Notes on Voice

Two questions concerning the narrative voice in Rub-A-Dub-Dub.

The first comes from Reggie Chamberlain-King in an interview (yet to be published) we did together. He asks:

I was interested in the perspective of the narrator. It’s a close third person perspective – not omnipresent, more reporting from Mister Bob’s shoulder; judgmental, insulting, but ultimately sympathetic. What is the relationship between Mister Bob and the narrator?

Thank you for saying that. That’s literally how I envision the narrator: a glowing orb just above and behind his shoulder. This narrator has access to his thoughts and personality as well as what the character sees, so she/he/it can report both. I suppose that’s omnipresence really but some of Mister Bob’s personality is in the narrator too. They’re conjoined. I like that very much but I think it confuses some people, which isn’t something I wanted to do. Some said it was too close to him, especially when it sounded judgemental of him: “Mister Bob was fat. And he had gingivitis.” Lines like that are supposed to be second-hand thoughts originating with Mister Bob but reported by the narrator. I don’t think this idea for a narrative voice is iconoclastic; I’m certain I’ve read this sort of voice before. But it’s good that it’s catching people’s interest.

The second question comes by email from reader Scott:

I’m well into Rub-A-Dub-Dub. Just finished Part Three. I loved Mister Bob standing up to Mrs. Cuntapples! Tell me about your voice for this novel. I know you pretty well by now and this is not the Robert Wringham I thought I knew. Very short, repetitive sentences. For example you said “premium strength lager” many, many times and no doubt on purpose. Why not beer, brew, or even bottom-fermented grains? You must have had a reason. And “Mister Bob” is literally uncountable. Why not a pronoun or two? Please let me know as I’m thoroughly enjoying your first novel but trying to unlock the idiosyncratic writing style.

The Robert Wringham name is on the cover but the narrator is not Robert Wringham, so it’s a different voice to anything you’ve read of mine before. The repetition is indeed deliberate and for two main reasons.

The first is that the narrator mocks Mister Bob and his gritty predicaments with an almost sing-song or storybook tone: “Mister Bob fell in a hole. Oh dear,” etc. It’s supposed to offer a sort of juxtaposition or tortuous understatement that makes light of the post-Brexit, pre-pandemic UK hellscape in which he has found himself, a world where systems seem to be winding down and ceasing to work smoothly.

The second reason is an investigation into quiddity: certain things in a repetitive or cyclical life gain thingness as we go around and around. A fire hydrant we see every day becomes not a fire hydrant but the fire hydrant. I applied this theory to significant objects in Mister Bob’s world: the premium strength lager, the polyether railway company uniform, the buffet car, David McManaman’s “head in the shape of a triangle,” the word “reek,” certain placenames. There are others. The phrasing is always the same because his (and, increasingly, our) familiarity with those objects is at optimal thingness, no further familiarity could possibly be layered onto them.

This is the level of thought that has gone into my novel, people! It’s intended to look lightweight and silly but the engineering beneath the page is secretly significant.

*

Rub-A-Dub-Dub is my first novel. Here’s where you can get it in print or as a digital download.

Stock

I dropped off some fresh book stock off at Aye-Aye Books, the indie bookshop at Glasgow’s CCA, this week.

They look great on the shelves. But don’t let that put you off buying them.

Nowness: July 2023

It’s July 2023. My partner and I live in Glasgow, Scotland. I’m a writer.

It’s summer and the sun has been shining. I have a big pile of library books to enjoy. We recently made the switch from crap vegan margarine to real butter from a dairy I used to walk past when employed by Stirling University in 2014: it gives me a pleasant sense of connectedness when I spread it on my toast.

Work

I’m bringing back my small press magazine, New Escapologist and I’ve been working joyfully on the comeback issue. Please back the mag’s return on Kickstarter if you’d like to.

I published my first novel earlier this month. It’s called Rub-A-Dub-Dub.

Go Faster Stripe recently published my book Melt It! (with Anthony Irvine). We had a launch event of sorts at Guggleton Farm Arts in England last week.

Reading

I’ve been reading about early German Romanticism, fungi, Dora Carrington, and Eric Gill. I love public libraries.

Travel

I just got my passport renewed! It took only two weeks.

This month we’re also applying for my partner’s UK citizenship. Wish us luck please.

