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Park life

  Mon 20th May 2019

I went to my GP's practice on Friday, a place of disorder, different from the prim Georgian living room of the surgery in Lancaster. I wanted to ask about my hernia, which I'm tempted to ignore, and my alcoholism, which I shouldn't.

I veer between worry and carelessness about my drinking. Every night lately, I fester in thoughts of being unloved. "You no more love me than you love the second lampost on the left," I say to an imagined Wendy. I run and re-run, the incident when Helen came over and I was exiled while they all partied, because the Little Dictator would be there. I can't get over it, and it's happening again on Saturday, when Kitty, Wendy and her auntie will be celebrating Wendy's birthday. "I'm a second class, inferior, arm's length friend," I moan, a muttering obsessive churning his self-pitying phrases. I try different positions in bed, seeking one that will be so comfortable it will smother this vandalising chatter in my head.

At the desk, there is a bureaucratic problem -- I am an "inactive patient", which means that they've lost the registration forms I took in months ago. I went home and typed in "help for alcoholism Bristol", and found a meeting of a group which practices a combination of CBT and something with the forbidding name Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. My gut feeling was that it wouldn't work. Apart from my Dad kicking me in the head in the hallway when I was nine I had a plain childhood, albeit with lots of moving around, so there's no early trauma narrative to get cathartic over.

Neither do I have a contemporary sorrow to explain my drinking. I'm in a financially precarious state, but it's one that lets me read, and acquire sunburn in Castle Park of an afternoon. Having once been imprisoned in a callcentre, I like to lay down, settling for sleep in view of the current bondservants in the glassed panopticon opposite. I am recognised in the park now by its habituées -- the black men who ask me why I'm not exercising with them, the Spanish bin man, the purple-haired, sexist punk, the generous Malaysian drunkards profferring endless Stella. I don't want to give this up; I never went to the course.

On my way back home, I popped into the local hardline Muslim bookshop, where I had a fruitless conversation with a polished young man over a book in which I was showing interest, which explained why music is haram. Joylessness, the overlapping centre in the Venn diagram of religions. I went to a Somalian cafe, where I had an espresso for a pound and felt self-conscious.

Walking home last night, I was approached by a man who offered me a box of wine for a fiver. As I didn't want to see him burdened with it in his arms, which might have developed chafing sores as he carried it home, I agreed to the bargain. I think it's important we do our bit for strangers.



  Fri 10th May 2019

Neither me, nor the new job, is working as I'd hoped. I haven't the slightest self-discipline, and my days have returned to my default pattern of full-time drinking. I took on an essay from a third year undergraduate from a London university. Thirty-five minutes were allocated for its completion, yet it took me well over an hour; consequently, my hourly rate worked out at less than the minimum wage.

Instead of dealing with this by learning techniques to work faster, I am willingly discouraged, and haven't returned to the site since. I've had two long (an hour-and-three-quarters each) interviews with a Chinese maths teacher who is setting up an online English teaching agency, and I've got my first two pupils on Sunday, half an hour each with a seven- and an eleven-year-old, for which, in total, I'll receive twenty pounds. It feels like an act of charity. Things fall apart for me when I don't have an employer.

Things have been improving over the last few months between Kitty, Wendy and I. Wendy sent me a postcard in return to one I sent her. "One good Shrigley deserves another," she wrote. "Love, Wendy Xx." But if I needed any reminder about the immobility of The Injunction, it came today.

I rang her for a chat, and to say that I wouldn't be able to make it up for her birthday later this month. Weekend after next has preoccupied me day and night; making myself feel unloved and miserable with bitter, resentful memories of when I was told I wasn't allowed to come up to hers when Kitty, Wendy and Helen were all there a few months ago, banished to Wetherspoons while my closest friends caroused all night.

We chatted away, about her very ill Dad, work, Lancaster. I then broached the subject of her birthday, saying that money prevents me coming up. I told her that I miss her and Kitty every day; but the train fare is over a hundred pounds, and then there's paying for somewhere to stay. Everyone in Lancaster thinks that someone else will put me up.

