Mr Ferman’s office was on the ground floor of a tall Victorian townhouse near to the centre of Exeter. There was no buzzer so I knocked on the door. ‘Come in,’ said somebody, and I entered a giant heap of files with a few walkways cut through it. I have never seen an untidier office. There was also a powerful odour of cat. I peered around and eventually spotted a decrepit but genial face smiling at me from behind a pile of tax reference books. “Mr Ferman?” I said. “No, he’ll be with you in a minute. Do sit down,” said the unnamed man, and an emerging hand indicated a hard chair directly underneath the coat stand, which was full of coats. I perched awkwardly on the chair’s edge but no sooner had I done so when a female voice shrieked “Oh you CRETIN!”, and I jumped up in alarm. Now I could see that there was a second person in the office, sunk down behind a computer screen. It was a decrepit old lady, and these two decrepit persons, it transpired, comprised Mr Ferman’s staff. The focus of her ire seemed to be her computer rather than me, so I sat down again to wait. As I did so I looked around for signs of the cat, but found none.

After a while Mr Ferman emerged from the adjoining room. He was a big fat man with a lumbering and lugubrious manner that put me in mind of the Bob Dylan line “You walk into the room like a camel and then you frown.” We shook hands across a tower of binders and I carefully followed him into his private office.

“I’m a great pal of Tim Law, of course,” said Mr Ferman by way of opening, and before I could make any kind of sensible response he continued, with increasing good cheer: “But then who doesn’t know Tim in our industry, eh? When did you last see him? Whenever he’s down this way he usually calls me up and we go for a few bevvies, get into a bit of trouble!”

He was chuckling so hard at this last that I was forced to join in, thus losing my chance to confess that I had absolutely no idea who Tim Law was and that he had obviously confused me or my company with somebody or something else. There then followed a long and damned tricky conversation in which the name of Tim Law kept being invoked, forcing me to pretend familiarity while trying subtly to change the subject. But whenever I managed to elbow Tim Law out of the discussion, somehow he would keep sneaking back in. By the end I felt as if I had in fact come to know this Tim Law character quite well, and I hated him.

Still, I got through the ordeal with a little luck and bluffing, but as I stood to leave Mr Ferman exclaimed “Wait a minute!” and lumbered over to a cupboard. He rooted around for a bit, muttering, then produced in triumph a couple of 2013 diaries, personalised with his business’ name. “Here you are,” he said, throwing them at me. “One for you, and next time you see Tim, give him one of those. He’ll probably take one look at it and say ‘Ah Ferman, that old rebrobate!’ Ha ha ha!”

He was still chuckling as I left. On my way out I accidentally kicked the tower of binders. Over it went, crashing onto a stack of files. I looked around to apologise, but neither of the decrepit persons showed the slightest bit of interest.

***

2013 is the centenary of the birth of Albert Camus, and I recently read The Outsider for the first time since I was a student. I was astonished at how much the book had changed in the intervening years. The first time I read The Outsider it was the story of Meursault, a counter-cultural existential hero who commits a symbolic act of violence that carries the significance of a great artwork, thus striking a blow for the alienated individual against the oppressive  structures of conventional society. Yet the second time I read it, it was just the story of Meursault, a psycho twat.

***

Monty Python reunion tickets sold out in 43.5 seconds (Nige writes here on the oddness of Python’s enduring popularity), but then lots of those tickets immediately went on sale again at vastly inflated prices via internet touts. Most people would see this is a bad thing, but I was intrigued by the response of The Independent’s John Rentoul, who quotes a tout-praising Indie editorial from 1987 and argues that it is futile to complain about the touts’ huge mark-ups because this is merely an indication that the original prices were too low.

I like Rentoul because he is his own man (and it take a brave one to be an unrepentant Blairite these days) but there is a big difference between internet touts and blokes queueing all night in the rain for Wimbledon tickets, and anyway his argument strikes me as the misapprehension of one who has got all of his ideas about business out of theory books but never run one. True, the law of supply and demand says that prices tend to increase where demand outstrips supply and there is a shortage; but this is a descriptive law, not a prescriptive one: capitalists are not commanded by it to charge the maximum price they can get away with given the demand. In reality, pricing a product is a soupy process, as much art as science, and involves all sorts of factors, potentially including how you wish to be perceived in the long term and, yes, some sort of ethic. The Pythons are perfectly entitled to make their tickets affordable to people of modest means, with allocation on an effective lottery basis. Profiteering touts with clever software hoovering them all up within seconds and adding a 500% mark-up is just a rotten abuse of technology.

***

“A-wouldn’t it be nice, to get on wiv me neighbours? But they make it very clear, they’ve got no room for ravers. They stop me from groovin’, they bang on me wall. They’re doing me crust in, it’s no good at awl”, complained Steve Marriott in Lazy Sunday Afternoon, the song for which The Dabbler’s weekend music feature is named.

Yeah, well I’m your neighbours’ side now, Steve. Turn that bloody racket down, I can’t hear myself think!