I spent last week in London, Devon, and Wiltshire. There are photographs in the July section of my Tumblr photoblog.

Time Wasting

Most weeks, we attend a particular Monday night pub quiz. It’s a waste of time, money, and health but we continue to attend for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.

For TV, I’ve been watching Jeopardy! Masters, Mr. Inbetween, Cobra Kai, The Bear, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The only film I can remember seeing this month was The Red Shoes, the devastatingly gorgeous 1948 Powell and Pressburger film.

A friend sometimes gives me free tickets to the GFT. The most recent film I saw was Beau is Afraid. It gave me a nightmare.

I Am French

I’m in London for the week and having a great time. It’s busy though and there are always moments in this city when I feel like a rube.

Shortly after arriving at Euston, a woman approached me on the street. I’m good at letting people down when they’re asking for money by giving them a friendly smile and a “sorry” but there was something a bit different about this person’s energy.

“I am French,” she explained, “No one believes me but my wallet has been stolen.”

She was holding her handbag open as if to reveal no wallet.

Looking back, I think she was probably a scammer but I half-believed her at the time and I still worry that I failed to help someone who was in a rare pickle.

She didn’t look like the typical scammer. I think she really was French and, while the bulging Marty Feldman eyes made her look slightly odd, she seemed to be middle-class and uncomfortable about asking for help.

“What do you need?” I asked, thinking I could perhaps call someone for her.

“Six pounds,” she said, for a train back to somewhere.

“I don’t carry cash,” I said truthfully, “maybe if you go back to the station and speak to the ticket sellers they might be able to help you,” and I walked away.

When I peeked back, she wasn’t flicking me the V’s or routinely hassling a next person; in fact she seemed a bit deflated. It was true that I had no cash but I suppose I could have gone to a cash machine if I only had been more certain she was for real.

I’m 50-60% sure it was a scam and I’m sure some of you worldly Londoners will confirm if this is a common wheeze, but she seemed more plausible than our Glasgow scammers and I worry that I sent a nice woman back to the continent angry about her time on Brexit Island. She’d been mugged and then not helped by anyone. You know, unless this was all a bollocks.

Too Soon

There’s Halloween stuff in the shops already. Can’t we just enjoy 9/11 first?

Hole in Two

Question: Hey Rob, do you play golf?

Answer: No.

Question: Why not?

Answer: Because it just about qualifies as a sport.

Kids

In a couple of days I’ll be meeting my four-year-old niece for the first time. Kids still like nostril hair and pub quiz anecdotes, right?

Airport Bus!

When will I learn? Never ever rely on a bus.

I want to believe in the project to nudge people towards public transport and I dearly want to believe in this city I chose to live in, but today’s attempt to take a bus to the airport was a disaster.

We walked in the rain for ten minutes to our nearest stop only to find it out of service. A sign with a hand-drawn arrow pointed us in the wrong direction so we ended up soaked to the skin and taking a taxi for £29.

“That’s reasonable!” I wanted to say to the driver, “It’s a fifteen-minute drive so you absolutely deserve my weekly grocery budget. Call it a hundred!” It would almost be worth the life threatening beating that would ensue.

It was the worst of all potentialities. If we’d gone directly to the taxi rank we’d have been rinsed but dry.

A system is only as strong as its weakest link and if you’ve got even one bus stop out of service with no way of passengers finding out in advance then your system isn’t trustworthy and is therefore broken.

I threw my lot in with the bus against my better judgement because I want to believe and because the bus company app suggested swishness. You can summon the timetable and track the progress of your actual bus with GPS. You can pay in advance now or by contactless so the nightmare of somehow knowing the price or having exact change is a thing of the past. There’s even a feature where you can see how busy your next bus is going to be, presumably using live data as passengers tap in and tap out. That’s great!

But none of that is worth a damn if we can’t trust the system.

This isn’t an isolated instance of bus bullshit. Things like this happen all the time and I’m sick of it. In this case my £29 is now in car infrastructure instead of my £6 being in public transport infrastructure. And I’m soaking wet and stressed out before an international flight. Sort it out! Rar!

I’m now at the airport, an hour too early and unable even to check in. All I can think to do is vent some impotent rage into my blog. Sorry about that.

