Four Columns for the Sunday Times Magazine
I was recently commissioned to write these columns about my odd, ordinary little life by the ST Magazine (yet to be published.)
“It’s official” shouts one elderly customer of the high end supermarket chain in which I have been working part time for the last year, “I’ve got a fungal foot infection!” She then throws a loyalty card at me and talks me through a variety of medicated creams as I scan her weekly shop - consisting exclusively of rich tea biscuits and tinned figs. Over the past eight months, between freelance gigs, living the cashier dream has subsidised and saved me from financial oblivion. The question ‘How did I end up here?’ is never far from my mind, as the middle class bawl at me for refusing to handover plastic coffee cups that can withstand nuclear fallout. To cut a long story short, four years ago I - like many other millennial post grads - was oversensitive, overdrawn and stuck in a ceaseless loop of temp jobs. By the skin of my teeth, I won a high profile writing award and was plucked from the pit of obscurity, then given a bag of cash. I got signed up by a top literary agent, puffed up by publishers, and ceremoniously greased by the trite minds of TV producers. I went to award do’s in Art Deco hotels where people like Jeremy Irons complimented me on my charity shop blazer, and Stephen Fry duly nodded to me over a desert trolley of fluffy, pink things that cost more than council tax. What followed this hit of the good life - you’ll be glad to hear - was an inevitable, crushing descent; my book never got published, the TV shows were never commissioned. Over time, any career traction I may have gained slowly fizzled into nothing but disinterest and rejection, culminating in a humiliating mental breakdown during the opening night of a solo show I had made - me, caught by a sweaty spotlight, babbling like a baby and then passing it off as performance art (a tale for another time.)
I had become a less sticky Icarus, down and out all before the age of 26, though still buzzing from the hit of fleeting validation and success. Now, I am practically broke and on the shop floor, trying to find my feet and figure out a next step - which is probably in the direction of the meat aisle. As I am scolded by management for not properly rotating organic yoghurts, I cleave to the idea that I am the only person Melvyn Bragg has ever interviewed who is trained on both cheese, and fish counters. The other day I witnessed a middle aged man have a King Lear-esk meltdown because his washing powder was past its sell by date - What did he think would happen? That his T.M Lewin shirts would culture a fungus? Some of the more pleasant regulars can sense my dry disposition, that I do something else with my time, and often probe. Naturally, with such a clientele, by the time I’ve uttered the word ‘Writer’ their eyes are already glazed, looking back at me like I am some kind of deluded outpatient. To add insult to injury, my double life has now been compromised by my own colleagues. Old videos of me in a BBC Sitcom have been unearthed, and are doing the rounds in the staff canteen. Though my bruised ego can’t take much more, the staff assure me that I missed out on a BAFTA. It’s all political, I tell them. Last night, a regular customer, who always makes a point of belittling my creative credentials, kindly asked how the “Writing” is going - using her fingers to make inverted commas in the air.
“Actually,” I said, bloated by resent, “I’ve just written something for The Sunday Times Magazine.” She looked at me with a stone face, then suddenly burst into laughter. “Good One, Jonnie” she said, “Good One!”. There’s no convincing some people. Suffice to say, reader, I may be down, but I am not yet out…
As a member of the first generation to potentially never see a state pension, it’s somewhat fitting that I’ve spent the last five years living in disused NHS care-homes. Having leapt from the rolling wagon of cowboy London landlords, I landed in the leaky ship of piratical ‘Guardian Living’ Agencies. For the uninitiated, Guardian Living is - or at least was when I started out - an excruciatingly trendy way of halving rent, whilst making use of abandoned public, or commercial properties that sit in wait of bulldozers. The first place I took on was an old retirement home in Tottenham, North London. Back then, in 2014, the Guardian life was awash with wannabe creatives, and so called bohemians. Most Friday nights were a millennial jungle of pound-land bindis, half opened Mac-books spewing tinny music, and Youtube tutorial bondage sex behind closed doors. The rooms - having been designed to harbour the infirm and not the young - had sinks in the corners. It has become such a normality that now, when I wake full bladdered in the night, I can barely stomach the thought of having to relieve myself in a conventional toilet.
