My parents were epigones: both had been brought up in interwar households of a sufficient size to support domestic servants. For years I assumed it was this that accounted for their cack-handedness in the face of even the smallest domestic tasks - and their inability to pass on to their offspring so much as the rudiments of doing-it-for-ourselves. If there was a shelf to be put up, a wall to be painted, or a plug to be changed, my parents had to summon the help of a faerie dubbed "the Little Man".
The Little Man lived in some mystical realm - like Hornsey - and wore tobacco-coloured bib-and-brace overalls; he had many faces, but always the same canvas grip full of the alembics and retorts with which he performed his strange alchemy, turning the broken dross of our bourgeois lives into serviceable, everyday objects. As befitted the mischievous sprite that he was, whenever the Little Man pitched up, my parents would descend into discord: the price was not right, the Little Man was a fraud, the job would be ill done, so they'd go on.
Dr Johnson said that an inability to perform manual tasks was a kind of stupidity (we all know what a dab hand the Great Cham was with an Ikea flat-pack), and with this I would generally concur. Nevertheless, recognising a shortcoming and acting so as to change it are quite different things; and even now, although I find it quite impossible to mend the towel rail, I still entertain involved fantasies about my self-sufficient life on a remote Orcadian croft. The population of the world may reduce and reduce, in a poisonous, simmering sludge of its own making - but I and my descendants will endure, not least because in our hardy, northern fastness we have no need of such fripperies as towel rails - or towels for that matter.
All of this is by way of saying I find the scam perpetrated on my collaborator last week all too believable. By believable, I mean I understand why it was that when a gang of Little Men pitched up in Ralph Steadman's drive, claiming that they had a truck load of gravel they had to get shot of, and a leaky Tarmac machine they needs must make use of, he didn't demur but directed them to make free with their metalling magic. I don't wish to cast any aspersions on Ralph's parents - for all I know they may have been the handiest of handy - but I suspect that he, like me, tends to lose a screw when it comes to dealing with professional screwdrivers.
The deal was that Little Men would do 80 per cent of the drive that leads to Steadman Towers for free, and then, should it prove necessary, charge a token amount for the remaining few yards. In the event, once the job was done, Ralph was leant on by the Little Men for a five-figure sum. It all ended with stopped cheques, alerted tax men and police roadblocks. Ralph declined to prosecute, but is currently awaiting a very much reduced bill from the wayward home-improvers. Ralph says the whole experience left him feeling as if he were a train driver confronting a rhino on the line.
I know what he means: the interior of my own mind I can contemplate if not with equanimity, then at least with a certain degree of acceptance. Likewise, the world beyond the front door can be passed through and endured - not least because, when it gets too much, one can always retreat back inside. Unfortunately between the mind and the front door lies an entire debatable land, over which one has an undeniable responsibility. That's why there's something so terrifying and intrusive about being door-stepped.
Here in Stockwell we get 'em all: Little Men with manure, Little Men with frozen fish, Little Men claiming to sharpen your knives. I'm live to this latter scam, because my imprisoned friend Noel "Razors" Smith told me that he once spent a day pulling it, and all that most itinerant cutlers do is take the knives away, oil them, have a fag, and hand them back. But most of all we get crack heads requesting handouts with well-worn tales: "I have to go and get my kids in Beckenham and I've lost my wallet so I can't get any petrol." We have an equally well-worn response to this: "Would you like some petrol then? We have a can in the garden shed." Amazingly they all decline the offer.
Which is all by way of saying: beware of anyone who requests anything of you on your doorstep. Don't let them in! The meter-readers and the chuggers, the political canvassers and the distraught neighbours, the hawkers and the religious barkers. Stay inside! Collect string, old newspapers and many many cats. Piss yourself - and blame your parents.