Friday, 26 July 2013

Six Bad Weeks

Anyway, that's probably how Genesis P. Orridge would spell address.

In 1990 I came to the realisation that moving to Coventry hadn't been the best decision I'd ever made. I'd lived there six months and was yet to experience anything to suggest that it might be an improvement on Chatham, and so I began to consider London. I had resisted moving to the capital. It seemed like a nice enough place to visit but I'd never had any desire to live there. Unfortunately just about everyone I knew had moved to London by that point, and it didn't seem like there was anywhere left to go, at least nowhere that wasn't somehow a step backwards. So I bought a copy of Loot - the London based classified advertising paper - through which I found a room in a shared house in Lewisham, roughly the area for which I was aiming on the grounds of my friend Carl living nearby in Bermondsey, and that I knew Lewisham from coach trips which had passed through from Chatham as I came up at weekends to blow my wages on comic books. The problem was of course that this method of flat hunting, conducted simultaneous to a day job held in a different city, was somewhat reliant upon my striking oil with the first thrust of my accommodation spade. I didn't have either the time or energy to embark upon a course of daily late afternoon commutes to London until I finally found somewhere with just the right shade of wallpaper, then going back to work again the next morning.

The first place I went to see was a long, long way from being perfect, but it was in Lewisham, and the rent was affordable, and I knew I would be able to put in for a transfer with my Royal Mail job and get myself moved to an office in that area without too much hanging around. Most important of all, I would be able to get drunk with my friends on a regular basis, some of whom I hadn't seen in a year - an important consideration for a young man in his early twenties; and it wasn't in Coventry. I had been shown around the house by the landlord, a smartly dressed young black man named William Walsh who seemed efficiently likeable and who told me he ran a toy shop near London Bridge; and I felt positive about the future as I began heading home, catching the train from Hither Green station. I had started reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the disturbing tale of an authoritarian future in which childbirth has become  industrialised. My train passed through New Cross as I read the chapter describing the hatchery wherein different castes of citizen are decanted from artificial wombs, their developing brains purposefully retarded by chemical additives according to designated social status. I found the scene unusually depressing, and somehow equated all those disused warehouses along the side of the track with the hatcheries and conditioning centres in the book.

When the day came, a van was hired and my parents drove me down to London with all of my crap - mostly the same boxes of comics, books, and records that have been following me from one place to the next for most of my life. It was a lot of stuff but it all fitted in my new room, just about, albeit with one entire wall obscured by boxes stacked up to head height. It wasn't a great start, but I reminded myself that I had at least made the leap. Similarly troubling was the young guy who had been hanging around as we unloaded the van, occasionally drifting closer in an obvious effort to see what I had; and then the pub at the end of the street in which we all went for a drink once the unloading was finished. There was no piano player, but if there had been I'm fairly sure his medley of Cockney Rejects favourites would have stopped dead as soon as we entered. Silence would have held sway as we approached the bar and a one eyed man casually spat someone else's tooth into the tin bucket that served as communal lavatory. I never went in that pub again, and within the month it was boarded up following a series of regular Saturday night raids by the police.

After a hurried lager, I waved my parents off and told myself I was doing the right thing, contrary to the evidence laid before me - this massive five bedroom Georgian haunted house on Ryecroft Road shared by just myself and someone called Greg. The other rooms were left vacant as the other tenants all moved out, for some reason, perhaps having found accommodation with a slightly less disgusting shared kitchen and bathroom. I say disgusting but truthfully I don't remember too much about it, aside from the fridge which was always full of ants. I never found out how they got in, and so there was no way of keeping them out, and any food stored had to be kept sealed; but still I maintained my brave face.

'Well, Mr. Walsh seems okay,' I told Greg hopefully.

Greg was my age, perhaps a little older but already balding, with the intense gaze of someone who had seen too much. I got the impression that under other circumstances he would have made for pleasant, erudite company, but now just wasn't a good time because we were both living in a shithole.

'You mean William?' He smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile. 'I wouldn't hold too much faith with whatever he's told you.'

Apparently there was some dispute over ownership of the house, which was exactly what I didn't want to hear. Walsh had recently separated from his wife, and each was claiming sole ownership of the property. I assumed that the law was probably a little more complicated than that, so if this was going to be a problem, there would be no point worrying about it until it affected me directly.

I had moved in on the Saturday, and was at work on Monday; or rather I was at the Royal Mail centre on Borough High Street for a week of retraining prior to resuming my job as postman at Catford sorting office. Having somehow acquired the habit of moving every few years, I'd already transferred once before from Chatham to Coventry - this being the beauty of a job with Royal Mail as was: it was easy to relocate, and in theory you could have travelled the length of the country doing the same job in different towns and cities. When first I transferred to Coventry sorting office, I'd been thrown in at the deep end in hope of my picking up the new routes as I went along. This time I was to spend a week learning the sorting, practising with a deck of cards upon which were written the names of all the roads and streets of Catford along with the duty numbers to which they were assigned. Oddly, I can still remember a lot of it now nearly a quarter of a century later - Sandhurst and Inchmery, Arnulf and Arngask, Randlesdown Road and King Alfred...

The Royal Mail office on Borough High Street was, at the time, the place wherein new recruits were trained prior to being sent off to deliver gas bills and adverts for incontinence pants in Deptford or Sydenham or Greenwich. I was a little pissed off at having been sent there seeing as I already had two years experience and had turned up in my uniform to join a class of grunts who still didn't know one end of a sorting frame from the other. Mostly they were younger than myself, barely out of school, and mostly they were quiet - as people who aren't arseholes tend to be during the first few weeks of a new job. The two exceptions to this rule were a south London version of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, and a blonde girl who wore too much make-up, and whose head was far too small for her face. Even more unpleasant was how she appeared to glisten. Her eyes and lips were large and moist, as were her prominent teeth, and her mouth was always open mid-sentence. She was loud and abrasive, and each time she spoke I had a mental image of Molly Sugden scowling as though having detected an unsavoury smell, then remarking how common.

