After a longish period, with not much happening at all, the last week has been a particularly good time for reviews of my 'nostalgedy...
Saturday, 30 October 2010
For as long as I can remember, I have had this ominous feeling that one day, a hand will fall on my shoulder and a voice will say “Alright Sunny Jim, we’ve got you bang to rights, you come along with us now”. Quite why my nemesis should talk like a regugee from Dixon of Dock Green, I don’t know, but there it is.
The reason why I have this sense of impending doom hit me in a blinding flash of inspiration last night, the sort that would have had St. Paul crying “Oh no, not again” and giving up the commute to Damascus for good. It was simple, I have an hour that does not belong to me.
You are all no doubt aware of the farce that we go through twice yearly, turning our clocks backward in October and forward in March, to the general confusion of all and the benefit of very few. Apparently we have a gent named William Willet (1857 – 1915) to thank for this. He pestered MPs, town councils and businesses from 1907 onwards with a view to improving health, happiness and saving £2.5 million pounds. I think that probably tells us all we need to know about Mr. Willet.
What suddenly occurred to me the last time we 'changed the clocks', as I was prowling from room to room trying to track down any errant timepieces in need of adjustment, was that, dependent on when you are born in the year, you must spend your life either an hour up or an hour down.
Let me explain the principle. If you were born between October and March, your first encounter with our bi-annual time shift left you with an hour less than you started with. Agreed? However, if, like me, you were born between March and October, then you gained an hour in October that you had not previously lost, hence my permanent expectation of a visitation from the Time Police. The only way to arrange for this to balance itself out over your lifetime, is to ensure that your death follows the opposite clock adjustment from the one that followed your birth. So, to dispose of the extra hour, my demise would need to take place between March and October, so that the next, and, in my case, very final, bout of “changing the clocks” would remove my additional hour without any danger of this being reinstated in October, at which point I would be pushing up the daisies (or probably not, in October).
The more I think about this (and I’m beginning to wish that I had never started), the more I am sure that this explains a great deal about the human condition, and the British in particular. We all know, do we not, people who spend their lives in the sure and certain knowledge that they have been cheated in some way? Who never have a minute to spare? Who begrudge the expenditure of time in all its forms? How likely then, that these same people are those who are an hour down on the deal? Whereas those who procrastinate and always seem to have time to waste (and I count myself in that number) may well be those who have an hour to spare, and always will have.
I ask for nothing for this major advance in our knowledge. Erect no statues, confer no honours. It is enough to know that my time has come…or possibly gone.
Thursday, 21 October 2010
It occurred to me that I haven't exactly covered myself in sporting glory in my previous posts, so this is an attempt to set the record straight(ish).
I have mentioned before, here and elsewhere, my antipathy toward school sports. I particularly disliked winter sports, such as football and anything that involved scrabbling about in mud and bad weather. Spring and summer, therefore, ensured that if sports had to take place, they did so in reasonably clement surroundings. Moreover, if you ignored cricket (and I usually tried to), most summer sports were individual rather than team based and therefore the only person I was letting down was myself.
I was reasonably happy to have a go at most athletic disciplines. I was quite happy to put the shot (although where I ‘put’ it wasn’t very far), long jump and triple jump (or hop, skip and jump as it was known then). I went along with the high jump until it started to get to a level that I regarded as plain daft. Even the javelin posed no problems, until I started to think about it (I have a penchant for over-complicating things). Once I had lost the unconscious ability to just chuck something as hard as I could, and started to fret about when to let go and how, I naturally became a danger to myself and everyone around me. However, I was happiest (using a very loose definition of that word) when I was running. In this discipline there was nobody to let down and no equipment with which to become enmeshed. It was just me and the distance, and if the distance won, well so be it.