***

One of the worst things about spending a lot of time on the road is – sorry about this – having to make regular use of motorway service station toilets. Apart from the obvious objectionables, it’s the graffiti that really gets you down. Male service station toilet graffiti is quite different to the spray-can ‘street art’ of concrete underpasses. There is no creativity or wit in our motorway bogs, just brutal filth in biro: often misogynistic, sometimes homoerotic, always animalistic. Blunt statements of the precise obscenities that the anonymous writer would like to inflict upon such-and-such. The toilet is of course the most appropriate place for such scrawlings because they are the written equivalent of excreta – these men go to the toilet to evacuate their bowels and, while they’re at it, their ids. But who are these men, so boiling with gross desires that they must splatter them on plasterboard partitions? You imagine grunting truckers, but it could be any of the professional-looking fellows milling around in the Moto’s Costa or KFC.

Taking a natural break at Michael Wood services on the M5 last week I found myself surrounded by some particularly foul graffiti and the bleak mood it engendered lasted for several hours. I bought a chicken and ham pie for lunch and sat at a sticky table to eat it. My fork slid into the pie and emerged skewering slime-coated flesh chunks. I felt like Meursault. With dull horror I noticed that the man at the table next to me wolfing lumps of fried chicken had no left ear, just a gaping hole in the side of his head. That wasn’t his fault, of course.

***

You don’t get to be a father to two daughters without learning something about Disney Princesses. Oh yes, I know my Auroras from my Belles all right. Odd, the Princess thing, when you come to think about it. Boys’ obsessions with cars and violence are easy to understand because cars and violence are simple pleasures; but a ‘princess’ is surely a nebulous concept to a tiny tot – they have no clear notion of royal succession, for example. So what is a ‘princess’ to a four year old? The Disney ones come in all different varieties but, having considered it, I’ve concluded that a ‘princess’ is essentially a special, beautiful girl with father issues. The key princess for this theory is Ariel, the Little Mermaid, whose disasters and triumphs are a result of her disobedience to her domineering and over-protective father, King Triton. Ariel is the favourite princess of both my daughters. Needless to say, my sympathies are entirely with Triton.

***

While waiting for my train at Paddington I usually like to hide away in the Mad Bishop and Bear pub, where I can avail myself not only of its excellent selection of Fuller ales but also of its toilets, thus avoiding the 30p charge to use the ones in the main station concourse (talk about profiteering!), and it was in one of its two cubicles that I saw the following piece of graffiti:

Alice Moore

And that was all. Just the name. Nothing about what the author would like to do to Ms Moore and particular parts of her anatomy. Nothing about her being a person of loose morals or of perverse sexual habits. Just ‘Alice Moore’, pure and simple and, presumably, loaded with romantic yearning. As such, and in the context, the two words carried the emotional force of a sonnet by Keats.

***

Coda
The accountant walked into the room, like a camel, and then he frowned. I stood to shake his hand; he was a big man, tall and round. His office was untidy, and possibly unclean. There was a strong smell of cat, though no cat could be seen. Our meeting was quite awkward; he thought I knew Tim Law. I don’t, and didn’t correct him. But just who is Alice Moore?


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  1. Worm on Monday 2, 2013

    Personally I’m a fan of really bad graffiti, which I actually much prefer to the big posh artistic stuff. There’s something uniquely excellent about a simplistically worded yelp into the void. One of my favourite examples was, in very large letters on the wall as you walked out of Maidenhead railway station-

    “Charlotte Martin got f***** by a cucumber”

    and my favourite ever was the one painted on the flyover as you entered Dover on the A2, which simply said “Dover is Shit”, and which was, as far as I’m concerned, better than any poetry

  2. malty on Monday 2, 2013

    Surreal ending to a thoroughly enjoyable post. Personally I found that, if a meeting with an accountant was imminent, chewing on a liquorice stick was efficacious, failing that daydreaming sometimes eased the pain.
    As a lifelong observer of the gents netty scene, worms yelp into the void, or possibly a cry for psychiatric assistance, FOC, my own favourite was a well known route on the Dent Blanch. Nailed to the vertical face was a City of Westminster gents toilet sign, one of those cast iron jobbies with fancy corners, held in place by a pair of pitons. This deeply impressed, reinforcing my opinion that all southerners must be wealthy, this was the early sixties and store-bought pitons an expensive luxury. Equally impressive was that some wag had scrawled underneath the sign, in paint, the words “it’s no good standing on the seat, Alpine crabs can jump ten feet”

    A/ who the hell carries a pot of paint and a brush on a grade four winter climb.

    B/ who stood on a toilet seat, tape measure in hand, and observed the wee beasties jumping.

    This further reinforced my opinion of southerners that not only were they wealthy, they were also extremely odd and never should I venture into one of their gents netty’s.

  3. Henry Barth on Monday 2, 2013

    Long ago in the 50s one of the gents’ stalls in Harvard’s Widener Library stacks featured the erudite graffiti: “Electra loves Agamemnon.”