We would all go to lunch together, sitting in silence as Bluto told us how he was going to get one of those Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs so that he wouldn't starve in the event of a nuclear war. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether he was speaking or just burping a lot, and his tiny eyes were invisible beneath the awning of his brow so we couldn't be sure either way. Glisten Girl - she upon whom Mrs. Slocombe would have frowned - laughed her shrill laugh and tried to encourage debate as to which were the best looking members of our group, a subject to which she returned with some frequency. Clearly she was the best looking girl, she informed us, not being funny or nuffin' - but she couldn't decide who was to be crowned her Royal Mail training class King. I got the impression she was attempting to build suspense.

'Nuffin' personal but it ain't you, mate,' she told Bluto, 'although don't get me wrong you're a fit bloke and all that.'

Bluto waved a magnanimous hand to show that he accepted the judgement without rancour, taking a pragmatic view so long as it didn't interfere with his proposed pig-rearing scheme.

Glisten Girl laid her cards on the table, identifying another member of the class as the best looking male, a young admittedly reasonably handsome guy who was obviously keeping out of it because he wanted no association with this noisome slapper.

It was a long week, towards the end of which we were given a tour of the building, principally for the benefit of the three of our number who would be working there once the course was finished.

'Does anyone have any questions?' our training manager asked as we stood in a corridor looking lost.

'There's a fire extinguisher right there,' observed the young man who had spent the week trying to avoid Glisten Girl. He turned to indicate a second fire extinguisher mounted on the wall about fifteen feet away. 'So why is there another one right there?'

Our training manager clasped his hands behind his back and adopted a stern face. 'I'm afraid I can't tell you that.'

'Why not?'

'It's classified information.'

He really said that.

The next week I was at work in Catford with a head full of street names with which I had slowly begun to associate physical locations. I'd settled into my room as much as I was able, although it wasn't comfortable. Firstly it was a hot summer, and the only ventilation I had was in the form of a slatted louvre at the top of the single window. Secondly, next door's dog was kicked out into their back yard each evening at ten and would bark for most of the night. I had never before been driven to consider throwing bricks or sharp objects at a defenceless animal, so this was a first for me; but I couldn't even do that as my slatted window wouldn't open wide enough.

August passed into September without incident or improvement, accommodation misery a minor concern, a work-in-progress as I revelled in the novelty of working in Catford and being able to see my friends. Then the sixth weekend came, bringing with it a woman who knocked on the door, thanked me for letting her in and explained that she was my landlady.

'You might want to go away somewhere this weekend,' she told me. 'We're having a party here, and it will probably be noisy.'

I had no idea what to say to this, so I phoned her ex-husband who told me that he was changing the locks and I was under no circumstances to let her in when she returned. She returned the next day, Saturday, and started to smash the door in, somewhat obliging me to answer.

'I can't let you in,' I told her, 'Mr. Walsh says.'

'Mr. Walsh doesn't own the house, darling. I do. I bet he didn't even mention that, did he?'

He hadn't so I let her in, understanding that I was screwed either way. I wasn't going to argue. This wasn't my fight.

Mrs. Walsh ferried in the booze, the PA system, and at least a hundred guests. Greg hadn't been seen for about a week, and for nine hours it was deafening, dancehall reggae pounding up through my floorboards, myself barricaded in with the door locked. At one point I ventured out in an effort to assess just how bad it was going to get, but the air was thick with the smell of weed - something I've never enjoyed - and I realised I was the only white person there. I had always considered myself a liberal, and true enough everyone was simply having their version of a good time with not a trace of aggression in the air, but I'd been in London a mere six weeks and this was just too much. I went back to my room, locked the door, and got to work on my thousand yard stare.

At two in the morning the police arrived. They knocked on my door and asked me to identify the owner of the premises.

'It's her,' I said, pointing to Mrs. Walsh, wondering if this might bring an end to the madness whilst praying that I hadn't just outed myself as a copper's nark. Apparently this was the answer everyone wanted to hear, and so the party continued.

At about three in the morning, for the sake of keeping myself busy, I began work on an elaborate design on a piece of paper involving runes and other supposedly magical symbols which I hoped would eventually visit something unpleasant and terminal upon the person of my landlord. I still owned Psychic TV records and was thus in some respects a bit of a tool, but it passed the time.

At around five in the morning with the sound of the party still going strong, I urinated in my coffee pot rather than embark upon a Tolkeinesque journey to the bathroom which, in any case, would probably be packed with shagging couples snorting cocaine off each other's genitalia.

At seven I emerged to a deserted house carpeted with empty bottles and cigarette ends. The front door lay in the road, apparently having been taken off the hinges when the police broke in. I wasn't quite at the point of gibbering, but I was getting there. I called the landlord.

'You told them that woman was your landlady,' he reminded me. 'Who do you pay your rent cheque to?'


'That's right, so the damage is your responsibility because you let them in. I wash my hands of you, sir.'

He slammed down the phone and I took one step closer to what felt a little like a breakdown. I phoned my parents but got no answer. I phoned my grandmother who by then was beyond the point of understanding much of what was going on. I phoned my friend Carl who within an hour had a van around my place, driven by his then girlfriend Liz. We loaded up, and high-tailed it out of there, and I spent the next week living amongst all my boxes of crap in his living room in a tower block in Bermondsey until I found another, somewhat nicer place to live in Boyne Road, also in Lewisham.