"I know looby, but realistically, you can't bankrupt yourself for two hours in The Fur Coat and No Knickers Arms, and I'd have to go back anyway and look after The Little Dictator anyway." My stomach sank. Without saying it, she had said that her and Kitty would be getting together later, a gathering to which I wouldn't be invited.

We chatted on for another couple of minutes before she returns, unprompted, to the subject of her birthday. "...and then on the Saturday, Kitty and Auntie V are coming round for the evening."

The accident of meaning takes no effort to grasp. I'd have been corralled with a pub lunch, after which they go up to Wendy's house for her birthday do, all of us smiling as I'm waved off. Neither of them will stand up to Wendy's ex's baseless jealousy; it's easier to send me away. There's no sign of her knowing how much this hurts me, as she chats away about her birthday night before moving blithely on to another topic.


Boxed set

  Sun 5th May 2019

I am in the pub, trying to concentrate on my flea market acquisition, The Norwich School, 1800 -- 1833, a monograph about a school of landscape painting that flourished in that city.

It's absorbing to the exclusion of everything except the fortyish woman with glasses and an overbite, light brown V-necked wrap-round top over a white vest, and a worn-in, paled demin miniskirt that tautens round her thighs, stray threads from the hem unpicked. She stands up. Sleek blackly-tighted legs. She tugs at her dress to correct its upward ride. "Don't do that," I say. She leans artlessly and fuckably with her hands on the table as she gathers an order.

In a self-conscious moment when decency suddenly kicks in to arrest my sexualised gaze, I look around to see if she is a shared desire, for it dirties the pleasure when you realise that you're just the same as him. It seems to be just me combing her.

I leave the Norwich School to go to the bookie's. On my way down Corn St I am greeted with a fist pump by the man who sorted out the ruckus the other day. It's over in a second, but I carry the ripple of his greeting in a subserviant place like a grateful little boy. With a build no bigger than mine, he is a potentate, possessing a power magnified by its being held in check.

Through him, I've been vetted, and admitted to some stripe. My hernia, or groin strain, I don't know which, isn't healed yet -- I am still blotched in black, purple and a dull yellow, from my belly button southwards -- but I am impatient to rejoin his exercising. I would love to carry a physical strength incommensurate with my appearance.

Walking down Old Market today, I am approached by an Irishman who wants to give me a knife set. It's boxed, brand new. He has five of them. He doesn't want any money. He just wants me to say a prayer for him.

Wendy and Kitty ring from Wendy's. How I want to be with them. We chat easily for half an hour, but the pleasure curdles as Wendy starts on a tentative plan involving me coming up for her birthday later this month. I keep up an appearance for the phone.

The call ends, and the corrosive, years-old lament, born of the knowledge that The Injunction would bar me from a gathering such as that from which they were ringing, seeps into my middle.


Teenage kicks

  Mon 29th April 2019

I'm in Castle Park after work. She approaches me: always the best direction to start in. She takes down my number and asks me what I am doing for the rest of the night.

"Would you mind if I came round?"

"Not all at. OK, see you later."

She neither rang nor turned up.

Three people are playing frisbee nearby; its gliding arc is synaesthetic with the calm which is about to be smashed.

A group of youngsters amble up towards a group of hippy-foreigner types. A boy in his teens slams his foot hard into a hired bike on the floor, rips off a metal part and throws it hard across the park, heedless of any nearby heads. He does it again. One of the foreigners remonstrates with him; I can't hear it. Things appear concluded, and I go over to the Spanish speaker to thank him for intervening.

All of a sudden, we are facing a mob of teenagers, shouting and pushing us and making incoherent complaints against us. We are outnumbered, maybe twenty to a dozen. "Go home! You're children!" we keep saying. "Adults are the problem," one of the children says. The foreigners draw on a deep well of restraint, and reply to pushes, then punches, with questioning gestures and open hands. Everything in my body surges, preparing. It's exciting.

I find myself a yard away from a girl with a bottle in her hand. Someone deftly kicks it out her grip; she finds it again. The children are annoyed at the fuddy-duddies' obstinate non-violence, and so am I, a little bit.

We are being pushed slowly down a hill. Just as we were facing that most unsatisfactory of endings to a bit of open-air argy-bargy -- running away -- the lone black infantryman arrives, the permanently topless man with whom I have been rupturing myself recently.

He walks wordlessly into the ruckus; they sense him, with the psychic radio of crowds. He flicks dismissively with his hand towards each sub-group, and they run towards the main road. Not one of them dares a gobbet of face-saving braggadocio in retreat. He returns to the apparatus in Bristol City Council's unintended free gym.

Our posse regroups and talks excitedly. "Welcome to Bristol!" we say repeatedly, chummy slaps on Spaniards' backs. A Scandinavian man pours a cooling draught of Nordic social contextualisation, saying how he pities them and has sympathy for them. I wonder out loud about what loveless non-homes they must be avoiding.

It's a sorry scene: none of us have any drink left, and any tourists we could tap up, for whom this is a rough guide too far, have long since left. I calculate the time to Tesco's but I know that an exeunt now would be to lose my place in the drama. A policewoman appears. She asks me for my details; in my agitated state I incontinently replied with facts, regretting doing so as I watched her pencil extracting a part of me.

She asks I'd mind her coming round to take a witness statement; they've got the bike-breaking instigator, but they want the girl wielding the bottle. At home, I'm relieved that there's neither phone call nor visit; I only want to talk to myself now. I'm enjoying the comedown, drinking rapidly, the flavour of cider turned up, walking around the room, knowing that I am going to masturbate filthily, postponedly.

My last day at the cafe. I tell my well-meaning but scared supervisor how pleasant it is (usually) in Castle Park after work, when everyone's out for a drink and a chat.

"But you can get fined £60. It's in a designated non-drinking area. I wouldn't risk that." That she knows the amount of the fine and uses the formal terms of the universally ignored bye-law irritates me, but I don't feel like pressing a point on my last day. "Well, live dangerously eh, Brenda?"


In the black

  Sat 20th April 2019

My day off. There are some property guardian flats going near me for the same amount as I'm paying at the moment for a room. I stand outside them for a moment. There is a hairy man in a red jumper standing a couple of yards away from me. "I'm thinking of moving in here. Above here, it's all flats."

I have to simplify it for him. He's Polish, and was pleased about having the previous day acquired an NI number, so he can work legally now. He lives -- in a tent -- and works, in what is now Bristol's port, eight miles away. We have a broken chat for a bit then shake hands and part.

In Tesco, I meet the two youngish white blokes from my previous exercise session in the park. We're all full of sunny bonhomie, and nattered about the locations and severity of our aches after we joined in with the wiry black men who were far more practised than us.

I took my three for 5.25 cider into the park and sat down. An irritating couple talked vacuously about their jobs in finance. Plastic domed drinks with straws. "You know, it's not a problem if a company isn't making money as long as it can service its debts..." while ahead of me, a bit too far away for reliable reception, a more interesting conversation was going in a group of two young girls in tube dresses, and a Spike Lee impersonator; all drinking cider. "It's only because we care about you Chloe that we don't want you to go back onto that stuff." Eventually finance couple leave, trailing their balance sheet drivel into inaudibility.

I have finished my drink. I do my mental fencing with probity, in which I know the result. I ask someone to look after my jacket and go back to replenish.

On the way back to my patch, I see the hairy Polish man standing stock still and silent in the face of a ranting white man whose lips are lined with foam. I put my arm around the Pole. "Hey, leave him alone. He's alright. He's Polish. He lives in a tent. What's your problem? Why can't we all just be nice? It's a lovely day, we're all in the sun, some on."

"So if he's your friend, why did you take so long to come over? Eh?"

"Come on mate, let's go." I turned back to the foaming man. "Fucking arsehole," I said. "Bristol's not like that mate, don't worry. He's pissed as a fart. I'm sitting here if you want to join me." He said something in Polish and indicated that he was going elsewhere. I shook his hand for the second time that day.

I was drawn, again, to the black men exercising. I'd shed my shoes at this point and was wearing odd stripey socks, the eccentricity of which I only realised when I got a text after recounting the episode to my eldest. "I am so glad I live hundreds of miles from you."

As I was trying to do more of those squats where you hold your legs horizontally and lower yourself towards the floor, I felt a repeated painful spasm in my left side, ignored it for a while in my quest for a horizontal approach to the floor, before giving up.

"You like cock?" one of the men said to me.


"Cock. You like cock?"

I initially thought it was a homophobic insult. I'd heard him on his phone earlier using the term "batty man" so I had to doubt his commitment, at least in public, to the LGBTQ+ cause, but realised that his accent was occluding the commercial nature of his question. He repeatedly fished into his underpants, withdrawing bag after bag of contraband. We settled on a tenner's worth of weed. Me and his friend went to have a joint away from him. It was lovely to be stoned. I haven't done that for months.

On my way home, the pain got worse and worse, and by seven o'clock I was in bed, moaning in pain, massaging the unnaturally beetling mound just northwest of my manly area.

At work this morning, I made all sorts of mistakes on the till and gave inappropriate greetings like "goodnight". I explained about my bulging groin.

A week ago I was in the bank to get some money out. I can't use my card at the moment after the Mistakenly Ordered Bulk Buy Poppers Episode. They had a display on a table which reminded me of the kinds of things that the church to which I was compelled to attend used to make in a vain hope of interesting children. "What do you like about our mortgages?" it asked. There were little paper cut outs of idealised houses, trees, gardens, and children. I got the pen and wrote "How fucking sad is this?" on a blank space in the egalitarian garden city.

Today, I went in to get some more money. The transaction concluded, I was about to leave, when she said, "just one more thing Mr looby, we're going to have lots of those displays out there and we really don't appreciate what you wrote on the last one, so please don't do that in future." I straightened up deliberately in order to conceal how sheepish I felt.


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looby, n.; pl. loobies. A lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person

M / 55 / Bristol, "the most beautiful, interesting and distinguished city in England" -- John Betjeman [1961, source eludes me].

"Looby is a left-wing intellectual who is obsessed with a) women's clothes and b) tits." -- Joy of Bex.

WLTM literate woman, 40-65. Must have nice tits, a PhD, and an mdma factory in the shed, although the first on its own will do in the short term.

There are plenty of bastards who drink moderately. Of course, I don't consider them to be people. They are not our comrades.
Sergei Korovin, quoted in Pavel Krusanov, The Blue Book of the Alcoholic

I am here to change my life. I am here to force myself to change my life.
Chinese man I met during Freshers Week at Lancaster University, 2008

The more democratised art becomes, the more we recognise in it our own mediocrity.
James Meek

Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

I hate the iPod; I hate the idea that music is such a personal thing that you can just stick some earplugs in your ears and have an experience with music. Music is a social phenomenon.
Jeremy Wagner

La vie poetique has its pleasures, and readings--ideally a long way from home--are one of them. I can pretend to be George Szirtes.
George Szirtes

Using words well is a social virtue. Use 'fortuitous' once more to mean 'fortunate' and you move an English word another step towards the dustbin. If your mistake took hold, no-one who valued clarity would be able to use the word again.
John Whale

One good thing about being a Marxist is that you don't have to pretend to like work.
Terry Eagleton, What Is A Novel?, Lancaster University, 1 Feb 2010

The working man is a fucking loser.
Mick, The Golden Lion, Lancaster, 21 Mar 2011

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