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Chimpanzees in Dungarees: The Collection

CHIMPANZEES IN DUNGAREES

THE COLLECTION

 

By Chris Whitfield

 

Published by Sedbergh Publishing at Shakespir

 

Copyright 2015 Chris Whitfield

 

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Shakespir.com, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

 

Dedicated to the countless people offended by my humour over the years.

 

I would like to emphasise once again that any resemblance to actual facts and reasonable opinion within these pages is purely co-incidental.

 

This collection includes content previously published within Chimpanzees in Dungarees © 2011 and Hitchhikers & Scary Bikers © 2013

 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

INTRODUCTION

CHILDREN & YOUNG PEOPLE

Bastards

Bob-a-Job

Boys Called Keith

Desperate Dan

Duck Apple

Goldfish in a Plastic Bag

Haversacks

Hopscotch

Lucky Bags

Penny for the Guy

Pinball in the Chip Shop

Saturday Morning Cinema Club

Streetwise Dogs

Sunday School

Sweet Cigarettes

Terrible Christmas Presents

The Birds and the Bees

The Generation Gap

The Non-Photogenic Young

The Rebel Teacher

The Stork

COMMERCE & BUSINESS

Autograph Hunters

Bread Strikes

Cheque Guarantee Cards

Cigarette Branding

Complimentary Mint Imperials

Free Plastic Bags

Green Shield Stamps

Half-day Closing

Knitting

Kwik Save

Mail Order Photos

Robertson’s Golly Brooches

Roller Towels

Royalty-Free Olympic Rings

The Bank Manager

The Doorstep Pinta

The Monopoly Iron

The Phone Box

The Record Store

TV Rentals

Video Rentals

ENTERTAINMENT

A Cast of Thousands

A Face for Radio

Bingo Halls

Circus Animals

Come Dancing

Deciphering Song Lyrics

Gary Glitter’s Music

Grandstand

Inaccessible Celebrities

Lip-Synching Pop Stars

Newscasters Answering the Phone

One Screen Cinemas

Politically Incorrect Songs

Reality TV

Rock Stars Planning to Retire

Social Club

Spontaneous Encores

Straight Men at the Eurovision Song Contest

The Black & White Minstrels

The Radio One Road Show

The Sexist, Racist & Homophobic Comedian

The Ugly String Section

Two Albums a Year

FEMALE EMANCIPATION

Absent Fathers at the Birth

Brandy & Babycham

Glamorous Grandmothers

Lady Gardens

Male Chauvinism

Newly Wed Virgins

Period Taboo

Prams

Sexual Innuendo

Spinsters

The 18 Hour Girdle

The Home Shopping Catalogue

Tupperware Parties

Unisex Hair Salons

FOOD & DRINK

A Full English Breakfast at Home

Artificial Food Colouring

Chicken in the Basket

Food Sniffing

Home Made Fizzy Drinks

Meat Paste

Mild Ale

Parker’s Pies

Pineapple & Cheese on a Stick

Sixpence in the Christmas Pudding

Super Size Fast Food

The Low Budget Picnic

The Martini Set

Tripe

FOOTBALL

Anoraks for Goalposts

Blow Football

Easy International Games

England’s World Cup Squad Song

Football Mavericks

Football Terraces

Glenbuck Cherrypickers FC

Half Time Scores on the Advertising Hoardings

Muddy Pitches

Spot the Ball

The Magic Sponge

The Male Perm

The Rattle

The Tackle from Behind

LIFESTYLE & FASHION

Big Glasses and Brushed Back Hair

Bowler Hats

Cotton Hankies

Dad Dancing

Darning Socks

Ejaculating

Full Dentures

His and Hers Sheepskin Coats

Jeans with a Crease

Milk Bottle Spectacles

Paper Underwear

Shirt & Tie on a Sunday

Shoes with a Built-In Compass

Shop Assistants in Brown Coats

Speedos

The Hitler Moustache

The Shellsuit

Vernacular of the 1960s

Woollen Balaclavas

NATURAL CAUSES

Carbolic Soap

Chip Pans

Dogs Called Rover

Foreign Pop Stars with English Accents

Hearing Aids the Size of a Cow

Hogmanay in England

Izal Toilet Roll

Mateus Rosé Table Lamps

One Hundred Per Cent

Plastic Covers Left on Seats

Scary Bikers

Star Jumps

Switched Off Mobile Phones

The Mobile DJ

The Pipe Smoker

The Stag Night

Whistling

PROGRESS

24-7 Video Recording

Black & White TV

Cassettes

Changing a Plug

Energy Saving Light Bulbs

Inaccurate Weather Forecasts

Martians

Newspaper Classified Ads

Not Knowing the Result

Teletext

The Doctor’s Sketch

The Modem Screech

Whatever Happened To?

SOCIETY & POLITICS

£ s d

Burglars

Chimpanzees in Dungarees

Corporal Punishment in Schools

Free Market Capitalism

Front Doors Left Open

No Smoking Areas

Pensioners

Photographs of Children in Public Places

Public Information Films

Squatting

The Deferential Working Class

The Pools Coupon Collector

The Stiff Upper Lip

The Traditional Grammar School

Unrepentant Politicians

THE OFFICE

Businessman’s Lunch

Carbon Copies

Computer Manuscript Paper

Memos

Microsoft Office Assistant

Office Tea Breaks

People Who Can’t Type

Strict Dress Code for the Office

The Christmas Party in the Office

The Filofax

The Millennium Bug

TRAVEL & MOTORING

Amateur Car Mechanics

British Cars

Bus Conductors

Car Ashtrays

Cars Without a Radio

Hitchhikers

Joint Passports

MOT Wrecks

Picture Postcards

Sombrero and Donkey Souvenirs

Tax Discs

The Choke

The Landing Clap

The Open Road

The Reliant Robin

The Road Atlas

The Suitcase Without Wheels

HELL

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INTRODUCTION

 

 

Nothing lasts forever. Some things appear to, such as the pantomime staged by your local Amateur Dramatic Society where people of sound mind endure a few agonising hours on the cusp of storming the stage with a Samurai sword to bring the show to a premature end. However, everything eventually will turn to dust.

A few things have disappeared from my own life in recent years, including a tolerance for socks without elastic. Not so long ago, I could have worn a couple of dead racoon skins with my sandals, and I’d have been unperturbed. Today, I pull my socks up so high they give me a scrotal rash. My female admirers have also departed. I have to admit to really missing those moments when someone of the opposite sex caught my gaze and returned a look of licentious desire, though to be fair, now that I use an online courier, I’m not often in the Post Office with the ladies queuing for their pension.

And then there’s my razor-sharp erm… you know… the erm… oh God the wotsit thingy… that’s it, my short-term memory. My mum called me ‘Memory Man’ when I was little because I remembered everything in the minutest detail. I would proudly announce to my Aunty that the boil on my elbow had burst twelve months ago to the day on the 15th October 1962. Now I stand there every morning staring at the chest of drawers trying to remember which one contains my y-fronts. Then there’s a further delay, as I forget whether the Y goes at the front or the back.

Chimpanzees in Dungarees – The Collection is an assortment of items either long gone or on the slippery slope to oblivion. You may disagree with some of the selections, but that’s your prerogative. If you’re reading this and your backside is perspiring like Fatty Arbuckle in the sauna because you’re sitting on a sofa with its original polythene wrapping intact, the ‘Plastic Covers Left on Seats’ section is unlikely to resonate with you. And if you’re that one in a million heterosexual male on your way to the live final in Azerbaijan, you will certainly rebuff my ‘Straight Men at the Eurovision Song Contest’ entry, though if you also love The Golden Girls, Madonna and Joan Rivers, you might want to change your magazine subscription from Top Gear to Attitude.

And so it’s time to sit back, relax, put up your feet, and immerse yourself in the contrast between our modern, fast-paced, digitally-enhanced, technological age, and those days gone by when chimpanzees marketed tea in dungarees, fourteen year old lads hitchhiked to Worksop in a fish wagon, and leather-clad bikers frightened the shit out of you… just for a laugh, of course.

 

Chris Whitfield

 

 

 

 

CHILDREN & YOUNG PEOPLE

 

 

Bastards

 

The timeline of life used to follow an established sequence: Born – Piss yourself – Dribble porridge down your front – Go to school – Fail your exams – Start a job – Find a girlfriend – Get married – Move into a house – Have children – Lose interest in everything – Retire from work – Dribble porridge down your front – Piss yourself – Die. Today, the beginning and the end are largely unchanged, though I have bucked the trend somewhat, being in full time work yet at the second wave of porridge dribbling. However, the middle is all over the place and tends to be the exact opposite of what used to be. It is now: Have children – Move into a house – Get married – Find a girlfriend.

Today’s couple have only known each other for a fortnight when they proudly announce they’re expecting a baby. The little nipper enters the world, and this sparks them into finding a suitable place to live, now that the converted cupboard in the city centre apartment block is considered inappropriate for bringing up a family. Soon they decide to tie the knot and have a spectacular £50,000 wedding in Chatsworth House with their child as star attraction. However, a few weeks after the occasion, the groom finds himself a new girlfriend called Chuenchai and buggers off.

In days gone by this wouldn’t have happened. Babies, for example, only arrived after the wedding. The child born out of wedlock brought total shame on the family name, and so any such little ‘bastard’ was packaged off to be reared by a relative in some far distant town. In another reflection of our more tolerant and compassionate society, nobody other than your 110 year old Aunt Agatha refers to the child of unmarried parents as a bastard. Therefore, you should not expect an invitation to a future wedding to read something like this:

‘Andrew, Laura and the Little Bastard cordially invite you to their wedding…’

Mind you, given that Andrew will run away with his Thai bride in a few weeks’ time, a more truthful invitation might read:

‘The Bastard, Laura and Baby Beyoncé cordially invite you to their wedding…’

 

 

Bob-a-Job

 

I lasted obsolete two weeks in the boy scouts, rapidly tiring of reef knots and the ‘Ging Gang Goolie’ song. I had joined because of my mate Bodger who was an out and out enthusiast of Baden Powell’s movement for boys, but the whole thing left me colder than a rice pudding in the freezer at the North Pole. My apathy and detachment was in stark contrast to Bodger’s eagerness. He earned every badge and award available, his shirt adorned like a World War I veteran, and many a scoutmaster admired his woggle. He even dressed like a scout outside of school, the trademark colours of his wardrobe being shit brown and snot green. If he’d had his way, he would have worn a cape, brown of course, and called himself ‘Super Scout’.

I forgave Bodger for my two weeks of tedium, but I couldn’t do the same when it came to the Gang Show. My friend was naturally keen to appear in the cast of the annual theatrical scouting extravaganza – extravaganza translating in this instance as ‘shitfest’ – and he was equally keen for me to attend, which I duly did. If I had been older, the evening might have given me three of the most precious hours of my life, feeding a procession of anecdotal memories, but at the age of thirteen, it was a harrowing experience. Men dressed as women, boys dressed as girls, all singing flatter than the salt plains of Bolivia, it was the longest evening of my young life from which I emerged and remain scarred. If I ever hear the strains of ‘riding along on the crest of a wave’, I have to fight the urge to run amok, slicing limbs from anyone in the vicinity.

The other big commitment Bodger made to the Scouts occurred during ‘Bob-a-Job’ week. Introduced in 1949 as ‘Good Turn Day’, scouts and cub scouts performed jobs and errands in return for a shilling, known as a ‘bob’. This evolved into a weeklong scheme in which scout leaders encouraged the youngsters to knock on the doors of strangers, offering their services for a ‘bob’. Thus Bob-a-Job week was born.

Bodger was tailor-made for the work involved, as he was extremely good with his hands, especially his right hand under the covers at night. So he washed cars, cleaned windows, repaired shelves and tidied gardens, though inevitably, some of the public took the piss.

‘What d’ya want lad?’

‘Bob-a-Job?’

‘Ay, I’ve a few wee jobs.’

The few wee jobs included painting the outside of the house, repairing the roof, and changing the gearbox on the Austin Cambridge, all done for the cost of just one shilling. The only downside for those handing over the cash was the ‘Job Done’ yellow sticker given in return. When adhered to the glass panel at the side of the front door, it was there for good, using the same glue as Liberace’s hairpiece.

The scout movement has suffered a gradual decline over the years, and although it continues to survive, it does look increasingly from a different time and age. Amazingly, the Gang Show is still with us, which is a bit like discovering that Adolf Hitler is alive and well, but Bob-a-Job fizzled out a couple of decades ago. As parents became increasingly paranoid about their children’s welfare, the thought of them calling upon strangers offering to do anything for a bit of small change was both acutely worrying and a terrible financial deal for the scout. Health and Safety considerations established a pincer movement, so that the ‘job done for a bob’ was curtains… ironic in the sense that hanging curtains was another job to which Bodger once put his talented hands, for a shilling of course.

 

 

Boys Called Keith

 

This section was nearly called Boys Called Colin, my deeply unfashionable middle name. I’ve had enough ribbing over the years to appreciate that there’s no longer any chance of finding a proud dad in a queue at the Registry Office ready to give the name of Colin to his new born son. However, the former US Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has put a spanner in the works. Colin Powell calls himself Coe-Lyn, instantly applying a modicum of cool and mystique. Colin, with its new pronunciation, could conceivably make a comeback.

But the same cannot be said for Keith. By any standards, and with apologies to any reader called Keith, it’s a shit name, and unless a US politician comes along called Kee-ith, the number of newborn baby Keiths will continue to be counted on the hand of a man who has just lost his fingers in a newly sharpened crop thresher.

 

 

Desperate Dan

 

Desperate Dan was unquestionably the world’s strongest man, and not because he won a competition filmed in New Mexico with commentary by Ron Pickering and shown at Easter on BBC TV, in which he dragged a HGV faster and longer than nine other brutes. He just was. He could lift a cow with one hand, chew iron, and spit rust. His bed was filled with building rubble, and when he went fishing, he didn’t use a rod, he used a crane. To shave his giant chin, Dan called upon a blowtorch and a chisel, and to part his hair he fired a pistol shot. Most famously of all, the oversized cowboy loved nothing more than tucking into a gigantic cow pie with a massive piecrust and two horns sticking out either side.

Dan was the most popular character in The Dandy, a comic that at its peak sold two million copies per week. He first appeared along with the new publication in 1937 and was initially a desperado on the wrong side of the tracks. However, he evolved into a hero, most notably during the Second World War when he shot down German planes and sank U-Boats, with his peashooter of course. By 1950, The Dandy was shifting an amazing 102 million copies a year.

Sadly, time was not kind to Dan, and as the decades passed, society became a very different beast. The publishers felt obliged to tone down the big man somewhat. His habit of smoking through a funnel had long gone, but they made him lose weight, exchange his firearm for a water pistol, and when the BSE crisis hit the beef industry, he stopped eating cow pie. In 1997, the comic’s editor retired Dan in a storyline where he struck oil and walked off into the sunset with the Spice Girls, the big man presumably adopting the name ‘Desperate Spice’. A ‘Bring Back Dan’ appeal succeeded three years later, but it was a temporary reprieve. The publishers replaced traditional characters with Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole, proving that it wasn’t only Dan now deserving of the ‘desperate’ moniker.

The Dandy’s audience dwindled, the comic evolving from a mass-market publication to a niche product, and by 2012, its circulation was a mere 8,000 per week. The publishers announced its withdrawal from the marketplace, the final printed Dandy appearing at the newsagents in December of that year. There was but one consolation for the fans of the cow-pie munching, politically incorrect cowboy. At least there wasn’t a bloody Spice Girl in sight.

 

 

Duck Apple

 

The supermarket is a very scary place to be at Halloween. I was recently looking for a greetings card in a large out of town store, when I was accosted by a terrifying noise coming from the next aisle. It sounded like the collective wheezing and rattling from a hospital asthma ward where the inhalers and nebulisers had been contaminated with the exhaust fumes of a 1981 Lada Riva Estate. I walked past the Freddy Kruger masks, the dismembered hands, the meat cleavers and skeletons, until I discovered the culprit. It was some kind of talking corpse with an accompanying drone straight out of a Hammer House of Horror soundtrack. It struck me as bizarre that these products were being aimed at kids. And to think, the definition of horror to the parents of some of these children is the sight of a nipple on TV before the watershed, or a daytime DJ broadcasting the word ‘fart’ over the airwaves just before the advert for debt consolidation.

Halloween is now massive, second only to Christmas in terms of seasonal revenue to the large supermarkets. And yet when I was a lad, October 31st wasn’t even called Halloween. It was Duck Apple Night, and it was all about an apple in a washing up bowl or an apple on a bit of string. That’s right, it was a bit shit.

Duck Apple was a game where a bucket or a bowl was filled with cold water and the eponymous fruit. The objective was to dip your head in the water and lock your jaws around the Cox. (In the unlikely event this text becomes an audio book read by Stephen Fry, I might have to edit that line.) The apple bobbed about in the water like a dinghy in a hurricane, and the only way of taking a bite was to submerge your head and get soaking wet. My reward for this early version of water boarding was a gobful of cooking apple about as sour as a pint of undiluted vinegar. We rarely had normal fruit in our food stocks. The cupboards were so bare, even Old Mother Hubbard used to take the piss.

The other sporting variation on Duck Apple night involved tying a Granny Smith – that’s a shiny green apple and not a geriatric – to a piece of string that was suspended from a door frame. You then had to try and take a bite without wedging the fruit against the sides, countless children thereby perfecting an effective impersonation of Quasimodo sniffing glue. It was another game for the brain dead, adding poignancy to the fact that the talking brain dead now occupy prime space on the Halloween toy shelves of the supermarkets.

The transition from the simplicity and mediocrity of Duck Apple to the present day’s super commercialised celebration of death, zombies and vampires, was facilitated by the gradual Americanisation of our British Culture. Halloween had always been big in the States, and its adoption by the UK occurred at the same time as McDonald’s, Starbucks, shopping malls and performance related pay and bonuses.

And conclusive proof that this shift has been retrograde is provided by the phenomenon of Trick or Treat, now an ever present annual irritation to the average grumpy householder. Before Halloween took over, it wasn’t Trick or Treat. You could have Trick and Treat by eating a Mars Bar at the same time as watching Harry Corbett and Sooty with his magic wand.

‘Isn’t that right Sooty?.. Speak up Sooty, I can’t hear you.’

 

 

Goldfish in a Plastic Bag

 

When my grandmother passed away, I inherited three goldfish. Some people in my position might have been hoping for a wad of cash or a share in some previously unknown Parisian property, but I happily made do with three identical, orange coloured tiddlers and a tank covered in more green gunge than a children’s TV show with Peter Simon. The fish were the last of my nan’s possessions to be handed down, after the domestic electrical equipment had been allocated to family members a bit quicker off the mark than me in house clearance duties. And this aquatic gift proved to be something short of a blessing.

For a start, fish are crap pets. Unlike a dog, they won’t guard your house and possessions, they won’t give you unconditional love, and you can’t take them for a walk in the park… well you could, but at the end of it, you’d have to cook them on Gas Mark 7 and serve them with chips and ketchup. Furthermore, you can’t develop any kind of relationship with them. They give you absolutely nothing in return for feeding them daily, cleaning their tank, and furnishing it with a model of an ancient Greek temple designed by a three year old with impaired vision. What more could any pet reasonably want?

There was a time when every house had a goldfish, yet those who did are likely to have forgotten the fact. For many years, I dined out on the fact that my blue movie name – first pet / mother’s maiden surname – was Brandy Boughey, pretty impressive don’t you think? Unfortunately, I had conveniently forgotten that my real first pet was a goldfish won on the hoopla at New Brighton Fair, christened Alan. It has to be said that Alan Boughey doesn’t sound like someone with a penis the size of a cricket bat… more insurance man than porn star.

Their widespread popularity arose because a goldfish in a plastic bag was the standard prize awarded to a child at every travelling or seaside fairground stall. Three darts in three playing cards meant you won a goldfish in a bag. First in the donkey derby… goldfish in a bag. Three balls in the bucket… goldfish in a bag. Children would return home from a day out at the fair with nausea from the merry-go-round, the onset of tooth decay from eating too much candy floss, and a plastic bag full of water with what appeared to be a slither of carrot floating inside.

Working class families couldn’t afford a fully-fledged aquarium, and so the little orange fish was put in a bowl normally used for cutting hair in the Victorian orphan style. I suppose you had to feel sorry for the goldfish. Even if its memory was only three seconds, it was three seconds of sheer monotony and tedium, recalling its round and round the bowl again daily routine.

I see the attraction of keeping tropical fish, with the endless varieties and vibrant colours providing a bewitching visual experience. The water in the tank has to be maintained at a certain temperature and so the barber’s glass bowl is inadequate. A proper aquarium is required with an electronic heat pump and all the related gear. Tropical fish demand a greater investment of equipment, money and time, and it follows there is a greater return on this investment in terms of satisfaction and reward. But a goldfish is the pet for the pet owner who doesn’t want a pet, so why bother in the first place?

And today, people aren’t bothering. The old fairground prize of a goldfish in a plastic bag has been outlawed. It is now illegal to give live animals as a prize, thereby cutting off the main supply line for the golden tiddlers, and this is good news… and I should know, having been scarred by the triple inheritance from my nan. The buggers lived fifteen years, like me, growing bigger and uglier every year. Towards the end, their orange colour had been replaced by watery pink shading, their eyes bulged more than the crotch of Brandy Boughey’s trousers, and they were about as lively as a snail in a coma.

Next time you’re disappointed with the Last Will & Testament of a relative, please think of my goldfish inheritance. It will help put things in perspective.

 

 

Haversacks

 

Anybody attending Grammar School in the 1960s was presented with a list of items required for the start of term. This included a school blazer, trousers, socks, shoes, cap, gym kit, fountain pen, pencil, sharpener, rubber, tolerance of sadistic prefects, and a haversack, although regarding the latter, there was the usual gender divide with the girls required to have a leather satchel. The haversack was made from a canvas material thicker than Kevin Potts from Class 1D and could only be purchased from the Army Surplus Stores.

It had originated in the military as a means of carrying spare ammunition, food rations, and a gas mask, but we used it for books and stationery. The watchword for the school was uniformity. No deviation from the dress code was acceptable. Yet, the haversack was the only means of establishing any kind of individuality. It started with writing your name and class number on the outside, but by the end of term, there was your football team, favourite music acts, and the odd picture of the odd teacher, although most masters were a bit odd. The haversack was a badge of identity worn over our shoulders with pride, although not so for one poor guy called Colin from our year.