This is one of many reasons why I will probably always consider Carl the greatest friend I ever had, even when we haven't seen each other for a year.

Inevitably it took a little while for me to get back on track, and I briefly found that I'd developed an unhealthy dislike of black people; but even as I flinched at the sight of John Fashanu on a television panel game, I knew it wasn't really me, and that those six bad weeks had sent me into a minor tailspin. As it turned out, about a third of the postmen at Catford sorting office were black, which restored my thoughts to normal service as I realised I generally got on better with them as a group than with many of the others. They were funnier and as a rule they seemed less prone to bullshit.

Later, as I resumed my sanity, I spoke to my friend Glenn whom I knew from Chatham, and he reminded me that he had himself lived in the capital. 'Those first six weeks are always the worst,' he told me. 'When you move to London, it doesn't matter who you are, the first six weeks will always be shit, but once you get past that, you're okay.'

He was right.

It had been painful, a process roughly akin to giving birth so it seemed, and I had come through the culture shock without turning into Enoch Powell; and most important of all, I had escaped Coventry, and now faced a future which at least seem to offer the option of possibilities. It wasn't perfect, but at least I was moving in the right direction.

Friday, 19 July 2013


'Adolf Hitler,' I roared laughingly as I bit into my roast steer, 'don't compare me to that puh-puh,' - the word tasted disgusting in my mouth. I couldn't get it out, and feared I might lose my lunch of chicken fried steak fried chicken. 'Don't compare me to that damn liberal pantywaist!'

Grand Dragon McCarthy chuckled at my remark, embellishing it with one of his own, although it was difficult to tell what he was saying beneath the hood. That's the problem with our rallies. It's not so much the being denied decent conversation, as that it's often difficult to hear what anyone is saying even without the spit and crackle of wooden crosses ablaze upon adjacent lawns.

I set the remains of the steer back upon my platter and beckoned to one of my many, many slaves.

'Yes'um,' he gollumed up to our El Camino, eyes rolling and hands flapping as was his habit.

'Bring me gasoline, serf,' I barked. 'My hunger is sated, and now I fancy I shall set fire to an abortion clinic, some homosexuals, and Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, although perhaps not necessarily in that order.'

The slave rattled his chains happily, knowing his place, but adding no comment on account of the fact that he didn't exist, and none of this happened, despite my writing this whilst sat here in the United States of America, and in Texas of all places; and as we have established by now, Texas is the only state where anything bad ever happens.

This week's bad thing actually happened in Florida, but let's face it, the guy was probably from Texas or something, or he's been here or he knows someone. That's all it takes, and if you can't trust the word of a commentator who may indeed live five hundred miles away but has read a scathing article in a newspaper or on the internet and had a little bit of a think, then what hope is there for any of us? I mean really?

Besides, last week's bad thing was in Texas, specifically in Austin the state capital, so the general rule still applies. Some may have chosen to praise Wendy Davies and her thirteen hour re-enactment of Kenneth Williams talking about elves without repetition, deviation or hesitation on BBC Radio's comedy panel game Just a Minute, but that isn't the point and besides she probably isn't even from Texas, in fact I'll bet she's from Maine or somewhere nice and civilised like that. The point is that the wrongness transpired in Texas, and that the ethically anointed of far and wide therefore felt the customary moral obligation to assert that with this being Texas, perfidy most foul was certainly abroad as sure as eggs are eggs, McDonalds is McDonalds, and all Americans are fat and voted for George W. Bush.

See, here in Texas we hate freedom, non-Caucasian ethnic groups and improvised jazz, and there are no exceptions. Every last one of us - we're crazy, and we really are all exactly the same - you can ask anyone. You've all seen us in your mind's eye, sat around polishing our guns and hankering after the good old days of slavery. Well that's what it's like in real life too, and I know this to be true despite the unreliable evidence of my own experience because someone from England told me so; and he should know, what with England being the land universally acknowledged as the one untarnished source of all culture, all that is wise and good. So he'd never been here, but he met an American about eight years ago, and goddammit do you really think someone like that would have lied to me?

Sarcasm aside, I have come to the understanding that there really are people in the United Kingdom who believe the world would be a better place if each action could only be prefaced by somebody tracking down an English guy just to see what he thinks, whether it seems like a good idea. So often are regular Americans somehow conflated with the foreign policy of their government by the United Kingdom's frontline of keyboard warriors, every last one somehow missing the irony of discussing arrogance with one matronly eye asquint in this direction. If it's an unfortunate truism that America as a whole feels it has the right to act by virtue of being America, then being English, at least for some, means that your wisdom is so culturally entrenched as to dispense with the need for experience because whatever comes out of your flapping mouth will be correct by definition. This is something you really begin to notice once you spend some time outside of the mother country and come to realise how little you miss it - at least in my view; and also that of D.H. Lawrence apparently:

She thought again of going back to Europe. But what was the good? She knew it! It was all politics or jazzing or slushy mysticism or sordid spiritualism. And the magic had gone. The younger generation, so smart and interesting, but so without any mystery, any background. The younger the generation, the flatter and more jazzy, more and more devoid of wonder.
- The Plumed Serpent (1926).

The cacophony is exhausting, so I'm attempting to withdraw from any internet venue in which the uninformed feel duty bound to share their one-size-fits-all opinions with and concerning people they have never met who reside in lands they will never visit.