Charismatically Uncharismatic

Try as I might, I can’t stop thinking about Adrian Chiles’ urinal. This man had a urinal (like, a urinal from the men’s room in a pub) installed in his flat.

Why can’t I rid myself of this brain worm? Well, as revelations go, it’s pleasingly Partridge. But, more specifically, it suits Chiles’ personality so perfectly that I can’t stop admiring it. It’s so charismatically uncharismatic.

I’d say it would be like learning that Adrian Chiles eats corned beef sandwiches for every single meal or that he prefers to eat them off a saw horse, but I can’t think of a joke example as unpredictable or as note-perfect as the reality.

A year after learning about this, the idea of installing a urinal in your flat has come to strike me as (and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this) a good idea.

None will be as surprised as I am about this. I dislike pub urinals for starters. I’m very much a cubicle user wherever possible and have long advocated for people with penises sitting to pee.

But my problem with urinals is not innate to the hardware but with what we might call the social element: I struggle to pee with an interested party standing next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit to shy bladder syndrome (SBS). I can’t understand how anyone might not have it. It’s the year of the iPhone 14 yet men are still expected to piss, shoulder to shoulder, into horse troughs.

Perhaps more importantly, my more general objection to the standing pee is, well, the spatter issue. Spend a day wearing short shorts and you’ll be surprised by how much human wazz fails to reach its intended target.

The spatter problem, I have only come to realise in this Chilesean age of urinary thought, is that I’m tall. The wee has a long way to go. What I need, if I’m to pee with minimal diversion, is a lavatory pan at wash basin height.

I’m not going to piss in the sink but, as luck would have it, someone has already invented a technology that could easily be installed at wash basin height. It’s called a urinal.

Chiles. Is. Right.

🧻

Another weird thing concerning bathrooms and being tall: I shaved kneeling down the other day.

The bathroom mirror was all steamed up from a shower. The steam had begun to clear but only a foot or so from the bottom so (instead of wiping the eye-level condensation away with a towel, which always leaves a mark on the mirror) I decided to kneel down.

At first it felt silly. Then it felt humbling, almost devotional. But once I’d got over this cocktail of emotions (and put a towel beneath my throbbing knees) the experience was a big improvement on what I now will call “a standing shave.”

Specifically, the improvement was that the sink was at the right height for me. I didn’t have to keep stooping down to rinse my blade.

While I might conceivably install a urinal (or a “Chiles pan” as we should call it in respect for the great innovator) I can’t very well install a five foot high wash basin. It would be impractical for the shorter person I live with and any number of Oompa Loompa friends who might pay me a visit, but also because I don’t think such hardware exists.

So: just as I might advocate for sitting down to pee, I now advocate for kneeling to shave. Which is a weird position to be in, really.

Love

Today I asked my life partner what my Care Bear tummy symbol would be. She said “a crudely-drawn cock.”

Italics

Every novelist should typeset one of their own books. I’m learning the hard way not to depend so much on italics to convey, well, anything really.

CW

The streaming service content warning at the start of The X-Files is “tobacco use.”

Posh

Samara says: “In Britain, ‘posh’ can mean anything from ‘actual member of the royal family’ to ‘willing to eat pesto’.”

How’s it Going?

When I ask Friend J how it’s going, he says: “I’m physically, emotionally, spiritually, morally, and financially bankrupt.”

Here Come the St00pids

I wonder if Mastermind, the TV quiz, would attract so many contestants if it was called Here Come the St00pids.

There was recently a question on the show along the lines of “rollerball, felt tip, and biro are all types of what?”

They might as well have just asked “What is a pen?,” the answer being “A pen is a pen, Clive.”

I can just imagine the question setter drumming their fingers on their desk, looking around the room for inspiration but too sleepy to open a book.

To be fair to everyone, the contestant answered it correctly.

Renewable Energy

Some insights I recently came across in my reading and jotted into my notebook. I find them relatable.

Here’s Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946):

The attempt to develop a sense of humour and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.

And here’s Haruki Murakami in Novelist as a Vocation (2022):

Writers who do not rely on weighty material but instead reach inside themselves to tell their tales, by contrast, have an easier time of it. That’s because they can draw on their daily lives — even events routinely taking place around them, the scenes they witness, the people they encounter — and then freely apply their imaginations to that material to construct their own fiction. In short, they use a form of renewable energy.