A keen fan of Liverpool FC, he greeted the news in the Daily Post of Bill Shankly signing Celtic striker Lou Macari by plastering the Scottish striker’s name all over the flap of his haversack, reinforcing the message by using a particularly indelible ink. A few hours later, news broke that Manchester United had hijacked the deal at the last minute, signing Macari from under the noses of Liverpool. Disappointment compounded by shame produced a heady mix for Colin to deal with for the rest of the year.

The haversack eventually gave way to sports and messenger bags and lost its place as the mandatory carrier for schoolboys. I have fond memories of mine, though whether Colin does is somewhat doubtful.

 

 

Hopscotch

 

When I was a young lad, boys played football and girls played hopscotch. You couldn’t walk along the pavements of a terraced street without standing on either white dog shit or the chalk markings made on the paving stones. The girls would toss a small stone into one of the numbered rectangles and retrieve it by hopping through the spaces to retrieve it. We lads were never interested in playing. The game lacked an edge. In hindsight, I’m surprised we didn’t adopt a version that, instead of a stone, involved tossing one of the young lads from the street – I hope that isn’t quoted out of context.

 

 

Lucky Bags

 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we children were easily pleased. If I had a spare threepence, I’d wander up to the newsagents and buy a ‘Lucky Bag’. The confectionary and toy offering in a paper bag typically contained a fruit chew liable to glue your teeth together and a mystery toy more fragile than a feather in a hurricane.

‘Look what I’ve got Gary, a glider.’

I’d launch the flimsy flying machine into the air, only for it to plummet to earth and break into pieces, leaving me unable to protest in any way as my masticated chew had already given me lockjaw.

If ever re-launched onto today’s generation, they would definitely have to be re-branded as ‘Unlucky Bags’.

 

 

Penny for the Guy

 

Many people consider begging to be a major social problem of our times, but it’s hardly new. It’s only a few decades since the sight of a child begging on the street was as common as a cheese and onion pasty eater in Gateshead town centre. And we’re not talking Victorian slum poverty a la Dickens here. This was the 1960s and 1970s when the Welfare State was in full flow.

One common variety was carol singing. This usually involved a group of teenagers knocking on front doors in the build up to Christmas, mumbling a few notes, and then waiting for the householder to make an appearance with cash to hand over. In my group of minstrels, one of the lads was tone deaf, another had a voice that sounded like Scooby Doo, and I sang at the pitch of a dog whistle. The blend of vocal tones lent weight to the adage, ‘What do you get if you mix together three buckets of shit?’ The answer is, of course, ‘A bigger bucket of shit’. We made no attempt to harmonise, and our standard rendition of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ had all the musicality of a pack of howling bloodhounds whose testicles were in the grip of a grizzly bear with the anger management issues of Naomi Campbell.

An even more widespread begging practice amongst children was the annual ‘Penny for the Guy’ ritual, taking place in the lead up to Bonfire Night. Notionally, it had something to do with the gunpowder plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes failed in his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but to us kids, it was nothing more than a cash cow. We would make our ‘guy’, stick him in an old pram, find a street corner in a busy shopping area, then hold out our hands with pleading faces and a ‘Penny for the Guy?’ request. The passing punters looked down with incredulity at our home made version of Guy Fawkes and threw a few coins at us in pity.

The ideal Guy had a carefully constructed papier mache head with painted facial features and clothes modelled on historical Spanish catholic dress. The typical creation was very different.

The head was invariably an old cabbage that smelt like a wet fart, and there was no attempt to give it eyes, ears or a nose, leaving it with the face of a nuclear bomb victim whose plastic surgery had gone horribly wrong. The clothes were always ragged to the extreme, because if they weren’t, we’d have still been wearing them. This was an era when the clothes in your wardrobe fitted comfortably into a sandwich box. The body and legs of the Guy were filled out sparingly with a few old editions of the Liverpool Echo, giving it the physique of something with a flesh eating disease. We then placed it in an old pram that was so decrepit even a dog would refuse to piss on it. The Guy was ultimately meant to be incinerated at a bonfire on 5th November but would normally end up in the bin where it really belonged. Yet we were oblivious to the shortcomings of our design efforts because we were miniature entrepreneurs focussed on one thing, begging for cash.

But the ‘Penny for the Guy’ tradition disappeared almost overnight in the 1980s. As children opted to stay indoors, waggling their joysticks to Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on their Commodore 64s, and parents became more benevolent with their sons and daughters, the opportunities and the imperative to beg for cash with a cabbage headed monster in a rusty pram faded away. Carol singing reverted back to where it belonged, in schools and churches, and the everyday sight of children begging in the winter cold was gone.

However, there is some reassuring news. The cheese and onion pasty eaters of Gateshead town centre are as common as ever.

 

 

Pinball in the Chip Shop

 

Chip Shops used to have three standard features, the smell of fat, first generation immigrants whose English vocabulary was limited to the words on the menu board, and a pinball machine in the corner of the shop… the more unscrupulous owners also having a dismembered Great Dane or Labrador in the freezer. In my early teenage years, the Chippy was the focal point for the evening. There were no community centres, no youth clubs, no video games, no internet, and only three channels to watch on TV. Unless you wanted to endure the world of boy scouting, which was about as exciting as watching a coat of satin emulsion dry, congregating at the Wing-Wah was the preferred option.

It helped that in our household, my dad perpetuated the message from his old man that you should always leave the dinner table feeling hungry. Portion control was therefore tighter than the Arsenal back four under George Graham, and so it was never an issue of ‘How am I going to fit in a bag of greasy chips just a couple hours after my main meal?’ Yet the chips were an accessory to the evening. The main event was the game of pinball. We played for so long on the same machine that we achieved record scores and etched an amazing amount of value from one 10p coin inserted. Of course, this required a high level of concentration and detachment, and so we all resembled Pete Townsend’s ‘Tommy’, the deaf, dumb, blind kid. And because of the chips, an extra dimension was added. We were deaf, dumb, blind and fat kids.

The Chippy lost its place as a social meeting point for bored youths when the American style fast food restaurants hit town. McDonalds and Burger King had seats, tables and air conditioning. Gone was the smell of fat, the indecipherable accent of the owner and, regrettably, the pinball machine. Chip shops reverted to functional places from which to buy take away food that would increase your cholesterol levels and your waistband size at the same time. It was a sad goodbye to Flippers and Fritters.

 

 

Saturday Morning Cinema Club

 

Ask any parent today if they would electronically tag their children so as to be able monitor their every movement, and the answer will be an unequivocal yes.

Darling, have you seen Joshua? His foie gras is ready.’

I’ll just check on the navigation control dashboard… yes, he’s in grid NW A7. I’ll message him to return to base.’

The parents of my generation could not have been more different.

Where’s Keith?’

Christ knows.’

When did you last see him?’

1965, I think.’

Well his tea’s going cold.’

As soon as you’d finished hanging on to your mother’s tit, you were banished to the streets to play tick with the traffic. It was an ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to parenting that made the average small child more independent than Bruce Parry travelling in Papua New Guinea. This freedom enabled me to spend my childhood playing football in the park, fishing in the local duck pond, and playing hide and seek amongst the dog muck. It also meant I was able to get the number 16 bus to the local picture house every Saturday morning to be a ‘Minor of the ABC’, the country’s foremost cinema club for children.

Proudly wearing my ABC Minors badge, the ritual would start with the purchase of an Everlasting Strip – a form of toffee super glue that locked your jaws together with industrial ease – and a triangular carton of Jubilee orange juice. I’d then sit down with a thousand other kids to enjoy the community singing of ‘We’re Minors of the ABC’, watch Felix the Cat, Flash Gordon, a Famous Five adventure film, and participate in an organized competition such as a ‘Yo-yo’ contest or ‘Who can jump furthest across the orchestra pit?’

Saturday morning was the highlight of the week and my first taste of entertainment where audience participation was critical to the experience. In hindsight, it was perfect training for the rock gigs I would attend as a teenager at the Liverpool Stadium, though without the joss sticks, marijuana, and long haired freaks shaking their heads on the front row. But it was the competitions that were the most memorable… and one in particular.

As was often the case, the organisers of the ABC Minor’s Club decided to hold a dancing contest for the latest craze. This one was called the ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ from the song of the same name that had just been hit for The Swinging Blue Jeans, a local Liverpool beat group. No dance instructions were necessary as the title of the song said it all. Shaking your hips, that was about it. I can still recall my efforts on stage, vigorously shaking my body in approximate time to the beat of the music. After two or three minutes of concentrated movements, I had an ‘unshakeable’ confidence that I was a certain finalist, but to my dismay I was eliminated in the first round. My friend Pod rebuked me for my efforts because, instead of my hips, I had apparently shaken my right knee throughout the whole performance. I suppose it could have been worse. I might have been thrown out for shaking something only to be shaken in the privacy of a young boy’s bedroom.

The arrival of colour television didn’t kill off cinema as many commentators predicted, but it did put an end to the Saturday Morning Cinema Club for children. By 1976, Noel Edmond’s Multi-Coloured Shirt Shop arrived on nationwide Saturday morning TV screens, rendering The ABC minors very old hat indeed. Children, teenagers and adults alike, were seduced by the mix of music, celebrities, cartoons, and the outside broadcast where an overexcited Keith Chegwin brokered deals between slightly bemused children. This might involve the swapping of a game of Hungry Hippos with half of the white balls missing for a pocket calculator with a faulty number two button.

The pull of this new type of TV programme meant children started to spend far more time inside the house and consequently began to lose the freedoms and independence they had previously enjoyed during the Saturday Morning Cinema Club era.

Computer and video games arrived to kill off Children’s Saturday morning TV and further drive kids indoors, all increasingly under the tutelage of their parents. Ultimately this has led to the current situation where the modern parent wants to insert a chip in their child’s arse to tag them electronically.

In some ways, it makes one yearn for the time of the ABC minors when a chip was something you smothered in salt and vinegar and stuck in your gob, assuming your mum had managed to pull your jaws apart by extracting the Everlasting Strip toffee super glue.

 

 

Streetwise Dogs

 

Whilst the modern parent is acutely aware that raising children is an arduous task, it is ultimately an incredibly rewarding experience from which so much is given back in return. But when the children have grown up and left home, there is an inevitable sibling void that needs to be filled. Cue the modern pet dog.

Today’s canine companions are more than just four legged friends. They are surrogate children, bestowed with an overdose of affection and attention by their ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. They are cradled like babies when puppies, wear coats in winter, get Christmas presents, and have their friends at the park. The dogs reciprocate in the only way they know how, with the provision of unconditional love, intensifying the attachment between owner and pet even further. They are acutely domesticated and undeniably pampered pooches. But it wasn’t always this way.

There used to be something called the streetwise dog. A creature as tough as the meat of a rattlesnake, with the kind of personality that made a cage fighter seem like a camp flower arranger. These were times when you just let your dog out the front door so it could roam the local streets and parks to do whatever it wanted. It was left to piss its own trail, crap to its heart’s content, and shag any local bitch on heat. As for road sense, it could weave in and out of passing traffic with consummate ease, and the brighter ones even learnt the Green Cross Code. Passing children, who might foolishly attempt to stroke the dog’s head, would have their hand bitten off with the efficiency of an executioner’s guillotine.

No dog could have personified these characteristics more than Patch, my wife’s pet when we were first boyfriend and girlfriend. He was a cross-breed of indeterminate origin that must have included some Jack Russell, Pit bull and Rotweiler in the lineage. He was an old dog by this time, one who had survived countless scraps, road accidents, cysts and growths, all on a diet of Winalot, Chum and the freedom of our local town. He might have once had the sleek appearance of the dog staring into the gramophone of His Master’s Voice, but in these later years, he looked like an animal stuffed alive by an incompetent taxidermist. And as much as my girlfriend loved him, Patch hated me with a passion.

They had married a few years’ earlier, and putting to one side the morality of a teenage girl and an oversexed terrier cross exchanging wedding vows, I was evidently viewed by Patch as a marriage wrecker. Any attempt to get near my new girlfriend was met with an icy stare, a gnarl, and the snapping of teeth… from the dog I hasten to add. My protestations garnered little sympathy, especially the day I lost my cool when Patch attacked me for having the audacity to stand in front of ‘his’ chocolate decorations on the Christmas tree.

I grabbed him by the collar and tail and then launched the slavering mutt into the garden, to be immediately admonished by my girlfriend for cruelty to animals. Patch was let back in to give me a piercing look that left me in no doubt he was already plotting revenge.

And it was a revenge he exacted later that evening when I was lying on the sofa watching the TV. Patch jumped up onto the adjoining chair and sat down, his arse adjacent to my resting head. He then cocked his leg and ejected a fart in my direction that, unusually for a dog, sounded like a foghorn. And the smell… well, four decades years later and I’m still recovering. Clearly a skunk with decomposing legs had crawled up his back passage and died. It was horrendous, and I never threw him out of the house again. The streetwise dog was the victor.

A few things conspired to turn the average canine from marauding wild animal to one carried in a pink basket, wearing a matching pink bow. Dog poo became public enemy number one, when it was rumoured that children would go blind if they dined on freshly deposited muck. Local authorities levied fines on owners for not cleaning up after their dogs. But most crucially, dogs readily stepped into the newly vacant position of substitute child, instantly forgoing their streetwise identity.

Even in deprived areas, it’s rare now to see dogs out on the street. True, the cage fighter personality is still intact in many cases, but the dog is on a leash with a muzzle, a real badge of honour for the owner. But let this dog off its lead, and it will run into the road into the path of a passing Ford Transit, literally not streetwise. Dogs have surrendered the last vestiges of independence to their human parents and will never get it back.

And this explains another mystery, the long asked question of whatever happened to white dog poo? Now you know it was the streetwise dog that could shit waste the colour of full cream milk. No streetwise dogs, no white poo.

If you don’t mind, I need to wind this section up. Our little babies, Puggles and Shaznay, are wagging their tales and crying for their din dins, which today is strips of fillet steak in a red wine jus. There’s just no respite for a daddy these days.

 

 

Sunday School

 

You are eight years old, and your mummy says to you, ‘Crispin, it’s time for Sunday School.’

You punch the air with joy and exclaim, ‘Yippee!’

The question is, ‘Who are you?’

The answer is the last of the Sunday school pupils.

The next question is, ‘What are you?’

The answer is a boring little twat with a mum who looks like the ugly sister of Fiona Bruce and a dad who dresses like an Open University lecturer. They permit you to watch thirty minutes of TV a day and insist you are in bed by 6.30pm. Half of your pocket money goes to the church spire restoration fund, and you’re never allowed to eat sweets or drink fizzy pop, although you can have a small glass of fortified wine with extra mature cheese at the weekend. You were once grounded for saying ‘botty burp’ in the company of the pastor, and your favourite games are cribbage and bridge. You also love listening to Radio Three and Radio Four. Definitively, a boring little twat.

When I was young, most children went to their local Sunday school. This was partly out of tradition, a tradition that went back a couple of centuries to a time when it was the only formal education on offer, and partly out of boredom because Sundays were so crap, the worst day of the week by a country mile. Everywhere and everything was shut on the Sabbath, and you soon tired of thrashing your spinning top or messing with your dinky car. The prospect of spending time in the company of God and a horn-rimmed bible basher in a crimplene dress singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’ didn’t seem to be such a bad option.

But these days, with an unlimited choice of leisure activities including video games, live football and the Internet, the average eight year old now worships bling laden rap stars, filthy rich Premier League footballers, and steroid pumped up wrestlers. The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost can’t compete. Is it any wonder that Sunday school is now as popular as the cheese and cribbage loving Crispins, the only ones keeping it going?

Those who bemoan the passing of the Sunday school could always say a prayer in the hope it will return to its old prominence, but I feel I have to let you know something. I don’t think anybody’s listening.

 

 

Sweet Cigarettes

 

What would be the modern day equivalent of sweet cigarettes? Perhaps a chocolate bong endorsed by Harry Potter? Candy coated placebo ecstasy tablets packaged as M&M’s but re-branded as E&E’s? Or Sherbet Dab renamed Crack Dab? In today’s health savvy times, it beggars belief there was an age when a packet of sweet cigarettes took pride of place amongst the confectionery of every sweet shop in every town. Twenty sticks of hard white candy with a glowing red tip to simulate the look of a lit ciggie, they were as hard as a gob stopper and as bland as the veg boiled by your granny.

But we didn’t buy them for the taste. Nor did we buy them to act big, though we did perfect the different smoking techniques, from the sophistication of Lady Penelope’s diamond encrusted cigarette holder approach to my dad’s roll your own with reversed pinched thumb and forefinger in the shape of the letter ‘O’. So why did we buy them in their droves? What made me rush down to the shop every Saturday morning to spend all my pocket money on the insipid things? The answer was product endorsement and the collector cards inside, which made the sweet cigarette every bit as addictive as the real thing.

There were packets with cards for many of the classic children’s TV and Film icons such as Dr Who, Captain Scarlet, James Bond and Dixon of Dock Green. Who? Yes, good old George Dixon was pictured on the front of a box, puffing away with his helmet on full view… dear me, sounds even less suitable for children than I thought.

My personal favourite was the Thunderbirds series, good old International Rescue, and every boy in my primary school collected and traded the cards. There was a race to be the first to get the full set, and I can still see the look of bemusement on the face of the sweet shop owner the day I bought twenty packets. A little excessive perhaps, but it proved to be good practice because fast forward twenty five years and I received exactly the same look at the checkout in Boots when I bought twelve boxes of tampons.

You’ll be glad to hear this had nothing to do with a minor perversion or with male menstruation and everything to do with Beverley Craven. At the time, Tampax were giving away free tickets to see the songstress perform in exchange for tokens from special packs, hence my shameless bulk purchase.

Eventually, as tobacco products became increasingly ostracised, the manufacturers had to do something with the sweet cigarette. Even the most off the wall marketeer would have struggled to mirror the ‘Tobacco Seriously Damages Your Health’ message forced on to real fag packets by legislators. ‘Candy Seriously Damages Your Teeth’ was never going to help sales. So they changed the name of the product to candy sticks and removed the red tip colouring.

But it was the beginning of the end for the sweet cigarette, destined to retire as a retro website only product. You’ll find them now in the same section as the Spanish Gold, the sweet chewing tobacco for kids. But remember, just like smoking, ‘Candy Kills!’

Well it does if you eat it, sitting down in the fast lane of the M6 motorway.

 

 

Terrible Christmas Presents

 

You may think these are hard times, but relatively speaking, I am not so sure. I suspect if you transplanted a present day family back to my childhood, the time travellers would soon be looking for a non-existent telephone to ring Dr Who for a quick ride back in the Tardis. If the trip coincided with Christmas, this would apply especially to the younger siblings. Today’s parents do everything they can to get their children what they want for the big day. Some parents – desperate to get their hands on a limited edition Harry Styles doll in which you pull the chord and he defecates in his skinny jeans while mouthing obscenities about mature women – willingly sell an organ to finance the purchase, and I’m talking about a kidney rather than a Bontempi. My own mum and dad were somewhat less bothered about making my Yuletide dreams come true, and I’m sure they were not alone.

As Christmas 1966 approached, I was aware of appalling gifts from previous years. The Scalextric set had been a shocker. Some of you will be ready to contradict me, but I would have preferred an old school tangerine and walnut in a sock. The racing kit had two genuine cars but as for the track, my dad had made it from propeller leftovers. The Formula 1 vehicle travelled a few inches until crossing the first join connecting two pieces when it flipped off the track to hit me in the face like a Jack-in-the-box. Added to this was the danger from the transformer. The electrical accessory developed more heat than the Saharan sun and gave off a constant odour of burnt metal. My frustration was intense, hence the fruit and nut preference.

The ‘I made it in work’ was a constant theme with presents. I was born in August and so my recurring birthday gift was a cricket bat and stumps, as usual made in work by my dad. The wickets were all right, though balancing the bails on the top did require the steady hands and nerve of a knife thrower. The bat, however, was something else, a flat piece of wood without a bevelled back to act as a shock absorber. If we played with a real cricket ball, and I middled a short delivery, my body would vibrate like a tuning fork. My own children are glad that I never attempted to replicate the made in work thing when I evolved into the role of Dad. Mind you, the only thing I could have mustered up for them in my job would have been a Profit & Loss Account, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Forecast.

Notwithstanding the mental and physical scars from the Scalextric and cricket equipment, when Dad told my brother and I that we were getting bicycles for Christmas, we were overjoyed. The big day arrived, and we rushed downstairs to see our new bikes, hopefully racers with 5-speed gears, but they weren’t there. Dad shouted from his bed that they were in the yard, and there they were, two second-hand, traditional full-sized gent’s bicycles leaning against the far wall. Looking back, they appeared to be straight from pre-war Amsterdam, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Anne Frank’s dad perched on top of one of them. They were drab beyond drab but for one feature. Attached to the pedals were big blocks of birch coloured wood, my dad’s attempt to convert the 26-inch frame to a child’s version. I found a small stepladder, climbed onto the seat and quickly realised that my legs were too short as they dangled a good two or three inches from the wood. I therefore spent Christmas Day propped up against whitewashed bricks in the backyard pretending to ride through the local park. By the time I was tall enough to use the bike properly, I think I was engaged to be married. Now Santa, that’s what you call a shit present.

Many of my peers bemoan the commercialism of the latter day Christmases and begrudge that shopping at Debenhams in mid-September now means you are accosted by the sight of decorations, baubles, and Slade singing ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ through the store speakers. They say we’ve forgotten the true meaning of yuletide, because nobody roasts their chestnuts on an open fire (health and safety gone mad) or makes paper chains using only coloured gummed strips, spit, and a little bit of dinner still swimming around in your saliva. Whatever happened to a genuine battle for the Christmas number one or the anticipation of watching the Morecambe and Wise Show, and why do parents spend such a ridiculous amount of money on their kids buying presents they can’t afford?

Well they may think Christmas is not what it used to be, but I for one say ‘Thank Christ’. How could I think any different? I just have to think of the bicycle with the wooden blocks from Christmas Day 1966 and my imaginary ride through the park.

 

 

The Birds and the Bees

 

Back in 1976, I was Best Man at a wedding. Two days before the big day, I visited the church with the bride and groom, where I practiced handing over the ring. The whole rigmarole struck me as over the top. The only person I had seen struggle with this task was the hapless Brian in the local farce Whoops, I’ve Lost the Ring Again Vicar!