San Antonio is neither the most peaceful nor crime-ridden city in the world, but nor is it significantly better or worse than any other place so far as I am able to tell. I have not yet seen much of America, and I get the impression that most places will be similar, differentiated mainly by climate and geography rather than consumption of McDonalds freedom fries and degree of unquestioning reverence for whichever President people in England currently hate the most. I live on a quiet street in an average neighbourhood with the occasional dope dealer or welfare recipient as a moderately more typical resident than doctors, dentists or Tommy Lee Jones. In my daily existence I encounter people of all ages and ethnicities - roughly speaking - and we all seem to get on, contrary to that which may be gleaned from the imaginations of those who feel the need to express righteous anger about whatever is available at time of going to press. In my two years here I have heard not a single gunshot, nor witnessed any violent incident, nor overheard a racist remark. Texans in my experience tend to be kind, well-mannered, and mostly liberal because it's too hot to be much of anything else; they are not uniformly enormous from a diet of McDonalds, root beer, and barbecue sauce, and neither have I met anyone holding significantly unpleasant racial or political views. You might suggest I'm living in a bubble, but the chance is more likely that you have neither idea nor understanding of my circumstances beyond a general impression that either my adopted country or state probably needs a good telling off as a matter of principle.

I'm not saying that terrible things never happen here, in either Texas or the USA, or that our foreign policy is necessarily without fault, but that the hysterical views of those who don't actually know yet who nevertheless feel compelled to comment really ain't worth a hill of beans, as the saying goes.

A few weeks ago as I was watering the grass I saw our next door neighbour working away on the other side of the fence. Frasier is a tall, skinny fellow, slow moving and softly spoken with something of a fixed smile - which is simply his face at rest. You see Frasier, and before he's spoken a word, you find yourself liking the guy. I waved and so he stepped back from his lawn mower.

'How are you doing?' I asked.

'I'm fine,' he smiled, probably not on purpose. 'Just mowing the lawn - goofing around.'

I don't even know why, but just that combination of activities struck me. The idea that someone could regard mowing a lawn and goofing around as one and the same was somehow pleasing. We spent some time talking about the heat and what types of grass we were both trying to grow, and it was a calm exchange. This, I decided, is the sort of conversation I like, just a guy telling you what he knows. It wasn't intellectually stimulating, but then at the age of forty-seven I've come to realise that 99% of supposedly intellectually stimulating conversation is just piss and wind, the hoots and territorial wails of those who can't get enough of the sound of their own voices wrapped around an authoritative phrase, those who have never understood why sometimes it's good to just shut up and enjoy the silence.

I have taken to saying nothing when I have nothing I wish to say, and in future I am going to avoid listening when nothing is being said.

Please feel free to follow my example.

You're very welcome.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Ten Good Years

Around the beginning of 1995, the relationship I'd been in for the previous eighteen months was drawing to a natural conclusion. The association hadn't been without its moments but it wasn't really going anywhere, unlike my girlfriend who was off to Norwich to study fine art. We were living in London, sharing a flat in East Dulwich, and the question of whether a long-distance relationship could work hadn't been raised for the obvious reason that even our living together under the same roof had been a bit of a mixed bag.

Whilst Mandy had at least some of her future worked out - in terms of direction if not necessarily destination - I was beginning to worry. My work was based in East Dulwich, and being as I'd never learned to drive, I would be obliged to either remain in the area or change jobs, both options which seemed to presage a possible slide from poor circumstances to slightly worse. Furthermore, I liked London, or at least I liked East Dulwich, and hoped I might continue to live in the area despite knowing it probably wasn't going to happen. My weekly postman's wage was slowly being overtaken by the average cost of rent in the capital, and to make matters worse, Time Out had recently published an article pinpointing East Dulwich as the hot new place to live south of the river. Time Out is a weekly listings magazine aimed at that specific breed of cultural vulture who, lacking any real interests, seek to pass time with a regular intake of vaguely classy shit - TV Quick for people who think Damien Hirst is probably saying something important, even if they're not quite sure what it is. So, with all of the really good schools conveniently identified and the confirmed presence of at least one gastropub serving food au jus on square plates, the flood of overmoneyed braying morons began - web designers and new media consultants flocking in from Nottingham or Guildford inspiring a flurry of wine bars, latte troughs, and boutique shops which didn't actually sell anything; and the cost of living in East Dulwich became prohibitive as the locals were gradually driven out of the area.

It didn't look good for me, but Mandy's flight to Norwich was  months away and so in preparation for my resumption of bachelorhood I began to look around for somewhere I might live, refusing to be put off by the almost certain knowledge that I would fail. At the time I had a regular delivery route, the odd numbered side of Lordship Lane running from the launderette on the corner of Pellatt Road right up to the last block of houses bordering the Horniman Gardens in Forest Hill. As a point of interest, the block in question can be seen to the left of the railway line in Camille Pissarro's Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich painted in 1871, and there was for me a strange thrill in delivering to such a vaguely historic address.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871.

Further down the hill, just past The Plough - the pub which briefly and ridiculously became The Goose & Granite once house prices started to bloat - was a terrace of twelve four-storey and possibly Edwardian townhouses of which all but a few had been converted into flats. About half of these had flights of steps running up the outside of each building for, lacking a communal entrance nearer to the surface of the planet, most flats had their own front door.  This was therefore a massive pain in the arse in terms of mail delivery, and particularly in the case of Michael Johnson who lived on the uppermost floor at one address, and who was guaranteed to receive something in the mail twice daily, even if was just an extremely poorly targeted advert for car insurance. I had a testy speech prepared for the day we finally came face to face, something making use of the sort of profanities which can be yapped out whilst still breathless from the previous ten minutes of climbing. These fucking steps, I would begin...

