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Squalor and tins April 8, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

“This train goin’ Guildford, mate?” asked the man.

It was a nice welcome to England. I’d been chatting just the night before with an American gent who didn’t know how to respond when a stranger chatted with him friendlily back in the States. I flicked my brain to native-language-chat and problem-solving mode and looked helpfully and inquisitively at the board. The fact of the matter was that without the internet, which I haven’t yet had surgically implanted, or a leaflet of timetables, or a psychic connection to a timetable-memorising autist, I didn’t have a great deal more info at my fingertips than the asking man. But one look at him was enough for even the least perspicacious onlooker to conclude that I was in a better state for detective work than he was.

“Let me see, old man,” I began. But then I took a closer look at him and asked him to ignore that mode of address and re-began, “Let me see, probably not that old actually man whose features have been ravaged by alcohol.” It was only about 8 in the morning yet his eyes were gleaming with the euphoria of drunkenness. He didn’t reek of booze so I thought about giving him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe his glistening, blood-shot eyes were the result of some disorder or other. But no disorder, eye-affecting or otherwise, has a drunken leer as a symptom, I concluded, and got on with worrying about what the world was coming to.

Huge provincial men wearing white trainers and carrying the flag of some football team, or a nation I have never heard of, milled around.

“Hmm, well, the next train from this platform is going to Portsmouth. Oh, and to Bognor Regis.” I slightly couldn’t remember where Guildford was and waited for the screen to go through its selection of displays until it revealed all the in-between stations. “Erm, no, so this one won’t do. Er, that one’s going to London and beyond, but not to Guildford. Erm, perhaps you’d better go and ask a human in a uniform.”

The asking man tarried before setting off. He gave a big grin. His teeth had seen better days. He did his best to hide what appeared to be a generous covering of fading tattoos. Looked as if age might be doing him a favour by at least slowing the pace of a life lived with rarely a sober moment.

He soon returned. “Platform 5 in half an hour,” he revealed, no doubt sensing I was struggling to keep a lid on my curiosity, with a self-deprecating guffaw. “That’ll teach me to get pissed and fall asleep on the train.” I ticked off my suspicion on an internal spreadsheet and wondered that any human had ever allowed themselves, via the devil’s own agent of alcohol, to be making their way home, drunkenly and with unplanned detours, at 8 in the morning whilst others all around were soberly making theirs to righteous destinations and huge provincial men in white trainers carried flags on their way to some rally or other.

I stared briefly at the panel advertising the pending arrival of my own train and wondered, if I stared very hard, whether I might convince it to bring the ETA forward. I soon gave up hope and returned to my leerer. “So are you going to be in trouble when you get home?” I inquired, accidentally getting into the swing of the conversation while pulling up my trousers from mooning at a passing train.

“Naa,” he guffawed. “Divorced. Live alone.”

I struggled to delete an image of squalor and tins dancing before my eyes.

“The wife had to call the police once. Went up London. Was gone for three days.” He repeated his self-deprecating, what-am-I-like guffaw.


“… just flown in?”

“Yes, from Berlin.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell, never get me on one o’ them things.”

“It’s only an hour and a half.” I wondered whether to add that that was a fraction of the time it took him to get from somewhere-not-very-far-from-Guildford to Guildford but chose not to, in case he’d run out of self-deprecating guffaws.

“Get home safely,” I wished him as I clambered onto my train, choosing not to think of the future.



1. Marsha Klein - April 9, 2008

This reminds me of a story I heard (can’t remember where) about a man who got fed up of falling asleep on the train and waking up at the terminus having missed his stop. He decided to hang a sign, bearing the words, “Please wake me up at station X” around his neck, only to wake up yet again at the terminus and with the words “hee hee!” written on his sign.

I think “probably-not-that-old-actually-whose-features-have-been-ravaged-by-
alcohol” man was lucky to meet you and not some prankster. Imagine, he might have ended up in Portsmouth *shudders*

2. Liukchik - April 9, 2008

And what is wrong with Portsmouth, exactly?