Yet I went home thinking of something even more strange. At the end of the walkthrough, the Reverend Green flushed a little, mumbled a few words about ‘coming in handy’, and then handed a small pamphlet to the groom. The bride and I strained our necks and both grimaced when we saw its title of Family Planning. A more appropriate title might have been How to Shag – a guide for the imbecile. The man from the church was evidently living in late nineteenth century Victorian England when sex was taboo and only confronted on the eve of the wedding and the pending disastrous honeymoon coitus. If he had given the booklet to me, it may have had some validity. You could count my own sexual experiences on the hand of Dave Allen, though I must stress that Dave’s hand was not personally involved. However, this particular groom had racked up more sexual conquests than he had eaten pork scratchings, and this man loved a salty treat, in more ways than one.

The vicar’s discomfiture was another manifestation of ‘The Birds and the Bees’, the obligation on the part of the experienced adult/parent to educate and inform the younger party as to the whys and wherefores about sex. Another typical context was the school Sex Education lesson that dealt exclusively with the biology of the sex act. Tutors did not attempt to discuss the emotional side of things or to explore the moral issues. It was essentially, ‘Here’s a penis, here’s a vagina, then it’s in-out-in-out you shake it all about’, all sounding worryingly like an outtake from the 1970s Children’s BBC TV show Play School.

The classic context for an awkward Birds and Bees talk was father to son, though most dads didn’t bother, and for good reason. The playground and peers were the main source of sex education for children, which meant that the average young person could learn nothing from parental tutorial. Those fathers that gave it a go soon learnt to regret their actions, finding it impossible to maintain a cool exterior while talking about the hymen and the menstrual cycle.

As with so much in our daily lives, the internet has changed everything. The whole mystery surrounding sex has evaporated, now that there are countless, informative videos to teach everything that needs to be known about the subject. The teaching baton has passed from a hapless, embarrassed fool to an attractive Dutch couple performing on four legs in front of a film crew of three pony-tailed Star Trek enthusiasts.

If an awkward vicar, teacher, or parent were now to give a talk about ‘The Birds and the Bees’, expect a more literal narrative about yellow-bellied tits, black-breasted tits, rosy-faced lovebirds, and queens. Hang on a minute, maybe things haven’t changed after all.

 

 

The Generation Gap

 

Do us a favour mate; can you pass me your mum’s Rizzle Kicks CD? It’s just behind the David Guetta one.’

I spoke these words to my son as we drove along the motorway. He was in the passenger seat, and as soon as the sentence left my mouth, I knew it seemed an unlikely thing for a man in his late-fifties to say to his twenty-something son. Thirty years ago with my own dad, the thought of an equivalent exchange would have been ludicrous. The cultural difference between my generation and that of my parents was a chasm. There had been no youth culture in their impressionable teenage years, and looking at old photographs of my old man when he was eighteen, he looks old enough for a bus pass. He was a demob suit and pipe on legs.

However, the pace of change from the mid-1950s onward was such that it created a natural divide between parents and children, and not the traditional partition based on the obligatory subservience to one’s elders. In this new world, it was now differences in fashion, music, and politics that fuelled what commentators coined ‘The Generation Gap’. My dad thought my hair was too long, my music too loud, my flares too wide, my politics too extreme, and my financial contribution to the family housekeeping budget wholly inadequate. He always took time out to preach how and why the old world was better. I was never the argumentative type, so we didn’t particularly clash, but the gap was real, he not understanding my world and me rejecting his. Our relationship was fundamentally father and son, a light touch authoritarian hierarchy in which my lack of consent or acquiescence constituted minor disrespect and insolence.

Yet now I’m the same age as my dad when he moaned about glitter on Marc Bolan’s face, I go to music concerts with my son, listen to Radio 1 with my wife, and enjoy comedy programmes on BBC3. Incidentally, I’m not having a midlife crisis, just obeying my personal preferences. The generation gap has closed up, with relations between parent and grown-up child more akin to that of brother or sister these days. That’s not to say there aren’t any differences. I remain incredulous at the thought of a night out starting at midnight, preceded by a gallon of Jägerbombs, and the modern version of the rules of courtship leave me bemused. However, my generation is tolerant and accepting of these differences, removing the points of conflict prevalent when the generation gap prevailed.

Do us a favour mate; can you pass me that Neil Sedaka CD? It’s just behind the Leo Sayer one.’

Eh?’

OK, so the gap hasn’t totally disappeared, but at least you can no longer fall through it.

 

 

The Non-Photogenic Young

 

If a young person says they look bad in a photograph, don’t believe them. They won’t be lying though. Some really think that every image on which they appear is about as flattering as two sausages sticking out of their ears at a ninety degree angle. But this is their perception rather than anything based on reality. The combination of the digital camera and Facebook has meant that young people pose for more photographs in a day than their parents have done in a lifetime. So even those who are not naturally photogenic have had plenty of practice to perfect a tolerable look. And as everyone knows, practice makes perfect… just look at my nephew and masturbation. On second thoughts, don’t look. You might get arrested.

My own experience as the subject of the camera’s lens has not been great. In a group photograph, I’m invariably the odd one out. Amongst a sea of perfect toothpaste smiles gazing straight into the camera’s lens, I’m the one with the overall appearance of someone in desperate need of a full time carer, with my tongue hanging out of my mouth and my eyelids shut. I’ve come to the logical conclusion that my eyes are as introvert as my chins are extrovert. Any sign of a Canon SureShot and I blink, my eyelids closing at the pace of a whippet and reopening at the speed of a three-toed sloth. But my chins, especially my second chin, can’t wait to make an appearance. I’ve spent a lifetime hoping that the camera fibs with the same ardour as Billy Liar.

‘Say Cheese!’

Sod off.

 

 

The Rebel Teacher

 

The average number of pupils in a UK primary school is twenty-six, compared with an average of only twenty-one in the rest of the world, a disparity that critics of the government widely condemn. Yet in the mid-1960s when I was getting ready to take the eleven-plus, my own class comprised forty kids, forty-one if you counted Stevie Bamworth’s extroverted imaginary friend, Little Steve. So much has changed since those days and not just class size.

You had to feel sorry for Stevie. He was bottom of the class and everybody knew it. The school ranked all class members by ability and results, organising desks accordingly. Stevie therefore sat at the back in the far right corner of the room behind desk number forty. We just accepted this, unaware that this approach did a sterling job in reinforcing the self-esteem of the top half of the class and reinforcing the lack of self-esteem in the bottom half. It was a divisive system in divisive times. Yet for three months, none of this mattered. For three months in 1967, the numbers in 4A could have doubled and nobody would have complained about class size. Beyond any shadow of doubt, it was the best three months of my education.

We had taken the numerical and reasoning tests of the 11-plus and just had the summer term to navigate before departing for Grammar School (if you passed) or a place at Dante’s Inferno Secondary Modern (if you failed). Our class teacher left at Easter, and the school appointed a supply replacement for the remainder of the year. His name was Mr.Goulding. We could see that he looked different from our other male teachers who all dressed like civil servants. Our new man had a khaki corduroy jacket, an off-white shirt with loosely knotted tie, dark green canvas trousers, and brown desert boots. His sandy hair was long for the time; he had a full beard, and he wore trendy glasses like John Lennon. On his first day, we knew immediately that things were out of the ordinary, and by the end of the week, young as we were, we realised that we were in the company of a teaching genius.

‘Gouldy’ spent his first week regaling us with the plays of Shakespeare, Hamlet, Richard III, Twelfth Night, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and more. He didn’t read the originals or some child-friendly version from a book. He simply stood at the front of the class, walking from side to side and narrating the tales of the Bard from memory. Every single boy and girl in the room was transfixed, even Stevie, who was particularly keen on playing the twins Syracuse and Dromio from The Comedy of Errors. And remember, this happened for five consecutive days from 9.00am to 3.00pm. Allowing for a couple of playtimes and a lunch hour – during which there was a bit of Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Viola action in the schoolyard – he ‘performed’ for a near aggregate twenty-four hours that week. It was an absolute tour de force, during which we hung on his every word. For five days in late May, early June 1967, forty street kids in a crowded Victorian classroom incredulously became Shakespeare devotees. I suppose it helped that the academic pressure was off with us having sat our exams, but it wouldn’t have mattered to Mr.Goulding. Here was a one-off, a rebel who tossed aside convention and ploughed his own educational furrow.

The second week with him was all about the United Nations, because on the Monday, Israel declared war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria. While pupils in other schools were doing arithmetic and comprehension, Gouldy organised us into pairs to represent twenty countries in discussion at the UN. I sat next to a lad called Eric who became my fellow French Ambassador. Eric tore a sheet out of his exercise book, wrote the word FRANCE in crayon across its width before attaching it to a ruler and placing it in the inkwell of our desk. Gouldy then patiently explained to us the background to the conflict and details of the tensions that had given rise to Israel’s attack on the airfields of Egypt. We learnt how France had traditionally provided many of the weapons to Israel, but under Charles de Gaulle, the French were more sympathetic to building relationships with Arab countries. Eric and I put forward proposals for France to act as intermediaries in bringing both sides together. We were still only ten years old! Within a fortnight of his arrival, this mystery man in a khaki jacket and desert boots had primary school children talking about Shakespeare and World Politics instead of Dinky cars, Sindy dolls and poo.

For the remaining six weeks or so of term, one of the regular features was a forum held for the class to discuss a particular topic, making us the youngest debating society in the country. No subject was out of bounds, with the debate on sex being especially memorable. Now I know most of will be recoiling at the thought of primary school children having an open forum on procreation, masturbation and venereal disease with a bearded stranger, but let me assure you, it was sex education as it should be. I remember asking Gouldy how elephants reproduce.

‘Like dogs,’ he answered.

He was the first person I heard say that masturbation was normal. Nobody laughed or giggled. He just treated us as enquiring young people, including Stevie who went home that night to enjoy his first guilt-free wank, even if it involved Little Steve lending a hand.

All too soon, the end of term arrived and we had to say our farewell to Mr.Goulding and his teaching revolution. Within a couple of months, I had come crashing down to earth with a bump. The setup at my grammar school based itself on some nineteenth century model, and the laissez-faire approach from the Gouldy days soon became a distant memory. In my years at grammar school right up to sixth form, we barely mentioned current affairs and certainly got nowhere near the complexities of global politics and religion achieved at our UN conventions in primary school. When it came to Shakespeare, my enthusiasm drained away quicker than bathwater down a plughole. Teachers taught the plays of the bard in a way so dry that staying awake in a lesson was nothing short of a triumph of the human spirit. As for Sex Education, the best we got was a functional biology lesson about the penis, vagina and the fertilised egg… or was that a Roger Greenaway film? My question about elephants mating would have seen me sent out of the class with the thrash of a cane across my palm the likely punishment. My secondary education was a largely dissatisfying experience, and all because of three months’ enlightenment courtesy of the brilliant Mr.Goulding.

He was not alone as a rebel teacher, and whilst there were a few forward thinking tutors who bucked the system, most that rebelled did so by harnessing sadistic or predatory behaviours. I recall a maths lesson where one poor sod had not done his homework, and so the teacher in retribution kicked his shins from the front of the lad’s desk. This educational maverick is just something that cannot exist in this age of the National Curriculum, OFSTED inspections, child protection legislation, and the close monitoring of teaching standards.

On balance, this is a good thing. For every Mr.Goulding, there were dozens of sadists and bullies. If our creators had been able to replicate Gouldy, it would have been the answer to everything from an education perspective, but that was science fiction. This man had a natural charisma and a way with a young person that was unique. As the years go by, I reflect more and more what a privilege it was to have had those three months in 1967 under his tutelage. I’m sure the other thirty-nine kids from 4a would agree if asked… forty if you count Little Steve.

 

 

The Stork

 

When I was five years old, I noticed my mother’s stomach getting bigger. Mildly intrigued, I decided not to probe any further. As the months passed by, her bump kept on growing until one day, I finally asked the question.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes?’

‘Why have you got such a big tummy?’

‘Well…’ she exchanged a look with my dad. ‘I’ve swallowed a big potato.’

I clearly swallowed the story a lot easier than my mum had swallowed the giant spud. I was happy with the explanation and skipped away to play football in the side street.

A month later just before Christmas, my mother disappeared for a few days. Dad failed to give my brother and me any explanation, though we were more concerned with counting down the days to Santa’s arrival. On Christmas Eve, he told us to put our coats on, as we were off to see Mum at the local hospital. When we arrived, I noticed straightaway that her potato had gone, but nobody said as to where. I barely spotted the crib next her bed with two big babies under a blue blanket. When pointed out that these were my new twin baby brothers, I quite reasonably asked where they had come from.

‘A white stork carried them in a sling with its beak and dropped them down the chimney,’ said my mum earnestly.

I accepted her explanation without challenge, because I’d seen Walt Disney’s Dumbo. I was ready to go home for another game of football.

That was the 1960s, but things started to change so that by the 1980s when my children asked the awkward question, my wife did not have ‘The Stork’ to call upon.

‘Ask your dad,’ she said.

My explanation, albeit based on the truth, lacked any gynaecological detail. It was something like, ‘When two people love each other very much and want a baby, if they are very lucky and wish hard enough, one starts growing in the mummy’s tummy.’

So far so good, but the next enquiry was trickier.

‘How does it get out?’

‘Mummy has to go to hospital for a few days and the doctors and nurses help it to be born.’

It was enough, and the moment passed.

A further couple of decades on and everything has changed again. The Stork has receded even further into the past as an explanation, but in its place is a biology lesson.

‘Mummy, how do you make a baby?’

‘Well darling, your daddy’s erect penis is entered into my vagina until he climaxes. His semen then travel to my fallopian tube where one sperm penetrates an egg released from my ovaries. The fertilized egg travels back to the uterus where it grows into a baby.’

‘But how does it get out?’

‘It comes out from where mummy has a wee wee.’

In my day as a parent, that would have induced a snorting giggle, but not anymore with the current crop of educated kids.

‘That can’t be right mummy. The urethra is far too small for an 8lb baby to pass through. I assume you mean the vaginal passage.’

It’s all a long way from the tale of the Stork and the baby in a sling. I’m not sure which I prefer.

 

 

****

 

 

COMMERCE & BUSINESS

 

 

Autograph Hunters

 

There was always more to the autograph hunter than the stamp collector. The latter was typically an introverted nerd with greasy hair and a fawn anorak who admired his collection in the privacy of his own bedroom and whose idea of a bit of tongue action was somewhat different to that of his contemporaries. The person chasing autographs was a different animal altogether, more outgoing and thick-skinned, shamelessly chasing down opportunities for a well-known person to sign his little book. The motive for assembling the scribbles of the famous – and the not so famous – had nothing to do with an enthusiasm for calligraphy and everything to do with fame. These were essentially wannabes, vicariously experiencing the world of celebrity by shoving a biro under the nose of the people exiting from the stage door. The stars acquiesced to the request because that was the deal.

Clearly, there was a range within the autograph fraternity and sisterhood that stretched from mild enthusiast to stalker, but those with a craving to be famous, or associated with fame, occupied the mid-point between these extremes. The common thread was a desire for recognition from peers in respect of this connection. Hence, the autograph devotee displayed his or her little book of signatures with the same zeal as a big game hunter showing off a moose’s head. At the age of twelve, we had one such zealot in our class at school.

This lad was a fantasist, a kind of Walter Mitty figure. One particular year, he announced just before Christmas that he planned to buy each classmate in 2E a present. I picked the board game ‘Blast Off’ and waited for young ‘Walter’ to come up with the goods. Obviously, he didn’t, and I was too young to register anything other than disappointment on my part. Then in the last week of the spring-term following the Christmas gift let down, Walter announced he was going to bring his autograph book into school. The next day at breaktime, he pulled out of his blazer pocket a small, rectangular book with a photo of The Beatles c. 1963 and the word ‘Autographs’ on its cover. A few of us gathered round to hear the stories behind the capture of the signatures. There was an extremely impressive start.

The scrawl on the first page represented the Holy Grail of autographs. It was that of Queen Elizabeth II. None us questioned that it was signed ‘The Queen’, nor did we challenge Walter’s story that he had met her when fishing in North Wales. He turned the page, revealing another highly prized scribble. It was ‘John F Kennedy’, assassinated five years’ before. Our naive trust showed no limits, as we accepted without reservation that the former US President had been on the same fishing holiday to Rhyl as Her Majesty, and also that his middle name appeared to be ‘Fatty’.

The viewing maintained our interest, as we witnessed the signatures of the Liverpool FC first team, James Bond, and the cast of Please Sir, but Walter was saving the best until last. On the final page, the words ‘Adolf Hitler’ stared back at our fixed gazes. Not one of us queried how the dictator, dead for over twenty years, had been able to sign an autograph book with a picture of John, Paul, George and Ringo on the cover. Walter explained that his Uncle Jack had been to Germany before the War where he met up with Adolf on – you’ve guessed it – a fishing trip. Naivety is ultimately an inadequate explanation for the credence we gave to Walter’s book. We were just bloody thick. If you think I am being harsh on a group of twelve-year-old boys who had not long discovered that Father Christmas didn’t really exist, I suggest you think again. Perhaps the greatest clue to the book’s lack of authenticity is the fact that Queen Elizabeth II, John F Kennedy, the Liverpool FC first team, James Bond, the cast of Please Sir and Adolf Hitler apparently all shared the same style of handwriting. Moreover, they all used the same blue crayon.

The two things that brought about the demise of the autograph hunting trade as we knew it were commerce and technology in that order. Let’s imagine that Walter’s little book from 1968 had been genuine. You don’t need to be Lovejoy to assimilate the likely resale value at an auction house. Autographs became a trading commodity in a similar vein to art and memorabilia, and when EBay arrived, the market exploded. Suddenly, the most active and determined hunter was not the traditional fame seeker, it was a broker or a dealer, and whilst this didn’t kill off the practice, it certainly curtailed it as celebrities became wary of people making a fast buck at their expense.

Then the digital camera and smartphone arrived to send the old custom packing. Fame wannabes in sight of somebody famous no longer reach for their little book and pen, they get out their camera phones to take a quick selfie for posterity. The instant posting of a photograph on Facebook of you and Tom Cruise is so much gratifying than showing your pals a piece of paper with his indecipherable signature.

You can still spot the individuals out there who in another age would have been autograph hunters. On Twitter, they reply to a celebrity’s tweet by saying something like ‘That’s so funny, but when are you going to notice me?’ If Walter were twelve years old now, he’d be tweeting away and claiming to have Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Barack Obama as followers. At one level, it’s harmless, at another, it’s quite sad, something I referred to in a recent Twitter exchange with my old friend, Brad Pitt.

 

 

Bread Strikes

 

Talk to anyone about the bad old days of strikes, and the chances are they will talk about miners, steelworkers or gravediggers. Not many will talk about bakers. By the 1970s, the UK employment market was heavily unionised, and for good reason. The traditional engagement of ordinary workers had a long history of exploitation with low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of investment in the workforce. Governments of right and left persuasions struggled to maintain industrial relations, particularly during this time when an increasingly powerful union movement made the mistake of overplaying its hand. The decade culminated in the Winter of Discontent, the fall of the Callaghan Labour Government, and the election of Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street, the latter a moment when more than a few Trade Union leaders will have rued the excess militancy of their recent past. There had been too many strikes involving the usual suspects of miners, postal workers, train drivers, public sector staff and, of course, bakers.

Bread strikes were a regular feature during the years when governments applied statutory pay restraints, bakers unhappy with a 30% pay increase, though you have to remember that inflation was more rampant than a stallion let loose in a paddock of fillies on heat. The consequential shortage of loaves induced a level of panic buying like nothing else I have seen in my lifetime. Forget fuel strikes and queues at the forecourt for petrol; they simply don’t compare. The nation’s women, still anchored to the kitchen and overpowered by a biologically charged, maternal instinct to feed, suddenly needed bread like a heroin addict needed smack. The lines of desperate customers outside independent family bakeries, unaffected by the industrial action, stretched out like the queue to buy tickets for a David Cassidy strip show at the Royal Albert Hall. Shoppers emerged from the little shop carrying a couple of bloomers - ooh ah Mrs - thrust in the air like a football captain holding the FA Cup aloft after victory at Wembley.

Some people solved the problem by making their own bread, including my own dad. Sadly, he was to baking what Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, militant shop steward at British Leyland, was to conciliation and mediation. His speciality was the tin, an especially apt name as his bread was as tough and durable as a can of spam. A mere breadknife struggled to penetrate the hard shell. In fact, even Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have struggled to cut off a slice with his petrol powered savage cutter. Fortunately, it wasn’t a total waste. His heavyweight bread came in useful as an effective doorstop, and a batch of four truly came into their own when propping up my brother’s Morris Mini after thieves stole four of its wheels.

Thatcher arrived at no.10 and set about attacking the unions. Many argue her policies changed the industrial landscape forever, but I would contend this is only partly true. There was still much unrest during her time in office; her government had merely swung the pendulum back in favour of management. They had not dealt with the underlying rift between bosses and workers.

The real change came via a combination of a more enlightened management style reinforced by employment legislation. The generation of managers departing at the fag end of Thatcherism had done National Service, schooled the military way. The new broom, weaned on the emerging youth culture, rejected the strict hierarchy and ushered in an era of co-operation and inclusion. When, in the late 1990s, the new Labour government adopted the EU’s Social Chapter and introduced the minimum wage, the gap between employers and employees narrowed further. The employee’s need for union membership to protect against exploitation had diminished, the TUC ultimately losing its real power, though in a more dignified and progressive way than the zealots of the Thatcher years had coveted.

The industrial strike is now largely a thing of the past, and there has never been any repeat of the Bakery walkouts and bread shortages. The big supermarkets are now the dominant players in the bread market and smaller, regional bakeries such as Warburtons have expanded to a national presence. Yet if it did happen, I’m confident the reaction now would be one of indifference. Our food tastes are much broader, and whilst the loaf remains a core food item, its importance is not what it was. To find a modern day equivalent to send the population into a panicking tizzy, it would be where all the major broadband providers went on strike, and the only Wi-Fi you could get was at small internet cafes. There is actually a nice symmetry about this example. Few would argue against the contention that the internet is the best thing since sliced bread.

 

 

Cheque Guarantee Cards

 

Before we ended with more plastic in our wallets and purses than a Lego factory, we had to pay for goods and services by cheque, and the only way of guaranteeing payment was with the help of your trusty cheque guarantee card, which allowed a purchase limit of £50 regardless of whether the actual funds in your account were those of John Paul Getty III or a dung beetle. But when the banks extended the approval of credit cards to dogs, cats, and even people from Middlesbrough, the number of cheques written began its steady decline.