When at last we met, Michael - or Mick as I believe he preferred - turned out to be effectively paraplegic and only roughly mobile with the aid of crutches, which somewhat sucked the pleasure out of my proposed tirade. Being differently abled - as I suppose is one definition - turned out to be amongst Mick's lesser distinguishing features, for he was also of Asian ethnicity, amusingly over-educated - that fourth floor flat being stuffed with shelves of terrifying philosophical texts from university days - and Liverpudlian with an accent which might have been used to thicken custard. Above all, he was a blabbermouth and very, very funny, and we hit it off immediately. By the time my relationship with Mandy had begun to wind down, I knew Mick well enough to look forward to our occasionally scurrilous conversations as we encountered each other in the street - comparing notes about his neighbours, which addresses had recently received discreet brown magazine sized envelopes and that sort of thing. On the off chance, I asked if he knew of any flats available in the area. He seemed to know everything that went on, so I guessed it was worth a shot.

'You should speak to Bill,' he suggested in fluent Jimmy Corkhill, indicating the next house but one, 'although you'd better not tell him I said anything. He thinks I'm a Paki.'

I was glad of the information, whilst also being a little shocked by the racial term, which was of course Mick's intention. I'd spoken to Bill Edney only a few times as he was one of the older, less outgoing residents of the terrace. He was a compact little man in his late seventies, but with a sparky, almost youthful quality, quick-witted and with a full head of snowy white hair which lent him a distinguished appearance.

'Funny you should ask,' Bill told me in answer to a slightly different question, at which point I noticed the hearing aid, 'but he's just moved out, so if you want to have a look...'

He led me down the alley at the side of his house to the basement flat, and I recalled that the resident, somebody or other Wilson, had not been getting much mail of late.

'Who told you it was going?' Bill fumbled with a set of keys and unlocked the door.

I've never been that great at telling lies so I spilled the beans because oh I just heard about it somewhere seemed like a terrible answer to give to someone so advanced in years.

'Michael eh?' He rolled his eyes and batted a dismissive hand like an amused game show host. 'He's a funny bloke.' Everyone was a funny bloke to Bill, which was the strongest character assessment I ever heard him make, even when it came to the dreaded George Ramshall to whom I shall refer later. As I would come to realise, Bill was not really given to strong opinions of the kind which can't be shared in reasonably polite company.

The flat had a kitchen, front room, bathroom, bedroom, hall, and separate toilet, not to mention a rear door with access to the garden. It was furnished, clean and in a good state of repair, and Bill had recently finished redecorating following the exit of Mr. Wilson. The house had originally been a single dwelling, but Bill had converted the ground floor into a self-contained flat for his sister - since deceased - back in the 1950s or thereabouts. It was perfect but obviously out of my league.

Bill and friend forging what would eventually become my kitchen.

'Fifty quid a week,' he said.

I tried not to choke, having anticipated a figure three or four times as much.

'Okay,' I squeaked. 'I'm interested.'

Bill told me that there was no television set, reluctantly confessing this like it would be the deal breaker - the rats in the wall or the body buried under the kitchen floor. He seemed almost to be expecting a frosty good day to you, sir as I stormed off to spend my fifty pounds a week rent money elsewhere.

I explained that it really wasn't a problem.

Later that week I showed up at the house following my morning delivery and met Florence, or rather Flo, Bill's wife. She would be my landlady and was the manager of all their financial affairs. Like her husband, she was small and an enthusiastic smoker. Bill was on about eighty a day and I assumed she was keeping pace. I entered their home, which occupied the two uppermost floors of the house, took one lungful of oxygen flavoured smog and understood that these people were serious about their ciggies. Each intake of breath in their deeply tanned front room was equivalent to smoking an unfiltered extra-tar Marlboro, and I could not help but be impressed. Flo brought out a photocopied rental agreement, apologised for the fact of there being no television set in the flat, and offered me a cigarette.

I moved in about a month later, migrating gradually with a couple of bags of all my crap taken up to the flat each afternoon. Bill and Flo had decided they weren't bothered about rent until I was actually living there, and this became characteristic of how they ran things, with an informal approach, their being more concerned about having a reliable tenant than raking in the money. By May 1995 I was all moved in without the usual rigmarole of unpacking and sorting everything out as I had been doing this daily during the weeks in transit; but it was not all good news, and the first few months turned out to be a little rocky, contrary to expectation. Mandy had moved with me, despite our scheduled separation, the reasoning being that her course didn't start until September, and so for the present she was otherwise screwed in terms of accommodation. It was awkward, but there weren't really any other options; and it was awkward mainly because I'd had no idea she would be moving in with me until I'd already signed the contract, and it turned out that the fifty pounds per week was per head rather than all in.

Flo called me upstairs for an interview, sat me down, offered me a cigarette and said she was very disappointed. I explained as best as I could that it wasn't my idea, and that Mandy's residence would only be short term; and thankfully, she believed me.

Bill and Flo in the garden, 1980s.

Then came the fact that we owned a cat, something else I had neglected to mention when moving in for the honest reason that I believed Buster would be going to live in Norwich with Mandy. I had a hunch that Bill and Flo weren't keen on cats and wouldn't want one in their flat, and being reluctant to have my hypothesis validated, I never asked. Tragically, the problem solved itself when Buster was hit by a car. Mandy believed he had been shooed into oncoming traffic by our landlord, but I strongly suspect it was simply a combination of bad luck and the fact that we lived on a main road; and this prompted my second interview. Flo was again very disappointed. I had the impression that Bill preferred to let his wife do the arguing as she was better at it with that formidable headmistress quality of someone who never raised her voice but would have you killed if the situation demanded. She offered me a cigarette, then explained that although she was sorry about Buster, they had a strict policy regarding pets. My heart sank, imagining I would soon be looking for some other place to live, but as she explained and offered me another cigarette, I realised that this was simply a warning. I guessed that renting out one's basement could be a bit of a minefield in London, particularly for a couple in their late seventies and preferring a quiet life; and despite everything, I hadn't yet thrown an all-night party, set anything on fire, or turned the place into a crack den, so I was on probation.