I seem to remember that the running distances then were 100, 220, 440 and 880 yards and, of course, the mile. I lacked the stamina for the longer distances (probably because of an early addiction to the evil weed), so the mile and 880 yard races usually involved me crossing the line when everyone who was remotely interested had long since cleared off to pastures new. Neither did I have the concentrated power that was necessary to succeed at 100 or 220 yards. However, I could make a reasonable fist of the 440 yards. By “reasonable fist”, I mean that I did not always finish last, which in my terms was success indeed.
On this particular day in around 1967 you find me lining up for the 440 yard heat on a less than sunny school day. These were the heats that would decide the contestants at the annual Sports Day. My record as one who “did not always finish last” meant that the contestants in my heat consisted of others like myself, and those who most definitely did finish last. This was the heat for those who were usually consigned to the goal in football, or who had been languishing behind a permanent sick note from their mother. This motley crew lined up at the staggered starting points, with me on the outside and leading position. I was never really happy with this position because it was impossible to judge how well you were doing until the point when the ‘stagger’ unwound and the rest of the pack steamed past you, by which time it was too late.
On this occasion, I made my mind up to try and give a good account of myself and, from the word “Go” (literally in this case) I pounded ahead as fast as I possibly could. With heart pounding and laboured breathing I waited for the moment when the rest of the contestants would thunder past me and was then completely perplexed when it did not happen. I just was not used to running without having someone else ahead of me. I didn’t dare to look behind me as I knew I would either fall over or, at the very least, stumble and watch the others storm past. All I could do was to run and keep running at full pelt and wait to see what would happen. All the while, I kept waiting for that familiar moment when one or more runners would pass me. As I drew ever closer to the Finish Line, I began to panic. I had never won anything sporting in my life and it seemed to go against all the laws of nature that I should do so now. And yet, I did. I crossed the Finish Line with no-one in front of me and with people still there to cheer me home. Even the P.E. Teacher, who normally would not spit on me if I was on fire, was forced to remark “Well done, Whiteland”. I collapsed in a heap, astounded with myself.
It was only later that a creeping cynicism began to tarnish my victory. It dawned on me that my fellow racers might have realised that winning this heat would inevitably involve them in racing, yet again, at the Sports Day. This annual event was, for me and my less sporting compatriots, usually a pleasant day in the sunshine watching the exertions of others and cheering enthusiastically for our House. Winning the heat would rather put a dampener on an otherwise pleasant day. I therefore began to wonder if I had not so much won the heat, as that the others had made absolutely sure that they would lose it. I would never know, but these thoughts did rather take the shine off my victory.
You will be pleased to know that the natural sporting order of things was restored at the Sports Day, with me coming in a creditable last against the more skilled and speedy opposition. I did, however, have a tinge of jealousy as I noted that the combatants from my heat were lazily disporting themselves around the field. Oh well, some you win and...
Saturday, 16 October 2010
To succeed at our Doctors’ it really helped if you had a photographic memory. Your first task on entering was to register everyone in the room so that you knew who was before you and to make sure that no-one who came in after you usurped your place. The whole room sat in that absolute silence common to waiting rooms everywhere, each person desperately trying to maintain their mental picture of the pecking order. Occasional fine tuning would occur when someone with a degree of confidence would make an opening bid, such as:
Large, imposing woman in armchair by fireplace: “I think you were before me, weren’t you dear?”
Young woman wrestling with toddler on her lap: “Oh yes, I came in after the lady in the red hat, didn’t I?”
Lady with red hat: “That’s right, because I came in at the same time as the gentleman with the umbrella over there. I distinctly remember remarking on the rain shower we had just had so that must have been about (tentatively) half past four?”
All: “Yes, half past four. That’s right.”
Conversations like this helped everyone to get the pattern right in their heads and to introduce newcomers to the rules of the game. Unfortunately, the physical layout of the premises enabled the more unscrupulous to buck the system. It was impossible to see the corridor from the waiting room. Therefore, it was entirely possible for the more impatient or thick-skinned to lurk in the corridor, listen out for the bell or buzzer and race down the corridor to the consulting room whilst the debate in the waiting room concluded:
“I think that’s me. You’re waiting for Doctor X aren’t you?”