It is, nonetheless, hanging on in there, thanks partly to businesses squeezing creditors with the voracity of a teenager squeezing his acne-ridden cheeks, ‘the cheque’s in the post’ message/falsehood still alive and kicking. And then there are those individuals that embraced technology for about five minutes in 1977, the magnetic ink at the foot of the cheque book being where the space age began and ended for them. For such people, the direct debit is the devil incarnate and the credit card, a Faustian pact. The cheque for these people is the only option, and so it survives.

The cheque guarantee card, however, is no more, finally withdrawn in 2011 after years of anachronistic existence. … and for £50, I will guarantee that fact as true.

 

 

Cigarette Branding

 

You can’t buy a packet of fags these days without a dire health message in a large white text box.

Smoking blocks the arteries and causes a heart attack or cerebral haemorrhage’

Smoking can cause a slow and painful death’

Smoking can shrink your testicles and turn your scrotum into a tasty treat for a Pit Bull Terrier’

There are even packets depicting dead bodies and open wounds.

It’s difficult to think of a bigger handicap for a marketing company whose job is to make you want to buy the product. To be fair, the power has long drained from the advertising world in the tobacco sector, yet at one time, ciggies were big business for the marketer. In the years before the medical profession proved the link between ill health and smoking, campaigns actively promoted the cigarette in television adverts, cinemas, magazines and billboards. Brands tagged as ‘mild’ targeted women, depicting the merchandise as glamorous and sophisticated. Men smoked ‘full strength’ brands, attracted by the association with masculinity and virility. Some companies even used doctors in advertising to endorse a smoke as a healthy choice.

When I’ve had a difficult day working at the hospital, and I lose all feeling down the left side of my body, I enjoy nothing more than relaxing with a Captain Filtered Cigarette, the only smoke for the medical bloke!’

It seems incredible now, but rations issued to soldiers in the First and Second World Wars included a supply of cigarettes. These poor buggers didn’t stand a chance. If the enemy didn’t get them with a bullet or a hand grenade, lung cancer was around the corner to strike them down. The tobacco companies knew exactly what they were doing. They supplied the fags at no cost to the military, thereby harnessing brand loyalty, so that when the war was over, their products sold like hot cakes, albeit hot cakes laced with toxins.

The television commercial was the first form of cigarette marketing banned, but it was a slow start. In the UK, it was not until the Labour government introduced the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act (2002) that we saw the eradication of tobacco advertising. A decade or so later, and supermarkets can no longer present cigarettes as part of a point-of-sale display. Furthermore, the indications are that more countries will follow the Australian example by banning all cigarette packet designs, thereby homogenising products for sale and ending tobacco branding for good.

What’s your favourite brand of cigarette?’

I smoke that one in the white box with the generic writing.’

Wow, what a co-incidence! So do I!’

 

 

Complimentary Mint Imperials

 

As banks realised that the customer ought to be welcomed rather than treated like a convicted murderer, some bright spark had the idea of putting a bowl of mint imperials by the cashier’s window. There was initial scepticism from the public, as people were conditioned to paying excessive amounts for any service provided by their bank. If you were charged £50 for going overdrawn by 30p, it stood to reason the ‘free’ mint imperial would manifest itself as a £100 catering fee on your next statement.

But when customers finally accepted the mints came with no price tag, they couldn’t get enough of them. With a large proportion of our population, as long as the product or item offered is free, there will always be an unlimited demand as a consequence. At a Food Fair, you could dish up fried antelope snot and there would be a queue waiting to tuck in, provided it was gratis. So bank customers would go to their local branch to fill up their wallets and purses with cash and their gobs with mint imperials.

All was well until a few eager young food scientists decided to examine samples under the microscope at their laboratories. The results were startling. In one sample, a scientist found the mints were polluted with over fifty different types of urine, more than ten bacteria associated with human excrement, and further traces of germs including salmonella, all originating from our less than squeaky clean hands.

The mint imperials were quickly replaced by humbugs that came in a hygienic wrapper. We could all rest easy. Going to the bank was never going to endanger your health again. But then came the financial crash, and we suddenly felt nostalgic for those times when you could pick up some cash, a mint, and a fungal infection, all in one go.

 

 

Free Plastic Bags

 

What’s the greatest threat to the survival of our planet? A giant meteorite on collision course with Earth? Carbon emissions from the heavy industries of the developing world? Or that carrier bag with the Pot Noodle you’ve just bought from the local convenience store?

It’s obviously the latter, which is why they are no longer free. Anyone caught with more than five in their possession is liable to twenty years hard labour in a high security prison where Anne Widdecombe is the head warden, and Daniel O’Donnell songs are piped over a public address system, 24/7.

Those inclined towards cynicism might suggest this is commerce attempting to maintain its ‘green’ credentials by finding a convenient scapegoat to distract from the Ben Nevis of packaging used elsewhere, hoodwinking law makers in the process. That this policy is akin to berating someone for fouling the air with a tiny fart when stood next to a giant mound of Brontosaurus shit. Well shame on you Mr or Mrs Cynic. How can you accuse the supermarkets of passing the buck when they spend all their time chasing it?

 

 

Green Shield Stamps

 

Loyalty schemes are everywhere in today’s consumer markets. There’s the Tesco Clubcard, Boots Advantage, the Nectar Card, and Avios Air Miles, to name but a few. They are an essential part of customer strategy from retailers that induce repeat spending and an unwavering allegiance to the brand. The daddy of such schemes was undoubtedly Green Shield Stamps.

By spending money in participating supermarkets, petrol stations and other outlets, shoppers earned stamps that could be stuck in a book, using your tongue to lick the reverse like a sex addict. Once you had a full book or more, you could exchange them for goods from a glossy catalogue, anything from a set of mugs to a motor boat. Unfortunately, most people had to opt for the mugs, because to get the sailing vessel you needed to spend the price of a semi-detached house on your weekly groceries. Even then, there was a twist in the tale, because the boat came without an outboard motor, which was like advertising a TV without the tube or a camera without a lens.

Tesco were the first retailer to cut up the green stamp when they withdrew them in a promotion that reinstated low prices as its core offer, effectively educating customers to the fact that the stamps didn’t come free. Green Shield never recovered, the stamps eventually losing their stickiness. The tongues of the nation breathed a sigh of relief, well apart from a few sex addicts who liked the taste of glue… amongst other things.

 

 

Half-Day Closing

 

In 1912, the UK government introduced the Shops Act which provided a shorter working week for shop workers, enabling them to enjoy the luxury of sleep for more than one night in seven. The change forced retailers to close for an additional half day, and most local authorities opted for Wednesday afternoon. Until the law was repealed in 1994, provincial shopping centres in the lead up to the 1pm closure would witness the regular panic buying of such essentials as bread and paraffin, although I have to say I prefer raspberry jam on my sandwiches. At the peal of the one o’clock chime, the pavements emptied as though the nuclear warning had sounded, although some shops were exempt from the law, such as those selling perishable food, medicines, newspapers, and aircraft supplies. It was always a tense Wednesday morning for my mum worrying that she had enough aviation fuel until the following morning.

Sundays were similar, but at least the rest of the population, apart from vicars and Jewish tailors, were largely at rest. On Wednesday afternoons, we still went to school, offices were open, and factories still produced their goods and associated noxious chemicals. It was an odd experience and strange that it lasted as long as it did. Nobody is calling for its return, and nobody thinks Wednesday afternoons ought to have been kept special. Half day closing closed with a whimper.

 

 

Knitting

 

Let’s say you need a new jumper for the winter. You have two options:

Option one is to buy a knitting pattern, two knitting needles, and about ten balls of yarn at an inflated price from a wool shop run by an eighty five year old called Doris. She has bad breath, yellow teeth, and has been trading from the same premises since time immemorial. It will then take you two months to hand craft a sweater, three sizes too big for you. Your finished garment will induce howls of derision from your less than tactful friends, and you will have developed rheumatoid arthritis in your hands that will leave you in constant pain during your later years.

Option two is to go to Primark and buy one for £9.99. Need I say more?

 

 

Kwik Save

 

Few would argue a checkout operator is in the same job league as a brain surgeon, unless you’ve had neurological surgery performed by the trembling hands of a medical man with the drinking habits of Dean Martin. To work on the tills, you only have to scan the products, perfect a bored shit-less expression, and let the customer do the rest. But back in the day, the aptitude of a rocket scientist came in very handy if you worked at the checkout in a Kwik Save store.

The first essential requirement was the mathematical agility of Archimedes, necessary to calculate the £1 12s 3d change from the tenner given by a customer for a basket totalling £8 17s 9d.

The second was an aptitude to acquire ‘The Knowledge’, not a mental map of the London A-Z but an instant recall of every price of every product in the store. In those pre-barcode times, supermarket goods had to be marked with a sticker displaying the price, except at the Kwiki. Ordinarily, an unpriced item displayed in a shop is a cause for acute concern. If your partner sees a piece of jewellery without a price tag in a Gucci shop window on the Isle of Capri and says, ‘I’d die to have that necklace’, you can’t help but think that death might be the price to pay rather than the probable ten thousand pounds.

But the Kwik Save range was cheaper than a prostitute with fifty years’ experience, albeit at the expense of choice, the budget supermarket chain having graduated from the Leonid Brezhnev School of Soviet Consumer Options. If you wanted yoghurt, you could have any brand or flavour as long it was a Ski Hazelnut pot. If you wanted crispy pancakes, you could have any one, provided it was Birds Eye Beef & Onion. And if you wanted chocolate biscuits, you could have any product as long it was a multi-pack of Cadbury’s Bar Six.

The Kwik Save was to quality retailing what Stalin was to tolerance and forgiveness. In fact, the whole operation was so low budget, there were no carrier bags, deemed to be an unnecessary luxury. To carry your shopping home, you had to scrabble around to find a suitably sized cardboard box, of which there was always a shortage. The packing section was therefore full of what appeared to be the homeless in a desperate search for evening shelter.

It may have been a shopping experience as exhilarating as a sermon from a vicar with narcolepsy, but the Kwik Save was a massive success and grabbed market share from the first generation supermarkets like the Co-op. It had taken a tight hold of the working class demographic and must have thought its domination was here to stay. But the owners did not take account of the English class system that permeates UK food retailing.

The Kwiki suffered a slow decline in the 1980s and 1990s as the increasingly aspirational consumer wanted to be associated with more ‘upmarket’ retailers like Sainsbury’s and the revamped Tesco. And when the classless continental discount chains arrived to sell unknown brands like ‘Poo’ crisps and ‘Cock’ sausages, all at prices lower than the bass in a barbershop quartet, the already wounded Kwik Save received a fatal blow.

They are now extinct.

And so the next time you’re ready to use the old cliché, ‘It’s not exactly brain surgery is it?’, try something different. ‘It’s not exactly working at the Kwik Save is it?’

Though don’t be surprised if you get a look suggesting you’re in need of brain surgery yourself.

 

 

Mail Order Photos

 

Family photographs used to be as rare as an oversexed monk, and those that did exist were sepia-coloured demonstrations of poverty and bad teeth. Film-loaded cameras incorporated a number count of remaining exposures, and given each picture cost an arm, leg and a delicate part of your anatomy to print, extreme caution was taken to ensure no more than a couple of snapshots a day were taken. But when the mail order photo arrived, everything changed.

After returning from your fortnight’s holiday withstanding the bracing winds and greasy chips of Ilfracombe, you sent a dozen 36 exposure cartridges to Quickie-Print. About a month later, the postman dropped a parcel of a thousand photos through your letterbox, removing the door from its hinges at the same time. If you were lucky, after five hours of scanning the images, there might be one or two worthy of keeping for posterity. The rest were earmarked for the bin. Yet nobody threw them away. They were put in plastic boxes and hidden in lofts and box bedrooms for eternity. Thirty years later, now that these same people are celebrating a landmark birthday, the search for decent photos of the time is as fruitless as my nephew’s diet. Worse still, the horror of reliving old times is compounded by a factor of two, as each awful snap has a duplicate.

Thank goodness the digital era arrived to destroy the business model of the mail order photograph. The more than handy delete function on the modern camera or smartphone has enabled quality control to take centre stage again. That said, in thirty years’ time when the digital generation are celebrating their own landmark birthdays, the only accessible photographs will be their Facebook archives, and to access them, they will need to troll through a catalogue of accompanying nauseous and sycophantic comments such as ‘looking gorgeous babe’ or ‘absolutely stunning’. But I’d take that any day over duplicate 6” x 4” snaps from 1986 of me with a double chin, slobbering, eyes shut, and wearing an oversized jumper from the Sweater Shop.

 

 

Robertson’s Golly Brooches

 

Some people might object to my omission of the three letters from the end of the word Golly, but the ‘I’m not a racist but’ brigade fail to understand that you have to be the party discriminated against to earn the freedom to use the racist language. Hence, black comedians can employ the ‘n’ and the ‘w’ words with impunity, but I can’t, and I’m very happy about that. Yet one might argue I was not so squeaky clean when I was young because I – like so many of the population – collected the golly brooches available from the country’s leading jam and marmalade producer, Robertsons.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the founder’s son was on a tour of America when he noticed children playing with a particular rag doll. Based on the stereotype image of the black savage, the company adopted the character as central to its branding, and it became a huge success. By the late 1920s, Robertsons produced the first enamel golly, soon much sought after by consumers. Within a few years, the promotion had exploded and for the next half-century or so, the public collected the brooches with, ironically, the fervour of savages.

By the 1970s, many people had woken up to the fact that the whole golly thing was rooted in racism, and so the jam producer acted in the face of changing public opinion. However, they fudged the issue. Golly was too much of a cash cow, and in an early nod to the Ten Years Younger TV show, designers modified his look by giving him a makeover. Gone were his pop eyes, replaced by a glance to the left, they straightened his legs, and they gave him a bigger smile. This would have been ideal for my imperfections, perhaps with head size reduction and penis enlargement thrown in for good measure, but for the jam maker’s mascot, they had simply perpetuated the discrimination via a rebranding. It was racism for a new generation.

The voices of activists grew louder but still Robertsons would not buckle, responding in the 1980s by dropping the ‘w’ suffix from his moniker and renaming the character as ‘Golly’. Finally, as diversity enshrined itself in legislation, the Golden Shred people in 2002 gave the orders for him to march over the old colonial horizon, to be replaced by Roald Dahl characters and Paddington Bear.

I recently had cause to visit an octogenarian, a sweet old lady called Alice without an ounce of offence in her frail body. Yet sitting there, taking pride of place in the middle of her settee was a cuddly Golly. I suppose for Alice, the rag doll was a conduit to younger, more naive days, and I would argue that this brand of ‘racism’ is irrelevant, given that it has the same fragility and permanency as the Alices of this world. My act of collecting tags from marmalade jars and sending off for an enamel golly guitarist was borne from a similar innocence, in my case that of youth. But forgiveness for Robertsons is harder. They ran the campaign for much longer than they should have done, and even now, they have ‘retired’ Golly rather than killed him off. He won’t be back though. The fight against racism is almost complete, and it would be commercial suicide for Gollies to appear again on the jams and marmalades in our supermarkets. I suspect if they did, the words used by most customers would be something a bit stronger than ‘Golly gosh!’

 

 

Roller Towels

 

There are basically two types of electric hand drier now found in public places such as restaurants, pubs, bars and other leisure haunts. There’s the drier that doesn’t dry your hands, where you faithfully carry out the instructions to rub your mitts together as warm air is fired in their direction. When the drier stops after about ten seconds, you remove your still wet hands to wipe them on the back of your trousers, begging the question as to why you didn’t do that in the first place?

The other hand drier is the upmarket designer type that will dry your hands with environmental ease. The problem here is that the machine operates with the G force of a fighter jet. Your hands are no longer wet because they’re no longer there. You now have a stump at the end of each arm in place of fully functioning digits. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but if I want an adrenaline fuelled experience, I’ll go to Alton Towers and not to the little boys’ room in my local bar.

But before electric hand driers ruled the world of public convenience, there was the roller towel. Like a giant toilet roll made of cotton or linen and always coloured white with a blue stripe, you operated the machine by tugging downwards on the visible part of the material. Some heavy handed males, lacking the delicate touch of a Latin lover, were even inclined to pull the whole machine off the wall.

You always hoped for a freshly installed towel. If you were the second or third user, the rotating machine would get stuck and you would be forced to re-use the already wet bit of cotton on display. Your hands were dry but covered in someone else’s piss. If you were about the tenth or eleventh punter, you’d still have to wipe your hands on your backside to dry them, but they were now covered in enough bacteria to keep the microbiologists at the local university busy for a semester or two.

The only place a guy was safe from the roller towel jeopardy was the football stadium. At the Kop end of Anfield, the guy who cleaned up after going to the gents was as rare as a pork sausage dinner in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. The queue to the gents at half time was longer than the Great Wall of China, and when I eventually made it inside to do the business, I had to wade through a river of a thousand visits that had waterlogged the tiled floor. But I was a maverick because I always washed my hands on the pristine towel, even though my fellow Kopites looked at me as if I had Obsessive Compulsion Disorder.

The roller towel was initially challenged by a paper equivalent, a flawed product for two reasons. Firstly, most paper products were made of rough sandpaper, lacerating your skin as you dried your hands. And secondly, people adopted the same mentality as the glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet, using about ten times more paper than was necessary.

The rain forests took the strain until the roller towel was finally killed off by the electric hand drier. And though you can still find them at the odd establishment in urgent need of refurbishment, it’s probably best not to use them. You should dry your hands using the back of the trousers technique… preferably, your own trousers.

 

 

Royalty Free Olympic Rings

 

The name of my junior football team was Olympic FC, and the crest on our shirts was a homespun version of the insignia of the five Olympic Rings. We liked it. In fact, everybody liked it. I’m sure even the International Olympic Committee liked it. But it couldn’t happen today. For today, we have the Olympic Brand Police.

At London 2012 – and it’s possible a Brand Officer is on his way to my home right now – the sponsors ensured that the IOC employed hundreds of brand enforcement officers to tour the country and deal with examples of ‘unlawful’ use of the Olympic Brand. Unfortunately, nobody had the finances to challenge the might of the Olympic organisers, and so they got their way.

There was the example where the brand coppers launched an exhaustive hunt for rogue condoms after an athlete Tweeted a picture of a bucket of sheaths that weren’t the official brand of London 2012, although I understand that before this particular inquiry reached its climax, investigators withdrew at the last moment. Then there was the butcher from Brighton – wasn’t he a serial killer? – who had to retract a poster that promoted ‘Bolt Burgers, Olympic Torch Kebabs, Gold Medal Sausages and a disposable BBQ for £10’. Could it be that key official sponsor McDonalds objected, not wanting to be associated with so much real meat?

London 2012 was a triumph in so many ways, but the enforcement of the brand was one of the few things that organisers got wrong. No doubt, future Olympics will be no different. Let’s try it out.

Coming soon, Whitfield’s Olympic Condoms in the shape of the five Olympic Rings. Pre-order now and get a free Olympic sausage.’

I fully expect an explosion of enquiries… though not from customers, just from the Brand Police.

 

 

The Bank Manager

 

The Bank Manager was once a pillar of the community, alongside the Doctor, the Vicar, and the Paedophile, although the latter obviously disguised himself as the Scout Master or the Junior Football Team Coach. The man in charge of the bank not only worked there; he lived there. My commuting time used to be an hour and a half, and whilst it’s now an extremely tolerable ten minutes, this is a marathon trek across the Andes when compared to the ten seconds down the stairs for Mr Wilkins of St. Martin’s Bank, Station Road, Bathchester in 1965.

Banking in the 21st century is unrecognisable from that of the past. If you want to open a current account today, you check your pulse, and providing it beats, you complete an online application and you’re in. Mr Wilkins would have insisted you paid for the privilege of a new account and supplied two letters of recommendation from local referees. If your social life didn’t stretch to being on good terms with a couple of middle aged men who spent their weekends running up and down a muddy football pitch, dressed in black and blowing a whistle, another two esteemed members of the town would suffice. The Scout Master and the Junior Football Team Coach were ideal for this task, especially if you had some Agatha Christie style leverage to use as blackmail.

There were no credit cards, very few personal loans, and mortgages were the remit of the building societies. If you needed an overdraft or some form of loan facility, an interview with the Bank Manager was a pre-requisite. A minute or so into this meeting, you realised that he knew more about your private life than you did. He might be agreeable about your financial plans, but he’d also point out that your personal relationship was about to come under considerable strain because your wife was having an illicit affair with the Butcher. As you sat their reeling at this news, everything clicked into place. Those strange phone calls, her recent distraction, the smell of raw mince… yes, it all made sense.

With television advertising taking off in an increasingly commercial world, Banks remained true to their old gentlemen’s agreement to shun any distasteful marketing. However, a TV campaign in the 1970s did promote banking, though in general rather than individual institutions. Financed by the Committee of London Clearing Banks, the adverts portrayed the Bank Manager as an incorruptible individual, a man so trustworthy and honourable that he lived in your wardrobe, an upright person in more ways than one. His position as a highly respected public figure seemed immovable, and nobody thought badly of Mr Wilkins, even though the habit of hiding in the closet of an attractive female customer was likely to be viewed with less tolerance and acceptance by the courts.

Yet everything was about to change. Within a generation, the old school elitism of banking had evolved into mass-market financial services. Everybody had a bank account, a credit card and a loan, made possible by the decentralisation of the Bank Manager’s role to a computerised, credit-scoring mathematical model administered by a group of Alan Turing-type nerds in a fifty-storey office block in the City of London. Executive managers implemented reorganisation strategies that required the retirement or redundancy of Mr Wilkins and his contemporaries. It was time to exchange the wardrobe for a coffin.

Post 2008, the pariahs of Western society are the bankers, blamed for causing the financial apocalypse. Any public speaker wanting a cheaply earned round of applause need only criticise bankers’ bonuses to achieve the objective. The profession is now right up there with politicians, estate agents, and serial killers in terms of public revulsion. As he sits in his rocking chair or takes a ride upstairs on his Stannah Stairlift, Mr Wilkins is no doubt musing that things would have been very different if the Bank Manager was still around to dispense his wisdom and sound judgement. Unfortunately, that’s more than a bit ingenuous now that the provincial bank has gone global. Consequently, if an old guy knocks at your front door and promises to look after your personal finances, I’d give him short shrift, particularly if he suggests moving into your wardrobe.

