Dabbler Diary – Do you know Soapy Gardenshed?

Every morning Amazon helpfully confirms that my phone’s email function still works by trying to sell me something. As does The Ticket Factory. Also Premier Inn, Centre Parks and especially VistaPrint, whose labyrinthine Unsubscribe facility has several times defeated me. These ‘consensual’ marketing emails we are invited to call ‘bacn’, because they’re not quite spam.

(Nb, it turns out ‘bacn’ the nearly-spam is not exactly the same thing as ‘bacon’, the pig-derived foodstuff. This tricky distinction was painstakingly explained by the BBC’s technology correspondent Mark Ward in the second-worst opening paragraph ever to appear on the internet:

It might be heresy for some to say this, but not all bacon is welcome. Especially when we are talking bacn rather than bacon. One is all the not-quite-junk mail messages that land in your inbox and the other is the tasty stuff that sits happily alongside sausages, fried bread and the other cast members of the full English breakfast.)

Facebook is a very persistent bacn-monger. I never go on Facebook but I did once create an account, which is sufficient encouragement for Mark Zuckerberg to continually invite me to befriend people of whom I’ve never heard. Then last week came the quite unexpected question, Do you know Soapy Gardenshed? I don’t think I know any Soapy Gardensheds as I’m sure I’d remember the name. But Facebook does supposedly have all these clever algorithms, so if one of you knows, or even secretly is ‘Soapy Gardenshed’, please enlighten me.


The worst (or possibly, best) opening paragraph ever to appear on the internet was  Jenny Sims’ infamous “We’ve all been there. Surrounded by clutter, left with nothing to house the mess. Enter the cardboard box.” – For more on which, see Nigeness.

The efforts of Jenny ‘Carboard Box’ Sims and Mark ‘Bacn not Bacon’ Ward are classic ‘page-filler’ pieces, which is odd given that internet pages are limitless and therefore unfillable. Another reliable Beeb man for completely wasting a few minutes of your life is Arts Editor Will Gompertz, who brings us this important story about artist Mat Colishaw’s attempt to view a Velasquez painting ‘as if for the first time’…

Mat wanted to have a direct relationship with the picture….His aim was to look at the picture and have an unmediated reaction; to silence the hundreds of voices in his head telling him how magnificent it is and why.

He came up with an elaborate plan.

Back in his London studio, he persuaded a friend to place a blindfold over his eyes, escort him by taxi to Heathrow, catch a flight to Madrid, lead him into the Prado museum, and position him in directly in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Only at this point was the blindfold to be removed. For three minutes.

After which, the blindfold was to be put back on and the whole charade repeated for the return journey back to the London studio. Whereupon Mat would remove the blindfold and have a think.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It had made the situation worse.”


Oh well.


Do you know Soapy Gardenshed? went around in my head all last week to the tune of Theme from Mahogany (Do you know where you’re going to?) by Diana Ross, a song penned in the 1970s but which always puts me in mind of Swinging Sixties London and tales of game gamine lasses like the protagonist of the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home who come down to the capital from the north in search of Something More and end up in squalid flats and unsatisfactory relationships with photographers called Terry.

Look! Here she comes now, under the opening credits, Samantha ‘Soapy’ Gardenshed from Leeds, thin as a broomstick, swishing bravely down Carnaby Street in mini-skirt, Twiggy bob, thick black lashes and mascara, pausing at a shop window to admire a brand new leopard skin pill box hat, surreptitiously leered at by a passing postman, harrumphed at by a pair of horn-rimmed biddies, she stoops to pick up the pinta from the bottom step and skips up to the front door with her latchkey wondering wistfully if she’ll ever have a song written about her by Mick Jagger or accidentally become a famous fashion designer or perhaps ‘fall into’ becoming head of comedy programming at the BBC, which are the sorts of things that happened to people in Swinging Sixties London all the time, you know.


The BBC website may lead the world in pointlessness, but the Guardian’s the thing for bonkers opinion pieces. I must point you to this gem from Karen Fricker, who is the co-editor of Performing the ‘New’ Europe: Identities, Feelings, and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Her conclusion: the only non-racist way to watch the Eurovision Song Contest is with an irony-free, cynicism-free, joy-free joy. Or to put it another way, unless you take Eurovision very, very seriously indeed, you must be a livel-eyed swoon.


‘I didn’t fall completely asleep, but my thoughts turned silly,’ my wife once said of an afternoon nap, and it was in just such a state that I found myself after lunch on Saturday, and in my mind’s eye two burly members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary snarled into the face of a quivering lag and demanded “Do you know Soapy Gardenshed? Well, do you? Out with it!”

…But Stan ‘Soapy’ Gardenshed, notorious safe-cracker, pickpocket and jewellery thief is already miles away, having escaped from Wormwood Scrubs at midnight by taking a leaf out of Mr Toad’s book and disguising himself as a washerwoman. He clings to the underside of the steam engine as it charges through the moonlit English countryside and at the crucial moment flings himself clear of the tracks and tumbles down the grassy bank into a ditch. For six days and nights Soapy evades capture, hiding out in chicken coops and haystacks, surviving on hunks of bread and cheese stolen from farmhouse kitchens. The hunks are delicious. In fact he becomes so fond of such hunks that for the rest of his life he will only ever eat food in hunk form: bread mostly, cheese where he can get it, but also hunks of pork, beef, lamb and the hunk-friendlier vegetables such as turnip and marrow. When offered birthday cake he will say “Oh just a small hunk for me please,” and even in his dotage the outwardly-respectable Stanley Gardenshed will insist that the nurse hew his meals into tiny hunks which he will mash with his gums as he thinks back to those days as master criminal Soapy, and oh how he secretly chuckles at his fellow wrinklies carrying on their tortoise-like daily business quite unaware that a once-notorious safe-cracker, pickpocket and jewellery thief dwells in their midst… And then I woke up, and it was time to take the girls swimming.


