Robert Wringham, a humorist and writer, is known to Outsideleft readers for his collections of short comic pieces A Loose Egg and Stern Plastic Owl and as editor of the New Escapologist magazine, which ran from 2007 – 2017 in printed form and will be returning in print form soon following a successful Kickstarter campaign. He has written a history of the comedy troupe Cluub Zarathustra (You are Nothing) and a biography of club circuit legend The Iceman (Melt It! The book of the Iceman). Now he has turned his attention to writing a novel, with the publication of Rub-A-Dub-Dub.
It’s an extraordinary first novel, comic, poignant and dealing in detail with the endearing but sometimes revolting life of its protagonist, Robert Forrester, known to his trainspotting neighbour Pavel, and to us, as Mister Bob. Bob is a lonely, white, middle-aged, overweight train worker, who is trying to improve his life, a mission which centres around the bath in his flat. We follow Bob as he travels on the trains up to Scotland and back to London, and interacts with his boss Sunny, his co-worker and potential love interest Tracey, his landlady, shopkeepers and rail “customers”. Bob takes to bathing as a way to engage in “self-care”, to improve his mental health and stave off his plans of suicide. I talked to Robert about Mister Bob, baths, and trains.
I asked Robert first about the cover of his novel, a wonderfully vibrant picture of Bob in the bath that is the novel’s most evocative location.
Robert: So the artist is called Thomas McGregor, known to his friends as Mac. He's associated with the Scottish comedy scene because he was around in the early days of the Stand comedy clubs being set up in Edinburgh and Glasgow. When I was very young – I’m from the Midlands - I used to come up for the Edinburgh Fringe.
So I used to go to the Edinburgh Club and I'd see his famous cowboy. Mac designed the Cowboy logo, which is the scenery. It's behind the stage that you perform in front of. He also displayed a lot of his paintings in frames around, I think you could buy them. And I was about 15 and I was looking at them and I just loved them. They had a slightly sinister edge and yet they were also very jubilant and funny. It was almost like it was partly referring to things like the Beano, but also, you know, they were kind of in that world. You could easily believe they're in Beano world, but it was clearly fine art and I used to just marvel at them.
So with this book, when it came to a cover, I knew I wanted a painting. I can't remember why, but this idea just came back to me. I thought, I'm going to get in touch with Mac. I bet he's amenable and would do something really good. So I did. He's the nicest man. The deal was I didn't have to pay a huge amount for it, but he keeps the original, that he's allowed to sell later. I believe he tends to base his work on photographs and he said that he based it on himself, albeit a little older and fatter and balder, but only a little.
John: Originally you considered just using a rubber duck as the cover of the piece, but this painting is better because the book is more about textures.
Robert: Yes, you're absolutely right. The book is about textures and smells and things. But I think even aside from that, I just wanted something a bit more human. The rubber duck was just stock photography and we really made that up when we were kickstarting it. It was just a way to visualize the project. This was originally going to come out two years ago. It took much longer than it was meant to, and it was going to come out in close proximity with a book of short pieces called Stern Plastic Owl. I liked the idea that maybe they could sit together and we'd have a plastic owl and a plastic duck. But, in the end, too much time had passed, and I liked the idea of commissioning art as well.
John: Tell me about the bath, which is arguably the main character in the novel.
Robert: The entire idea for the book started as “this is going to be an entire novel set in a bathtub”. I like writers like Georges Perec and, although I hadn't read it at the time, I recently read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolf, which is obviously all about interiority.
There is a type of writing called phenomenological writing, which is all about going very deeply into a situation. For instance you might describe a house, but describe each room in very great detail, what everything is, why it is there. More recently, the writer Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is a good example, in which a trip up an escalator is virtually the whole plot of the book, but the writing explores every thought in the character’s head, and every memory it touches. So I thought, right, that's going to be the style of the book. But two things. Firstly, it was difficult. It is really hard to do that, to go that deep and to keep the novel rich and interesting. Also, I had too much respect for the reader. I like these books. I like Georges Perec, but a lot of people don't, and I just felt that. I'm looking at the people who backed this Kickstarter, thinking these are nice people who've given me their backing, and I just can't subject them to something that they're going to have to sit through or not finish. So the novel ended up a little more traditional than I thought, in that I created a frame or capsule narrative for the bath to fit into. And I knew I wanted that world to be very dirty and sweaty and grimy. Unfortunately I think that appeals to my natural sense of humour a bit too much, and in previous books, I've always resisted that.
