I am sitting upstairs in the Boston Tea Party coffee shop on Park Street in Bristol, eating a slice of chocolate bread-and-butter pudding and writing in a blue exercise book. I often do this on Saturday afternoons. Fattening, admittedly. Earlier, I bought something called a 'hot one'—a sort of Caribbean chic pea kebab—from a street vendor in the Cabot market area on Nicholas street. I bumped into Mike, who sits next to me at work, so he can verify the story. I didn't eat breakfast. Sometimes I eat a cooked breakfast in a cafe near my flat; or take a walk to a kiosk by the river and have a bacon sandwich.
Not that I would want you to think that my weekends in Bristol consist of nothing but food. I wander around shops and pick up books and CDs. I even read them. Unlike some people, I can't swallow a book while listening to the radio or washing up; I need a few spare hours and a pot of coffee. I spent a chunk of last weekend curled up in my armchair, alternating chunks of Proust with chunks of Kingdom Come (a graphic novel about the second coming of Superman.) Is this consciously eccentric, do you think? Today I bought Proust 5. The chances of finishing Proust 6 by December 31st (and thus completing my resolution, to read Proust in 1997) is looking remote. I also picked up The End of Alice (the book about paedophilia that everyone has been making such a fuss about) largely so I could say 'Well, I've actually read it' during discussions on censorship.
Sometimes I go to the pictures. There is a small art-cinema about 17 seconds from my front door. You walk down a corridor at the back of a Chinese restaurant to get to the foyer. This could give you the impression that it shows dirty movies, but it actually shows art-house films a couple of months late. The Odeon and ABC don't get films like Crash or Hamlet. The Watershed and the Arnolfini do, but that would involve a walk to the river. I have never been in the restaurant, but it often has real Chinese people eating there. Last week I saw Lost Highway. I couldn't understand a word of it, but I think I rather liked it, anyway.
These are rather self indulgent, solitary weekends, but they only happen, on average, one in three. The others I go and visit people in London or York or Coventry or somewhere, or even have visitors myself. I don't have too many friends in Bristol apart from the people I work with, and I don't see them much at weekends.
It isn't really a chocolate pudding: it is marmalade, cinnamon, and nutmeg. 'Chocolate' sounded more typical, more snappy. Last week I had quiche. Once, it was a raspberry pudding. I prefer the chocolate, it is more self-indulgent. I guess it is home-made, because they only have a few slices and it sells out quickly. I only recently discovered that latte is better than Cappuccino.
Outside the shop, there is a blackboard with their 'special of the day' chalked on it. On the back is a faded chalk message which says 'Sorry, no coffee today. We have run out of water. But the tea is lovely.' It is hard to work out under what circumstances this message might have been needed.
'I go to a coffee shop some afternoons' I said to Flash over beer in the Figurehead and Firkin. 'There is a message chalked on the back of the board. It says 'Sorry, no coffee to day due to...'
'Didn't I tell you this story?' said Flash
'No,' I said. 'I told you.'
He thought for a moment. 'So you did,' he said. 'I told it to my sister.'
'I bet you told it to your sister as if it had happened to you' I said.
'That's right, I did.'
Flash does not talk like this, and neither do I but the conversation really happened. Unless it happened to Flash and I'm telling it as if it happened to me, of course.
There are often people writing with notebooks in the coffee shop. It's quite a studenty sort of place. There's a Chinese man with a pen and some coffee but no notebook, and a couple of student looking girls with apple pies and cream.
Nick thinks I owe it to readers of this column, both of you, to explain the nuances of the timetable at West Bosworth Comprehensive (not it's real name) in the 1970s. When people say they have read my webpage, or the little book I've made out of it for people without web access, I say 'Which bits did you like?' and they say 'Well, I liked the one about the gym teacher,' which is odd, because I thought it was about Michael Portillo. So I feel the need to admit that it is all a pack of lies. The gym teacher was actually two gym teachers, possibly three mixed up with some folklore and oral history. We had two lessons, one called 'PE' and one called 'Games' with two teachers, one called Mr S and one called Mr G. Mr G was the Sergeant Major type who left suddenly and we all assumed he'd been fired. I've heard different stories about why and when from different ex-pupils. Mr S was much more laid-back and better liked. But it was Mr S who did the random hitting. Unless I'm muddling him with Mr H, who replaced Mr G. As for the Boys Brigade Captain, I've told the story so many times that heaven only knows what really happened.