 

 

The Doorstep Pinta

 

There was a time when I thought my dad was a milkman. I was the only sibling with blond hair in a group of five. The others, and both my parents, had locks darker than a Yorkshire pothole. The general light-hearted consensus was that I was the milkman’s offspring. Unfortunately, I was young enough to interpret these comments literally.

Our man from the dairy was called Wesley, a flirt with all the women on his round, especially my mum, and I recall his searching looks directed towards me, as if trying to identify a familiar facial feature. It may have been disconcerting at the time, but I was way off beam. An Anglo-Saxon, I looked like one of his milk bottles, and Wesley was from Trinidad.

In some ways, it’s a miracle the doorstep pinta is still with us. The service originated at a time when milk was at the core of the British diet, and there was not a Tesco Metro at the top of the road selling a convenient six pinta at a third of the price. There is only one reason why the doorstep delivery service survives, albeit by a thread, and it has nothing to do with people preferring their milk delivered fresh every morning. It is because nobody wants to be the one to make their milkman redundant.

‘I’m sorry but we no longer need your deliveries because I can get it from the supermarket at a fraction of the price.’

Your bombshell is likely to be greeted with a ‘Fair enough’, but the body language will say something very different. It will say, ‘You do realise, I will now have to give my four children up for adoption, my wife will leave me, and I will suffer a nervous breakdown that will begin a spiral of decline, leading to a life of serious crime, drug misuse and early death. In fact, to save time, why don’t you go and get a shotgun and shoot me now?’

The emotional blackmail is too much to withstand, and so the milkman just about survives. But his days are numbered and I, for one, will not miss him. And for that, you can blame Wesley, the flirt from Trinidad. My other dad.

 

 

The Monopoly Iron

 

I’m not sure why I felt such a pang of sadness when greeted with the news that the makers of Monopoly were replacing the original ‘Iron’ token with a ‘Cat’. Was I such an ironing devotee? I have a pal who takes part in the ‘Iron Man’, a ridiculous event where I think you have to swim the Amazon, cycle around the world, and then run from Birkenhead to Timbuktu. He christened me ‘Ironing Man’, because my primary source of exercise was housework, pressing clothes always a preferred choice compared to cleaning bathrooms, kitchens, and giving the vacuum cleaner a marathon blast from lounge to attic bedroom. Yet while I might welcome a bit of ironing action from time to time, I am no fanatic.

Maybe I sub-consciously looked upon the Monopoly Iron as a symbol of innocent times now lost, its demise indicative of a passing era. The particular model used in the game was a flat iron that sourced its heat from sitting on the gas stove like a pan of stew. It had no electrics, no jet of steam, no spray, no Anodilium Technology Soleplate and was a Luddite’s dream. Yet I tolerate, in fact, embrace change, so that couldn’t be the reason.

Perhaps it was the cat. I’m allergic to them. In one of life’s little ironies, cats love me. In a room of a dozen people, if a ginger tom enters, he invariably heads towards me and cuddles on my lap. The next thing, my eyes are stinging, I have red blotches on my hands, and I’m wheezing like somebody regretting their lifelong, 60-a-day John Player Specials’ habit. Felines and I were never meant to be, but I don’t hold any strong antipathy towards them.

On the other hand, is it possible that I knew I’d miss the ease with which the Iron moved around the board thanks to its convenient handle and broad, flat base? It was never in any danger of toppling over like the Battleship. Yet the flaw with this argument, and all the others for that matter, is that I haven’t played Monopoly for about thirty years, and that’s partly because each games lasts about thirty years. Moreover, the politics of the game are anathema to me. If I stumbled across somebody trying to buy up all the property in a place so that they could charge maximum rents, I don’t think we’d have a particular chemistry other than one that created a sulphurous smell.

Ultimately, my reaction was probably more to do with the faux-democracy of Hasbro consulting with Facebook groups to facilitate a vote. I can see the thought shower of the Marketing department with its flipchart list of how to engage with a younger demographic and a big tick against its cynical electoral idea that would ultimately oust the Iron. But hey, that’s capitalism for you, and nothing celebrates free market enterprise as nakedly as Monopoly, automatically attributing some justification to the change. I therefore have to accept that it’s goodbye to the Iron and hello to the Cat. Who knows, it might reignite my interest in playing a game. Thinking about it, I quite like the idea of Monopoly with a bit of pussy.

 

 

The Phone Box

 

Three things characterised the phone box:

1. It always smelt like a toilet because it was the perfect place for the inebriated to relieve themselves on the way home from the pub.

2. There was usually a metal washer jammed in the coin slot, inserted by some tight arse who had begrudged paying sixpence to ring granny at the hospital.

3. The phone cord had often been cut with the umbilical skill of a midwife.

The chance of making a successful call may have been slim, but you were highly likely to emerge from the enclosed space, anointed with the aroma of a stray feline that had rolled in its own cat litter. It was an unpleasant, frustrating experience, but you had no choice if you were out and about, and you needed to contact someone.

There used to be as many telephone kiosks as post boxes until political pressures to make the enclosed booth more accessible to those with a disability, led to less and less of them in our villages, towns and cities. And when the mobile device arrived to take over our lives, the loss making phone box was doomed.

Many of the traditional old red kiosks have now been sold off to private individuals. So don’t be surprised if you go to a friend’s BBQ next summer, and you find one in the garden. You’ll probably also find one of the lads inside having a pee.

 

 

TV Rentals

 

 

The tipping point for the popularity of TV in the UK occurred in 1953 at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation when licence holders quadrupled overnight. By the time ITV had joined the broadcasting fray two years later, the demand to have a TV in the living room sky rocketed. The problem was the price of a television, that was only affordable to the average family if dad supplemented his wage with a spot of pimping. Thus, the only viable option for most families was to rent one, a practice that continued for the next few decades. It helped that TV sets had the reliability of a spaceship made by a three-year-old, the rental arrangement permitting the regular paid for visit of a downbeat prophet of doom TV engineer to replace broken valves and circuit boards whilst declaring the world would end in two weeks’ time.

Roll forward fifty odd years, and you can buy a television for the price of a doughnut, and given that nobody would consider renting a doughnut, it’s little wonder that the TV rental market is no more.

 

 

The Record Store

 

My addiction to visiting the record store began at the age of thirteen, after I bought my first ever disc from our local joke shop Kardoonies. Mr Kardooni – presumably christened something less exotic like Jim Smith – specialised in stink bombs, mucky pup, and whoopee cushions but added second hand records to his product range. The disc I purchased on that sunny afternoon in 1969 was a Marble Arch Kinks album called ‘A Well Respected Man’, and I remain grateful to the lisping joke shop owner that when asked many years later in management meetings ‘What was the first record you bought?’, I always had an answer with some credibility, unlike some of my colleagues, blushing at tales of Kylie Minogue, Black Lace or Brother Beyond.

I gravitated from the joke shop to places selling new records, taking advantage of the listening booths to sample the latest sounds. It was around this time that I peaked in terms of addiction. My junior football team visited Dublin for a long weekend, and I was delighted to discover scattered along O’Connell Street, a number of stores that sold thousands of 45rpm singles at a cost of only 10p each. It was time to fill my boots, and having bought in excess of a hundred records, a few items of clothing had to be sacrificed when packing for the homeward journey. It was out with the dungarees and in with the Bee Gees, Moody Blues and Joe Cocker.

The record store remained a sanctuary for me over the years, and I experienced a second wave of addiction when the CD market took off. I was working in Manchester at the time and would spend my lunch hours scouring the music shops in the city centre. I soon worked out that record companies had a tendency to dump their more mainstream titles for next to nothing in the ‘too cool for school’ record outlets. Piccadilly Records was one such example and was so cool, it almost froze your bollocks off when you entered. My own musical taste is pretty diverse, running the gamut from prog rock to cheesy pop, and it was my indulgence in the latter that provided the moments of greatest shame during this era. While staring at posters of Pulp’s pending in-store signing session while listening to jazz fusion blasted over the shop’s hi-fi, I would buy Celine Dion’s latest CD single for a measly 25p, my self-consciousness reaching a level on par with that endured when buying condoms from the chemist as a teenager.

Alas, the few record stores that remain in this day and age are very much at the niche end of the retail spectrum, now that the digital world has transformed the way we consume music. Music streaming via Spotify or YouTube has effectively killed off the record store as something relevant to the modern music industry, though I do miss the days when one appeared on every high street in every town.

Whilst I still carry the record collector’s addictive propensity, at least I can exercise this in the comfort and privacy of my own home. And the great thing about the internet purchase is that it arrives through the post wrapped in brown paper… I wish I could have bought the condoms this way. The postman doesn’t know I’m a member of the Celine Dion fan club… and can I say the latter comment is for comic effect rather than anything based on the truth… or is that a double bluff?

 

 

Video Rentals

 

For any sleepover that involved my youngest son when he was about twelve, the boys wanted crisps, sweets, soft drinks, but most of all, a scary video to watch. And it had to have an 18 certificate.

I had a membership card for our local Video Rental shop and so about five or six young lads and me would traipse into the down-market premises to peruse the titles available to rent. The main part of the shop displayed the chart and mainstream videos, but having failed in my efforts to tempt the young guns to try any film suitable for general family viewing, we invariably moved to the little room at the back of the shop with the sign ‘ADULT’ hanging above the door.

There wasn’t any notice barring young people from entering this no-go zone, but it was clearly not an appropriate area for children. The boys barged their way into the seedy, out of bounds room with shouts of Zombie Bone Munchers – European Vacation!, Night of the Maggot Riddled Corpse! and Pittsburgh Chain Saw Slasher! They would then spend the next ten minutes drenched in indecision as to their choice, while I attempted to keep them distracted from the hardcore porn adjacent to the horror section, though I’m not sure why. The average twelve year old boy is only interested in the female form if it involves her limbs being dismembered or her flesh served up for lunch with mash potatoes and gravy.

So that’s my abiding memory of the Video Rental Shop. And whilst it was largely a phenomenon of the VCR age, it did acquire further longevity when DVDs and video games became available for hire. But when films and games were able to be streamed and downloaded via the Internet, the business model for video rentals was destroyed in a flash. The sleepover for pre-teen boys no longer required an uncomfortable vigil amongst the adult movie section of ‘Vids R Us’, and countless parents remain grateful.

As for those of you who disapprove of my liberal attitude in permitting twelve year old boys to watch such horror movies, I think time has vindicated my decision. These lads have grown up to be very well adjusted, mature adults, and special mention should be made of young Tommy Johnson. His behaviour has been so impeccable that he has been transferred from a secure unit to an open prison, although he still needs to wear a gimp mask in daylight hours.

 

 

ENTERTAINMENT

 

 

A Cast of Thousands

 

January 31st 1981 was the 33rd anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral, the same day that Richard Attenborough used 300,000 extras to recreate the event in his Oscar winning film Gandhi. It followed on from the Hollywood tradition of biblical and historical epics such as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Spartacus, and it remains the movie with the largest number of extras ever used… excluding of course the classic Attack of the Spermatozoa II – The Egg’s Revenge, which had billions of ejaculating extras, one egg and an understudy.

The obvious problem with the ‘Cast of Thousands’ was not the sourcing or the logistics. There is never a shortage of willing and compliant people ready to ‘star’ in the world’s most glamorous industry, and governments have a tradition of falling over themselves to offer tax breaks for filmmakers using their locations. The real issue was the cost, and so to justify the expense, it was vital that the film was a box office success. When the sword and sandal blockbusters Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) bombed, Hollywood’s love affair with these big productions waned. A couple of decades later, ‘Darling Dickie’ bucked the trend with Ghandi, but only by paying a third of the extras, and then not much more than a free poppadom.

The historical epic returned in 2000 with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but this time without the Cast of Thousands, the director using CGI digital effects to create the Coliseum and the crowds. The film was a huge success. Throughout the industry, Executive Producers sighed with relief that the makers had achieved its ambitious visual sweep via the low cost engagement of a few nerds in front of a bank of computer screens. It was time for the hundreds and thousands of extras to walk off into the sunset, never to appear again in such massed ranks on the silver screen… at least not until the premiere of Attack of the Spermatozoa III – The Final Climax.

 

 

A Face for Radio

 

Let’s say you have an interview for a job as a Television Presenter. How do you prepare for this chance of a lifetime? Here’s how…

You start by having a nose job, your ears pinned back, and the bags under your eyes surgically removed. You then re-mortgage your house to afford clothes designed by Stella McCartney and max out on all your credit cards to pay for your Gucci jewellery. With your finances at stretching point, you sell that story to Closer magazine about Uncle Frank and his two penises to finance your hair and makeover by Nicky Clark. And with £20 left to your name, you put a tenner aside for a taxi to the TV studio and use the rest for a spray tan at Steve Green’s Car Repairs & Tanning Salon.

But what if the job is in radio as a DJ? Presumably, this is an easier task without the imperative of bankruptcy in the lead up to the interview. Well it used to be, but not anymore. Thanks to the webcam and now internet streaming, you can watch radio broadcasts in high definition, leaving no hiding place for the radio broadcaster’s appearance. The old school ‘Pilots of the Airwaves’ bemoan this development, longing to relive the past.

Back in the day, if you were up for a job in radio, you’d get up wearing the same vest and underpants you’d had on for a week and then look in the bathroom mirror. Remembering that you spewed last night’s Vesta Curry down your front before going to bed, you pressed the button on your battery Philishave, which made the sound of a farting squirrel before dying… that’s the appliance not the squirrel. You ditched the razor, splashed a thimble of cold water on to your face in lieu of a wash, swilled your mouth with flat dandelion and burdock in a can on the window ledge, and then had a piss, liberally splashing the jogging bottoms to be worn for the morning’s interview.

You picked up your mix tape demo and drove in your Rover Metro to the radio station. Your fart on the way turned out not to be fart, but it was too late to turn back. After parking the vehicle, you opened the car door and a passing man in a van pulped your face with his Bedford Rascal. With a bloodied visage the colour of raspberry jam and your nose hanging off, you made your way via reception to hand a tape to Brian Philpott, the station manager, just as you noticed dog muck inexplicably smearing the soles of both shoes. While Brian listened to the tape, you scratched your head and a ring doughnut fell to the floor, which you improvised as your breakfast.

‘You’ve got the job Clive,’ said Brian, laconically. ‘You’re on air in half an hour, after Bill Morrison’s Gardening and Sex Tips.’

The point is that in the old days, if you were a radio DJ, it didn’t matter how you looked as long as you sounded good. Let’s be frank, how else would Andy Peebles have got the job?

 

 

Bingo Halls

 

I think of Bingo as something for thick people, which I accept is unfair, but this indelible prejudice was formed when I was young. My mum’s friend Peggy – big on eating doughnuts but small on intellectual capability – would spend more time in the local bingo hall than in the home looking after her three small children.

A favourite in the social club and the old peoples’ home, the numbers game is not one normally associated with society’s intelligentsia. And yet I have seen wrinkled old women showing uncharacteristic mental dexterity as they mark half a dozen bingo cards at the same time. I guess it’s the same phenomenon as the mathematical ability of the average darts player, IQ scores lower than their shoe size but a remarkable ability to compute instant combinations for a winning finish. People are cleverer than they realise.

Bingo halls took off in the 1960s when gaming laws were relaxed and commercial TV hit cinema audiences. Picture houses in every town and city were converted to house bingo. Wives and mothers, traditionally anchored to a hot stove, twin tub and low self-worth, were suddenly liberated to socialise with like-minded women in the shared pursuit of winning that elusive full house jackpot, thereby finding a way out of their everyday drudgery. I remember sitting next to my mum at our local bingo hall and looking out on to a sea of beehive hair, skinny rib tops and cigarette smoke. This was the working class woman’s Monte Carlo.

And then there was the Bingo Caller with his local radio transatlantic drawl, a seedy looking guy with hair daubed in grease, bad teeth, and a maroon crushed velvet jacket adorned with a snowstorm of dandruff on the shoulders. He relished his bingo calls, particularly the Carry On influence of numbers such as ‘Tickle Me’ (63) and ‘Red Raw’ (64). And who can forget his catchphrase of caution uttered every time someone from the crowd called out they had a winning line, four corners or a full house.

‘Wait a minute ladies, it might be a bogey.’

The first time I heard this, I looked around expecting to see a forefinger tunnelling up his nostril.

But the Bingo Hall was doomed not to last. The changing times for women and their new social aspirations meant that its appeal narrowed to an older demographic whose idea of a sex symbol was Alan Titchmarsh with man boobs in cotton y-fronts. And when the government weighed in with the smoking ban, its decline became as terminal as an addiction to UK Gold.

Bingo survives thanks to an online presence and a fair splattering of Peggy and her type, but the Bingo Hall will soon belong in the past, though in a twist of fate, some are re-opening as cinemas. And so it’s time for the 88 to 4 at 78 because they’ve had their 70. For the benefit of the non-bingo lover, I’m saying that it’s time for those two fat ladies to knock at the door of Heaven’s gate because they’ve had their three score and ten. Or do you think ‘it might be a bogey’?

 

 

Circus Animals

 

When it comes to the animal kingdom, these are certainly more enlightened times. David Attenborough et al have educated the populous as to the habitats and behaviours of all creatures great and small on Mother Earth, so that animal rights are recognised as a matter of course. But things were once very different.

We had the circus as a core part of our entertainment roster, on prime time TV and in the local park for a week of nightly shows. And beneath the big top, the main attraction wasn’t the clowns, the trapeze artist or the ringmaster. It was the circus animal, and not just any animal. It was a performing beast.

This might be a giant grizzly bear who rode a bike with all the stability of an alcoholic on the way home from a lock-in at the pub. Or a ragged Indian elephant who balanced on a coffee table, the size of a postage stamp. Or even a monkey who sat on the back of a show horse and scratched a pair of pendulous bollocks at the same time… that’s his own, not the horse’s. I was aware that these animals had travelled from the deserts, plains and jungles of warmer climes to strut their stuff under the giant tent in Birkenhead Park, but I rather naively assumed that these tricks came naturally to them. That said, I don’t think I ever truly visualised a Brown Bear in the Canadian Rocky Mountains riding a Raleigh Chopper on his way to kill a small mammal for lunch.

But to the ignorance of the watching public, these creatures were being exploited and neglected by their circus owners, and when this became obvious to the animal loving British, the joy of watching these shows evaporated. Animal welfare groups mobilised, became very influential, and tapped into these changing attitudes. When politicians and regulators followed suit, the circus beast was all but literally killed off.

We are now in the final chapter of this brand of entertainment, unless you live in China where there’s every chance you can watch some exotic animal break dancing under a giant marquee and then eat some for dinner after the show. The Chinese have a lot to teach us in terms of enterprise, hard work and discipline, but they are to animal welfare what UKIP are to multiculturalism.

There are only a couple of animal circuses left in this country, courtesy of three Tory backbenchers who continue to object to any private member’s bill introduced in the House of Commons to outlaw the tradition. I say end the practice although not before allowing the wild animals one last feast whilst in captivity. Three spit-roasted Conservative MPs should do nicely.

 

 

Come Dancing

 

Put the world ‘Strictly’ in front of ‘Come Dancing’ and you have the biggest TV phenomenon of recent years. Yet comparing the BBC’s current star vehicle with the old televised version is like comparing best caviar with monkey shit. Come Dancing, presented by a cricket commentator, pitted regional ballroom dancers against one another, while professionals called Syd and Edna taught the moves to viewers. It was stiffer than a starched shirt of an emperor penguin hanging out to dry in the winter freeze of the Antarctic. Incredibly, the show ran for about half a century, but with its audience dwindling year on year, the programme lost its place on the schedules, and the last episode was broadcast in 1998.

Nobody expected ballroom to re-emerge a few years later in its Strictly format, nor for it to be such a success, international success at that, with the format sold across the globe as Dancing with the Stars. I’m a big fan of Strictly. It exudes glamour, warmth, escapism, technique, and entertainment. Somehow, a few TV wizards have achieved the unthinkable, turning monkey shit into best caviar.

 

 

Deciphering Song Lyrics

 

These days, it couldn’t be easier to get lyrics to a song. All you need to do is Google the title and Bingo! The words are there in front of you, and the website gives you the bonus of installing a browser you don’t want and throws in a free computer virus. It’s such a pity things were not that simple when I was a teenager playing in a band.

My part was easy to learn. I was the drummer, but being the member in the group who had the best ‘O’ level results, the other guys asked if I would write down the lyrics of songs we wanted to cover. ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ by the Stones jumps to mind.

The stylus of the stereogram was up and down like a whore’s drawers as I attempted to translate the audio on to paper. The chorus was straightforward, but the verses proved an impossible task. It sounded to me that Mick Jagger was singing in Esperanto, and so I resorted to writing down the lyric phonetically. When Tommy our lead singer performed the number by incorporating all of Jagger’s vocal ticks and lip gymnastics in front of a dozen old men at the local pub, we seemed to get away with it, mainly because nobody was listening. However, after the gig, the publican handed over the £5 appearance fee and whispered in my ear.

‘Eh lad, that singer of yours, when he was doing that Jack Flash thing… are you sure he wasn’t having a stroke?’

The accessibility of lyrics online has also highlighted the extent to which I have been singing the wrong words. ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, a staple of every party disco of the last thirty years, is a song about the sexual frustrations of a young man in the 1950s, desperate for his girlfriend to remove her dress so that he can have a slice of nooky. Yet all this time, I have been bellowing about an old crooner who spends his weekends as a transvestite called Eileen, eating rye bread in the loo with Rudolf Hess.

Just a minute… my screen keeps flashing. I must have a virus from one of those lyric websites. Excuse me while I’ll take a couple of paracetamol with water.

 

 

Gary Glitter’s Music

 

There’s nothing quite like paedophilia to kill off a music career. ‘Do ya wanna be in my gang?’ really doesn’t sound the same when newly interpreted as a rallying cry to like-minded child abusers. Fortunately, Gary Glitter’s music was shit. He was an overweight, ageing rocker with dyed black hair who wore a sparkling Lycra suit, but he was no Elvis. He rode the wave of glam rock at the same time as David Bowie, but he was no Ziggy Stardust. He proved that where there’s brass, there’s muck. And where there’s a vibrant, beating heart, there’s an active bowel churning out waste.

‘Do you wanna touch me?’… What do you think?