It was a difficult summer. I was upset over Buster, and the situation with my girlfriend was becoming weird and uncomfortable, but by October it was over. Mandy was at last where she wanted to be chasing that great big art rainbow, and I was happily single and  paying peanuts for a flat that was better than any I had known. No longer was I crawling from one gloomy bedsit to another, struggling to pay rent in the certain knowledge that the future would be worse, and I felt suddenly and profoundly unburdened for the first time in my life. It seemed like things were starting to work out.

I became comfortable, enjoying the flat and the garden and having a traditional landlord rather than some faceless agency. I had found a tiny pocket of decency left over from the 1960s when Tony Hancock or Michael Caine would pay rent in shillings to Irene Handl and they would all have a cup of tea and a smoke as she hung out the washing. If anything needed fixing, Bill would usually get onto it within the week, either doing the job himself or getting his friend Jim, an affable Irish D.H. Lawrence whom I gather had worked for Bill back when he'd been in the building trade and ran his own company. Repairs made weren't always the greatest in terms of craftsmanship, but the service was excellent. When I suffered an outbreak of mould - dark patches of grey and black spreading in circles across my kitchen ceiling - Jim painted over them with Dulux white emulsion before departing with a cheery, 'there you go, Lawrie. That should all be fine for you now.'

At fifty pounds a week, I wasn't complaining and besides, I'd endured a succession of genuinely dodgy landlords and letting agencies over the years, and had experienced real housing problems. The occasional spot of damp which inevitably comes with a basement flat really didn't seem like anything to worry about. When the wallpaper began to peel from my living room ceiling - prompting the question of why anyone would paper a ceiling in the first place - I applied drawing pins, matching them to the decor with correcting fluid; and if my repairing and regrouting of the tiles that had begun to fall from the kitchen wall was a bit of a lumpy job, at least the things stayed in place. If the job was serious, Bill would hire an electrician or a plumber. Everything else was handled by the ever-enthusiastic Jim.

If the mechanics of my tenancy seemed eccentric and potentially unreliable, legislated by goodwill and handshakes, the arrangement was preferable to any I had known before. Previous landlords and letting agencies had been marginally more efficient, but in my experience the more secure the legality, the greater the likelihood of getting screwed. I'd show up at the office with the customary sense of unease and as I handed over my cheque the secretary would tell me that the property was being sold in three months and I would be receiving notice to piss off in due course. With Bill, I would ring on his doorbell every Monday afternoon, wait the five minutes it took for him to get down the stairs, and then hand over his fifty quid in cash - essentially his spending money for the week as it turned out, and we would stand there on his doorstep and talk rubbish for a while. It was generally the same old jokes, but they were comfortable and always funny.

'I hope you're behaving yourself,' he would say with a twinkle in his bifocals.

'You know me, Bill. I just keep myself to myself.'

'That's the best thing. If you don't go nowhere, you can't get in any trouble.' He'd consider this, then frown and direct a pointed gaze at my rounded belly. 'Are you sure, you're behaving yourself?'

'Of course.'

'It looks like you've been interfered with to me.'

It was like living in a gentler Harold Pinter play; and with this being - as I already mentioned - a small pocket of 1960s decency somehow preserved like one of those Antarctic valleys full of dinosaurs, most of our neighbours knew one another, and of course they knew me because I was their regular postman. Next door but one was Mike Johnson, the funny bloke, with Candy and her son Joe in the flat below; on the other side were Carol and Dave - whom I got to know quite well because both Dave and I were of West Midlands extraction, and they once let me have a bath at their place when Jim was around repairing my plumbing with a roll of selotape and some chewing gum; then there was the seventy year old deaf Jamaican guy and his conspicuously younger Thai wife whom I helped one afternoon by breaking into their flat through the second floor bathroom window when they found themselves locked out; and there were the Borellis with all their cats, the lovely Lucia who shared my fascination with both frogs and carnivorous plants, and her theatrical brother Dominic, an actual star of stage and screen.

Other neighbours came and went, but these were the ones I knew best, the ones who held their ground against the engulfing tide of property development. We were an island, surrounded by economic predators thirsting to buy and transform everything into flats to be farmed off to wealthy events organisers and consultancy analysts who really needed to live somewhere with a bit of a vibe, yeah?

As I settled, it gradually dawned on me that my rent-to-wage ratio now left me reasonably well paid, and that I was relatively contented for what might almost have been the first time since childhood. I took up painting again, went back to recording my own music - activities with which I had not engaged myself in a while. I started writing, and began living, if you'll pardon the generic inspirational soundtrack music you may be able to hear in the background at this juncture. Of course, being practically minded, I was aware that mine hosts were  getting on in years and this relative idyll could not endure indefinitely, but as Damoclesian swords go this one seemed presently blunt.

Mortality entered the equation during my second Christmas at the flat when Flo succumbed to cancer. Inevitably and selfishly, I couldn't help worry about what this meant for my own situation, but equally I felt for Bill who had become something like a grandfather substitute. As a small man approaching eighty in years but sometimes exceeding that figure with his daily intake of snouts, he was as active as you would expect and still hobbled up to the shops for his Daily Mirror each morning; and he could still manage stairs well enough, even if he wasn't running many marathons. I imagined him more profoundly aged, pining away following his wife's passing as so often happens, but he carried on pretty much as usual. He was upset, but I guess it hadn't come as much of a surprise. Some mysterious relative apparently began to suggest that he move into a retirement home, but as he and his wife had been in that house for fifty years, he couldn't see the point and had told them to get stuffed.

