After 11 years of short comic pieces, his histories of alternative comedy, and philosophising about escape, Robert Wringham has written a novel. In it, Mister Bob, an overweight and balding introvert, is trapped in the grotty, frenetic world of long-distance train travel while finding only occasional refuge in a hot bath. Writer and broadcaster Reggie Chamberlain-King talks with Wringham about Rub-A-Dub-Dub.
You’re best known as a writer of short bits – feuilletons and the like – so what inspired you to write a novel (not the market, I imagine)? And, like a long bath, have you found it an indulgence or a bit of an uncomfortable, humiliating squeeze, like a metal tub before your granny’s fire and your granny?
My first love was always the novel and when I felt the urge to write for a living I assumed it would be novels. Novels are difficult though: they require a stamina I did not have to begin with and obviously, they involve arcs where ideas have to connect and pay off. You can do that with feuilletons too but it’s optional and it only rewards those who are paying microscopically close attention: with novels, it’s a minimum requirement.
So, yes, I hoped I’d get there eventually and it probably took longer than I thought it would. Indulgence is the word though: I don’t think many people will read Rub-A-Dub-Dub. I probably wrote it for myself. To fulfill a prophecy.
There is certainly some confluence here between the big (the novel) and the small (a bath is, at least, trivial in the scheme of things). Does this appeal to your comedic sensibilities? Is Rub-A-Dub-Dub even a comic novel?
I do see it as a comic novel, yes. Mister Bob is pathetic in the original sense of the term. There’s observational comedy in there, too: observational comedy of the interior when it comes to his thoughts and memories and paranoia but also the easier “have you ever noticed” stuff about bathtime and “what’s that about?” stuff about trains. With trains, I hope people will think, “I’ve noticed that too, and it also annoys me,” but with baths, I hope it’s a bit more joyful and previously untapped.
I’ve not seen a comedian doing material about the thoughts that come and go at bathtime before. Maybe it’s been done; I’m not sure. As to the confluence between big and small, I do like that: the rush from the big to the small feels kinetic to me like energy is released when you go from one to the other. If successful, the change in atmospheric pressure gives the reader the bends.
I particularly enjoyed Mister Bob’s watery attempts to elevate his bathing experience through comparison with the great baths of literature. I certainly would have enjoyed a cultural glossary of literary baths. Do you think literature has a warm relationship with the bath? As opposed to the visual arts, say – my first thoughts here are David’s Death of Marat and Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders.
I read a nice book about literary umbrellas once. Brolliology by Marion Rankine. She’s collected umbrellas from thousands of years of literature. It’s reflective, so not just a glossary, but it’s that too. Oddly enough Charles Boyle also talks about literary umbrellas in his excellent novel The Other Jack specifically concerning “collectors” of things from literature. I’m not quite anal enough to collect all of the bathtubs; the ones in [Rub-A-Dub-Dub] were strictly from memory except Chicago by Sam Shepherd, which was given to me by the Iceman.
It’s funny you should mention the Death of Marat. The painter who did the cover artwork used it as a reference. The cover artist’s name is Thomas MacGregor, and he painted the cowboy logo for the Stand comedy clubs. He used to display other work in the clubs, too, and I used to marvel at it in Edinburgh when I was 15. I did comedy in front of his famous cowboy when I was 21. I’m 40 now, and I like how things have come full circle, and I got to work with him a little bit.
There is less room in visual art for the ruminative than in prose. And rumination is certainly central to bathing. Why or how did you plum for the bath as your central motif? Were you in the bath?
I’m afraid I was, yes. The first spark was that it could be a column for the Idler magazine. My column there had recently been axed, and I was trying to come up with other ideas. I never pitched it, though, because, in the same bathing session, I found myself wanting it to be a book: a whole novel set in the bath. That was the starting point.
Were any of those literary baths inspirations? What of the worthy novels Mister Bob reads? If not, what books and writers inspired your approach?
Pooter was probably present in the very first imaginings. The biggest influence, however, was Mr. Enderby, who Anthony Burgess tells us wrote poetry in the bathroom; on the toilet while throwing the works into the empty bathtub. I think that’s where Mister Bob’s “Ah, Um” and some of his demeanour –maybe even the “Mister” – comes from. Dyspeptic Enderby is forever burping and harrumphing.
I’m writing this on a train, the other significant location in the novel. I’m finding it rather relaxing and conducive to writing. Mister Bob doesn’t experience the same ease on the train as in the bath, presumably because he works there. Is this part of your critique of work? Bathing is largely noncommodifiable – although Elizabeth Siddal did die under employment in Millais’ bathtub.