Jive

Do you think the phrase “no room to swing a cat” has something to do with jazz?

Like, maybe it’s nothing to do with a small space but a square place?

I do.

That’s what I think.

The Cockchafer

I visited my parents this week. As we sat there, watching the television, a large flying insect suddenly flew up from out of nowhere.

It bounced off the mirror, ricocheted off the bookcase, and then began to buzz around violently inside the ceiling lantern. It razzed around and around in there like a motorcyclist on the wall of death.

“What the Hell!?” I shouted over the loud buzzing noise.

“Oh,” said my mother coolly, “it’s just a cockchafer.”

“A what?!”

There’s a strange tendency in England for natural things to have appalling names.

“A cockchafer,” she said again, “they just bash themselves into things until they die.”

I’d assumed that the name of the creature would be the most appalling thing about it, but apparently their antics are even worse. This thing hatched out only to keenly brutalise itself to death. Why would such a thing exist?

The way my mother referred to it so matter-of-factly suggested this was a regular occurrence. But I’d grown up here and I’d never before witnessed the sudden appearance and instinctive suicide of “a cockchafer.”

While it was a new experience to me, there was also something typical about it though I wasn’t immediately sure how.

Its name reminded me, I suppose, of driving through the countryside as a young family and my mother saying “ooh, a lovely field of rape.”

It might be the correct and original name of the crop that becomes canola oil but it still makes you think of, well, rape. I mean, how can it not?

To make matters worse, it’s often called “rapeseed” which is arguably even more unpleasant. Why not change the name to canola? As in “a lovely field of simple, non-upsetting, uncontroversial, nothing-to-do-with-sex-abuse canola.” It doesn’t matter if it was called rape before rape was called rape because it still makes you think of rape. Rape!

Maybe people just enjoy the frisson of saying a forbidden word while still being within the bounds of technical correctness. If anyone should object or spit their breakfast tea into the air, you can say “oh yes, it’s from the Old English, you see. Cockchafer! Cockchafer!”

But it wasn’t just the extraordinary name that made the cockchafer incident feel oddly typical. It was also the witnessing of something completely insane while everyone else acted like it was normal. Just like the testimonies in those Scarred for Life books, my childhood was full of strange and unsettling things that were generally considered okay or even de rigueur despite being straight out of Blood on Satan’s Claw. I can’t quite put my finger on a good example now but there was certainly a lot of Morris dancing. I do remember a man at a country fair, with the full approval of my parents, bopping my head with a bit of wood “so that I would grow tall and straight.” (One out of two isn’t bad, I suppose.)

“Just ignore it,” said my mum of the cockchafer, “it’ll exhaust itself soon and die.”

The cockchafer fell to the rug but I could see that it wasn’t dead.

“Shouldn’t I put it outside?”

“Go on then,” she said, humoring my eccentric city ways.

I drained my glass and placed it over the cockchafer.

I then put a sheet of notepaper underneath and escorted the cockchafer off the premises. I watched it buzz out into the night but not before it bollocked itself of numerous pieces of garden furniture.

When I went back to my seat, my dad said, “it’s called a cockchafer. How do you like that?”

Caffeine

You: Would you like a coffee?

Me: Well, when you put it like that…

You: You mean when I mildly suggest it?

Me: Yes.

The Brown Billies

So I’ve got these bookcases.

They’re just Ikea ones. Billy bookcases. One of them is a big, full-sized bookcase and then there are two miniature versions of the same.

(No, this diary entry is not about the frustrations of building furniture from flat pack. I don’t find that particularly challenging. Do you? What are you, st00pid? Just follow the instructions, it’s a delight).

What makes my bookcases unique is their colour. Brown. You can’t get brown billies anymore. Ikea discontinued them in the UK because we can’t be trusted to be a part of a coherent global supply line.

But I want to replace the two smaller ones with two full-sized ones. Together, these three mighty obelisks would perfectly fit the space I’ve reserved for them and would give the illusion of a full-blown book wall. (Finally my friends will respect me!)

Most importantly, my hot new library setup will expand my book storage capacity by a third. This increase in shelf inches — combined with how we bought our first flat and hopefully won’t have to move so often now — allows me to end the book-buying embargo I’ve imposed on myself for about twelve years. It’s big news, guys.