3. BiB - April 9, 2008

Liukchik, don’t tell me you’ve discovered civic pride now that you’ve left the first flush of youth behind. I thought Portsmouth was the town that even its own residents like to hate, the south coast’s equivalent to Dudley. Or has that Spinnaker Tower given Portsmouth a touch of the Dubai? Anyway, aren’t you from Aberdeen?

Marsha, it was all Portsmouth that morning. Between you and me, the provincial men with the flags, every single one of whom I fancied (unless their beer belly appeared even when they weren’t raising their arms in an expression of joy), were waving the flags of the People’s Republic of Portsmouth.

4. Liukchik - April 10, 2008

God, no. I am reading a book at the mo about the nostalgia displaced writers and artists (especially theose of a Russian/East European persuasion) feel for their homelands (and for the capitals of said homelands) – they either fall into the pukingly typical nostalgia for the previous regime (a la Solzhenitsyn), or they construct an entirely imagined homeland over which they have control (seemingly both Brodskii and Nabokov followed this path), or they reject it entirely and live it through their art (can’t remember any relevant authors, but I have a feeling Joyce had more than a little of this about him). I am none of the above. Cannot see any redeeming feature at all. And have no artistry with which to create a Somerstown of the imagination. Does NW London still hold a place in your heart?

5. BiB - April 10, 2008

God, isn’t Solzhenitsyn a tosser? Though he’s 90, so tossing is allowed.

I feel precisely nothing for NW London, though it’s sweet to think that you have also lived in the house of my childhood. (Oh yes, anyone who happens to read this. Liukchik and my mother were lovers.) Actually, Mrs. Inberlin is about to move again and, even though I never lived where she’s moving from, I feel sad that I won’t see it again. But I think that’s because the location was lovely, very close to Teddington Lock. I do still, on the other hand, feel something very strong for London, but I don’t know if that’s because it’s home or because it’s London. Perhaps both. That London/Surrey/West Sussex corridor feels sort of homey too. If I ever had cause to go to, say, Liverpool for a weekend, I think I’d feel no affinity beyond the language. Though a personal link can forge a feeling of hominess. Having family in Glasgow also makes that city less unhomey than it would otherwise be.

6. Sylvia - April 10, 2008

reminds me of someone I used to work with. He lived in Guildford and regularly had to be rescued from Portsmouth as he’d slept on in his drunken stupor.

My own husband was woken up by cleaners in the bus garage after the xmas lunch had got out of hand. When he got home, I laughed so much I nearly fell down the stairs.

7. BiB - April 10, 2008

Sylvia, luckily I live at the last stop on a line, so the holler of the cleaning staff is most welcome. But once (or perhaps twice) I have slept through that and woken up half way back to where I was coming from. In any case, I never do that going out thing in the same way as I used to any more and normally only go out within walking distance, which avoids all sorts of problems.

8. Annie Rhiannon - April 11, 2008

“…choosing not to think of the future.”


9. narrowback - April 11, 2008

I used to frequently fall asleep on the El after a night of carousing…getting robbed – several times – I quickly grew out of the habit/modified my behaviors

10. Sylvia - April 11, 2008

Ah yes, walking distance. Usually this means from fridge to sofa for us these days, or maybe round the corner if we’re feeling brave.

11. BiB - April 11, 2008

Sylvia, even with all your recent walking practice? You could pop up to central London on a quick stroll these days, I should imagine. I’ve got a geographical spot that I’m prepared to walk as far as. About an hour in each direction. When Tim Henman was playing in the semi-final of the French Open 100 years ago, I walked to the Tiergarten (a big park here) and back, which took five hours, to avoid watching. (He lost.)

Narrowback, I’m guessing I’ve probably blogged it before but once, after I had imbibed quite magnificent amounts of alcohol and was in a parlous state, I went to a cashpoint machine to take money for a cab home. I was mugged perhaps before I’d even touched the money. Oddly, the police happened to be watching the whole event live – not that there are cameras everywhere in the UK or anything – and I was eventually contacted by them as the bank could, of course, tell them who it was who’d been mugged. The crim was caught… and I never got my 20 quid back.

Annie, I’ve got a feeling you face the future with bravery and determination. Planning ahead. Thinking of the good times to come. Whereas if I dare to think more than 20 minutes into the future, I am weighed down by visions of wet cardboard boxes and people haranguing me on the street for the money I owe them.

12. ThePenguin - April 11, 2008

The other day I awoke somewhat the worse for wear due to issues involving the night before, but nevertheless had to go into the office. As the night before was in some way work-related, and I was in desperate need of a modicum of sleep, was able to justify a long lunch hour on the slow train to Yokohama and back. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I appear to be unable to fall into a deep sleep on transport of any kind so didn’t end up in the unknown hinterland which lies beyond Yokohama, and by mid-afternoon I had more-or-less recovered. (I did actually consider Tokyo’s main circle line, as you can’t really go wrong on that, but the chances of a nice quiet carriage on that are pretty low).

13. BiB - April 11, 2008

Penguin, I hope you know I print all these comments out and fax copies to your wife. Or has she now joined you back in the fatherland?

Mind you, that’s quite a nice idea, going to sleep on a circular line. It would work in London, except I’ve got a feeling you’d be thrown off at one of the nominal termini. But what, in Berlin, if you only bought an Einzelfahrausweis and fell asleep on the Ringbahn for 2 hours and 1 minute? The inspectors might prove intransigent.

14. Tim Footman - April 12, 2008

I grew up in Portsmouth. There’s nothing to beat the combination of shock, exasperation and resentment that results when you reach the simultaneous realisation that a) you’ve fallen drunkenly asleep and only woken up at the terminus and b) you’ve reached your stop anyway.

15. ThePenguin - April 12, 2008

No, I’ve just joined Mrs. Penguin back in the Vaterland. She’s seen the photos too, so no worries there mate.

16. BiB - April 12, 2008

Penguin, you don’t MEAN it. Except you probably do, as it would be a pointless joke. What can this all mean? Not that you’ve changed your mind? No, you must just be using the ticket you had anyway. So when are you here till? Say till after Monday, as I hope to have been paid by then and will be aching for beer and impressions.

Tim, poor old Pompey. We’re being very naughty to it. Although that’s quite a nice image, isn’t it? It being the end of the line. The end station. Even drunk folk can find their way there. A friend who lived in Brighton, and hated it with a passion, said it being at the bottom of the country also gave it a sort of finalness. For her, it was a place where people drifted to, or sank to, to do nothing.

17. ThePenguin - April 12, 2008

will be here till Friday, in fact just now we were probably half-way between here and Chez BiB. Yes, the ticket I had was limited to three months, so I’m using it up for purposes of seeing Mrs. Penguin and getting a refill of vital supplies.

Must admit I found Portsmouth a nice-ish place, not sure what everyone has against it. An uncle and since a couple of years ago a granny live there, so we’ve been passing through these last few Christmases. Mind you they live in the Southsea bit, the Gosport side does look a bit grim.

18. BiB - April 12, 2008

Perfect. Well, I shall e-mail you like mad and, if you can squeeze it in, let’s meet next week.

I went to visit a pal in Portsmouth once and saw the sea and the Mary Rose and anyone who grew up on a diet of Blue Peter knew that was the most important ship – no, most important anything – in the whole wide world, and giggled like mad at a pub called The Fawcett Inn, so was probably happy.

19. Taiga the Fox - April 13, 2008

BiB, darling, I am back at home now, feeling slightly tired, but happy-ish. It was really lovely to meet you!
So, you visited the Biennial? It was bit empty, wasn’t it?

20. Marsha Klein - April 13, 2008

I’m feeling a bit guilty about having started this anti -Portsmouth thing. Let’s just say that, for me, Portsmouth is too closely tied up with in-laws (both of Brian’s parents are from there – not that you’d know, but I believe the armed forces can do that to you) to ever be somewhere I’d rush to visit.