  4. BenSix on Monday 2, 2013

    The first time I read The Outsider it was the story of Meursault, a counter-cultural existential hero who commits a symbolic act of violence that carries the significance of a great artwork, thus striking a blow for the alienated individual against the oppressive structures of conventional society.

    I don’t think that Camus intended Meursault to be a heroic figure but a provocation. For one thing, he aligns himself with the absurdist vision after he has killed the Arab.

    (Nige writes here on the oddness of Python’s enduring popularity)…

    A lot of people like Python for psychological rather than artistic reasons. They can reel off the lines of the Dead Parrot sketch, or the Knights Who Say Ni, and it gives them a sense of warm clubbiness.

    The “Alice Moore” graffiti reminded me of this rather sweet song from otherwise unexceptional indie rock band Art Brut.

    • Brit on Monday 2, 2013

      I think all schoolboys of every generation will find Python hilarious – I certainly did. When you really love something at a formative age, an affection for it can linger.

      • BenSix on Monday 2, 2013

        True. (I can regurgitate the sketches as well.)

      • Worm on Monday 2, 2013

        I hated Monty Python as a school child, and I still have no love at all for their sketches. But I do admire their songs, my favourite being ‘I like chinese’

        • malty on Monday 2, 2013

          Monty Python reached such heights of adoration that, on the night of the shows, grown men could be seen wending their way to the studio, wearing Fair Isle tank tops and knotted handkerchiefs, Hitler moustaches and rolled up trousers. Think of it as the training ground for Life of Brian, the sublime movie.

    • Jeff Guinn on Monday 2, 2013

      I saw Spamalot a few years ago. It was hilarious. So that might have something to do with it.

      (Typed whilst agreeing that much of MPFC that I loved so much back in the day is now unwatchable.)

      • Brit on Monday 2, 2013

        Yes – the Pythons aren’t exactly mugs and Eric Idle in particular is a very smart showbiz operator – see Spamalot – so I think it’s unlikely to be anything other than a very entertaining show.

  5. Peter on Monday 2, 2013

    these men go to the toilet to evacuate their bowels and, while they’re at it, their ids.

    Love it!

  6. jonathan law on Monday 2, 2013

    Agreed, there’s something about graffiti that can make it hard to forget. The really weird or brutal stuff can stay with you like a particularly haunting line of verse.

    After 40 years I can still recall the dark words scored on the underside of a desk-lid at the Yeovil Boys’ Grammar School: Donny Osmond’s head smells of smegma. You’d need a scary sort of mind to think that up, and then a scarier sort of persistence to gouge it slowly but savagely out of the hard wood of the desk (the old-fashioned sort, with an inkwell). I often wonder what became of that young man.

    I suppose graffiti is a bit like porn, in the way it offers a sudden glimpse into a hairy-knuckled netherworld that seems alarmingly close to the civilized place in which we like to think we live: a sudden sense of what Calvin or Augustine was on about, perhaps. As with porn, you are left feeling obscurely implicated, just by being human.

    Which reminds me of another time, walking in the University Parks at Oxford with a close friend of robustly Catholic views. For reasons that can only be guessed, someone had taken a can of paint to the fence and announced his view of us all in three-foot high block caps: YOU ARE A TOTAL BASTARD. “You know,” says J., “I really admire the man who did that: you feel he understands.”

  7. Gaw on Monday 2, 2013

    Lovely writing: vagarious but entire and very wise. ‘Diary’ doesn’t quite do it justice somehow.

    Incidentally, would you consider standing for political office?

    • Brit on Monday 2, 2013

      Not in a million years.

  8. Brit on Monday 2, 2013

    Excellent toilet graffiti comments all – thanks all.

    I can never predict which of the snippets will be picked up in the comment thread.

    • billmiller on Monday 2, 2013

      My favorite from the “can” in a Chicago Old Town folk club in the 70s.
      SAVE SOVIET JEWRY. Then below in a different hand, “win big prizes”

  9. David on Monday 2, 2013

    There is a graffito combining Alice Munro and a python just waiting to be written.

    The Outsider always brings back fond memories. Though known far and wide for my somewhat laissez-faire approach to my studies, I’ve never out shown my high school assignment to write a paper on Camus. Forgotten until the night before, I completed the assignment by calling a friend and having her recount the plot to me over the phone.

    MP is fine, quite funny in fact, but surely more American when compared to the classic British comedy of Benny Hill.

  10. Peter on Monday 2, 2013

    I do remember when Monty Python came out being swept up in the excitement and making sure I, along with all the other cool kids, reserved time to watch the weekly show. I also remember feeling secretly embarassed and guilty that I found most of it unfunny. Just as I couldn’t quite get why the sexual revolution was passing me by, so I saw not fully undertsanding MP’s hilarity as a deficiency on my part. Ah, youthful insecurities!. I matured and came to see MP for what is was, but of course, being passed over by the sexual revolution was a deficiency.

    • Mary on Monday 2, 2013

      Oh, don’t feel you were deficient in the SR arena: it didn’t pass over me but I dearly wish it had. Not at all what it was cracked up to be.