With Flo gone, I tried to make myself useful with the occasional bit of DIY if the job was within my capabilities or involved ladders. Bill began to show up on my doorstep with a packet of biscuits or a yoghurt he thought I might like, seeing as he just happened to be passing. 'Don't want you wasting away to nuffin',' he would inform me, contradicting earlier observations made in regard to my suspected pregnancy. Suffering from arthritis in his hands he sometimes had difficulty writing, and it became a fairly regular ritual, my popping upstairs to fill out the trickier details of a cheque for the insurance or gas. He would offer me a cup of tea and a cigarette for my trouble, occasionally sharing excerpts from an autobiography it would never have occurred to him to write.

He was born in East Dulwich, just a bit further down the road, on the 16th of February, 1920. He served in the Royal Navy during the war - this detail emerging when he leant me a VHS copy of the 1953 production of The Cruel Sea, telling me there wasn't much difference between his experience and that of the character played by Jack Hawkins in the film. Florence, his wife, had lived only a few streets away, and I believe they got married soon after armistice was declared. They were never really what you would call well-travelled.

'I went abroad once,' Bill told me when I first went to Mexico, 'didn't really like it much.'

Having married, he went to work for a building company, and - so far as I recall - eventually came to own the company. Amongst those for whom he undertook building work or renovations were minor Royals and Barry Humphries - whom he considered a true gentleman, despite being unable to recall the name and having to scrabble around describing oh you know, that funny bloke, dresses up like an old bird on the telly. One of the minor Royals had been so pleased with the job he'd done that she gifted him a few hundred pounds worth of pedigree rose bushes for the garden, having learned of his then recent marriage and purchase of the house on Lordship Lane.

As Bill grew older and less mobile, he found it increasingly difficult to work the garden that he and Flo had tended for the previous fifty years, eventually scaling down to pruning the aforementioned rose bushes - now grown large and quite regal - and getting Jim over to mow the lawn every so often. For a while George Ramshall took over care of the garden. George was a lodger who was renting the first floor flat - sandwiched between mine and the upper part of the house occupied by Bill. When I first moved in, the first floor was briefly inhabited by the reclusive Miss Tibbs, an ancient widow who went to live with her brother shortly after my arrival. 'She's a funny woman,' Flo had once told me, shaking her head and reaching for her cigarettes. The flat remained empty for a few years until George showed up.

Unfortunately George was stark raving mad and spent a year transforming the garden into a scene from The Killing Fields, then lost interest. I knew I should have stepped in before he offered his services as head gardener, but feared I might be impinging on one of Bill's remaining pleasures in some way. Once I realised how much it depressed him to see his once cherished borders slowly devolving into a dirty protest, I stepped in on humanitarian grounds. George, whose level of sanity is probably indicated by his once spending three days cutting the lawn with a pair of scissors, had during the course of a year sifted every last ounce of soil in order to remove all of the stones and pebbles. The garden now comprised an expanse of nodules of obsessive compulsive clay with the texture of diarrhoea, all offset by a six foot mound of rocks and a handful of dying plants. Bill gave me the key to the shed, so I took a shovel and began digging the whole thing over in an attempt to terraform it back to something in which stuff might grow. George took this act for the clawing back of territory that it certainly was, and kept out of the garden from then on, moving out about a year later. For reasons too numerous to list here, both Bill and I were hugely relieved to see the back of him.

The flat in Lordship Lane became the first place I had lived since leaving home in which I actually enjoyed living. When I went away, I always looked forward to coming home. It wasn't a mansion, but it was all that I needed. I liked my landlord, I had decent neighbours, and for ten good years it was perfect, but of course nothing lasts forever. In June 2006, Bill missed a step coming down the stairs and fell. He was taken to King's College Hospital with a broken hip which, if nothing else, at least silenced the inevitably gleeful chorus of doomsayers predicting a cancerous end for anyone who ever did so much as walk past a tobacconist without voicing some note of disapproval. Jim and his wife Anne went to visit him and the prognosis didn't initially seem too bad. I went to visit a day or so later, and although his situation had improved a little, the experience did nothing to inspire confidence. Bill was in a ward with twelve others, and was unable to communicate due to having had no replacement battery for his hearing aid. He was effectively stone deaf. I pointed this out to a nurse who told me, 'oh don't worry about him. We sort of wave our arms and he seems to understand most of it.'

It was horrible.

Bill died a few days later from pneumonia contracted whilst in  hospital, 28th of June, 2006.

He was cremated at a ceremony at Camberwell New Cemetery attended by a handful of neighbours and a throng of relatives who had mysteriously emerged from the woodwork. As a couple, Bill and Flo had never had children and I'd only ever heard him speak of one relative, a nephew whom he regarded as a waste of space, and due to my front room being situated next to the steps leading up to his part of the house, I usually recognised his few regular visitors as neighbours, mostly people to whom I myself had delivered mail at one point or another.

A stumpy woman with dark hair whom I had never seen before in my life - possibly Flo's niece - made her presence known at the wake. 'Dear old uncle Bill,' she sighed, explaining how she used to visit him every few weeks, but of course that was all over now. She was immediately set straight by an admirably abrasive Scottish woman called Angela, a friend and neighbour whom we all knew as Haggis. 'Get tae fuck,' or words to that effect. 'Ye've no set a foot inside that house in your life, ye wee shite.'

Bill had left the house to Anne and Jim in his will. They weren't related by blood, but they were friends and had seen him more than once since 1975, which the relatives inevitably thought unfair, so it all became legally unpleasant. I'd always intended to ask Bill what would happen to my flat in the event of his passing, but I never got around to it for obvious reasons; so I was astonished when he raised the subject himself a few years earlier as we pottered about in the restored garden. 'Anne and Jim will look after the house, so you'll have somewhere to live,' he said. 'I don't want you to worry.'