I've always tried to have a cleaner comedy, but with this grubby world, I found myself leaning into a sort of very Viz comic sense of humour, so there's a lot of sick and there's a lot of poo and there's a lot of dwelling on grotesque details. For instance (Bob’s girlfriend) Tracey’s yellow teeth and her rude bawdy jokes and things. I feel like I'm zooming in closer than is perhaps dignified and I kind of enjoyed that. It sort of just took off and I decided to allow it.
John: Bob, like the bath, is deep. So you're diving into different times in his life, which he remembers, and then diving into different moments in his working life now and really exploring how he got into the situation he's in, and how he could get out of it, and also his fantasies and his anxieties as well. You start off by informing when he has these anxiety attacks – these vivid hallucinations: he has one where he is drowning and you say “of course, none of this actually happened”, but then you start just slipping the attacks into what he sees without comment. So he just sees a dead body next to a train, or a Boeing crashing into a field, for instance, and by doing that you show us how he is sort of slipping away slowly into these attacks and away from reality.
He tries to improve himself, to save himself, and his relationship with Tracey helps him, but when it goes wrong, he backslides towards the end, without going into spoiler territory!
Robert: I don't think it's fully Tracy's fault…
John: No, of course, but I mean, Tracy is the catalyst, for both his improvement and dissolution.
Robert: She is, in the sense that it feels like it's the final trigger when it looks like he might lose her. I feel like throughout the whole book, he's really barely keeping himself together. He's always just about keeping body and soul together. He's always on the brink of another panic vision. You just feel like this could be triggered at any second. And then I was thinking, well, what's the big trigger? It's losing the girl. Basically.
John: So, we have all these panic attacks about things that aren't happening, and then at the end he has a final anxiety dream about something that is happening, which is coronavirus appearing.
Robert: So it's like, oh, we are going there right at the end. We are going there. So that's the very end. I always think sometimes, if I'm on Wikipedia I look at the death date because I always want to know how recent it was, and quite often they died just before the pandemic. And Alasdair Gray here, the great Glasgow writer, he died just before the pandemic. I think it was December 29th. 2019 and I always think, did Alasdair hear about the coming virus? If you died without ever knowing if it might actually be the end of the world: that frightens the life out of me. Although it's quite funny as well.
John: Bob worries when his train is near Dunblane (the site of a shooting massacre in 1996) that he might start singing the song which was recorded and released as a charity single – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. This is the fear of doing something awful in a situation where you should not?
Robert: Yes, but also there is a part later on where a politician – I don’t call him Jacob Rees-Mogg, but “The Leader of the House”: makes a joke about the Lockerbie air crash, and there is an implication here that whereas Bob cannot say, or sing, something inappropriate and get away with it, someone like Mogg can. And Bob feels that he cannot say things like that.
John: Speaking of insensitive words: at one point Bob overhears a conversation in which two people discussing a photograph confuse a person with Down Syndrome with a Chinese person.
Robert: Yes, one of the early readers picked it out, and they put a little note as if I was making this up, but that is a thing I heard on a train. And you get people like that. This was from two old women, and they were train employees as well. And that's what I overheard.
John: With reference to your other work: New Escapologist for instance, you talk about the slavery of work, that we should try to escape from work. Bob is trapped in a job he hates, he says that he hates trains.
Robert: Yeah. We're living our lives. And if you're like Mr. Bob, where your life is tied directly to your self-worth or you just need money to live, you know, you, you have to just carry on.
John: Bob's trapped in the job that he doesn't want. He hates trains, but his neighbour Pavel loves trains. Couldn’t they just swap? Or would Pavel then hate his job?
Robert: There's the idea that the thing you get paid for, you're going to hate it no matter what. So if you are a chocolate taster or a pizza taster, or you get to review pornographic movies or something, something that you think would just be great, you'll probably end up hating it and feeling bitter about it. That is one of the great problems with capitalism, isn't it? You don't choose your work. It's kind of thrust upon you based on decisions you made 10 years ago, you know, I'll take these subjects in school and this is the cul-de-sac you find yourself in.
John: We learn that Pavel stalks Bob and secretly invades his flat, which I wasn’t expecting!
Robert: That is my favourite part of my book! That Pavel goes into Bob's room and literally smells things, and messes about, it is very funny to me the implication that he always does this, and this is just the only moment we see it. I think there's a bit later where Mr. Bob's in the bath and he sees the letterbox snap closed and he doesn't know what it is, but we know! I felt like I had permission to indulge a certain working-class sense of humour I grew up with that I don't usually have in my stuff.
John: The book is populated by working class people from every region of the country, it seems, from the North, South and Midlands. There is Sunny, the boss, who is presented as a bully, and a company man, but he is humanised in the book when Bob finds a photograph of Sunny as a child. In fact, the book is absolutely fair to everyone in it.