More often than not, the very fabric of the building is in a state of disrepair, decay or infestation. There is never heating, scarcely hot water when you need it, and shower pressure so low that it’s not better than being urinated on by a weary elephant.
For about two years now my partner and I have been living in a former sheltered accommodation unit in the ground floor of a run down flat block in Stratford, East London. It’s the only place where I’ve ever seen rising damp, fall. The day we moved in, it was still bordered up and sentineled by an old man with a foaming Alsatian. The living room floor held a leak so substantial that Newham council were thinking of trying to convert it into a public lido. An old bathroom has had to be quarantined off because the sewage pipes burst, quite literally turning it into a shower of s**t. Suffice to say, it’s not the kind of place where you’d aim to raise a child, which was why I was shocked when our sole housemate ‘Chief’, as he insists we call him, walked in the last week clutching what appeared to be a foetus. Nigerian by birth, Chief works full time as a nurse, and sends cash back home. Within weeks of moving in, however, he had already smuggled his wife Jane into the house, who speaks little, if any english. Rental agreement now laying in tatters, Jane soon began to swell at the stomach, to the point where ’Christmas Weight’ was no longer a water tight explanation. Like good, repressed english folk, my partner, Daniela, and I decided to never mention this looming birth. We successfully ignored it for nine months, until last week, when Chief walked in clutching ‘Baby David’. It’s times like these where you wish you’d spoken up earlier. The baby has cried almost non-stop, which, considering he is an illegal alien and has no stake in the rent, I find deeply inconsiderate. Either way, it’s hard not to bend to the beauty of new life. A few days ago myself, Daniela and our Gooseberry pal Luke, were honorary guests at Baby David’s traditional African naming ceremony. Naturally, it took place in our own living room. Packed in like agnostic sardines beside a full congregation of evangelists, we were the only native english speakers in the room. The archetypal pastor only ever showed interest in us when waxing about the devil, or being lead astray. When the god fearing was done, we all got drunk, and ate pre-packed tubs of chicken and rice in the kitchen, while the legion mice and the newborn babe peacefully slept. Haphazard moments such as these can occasionally elevate our relative squalor, and the oddness of our living situation, into something warmer, and more profound. And this was all in one week. I can’t wait for Christmas.
There was not much of a garden when we moved into the old block of disused rooms beneath the drug den. I can’t say we landscaped the small, sun trap mound of mud that was the back yard, but rather pulled out some brambles, and scooped up the used syringes - peppering the place like perennials. The drug lord above introduced himself as ‘Texas’ whilst kindly lending us his vacuum cleaner. It clear he was heavy duty the minute he handed over a Dyson Ball. The night we moved into this Guardian Property, once owned by the NHS, we had to lock ourselves in the toilet as someone attempted to smash down the front door. Apparently, as I was later told by a neighbour, my bedroom had previously been the nucleus of an illicit brothel - And there was me thinking that i’d brought the erotic charge into the room? This week we made a concerted effort with the yard; Daniela repurposed some old ladders to host plant pots, sewed in some browning turf, and miraculously built a tiered flowerbed out of bits of shattered armchair. Whilst this more delicate work was happening, I scaled the fence into next door’s derelict tabernacle, and liberated a large sign that reads “By The Grace Of God”. Strung up, the sign now looms over us like that optician’s judgmental eyes in The Great Gatsby.
A couple of days ago, when the sun was out and there was nothing better to do, we thought we’d enjoy a decadent lunch in our run down Babylon. Hailing from Italian stock, Daniela rustled up a Metropolitan Liberal Elite feast of Buffalo mozzarella, beef tomatoes, and some irksome bread that has fruit nested in it. Settling in our sun drenched corner, practically everything is drizzled with insanely expensive olive oil that Daniela has confirmed she loves more than me. The sound of the drug den intercom flares up in the background, as it always does, all day, everyday, as Texas’s clientele come and go as they please. Suddenly, as we tuck in, a man pushes through the side gate. I’d previously knocked up a makeshift wall by jamming an old board between a bush, and the gutter. The guys name is Iain, and I’ve met him several times before. He looks over the plywood wall at our incongruous bliss, himself standing in a wasteland of crisp packets, shopping baskets and a disability scooter that has been here longer than we have. Normally, Iain and I have a chat when I’m walking home, and he’s staggering wherever - high as a kite. Now, relatively sober, he seems of entirely different character. “Do you mind if I like, just, sit down against this wall for a bit?” He asks, embarrassed. We are too stubborn to abandon the lunch, and Iain is too desperate for his fix to leave, and so we hit a stale mate.
