A difference between me and a craftsman is in the level of violent aggression with which I approach manual tasks – this I have noticed about myself. Take screwing. A craftsman would with patience and care twiddle his bradawl and drive in his screws at a steady, sensible pace, whereas I, whenever DIY is required, find myself in a state of red-faced rage, attacking the bastard (and worse, teeth-gritted epithets) bits of wood and metal as if I were avenging some unspeakable wrong they did me in a past life. The week has been a drag. When we agreed to pay Jerry the ex-Springbok salesman to get his boys to do the carpet-fitting and lay down the laminate, it was with the intention of making life easy for ourselves – it had not then dawned on me that nights of hard labour lay ahead: shifting all the furniture from one room, then all out again to the other, stripping carpets, removing underlay and tearing out vicious spiky carpet grippers with a clawhammer, all while trying to keep our two-up-two-down habitable for a pair o’tots with no sense of personal safety. I got my friend Toby round to help with the worst of it, he has more patience than me. At one point he asked me what my favourite tool was, because “everyone’s got a favourite tool, haven’t they?” “Sledgehammer,” I replied instantly.
As I say, it’s been a drag. When I think back to my childless twenties and early thirties, I feel almost vertiginous: oh the vast untroubled wastelands of leisure time, hours and hours and hours of it. I used to play video games for Christ’s sake. Not that I’m complaining, mind. There is fun and laughter and a deeper-level happiness. But sometimes I imagine an afternoon just spent guiltlessly reading on a sofa. A lifetime ago there was a holiday in Lanzarote, we spent all day baking in the sun, slid into the sea when we felt like it, drank beer and wine, ate fish in restaurants, slept. Time stretched itself out like a lizard on a rock. I passed whole mornings sitting on the apartment balcony in swimshorts reading Patrick O’Brien books and sipping coffee while below golden-skinned white-bloused maids gently mopped at floor-tiles. At 10pm on Monday night, as I wrenched a particularly evil piece of carpet gripper from the bare concrete of our living room with my February-frozen fingers, I thought of that balcony and wished I was there.
Leisure = self-indulgence and has of course been unattainable for the vast majority of the humans to have lived on this weary planet. Excepting the very rich, it’s a recent invention, but we become accustomed to it and start to see it as a right. The way to deal with a lack of leisure is to embrace it and have a heroic work ethic. I’ve observed that the checkouts at Asda are disproportionately staffed by those sturdy, sensible sixtysomething women who you can tell have never not done a day’s work in their lives. Unquestionably they spend every non-Asda hour cooking for their retired husbands (who don’t even know how to boil an egg), cleaning the bathroom, looking after the grandchildren, feeding the cat and so on. I bought some polenta last time I was in Asda and the checkout lady asked me what you could do with it. What can’t you do with it more like? I answered. You can grill it, you can fry it, you can bake it, you can shake it… I would have turned it into a song but I sensed she’d already had quite enough of my nonsense.
It’s always been harder for women, this life. Hours spent at the washboard and mangle while pregnant with one’s eighth. Church and one hour on Sunday afternoons with a cup of tea and some needlework, that was leisure. ‘Austerity’ indeed, we don’t even know what the word means.
The checkout staff in Aldi, down on Church Road, are even more interesting than the leisure-less Englishwomen of Asda. In Aldi the women are young and Polish or Latvian, just off-beautiful with much jewellery, thick make-up and effortful hairstyles. And talk about a work ethic! (In case you don’t know Aldi or Lidl, the modus operandii is that the checkout staff whizz the items through as fast as the human eye can see, and you must attempt to catch the groceries in your trolley as they come flying off. You must then load your goods into bags at the back of the store – they very much do not ask if you ‘want any help with your packing’. Apparently this system keeps staff costs down.)
Outside Aldi sits an Albanian accordion-player of modest talent. He busks there every day and I wonder about what strange paths led him from Albania across Europe and the Channel to Bristol, where he will play accordion for pennies for God knows how much of his life is left. I suppose at some level I admire him, but his racket irritates me, making Church Road sound like Albania whether we like it or not. None of the main political parties seem to have any conception of how the provincial English have had their worlds transformed in a very short space of time by the unprecedented immigration they were required to absorb, without consultation, by New Labour. They have taken it with typical English stoicism, good humour and tolerance, without riots or nastiness or bigotry, whatever Gordon Brown says. But nonetheless, come election day they may decide to toddle along to the voting booth and put a cross in the UKIP box.
I interpret the Eastleigh by-election result as a resounding defeat for the London media and BBC, which (1) detests UKIP; and (2) attempted to equate a local election with a national groping scandal. During the early stages of the Lord Rennard story the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson gave an extraordinary ‘report’ on Today in which he speculated at length about how the press might speculate about how much Nick Clegg knew about Rennard’s misdeeds. At that point, all it had was some accusations but already the scandal machine was being cranked up to the max. This sort of thing has surely got worse since the advent of Guido Fawkes’ blog and Twitter. The relentless moral outrage is corrosive, and cynicism spreads to all parts.
When walking about the lanes of a lunchtime I used to often happen upon a local character, a weather-grizzled septuagenarian with long grey hair, a grey beard, a Stetson, leather boots, an old dog, and a magnificent horse atop which he used to plod around, slowly. Strangely, politics often came up, and he’d express his disgust with politicians as a species. “It’s this expenses thing that’s finished it for me,” he’d say. “When I heard about all that I thought, that’s it, I’m finished with the lot of them.” Occasionally I’d think about replying: “Yes, but don’t you think that what’s really striking is how many MPs didn’t fiddle their expenses, when it was so easy to do so. The reality is that most politicians are reasonably decent people who want to do good, however misguided they may sometimes be.” But I never did say that – not least because, as the noble classes have known for many centuries, it is remarkably difficult to start an argument with a man who looking down at you from a horse.
I shop at M&S sometimes too. Popped in on Saturday and carried six bottles of red wine and a massive pizza to the checkout. It came to £43. I produced from my pocket a book of various vouchers worth £3, £2 and £1. These I fed, one by one, to the assistant. Beep, beep, she had to decrumple and scan each one. Beep, beep. A queue was building up, so I aimed a cheerful beam at it. Beep beep, the total gradually whittled down. When at last it got to zero the old codger waiting patiently behind leaned toward me and said conspiratorially, “That was quite a result on your part.” I tapped the side of my nose as if I was giving him a dead cert in the 3.10 at Goodwood. “M&S credit card, put all the petrol on it”.
As I said, I do not complain. I have an hour of blissful leisure most Friday nights. We knock off work early and on the way home I go to The Swan, a perfect Bath Ales pub with a real fire. I sit in my favourite corner, sip a pint of Gem and read a book, or sometimes I write this diary, as I am doing now. God I love this corner; often I think of it and experience pangs of yearning. Sometimes I have a bag of pork scratchings. Then I go home, where my lovely girls greet me with glee. Well we did it, we got through January, and we got through February. The warming sun will come, and the new laminate floor looks terrific, like the deck of a frigate in a Patrick O’Brien novel.