It didn't work out that way, and after nearly a year of legal bullshit, I was evicted. The house was sold to a property developer who subdivided it into desirable flats in an exciting area, would suit bearded twenty-something new media arsehole wearing ironic Pogle's Wood T-shirt and one of those Pete Docherty novelty hats which arseholes seem to think lend them the rakish panache of Sinatra gone a bit Jagger around the edges, rather than simply sending out the message that here is a person of no consequence. They gravelled over the garden I'd tended for two years, and ploughed Bill's treasured half-century pedigree roses into the soil.

It was one of the most depressing periods of my entire life, but I took comfort from the fact that I'd had ten good years, and I believe his friends took a similar view - inconsolable but glad to have known him. Whenever I'm back in London, if I get the chance I still visit the gardens of remembrance at Camberwell New Cemetery. There's no plaque to commemorate Bill Edney ever having existed - a provision was made in the will, but nothing came of it, and Haggis suspected that Flo's absentee niece had just kept the money, which seems consistent with the general theme of her grieving. I spend half an hour in the garden, telling the memory of Bill what's been going on since my previous visit. I'm not sure if it really benefits anyone, but it feels like the right thing to do.

One of Bill's friends described happier times back when Flo would regularly tickle the ivories in one of the local pubs; and when the pub closed down, a group of them decided to rescue the piano. Bill and Flo had been party animals in their younger days - hence all the cigarettes I suppose - and they spent the best part of an alcohol soaked night pushing their refugee piano through the streets of East Dulwich and then Forest Hill, pausing every so often for a song and an alfresco knees-up. It struck me as a bizarre image, and I thought of the sheer racket of Flo pounding out a tune on a street corner at three in the morning with Bill and the others, all puffing away, all toasting the street lamps and singing themselves hoarse; but then it wasn't such a bizarre image, because I could never recall Bill without the association of laughter, his gentle humour, and his generosity. It always sounds like hyperbole to say someone changed your life, but in my case, that's exactly what Bill did.

I will never forget him.

Friday, 5 July 2013

I, Column

Terrible news: Samantha has read last week's column in which I confessed my utter despair regarding her reaction to the column that was printed in the previous weekend's colour supplement. She is sat at the table drumming her fingers upon our copy of Teddy's first novel, Crime, Punishment, and Some Chafing - a terse and somewhat overwritten account of a young writer's struggle to get his first novel published. Samantha hasn't read it of course, but she's read my bloody column and God am I going to know about it!

'Perhaps you would care for some taramasalata,' I suggest in placatory mood. 'I'm rather peckish and it's very nearly lunch time.'

'Why do you do it, Hugo?' she asks me, quite directly.

There being nothing to gain from pretending to have misunderstood, I opt for brutal honesty bordering on sarcasm - always good to set off the pinot grigio with just a few drops of urine for the sake of texture. 'It's my job, darling. I'm a writer, you see.'

'You write about us,' she observes, quite correctly.

I say nothing although my forehead is cool with the sweat of the accused. Now stood, I seek sanctuary in the interior of our Smeg™ refrigerator, and it occurs to me that if I so choose I could quite literally seek sanctuary within its capacious inner space without the necessity of removing shelves, wine rack, or kumquat holder. I am looking for the tub of taramasalata but my eyes have fixated upon a plastic bowl wherein shreds of rocket marinade slowly towards the twilight of their useful and edible lives. Samantha served the salad when Francine and Toby popped in after Jessica's bassoon lesson, but I can't remember whether that was Monday or Tuesday.

It is killing me.

'My point is,' Samantha opines, snatching up the conversational gauntlet with a grip that clearly underscores my failure, 'that quite aside from the slightly lurid idea that your readers could possibly have the slightest interest in the existential angst of daily life in West Dulwich, I would just like to know where it will all end.'

I was braced for the thrust of the knife, but had not expected this innocuous and yet mysterious inquiry. I recalled the column in which I told of my midnight expedition to the Seven-Eleven on Lordship Lane, my witching hour purchase of Big Ones International volume eight, issue seven and subsequent frenzied onanism. Empty your shooters over my hooters, the tagline suggested and so I did without shame in the crushing solitude of my wife attending her weekend Reiki retreat. What compelled you to write about this?, she cried upon publication of the not-so-much-grisly-as-slippery details, why must you share every last narrative winnet in this way like some suburban Rabelais who never fully grew out of the delight taken in the contents of his own soiled nappy? Those were not her words, but that was nevertheless their meaning, and I saw it then, the infinite regress of the column about the column about my column, spiralling forever inwards.

'I am a writer,' I challenge, turning and wielding a container of lemon grass. 'Would you ask that I not write? Would you tell Waitrose to cease stockage of its pesto, spinach and pine nut pasta salad? Be glad that the bitter struggle of the creative troubadour is alone his to know and to suffer and send forth unto the world. Be happy that you know only his pain without feeling its sting.'

'Yes,' she says, eyes wearied with the burden of her own thoughts, 'and I wouldn't mind so much if you were actually writing about something other than the fact of your having nothing to write about. It really is terribly, terribly dull, Hugo, and no-one cares about the inner turmoil of a balding upper middle-class man or his self-conscious collection of Stone Roses albums.'

This cuts me to the quick, the mid-paced, and the slow; and thus do I buckle but not bodily, only psychically keeled over and there obliged to gaze into the howling wound of my own well-trodden fundament, that place in which I had sought comfort on so many occasions, my muse and my shame, the russet fount of inspiration; and I know in that moment that I shall write about this in my next column, and already I hate myself.