21. BiB - April 14, 2008

Marsha, cast out that guilt. Wear your Portsmouth-disdain with pride. I’ll send you a whistle. I’m not sure if there’s a whole town that I ever go to which fills me with dread. I do have to mug people for anti-depressants when I pass through Billingshurst on the train, and I’ve never quite understood why. The odd place on my travels has struck me as indescribably grim, but interesting because of that, perhaps. I think Pindushi (Karelia, northern(ish) Russia) was the single most grim place I ever visited, but it was a short traipse from there to fairy-tale Russian villages and Europe’s second largest lake, so it certainly had its (or nearby) redeeming features.

Taiga, it was sheer sex to meet you too. The Russian and I already fight over the snowball – folk, Taiga brought me a snowball – and it’s a great stress-reliever (the ball, I mean. Not fighting with the Russian for it, though that’s fun too). The Biennale was a bit queer, although I think we all enjoyed the Swedish woman married to the Berlin Wall.

22. Blognor Regis - April 14, 2008

As possibly the only Bib reader with a PO postcode I suppose it falls to me, despite my negligible interest in football, to point out that Pompey were off to Wembey that day for the FA cup semi-final.

23. BiB - April 14, 2008

Mark, Bognor has a PO postcode? Do you mean I’ve been labouring under the delusion that Bognor Regis is in West Sussex when it’s in fact in Hampshire? I’ll have to go to therapy, if so. Having you down as a Sussex blogger (even though, if memory serves me rightly, you’re originally a Cornwall boy), I’ve always thought of you as practically my brother, even though my Sussex connection is purely an emotional one, but if you’re a Hampshire blogger, well, I’ll feel as if I have to get to know you all over again and that there’s a whole new layer of cultural niceties to go through, like finding out about your local food, what day you celebrate the sabbath etc.

Off to consult the map of the British Isles on the kitchen wall…

(10 seconds later)… not any-bloody-where near Hampshire. Have you been lying about your location all along or do we need to set those old-county-boundary terrorists onto the Post Office?

24. Blognor Regis - April 14, 2008

‘Tis all the Post Office’s doing so there’s no need to perform the indroduction niceties once again I’m pleased to say. It seems they disregard county boundaries willy and indeed nilly. Iwonder if, come the Euro Post Codes, if we’ll be in Cherbourg North.

25. BiB - April 14, 2008

Of course I’d be secretly thrilled, in the same way I was when I heard, “Vos passeports, s’il vous plait,” on the train when somewhere in Kent in the early days of the Eurostar, to have an EPC in addition to my regular one, but you’re not serious about them, are you? And I do like the British ones, actually. A friend who knew that his postcode was unique in some way once wrote to himself using just the postcode and sure enough the letter reached him the next day. (That episode could win any nerd-of-the-year competition, couldn’t it?) If I can offer my own entry for nerd-of-the-year, have you seen Canadian postcodes? Look just like the British ones. Have roads already been given Euro-names (or numbers) too? I’ve got a feeling there was a plan to do that, so that the M1 might also be the E525.

26. ThePenguin - April 14, 2008

My parents, who live in Cymru, have a Hereford postcode – causes some confusion. They did get a letter once though where only the name and the postcode were legible on the envelope.

27. BiB - April 14, 2008

Pengers, don’t be so Welshist. It wasn’t illegible. The address was meant to just be a collection of ll and w.

28. Blognor Regis - April 14, 2008

Well the Via Ravenna meets the Avenue de Chartres in Chichester* but that’s not quite what you meant is it? I think most major trunk routes have and E number too. M62, warning contains tartrazine.


29. BiB - April 14, 2008

I thought you were telling me a cryptic joke of some sort, but no. Is that part of a Euro renaming project or was it ever thus? I’m having a nice nerdy look at your neck of the woods on that map. The coast is really interesting-looking there, with all those inlets and islands which I realise I’ve never heard of. Pagham looks like much too good a natural harbour not to have had a world-famous city built around it. Or is Bognor penned in to grow in that direction?