Lord, I just remembered someone telling me that librarians aren’t so much interested in books as they are in shelves. Maybe that wag was right. I might not work as a librarian any more but I’m probably still a one ethnically.

Since you can’t get these bookcases in the UK anymore, I figured I had two options. I could find someone sufficiently devoted to drive to Belgium with me and transport the desired bookcases from the Gent branch of Ikea (a bit much, probably) or I could buy the hopeless white-coloured version from our local Ikea and then prime and paint them (tricky, messy, smelly). A third option, I suppose, would be to replace all of my existing brown shelves with white ones, which would be wasteful and also suck.

But then someone suggested I set up a Gumtree alert for “ikea brown billy” to see if they’d turn up naturally. I did this. And then I waited. I waited and waited and waited.

Daily, for months, my phone would ping with news but it was always a false alarm. We were talking light-brown billies or brown billies in the wrong shape or size, or brown billies that had suffered so much abuse they’d never take the weight of any actual books.

Finally, without fanfare (if you don’t count the literal fanfare sound I set my phone to make for each alert but had learned to distrust most scornfully) the billies I so desperately wanted popped up on Gumtree yesterday. Four of them. Four beautiful brown billies. For free. I may have drooled. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.

By the time the alert had hit my phone, they’d been online for 22 hours. Not long surely? I got in touch.

“I’m sorry,” said the seller, “but I’ve already promised them to someone else. She responded this morning.”

My heart sank.

Well, I did what had to be done. I begged and begged and begged and then I offered a bribe. A hundred pounds for just two of her four bookcases. A trip to Belgium would have been twice this amount so I’d still be up on the deal.

A night passed with no response to my undignified scrounging. I barely slept. I wanted those bookcases. Needed them. There was no other way to adequately house enough books for my next decade on Earth. Maybe I’d find the seller’s address and break in, taking my brown billies under cover of darkness. It couldn’t be called theft if she was publicly trying to give them away could it?

Next morning, the message came in. The seller had checked with the original responder and they’d agreed between them that I could have the two bookcases. “I don’t want money,” she said, “I said they were free and I stand by that.”

Just because I’m a living monster doesn’t mean there aren’t still decent people in this world.

“THANK YOU,” I said.

“You just seemed so pathetically desperate,” she said.

I wondered if she’d ever met anyone with such a zany, almost deranged, need for bookcases before. In the twenty-first century when we’re all supposed to be preparing to ditch physicality and move to the Metaverse.

The seller is moving house on June 15th and I’m to collect them from her vacant property the next day. This means a fortnight of looking forward to getting my mitts on them.

I’ll have to enlist somebody with a van to transport them. And I suppose shouldn’t count my bookshelf chickens before they’re bookshelf hatched. Any number of things could go wrong before those shelves are installed in their rightful place. But, somehow, I have no anxiety about getting them here. I feel an odd sense of serenity in having finally found the brown billies and now I can look forward to their near-magical arrival.

How will I occupy the time until then? Well, I’ll do what I always do, I suppose. I’ll read books. And I’ll write books. And I’ll think about the bookshelves and how nice they will look once they’re in place. Maybe I’ll allow myself to buy some of the books that have cluttered up my wishlist for so long, safe now in the knowledge that they’ll have a proper home here and won’t push another book into the charity/eBay pile.

It was only then that I realised quite how bookish I am. Practically everything in my life has revolved around books. I read them, I write them, I stack them up nicely. I buy them, sell them, find the best place for them when I have to give them away. I worked in libraries for years. Even as a teenager, before you’d think the mania would have set in, my Saturday job was in a W. H. Smiths.

Books, books, books. They’re all I know.

This shouldn’t be a discovery, but it is. I already knew that I read a lot and my tendency to resist e-books shows I’m a paper freak as well as just a reader, but I had’t understood quite what a central place books occupy in my life. Mine is a life of books and soon I’ll have the book-lined wall to prove it.

The Sleeping Pods

I went to Shetland this week, first taking a train to Aberdeen and then an overnight ferry out to the islands. It was a grand adventure.

