn’t a woman who looks at a pair of spanx without remembering poor Bridget’s cautionary tale.
The ultimate social faux pas (in The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith)
Charles Pooter (the titular Nobody of this incredibly funny Victorian novel) is a well-meaning yet slightly self-important London clerk whose life is effectively a catalogue of minor social embarrassments. In his office, rolled-up balls of paper are aimed at his head, but as soon as he turns round, he finds "all the clerks apparently riveted to their work." His crowning moment of embarrassing glory arrives at a dinner with an old schoolfriend, during which Pooter points at a photo of his host's brother and remarks, "Who's this jovial fellow? Life doesn't seem to trouble him much!" His host replies, "No, it doesn't. He's dead." A red-faced Pooter promptly reports himself "horrified by my own awkwardness".
The mortifying monobrow makeover (in Angus, Thongs and Full Front Snogging by Louise Rennison)
One incident in Angus, Thongs… sees Georgia Nicolson attend a party dressed as a stuffed olive so in the embarrassing moment stakes, you would think things couldn’t get much worse. You’d be wrong, of course, as you discover when she accidentally shaves her eyebrow off one day before school, while trying to correct her monobrow. Louise Rennison perfectly, and hilariously, captures the mortifying lows that come with being a fifteen year old.
Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison is out now, published by Chicken House