One part of the main pool was taken up with a men’s water polo game (I have to say, as a sporting spectacle water polo is very poor, and it looks like hell to play, too). The remainder was full of gangly youths engaged in rudimentary courtship behaviour. We were in the baby pool. C is three and three-quarters and has been steadily gaining in swimming confidence but this time, aided by armbands, she cracked it – body fully horizontal, head up, kicking and paddling and propelling herself in the desired direction. The expression on her face showed that there is no more joyful feeling than the feeling that you’re mastering a new skill. When our time was up she shed bitter tears. All good things must come to an end: now that really is a hard lesson to learn.


After swimming Mrs Brit took C for a wee-wee while I went ahead with E to the café. North Devon Leisure Centre in Barnstaple is much refurbished since I was a boy and now boasts a small, pleasant cafeteria with views of Long Bridge and the River Taw.

It was empty save for a gaggle of sexagenarian and septugenarian women, who were drinking cocoa and exchanging banter with the lady behind the counter. The banter was ribald. “Did you get up to have a look at the water polo, June? Some nice bums.” (Squawks of laughter.)  “And other bits”. (Shrieks.) “A lot past their prime though you have to say.  Beer bellies.” “Still, beggars can’t be choosers I say”. (Howls.) As she put my coffees on the counter the lady apologised. “Sorry about this lot.” (Snorts.)  “Not at all,” I replied. “It’s very flattering. Glad you enjoyed the sight.” (Yelps.) I scooped up E who was tottering around busily at my knees and held her aloft. (Here I should observe that E is seventeen months old and unusually cute.) She waved and smiled.

Instantly the ladies amassed in a maternal swarm, picked up my coffees and cakes for me and, cooing and chucking, escorted me in procession to the table. I shuffled along humbly, offering low benedictions and beatitudes, tokens and acknowledgements, thanks and absolutions, graciously, reverently, the Bearer of the Child.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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11 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Do you know Soapy Gardenshed?

  1. maureen.nixon@btinternet.com'
    May 27, 2013 at 07:13

    I spotted Soapy Gardenshed at Headingly yesterday – he’s the newest member of the Barmy Army and looks quite like a frothy Key’s Cupboard.

  2. bensix@live.co.uk'
    May 27, 2013 at 12:20

    Good Lord, Ms. Fricker’s argument pushes all the wrong buttons…

    …because Eurovision as silly, dismissable, tasteless – well, just a bit too “European”, really – is the only possible interpretation.

    How many British people do you know who think the streets of Paris, Rome or Vienna are “silly” or “tasteless”? We apply those terms to Eurovision because it features black metallists, tuneless camp men with enormous collars and Bonnie Tyler. I never understand why people watch it for ironic purposes, but the fact that someone not only watched it but devoted a book to it in all seriousness is quite depressing.

    • Brit
      May 27, 2013 at 21:59

      She also ignores that we heap ridicule on our own entries (a point which destroys her thesis at a stroke).

      • bensix@live.co.uk'
        May 27, 2013 at 22:24

        You mean you didn’t like the guys who dressed up as flight attendants? I’m stunned.

  3. wormstir@gmail.com'
    May 27, 2013 at 13:25

    The people who watch Eurovision for ironic purposes are the same people who think those compare the meerkats things are still funny and who end sentences with ‘simples’. They also still order beer at the pub by saying “a flagon of your finest ale please bar wench”. Their houses are festooned with ‘Keep Calm..’ posters. They like Dan Brown novels.

  4. zmkc@ymail.com'
    May 27, 2013 at 14:10

    A lot of water polo training goes on at the Margaret Island swimming complex in Budapest. Overweight former Olympians yell encouragement and admonishments from the sidelines at the ones who’ve come after them. Inevitably, the cry goes up: “Get a move on, Attila!” The name never fails to amuse me. Small pleasures.

  5. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    David Cohen
    May 27, 2013 at 14:26

    To those who now find themselves compulsively humming Do You Know Soapy Gardenshed, the only cure known to man or medicine is to sing the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies out loud. You will then have that song stuck in your head but that is of course the human condition.

  6. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    May 27, 2013 at 16:43

    We’ve all been there. Tapping away at the keyboard, desperately in need of a line break to start a new paragraph, but bored to tears with pressing that weary old ‘return’ key. Enter ‘enter’.

  7. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    May 27, 2013 at 16:44

    We’ve all been there. Desperately wanting to secrete some enzymes and churn those intestinal contents, without bothering the brain or the CNS. Enter the enteric nervous system.

  8. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    May 27, 2013 at 16:46

    We’ve all been there. Sitting on the bed of the ocean, longing desperately for some phylum of worm-shaped marine organisms distinct from those boring old echinoderms. Enter the Enteropneusta.

    (OK I really must make a start on washing those pans …)

  9. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    May 27, 2013 at 18:01

    Water polo’s terribly hard on the ponies too…

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