 

 

Grandstand

 

As a baby boomer child, Saturday afternoons for me were all about Grandstand, the BBC’s weekly sports broadcast. Fronted in its prime by the legendary David ‘Remarkable’ Coleman, the programme covered all the major sporting events from the world of football, racing, boxing, athletics, golf, tennis, grand prix, and more. Yet by 2006 – just before its 50th anniversary – competition from satellite TV and the bourgeoning digital age had seriously limited the sports available to broadcast. Mark Thompson, the then Director General of the BBC, announced that the programme would end by 2009 but was then handed a copy of the Radio Times with the coming week’s Grandstand schedule. Sandwiched between the now annexed Football Focus and Final Score were a collection of less than mainstream sporting highlights:

 

1.00pm – 2.00pm – International Tiddlywinks

2.00pm – 3.30pm – British Hopscotch Championship

3.30pm – 4.30pm – Marbles

4.30pm – 5.00pm – Swingball

 

A ‘not so remarkable’ line-up, Thompson brought forward the programme’s demise by two years and swung the axe… coincidentally another latter day Grandstand sport.

 

 

Inaccessible Celebrities

 

This was the moment I realised Twitter and I were about to get serious.

‘What’s with the pink cheeks and smug grin?’

It was my wife, taking a few seconds off from the Great British Bake Off.

I couldn’t hide the self-satisfaction of exchanging a few lines with one of my favourite authors.

‘I’ve just had a twat from Michael Simkins’.

Before I had chance to find the right noun, she lowered her eyebrows as if to ask, ‘Who’s Michael Simkins?’ but then turned her attention back to the jeopardy of an over-egged Victoria sponge. I refreshed my screen and reflected on the power of the burgeoning Twitter-sphere.

Twitter has provided access to ‘celebrity’ like nothing before. In the old days, the closest that followers could get to the inner thoughts of their heroes was via the Q&A section of the fan club magazine. However, this was a sham. The editor had employed Val as a ghostwriter, a spinster with Edna Everage spectacles, beehive, and addiction to Soluble Disprin. Your favourite artist loved Bols Advocaat because that was Val’s chosen tipple.

The arrival of the internet has swept away the fan clubs like a Tsunami and seemingly brought the famous closer to the masses than ever before. Yet the websites, newsfeeds and blogs are not what they seem. Val has gone, but in her place is a publicity machine, built from the component parts of the business structures that underpin every celebrity. The blend of YouTube and Facebook has created, like Gulliver’s tackle, a giant tool… though used for marketing rather than terrorising the inhabitants of Lilliput.

This is where Twitter is different. It might still be used by some as a promotional device, but somehow the PR agents have not been able to wrestle away the power of tweeting from their clients, presumably because it’s fun, it’s easy, and even the most educationally challenged individual can manage one hundred and forty characters before writer’s block takes hold. After years of having to do television, radio and press interviews according to a strict agenda, the celebrity is free to say whatever they want to whomever they want. They can even communicate directly with, heaven forbid, ordinary members of the General Public.

However, rest assured, the world of celebrity is not about to eat itself and leave us unable to differentiate between the everyday Joe and Katy Perry. On Twitter, Katy follows less than a couple of hundred people yet has around 80 million followers, whereas Joe follows thousands but has only 14 followers, including 10 pornbots. The volume and ratio of followers to followed has become a very reliable measure on the level and relativity of celebrity.

Nevertheless, for my sake, don’t mention this to Michael Simkins with his small number of followers, because ultimately, celebrity is in the eye of the beholder.

 

 

Lip-Synching Pop Stars

 

Miming began as an expedient when TV studio equipment was not much more than two empty tins of Golden Virginia connected by a long strand of cotton. Artists with a reputation to preserve would understandably be reluctant to lay down a performance that archivists would file away in the Comedy section. With no chance of a sound check, and singers nursing a hangover from last night’s three bottles of vodka – one empty bottle still stuck up the roadie’s rectum – lip-synching was crucial. Yet there was never any doubt that these performers could sing. They had paid their dues, and so the lip-synching to a backing track was simply a pragmatic solution to a problem.

Then in 1981, MTV arrived on TV screens. Image and visuals were soon equally, if not more important than the music itself. Viewers became used to seeing their idols mouth song lyrics on videos while dressed as King Louis XV with a dog sat on their head, and nobody complained about the artist failing to sing live on the film. A new breed of artist emerged from these changes, one with the looks of a Screen God and the voice of a ferret with laryngitis.

In the late 1980s, I took my two young children to see a Stock, Aitkin and Waterman road show at the Liverpool Empire, Scouse songbird Sonia topping the bill. A succession of singers and groups appeared on stage to mime to a backing track. To me, weaned on concerts at the Liverpool Stadium, so live you almost drank the sweat and goblets of saliva from the acts on stage, it was a hugely unsatisfying experience. It was like going to a Michelin star restaurant where the chef presented photographs of food prepared earlier.

One of the acts that night was Big Fun, perhaps the least appropriate name to sum up my feelings for the evening. The band may have sung on their records but only after adding the effects of reverb, chorus, delay, pitch and flange, and although marketed to young girls, the three butch members were patently not interested in a bit of flange. I remember TV presenter and serial blooper Richard Madeley asking them about the difference between singing live and singing in the recording studio. The lads glanced at one another and exchanged a look of panic. Fortunately, the media training bore fruit as one of them piped up that they were both equally great.

Two separate factors conspired to burst the lip-synching bubble, a duo from Germany and Pop Idol. Milli Vanilli was a singing project from Frank Farian, the man behind Boney M, another famous group of mime artists, though not in the Marcel Marceau sense. After recording an album using session singers, he recruited two models, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan to front the Milli Vanilli band. In doing so, Frank created a monster. The band were so successful, they won a Grammy for ‘Best New Act’, although ‘Most Lustrous Hair’ might have been more appropriate. Pilatus believed the hype, claiming he was the new Elvis with more talent than Dylan, McCartney and Jagger. When news broke that their vocals were no more real than Michael Jackson’s nose, the Grammy was withdrawn.

Pop Idol, the first new generation TV talent show to showcase live singing, twisted the knife. X-Factor, The Voice, and Grimsby’s Got Talent followed, all revealing a remarkable depth to the availability of vocal talent. The dominance of the Lip-Synching Pop Star was over, which to this day remains something to sing about… miming over a backing track of course.

 

 

Newscasters Answering the Phone

 

In today’s 24-7 rolling news networks, presenters have to deal effortlessly with sudden changes to output. In a ‘slow’ news month, the station might be running an item about an earthquake in Indonesia that has killed 50,000 people when details emerge of David Beckham having trouble with the big toenail on his right foot. Cue tickertape feed at the bottom of the screen and a seamless transition conducted by the newscaster from one story to the next, the viewer unaware that the director is barking instructions into the earpiece of the front man or woman on what to do and what to say.

In the earlier days of broadcasting, when the most technological device in the newsroom was a propelling pencil, an interruption to the running order was achieved via a phone call in the middle of the bulletin. A typical incident went something like this:

NEWSCASTER: … and with the war in Biafra escalating, we can now go to a special report from our African Correspondent, John Pilchard who is in the country’s capital Enugu. I should warn viewers that the film contains distressing scenes of a Safari suit jacket and trouser combination.

JOHN PILCHARD: I am here in a count…

[Pictures are lost, and the absent last syllable from the word country is particularly unfortunate. The Director cuts back to the studio where the newscaster is struggling to remove a stubborn wax ball from his right ear with his little finger. He realises that he is live again.]

NEWSCASTER: … erm I’m sorry, but we seem to have erm lost John Pilchard’s erm report.

[Newscaster shuffles papers and an awkward silence ensues until a phone rings. Off screen, a sub-editor slides an oversized telephone within reach of the anchor. He picks up the receiver.]

NEWSCASTER: Hello… yes… I see… right… Janet and the kids well? Good… send her my love… oh and by the way, went to a great restaurant last week, served a beautiful Chateaubriand. You should go. OK, thanks.

[He replaces the receiver.]

NEWSCASTER: It seems we are not able to go back to John Pilchard in Biafra, and so here instead is a film of two goldfish swimming in a bowl.

You don’t get that on the rolling BBC News.

 

 

One Screen Cinemas

 

By the middle of the 1980s, UK cinema attendances were on a downward spiral. Every city and every town in the country still had a picture house, but they were universally tired and dated. The one film showing was displayed in red letters on a sign outside the foyer, and there was usually a spelling mistake or a letter missing. One place that had Jaws as the main feature proudly displayed the word Jews.

If the film started at 7.30pm, you would be queuing at 7.15 thinking it was half-day closing. Then from out of the blue, a pink-rinsed, old lady with a walking stick turned the corner and used it to beat her way towards the entrance and open up the main doors. This woman staffed the box office, served in the sweet kiosk, and showed you to your seat with a torch as bright as a pothole at midnight. She later picked up the discarded sweet wrappers, hoovered up the spilt popcorn, and then took a toilet brush to the insides of the lavatory hammered by a few of the lads who had unwisely had a teatime curry.

Sitting down on the back row, you quickly dismissed the chewed Wrigley stuck to your left buttock, being more concerned with the metal spring that had torn through the seat’s material to give you an enema. Before the feature, you would view some local adverts. There would be BULLOCK’S MERCHANT BUILDERS ‘The Only Place for Sand & Cement’, MADRAS MAGIC ‘The Indian Restaurant Frequented by Health Inspectors’, and HAIR TODAY GONE TOMORROW ‘The Unisex Hair Salon/Wiggery on your Doorstep.’

Finally, the main film started, stopped for a bit due to a fault, and then started again. You soon began to overheat as the auditorium temperature soared, sweat pouring down your brow like rainwater from a blocked gutter. At the interval, you had to buy five choc-ices from the pink-rinsed woman, eating one of them and shoving the other four down your pants in an effort to cool down. The second half started, stopped a few more times, but somehow you managed to watch to the end of the film before one final mad rush out of the cinema to avoid any obligation to stand up for the National Anthem. You can see why a night out at the cinema had lost its glow.

Milton Keynes was the unlikely catalyst for a leisure revolution in 1985 when a number of young entrepreneurs opened The Point, the UK’s first Multiplex cinema with ten screens. Within five years, there would be five hundred others, killing the viability of the one screen cinema that soon disappeared from local newspaper listings for good. The new wave of picture houses, however, was not all good, something I learned the hard way.

One summer evening early in the noughties, I dropped a Ford Galaxy full of teenage girls including my daughter at the Manchester Arena for a Westlife Concert. To kill a few hours, I went to ‘The Printworks’ cinema to watch the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous. Regrettably, the showing was full, and so I opted for Tom Hanks in Castaway. This new breed of Multiplex with its ultra-modern offer, allocated me a numbered seat. I went up a couple of escalators and headed into Screen 10. My first choice might have been fully booked, but my second choice was the polar opposite. In a theatre of about two hundred seats, there was only one other person. He was a man of about my age, probably like me passing the time while his children enjoyed (or endured) Westlife.

I checked my seat number and was perplexed to find it was the seat adjacent to my fellow taxi driver. Now the sensible thing to do was ignore my printed seat number and choose one of the other hundred and ninety-eight places available. Yet as a law abiding type, the last thing I wanted was for another cinemagoer to arrive and find I was in their seat. I duly placed myself next to this man. He was a big guy whose frame spilled over to my side and our bodies touched. It was an uncomfortable moment, and I yearned to move somewhere else.

I now had a moral dilemma. Did I stay put and compound the disquiet of sitting so close to this complete stranger or did I offend the man by choosing another seat? In the cold light of the following morning, the latter was the obvious answer, but not so the evening of the show, and so I sat there rigid for the next two hours. There was added poignancy due to Castaway’s central premise, the story of an isolated man surviving his ordeal by making a friend out of a volleyball christened Wilson. My poor neighbour must have thought I’d adopted him as my volleyball.

Such social discomfiture would not have happened in the old one film cinema. Pink-rinsed woman would never have directed me with her feeble torchlight to a seat next to the only other occupant. She didn’t approve of such things.

 

 

Politically Incorrect Songs

 

It may come as a surprise to many, but the artist who achieved the second bestselling song of 1972 in the USA was Gilbert O’Sullivan, the Irish singer-songwriter with his affecting ballad ‘Alone Again Naturally’. Gilbert had burst onto the music scene two years earlier dressed as a nineteenth century schoolboy with a pudding bowl haircut, a look I inadvertently perfected in the mid-1960s. The strength of songs such as ‘Nothing Rhymed’ was enough to catapult him up the charts, but he was no heartthrob. That is until he reappeared for his second album with a new image that included longer hair and a hairy chest, a look that my eccentric Aunty Olive perfected in her later years.

Suddenly Gilbert was hot property. His record sales and popularity with the female tribes soared. My own girlfriend had posters of the singer on her bedroom wall, while as a Liverpool fan I naturally had a photo of the 1966 Wolverhampton Wanderers FC line-up on mine. The singer-songwriter maintained his success for another year or two until he released the 1974 single ‘A Woman’s Place’, the thrust of which was an assertion that women belonged in the home, chained to the kitchen stove with a daily itinerary of housekeeping tasks. The song flopped, and Gilbert’s career never recovered. My girlfriend, a trainee feminist, tore down the posters from her wall, while I vainly held onto my childhood football dreams via the Wolves.

Songs about women belonging in the home may have been scarce, but there was a plethora of tunes about underage love affairs. Gary Puckett & The Union Gap had a massive hit in 1968 with ‘Young Girl’ where the singer is desperately trying to keep an erection in check as he pleads for his Lolita to return to her mama and a plate of alphabetti spaghetti and potato waffles. Then you had the hairy, alcoholic, and middle aged Ringo Starr warbling about the love of his life, while at the same time helpfully confirming her age at regular intervals during the song ‘You’re Sixteen’.

Surprisingly, one of the greatest politically incorrect songs of all time is also one of the best. ‘Brown Sugar’ by the Rolling Stones is a fantastic slice of blues-rock with a classic Keith Richard riff and equally classic Mick Jagger vocal. At the local disco or youth club, we all danced to it and joined in with the chorus, not quite realising it was an ode to inter-racial sex, loss of virginity, slavery, oral sex, heroin addiction, and sadomasochism. Mick’s dubious diction was about as clear as a water sample from the Mersey Estuary, and this certainly helped to disguise the subject matter from discerning ears, enabling the song to enter the pantheon of classic rock singles, preserved for all time in the mainstream.

Yet there is one song above all that takes the biscuit in the politically incorrect stakes. In fact, it takes the bloody biscuit factory. Written by the otherwise brilliant Brill Building partnership of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the song was released in 1962 by The Crystals, a new York girl group who would go on to have smash hits with ‘And Then He Kissed Me’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, the latter a little known love letter to The Two Ronnies. Nobody remembers their earlier effort, an elegy to domestic violence, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt like a Kiss)’. The meaning was, basically, he must love me because he kicked the shite out of me for kissing another guy. It wasn’t a big hit, unlike the actions of the jealous lover in the song, and is now rightly lost in time and space. They certainly don’t make them like that anymore, though I had a go.

When I turned forty, I was clearly enduring my first mid-life crisis. My wife observed this and bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday. I had always dabbled in song writing with extremely limited success, and the arrival of this mahogany axe was the trigger for a new song. Inspired, it was not long before I was ready to play my latest creation to the family. The audience comprised my wife, three children, and Butch the terrier. I thought I had written a delicate love song with a lyric that was a metaphorical declaration of ‘I will do anything for you’. Unwittingly, I had written a ditty about domestic abuse.

I sang the first few lines.

Break every bone

Every limb in my body

Batter me, bruise me

And leave me to die…’

I couldn’t get to the next couplet about ‘still loving you’, because my audience had burst into fits of laughter, all except Butch anyway. I reacted like an angst-ridden teen, picking up my guitar and walking away in a huff. The family called me back in unison, now feeling guilty about the unintended mirth. Sheepishly, I returned, took a deep breath, and braced myself for another attempt. A quick glance at the crowd and I could see they were all struggling to muffle the giggles. It was It’ll be Alright on the Night 53 with Dennis Norden, take 42. However, I took solace from Butch the dog who was not sharing the same suppressed hilarity. He even stepped forward to distance himself from the group. Thanks to man’s best friend, I was playing to an audience of one. I decided that the show must go on and began strumming again.

I could hear barely concealed sniggers yet still found the inner-strength to persist. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Butch move towards my feet as I sang the first line. Either the dog was disgusted at the others or he was a massive fan of my music. I decided on the latter and launched into the next line with gusto. Suddenly Butch arched his back, wretched and vomited a bowlful of Pedigree Chum and Winalot all over my Hush Puppies. The performance was over in an instant, my musical reputation in tatters, and the incident had ruined a perfectly good pair of brown suede shoes. It signalled the end of my music aspirations.

Yet in hindsight, I was fully deserving of the treatment. The ‘Break Every Bone’ lyric might go down in history as the worst ever, the clumsiest love song since the dawn of man. Politically incorrect to the extreme, it had endorsed domestic violence, albeit from the victim’s point of view, and had done so even more graphically than The Crystals a few decades earlier. My performance had deserved the ridicule, though the Hush Puppies were clearly an innocent victim.

Gilbert O’Sullivan’s faux pas with ‘A Woman’s Place’ was an indication of the shape of things to come. Women’s rights were on the up. Equality, diversity, and the celebration of differences became the norm, relegating sexist, misogynist and offensive lyrics to the margins. The politically incorrect song became passé due to these social modifications. And in an increasingly well-informed world of commerce, PR advisors were also quick to inform artists to bury an offensive song lyric. However, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only performer notified via a bucketful of dog sick deposited on clean shoes. It remains the one occasion in history when unconditional love deserted man’s best friend, leaving me with pride destroyed, yet one scarcely believable but true anecdote.

 

 

Reality TV

 

The original premise of Reality TV was to show ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations. Hence, we had Maureen from Driving School inspiring the chimpanzee population that their aspirations to get behind the wheel of an old Lada Riva Estate had legs, even if they were bandy and covered with thick, dark hair… somebody should have introduced Maureen to the wonders of an epilator. We also had Jane McDonald singing away on The Cruise, thereby giving another reason besides the undulation of the ocean to be sick at sea, and Jeremy from Airport who worked for the Russian Airline Aeroflot and looked every inch a Soviet – perhaps not ‘those’ inches – but was actually Clacton born and bred.

However, when the viewing public tired of the format, production companies took the Reality genre into a new direction. It was time to show ‘real’ people in ‘unreal’ situations. Programmes such as Big Brother and Survivor were born, locking away a group of people for weeks on end and playing mind games with them in front of the cameras. It was a masterstroke, producing ‘must watch’ TV based on little more than an observation of the intricacies of different personalities interacting with one another in bizarre circumstances.

This success led agents and managers to start panicking about the loss of their 10%, the artists on their roster now second fiddle to the new breed of Reality TV ‘stars’. It was somewhat inevitable that it became a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, a maxim that isn’t especially helpful if you’re a full back at Vauxhall Motors FC who wants a three year contract at Barcelona. Soon, all the established Reality shows had a ‘Celebrity’ prefix, including Celebrity Big Brother, Celebrity MasterChef, and Celebrity Nose Picking.

The next logical progression was a Reality programme devised specifically for the famous, the idea spawning I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing On Shit, and a host of other shows, typically saturated with Z listers. The TV world had come full circle back to pre-Maureen from Driving School days, with famous people in unreal situations.

The latest form of Reality TV, courtesy of The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, shows “real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way.” Five minutes into your first episode, you are acutely aware that the individuals involved are about as real as their hair extensions, capped teeth, and wooden dialogue.

The genre was given a shot in the arm with the launch of Channel 4’s Gogglebox, which films ordinary members of the public watching TV from their sofas, but the process of celebrity encroachment has already begun with a special that included Nick Frost and Jamie Dornan taking part in an episode.

It confirms the prognosis that the reality has long gone out of Reality TV.

 

 

Rock Stars Planning to Retire

 

Back in the early 1960s when interviewers asked Mick Jagger for how long he might go on performing, the answer was ‘a few more years.’ He considered the prospect of being middle aged and playing rock and roll music as irreconcilable. Paul McCartney gave similar answers. These early rock stars were unsure what they would be doing when older, but it certainly wasn’t singing in a band. Actually, Macca did have visions of holidaying in a cottage on the Isle of Wight in his ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ song, which in hindsight appears madness, but we have to take into account that he was on LSD at the time of its composition.

To be fair to Mick and Paul, they were youth culture trailblazers with nobody behind showing them the way forward. Prior to their generation, young men were middle aged from the age of about thirteen, when they would start to wear sensible clothes and take up smoking a pipe, the latter having nothing to do with hash. The predecessors of Elvis, The Beatles and The Stones were the American Songbook crooners. From an age when they had just about mastered bladder control, these artists looked like your granddad, little wonder they could grow old gracefully and still perform their music without any great adjustment to their image. The first rock generation didn’t have that option, or so they thought.

Of course, we now know better. Rock stars don’t retire; they just go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on until they die, refusing to embrace old age in any form along the way. They can’t wear beige trousers and beige shoes. They can’t smell of piss. They can’t get addicted to Bargain Hunt. They can’t go to the post office for their pension. They can’t wash the car every other Sunday, and they can’t get round with the help of a Zimmer frame or a Motability scooter. They have to dress as if they are under thirty. Their hair is long and dyed an implausible colour of cow shit infused with Satsuma and grey. Few opt for plastic surgery, because that’s just not rock and roll, which means that all the other attempts to stay young are undermined by a face that has apparently been carved out of a rotting sideboard by a small child with a chisel, a love of old horror films, and an acute sense of humour.

There’s a strong argument that rock stars should retire at the age of thirty, by which time the universal truth in the music business informs us that their best work is already behind them. I have still only found one exception to this rule, and that was Keith Harris and Orville who released the unforgettable – if only it wasn’t – ‘Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly)’ in 1982, when Keith was the grand old age of thirty-five. Clearly, the words ‘best work’ are relative.

When you see an artist’s live performance from thirty years ago on late night BBC4, you’re reminded how brilliant they used to be. Watch early Elton John to see exactly what I mean. Elton, a hero of mine in many ways, is turning into a parody of himself, because age is cruel to looks, vocals and talent. Yet on balance, I don’t think rock stars should retire. For one thing, offstage they are chocolate teapots, likely to prove a danger to the public if let off the leash. The thought of Keith Richard working on the Horticultural Department at B&Q is worrying. You wouldn’t know if you were buying a Japanese Maple Tree or a Cannabis Plant.

