Jeremy Clarke

Tea and telly

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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I don’t watch a lot of telly these days because I’d rather read. But when I was going out with my boy’s mother, she and I watched it all the time. It was all we ever did. I’d come home from work and we’d sit on the sofa and watch the telly until it was time for her to go to bed and for me to go home.

She was living with her family at the time and we’d all watch telly together in their tiny front room. There’d be me, her, her mum, her dad, her gran, her older sister and her younger brother in three inward-facing rows, night after night. Her dad was a cowman and the house smelt of cattle, and we sat around an open log fire — otherwise the situation was remarkably similar to that portrayed by the TV sitcom The Royle Family.

We sat and smoked and ate and watched mainly soaps, game shows and ‘reality TV’. If a programme with any kind of intellectual content came on, it would be derided as ‘rubbish’, and we’d switch channels. The best-appointed chair was reserved for the cowman father, William, who’d continually make wind and look for applause afterwards, as if his ability to execute farts was the greatest gift that Nature had bestowed on him. Sometimes his wind would pass out of him as lightly as a summer breeze. At other times he would close one eye and his face would shudder, as though the required effort involved the combined energies of his mind, body and spirit. Critical reaction to these flatulent outbursts was often mixed.

As in The Royle Family, the sullen younger brother, Wayne, was always sent out for cigarettes, or made to answer the telephone or the doorbell. He was very unsure of himself in those days. On one occasion there was a knock at the door and we said, ‘Go and answer the door, Wayne.’ And he made a scene about it. ‘But I’m crap at answering the door,’ he said. And he was, too. He’d open the door, see someone standing there, and he’d panic and his mind would go completely blank. He’d come back into the sitting-room after answering the door and we’d say, ‘Well? Who was it? What did they want?’ And he wouldn’t be able to answer either question satisfactorily. Nor, when pressed, could he give a description of the visitor or an account of the conversation that had passed between them.

I sat in that sitting-room every night watching telly for about three years. Because the family atmosphere in which I was raised was somewhat Victorian (the television set was always referred to as the ‘idiot’s lantern’), the warm, welcoming and unpretentious atmosphere of that household made me very happy. I felt that I had come home.

After my boy’s mum and I parted, I saw little or nothing of her family until fairly recently. Now I go round there for tea and telly again, just like I used to. Last Sunday afternoon I took the mother, June, Christmas shopping in Plymouth. William can’t walk very well at the moment so he couldn’t come with us. The worst of it, he told me, frankly, while we were waiting for his wife to get ready, was that the painkillers for his knee were making him constipated. To combat this, the doctor had given him some ‘jollop’, which was working so well he could pass motions for England at the moment. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘I've got one on the tailboard now,’ and he snatched up the Daily Mirror from the table and made a dash for it. Halfway up the stairs he had second thoughts, ran back down, threw the Mirror on the table, grabbed the Auto Trader, and dived upstairs again.

The Christmas decorations in Plymouth’s shopping precinct made little impression on the soul-destroying, jerry-built, postwar socialist architecture. Poor, ill, under-nourished people were the norm rather than the exception. ‘It’s amazing what you see when you’re out and you haven’t got your gun with you,’ said June, who hadn’t been to Plymouth since the children were born and was determined to enjoy herself. It was such an adventure for her that when we stopped for a coffee she rang William to tell him about it. But rather than listen to her telling him about Plymouth, he’d worriedly given her a detailed description of ‘what he had coming out of his arse’.

Her last Christmas purchase of the day, oddly enough, was a video of The Royle Family. If you spent over £10 in HMV you could buy it for only £2.99. When we got back, she made sandwiches and we all gathered round the TV to watch it. I was the only one present who had seen The Royle Family before. After about five minutes, William said to June, ‘What a waste of bloody money that was!’ and June agreed with him. We stopped it and watched Songs of Praise instead.