I’d originally decided to rough it on the ferry by sleeping not in a cabin or even one of the poorly reviewed “sleeping pods,” essentially a reclining Marty Crane-style barcalounger with blinkers, but in one of the standard airline-style seats. In the end, I crumpled and paid a little extra for a sleeping pod. It took away my twin concerns of how I’d charge my phone (because the pods have built-in USB chargers) and that I might end up sitting with a drunken Shinty team who wanted to party all night long in plastic Viking helmets. That’s the kind of luck I have when travelling sometimes.

In the end there were no party people, but I was happy to have made the minor upgrade nonetheless. Those roughing it in the standard seats didn’t look wholly uncomfortable but they were certainly crammed together and they were at the mercy of the sunrise. No place for vampires. Conversely, the sleeping pod room had dipped lights and was practically silent. There was hardly anyone in the room, which suited me just fine.

One thing struck me as potentially imperfect, however, and it was that the pod chairs came in twos. There had been an assumption in the design process that most people would travel with a partner. A solo traveller, I felt glad that the room was so empty and that I wouldn’t have to sleep next to a stranger. The armrest dividing the two recliners was slight. It would be practically like sharing a bed with them. How could anyone cope with that?

Maybe you’d get lucky and end up with a good-looking partner and you could lie there feeling titillated. I can’t speak for everyone but this would make me feel like a terrible creep and I wouldn’t like it at all. But wouldn’t that be better than being paired with a snoring, farting walrus of a travelling salesman? Or an angry mohawked punk rocker who liked to play with knives? I’m actually not sure which scenario would be worse.

These were the thoughts that went through my mind, stopping me from sleeping, for much of the crossing. I spent my two Shetland days in a near-shamanic state, dream-walking through columns of ancient stone.

On the return journey, I boarded the ferry and once again went straight to my sleeping pod. This time, my pod was in a slightly different sort of room. The lights were not dipped and one bulkhead was lined with bright, sunny windows.

Hmm, I thought. Okay. I can handle this. So long as I’m not given a neighbour, that is! Even as the thought took shape, I knew in my heart I’d be given a neighbour. This ferry seemed busier than the last one; I’d queued for slightly longer while boarding. Urgh. As well as my terror of having to essentially sleep with a stranger to secure cheap passage back to Aberdeen, mine was a window seat which meant I’d have to bother them whenever I wanted the toilet or simply to exercise my freedom by going for a walk around the deck.

The neighbour came up and said, “have I understood properly that this is Seat 10?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I think we’re going to be neighbours.”

He seemed friendly and almost apologetic, but there was something offputtingly zany about him too. He wore an ironical smile and a pair of patched, multi-coloured trousers like something a trainee juggler might wear. He was perhaps 20 and reminded me of the Little Prince. I couldn’t sleep next to the Little Prince. I just couldn’t. Not tonight, not ever. I’d feel like a nonce. Maybe it would turn me into one. Aren’t you one? said something evil in my brain. NO I AM NOT said another bit of my brain. It’s difficult being insane.

“Oh that’s just perfect,” I said, unable to hide my distaste.

The lad looked crestfallen. I hadn’t meant to be unfriendly but the lack of sleep had clearly made me incapable of disguising my thoughts. Obviously, few people would really want a neighbour in these situations but there was something in the way I’d said “Oh that’s just perfect” that sounded personal, that I’d judged him by his age or possibly his trousers and I might not have rejected someone else.

“Let’s see how things go,” I said, trying to sound more friendly, “and one of us can move later if there are still spare seats. Then we’ll both have plenty of room.”

“It looks like a busy crossing,” he said. Did he want to sleep next to me? Why? I’m almost 40 and I hadn’t showered in three days if you didn’t count the rain shower I’d endured at the Broch of Clickimin. My beard and hair were long and Jesussy and I looked like someone who’d been on a vision quest, which I sort of had.

He left his rucksack on the seat next to mine and went out to the bar. I spotted him later when I went for a walk, reading a magazine with his headphones in and still wearing that same ironical smile. We avoided each other’s gaze.

When I saw an attendant, I asked if I could switch to another sleeping pod room and he asked why. “The, um, Little Prince,” I said, gesturing toward the bar with my thumb as if he’d immediately see my position.

“I’m sorry?” said the attendant and, trying a different tack, I explained that the window seat made me feel claustrophobic.

“The window seat makes you feel claustrophobic?” he asked, presumably contemplating the wide, even desirable, vistas across the sea.

