In my early teens I used to watch an American programme called When Good Times Go Bad, which used to air on Channel 4 in the very early hours of Saturday morning. I would watch this quite regularly for three reasons, none of which will have been on the minds of the producers of the programme when the idea for it was conceived.
It was by no means a good bit of television, as is perhaps evident from its title. I watched it because, at that time, I had just begun to stay up late, and the novelty of doing so had not yet worn off enough for me to realise just how bad late night television truly was. It was quite funny, too, in the same bombastic, overly sincere way that made Alistair Stewart’s demonically shouty monologues on Police, Camera, Action so unintentionally hilarious.
But what most amused me was the title of the programme, which was so ambiguous that it could describe almost any incident ever to have happened in all known history. The words could just have easily referred to the ending of picnic spoilt by rain, as they could a man getting his penis caught in a bit of rollercoaster track after a pleasant day spent at a theme park.
It was a phrase that seemed to me almost as brilliant as it did stupid; and entirely for this reason it has stayed with me all this time, occasionally entering my head during moments of tragedy, and forcing me to smirk like a mad person.
I adduce this recollection now because the title of this programme seems to best to describe the last six months of my life; a time that started out so good and turned so abruptly sour that When Good Times Go Bad became a sort of useless mantra for me, which I would repeat during moments of hopelessness.
The decline from good times into bad began last summer, when an especially odious person took up residence in a flat below mine. I was living at the time in a three-storey building in a trendy part of East London, which I had made my home because it was near to work rather than because I hoped to become part of the local fashion scene. I was and still am to fashion what George Plimpton is to gangster rap—i.e. entirely unconnected in every way imaginable.
I gave up ever hoping to be cool when I was about twelve, and ever since my energy has instead been invested in dressing as unremarkably as possible, so as not to attract from people attention of any sort. The person who took up residence was not at all like me in this sense; he was very trendy and unimaginably sure of himself.
My first impressions of who, for the purposes of this essay, I will call Tony, was of a coked-up moron, whose first moments in the flat were spent loudly ringing a locksmith in the hallway because he had lost the key before he had even moved any of his possessions into the building. But at first I tried to reserve judgment. Perhaps there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the sniffing and for the weird guttural screaming, which he seemed to do from time to time in a way that defied all emotion.
A few weeks after he moved in I awoke at four in the morning to the sound of him and his friend attempting to break his door down because he had once again lost the key to the flat. Tony discussed the possibility of climbing out of the window on the top floor landing and swinging down to his floor and smashing the window, but was unfortunately persuaded by his marginally less stupid friend not to do so.
He reluctantly agreed and instead took to trying to break his own door down by running at it—I hoped head first. It was at this time that I had begun to dress myself and prepare for what I was sure was going to be an awkward confrontation. But by the time I reached the door of my flat both Tony and his friend had left the building and fled into the night, squawking and cackling, like two crazy apes, fleeing the shackles of common sense and reason.
After that night the door made an awful noise when it was closed—or rather when it was slammed—which caused me to fantasise about tying Tony’s penis to the handle and slamming it myself, over and over again. The urge to do this further increased when I finally laid eyes on Tony: his face it was revealed was like looking at a collage of photographs of everybody who has ever been described as punchable; he walked as though a toothbrush was lodged in his rectum; and his voice, a cross between Steven Gerrard and a gremlin, sounded like a car horn that had been stabbed repeatedly with screwdriver.
However, he never actually spoke more than a few words to my face. I said “hello” to him on a number of occasions when passing him awkwardly in the hall, but he would always look down at the ground and wait for me to pass. On one occasion, after he pushed past me in a hurry, I said contemptuously, “All right?” and he mumbled back “Yeah,” but rarely did he say anything more than this to me.
I tried to take solace in what I presumed was the situation: that he was some drug-addled pariah who would amount to nothing in life and who would surely, at some point in his life, get his comeuppance for being such an enormous twat. But in fact Tony seemed to be doing fairly well for himself. Astonishingly, I was later to discover that he was some sort of acclaimed hipster chef, who had appeared in British Vogue, and who frequently catered for quite grand events.