“It’s fine,” I say, mouth full of Mozzarella, “I’d rather you got high here anyway, instead of disappearing into that shit hole upstairs.”
Iain settles on the other side of the great divide, as we chomp down on focaccia and guzzle Aldi Malbec. The three of us chat on about the weather, and life; Iain compliments Daniela on her handy work in the garden. Then comes the familiar gurgle of burn of smack in spoon, and the conversation fizzles dead. We dust off lunch, and go about the rest of the day, intermittently checking on Iain until, eventually, he gets up, utters some slurred goodbyes, and vanishes back through the side gate. The next day, I bump into Iain at the corner shop. I ask him about something that’s been niggling at me: outside of our building, there is always a line of parked cars, engines still ticking, like a taxi rank. What are they waiting for? I ask him, as he picks up 2 Litres of hard cider. “Their Kids” he replies, as if I should already have known.
I’ve been visiting my parents in Gorleston, Great Yarmouth, and as is the standard ritual of any departing Bayfield son, my mum and I have gone out for an Indian. Dad is no fan of Indian cuisine, and therefore a visiting child is mother’s only opportunity to enjoy the spoils of the far East. Bangla Nights is our towns’ premier, and only, Bangladeshi restaurant, and so I’ve put on a shirt to make an evening of it. We settle down in the corner, by the window, alongside three other parties, all chatting in the standard Norfolk drawl I’ve come to miss. The problem with the Norfolk accent is that is has the ability to make a Nobel prize winning physicist sound like a pumpkin that has been brought to life. Naturally, my mother knows everybody in the building, and it takes some time to get through the bi-weekly ‘Who’s Dead?” discussion. By the time we’ve ordered, and the starters have arrived, there’s some commotion coming from the partitioned “Takeaway” district of the restaurant. “Who the hell are they?” Mum says, pointing over to the group of around ten immigration police officers who are huddled by the counter like errant youths come to spoil the atmosphere.
Just as the main courses touchdown, more officers emerge, clutching paperwork, and suddenly the staff are looking considerably concerned. The front door is locked, and the owners told not to serve anybody else, though inexplicably we, the chosen few, remain. Negotiations get heated, and so does my soft palette, as officers come and go, pushing paperwork back and forth. The waiters, now under suspicion of being illegal immigrants, do a good job of keeping up appearances, pushing trolleys of wilting Naans whilst presumably fearing for their livelihoods. If green cards were handed out on the basis of service quality alone, then each any every member of the Bangla Night’s team would be citizens for life. I’m happy to report that the threat of deportation, if anything, seemed to raise the quality of the kitchen staff’s culinary output.
In true Norfolk fashion, the situation soon escalated into an ‘Us vs Them’ scenario. Some of the other locals choosing to fold their arms, and stare down the police with scorn. It should be said that the people of Gorleston have never been renowned for their tolerance. However, like all the best small town racists, if someone of another culture provides them with a useful service, then it’s only polite to defend them to the death.
In an act of political solidarity in keeping with my heritage, I solemnly raise my arm like a spicy Spartacus, and order another two poppadoms. Just as they deliver our filter coffees (that round off the £15 Wednesday night Banquet deal) a long line of Bengali workers are paced out from the kitchen and into a police van. It doesn’t help the rising hysteria in the room when my retired mother tries to open the toilet door, only for it to topple off it’s hinges, and smash against the sink, filling the room with a potent scent of curry and toilet duck.
A couple of days later, I get a call from my dad, who is on the bus when it stops outside Bangla Nights. From his vantage on the top deck, he can see straight into the flat that sits above the restaurant. Aside from being curtained with old newspapers, the flat itself is covered only in mattresses. Had we, the people, picked the wrong side to back that night? I can’t help thinking that, wrung up in the mania and excitement, we all made a decision before being in full possession of the facts. Now what does that remind me of?