“I don’t mind who I see but I think it’s your turn anyway. I’m after this gentleman.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, I’m here to see Doctor Y”
The receptionist’s purpose was to dig out your medical notes and leave these tightly stuffed brown envelopes on a table in the corridor for you to collect and take in to the Doctor. It seems remarkable, in this age of Data Protection that everyone’s medical records were left there for anyone to access. So, by the time that you had confirmed your turn in the waiting room, proceeded up the corridor and found your medical notes it was by no means unusual to knock on the consulting room door only to find a low drone of conversation coming from the other side that indicated that someone had pinched your spot. Clearly, if you weren’t agitated by attending the doctor before, you certainly would be after a few iterations of this scenario.
Strangely enough, the only time I have seen queuing discipline break down into violence was at the most unlikely venue imaginable. Over the years I have been to rock concerts up and down the country, from the Hammersmith Odeon to the back room of the local pub. At these I have rubbed shoulders (and very little else – you never know where it might lead) with every sector of society and have never seen any trouble. However, at a Ken Dodd concert in Derby Assembly Rooms a few years ago, one gentleman (who wouldn’t see 70 again if he used a telescope), accused another of a similar age of pushing in front of him at the bar and all hell broke loose. It took three bouncers to pull them apart.
So beware the awesome power of the queue, you never know when and where it might strike next. I’m sorry, were you before me?
Taken from "Steady Past Your Granny's" - see widget on this page
Monday, 11 October 2010
You could probably replicate this scene in any chip shop in the country, even today. Standing in these queues was never a wonderful pastime but was marginally more interesting in Comley’s (which was the family name, if memory serves me correctly, which is rare) in Uxbridge Street. This was the last chip shop that I can remember that still had coal-fired ranges. Mr. Comley was responsible for stoking the fires and cooking the produce, Mrs. Comley served and maintained a constant flow of conversation with each customer based on her encyclopaedic knowledge of everyone and everything in the vicinity. I remember that the conversation was always scrupulously polite. I would usually go to Comley’s with my Nanna Whiteland, who had been a regular customer of theirs for years but the conversation would still be on the lines of:
“Oh hello Mrs. Whiteland, how’s your (insert name of offspring here)”
“Very well, Mrs. Comley, I’ll have a cod and sixpennorth please”
I don’t think I ever heard Mr. Comley speak. He would stride in and either hurl coal into one of the ranges or drop a battered fish into the seething fat (never, thankfully, confusing these operations, deep-fried anthracite not being to everyone’s taste), nod to the waiting populace and then disappear into the bowels of the shop.
A similar queuing system could be found in the local butcher’s on Tuesday evenings. Savoury Duck night! The trick here was to be in place at exactly the time when the Savoury Ducks came out of the oven. Then quickly back home with the hot products safely contained in the white earthenware bowl brought specially for this purpose. I didn’t know what goes into Savoury Ducks and I still don’t know what goes into them. More to the point, I don’t want to know what goes into them. I just know that they tasted great then and still do today (although they are much harder to find these days).
For really complex queuing though, it was difficult to beat our local Doctor’s surgery. For many years our Doctor steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of an appointment system, presumably because he found the spectacle of most of his patients having been ground down to frustrated, gibbering wrecks, more entertaining. Our Doctor’s surgery was contained in what must have been a rather grand house in its day. The two front rooms were now consulting rooms which were approached by a long corridor. Patients entered the building through the rear door, reported to the Receptionist who occupied a cubby hole to the left of the door at the end of the corridor and were then instructed to wait in the waiting room directly across the corridor from her cubby hole. The waiting room must have been the kitchen and servants quarters of the house and was now filled with a series of dilapidated armchairs and benches arranged in a circle around the walls. Above the fireplace were two small lights, one connected to a bell and one connected to a buzzer. As one or other of the Doctors concluded their consultation they would press a button which would illuminate their light and sound a bell or buzzer in the waiting room, instructing the next patient to come down.
