Welcome to my new blog page, which, as with a previous blog site, I intend to be language oriented, of a literary bent in some form or other, and which isn’t as limited as you might think.
On my previous site, when writing my first novel, Wood Talc & Mr. J; we never had it so good..., which is set in the 1970s, I managed to incorporate the book’s protagonist, Phillip Rowlings, into many of my posts covering everyday modern life, both by expressing my point of view and suggesting his own – or by considering how he might have perceived what, today, we take for granted.
In time, the posts themselves – or 22 of them – ended up in book form; namely
I therefore thought it apt to begin how I left off, by uploading said book’s opening post as a taster; a blast from the past, from the past...
... a wordsmith at YOUR service.
sweet perfumes of the past (the way we were, the way we wore, the way we stank...)
3rd August 2013
(author’s note: I need only go a day without taking a shower and I’m soon reminded of this post)
A friend of mine told me I wasn’t doing myself justice by having the second chapter of my debut novel, Wood, Talc & Mr. J: We never had it so good... hidden away in ‘extracts’. He also thought this post ought to be about the second chapter. I half agreed, in that I'm more inclined to relate a recent experience to finished work, which is what I've done here.
Here's what I came up with.
It all started in ‘The Range’ – it’s a chain; one of their selling lines is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”. A debatable point, but it’s not a bad shop, and most of our picture-frames have come from there, along with the odd lamp and flat-pack wardrobe. Anyhow, a couple of days ago, me, my girlfriend, and our little girl, were in there looking for a few odds and ends. Ten minutes in and I was already at the checkout – I don’t mind shopping if it’s quick. I had another couple of large picture-frames under an arm and was wrestling to pull my wallet from my jeans-pocket with my other hand, when, ouff, I was hit by what felt like a large rubber hammer… or rather a large, smelly rubber hammer…
I looked about me. There was no-one around, barring the good looking lady plonking her bits down at the checkout, just in front of me, and another equally attractive lady scanning those bits once plonked; that was it: the two ladies and me. I must emphasise here that neither of them looked like they were capable of smelling like a whorehouse a low tide – they were slim, casually smart.
Yet one of them did smell; and my nostrils hadn’t experienced body odour of that magnitude since … – I won’t make jokes about my having lived in France for a number of years – … since… I’ll keep thinking.
In the meantime, I had a crisis: With an educated guess, only one of the ladies was in dire need of a shower. What, then, if the other thinks it’s me? Me, rotting at the checkout? Let’s face it, men, without labouring on such sexism, out of ten people, how many would vote against the stinker being a man? And the only thing this particular stink wasn’t was visible! It all got me thinking about that second chapter – indeed, stinky people is one of many sub-themes in the novel; I guess it would come under the more general theme of personal hygiene.
After all, it’s 1978. A northern industrial town. Nothing’s mentioned directly in the second chapter, but any reader with a little imagination – especially someone from a similar time and place; a bloody depressing time and place in many aspects – doesn’t need to try too hard for those kinds of wafts to ooze from the pages, along with such culinary perfumes as hash and pancakes, perfected by the very capable hands of mum, inside the steamy confines of a six by six kitchen on a winter’s evening.
Phillip, the novel’s hero, actually refers to his hygiene problem at the end of Chapter 3: he’s permitted the one bath per week, on a Friday, and if he misses it, tough.
He doesn’t get changed before having his tea, either, and this is after a nine/ten hour day spent up to his eyes in grime – you could think of it as being after three nine/ten hour days spent up to his eyes in grime, remembering that it’s now a Wednesday evening, and that he has another two days to go before he can wallow in that precious soap and water; same goes for the clothes.
And when he finally does “get his kit off”, on this Wednesday evening, in Chapter 5, the nearest he comes to soap and water is via his best friend’s fetish for…
No, I’m not telling you. You’ll have to read the book.
The way we were… Could it be that it was all so simple then? Like hell, Barbara! You got soul but I’m not so sure it was all that simple... then. We stank and there’s no getting away from it (although I can't imagine it having been the same for Babs and Bob, somehow...). Of course, we were rescued from the idea by the fact that, well, we were all in the same boat, as it were. Or same shithole, to not beat about the bush.
The way we were… Certain authors, wits, have commented on such halcyon days and beyond as being more about ‘The Way We Wore’. I don’t normally go for those kinds of books; I don't like someone telling me how and what I wore. Still, even with a cursory eye, I've never read anyone comment on the way we stank. The nearest for me was back in those very days: I happened to read somewhere what being ‘Mod’ meant to The Who’s ex-manager, Pete Meaden, in an interview around the late 60s. He said that: "Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances."
I liked that, it sounded great – he used a word with four syllables for a start. And so I tried it on a member of the opposite sex. I just wasn’t counting on her asking me what an aphorism was.
The thing, though, was that I couldn’t otherwise relate to the line. Because it felt to me like there existed no such war. Clean was impossible; it was more about dirty living under difficult circumstances – next stop the plague! But what we have to remind ourselves is that Pete Meaden's idea of “clean living” was from a 1960s perspective.
And this is what my little post’s about, I think: how times have changed vastly, within, say, the last thirty years, and on so many levels, regarding the homes in which we live.
Only a few years on from the days in which the second chapter is set, as with the rest of the novel, I took up badminton. We never talked about our evident enthusiasm for the game, my friend and me, whom I played and also worked with, in the same factory, or cesspit. There was a relatively new sports centre in the city – which, as a concept back then, was one step down from a spaceship – and that was it! I know now – and knew then, without doubt – that our enthusiasm was largely based on the thought of being able to shower afterwards – three nights a week! I think the biggest clue was that, whenever the other prisoners – I never thought of them as work-colleagues in those days – would ask who’d won the games, we’d both look at one another, my friend and me, each of us waiting for the other to do the honours; I’d just want to say: ‘Who gives a shit, I’m clean!!’
I also developed a love for a thing called ‘deodorant’. Mine came in a silver and white plastic guise; Right Guard. I’d play with it on the bus, smell and smile at it – shouldn’t I have been fiddling with the cat gut on my Yonex racket by then? I was clearly looking forward to the end bit of our evening – well, the bit prior to the well-earned pint; I couldn't go straight home smelling this good. Furthermore, the toilet inside the sports centre was exactly what it said on the tin: “indoors” – just about everything was indoors.
I’ve recently read Helga Schneider’s The Bonfire of Berlin. It’s the last days of the German Reich. Berlin is being bombed to hell, and the lucky ones, those still alive, must spend their lives crammed in cellars with no sanitation. Indeed, they must live with nothing at all, in modern day terms, and on an indefinite basis. As one old man describes it: "The stench of the corpses in Berlin might even be bearable if it weren't for the stench of the living!" How those poor souls must have stunk. And I thought we'd had it bad…
It brings me back to my experience in The Range the other day, and that selling line, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!” And yet, somebody was plainly in need of a bath – followed by superfluous amounts of Right Guard, to make up for lost time and all that. For some of us, life was a bit harder than today. Moreover, imagine that more than 783 million people today are still without access to water; 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. And every twenty seconds, a child dies as a result of it… Makes you think. Maybe we should all sit down together once in a while and take stock. As long as the lady in The Range takes a shower beforehand, for the sake of those of us who once couldn’t. And more so for those out there who still can’t…