Robert: Thank you. That's a really nice thing to say. I remember seeing a picture of Theresa May as a child, and Theresa May is a personal villain in my life: I’ve suffered because of her policies and so I really don't like her. But I saw a picture of her as a child and it was just sort of, well, I mean, it's a cliche. It's the old, would you kill Hitler as a baby thing? You know, she was innocent. She was pre-evil. And I just sort of thought of it as a humanising moment, so maybe that's the origin of that bit with Sunny. He represents the Midlands in the book. I grew up with so many people like him, people who really have drunk the Kool-Aid, they think that the best way to survive is to excel in this “work”, this crap thing that you're doing. You know, you're making money for some corporation or something, but you're going to do your best and you end up being king shit of Turd Mountain.
John: The book is full of disturbing imagery: what is the most disturbing image in the book for you?
Robert: Ooh. Maybe when he is in the Dundee Hotel in the bathtub with, with lumps of his own sick floating around. That's pretty horrible. Or maybe the sexual fantasy he doesn't want as well, where he pulls Tracey’s pants down. I didn't enjoy writing that, but it, but I kept it. Cause it's funny.
John: I’m hoping these are not from experience?
Robert: No, they are pretty much fabricated. I mean, I very much recognize the flavour of those flights of fancy, but I was very keen to fabricate. I didn’t want to take things from my real life and experience too much.
John: For me it is the lurid description Bob gives of his penis, the “crab eye stalk” growth he has on it.
Robert: I read a thing about that kind of problem. I just thought, God, what must that be? Like if you had a little zit on your foreskin, are you really going to go through the rigmarole of, of going to a doctor or talking to people about it? It's not just the embarrassment, but it's also the knowledge that it probably isn't anything. But you might have to go through this humiliating procedure.
John: There is also a moment later on when he imagines his penis falling off into the toilet bowl – which I think is a dream I’ve had and not just me, others have reported the same dream.
Robert: I remember I did imagine that idly once, I mean that really is going back a long time. I remember the person I was talking to about it originally, and I even used the phrase “billowing, like an angry wind sock” and that that's horrible and that, that was involuntary thought. In the series Fist of Fun (with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring), Peter Baynham’s deranged character always used to talk about “mad thoughts”. We all have them, thoughts that you don't act on for God's sake. For example a terrible thought about attacking someone or doing something that makes no sense.
I had one once when there was somebody on a shop mobility scooter going past with a baguette sticking out at the back and I just thought I could grab it, and they’d be gone and I’d have a free baguette.
I'm told that it is a sort of self-preservation instinct that the mind has. We play out the option in our mind, see the consequence and so we don't do it. There would be no morality if we didn't choose to be good, although we're not like Luke Skywalker, where we're all just goody goodies. We are more like Han Solo where we have this conflicted morality, knowing that we could do bad but choose good as the better option.
John: Bob remembers his childhood often. Like Bob, you had a “Scotch Gran” when you were a child?
Robert: That's correct. I literally had a Scotch Gran, at least, that was what my mom called her. I think my mom originally had multiple grans, but the survivor that I knew was the one called Scotch Gran. She lived in England, but she had a Scottish connection. I do remember she had a council house, but the garden was really nice and there was a brook nearby and I remember little frogs hopping around, so that made it into the book.
John: Bob eventually gets a duck for his bath, what were your childhood bath toys?
Robert: I had a family of three rubber ducks. Big, medium and little sized. And when I recently met the Iceman, he has a rubber duck as part of his act, which floats in the melt water from the ice, it was the same duck. Not literally the one from my bath as far as I know, but it's the same seventies looking plastic duck. I think I remember taking non bath toys in, for instance Matchbox cars. How about you?
John: I had scuba divers, and a boat. And I re-enacted a film called the London Connection, which you won't remember, a rubbish British Hardy-Boys type adventure with boats chasing down the Thames.
Robert: I was wondering if Athletes' Foot has gone extinct because everyone had it when I was a kid. All my mates at school had it at primary school and my dad had it. We're worried about the elephant going extinct, but foot fungus is an animal as well!
John: Bob tries to help himself; he knows that he has mental health issues, and do you think Bob is a good role model for male mental health? The first thing he tries to fix is his body odour issue.
Robert: He goes into the soap shop Lush, where the shop assistant helps him, and he feels like that's the first time anyone's helped him.
John: Perhaps men are limited in what sorts of spaces they can go into for that sort of help, in places like Lush, they may not feel welcome. For instance, what spa could a man go to for a pamper day?
Robert: Exactly, and I think it is all in the imagination. There is definitely a social barrier to going into a nice, lovely place like Lush as a man. But there shouldn’t be. No one is prejudiced. I mean, to start with they are salespeople. Your money is as good as anybody else's. Maybe Lush is a bad example because that's just on the high street. But, if you wanted to go to a spa or something, would you feel like you were like a perverse presence? This unwanted, male smelly person in a space full of people.
John: I think a lot of times, the male spaces are not spaces that every male wants to be in. Like most of the things for male mental health locally tend to be things which are football, sport or car/bike related which not everyone is interested in.
Robert: There's so much of that in, in Glasgow where I live here, I'm not interested in any of those things at all. They are not exactly synergistic with sensitive academic bookish types. We have our pub quizzes, internet forums and the like, but not so many spaces in real life.
John: Especially if you live outside a city.
Robert: Yes. I think that's fair to say. So there is that, but there's also the imaginary barrier, I think, because once you actually end up in these “lovely” spaces, I think everyone is just so nice to you. And I think that's, that's one of the things I wanted to say with Mr. Bob going to Lush is, is that of course you can go to Lush. Of course you can. I think maybe our generation doesn't have such a big problem with just going into Lush, but I think my dad would never dream of going into Lush. Such an insane thing for him to do. He would just never do it. And why is that? It's partly Protestant work ethic, isn't it? It's partly just gender norms of a particular generation. Men should be smelly and ugly! And that was exactly how men were supposed to be. I remember my dad talking about working in the coal pits, the men would wash each other's backs afterwards. That was just a thing they did. It was like a line of men all washing the coal dust from each other's backs, and that was fine!
John: Bob is at least trying to better himself and that's something we should all do. It doesn't go well for him: it's a tragi-comic novel, so it has to be, the tragedy has to be there.
Robert: There is a lack of interface to that world of self-care for him because he sees these commercial ones. He knows he can just walk into a branch of Lush and buy soap if he's brave, but there's no guiding hand, there's no expertise. You know, he doesn't have a therapist or, you know, you might go to the dentist to get your teeth looked at, but you don't go to a place just to have your basic mental health looked after: especially for someone like Mr. Bob.
Then he reads an article in a women's magazine he finds in the mesh on the back of a seat on the train. He's amazed at how sophisticated it is, and there's a very critical article about how self-care is part of an industry and basically trying to convince people to buy soap and bubble bath. And he feels a bit silly because of that, because actually that is the thing that he's personally finding transcendent.
He finds this such a life-changing thing that he has got access to, but now there's a magazine that's a bit more critical, so much more advanced in thinking than he is.
John: And you could argue, does it matter if it’s commercialism if it's helping him. If it is something that's the product of the capitalist industry, no matter how opposed to capitalism we are.
Robert: Indeed. Darren McGarvey (the Scottish rapper and writer Loki) actually won the Orwell Prize for his book Poverty Safari about three years ago and had a lot of flak from his fellow working class Glaswegians because he was suggesting things like having a veg box doesn't make you a class traitor. You know, you can do that if you want to. A bar of soap at Lush is three pounds, but it's such a luxury and it makes you feel good. You know, you can smell that, those vapours. And they're complex vapours. They've got experts putting together unusual things: and no, this isn’t an advert for Lush.
There are many other different things that are cheap and accessible. Books, for example: do they maybe make him a class traitor? People might say improving your mind makes you a class traitor, and Bob does seem to be paranoid about that. He doesn't want to be witnessed on the train reading certain kinds of books in case it gets somebody's back up, or they just think he's funny, or they want to bully him and torment him because of the way he is. Because he is trying to improve himself, you know, you mustn't ever try because that's breaking your solidarity with your class or something. That’s the way he feels.
John: Do you think that is a British experience?
Robert: It probably is. Just because our socialism is so tied up with heavy industry basically. It sort of is. The only way to bring capital to heel is for labour to organize and for labour to organize, you need solidarity and for solidarity you need a working-class culture. I see all that, but as a working-class man who doesn't like (for instance) football, I always struggle with that working class culture. It's always been difficult. So there's a bit of that in Mr. Bob as well. I don't think he ever talks about football one way or another, but yeah, him reading Stendahl is not a “normal” thing in working class culture. Therefore, there's a suggestion that he's not acting in solidarity, therefore he's one of the, the “other”.
John: Thank you Robert, our time is over, readers can enter Bob’s world for themselves now and learn more.
Robert: Thank you! Cocks! Willies! Bums!
Rub-A-Dub-Dub is available from P&H books here:
and in digital form here.
Links to Robert’s other books are here https://wringham.co.uk/books/
The New Escapologist Kickstarter is fully funded but still open till 30th July, here