That’s interesting. I can’t write on British trains because I find their motions too unpredictable and the passengers too badly behaved. I can write on ferries, though. Unlike B. S. Johnston, whose Trawl is a novel about seasickness, I’m lulled by the motion of the ocean. But yes, the critique of work is what it comes down to. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve painted it as petulant in the past, that foppish Robert Wringham just can’t do an honest day’s work, but I do find the idea of “work full time or end up on the streets” shockingly unjust given the extent of the world’s wealth.
Rub-A-Dub-Dub dips into whether bathing is commodified or not: Mister Bob doesn’t see it as such, but a journalist in a magazine he reads critiques the self-care industry, much to his annoyance. He’d found transcendence in a high street product, and he’s made to feel a bit silly for it.
I guess ‘commodifiable’ wasn’t quite the right word. Except for certain OnlyFans accounts and the above-mentioned Elizabeth Siddal, it is difficult for bathing to be turned into labour. It is one of the few activities that is largely outside that dynamic. Of course, it is work (and its forebear school) that fills the Sunday night bath with such dread for many.
That’s a good point. If you’re preparing for work by taking a bath rather than bathing for its own sake, you’re still in the machine.
I think it is fair to call this a novel of transformation – Mister Bob is transformed through the process of bathing. But what is the quality of bathing that brings about this transformation?
You and I are both X-Files fans, and you just made me think of Leonard Betts, whose entire body, after his so-called death, regenerates in the bathtub. What an excellent episode.
Anyway, there’s an obvious “new man” feeling of getting thoroughly clean. This was something my grandad always used to talk about: he liked getting clean in a way I wasn’t bothered about as a kid. I went to a bathhouse once in Budapest, and after gingerly dabbling with things like saunas and cold plunges, I began to understand. I like those bits in 12 Monkeys where Bruce Willis gets roughly scrubbed with a brush: that looks satisfying to me in a brutal sort of way.
But more than that, it’s a change in conscious state. I’m interested in psychonautics: the way a change in cognitive state is transportive and potentially transformative. “Drugs are for amateurs,” a devoted psychonaut once told me, and I’ve been aware of quotidian consciousness-changing devices ever since. Submerging yourself in hot or cold water is a very accessible one.
Perhaps I’m something of a softie, but a hot bath and a cold shower are different experiences of luxury and body shock. Mister Bob’s experience is definitely one of indulgence. Is that a path you recommend?
Yes, I’m far more of an Epicurean than a Stoic. Life’s too short. I think Mister Bob would agree with us both.
Your mention of The X-Files reminds me of various horror baths that haunted me through my childhood: the child drowned in a metal tub by his father in The Changeling; the woman rising from the bath in The Shining; waking in a bath full of ice in Jacob’s Ladder. We are pretty vulnerable in the bath. Maybe that is the ultimate lesson of Rub A Dub Dub.
And don’t forget the real-life Chicago horror hotel. The one where serial killer H. H. Holmes allegedly rigged the bathtubs to tip his victims into torture chambers. Or was it just to their watery deaths? But no! Put those things out of your mind! The lesson, if there is one, is that we can take care of ourselves, especially if we can get over that sense of vulnerability. Just try not to leave it too late.
As you explain – playfully! – in your apologia, Mister Bob is almost your namesake. He shares your sex. He’s a little older than you but is also an Englishman in Scotland, etc. Is there any reckoning with yourself in writing Mister Bob? Has writing the novel transformed you in any way?
I tried to make him unlike me. This was for psychonautic reasons, in a way, so my mind could voyage in another, albeit imaginary, mind. I toyed with making him Black or female to differentiate him from me a bit further, but I didn’t want the question of whether that’s problematic or not to eclipse the more important aims of Rub-A-Dub-Dub. I made him fat since I’ve long been so ridiculously skeletal but I toned that down in the end too.
What we’re left with is someone a bit like me but older, fatter, and balder (all of which I’ll grow into so it was easy to imagine). There’s a lot of anxiety in the story, which is something I used to struggle with but have regained control of more recently. I don’t think writing Rub-A-Dub-Dub helped with that, but maybe it did. It feels like I’ve exported something, that something formerly internal is now external and can exist independently of me.
Why is the name Bob so funny?
It’s acoustically pleasing, I suppose, like “globule”, but it’s also simple and low-status yet somehow reliable as a name: a loyal, uncomplicated, janitorial sort of name. It has a venerable history, too: one thinks immediately of “Bob” from Blackadder and how Rowan Atkinson pronounces it. I try not to overthink character names.
When I started Rub-A-Dub-Dub, I happened to be reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton and The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith. The protagonist of the former is called “Bob”, and the antihero of the latter is “Robert Forester.” I just scavved them. I added an “r” to Forester and a “Mister” to Bob.