Moreover, I now get it. I understand the importance of your beloved band or singer playing until they breathe their last. The moment of enlightenment occurred when I attended Mott the Hoople’s reunion gig at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2009. Mott was my favourite band as a teenager, but like my corduroy loons, they started to fall apart and eventually split in 1974. In the intervening years, there was the usual acrimony between ex-members, when the prospects of a reunion gig seemed as likely as a sexual liaison between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill. The usual mixture of money and mortality convinced the band to reform for a gig in London that grew into a five-night residency. I went to the first night. The audience comprised mainly men of a certain age who looked unwilling and unable to accept they were getting old. I felt detached from this, and was there out of curiosity with a little nostalgia thrown into the pot. However, when the house lights went down, I was back at the Liverpool Stadium in 1971 and fifteen again.

The calls from the crowd recaptured the real aggression you used to get at concerts, when the punters would call even a good act a bunch of the ‘c’ word, and I don’t mean ‘clowns’. ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets by Holst starting playing over the speakers, just as it used to, and on came the band. The young, lean, energetic specimens from nearly forty years ago had been replaced by a bunch of old men in big shirts with beer bellies, but thankfully front man, Ian Hunter, looked amazingly good for a septuagenarian. Sitting in the Circle, I took off my glasses so that the whole scene was in effect pixelated, and I was able to sit back and drink in the whole experience. It was fantastic, and I readily joined the queue (behind a well-known music journalist) after the show for a CD pressing of the gig.

A couple of days later back at home, I played the CD. It wasn’t great. In the sanitised comfort of my front room, stripped of the illusion created by four thousand die-hard fans reliving their youth, the gig sounded ordinary, even sub-standard. I haven’t played it since, but it hasn’t tarnished the wonderful memories of the occasion. It proved the point in my head that Rock Stars should never retire, not for the sake of the music, but for the sake of their fans, because we are growing old with them. It’s our only chance of being fifteen again without the threat of arrest by the police.

 

 

Social Clubs

 

What could be more depressing than spending your Saturday night at a social club with its warm beer, mediocre entertainment and shabby décor, other than perhaps watching Dale Winton drip fake tan and Botox over a special needs contestant on the National Lottery quiz? The dwindling numbers of men attending are happy enough, but take a look at the women. Painted all over their faces is the expression, ‘Is this it?’ They dream that one day, a James Bond Type character will whisk them away in his private jet to wine and dine them in Cannes and make love to them under the moonlit stars at midnight. Unfortunately, at the end of a Saturday evening at the social club, all they can look forward to is beery breath, stubble, and some fat belly, dead weight thrusting action that concludes with a groan and a cigarette.

These clubs are dying because of the societal changes that have occurred during the last few decades. The old subservient members of society have been replaced by a materialistic and aspirational working class who buy fake designer merchandise and hang about in bars frequented by Premier League footballers called Jason. They won’t go near the social club because Armani jeans and a Gucci watch look incongruous next to stained Wilton carpet, Formica tables, and a notice declaring ‘Bingo with Dick at 8.30pm’ For those a little worried by this, Dick is the bingo caller’s name and not a reference to an obscene version of eyes down and two fat ladies.

And the final nail in the coffin of the Social Club is that employers are no longer willing to fund a sports and social facility for their workforce, an easy target when cost savings are needed to fund the Chief Executive’s country manor, New York apartment and demanding mistress. The days of the paternalistic company owner and his employee welfare ideals are as passé as the overweight and sweating master of ceremonies at the working man’s club. And so for one last time, speaking in a distorted and barely discernible northern dialect, ‘Last orders ladies and gentlemen, last orders please.’

 

 

Spontaneous Encores

 

The modern music gig is highly predictable. You politely welcome the support act, amplified by a couple of iPod speakers and playing to a half-empty, disinterested audience… apart from ten people in the front row who whoop and holler as if watching a reincarnated Elvis Presley. During the interval, you head to the merchandise stand in the foyer, manned by a guy who is clearly no stranger to recreational stimulants and vintage clothing. It is full of overpriced tee shirts, CDs, posters, and limited edition phials of the lead singer’s spit, all available at ten times more than the price online.

Then it’s time for the headline band. You have a great seat at the end of the third row in the stalls, but a massive woofer and tweeter combination speaker is obscuring your view of the stage. Compounding the problem, the man on the sound deck is a big Roni Size fan who positions the drum and bass tracks so high up in the mix that your seat vibrates like a Rampant Rabbit from Ann Summers, and you feel as though you are living through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The main act is keen for you to hear tracks from their next album, an experimental foray into a fusion of guitar feedback, farmyard animal noises, flatulence and flute jazz, and so you wait in vain for them to play the three songs that reached the top twenty last year.

When the band leave the stage, you join the rest of the crowd in clapping, cheering and whistling for the ritual encore, but after about half a minute, you’re a bit knackered and check yourself. Why bother chafing your hands or giving yourself a sore throat, when you know the band will soon be back on stage regardless? The houselights are still off and their best songs are yet to come. More than a few of your fellow spectators think the same, and the volume from the crowd drops and is getting perilously close to silence, until the band enters stage right to renewed, tumultuous applause. They play the hits, each with a soaring chorus of high notes that the lead singer can’t reach. He gets around this obstacle by turning the microphone towards the audience for them to do the work, something that the stag party on your row accomplish with the unbridled, tone-deaf enthusiasm of a rugby team in the showers. The band finish the concert by proclaiming that ‘Liverpool is the best place in the world to play’, a comment undermined by the fact that the venue is in Manchester.

Gigs in the old days had a greater spontaneity. There was a host, a kind of emcee, who invariably had long, lank, mousy-coloured hair, the complexion of a heroin addict, and a spoken delivery that made Bob Harris from the Old Grey Whistle Test seem like a hyperactive teenager who had overdone the orange squash. He’d walk on stage and talk about peace and love, yet he was just as likely to call everyone, for no apparent reason, a cu*t. It was common for the support act to have bottles thrown at them, and a few lunatics towards the front always wanted to rip up the seats, bringing an ever-present edge of aggression, now only seen at an Oasis tribute band event. And despite fewer drugs being around at the time, half the audience acted as stoned as Jim Morrison, music events thereby becoming prime targets for aspirational junkies; the latter referred to as pseudo-freaks or pseuds.

A demonstration of musical virtuosity was also typical of the earlier gig. A song that clocked in at 4 minutes 34 seconds on the album lasted for over half an hour live. The extended version included ten-minutes of lead guitar histrionics, a tedious, meandering drum solo, and a few unaccompanied, deep rumbles of bass guitar that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the bassist had the least talent in the band. The performance ended with the guitarist smashing his Fender Strat into a few pieces and the band swearing and gesticulating at the crowd. The rock stars left the stage to riotous acclaim.

The fans wanted more. They wanted an encore. Whether the band agreed was open to question. The massed ranks of pseudo-freaks, real freaks, lunatics and ordinary people therefore joined forces to generate as much noise as possible. There was clapping, screaming, whistling, banging the floor, and punching the bloke in the next seat, all in the hope that the guys now in the dressing room might agree that another song was the least these paying customers deserved. As the group leisurely finished their bottles of beer and puffed on their Rizlas, the deafening noise from the paying customers persisted. Eventually the band members – minus the lead singer who needed another minute to service a pretty brunette – returned to an uproarious welcome back from the crowd. And when the crotch-thrusting front man re-joined his mates on stage and launched into a blistering cover version, every bum on every seat interpreted the hard-earned encore as a reward for the unwavering fervour and passion conscientiously displayed.

You might attend a concert today in the mania of the mosh pit where your tattooed arms assist the crowd surfing antics of the band’s front man who suffers from all known addictions other than stamp collecting. You might feel like a rebel and a nihilist, but it’s staged with the ever-present Health & Safety requirements looming large. The same body of regulation dictates that concerts must end at a certain time, thereby removing the possibility of prolonging the end of the gig.

Some ‘too cool for school’ artists – listen kids, nobody is too cool for school so buckle down and get those qualifications – won’t play an encore because it’s a sham, yet this short-changes the fan. We know it’s a sham but pretend it’s genuine so that it feels like a bonus. We choose to do this in the knowledge that the old spontaneous encore spontaneously combusted many years ago, and it isn’t coming back.

‘Thank you reader and goodnight’.

More… more… more…mmmmooooooorrrrrrrreeeee!’

‘You want some more?’

More… more… more…mmmmooooooorrrrrrrreeeee!’

‘F*ck off!’

Does that make me ‘too cool for school’?

 

 

Straight Men at the Eurovision Contest

 

The acceptance of gays and lesbians in today’s society is one of the great things to celebrate about the modern age. Coinciding with the elevation of women into positions of power, our lives are richer thanks to the diversity engendered, and it’s testimony to the tolerance of current generations that the level of integration into everyday life for these groups is well advanced. Yet there are one or two examples where gay men, in particular, have taken over, none more so than the Eurovision Song Contest.

The annual European music extravaganza had sober beginnings. The artists were so clean cut; Doris Day was an opium smoking whore by comparison. The backing singers made the Mormons look like hermits who bathed in shit, and the audience comprised dinner-jacketed gentlemen and diamond-encrusted wives fresh from spending time in Monte Carlo with Prince Rainier, Gina Lollobrigida and Bridget Bardot. It was all very civilized.

Roll forward half a century and we have a completely different beast. Taking place in an arena the size of Moldova, there are two semi-finals as well as a final. The artists blast out a bewildering concoction of power ballads and thundering dance numbers. There is also the occasional random, genre-defying song that has a stunning, high cheek-boned, long-legged singer, backed by five backing artists on Prozac and a jigging dwarf who is eating a bowl of porridge as two gerbils dangle from his ears. Meanwhile, the audience, an ocean of gay men interspersed with a few females, party as though the world is due to end the next day. The whole event is kitsch to the extreme, Europe’s homosexual population embracing the occasion with nuclear intensity. There is not a straight guy in sight. But why?

My own take is that, notwithstanding the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians in Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest has been the one occasion in the yearly calendar across the continent where the different sexual orientations are not only tolerated, but also celebrated. Even in participating countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia where LGBT discrimination is as rife as the political corruption, the bigoted classes welcome the über camp-fest into their homes without a shred of judgment. For a few hours in May, the countries of Europe unite in absolute – and in some cases unwitting – approval of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and even jigging, porridge-munching dwarves with gerbils for earrings.

Who knows, as attitudes towards non-heterosexual behaviour lose their discriminatory edges, and we begin to live together with the same level of harmony as the participants and fans of the Moldovan-sized arena extravaganza, the gays may lose their enthusiasm for Eurovision, thereby changing the diversity of its live audience. Unfortunately, for as long we have right wing parties in power, we have cultures were women are treated as second class citizens, and we have authority and ecclesiastical figures invoking the twisted doctrines of Stalin or the Old Testament, the prejudice towards LGBT people will persist. The Eurovision Song Contest is therefore likely to remain a Gay Heaven, and that probably deserves a lot more than nul points.

 

 

The Black and White Minstrels

 

In researching this item, I came across a website for a Roman Catholic school in Scotland with a link to view photographs from its past. A click on one year revealed the usual class portraits, and I knew the year was 1977 because the Purdy hairstyle was there in all its glory… hairdressers must have been responsible for a porridge bowl shortage that year.

But as I scrolled further down the page and viewed the next picture, I reacted as if I’d just seen my granny, stark naked in the bathroom. My jaw hit the floor… just like granny’s tits. There before me was an image of a large group of children and their teacher. Some of the girls wore headbands and long dresses, but the majority were sporting top hats, tails, giant bow ties, trousers up to the armpits and, the pièce de résistance, blackened faces. It looked like an over-zealous shoe shine boy had ladled dollops of Cherry Blossom polish all over their mugs, leaving strategic gaps around the eyes and mouth, thereby simulating a Ku Klux Klan impression of the black skinned savage. The youngsters had evidently performed their very own Black & White Minstrels Show, and one can only speculate as to how outraged the Afro-Caribbean community in the small Scottish hamlet must have been at the time.

The Black & White Minstrels had become a light entertainment phenomenon by the 1960s, attracting up to eighteen million TV viewers at its peak. The stars of the show were white men in black make-up who sang popular songs. Younger readers might be thinking of Marilyn Manson, but you would be wider of the mark than a Geoff Thomas goal attempt… ask any middle-aged England fan. The Minstrels portrayed their black personas as simple and eager to please slaves, making the programme essential viewing for the average xenophobe who viewed such racial stereotyping as harmless and inoffensive.

Believe it or not, in my youth, I actually took part in a Minstrels show myself. It wasn’t the real deal because the Minstrels didn’t have blackened faces, although I suspect that was nothing to do with ethnic sensibilities, more a case of a meagre budget. The show was called Talent Galore – cue a prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act – starring the Leasowe Minstrels and local artists in a kind of talent contest. I was the drummer in a fledgling rock band at the time, and we made our debut at the show in our local town hall. I am now incredulous that, as big fans of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, we chose to perform, without any irony, ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’. I played the tambourine. Our recently broken teenage voices didn’t understand harmony singing, and with our guitarist’s amplifier not working, it may well have been the low point in the history of show business. At least we made the Leasowe Minstrels look good.

But by this time, there was a concerted effort to remove the Black & White Minstrels from our TV screens via the Campaign for Racial Discrimination. The struggle lasted more than a decade, but in July 1978 the final show was transmitted, never to return again, except perhaps at a certain Roman Catholic school in Scotland.

 

 

The Radio One Roadshow

 

Radio One is a cool station. Its target demographic is below the age of thirty, something that its output reflects. A number of artists in their mid ‘30s, unknowingly drifting towards the middle of the road, bemoan their absence from the R1 playlist, forgetting that talent had nothing to do with the success achieved during their pomp. It had been courtesy of marketing, hype and youth. Marketing requires the budget equivalent to the GDP of Tajikistan, hype has a shorter lifespan than a drone ant, and youth catches up with everybody in time, unless you wear green tights, a pixie hat and have a friend called Tinkerbelle, which makes Peter Pan sound a little more camp than JM Barrie probably intended. These are simply the rules of the music game.

However, Radio One was not always cool. During the 1980s and early 1990s, it was about as cool as a chilli pepper on the surface of the Sun, its ageing, institutionalised DJs trapped in a time warp, orchestrating youth culture with a baton made in 1975. Presenters and programmes were facile, clichéd, trite, hackneyed, and nothing demonstrated the banality more than the Radio One Road Show.

Every summer, the London based operation took to the road in a couple of Range Rovers and a trailer, visiting forty-five shitty seaside venues frequented by phantom hordes of holidaymakers. The British Public had already embraced holidays abroad, and so the number of visitors to Rhyl, Worthing and Whitley Bay were declining year on year. Yet 1FM promoted the tour as though the event of the century, and as a live broadcast, transmitted the gatherings under the pretence that the crowd possessed the fervour of an Adolf Hitler Nazi rally in 1930s’ Berlin. The reality was very different.

A driver manoeuvred the trailer, the size of an ice cream van, on to a condom-strewn beach or a dog muck-laden field next to a condom-strewn beach. Five minutes later, it had become the stage, where people soon gathered to be ignored by the crew and DJs until the short warm up session, during which the crowd received instructions on when to cheer, clap and scream. It was all about as spontaneous as a State funeral. There were the obligatory pop acts of the moment, lip-synching to their latest, pedestrian single storming up the charts at number 26, and games played that were lamer than a thirteen-year old retired greyhound. The worst was the long running ‘Mileage Game’ in which contestants conscripted from the throng had to guess the correct distance the tour had travelled from the previous venue. The word ‘shit’ sometimes is wholly inadequate without the accompanying ‘indescribably’ adverb.

Occasionally, Radio One left the seaside to host a similar event inland. One regular example was the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, the one and only time that I personally attended a Road Show. It was May 1991 at Tatton Park in Cheshire, where the host DJs were Mike Read and Liz Kershaw. The Teddy Bear link was tenuous, the assorted cuddlies brought by children playing no part in proceedings, the format and arrangements exactly as per the seaside gig. One standard element was the Pop Quiz, and Mike Read as one of the originators of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles was an established quizmaster. Given my own penchant for obscure and mainstream pop knowledge, the invitation for volunteers to take part was too much for me to resist. I strode up to the stage, answered a few preliminary questions and was delighted when told I was through to the final on air later, returning to my and wife and three children, the latter not too young to be embarrassed. Little did I know that I was about to play the baddy in a panto-style feature.

After Newsbeat and a spin of Sonia’s new record, it was time for the live quiz played before a sizeable local crowd and a listening audience of millions. Tatton Park was in the hinterland of Manchester and naturally attracted more Mancunians than Scousers. My opponent in the final was a big Afro-Caribbean guy called Dave with a booming, Barry White bass voice. Mike Reid spoke to him first.

‘So Dave, where are you from?’

‘MANCHESTER!’ roared Dave, the stage reverberating as though hit by an earthquake of about 3.3 on the Richter scale.

The crowd bellowed their approval.

‘And who do you support?’

‘MANCHESTER UNITED!’

Dave knew how to work a crowd. Euphoria erupted from the punters. This was perhaps the greatest reaction from a Road Show in its history, explained by the fact that Alex Ferguson had just steered his team to their first European trophy in a long while by winning the Cup Winners’ competition. The audience was clearly chock-a-block with Man U fans.

Mike Read then turned his attention to me.

‘And this is Chris…’ He left a pause. The crowd took their cue and mild disapproval was palpable. ‘And tell the 1FM listeners where you’re from.’

‘Wallasey, near Liverpool.’ After Dave’s one hundred decibel, subterranean yell, I sounded like Willie Carson after sucking helium from a balloon.

I should never have added the ‘Liverpool’. ‘Wallasey’ on its own might have earned a few grumbles, but the mention of the great football rivals to the Red Devils induced a torrent of boos and cat whistles. I was the pantomime villain, and Mike Reid was too much of a professional not to use this to the max.

‘You’ve got a boring job haven’t you Chris. Tell the people what you do for a living.’

Hang on a minute, I thought. He didn’t ask Dave about his job. For all the DJ and the crowd knew, he might work in the warehouse of a company manufacturing spanners, hardly the stuff of dreams.

‘I’m an accountant,’ I squeaked.

Cue laughter and mocking from the crowd. This was turning into a national humiliation.

‘And another thing ladies and gentlemen…’ the DJ was on a roll now and going for the jugular. ‘Can you see what our boring accountant is wearing?’

I thought to myself that the listeners obviously can’t, but no worries, Mike was on hand to help.

‘He’s wearing socks with sandals.’

I could hear ten million voices – and yes audience figures were that high at the time – up and down the land laughing hysterically like demented witches. My disgrace was complete. I might have been wearing a smart, tangerine-coloured Fred Perry shirt and beige Chinos, but the white sports socks with sandals was a clear fashion offence, although the image conjured up by the listeners would have been a nerd with a ledger in one hand, greasy hair, shirt, tie, shorts, Jesus sandals and black socks. It was hard to take, particularly coming from Reid who was sporting a pair of obscenely tight micro shorts that suggested he kept a baby-python tucked in his underpants wherever he went.

The quiz hadn’t yet started, so perhaps this was my chance for reparation. It was not to be. Dave went first and achieved a maximum ten out of ten score, greeted by his new fans with great acclaim followed by a chant of ‘UNITED!’ conducted by the triumphant Mancunian. The three minutes of ‘Sit Down’ by James that played after this seemed to last an eternity before it was my turn, inducing the now customary taunts and heckles for today’s big, bad wolf. The story would ideally end with me having a complete meltdown and fainting or me scoring the same as Dave, winning the tiebreak and standing, triumphantly giving aggressive ‘V’ signs in front of thousands of baying locals. Neither scenario unfolded. I composed myself, scored a respectable nine out of ten, and left defeated. Nonetheless, I had somewhat restored my dignity

By the end of the century, Radio One had pulled their Road Show, opting for fewer, larger events. We now have the annual Radio 1 Big Weekend, a mini-Glastonbury that attracts top acts such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Rihanna. The set is a touch bigger than a converted Mr Whippy Van and nobody has to answer a tedious geography-based question. The occasion, attuned to current youth culture and interests, is a triumph of public broadcasting, an obvious contrast to my 1991 Tatton Park Pop Quiz debacle. The Radio One Road Show is gone and largely forgotten, along with the forty-something old men in white blouson jackets, unfashionable hair, and false bonhomie who used to rule the airwaves at Radio Once Upon a Time.

 

 

The Racist, Sexist & Homophobic Comedian

 

Have you heard the one about the non-heterosexual gentleman from Pakistan and his mixed race, differently-abled mother-in-law?”

 

I haven’t used the same vernacular as the old school comedian would have done, but I think you can do the reverse translation yourself. These comedians offered a brand of comedy drenched in misogyny and xenophobia, which to their less than educated minds were two small Greek Islands frequented by the holidaying Princess Margaret and her ‘gardener’, Roddy Llewellyn.

The late Bernard Manning was a good case in point. Here was a comic with brilliant timing and delivery, a natural funny man, but whose material was mined from the depths of prejudice and small mindedness. If he had used his undoubted talents to turn the comedy back on to himself, who knows, he might have been a national treasure. Well, maybe not a national treasure, more a national three-penny bit found on Southport beach by a geek with a metal detector, but he wouldn’t have been as reviled as he became.

To be fair, it’s easy to sit in judgement by taking current socially accepted values and applying them retrospectively to a time when there was less tolerance and understanding. Indeed, in the era when this brand of humour was at its peak, homosexuality had not long been legalised, sexual discrimination was not unlawful, and racial bigotry was endemic. It was little wonder that the humorous machinations of a few bawdy comedians were not judged to be overstepping the mark.

But as the generations replenished one another, and society became more open-minded and inclusive, these comedians found themselves out of step with large swathes of public opinion. Unable to change with the times, their material became polarised and more extreme as a consequence. Misinterpreting the new mood as ‘political correctness gone mad’, their place in the mainstream was taken by the new breed of alternative comedian, and the old racist, sexist and homophobic comic was relegated to the sidelines forever, retreating back to the social clubs and out of the public consciousness.

We now live in an age where we don’t laugh at someone’s sexual orientation, race or gender; we look at the differences and laugh at them, so that we are all laughing together. Even so, humour will always have the power to offend and that’s probably a healthy thing. I’ve certainly lived a life where I’ve put that strategy into everyday practice with a metronomic regularity.