On entering the waiting room, a sense of deep depression would fill your soul. It didn’t matter what time you attended the surgery, the waiting room was always full. I think the surgery hours were officially 5 – 6 pm but, in reality, the waiting room would be full by 4 pm and the last patient might not be seen until 7pm. As you entered the room, all eyes would fall upon you, not because of your wonderful dramatic presence but simply so that everyone else in the room could register your face and place you in their mental holding pattern.
Sunday, 10 October 2010
True chaos reigned if the shop was ‘waiting for chips’. I have never been able to understand why a fish and chip shop should ever be ‘waiting for chips’. It can’t be a surprise to them, surely? Yet it still happens. In Walker Street, this situation could be a recipe for disaster for the queuing system. The scenario would go something like this:
Me: “Two sish and fix please” (constant rehearsal is not always advisable)
Me: (now crimson with embarrassment and sure that the whole shop is sniggering) “Sorry, two fish and six please”
Assistant: “We’re waiting for chips” then, to the shop as a whole, “anyone not want chips?”
Most of the queue at this point would either look away, apparently mortified by the implication that their dietary habits might be so avant garde that they did not require chips, or would shake their heads, gloomily, knowing for sure that this announcement meant a longer wait than normal. However, the odd customer would spring forward with some bizarre request for just a fish or a fritter and would then be able to cross the hallowed linoleum and be served before anyone else, even if they had just joined the queue. The unease that this caused all round was palpable. The offender’s place in the queue would be swiftly closed as everyone else shuffled forward and pretended that this outrage to common decency had not happened.
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
The Queue. Where would we be without it? Well, probably right at the counter ordering what we want before the rest of them get there.
If you’re a connoisseur of the fine art of queuing then there is nothing better than that perfect example of a contradiction in terms – the fast food queue. The concept of fast food is quite commonplace these days but convenience food is not such a recent phenomenon. Even in my childhood, takeaway food featured as a weekly treat. Of course, we are not talking here about all-beef patties (?) in a sesame seed bun or lumps of poultry of questionable origin deep fried in batter. The nearest I ever got to an ‘all-beef patty’ (whatever that might be) was when Mum consigned the remains of Sunday’s joint to the mincer on Monday to produce rissoles for tea (a personal favourite but never likely to set the High St. swarming with frenzied consumers). The dominant player in the takeaway food market in my childhood was, of course, the fish and chip shop.
Our local chip shop was situated on the corner of Walker St. and Ash St and was hugely popular. Fish and chips were an occasional Saturday lunchtime delicacy in our house and I was usually despatched to fetch them. This was an awesome responsibility. The order was hardly ever adventurous, in those days the height of variety was whether to have mushy peas or not, but I was always convinced that I would forget some vital element when my turn came. Saturday lunchtimes were always particularly busy and people would queue outside the shop door even before it opened. I would join the queue, usually quite a way back from the early leaders, continuously reciting in my head the order (usually something like “two fish and six and a carton of peas, please”, six old pence being the standard price of a portion of chips for quite a long time). We would snake our way into the chip shop, hugging the far wall by the frosted window looking out onto Walker Street, turn sharp left as we encountered the end wall and then left again as we finally came within reach of our destination – the counter. All of this in a room not much wider than your average corridor!
The tyranny of the Great British Queue must be a source of wonder to psychologists. The linoleum in the centre of the shop floor must have remained brand new because no-one ever dared to stray from this strict route around the shop perimeter. The system only ever came near to collapse at the point of being served. If your order contained some outrageously haute cuisine item like cod roe or fritters then you would probably have to wait whilst this delectable item was especially deep fried for you and you would then be parked to one side as others with more mundane tastes were served while you waited. This inevitably caused confusion “Sorry, weren’t you before me?”, “No, its alright love, I’m just waiting for me saveloy”.
You can find Part 2 by following the link.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA
You can find Part 2 by following the link.
The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA