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The rat's tale

  Fri 13th May 2022

My colleague tells me of the visit from The Environmental Health to our workplace. On seeing the appalling state of the kitchen, he starts throwing unlabelled food away. Karen, the manager, starts crying. I am glad not to be there. A few days later, she's back to her old ways, leaving the salad ingredients and the bacon out all day long, and a general slovenliness which shows in spilt fat left to harden on the cooker, bits of food left strewn over the floor and a daily festival of cross-contamination.

A Chinese man is much amused with the word "rhubarb", and asks me to write it down for him. I get a piece of paper but he says "no, here," and offers his palm to me.


To Lancaster for Easter. Wendy turns up at Kitty's, as glossy as ever in a green velour zip-up top and a green knee-length skirt. I am asked to investigate a persistent smell from the drain in the back yard. I discover a decomposing rat which is host to hundreds of maggots. I don gloves and wash the maggots away with boiling water before burying the rat at the back of the garden. I stride back in, trying not to feel too manly.

Coming back, I can only afford the train as far as Birmingham, and have purchased a coach ticket for the rest of the way; but arriving at New Street and seeing a train to Bristol on the board leaving in half an hour is too much of a temptation.

I get on and approach the guard, holding a print out of my schedule that possibly might look like a ticket, with a cock and bull story about a cancelled train from Preston. "It's OK, go and sit down." When he comes round, he says "oh yes I've seen yours." You haven't seen anything mate but I'm not arguing with you.

Ceci n'est pas un billet

I sit opposite an elderly and exquisitely mannered Indian man. He asks my permission to make a phone call. I can't help but ask him what language he was using, and he teaches me a couple of phrases in Punjabi.


In Bath, at Linda's friends' house, I have expired from several hours' drinking, and am asleep in the converted loft. The accursed need steals upon me.

The loo is a long way away, downstairs. For some reason I decide that a minimalist outfit of a pair of pants will do, and I run down the stairs and through the living room where they are still drinking and chatting. Instead of carrying on to the toilet, I double back, go outside and piss in the garden. Coming back in, I say "it's OK, just stay indoors," and go upstairs again.


I had a second interview over the internet yesterday. I am attempting to restart my career as a trolley dolly on the trains, which I threw away a couple of years ago by turning up a bit tipsy one afternoon. I'm hoping that the railway companies don't share information about applicants who turn out to be drunkards.

I will find out in a few days' time, possibly when I'm on a Croatian island. I'm going with Trina on a holiday that has been postponed for two years but will finally start tomorrow. The organisers take over a hotel for a week and fill it with DJs playing house, contemporary soul, RnB, that kind of thing, till the small hours of every morning. I haven't gone into detail with Mel about the complicated course of mine and Trina's association. It would only muddy the waters.

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An inspector calls

  Thu 7th April 2022

Well, a surveyor. He's here to check the "structural integrity" of my flat. I am glad that he dispenses of his mask a couple of minutes in to what seems a very easy way of earning forty grand a year. We chatted about our experiences of internet dating. He's got a few on the go. "I forget who I'm talking to sometimes."

In Tesco, a swarthy middleaged man rushes in, head bowed. "Beer, beer," he says, tracing a receding point on the floor in front of him. As he passes the cashier, he looks up at her and says "buona sera, signora." There are two punky girls in front of me at the till. Deliberately laddered tights, short inflammable skirts over stocky legs, heavy make-up. They're stylish, confident, deservedly pleased with themselves.

One of them fetches a bottle of that Spanish wine that is laced with an artificial gold criss-crossed lattice imitating the straw coat some wines used to wear, capped with an anti-theft plastic top. "It's in stockings and has got a condom on it," her friend says.

Then it's the turn of the gas man. He tells me that my problem is that my radiators aren't bonded. I didn't realise they had to have any relationship at all.


I host a couchsurfer from Germany. He said he chose me because of an old picture of me at an anti-fracking demo, which is just a self-advertising technique. I explain (beforehand) that I won't be in my unbedroomed studio flat and that I will be staying at Mel's, but I'll cook him a dinner and settle him in. He arrived, bringing a bottle of Pinto Grigio, poured us each one glass, then screwed the cap back on.

I made the most expensive meal I have ever cooked for anyone, fennel and vodka risotto. I already had the vodka (a Polish man gave it to me on a train), but couldn't find any fennel in the arse end of Bristol where I live, where B&M Bargains is the nearest thing we have to a greengrocer, so I had to scooter up to the trendy organic shop in my old suburb, where some arborio rice, a red onion, a packet of stock cubes, and a couple of lemons cost an astonishing twelve pounds.

I cooked it to the recipe but it was disappointing. I was hoping that the fennel and the vodka would give it a bite, but the arborio rice, as is its wont, flattened everything. He ate three portions of it though. It felt like having a little boy to stay.

Before he left, he said that he had gone to the pharmacist to get a thermometer and some tablets, but was frustrated that they didn't have the ones he wanted, and had slammed his skateboard down on the pavement, breaking it. He said he'd left it in the funny cupboard and asked me if I could send it back to him as it can't go on the plane. I am going to propose my costs, plus fifty quid, see what he says. Otherwise it can go on the tip.


My middle daughter, in a week off from touring with As You Like It, comes to Bristol with her girlfriend. They have an unforced rapport that is a pleasure to witness. Mel reminded them of when at Christmas my youngest opened the door to one of her friends and introduced me. "This is my dad. He eats cheese and farts a lot."


My new scooter helmet is going back, to be exchanged for the size above. This one pushes my cheeks forward like a hamster and makes me dribble. But the heightened respect you get on the roads is well worth the seventy-five quid.

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Sodden in Gomorrah

  Wed 16th March 2022

Saturday afternoon. Down the pub, I am facing away from the telly recounting the first real nightmare of my life. I have nights when I can hardly sleep for it. Still, I've ordered a Ukrainian flag off ebay so that'll help the people stuck in Mariupol.

I take a pause from my book, Deborah Orr's Motherwell: A Girlhood, and feel jealous of the afternoon's sociability. Two middleaged women touching each other often as they swayed, their conversation in their bodies and their faces as much as their words. The next day, still not quite having stifled my mood, I say to Mel, "down here it's just you and work."


So it was good to get out today with the Civic Society, for a talk and a trip to a postwar suburb in north Bristol. It was raining steadily, so I wore appropriate (but inadequate) armour. A few weeks ago I found an Everton bobble hat on the street and took it for my use. It's a good conversation starter, even though I care little for football and less for Everton. If I couple it with my manly fluorescent jacket -- which bears a logo which suggests I work on the permanent way -- I find I am paid a lot more respect on my scooter than when I go out in my normal clothes, which make me look like a homosexual Geography lecturer in a minor Welsh university.

About thirty of us met up in "The Hub", and had an interesting talk from a couple of the people involved with it. One problem they talked about was about how, because the City Council allocates council housing on a city-wide basis, this can end up with local people, with housing needs just short of the immensity of suffering required to get a council house in Bristol, watch, as a person (often of a different colour to them) is parachuted in, and given a plum flat which they think should have gone to the single mother down the road who's been trying to get a flat on the estate for decades. Then the locals get bollocked (I can't remember the actual term she used) for being a bit cold towards their new neighbour whose command of English is as weak as his or her links to the suburb.

There was a determination of everyone to enjoy the guided walk despite the rain. Walks like this attract the militantly healthy. But it was marred for me by the ever increasing leakage of my clothes. Even my pants didn't survive its ingress. Suzanne showed us many things of interest: the modular development lined up behind a street of sixties houses, which means scores of people can't sit out in their back gardens without being overlooked; the scraggy site of the school which only lasted fifty years before being demolished. "I was caned over there!" someone said. The snowdrops round the site's edge.

Back home, after a shivering ride home, I peeled off my sodden clothes into the sink, and had a luxurious shower. It was worth it though.

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I receive thirty pounds anonymously

  Thu 3rd March 2022

The invasion of Ukraine preys on my mind far more than covid ever did. If only someone could assassinate him, then his support would collapse. At work, there are two Polish women. "Of course I am worried," one of them says, in response to a well-meant but stupid enquiry. "That's why I like coming to work. No news, just concentrate on work."


Down the pub afterwards I am trying to ignore the man at the next table who looks like Jamiroquai who has a knack of following me around in two of my haunts, Castle Park and the budget pub. He's at the next table scribbling away, in between flicking between chat screens and a Wikipedia article about The Evangelical Church in Germany. He does a performance of tics, scratching his hair vigorously and conversing with some computer-based entity. I think it's a strategy to get my attention. He's possibly looking for parity with the nurses I got chatting to at the bar.

A late twenties (?) woman is repeatedly moving her hand down her hip as she stands next to me. I open with "are you trying to find your pocket?" "No, I'm just looking for something....oh, it's OK. I thought I'd lost some money."

"Do you know what," I said. "The other day, I got a letter with a North Wales postmark and I opened it and someone had sent me thirty pounds anonymously. I don't know anyone in Wales. I don't think I know a single Welsh person."

"I'm from North Wales."

"Are you? Well it was wrapped in a letter from Santander."

"I bank with Santander."

"Really?" and I made this woo sound and waved my hands about, hoping to evoke the supernatural. "Do you make a habit of sending money to anonymous strangers?"

"I haven't got it to send."

Her friend came over, and I related the story of my mystery donor to her too. "Anyway, what's the excuse, you all out on a Monday?"

"We're nurses, we all work at Fatspanner Hospital."

"Oh I used to work there. I was a cleaner."

"So what do you do now? Are you retired?"

That's a question I'd never been asked before. But they bought me a pint so they're let off.


My middle daughter returned last night to the stage in Lancaster she first trod when she was eight, this time as a professional actress, as Celia in As You Like It. Trina emails and says she is going with Kirsty and my youngest to see it on Saturday. I'm jealous. I start trying to work out a way up there and back for less than the hundred quid or so that it'd cost on the train, but got tired with all the palaver of split tickets and dodging parts of the journey where you gamble on the conductor not coming round.

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Falling in

  Fri 18th February 2022

One of my New Year's resolutions for 2022 was to work fewer hours, yet I worked fifty-two hours last week over six days.

However, whatever storm we're up to now has blessed me. I do a bit of dinner ladying, and yesterday afternoon, the headmistress sent everyone home. An emissary came into the kitchen to tell us that our week had ended, after a section of the roof, which appeared to have weathered the gusty conditions on Wednesday, fell in. The engineers they called in said that they would have to do a complete structural survey of the whole school, so couldn't guarantee the safety of any part of it. Result!


I was summoned to an interview with the Universal Credit people yesterday. I took my last two weeks' timesheets with me in case they think I am doing what I would prefer to do.

A security guard told me I couldn't bring my scooter into the job centre. I told him that I need it to get to work and that I'm not letting it out of my sight. (I live in an unfashionable suburb of Bristol full of scoundrels.) He said "well put it over there, but you're not allowed to bring it in next time."

In an open plan office, which almost caused nightmarish flashbacks to when I used to be employed by a computer, I sat behind a screen facing a remarkably painted woman. With great precision, she had put pink lipstick on her lips exceeding their physical boundary by a couple of millimetres. Her black eye eyeliner extended in an upward curve either side of her eyes, and she'd painted a matching downward curve starting from the same point, like this.

All that effort in the morning, just to go and sit in a job centre. The artistic merit might be questioned, but for technical execution -- ten out of ten.

"Hello Mr Looby. Erm...I'm just loading up your notes. Oh...it's so slow. This system. So what is it you do?"

"Well, apart from being a man, I'm a dinner lady at La-di-Dah High School, and I also help run the Fatworkers' Staff Canteen in town."

"Oh right, is that on Lard Street?" "Yes, just behind the hospital."

Hmmm...there's nothing really here to tell me why you've been brought in."

"Yeah, me too. I'm a bit bemused as to why I'm here." I showed her my timesheets. "I did fifty-one hours last week and I'll be doing fifty-two this one. But it's a change of scenery, and it's been nice meeting you and having an excuse to stare at your strikingly made-up face."

I felt a presence. The security guard had wandered around to eavesdrop. As I turned my head to him he looked at the floor and scuttled away.

My interview was concluded with another apology, for not knowing what she was supposed to do with me, and I left to call on Mr Khan, purveyor of discounted cider to the quietly alcoholic.


After work one day, I am sitting in the chain pub, close to, and looking out through, its big picture window. Mid-afternoon, it's a warm place of cameraderie and mutually-accepted decay, before the students' loud exhibitionist voices wreck the calm.

Suddenly, a young woman -- late teens? early twenties? -- in baggy trousers and a crop top showing a lovely midriff, starts dancing in front of me on the other side of the glass. I jump down from my seat and and start dancing with her. The man at the next table joins us, but only to point at her and say "aren't you cold?" She misunderstands him, and looks affronted.

"Do you think I'm fat?" she mouths to me. I make a dismissive gesture, and point to her, mouthing back "you..." before making a curving movement with my hands as though I were running them over Nigella Lawson. She, and I start dancing again for a few seconds, and then she leaves abruptly. I sit back down again, full of flirty energy, pleased with myself compared to the fuddy-duddy at the next table. "Fucking hell," I say to him, laughing.


My relationship with Mel continues to put me in a state of puzzlement. Why do I not feel oppressed by this woman? Why, sometimes, like last night, do I ring her saying I'm tired and want a rest, then two hours later ring her wondering if she'd mind me coming round? Why, when stoned and pissed in the pub and in a break from dancing with her, do I say to her friend, "oh Mel, yeah, I'd marry her tomorrow if she asked." Why does she not mind me pushing my stiff cock against her toes while she does the crossword in the morning? Sober, I don't want to marry Mel, but she's the most natural, effortless girlfriend I've had for...

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


M / 57 / 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

The Comfort of Strangers

23.1.16: Big clearout of the defunct and dormant and dull
16.1.19: Further pruning

If your comment box looks like this, I'm afraid I sometimes can't be bothered with all that palarver just to leave a comment.

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