Dabbler Diary – From a Corner of The Swan

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.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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11 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – From a Corner of The Swan

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 4, 2013 at 11:00

    Ref Albanian sound track, there is an Aldi in the village of Adenau, on the edge of the Nurbugring, it’s car park is 50 metres from the track. It has to be the only supermarket in Europe where the men insist upon accompanying the wives on the supermarketswoop. Aus aller Herren Länder sit on the car park’s tarmac, weeping at the sound of motors negotiating the Kallenhard bend whilst the wives weep at the cost of filling a trolley.

    DIY is best undertaken wearing one of those blokish tool belts, you still don’t have a clue but look like you do. Failing that, marry a carpenter.

  2. Worm
    March 4, 2013 at 11:58

    a soothing start to the week as always!

    only a week or so to go until the daffs come out and the world will seem a better place

  3. bensix@live.co.uk'
    March 4, 2013 at 12:03

    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.

    DIY, as is commonly known if not acknowledged, is our chance to prove ourselves as men: partly in our technical abilities, yes, but also in the breadth of our knowledge of curse words.

  4. Worm
    March 4, 2013 at 13:08

    Im the opposite, I find DIY mostly pretty relaxing

    • Brit
      March 6, 2013 at 13:50

      I’m working on a theory that you’re actually some sort of holy prophet, Will.

      • Wormstir@gmail.com'
        March 6, 2013 at 18:40

        As long as I get some vestal virgins then sign me up!

  5. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    March 4, 2013 at 13:18

    the modus operandii is that the checkout staff whizz the items through as fast as the human eye can see

    Yes, redolent of piece work in a sweatshop. Thank goodness for those befuddled seniors who slow things down to a more humane pace by scrounging determinedly for exact change in the bottom of their purses or putting in wrong PIN numbers. Modern tech being a marvel when it works and a disaster when it doesn’t, have you noticed the ill-concealed relief of the checkout clerk when a bar code is incorrect or missing? An unscheduled break ordered by Hal. Everything grinds to a halt as a spotty youth is dispatched to the nether regions of the store to discover Price Truth, seemingly with only a vague notion of where he is going and why. The clerk stares vacantly at nothing and avoids all eye contact with the customers in line, persumably to avoid giving the apology they expect and she sees no reason to make. There is no point in even dreaming she might just guess or estimate–such would probably bring disciplinary action and trigger an automatic forensic audit by head office. Like in a sci-fi flic where the whole population is frozen in place, the line stands mute as managers and clerks hurry by, also pretending not to notice. Will he ever return? Stay tuned for next week’s episode.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      March 4, 2013 at 17:26

      In Paris they prefer humiliation. It goes like this: in any decent-size supermarché you are expected, though of course nowhere does it state the fact, to weigh your own fruit and/or veg and that done to procure and affix a label with a bar code and a price. Let us assume the queue is substantial, but let us also assume that you have gained its head. You proffer, say, a bag of tomatoes. The checkout operator looks at the bag. She (so we shall stereotype) is worried. She holds it at different angles. She says something which, just, you discern as peser, which means to weigh. You reach to take it back. She snatches it away. ‘Non, monsieur!’ Then she stands, lifts the bag on high, displaying its nakedness to the now restive queue. She gestures at you. She leaves the till, she vanishes into the shop. Because she, and she alone, must remedy your betise. The seconds pass like hours. The queue talk among themselves and stare at you. The word tricoteuse floats into your head. Finally, aeons have surely passed, she returns. She rings it up, you pay, you leave. And no, you do not forget again.

      • Brit
        March 6, 2013 at 13:49

        I’ve often chickened out of buying fresh fruit and veg in French supermarkets precisely for fear of that happening.

  6. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    March 5, 2013 at 00:46

    We have a wonderful tool for removing nails, the Crescent Suregrip No. 56, which I have used to remove nails that no clawhammer could have dealt with. It makes a satisfyingly loud bang, about like a .22 rifle; at times, after removing a couple of dozen nails from a window well, I’ve wished that I had used ear protection. I recommend it for its combination of efficiency and noise.

    You may reasonably expect that your children will grow up and move out. This is not really something that you will enjoy while it is happening–I referred to the process as “making a wilderness and calling it peace–but then you are raising them to grow up and become independent, aren’t you? And, then you will have some leisure again, and perhaps appreciate it more than you did in your twenties.

    • Brit
      March 6, 2013 at 13:48

      That sounds like a brilliant tool, George. But also probably the sort of thing I’d buy, put in the garage and then, when nail-removal was next required, completely forget I owned.

      And yes, golden ages are definitely wasted on those who are in them.

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