30. Blognor Regis - April 14, 2008

It’s bit of twin town fraternal greetings stuff I reckon. Maybe there’s a Chichester Street in Ravenna? There’s a Novorissisk Way in Plymouth if memory serves. (All Plymouth’s twin towns are sea ports and the Russian one is no exception.)

I think Pagham was a working port in the middle ages. I recall something about some troops for Agincourt departing from there. I guess silt and shifting sand and bigger ships did for it in the end. Chichester Harbour, the next one west, is big for yachting but it isn’t a working port like Portsmouth, Southampton or Shoreham. I’m surprised you haven’t thought about joining a ship and working your passage?

31. BiB - April 14, 2008


I didn’t know Shoreham was a working port too. Herr Teuteronomy comes from there. I shall grill him about its beauty next time I see him and ask whether I should retire there. Currently fantasising about Thorney Island, though. Is it heaven?

32. Liukchik - April 15, 2008

It is (was?) full of sailors.

33. BiB - April 15, 2008

Lukeski, Thorney Island is? In a Querelle kind of way? Or in a more mundane, more, dare I say it, realistic way? With grey English light, rather than the red of the Querelle film (which would drive anyone mad, presumably, after half an hour. Poor prostitutes)? I wonder if there’s any truth in that rumour that sailors are constantly rodding each other senseless. The first gay club I went to in Russia had the barmen dressed up as sailors and they looked nice enough, though no nicer, really, than if they were dressed as plumbers, or just as humans.

34. liukchik - April 15, 2008

It may have been another of the armed forces – Wikipedia reckons the RAF to the 70’s, then the army. I just remember the military-related roadsigns for it on the road to Chichester (non-Roman). I had always imagined it to be one of those bizarre otherwordly British coastal wastelands, like Dungeness.

35. liukchik - April 15, 2008

Russian sailors in stripey vests, rather than salty English seadogs? Although maybe you prefer the latter?

36. BiB - April 15, 2008

Obviously I’d puke – or at least blush – from excitement in the presence of any real sailors, especially if they were in their garb. Don’t know if I’d like to live on an island peopled exclusively by them, though (unless in a version of a very silly and porn-film unlikely fantasy). I don’t think the Russian fake sailors were just in vests, by the way, though blue and white stripes do leap to mind.

Hmm, English or Russian sailors/men… Well, Russian men probably outdo their English counterparts purely in the looks department, but English men… phwooaarr. I remind the Russian every day that we both fit my stereotype perfectly.

37. narrowback - April 15, 2008

the blue & white thingy is actually an undershirt worn under the navy jumper for all naval enlisted ranks & under combat dress for spetznatz (now there’s a bit of “arcane knowledge” for ya BiB!)

and yes, from personal experience I can tell you that the reality of living in a military town is nohow related to porn film unlikely fantasy. I shudder at some of the memories

38. BiB - April 15, 2008

Narrowback, damn. Then I have just drawn a line through one of the items on my unlikely-fantasies-to-enact-before-I-die list. There’s only sex-with-Russian-cosmonauts-in-space left. (Actually, not at all true, which perhaps isn’t THAT surprising. Most terrifying nightmare I ever had was when I blasted off into space.)

39. narrowback - April 15, 2008

Don’t the Russians allow private citizens to purchase seats, so to speak, on its space flights?

40. BiB - April 15, 2008

They do, though I don’t know if it counts as sex tourism. My ex – sorry, he is the source of every anecdote – went to Star City (Zvezdnyj Gorodok/Звёздный Городок) outside Moscow and experienced zero gravity in one of those huge old Soviet planes. They were looked after by cosmonauts. He said it was 800 times better than sex. Flying! (And puking, be it said.) And then they all went and got pissed together, and it was a glorious day, and the Russian men all had their shirts off. A good weekend, all in all.

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