I explained that I prefer the aisle and that was that. He said I should come back and ask again in half an hour when the Captain had emailed the full manifest and he’d know where to reseat me. I enjoyed this minor insight into how the ferry was organised.

I went back to my sleeping pod with the intention of waiting out the half-hour for the Captain to send his email and then fell asleep at the window while watching our gentle passage through the sea.

When I woke briefly in the night and looked around in mild disorientation, I saw that the Little Prince had silently collected his rucksack while I drooled unconsciously at the window. I felt terrible.

Toothbrush Blues

I can never find quite the right toothbrush for me.

Well, actually, the ones sold by Muji come pretty close but this is where it gets complicated. First, they’re made of plastic and I’d really like to start using those bamboo ones that take less of a toll on the environment, so when I buy my Muji toothbrush it’s always with a slight sense of failure and a vow to do better next time.

I’ve been using a Muji toothbrush now, as usual, for about a year, which is far too long. The bristles have started to come out and they’re probably so raddled with mouth bacteria by now that not brushing my teeth is probably healthier than brushing them at this point. So, today, I finally went to an organic grocery store to check out their line in wham-bam-boo.

The trouble with bamboo brushes is that the head is always absurdly large. I can’t get over it. Who needs such a big head on their toothbrush? You can’t get into the grooves between indivudual teeth with such a big head and whenever I scrub the roof of my mouth with it, the wooden backside of the head feels like a veritable expanse and it makes me choke. It’s not ideal.

The naughty Muji ones meanwhile look so good in the glass on the side of the wash basin. They feel nice in the hand, nice in the mouth, and they have the perfect head size. Even accounting for the twice-daily pinch of plastic guilt, I’ve just never been able to do better than the ones at Muji.

I don’t like to order Muji toothbrushes online because the shipping is expensive and, actually, I like to go to Muji just to look around every so often, so the need for a toothbrush is always a good reason to visit a branch if I find myself in London or Paris or some other city blessed with a Muji.

I suppose I could buy a clutch of Muji toothbrushes whenever I’m in a Muji so that I don’t end up using one for a whole year but I never do this. In part it’s because I’m a cheapskate but it’s also because I vow, every time I buy a new Muji toothbrush, that this will be the last time because I really should be using bamboo anyway.

So I’m in the organic grocery store, looking at the toothbrushes. They’re all sealed into little carboard packets which look difficult to open with tearing them and, you know, you probably shouldn’t be opening sealed toothbrushes and putting them back on the shelf anyway. But then I noticed that they sell a kid’s version so, thinking a kid’s version would surely have a smaller head, I bought one.

On getting it home and opening the packet, I find that the head is still absurdly huge. The concession for children is that the handle is small. So now, as well as having an inch-long head that fills half of my mouth with zero precision, I have to daintilly use the child-size handle. It’s so small that I worry about losing it in there.

If you’re reading this and there’s a chance that you’ll cross paths with me at some point, please, in the meantime, look out for the perfect bamboo toothbrush with a small head and a handle designed for adults. I want as many eyes on this search as possible. Or, you know, if you live in a Muji-blessed city, please just bring me a good one from there. Help me to end the madness. Thank you.

Escape Paperwork

Originally published in Idler 68.

I’ve been thinking about paperwork lately because I’ve had to get a bit more serious about the business side of being a writer, lest various government darlings come and smash my knees in.

I used to make a habit of ignoring paperwork completely, going as far as putting it in the bin, unopened to see what the consequences would be. Sometimes, they’d be literally nothing. Today, I prefer to handle paperwork quickly, as soon as it comes in; putting paid to it in a lightning pounce, as in a game of whack-a-mole. Feel the wrath of my padded mallet, utility bill!

My gripe now is with the archive. I can live with the onus of paying an invoice quickly, but I dislike the presence of dead paperwork in my happy, idle life. I don’t like to have a bulging file of administrative documents lurking in my cheerful “tropical-gothic” flat, like a sober accountant at a party, grinding his teeth and reacting badly to my attempts to put a little hat on him.

So here are my newfound tactics for having almost no paperwork in the house:

Reduce it. The surefire way to escape paperwork is stop it at source. A contraceptive approach will prevent your nightmares from ever coming to life. This should work beautifully for idlers, as the kind of activity that generates paperwork is of the effortful variety: shopping, business-conducting, expanding of operations, formal ceremonies under the eyes of God and the law. You know, graft. It’s a pleasure to avoid.

