“£25 thousand is not really all that much to spend on an attractive, habitable, craftsman-made garden feature: a faux- pastoral scriptorium for a literary troglodyte.”
This is where I am, right now.
It’s my little ‘garden room’, at the end of my not very long garden (you’re standing on the other end to look at it), where I work, rest and play, every day.
(As the fence is falling over you can’t really see, but the garden path continues on past the rotproof timber-clad structure to an area of wilderness, approximately two feet by six, at the back. Now read on…)
Annoying friends have borrowed the tiresome magazine lifestyle-column expression ‘man-cave’ to describe it; although a cave is possibly somewhat darker and gloomier than my well-lit 10′ x 12′ workspace and more inducive of brooding melancholy, even lengthy periods of hibernation. Only the self-indulgent electric guitar (mine’s a Gibson LP, yours is a Fender Strat) and the empty wine bottles might connect them.
Before condemning the perfectly satisfactory roof of the main house, thereby putting the kybosh on the sale (it was four and a half years ago. I’m still here; so’s the roof), the insensitive, semi-qualified building surveyor sent by a risk-averse Lloyds Bank on behalf of one prospective purchaser asked caustically, if I had perhaps constructed my second home myself, from a kit?
But no, moron. I had it purpose-designed and built by a faraway design-and-build company specializing in garden rooms ‘as seen on TV’. That’s why it’s so thermally efficient that if you shut the window you’ll be dead within the hour for lack of oxygen, because I couldn’t afford the extra £600 they wanted for air conditioning, and other expensive extras besides.
In fact the whole project, which I must stress was considerably hampered by the problem of obtaining access to the site either from the back – the garden is dropped by some eight feet from the road above – or below, you have to deliver through the house, with its ever-so tight turning off a narrow hallway – from a busy road where there is no stopping allowed on this side; and the additional constraint of working in a garden that’s only four feet wider than the building.
(Yes, I’m aware that the foregoing paragraph does not work syntactically. I’m trying to think of a way to fix it. Leave me alone.)
For that and reasons of opting for the best quality fixtures and fittings, the ‘high-performance’ self-cleaning double-glazing, the recessed downlighters, the tropical hardwood floor (if Ivanka Trump can specify extinction for the rainforest to adorn her dad’s palatial habitations in corrupt and rutted feudal demesnes around the world, so can I), the whole caboodle (not a kit) cost a shade under £16 thousand.
I went off on a jazz holiday and let them get on with it, else I should have become a nervy wreck.
But I’ve been making good use of it since. This is my 608th Post to the BogPo, and all Posted to you free of charge from my coffee-table in The Little House on the Prairie, as I’ve wittily named my shed. (The prairie, as you can just about see, being an area of grassland all of 10 feet by five.) It is my home-from-home, my sanctuary – my inspiration.
The reason I had it built in the first place is somewhat convoluted, but essentially my student son was living with me at the time and there was an overwhelming need to escape the sound of Rise Against! churning over the staccato death-rattle of computerised warfare. I had conceded that, since his bedroom was only eight feet by seven, plus a few inches, he should have the sitting-room (12’4″ x 12′) for use as his study area.
No sooner had the last workman departed, perhaps a little more satisfied with his handiwork than I’ve been, but never mind, Peter naturally moved out to live with his mates in a damp, mould-infested, £100 a week student hovel with stinking, stained carpets and broken furnishings, lacking any form of legal fire safety precautions, just across the road from a low tavern, taking with him his extensive collection of Rise Against! downloads, his post-ironic lava-lamp and his global gaming computer that he built himself from a kit.
Nevertheless, I have remained in the habit of saving electricity by not living in the house – other than to shit, cook and sleep, usually in that order. (There’s a handy drain for peeing in the garden.) I’m extremely attached to and perhaps even mentally imprisoned within my man-cave, my home office, my garden studio, my personal space, my eco-pod – whichever lifestyle magazine you choose to read will furnish you with an appropriate apophthegm.
What has not resulted from the commissioning of this practical and useful extra room, however, is a shitstorm of onlined criticism from the trolling community and Guardian columnistas whining enviously like so many bitches-in-the-manger at the non-public-spirited expense of it. While grimy little children yet queue at the workhouse soup-kitchen door, etc.
