There used to be a TV show called Keeping up Appearances starring the great comic actress Patricia Routledge. It was the BBC’s most exported show of all time, so it’s possible that readers in other parts of the world will have seen at least some episodes. Routledge played Hyacinth Bucket – always pronounced Bouquet – a delicious, appalling monster of a woman, a snob and shameless social climber who strikes terror into the heart of the postman, the neighbours and anyone who can’t find an excuse to avoid her ‘executive style’ candle-lit suppers.
Poor Hyacinth is doomed to fail in all her endeavours to be accepted into the ranks of the middle classes, not least on account of her relatives – two hopeless sisters, the layabout husband of one of the sisters and a mad ‘Daddy’ who lives upstairs but is never seen (apart from the occasional receding flash of brown raincoat as he escapes yet again). Daddy has flashbacks to the War and an ill-defined predisposition to cause offence to young ladies. All four have a tendency to show up, go missing or require assistance at inconvenient moments, and infuriate Hyacinth by refusing to modify either their slovenly ways or their Northern working class accents (which Hyacinth tends to revert to when flustered).
Well, I suppose it’s a bit the same in my family. I no longer visit my sister – well, I don’t seem to get invited but that may be just, you know, the way things happen to have happened. In a way it’s a relief to be amongst the not-invited because I am always conscious, whilst trying to reverse inconspicuously (no attention-drawing grating of gears) and at an awkward angle into a sweeping front drive, of the impression my beat-up little car is making; of how it – and I – are subtly polluting all that mock-Tudor serenity.
Everything about me and my poor little beat-up Skoda starts to feel shabby in such surroundings; our presence amongst one of those artfully-designed cul-de-sac mazes and trimmed-with-the-kitchen-scissors front-lawns an affront to the illusion that England is a safe and orderly place, a tranquil haven for the adequately remunerated and comprehensively insured – no raggedy edges, no dirt, no unexpected explosions from rusty exhaust-pipes.
I always find myself wishing I’d remembered to get outside with a bucket – sorry, bouquet – of hot soapy water, vacuumed the sandwich crumbs from the creases in Her upholstery and wrestled Her passenger seats back up – but I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t have done any of these things even if I had remembered.
So I suppose that makes me the Anti-Hyacinth. The rusting car nestling amongst the weeds in the front garden of Hyacinth’s embarrassing relatives always reminds me of the rusting car several doors down from my house. Its owner has health issues and can no longer drive, but neither can he bring himself to say goodbye to his little ‘mote-mote’ so there it sits on rotting pancake tyres, its go-faster stripes fading year on year, its windows broken. I think I can understand that. Maybe one day, when either the Skoda or I cease to function (simultaneously, I suspect) there will be yet another clapped-out, rusting hulk of a car on a driveway to lower the tone of the neighbourhood and cause estate agents to despair.
I made my almost-daily pilgrimage up the hill to the rusty post-box today, and looked around me. And realised something, which was that for all my past attempts to get away from this place, and for all that I can see that it’s ugly, in its way, I am also attracted to shabbiness and disarray.
On my way to the rusty post-box I had stepped over broken paving-stones and walked past a series of garden walls that have fallen down and just kind of been stacked up again, anyhow. A big dog had rushed out to bark at me, reminding me of the Alsatian that scares Hyacinth Bucket into the hedge every time she passes, to emerge with her hat askew and her dignity in tatters.
The grass verges are mountainous with thistles, nettles, thorns and weeds of every description: things that don’t even have a name but grow like wildfire and to enormous size, flower, seed, die and spring up again simply because they left alone to get on with being themselves. They are just joyous in their wildness.
It occurred to me that this is a kind of pattern with me. I must be the only person in the world who rather enjoys those memento mori paintings, sculptures etc – skulls, rotting fruit and dusty hour-glasses, the sand trickled almost through. Is there anybody else in the world who feels more at ease where everything is rusty, dusty, weedy, peeling and disintegrating?
And finally it occurred to me that this weirdness of mine isn’t even new. The first article I ever got published, in 1987 – which gives the impression that there have been scads published since – was called In Defence of Sleazy Pubs, and even in that I was analysing why Kentish pubs are so much better when they are sleazy, so much worse than at home; when there are bendy cardboard Babycham ladies on the beer-puddled bar; where there is dark-green flock wallpaper on the walls and the toilets are out the back somewhere, spider-infested and sharing a single lightbulb; where the ceiling is brown with nicotine and old men sit on tall stools at the bar with their old dogs at their feet, playing ‘pokey di’ and telling lies about the size of their carrots or runner beans; repeating the same well-worn jokes year after year.