Everything that television had told me appeared to be lie: good things do happen to bad people.
In the following two months I came to hate where I lived so much that I began to find excuses not go home in the evenings. More often than not slamming or screaming would wake me up in the night, and soon I took to wearing earplugs to bed. These helped block out the screaming, but I found that the slamming shook the entire building, and thus they had little effect on my being able to sleep.
After several attempts to ask get Tony to stop, I simply gave up, and approached the company who had recently bought the building about the issue instead. In London there is a real problem that seems to have gone almost entirely unreported: rich people, often from other countries, buy property in the capital and then simply reap the rewards of inflation. They don’t have to even rent the property out to make money, but if they do they invariably pay a company to look after the building, usually one that has no intention of addressing any complaints from their tenants.
Tony in this case was one issue I raised with the company responsible for my building; an enormous leak in my kitchen was the other. But neither problem was addressed, at least not immediately anyway; and so, after many unanswered emails, I admitted defeat and handed in my notice. Tony had won.
Thereafter I spent the rest of my tenancy in a dark state of depression, trying my best not to retaliate. As a consequence to Tony’s catering business, for which he obviously had no certificate of hygiene, the hallways and landings of each floor of the building were filled with his pots and pans. A large guitar amplifier was stored next to the doorway, too, which meant that anybody who entered the building had to squeeze past it in order to gain access. Often, when I would return home from being out, I would have to the fight the urge not to destroy these things out of spite. And for whatever the reason was I never did.
Of course the urge to do so was always present, as was desire to staple Tony’s buttocks to his face, just to watch him squirm about, sobbing into his rear end whilst attempting to pull himself free. Never before had I been filled with such contempt for a person. I had always been so calm and level headed. But Tony had changed all that. For him, and him only, I reserved my deepest, darkest thoughts: if his slamming had caused the building to fall down, I considered, I would gladly have been crushed to death, if only to die knowing that Tony would also meet his end moments later.
By the time I begun having these thoughts, I was fairly certain I had entered over into madness. I had strongly disliked people before, but not quite so determinedly had I loathed somebody as much as I did Tony. And yet even then I knew that my emotions would eventually subside, and that with time I would look back on all those sleepless nights and feel scarcely any strong disdain towards him at all. It had happened before. One day a person can seem so irrepressibly odious, and then just weeks later, after a period of separation, they can be viewed in a whole new light.
With Tony this process happened even faster than I could have imagined. Within mere days of having moved out of the house I could see how irrational all my thoughts had been, and how much energy I had wasted on so fervently despising him. I could see how I had allowed him to bother me far more than was warranted.
Of course I would still have been pleased to see Tony’s buttocks stapled to his face, but no longer did I wish to be the one doing the stapling. I was happy simply to be away from the flat, away from the slamming and screaming. That it seemed was enough to keep me from even thinking of Tony at all, and now that he was no longer there to disturb my peace I couldn’t care either way what happened to him.
I have chosen to write about my experiences here as an attempt to assemble the enduring chaos of the past few months, for I hadn’t the energy to do so at the time.
I mentioned earlier the programme When Good Times Go Bad, and how its title became a sort of useless mantra for me, which I would repeat during moments of hopelessness. This perhaps sounds as though I was willingly repeating the words When Good Times Go Bad, when in fact I found myself thinking it over and over again the way a single phrase from a song repeats in one’s head during a sleepless night. I have no idea why these words in particular were on my mind, though an easy guess is that my sub-conscious sub-consciously hates me, and enjoys repeatedly stating the obvious ad nauseum.
It should be said, too, that the voice in my head was not my own, but that of the narrator of the programme, who used to speak with great trepidation and unrest. Only now, thanks to sleep and the sense of perspective that comes from relative peace, has his ominous and perpetual commentary on the state of my affairs permanently let me be. But I won’t forget easily the misery of the past few months, an experience from which I am still slowly recovering.