“Mister Bob” also sounds very unitary, a unit of man, which suits my almost Chaplinesque “little man challenged” character. I did like the coincidence of it connecting to my name, too. And to how “Bob” might refer to small change (“five bob”), suggestive of low-value or low stakes (a bit like how Dostoyevsky’s Golyadkin means “beggar”.) Oh, and to “bob” is also to float merrily on the water which, of course, he does.
I was interested in the perspective of the narrator (unnamed). It’s a close third-person perspective – not omnipresent, more reporting from Mister Bob’s shoulder; judgmental, insulting, but ultimately sympathetic. What is the relationship between Mister Bob and the narrator?
Thank you for saying that. That’s literally how I envision the narrator: a glowing orb just above and behind his shoulder. This narrator has access to his thoughts and personality and what the character sees, so she/he/it can report both. I suppose that’s omnipresence, really, but some of Mister Bob’s personality is in the narrator too. They’re conjoined. I like that very much.
But I think it confuses some people, which isn’t something I wanted to do. Some said it was too close to him, especially when it sounded judgemental of him: “Mister Bob was fat. And he had gingivitis.” Lines like that are supposed to be second-hand thoughts originating with Mister Bob but reported by the narrator. I don’t think this idea for a narrative voice is iconoclastic; I’m certain I’ve read this sort of voice before. But it’s good that it’s catching people’s interest.
What are your favourite soap fragrances? Personally, I can’t be doing with bubbles in a bath; more chance of my book getting wet. There is also a big focus on stink in the novel – no one is afraid to tell Mr. Bob he reeks; the narrator mentions it a lot! Is BO such a bad trait?
Even though stink eradication is a driving force of this novel, I don’t think BO is so bad, funnily enough! I won’t say who it was, but I stood behind a famous musician at one of his concerts once, and he was really smelly. It wasn’t purely from performance exertion either because it was quite ingrained like he’d been on the road and sleeping on couches for a few days. I remember thinking it smelled alright, sort of herby or peppery.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Unable to sleep in my tent at Glastonbury Festival one night, I went for a walk around the carnage and bumped into a woman busily huffing her boyfriend’s armpit. She saw me, laughed, and said, “I just love the smell of him!” It was a lovely moment.
Personal soap fave? I don’t use it. I have quite bad eczema, so I’m doomed to use this fragrance-free liquid emollient stuff on prescription. Maybe this whole thing was wish fulfillment.
Do you find bathing conducive to creativity? My preference is for the bed, in the half hour before I get up. They share a quality though, don’t you think?
They’re both recumbent positions. They’re both deeply private, which is important because you’re less likely to be self-consciously performing at being a writer (or a painter or a critic or whatever it is).
I used to think it was important to sit up straight when writing, to get to the desk, and be a professional. But I must admit to writing a lot of stuff lately from a horizontal position on the couch. It’s best not to fetishise the idea of creativity and just to take yourself by surprise where possible.
When you first mentioned the novel, I imagined something more like Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room. Although Rub-A-Dub-Dub claims to be a picaresque, it’s not really; it’s not episodic or one thing after another; there’s a throughline and a culmination. When did you realise you were telling an actual story? And how did you feel about that?
A Journey Around My Room is exactly what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to go deep into memory and feverish imaginings, all prompted by things in the bathroom. I failed badly to do that.
The decision to veer away from that was partly pragmatic in that I found it difficult and partly out of respect for the reader. I like books like Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces very much, but a lot of people don’t, and I didn’t want to disappear up my own arse. So, I created a sort of capsule narrative to hold the bathtub vignettes together, which is why we have the setting of the trains. I knew it should be a dirty, sweaty, grimy world to contrast with the cleanliness of bathing.
Unfortunately, the dirt and sweat and grime appeal to my natural sense of humour a bit too much, so I got carried away with descriptions of things like Tracey’s yellow teeth and her bawdy jokes, all the vomit and poo stuff, and choosing just the right low-brow book for Mister Bob to be reading in the pub (I settled on a Viz annual called The Council Gritter). It’s the sort of thing I don’t normally allow myself to lean into, but I’d inadvertently given myself carte blanche to be revolting. I don’t yet know if I’ve got away with it.
Rub-A-Dub-Dub‘s ending, which I won’t divulge here, makes it clear that you were definitely telling a story – with a shaggy dog implied – that it was heading toward an ending, but also that you were self-aware of this. This leads to you covering yourself in the apologia. Without giving too much away, what response did you fear from your readers? And why did you feel the need to explain your choices here?
I spoiled the ending for a few people, and they all said, “Oh, you can’t do that!” This certainly didn’t make me want to change the ending – in fact, it was enjoyable to annoy them – but I did feel bad about it, so I wrote the light-hearted apologia. Actually, it specifically wasn’t an apology because I said, “Look, I’m not sorry about the ending.” Haha. But of course, it was one, too. I felt I had to say something about it. Maybe I’m too polite.
Rub-A-Dub-Dub was financed through Kickstarter. As a continuation of the last question (I guess), what pressure did you feel to meet the expectations of your patrons?
If you don’t count childhood drawings, my first foray into creative work was stand-up comedy. I don’t want to be a stand-up comedian now, but I do miss the very human, very real-time feedback from the front row. You can read their expressions and take something from their energy.
You don’t get that with book-writing, and even when you invite feedback from early readers, it’s not as direct and honest as in live performance. I felt that Kickstarting it would give me an audience to hold in my mind: I couldn’t see their illuminated faces, but I could see their names, and I knew many of them since my friends backed it in a big way. Just knowing it was going to be received somehow was psychologically useful.
I don’t think I had to make them laugh or respond in any particular way, but knowing they were present meant I could (and had to) deliver a novel called Rub-A-Dub-Dub. You can’t just cower in the green room when the front row is out there, waiting for blood; your material might change in the heat of the moment, but you have to give them something.
In the strictest sense, Mister Bob is an incel – involuntarily celibate, but without the political or philosophical misogyny that the term implies in the wider usage. Undoubtedly, men are in a challenging place today – psychologically and socially. Were you conscious of this while writing Rub-A-Dub-Dub? Although ultimately futile, the novel offers some solutions to men. Do you think they are viable?
I suspect most people are non-toxic involuntarily celibate. Is that an outrageous thing to say? You hear all the time about older couples not having sex anymore, about “lesbian bed death”, about declining libido among young people, about “no kink at Pride”, about porn being satisfying enough, so why make the effort to find a lover? When you’re walking down the street these days, people are shy and shuffling along while looking at their feet or their phones. It’s hard to imagine we’re all getting laid or at least getting the sex we want.
I wasn’t thinking of this when I wrote the novel, though I suppose I wondered how someone like Mister Bob – someone so introverted and ashamed, so afraid to speak to anyone and indeed smelly – would find love very easily. The solutions in the novel aren’t very good, really. How does he try to court Tracey? He doesn’t, really. He just hopes for the best. I suppose he listens to what she says, which is a good trait.
Not having sex isn’t Mister Bob’s problem, though. What is his problem?
He’s smelly. It’s almost like he’s forgotten he has a body. With his books and his paranoiac fantasies, he has retreated almost completely into the life of the mind. That’s not his fault, though; it’s how he’s been treated by systemic injustice and decisions made a hundred years ago. The part where he’s reading the plaque in Inverness train station is overtly about this.
Some readers have found Mister Bob’s smelliness a bit implausible or perhaps magical-realistic, which is fine by me as I think The Dog Woman from Jeanette Winterson’s magical realist Sexing the Cherry is an antecedent of Mister Bob’s. Other readers find the idea of a highly smelly man completely plausible.
I found Mister Bob’s self-censorship – especially his compulsions around the Dunblane massacre – interesting. To function in society, he must block part of himself. But also, to function in society, he must block out external things, like the news. Do you think the individual can function in society, or is it a losing game?
There’s a tiny, secret joke – or maybe just an observation – about the Dunblane thing in Rub-A-Dub-Dub. Mister Bob is afraid of saying the wrong thing in the presence of someone touched by the massacre. Later, Jacob Rees-Mogg is on the radio (though I don’t name him), making an off-color joke about the Lockerbie Bombing. It’s as if one type of person has the privilege of being vile while another doesn’t, and actually, there’s only one sort of person who’d even want to be so vile.
Anyway, Mister Bob does seem hounded by the news, doesn’t he? Current events from Dunblane to Jeffrey Epstein run through the book. It’s partly to anchor the story to a time and a place, but it’s a character thing, too. Mister Bob is doing all he can to keep body and soul together: he doesn’t have the capacity to worry about other people’s grief as well. That’s a thing about being working class; when you’re under siege all the time, you sometimes want for emotional bandwidth.
That brings us back to the bath and its place outside of work. It’s somewhere a person can open their emotional bandwidth.
Yes, almost completely. He obviously didn’t use the word “bandwidth”, but I got that idea from Orwell. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he says it’s all well and good to assume that working-class people should better themselves, but “when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.” I always remember that part. “Something a little bit tasty.” It’s a very powerful defense of the way we are sometimes: you can blame us for not using libraries enough or not eating enough vegetables when those things are cheap or free, but a vicious cycle comes into play when you have to work all day through little choice of your own, and you’re just knackered.
A bath, though, is relatively accessible, and it’s indulgent, and you can be once and for all on your own in there. The landlord and the debt collectors can’t reach you there. You can indulge in aromatherapy without thinking of it as such. And when your kids come banging at the door for attention, you can sink beneath the surface of the water, start humming a little song, and ignore them.
Robert Wringham’s Rub-A-Dub-Dub is available from P&H Books.