Dependence on services and products generates paperwork too, so we must find ways to live without overly depending upon the commercial world. No television means no TV licence renewal woe. A small home with little stuff in it, means no insurance bullshit. No car means a galaxy of bureaucratic hassle eliminated. Escaping such unnecessary dependencies is the heart of self-sufficiency.

The idler prevails by putting her feet up and leaving them there. The less of a worker-consumer you are, the less paperwork comes your way. They have a saying in Denmark: “A brook-smoothed pebble receives no post.” Well, they don’t actually, but they should.

Minimise it. When archiving paperwork, it’s tempting to err on the side of caution. We fear that if we don’t keep every receipt and every communique, we’ll somehow pay for it later. It doesn’t generally happen though and you can ditch almost everything. If your entire paperwork archive was lost to a house fire, there’d be one or two inconveniences (retrieving a forgotten PIN, reissuing a passport) but, on balance, the loss would be a gain. Whack-a-mole it and throw it away.

Digitise it. Most companies and government bodies are keen for you to “go paperless” or “submit it online,” because it saves them money and gives them (they think) a firmer hold on your soul when you can no longer claim that something is lost in the post. Personally, I prefer digital paperwork because you no longer have an archive. Invisible it away and life feels much nicer, no dusty graveyard of old transactions lurking in the corner when you’re trying to make the love. Cyberspace (and I will never stop using that word) is as a good a bottomless pit as any when it comes to important documents.

The result of all of the above is that I’ve got my paperwork down to a single A4 tickler file and it feels good. The contents are just the truly useful stuff: passport, birth certificate, licence to thrizzle. Everything else is either online (in systems paid for and looked after by banks and whatnot) or snuggled down warmly in the landfill. The rain-soaked mulch of an old P45 is visible in the gutter of a neighbour’s house because I folded it into a plane that went further than I’d expected.

Psychopathically, sarcastically treasure it. An alternative to some of the above is to have one’s paperwork professionally bound into a beautiful, timeless book. This is a bit silly and I’ll confess to only thinking of it a few minutes ago, but why not take all of your admin down to an old-fashioned bindery (or to a branch of Mail Boxes Etc.) and see if they can bind it into a beautiful, clothbound volume to treasure forever next to your Sherlock Holmes and P. G. Wodehouse omnibuses. Have the words “My Lovely Paperwork” embossed into the cover, ideally in gold leaf. Imagine a tax official coming over for an audit, demanding to see your paperwork, and then seeing you pull this gorgeous tome down from the shelf. An unfamiliar feeling of hopelessness will surely fall upon him and he’ll start making motions to leave quietly. Naturally, this is when you should put a hand on his shoulder and say, “But you came all this way. Now then. Page thee fyrst…”

But seriously, you might be thinking. And I assure you I’m deadly serious. I’m as serious as can be. If you could see me now, you’d know that my eyebrows have knitted firmly into a devastating letter “X” the likes of which are seldom seen outside of 1960s science-fiction movie posters. Paperwork can be reduced at source, minimised in archive, and dumped into the infinity of Cyberspace where you could find it again it if necessary but will never need to.

What about HMRC though? Well, if you have a job, let HR take care of it. PAYE is one of the few conveniences of having a job. If you’re self-employed, do what I do. Have a single spreadsheet called “cash-based accounting 2019/20” or similar and treat it like a cash register for the duration of the financial year: enter any money that comes in or goes out in a pair of aptly-named columns. I also record invoice and receipt numbers (e.g. IDLER1) here so that I can search for them in my email or Google Drive later if they should ever be needed.

At the end of the tax year, either file your own tax return for free through the government’s Self-Assessment thing on the Internet or email your spreadsheet to an accountant (mine is called Brian – hello Brian!) who will do it for you for about £200. You are unlikely to ever be audited if your business is adorably small, so don’t worry about archiving your receipts in triplicate in a big scary box-file. Just don’t bother. It’s sunny outside. You weren’t built for admin.

If this resonated with you, you’re probably already doomed so you might as well buy my books Escape Everything! and The Good Life for Wage Slaves for additional wisdom from the goblin king.

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