You know how it goes, the politics of envy.
A bunch of sheep
My old school chum, Dave Cameron, on the other hand has been widely ‘outed’ today for acquiring a genuine imitation Northumberland ‘shepherd’s hut’ – a sort of tumbril on iron wheels, for use as a writing hovel while he pens the memoir of his disastrous Prime Ministership that no-one is going to pay £25 to read in hardback; for which he has no doubt secured an advance equivalent to my entire lifetime’s earnings (envy not being the sole preserve of the illiterate).
The main complaint seems to be that he paid £25 thousand for it; not including the heritage Farrow-and-Ball makeover Mrs Cameron has given it. It seems a little harsh, even while one contemplates her disloyalty to George Osborne in her choice of decorative materials supplier. Twenty-five grand is hardly taking bread out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you’d easily pay that nowadays for a Golf GTi or a wedding with kilts and a chocolate fountain.
The man was a low-range millionaire even before he became Prime Minister; he’s just come into another half a mill from his late dad; while Samantha is outrageously rich in her own right. They can easily afford it! Is that a reason why they should not have it? Only in nasty, envious, curtain-twitching little Britain would even well-paid journalists not only think, but actually dare to tell the former Prime Minister that just because he can afford a new garden shed, doesn’t mean he should be allowed to have one.
I feel that £25 thousand is not really all that much to spend on an attractive, habitable, British-craftsman-made garden feature: a faux-pastoral scriptorium for a literary troglodyte. From Sam’s point of view it gets her unemployed booby of a husband out of the house for a few hours each day; and it is the case that many famous writers have opted to escape from domesticity by the same means.
Roald Dahl, for example, wrote his lumpen prose for sick kids in a succession of garden sheds. Dylan Thomas had his boathouse at Laugharne, handy for the pub. I myself once visited Ayot St Lawrence in Buckinghamshire, home of George Bernard Shaw, with its modest, unpretentious structure in the garden. Shaw was a keen uptaker of new technology; so, while other writers have sought a solitude which the mobile phone now denies us, having perhaps the keenest sense of self-importance of all he had installed an enormous bakelite telephone in his shed; a detail that impresses me even 40 years later.
I imagine, too, that Leo Tolstoy probably kept an entirely separate country estate for the purpose of obtaining a little peace and quiet while penning the first few drafts of War and Peace. Is Suzanne Moore going to begrudge him that as well?
So, no. Unfair. On behalf of all solitary strivers in garden sheds great or small, dry-lined or planked, plain or fancy, with downlighters or guttering candles, I protest.
Mr Cameron is entitled to many things, eternal damnation for his optimistic miscalculations over the Brexit referendum certainly being the most pressing.
But a posh garden-shed is small reward for his years of service, however inept. It makes him almost one of us.
Leave the poor man alone!
The art of the steal
“The Tate (UK’s leading modern art gallery) has come under fire after it asked members of staff, many of whom are not paid the London living wage, to contribute towards a boat for the departing director, Nicholas Serota, just one week after their canteen discount was taken away.
“A notice which went up in the staff rooms of both Tate Modern and Tate Britain on Wednesday asked employees – including security, cleaners, and those (who) maintain the galleries and work in the cafe and gift shop – to ‘put money towards a sailing boat’ as a ‘surprise gift’ for Serota.” – Guardian Today, 28 April.
Whouawahwouaah… eerie flashback music….
We were all summoned up to the boardroom, where Mike, the MD, had prepared a long and lugubrious presentation, graphically showing us the bad news.
Yes, we had twice exceeded our collective annual sales target during the year. Indeed, we’d broken the target for the whole year during August, so the MD had DOUBLED it and we’d broken it again by December.
But sadly, all that extra effort had led to costly errors and money having to be passed back to the clients, all the extra activity we’d generated had doubled our cost of sales too, so we’d doubled our turnover at the expense of having made no profits at all.
Look, here’s a graph, and another one, and an even sadder one… see, how we’ve actually LOST money.
So the bad news was that staff wouldn’t be getting any annual bonus this year. But a bit of good news, we’d all be receiving a £10 shopping voucher with our company Christmas card.
Two weeks after Christmas I encountered a smiling Mike in the corridor. We hadn’t seen him around for a few days, so I asked him if he’d been anywhere nice?
‘Yes’, he said, ‘I was at the Boat Show’ – a major annual event for yachties held at the Earl’s Court exhibition centre in London.
‘Buy anything?’ I asked him, nonchalantly. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I bought a new yacht for the business.’ (He kept a boat down at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, that he faked VAT invoices for chartering-out to non-existent clients and used to ship cash over to a bank in low-tax offshore haven, Jersey.)
‘How much did that cost?’ I pushed on, regardless. ‘A hundred and ten thousand’, he replied, smugly.
‘In that case’, I told him, ‘you can stuff your fucking job.’ And I quit then and there – although he was a malicious little bastard and forced me to work out my notice and have a crappy leaving party I would rather not have gone to. (I got my revenge when my dog had a burst of diarrhoeia in the back of my unasked-for, embarrassing little company car and I handed it back covered in shit.)
Mike was mortified. He literally could not understand why I was so angry: the company was his, any money we made was his, he was paying us so we belonged to him, to the company, he had total ownership of our lives, our time – generally about 14 hours a day otherwise you got a bad-breath ‘hairdryer’ lecture about showing disloyalty.
I once asked for a raise, he glared at me with his fishy, pale blue eyes magnified by pebble glasses, as if I had crawled out from under a rock and asked me pointedly, ‘Who would you like me to fire so you can have a raise?’
Now however he buckled. He knew I was the agency’s profit-centre, a high-output conceptual copywriter wearing also a business development hat, whom he had under-remunerated from the start and who could now make a substantial case for a big profit-share.
‘You can have a directorship!’ he blurted. Well, for a start the idea of being in business with this bullying little creep, who liked to invite selected execs up to his house to watch porno on his big satellite dish that could get Danish TV, and was pimping his wife and 13-year-old daughter, I actually found pretty nauseating. Worse was to come.
‘Director of what?’ I asked.
‘I’m thinking of setting up a new company’, he explained earnestly, still trying to con people to the end. He outlined a business plan, until I stopped him. ‘You mean, you want me to be a nominee director of a shell company you can sideline your profits into so you can make a tax loss on the main business?’
‘Something like that’, he replied sheepishly.
A fortnight later I was offered a job with another agency, and took one of the account managers with me. (Dear Reader, we were married a couple of years later.)
Tate union rep Tracy Edwards said:
“Our members are on zero-hours contracts, they are struggling to pay the bills each month, so to ask them to donate towards a boat – well, I can tell you the staff are not happy at all. It’s really rubbed people up the wrong way.
“Another worker confirmed that the staff’s 10% canteen discount had also been taken away last week.” (Ibid.)
Yep, I know exactly how that feels.
Dear Clive James
Writing in last weekend’s Saturday Guardian, the venerated Australian polymath, TV personality and compulsive poet complains ruefully of a fellow Aussie, apparently; a troll, who has messaged him complaining that he is still alive.
If you are unfamiliar with the backstory, James, who must I suppose be in his late seventies, has been ‘dying’ for several years now, after being diagnosed with leukemia. Not to be unkind, or to put too fine a point on it, he has made something of an industry out of this precarious state of being, hovering as it were halfway between this world and the next, as if on a long-haul flight from Sidney.
James has written muchly and richly on the topic of his impending departure, churning out whole books and collections of self-valedictory elegiacs and a weekly ‘not dead yet’ newspaper column delineating the experience of living with Death’s shadow forever hovering in the corner of one’s eye, and here he is, years later, still at it.
On the one hand, obviously, we must be profoundly grateful James has thus far been spared. His literary output continues to be mordant, insightful, vastly knowledgeable, wry and reflective, as ever. His precarious state of health offers us a new appreciation of life. He is, in short, a bit of a national treasure; although perhaps eclipsed a little by his fellow Antipodean valetudinarian, Barry Humphries. I am yet puzzled that neither of these exemplary colonials has been rewarded with a knighthood – or, in Humphries’ case, a Dodgy Damehood.
And no-one would seriously wish anyone dead, who was not either a Conservative politician or, on occasion, John Humphrys.
Yet we know what the Aussie troll means, sort of, don’t we?
Clive James continues to deprive us of the tantalising reward he has been holding out for so long, like a parent refusing to part with the children’s Christmas presents before Twelfth Night, the opportunity of actually grieving for him, of celebrating the life well-lived. He subsists on our delayed gratification; our anticipation of sadly enjoyable Radio Four obsequies, favourite moments off the telly, contributions from past celebrities we had forgotten existed, the republication of past essays.
There dwells in our nearby town a certain person who too has gone about for several years now in a state of darkest morbidity, informing one and all of her imminent demise. ‘How are you today?’ one would ask solicitously. ‘I think I’m dying’, she would reply, ‘I feel awful.’ ‘Have you seen your doctor?’ you would ask, hopelessly. ‘They can’t do anything. They say I’m probably just depressed.’ To which there is no answer.
Turning 60, seven years ago I determined to take up two activities whose gratifications I had deliberately delayed since childhood, being the sole offspring of theatrical parents: to act on the stage, and to sing solo, again on the stage, in the jazz idiom.
Anticipating redundancy from my job, an axe that fell two years later, I wasted literally thousands of pounds of my pension ‘pot’ on musical instruments; acquiring guitars, a piano I cannot play – later exchanged for a more practical electronic keyboard; amplifiers, microphones, wobbling piles of sheet music. I studied with what teachers I could find, spending more thousands on attending residential workshops here and in France, acquiring dozens upon dozens of CD recordings.
Thus I have made a number of increasingly encouraging appearances on stage. Having had the foresight to grow my own, strangely woolly white beard, contrasting oddly with my otherwise still dark-brown hair and moustache, I have been consistently cast above my age range in comic parts, generally old sailors or pirates, ensuring a steady stream of unpaid work twice a year. I am currently playing the old Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, as sympathetically as possible I hope, being a non-Jew myself. (You can’t get the actors here.)
And in December I had my first and so far my only unpaid gig as a jazz singer, outside the supportive yet respectfully critical confines of professionally supervised workshops. It was not an unmitigated success, less from a performance point of view than because of the unexpected obstacle of having to compete with a woman selling ‘smoothies’ from a powered blender in the area next to us, in the awkward key of E; while the only member of the audience was a ten-year-old girl whose parents urgently dragged her away.
Halfway through the programme we had carefully rehearsed, my dying friend wandered in. ‘Oh hello’, she said. ‘Are you here?’ and, grabbing the microphone off the stand, announced that she proposed to sing ‘Autumn leaves’. It being, on reflection, quite an appropriate swansong; which she proceeded to warble while the pianist struggled to find her key and I prompted her with the actual lyrics. Happily, as one by one the leaves sadly fell, by the end she was still very much alive and wandered off again in a haze of antidepressants to continue her campaign of morbid disruption elsewhere.
I expect you have anticipated my feelings, then, on the subject of those who cling to this world like oversubstantial wraiths. While, as I said, one would not seriously wish anybody gone before their time, after all at 73 John Humphrys could simply hang up his soapbox and retire, the sound of their fingernails squeaking down the blackboard of life can sometimes be a little aggravating.
None of us can know the hour of our departure in advance, the random omnibus of Fate is even now charging towards us all from around the blind bend of Eternity, and so one cannot really blame those who succumb to an excess of premature morbidity in the exercise of their profession. It makes for a good story.
Journalists in particular have taken to biographising for our benefit, the remnants of their truncated lives lived under medical sentence; articles and broadcasts usually prefaced with misplaced regret that we do not ‘talk about death’ enough in our thoughtless pursuit of material happiness. A new Puritanism stalks the country.
And, oh my God, it’s a May Bank Holiday Saturday and once again the sports field half a mile away has come alive with the echoing, tinny cry of the tannoy, the splintered shards of unidentifiable muzak punctuated for the next 48 hours with unintelligible announcements, that shatters the relative peace of the valley and drills through the expensively double-glazed windows of my little garden studio.
There is no escaping the racket. Death’s silent dominion can seem too remote a consolation at such a time of year.
Spring. Who needs it.