Nick didn't even mention that piece. His concern was with the one about unemployment. He did the same casual job as me at the brewery. He takes exception to my remark that 'I was the only person there who had never been in prison.' He suggests that the fact that I overheard two guys comparing their respective experiences in an open prison and borstal does not amount to the entire company being gaolbirds. I said that the point that I was making 'I was completely unlike the other members of staff, culturally: for example, some of them came from the type of background where having a criminal record wasn't that unusual, or that embarrassing' was made more dramatically, forcefully, and briefly by saying 'I was the only one who'd never been in gaol'. And that the claim was so preposterous that any sane reader would know he was reading comic exaggeration. Nick said he's still in contact with one of our fellow inmates—sorry, employees—and he might be offended if he ever wandered onto this webpage. And that he'd like to know whether he was reading fiction or journalism before he started on one of the pieces.
He isn't Chinese at all; his dark hair looked oriental from behind. Does that make me a racist?
Is it dishonest of me to want to make a point about education and illustrate it by means of a fictional character based on memories of two real people? Is it wrong to repeat and exaggerate a story and claim that it happened to you? Am I any closer to the truth when I stick to the actual facts: the latte froth that sticks around the inside of the white mug; the quadrant of cucumber with a seed or a crumb of wholemeal bread on it; the two strands of cress and the plastic Snapple lid on the table?
Flash says (used to say) (still says, but in quotation marks, repeating an old joke to show a link between us) that I only ever write about Vicars and Teachers. He smirks when he says this, as if there were something faintly indecent about the words, I suppose because it sounds like 'Vicars and Tarts' or '...as the bishop said to the actress.' What he means, I suppose, is that I talk a lot about Religion and Education, which is to say, Children and God, which is to say The Human Race. When Flash first said this, it sparked off weeks of writers block. Every time I picked up the pen, one half of me was saying 'You can't write that...it will be about Vicars and Teachers—it will be self-indulgent and introspective' while the other half was saying 'You can't write that; it will be about something you don't know, it won't have Truth and Authenticity behind it.'
In the time it took me to get a mocha, two women with a dark skinned well behaved baby have come to my table. In a few minutes they will be joined by a couple, the babies parents, with a huge tray of cakes. (How do I know?) No-one has wiped away the cucumber. The mocha is disappointing.
I genuinely find the policies—no, the outlook, the attitudes—of New Labour disturbing, antithetical to Who I Am, but have I made a great joke out of hating Tony Blair. The Person Who Doesn't Think Much of Tony has become almost a fictional role. I am genuinely ignorant about current music, but it seems funny to present myself as a what-the-young-people-seem-to-listen-to caricature. This happens in life as well as writing about life? Am I working my way through every book on the Beatles in Waterstones because I am interested, or because it pleases me to present myself as someone-who knows-a-lot-about the Beatles? Do I write this sort of thing because its true or because I want you to think that I'm the sort of person who likes this sort of thing? Did the Lennon book really make me cry? Was I really that cynical about Princess Di? If I wrote something really 'truthful' about the death of my father or the dirty old man who approached me in the park when I was nine, would I simply be playing a 'person who writes painfully confessional articles' role?
What would the family with the cute baby think if I took The End of Alice out of my bag and started reading it? The mother is a primary school teacher. It would help the article if the father was a clergyman, but he shows no sign. Not all clergymen wear dog collars these days.
Next years resolution, after I finish Proust, is to go on a diet and maybe join a gym. That will yeild some funny stories about flashbacks to school PE lessons. Maybe I can just write the stories without bothering to take the excercise.
I retype notes, editing liberally, so what you are reading is not what I wrote.
I had finished the pudding before I took my notebook out.
Apart from that, every word I've said is true.