There are plenty of boring people in the world, carrying a permanent visage as if somebody has just stuck a wasp up their arse, and these individuals need to be occasionally shaken from their miserable dispositions. Hopefully, if you have inadvertently used a wasp’s nest as a cushion, this book will have helped.

Even if you’ve remained po-faced as you’ve read these pages, I will take some literal consolation from your inferred opinion that this book is one big joke.

 

 

The Ugly String Section

 

If you watch an artist such as Adele on Later with Jools Holland, and she is singing a torch song with piano and strings as accompaniment, the violin and cello players will be attractive females with long straightened hair, white blouses, black skirts, and shiny patent leather high heels. They are the epitome of health, looking as though they have stepped straight out of a Special K breakfast cereal advert. The piano player will also be the double of a young Samuel L Jackson.

On YouTube footage of singers from the 1970s backed by a quartet or a quintet, the string players will be older males in suits and baratheas. Should there be a female in the ensemble, she will have long, grey hair in a side part, horned-rimmed glasses, and a wart on her chin. The lead violinist will look like Patrick Moore the eccentric astronomer, while the roll call of his fellow musicians will include doppelgangers for your old geography teacher from secondary school, Uncle Pete, and a serial killer… I apologise for invading your personal family grief if the last two are the same for you.

This was an era when producers and directors selected musicians based on their technical virtuosity and their membership of the Musicians’ Union. Consequently, it didn’t matter that they had the style and grace of a cowpat stuck to a farmer’s boot. When a Monopolies and Merger Commission report ended the restrictive practices of the MU, time was served on the ugly string section. This coincided with the video age taking over music, image becoming paramount and giving birth to the beautiful, healthy, Special K quartet. You may consider this a bad thing, in which case I suggest you go and listen to some sad music with a string arrangement courtesy of a hairy-arsed composer / arranger / conductor who has the face of a troll, the talent of an angel, and a fully paid up union subscription.

 

 

Two Albums a Year

 

In the early days of pop music, Tin Pan Alley wheeler-dealers with cigars like torpedoes and the trustworthiness of a KGB double agent looked after the management of singers and groups. Longer in the tooth than an elderly walrus and well versed in the financial machinations of publishing and song writing, these old music men devised contracts weighted heavily in their favour for artists with the business know how of Torchy the Battery Boy or Muffin the Mule.

A typical deal had an advance paid by the impresario Dick Gradestein to the members of beat combo The Merseycats, which sounded impressive, except it was a loan utilised to purchase musical instruments, a battered old Thames van, and Dick’s holiday villa in Greece. The lads in the band lived in a rented flat with more damp patches than the trousers of an incontinent OAP, sharing the accommodation with fifteen illegal immigrants, three stray dogs, and an elusive dead skunk. Existing on a diet of bread and jam, they survived thanks to a weekly pocket money allowance from the management company of ten shillings each. Record royalties were no better.

Using the publishing company Dick Gradestein (Publishing) Ltd, each member of The Merseycats received a gobstopper for recording their first album, and earned songwriting royalties equivalent to 50% of 10% of sales, the balance going to Dick. Unfortunately, Steve, Don, Dave and Clive didn’t pay attention at school when taught percentages. They had been too busy thinking about Chuck Berry, brassieres and girdles... and for the mathematically illiterate, 50% of 10% equates to 5%. Oh dear...

One other burden from these contracts was the number of albums the artist was required to produce, the normal rate being two per annum. Taking Elton John as an example, during his early years, he averaged two to three LPs a year as required by his recording contract. In 1973 when exploding globally (he always struggled with his weight), he released both Don’t Shoot me I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the latter a double album, an astonishing output compared to today. He even threw in the Yuletide ditty ‘Step into Christmas’ for good measure, now a constant presence on compilation albums and seasonal TV and radio stations.

A shed load of court battles later and case law precedents now inhibit such contract exploitation. Financial deals are much fairer, while management companies and record labels tend not to rush their artists into releasing what might otherwise be sub-standard material. Mind you, some acts take the piss. Guns ‘n’ Roses took fifteen years to complete Chinese Democracy, by which time any hype or anticipation had melted away like a choc-ice in a blast furnace. Most established artists take at least two years to produce a new album, often longer. An X Factor runner-up might manage one a year but songwriting companies in Slough with names like Paedomania provide an assembly line of written material and backing tracks that last year’s beaten finalist, Aidan McShit, only has to overdub with a croak of his vocals.

The album seems to be surviving the digital download era, but the likelihood of an artist churning out two or three LPs a year is as likely as a hit record from The Merseycats. Having said that, I think they could manage a shit record.

 

 

FEMALE EMANCIPATION

 

 

Absent Fathers at the Birth

 

This is a man’s world, a point underlined by the song. My dad might disagree, but the fact he disputes the statement once again underlines its accuracy. Men have not struggled for more than a century to get the vote, equal rights, equal opportunities, and I can’t think of any existing cultures or nations where men are second-class citizens, apart from on the set of Loose Women. However, there is one area where regardless of creed, traditions, ethnicity, and customs, females are the dominant force. It is the world of babies and maternity matters.

My own first-born entered the world in 1982 at the fag end of the old National Health Service in the UK. The attitude to men in relation to the birth was simple. We were as welcome as a mixed grill at a vegetarian’s breakfast buffet. A man’s place at the time of labour was far away in the local pub drinking beer and studying the form for the 3.45 at Chepstow. The nursing profession just about tolerated those males with a more sensitive and caring nature by allowing them to march up and down in a waiting room, chain-smoking as they anxiously awaited news of their new born child. The labour ward and the delivery room was a bastion of female domination, with only doctors occasionally puncturing this feminine bubble.

In 1975, the UK Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Act, finally making women equals, at least in the eyes of the law. One of the less expected outcomes from this revolution was the infiltration of men into the world of babies. It was logical that as women became more empowered to inhabit male citadels, so supremacy in their traditional areas would diminish. Thus, I attended the birth of our son right through to the delivery. In fact, due to staff shortages, I helped with the birth by pouring lotion into hot water and getting out the cotton wool. A few years earlier, this kind of hands on role for the father would have been as unthinkable as a female playing Football, Rugby, or Golf. Even so, I was still caught in between two worlds.

This hospital and its maternity ward would close within six months, its services transferring to a brand new purpose built unit with modern facilities and practices, but it was having one last blast of tradition. I expected the labour ward to be communal, though not the delivery room. Three births took place within the same four walls, with privacy only maintained by a few curtains. For an hour or so, I heard more panting and screaming than at a Bay City Rollers’ gig. The old ways of doing things carried on after the birth. Fathers could visit their new son or daughter only between 7.00pm and 7.45pm, and we could only pick up the baby on Thursday evenings. When my daughter was born two years later, it was a private labour and delivery room, and I could have moved into the ward if I’d wanted. Everything had changed.

Society now expects dads to attend the birth, and the few expressing doubts quickly come under pressure from their peers to do so. It is now commonplace for footballers, who may be the star player in their team, to miss a game because their wife is giving birth, and 70,000 fans, mostly male, give the decision their full blessing. The absent dads drinking in the pub or pacing up and down the waiting room are rare. Fathers feed, change, and rock their pride and joy in a way the older generation find absurd. Nevertheless, such traditionalists should take heart. Not everything has changed.

So come on girls, ‘Fancy making a baby?’

Oh hang on, I can’t. I had a vasectomy in 1989. Oh yes, and there’s also the fact I’m physically repulsive. Never mind…

 

 

Brandy & Babycham

 

It was the drink known as ‘The Leg Opener’, a supposed fast track to your girl’s heart. (You will see I have opted for the organ that Barbara Cartland would have used.) I never tried it, because I was too gallant and busy playing Subutteo, but the consensus was that it didn’t work anyway. It cost about three times the amount of other tipples, and the only hole involved was the one burnt in your pocket by the cash spent.

I have my suspicions that the marketing men at Babycham were the ones who propagated the aphrodisiacal property of the cocktail, in order to boost sales. The product had ‘previous’. Promoted as the ‘Champagne Perry’, it was the first alcoholic drink advertised on TV, its success earned thanks to an investment of millions in an ITV campaign. Its taste was not the attraction, a rather bland, fizzy lemonade blend with only a hint of the hard stuff. As for mixing the sparkling wine with Cognac, this might seem tame and unimaginative today, but thirty odd years ago, it was at the exotic end of drinks on offer. Compared to lager and lime or Pernod and blackcurrant, Brandy and Babycham was something you might drink at the Monte Carlo Casino.

The onset of a bar culture and the introduction of alcopops changed drinking habits forever. Brandy and Babycham quickly went from sophisticated to naff, and before you could say ‘Fancy a quickie?’, ‘The Leg Opener’ had closed for business.

 

 

Glamorous Grandmothers

 

The Glamorous Grandmother contest was one of many holiday camp competitions designed to keep visitors distracted from thoughts of the teatime gruel in the cafeteria and the evening sing-along to Reg Watson’s Warm and Tender Organ in the cocktail lounge. Examples included, Boy with the Best Physique, Girl with the Best Complexion, Rizla Cigarette Rolling, The Shaving Challenge, Knobbly Knees and Largest Penis… though the last one might have been a dream.

But it was the Glam Gran that emerged from all this dross to become mainstream entertainment. By the 1980s, it was big enough to be transmitted live at prime time by the BBC and for the Sun to devote its centre pages to a Grand National style sweepstake.

Its success was all down to timing. The obsession with looking young was gaining momentum, and the contest ticked all the boxes in this regard. It also filled the void left behind by the Miss World contest, recently dropped in response to changing social attitudes. Feminists had argued that the global pageant treated women likes slabs of meat and TV producers agreed. The Glam Gran was a compromise the media men were happy to make, presumably on the grounds that the beauty parade meat market was fine provided it was brisket and not tender breast.

Right, I suppose it’s time for me to confess. My mother was the UK Glamorous Grandmother Champion of 1992, and so I have the inside track. The whole thing was good for my mum, giving her confidence and some unusual experiences, such as appearing on the Anne Diamond and Nick Owen Daytime TV show as a guest on the sofa. But she was mixing with a group of ladies as far removed from the apple pie doting grandparent as you could imagine. These were a bunch of glamour professionals who knew what to wear, what to say, and how to win, yet would struggle to remember the names of their grandchildren or even pick them out of an identity parade. The successful participant was not quite Magda Goebbels in the maternal stakes, but there again, she was not the Virgin Mary either.

In some ways, it was a pity that the Rizla Rolling or Shaving Challenge didn’t make the breakthrough from the holiday camp to the big time. It would have been priceless television to have seen Gloria Hunniford, Fred Houseman, Gordon Banks and Bill Roache reviewing camera close-ups to judge the ciggie making dexterity of nicotine stained fingers with dirty finger nails. Or weighing the shavings emptied from a little brown envelope.

‘And the winner is… part time weightlifter, Olive Smith!’

The Glamorous Grandmother competition was a novelty that, like Betty from Brighton, just didn’t have the legs and so it left our TV screens as quickly as it arrived, which was probably just as well. It wouldn’t work these days because how could the judges differentiate between the real life Dorian Gray and the cosmetically enhanced Botox enthusiast?

But for a brief while, I had the strange experience of seeing my mum pictured in the Sun as 3/1 joint second favourite and Margie from the Data Input Department whooping with delight when she discovered that her selection was Joy from Wallasey. I got Beryl from Ramsbottom. When I looked at the mug shot I knew instantly she would lose. She was far too political.

How could she win with the hair of Margaret Thatcher, the face of Michael Foot, and the eyebrows of Denis Healey?

 

 

Lady Gardens

 

It may surprise you to hear that there was a time when women were indifferent as to the amount of body hair that grew from their pores. In the Victorian age and the early part of the twentieth century, the average female had more sprouting bushes on her person than in the recurring dream of Capability Brown. This forbearance derived from the prevailing attitudes to sex at the time. Aside from the face and hands, the only part of a woman’s anatomy that made a public appearance was the ankle, and that was only at the beach on a Bank Holiday Monday. Sexual intercourse took place in the dark of the bedroom, and so the only opportunity for men to see the naked form of the opposite sex was in a ‘What the Butler Saw’ machine at a discreet arcade establishment.

By the relative standards of the day, the women in these early motion picture devices were highly manicured, having taken either garden shears or an agricultural scythe to cut down the tundra that their bodies had cultivated. The wives and mistresses living ordinary lives required no such maintenance until the bathing suit arrived. All of a sudden, those with legs like Dixie Dean had to filch a bit of shaving cream and a sharp blade to smooth their limbs to the sheen of a baby’s bottom. When thin straps arrived on dresses, the girls attacked their underarm areas. What had previously been a bodily region of unrestrained shrubbery was now given the full Yul Bryner treatment.

It was left to the pubis – the most disgusting of words for the female genitalia – to become the last bastion for female body hair, at least until bikini bottoms shrank from the size of big gym knickers to something like a threepenny bit. Out came the tweezers to pluck out offending stray coils. And when the Brazilian arrived to remove all offending fuzz other than a small landing strip, quickly followed by the full waxing treatment, it was the P45 for female pubic hair.

Once upon a time, Lady Gardens – if plucked, straightened, and laid adjacent – contained enough hair to stretch around the world a few million times… a Turner Prize winner in waiting, if you ask me. Now there’s barely enough to travel the length of a flea’s matchbox. The trend for a vajazzle is giving fresh hope to those who enjoy a little fluff around the panty line, but such sparkly makeovers are not the same as the uninhibited tree plantations of the past. Oh, and for those at the back of the class with their hands up, I must finish here by stating the obvious. The assertions of this chapter obviously exclude shot putters from Belarus.

 

 

Male Chauvinism

 

My dad was from the generation that spawned the purest form of Male Chauvinism. He moaned to his four sons about the toil of marriage and it being a woman’s world, his irony free sermons delivered with slight ale-soaked breath after a night out with the lads at the pub. Meanwhile, mum was making him a pot of tea. We managed to catch the flaw in his supposition and were all married by the age of 21. It had been different, however, for his father.

He had walked miles to and from his factory every day for a 6 day 72 hour working week, while my dad’s mum was at home wrestling with the rigours of looking after children, doing the chores in a home without any electrical appliances, and cleaning up the trail of piss from a deaf auntie going senile. It was the post-industrial revolution era, when gender roles were necessarily divided with clarity between the working man and the stay at home woman. Yet by the end of World War II, during which time women had been the mainstay of the workplace due to the men fighting abroad, events had blurred the gender norms. The conditions were ripe to embrace fundamental change, but the men, including my old man, were not ready for any kind of sexual revolution.

The male population clearly felt the need to reassert their masculinity. While some of the less self-conscious types interpreted this as an invitation to start waving their todger in front of anybody unfortunate enough to be within the vicinity, for most males, this meant them returning to work as the breadwinner and the wife returning to the home and the kitchen to look after the children. The timing was great for these troubled males. The world of Film, Radio and TV duly obliged to reinforce this arrangement by creating a fantasy female role model, who dutifully accepted her place as a second-class citizen in the household. Her job was to see to her man’s every need. He had the difficult task of working and was able and intelligent, whereas she was flimsy and incapable of coping with responsibility. It was as though the war years had never happened. Male Chauvinism boomed.

Then feminism arrived to redress the balance and challenge the basic tenet that men are superior to women. To some extent, the first wave of feminists embraced Chauvinism for themselves, forced to create parity by demonstrating the supremacy of their own sex. The traditional male blessed with brawn rather than brains was as clearly out of his depth as me doing the breaststroke in the deep end; and that’s not a euphemistic chauvinist metaphor. I’m just a crap swimmer.

Women won the intellectual and emotional arguments, and although change took a few decades to evolve, it was characterised by an increasing empowerment and emancipation for the female and, ironically, for the male in society. The next generation of men agreed with the line of reasoning and accepted the right of equality, thereby developing the blueprint for the modern man, the metrosexual being the ultimate manifestation of these newfound freedoms.

We’re still a long way from my dad’s old, ridiculous assertion that ‘it’s a woman’s world’, especially when you see how badly females are treated in some cultures. Yet the more we can move towards equilibrium between the sexes, the better things will be, and I don’t say that as a female chauvinist by proxy. I say it, because where you see women having a greater say in society, you get more tolerance, fairness, and social equality, which has to be welcomed. Oh, and you get more talking and shopping… or is that a chauvinist thing to say?

 

 

Newly Wed Virgins

 

Sex is evil. A pursuit of the devil. An overrated pastime. This was basically the backdrop to my own sex education. Aside from a handful of formal lessons in secondary school that dealt exclusively with physical practicalities such as ‘the penis enters the vagina’, sex was taboo. And one of the key expectations overlaid by society was to remain a virgin until your wedding day. Actually, this is wrong. If you were female, you were expected to stay untouched, but if you were male, well then sow your wild oats my boy.

I fully understand the need for any civilised group to adopt a moral code so as to prevent its oversexed alpha males ejaculating over every female in the vicinity. But why no sex before marriage? Isn’t it reasonable that two loving adults get to know one another in life’s most intimate form before committing to a lifelong relationship? And it wasn’t even prohibited by the Bible, though that’s not the main point. Marriage was completely different at the time of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John… and for the irreligious, these guys were popular a couple of thousand years ago in a kind of boy band called The Disciples.

Firstly, it was a business transaction whereby the father sold his daughter to the highest bidder, a sort of New Testament version of Ebay. And secondly, the typical age of the bride was between twelve and thirteen, by any measure very young, unless you are you are Jerry Lee Lewis or from rural Albania. Clearly, betrothal at this age did not leave much scope for pre-marital relations and so the ‘no sex before marriage’ thing was simply a non-issue. Yet still the Christian Right put pressure on young role models like Britney Spears to remain chaste before wedlock, little wonder that instead of satisfying her natural desires with a quick shag, she gets married for all of fifty five hours.

Fortunately on this side of the pond, we live in a progressively secular society where there are more people who believe the moon is made of cheese than go to church, and so the pressure to be a virgin bride has all but evaporated. But if you are an ultra conservative who still wants to walk down the aisle with someone who has their chastity intact, may I suggest the following. Arrange that trip to rural Albania, take a pair of Diesel Jeans or Jimmy Choos as consideration, and employ a lawyer who specialises in the representation of minors… that’s children and not Arthur Scargill’s old fraternity.

I was about to crack an inappropriate funny about a miner’s helmet, but you must forgive me. Please remember that I am the victim of an unsatisfactory sex education.

 

 

Period Taboo

 

There is so much to admire about the Victorian Age. The spread of industrialisation, the stunning architecture, the philanthropy, yet at the same time, there is culpability on its part for the twentieth century’s inheritance of sexual repression and guilt. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the importance of family values became central to moral thinking, and attitudes to sex hardened like the organ of a frustrated celibate. Sex existed for one reason only, and that was procreation. Keepers locked away the female orgasm in Pandora’s Box and threw away the key. However, there was an even bigger taboo, and that taboo was menstruation.

Rather than seeing it as a perfectly normal, biological occurrence, Victorian Society viewed monthly periods as the work of the devil. The ovulating cycle was obviously out of bounds for men, but amazingly, the same applied to women. Mothers failed to educate their daughters on the subject, leaving hordes of poor young girls frightened out of their wits when they discovered bleeding coming from that part of their bodies linked with shame and depravity. For the best part of the twentieth century, this attitude and standpoint prevailed. A joke about the menstrual cycle was as big a no-go area as Central Beirut at the height of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Fortunately, changes began to occur around the time that the world was waking up to children and young people being individuals in their own right to whom information and education about such body matters was essential. Period Taboo is now passé, and that has to be a good thing, and not just because of the consequential empowerment of young women. There is also my story about the dentist, which I can tell now without fear of offending… I probably would have told you regardless, but it does simplify matters.

It was a routine filling. A quick injection numbing the side of my mouth, a bit of a drill, a touch of scraping away, a quick rinse with the pink mouthwash, and one hole in my tooth was filled. However, I left the surgery aware that there was still a fair sized swelling on my upper lip, but as I had a long drive to work, there was plenty of time for my face to return to normal.

One hour later, I left the M602, horrified to see that the distension was still the same. Clearly, there had been some kind of serious reaction. I pondered driving straight to A&E, but realised I was in Salford, the Beirut, Baghdad, and Kabul – all rolled into one – of Greater Manchester. I wanted to see my wife and kids again, even with part of my face engorged. I carried on driving and went to the office.

The universal reaction from my work colleagues was ‘What the f…?’ grimacing as if I’d smeared my own shit across my mouth. I tried to shrug things off, mumbling a few words about the dentist and his obvious drink problem, but it was difficult. Other people passed my desk, either shrieking or pissing themselves. My hand stroked my upper lip, and now that the anaesthetic had worn off, the swelling felt hard, tube like. I picked up a chrome stapler from my desk and inspected the inside of my mouth from its reflection.

I sat in a bank of four, and the others laughed in unison as I pulled out from behind my upper lip a tampon. Now obviously, it wasn’t a sanitary protector, but it looked like one. The dentist had evidently placed a small, white resin tube between my gums to provide more space in the area to perform the filling. Unfortunately, he had then forgotten to remove it.

Andy, sitting opposite to me, couldn’t resist saying, ‘Bloody hell, no prizes for guessing how you got a tampon stuck in your mouth, you dirty get!’

As the words passed his lips, Margaret from Secretarial Services walked in the room. A serious, grim-faced woman, to say that disapproval seeped from her every pore would be an acute understatement. I muttered something about the dentist’s chair, which only served to heighten her revulsion. She flushed in disgust and left the office, while the rest of us struggled to retain our composure. When she was a safe distance down the corridor, we communally exhaled and guffawed. Margaret was a regular churchgoer amongst the last vanguard trying to uphold Victorian values. In her eyes, we had committed one of life’s deadly sins. We had dared to break the period taboo.

 

 

Prams

 

The proper name for a pram is perambulator, but show me someone who calls the traditional baby carriage a perambulator, and I’ll show you a dog that refuses to lick its own genitalia on the grounds of taste and decency.

Prior to nineteenth century urbanisation, babies taken outside were strait jacketed in swaddling blankets and carried around by mothers who developed arms like Popeye. But as the pram caught on, despite early models looking like a tin bath bolted on to the wheels of a penny-farthing, it became a key status symbol of the bourgeoisie, along with a nanny, a servant, and a small boy from the slums to be used as a toilet brush. By the time I was born in the 1950s, the coach built pram was everywhere, even in the working class streets of my upbringing.

There used to be an old brown photograph of a fat, water melon-headed baby with a giant bonnet stuck on top of its bonce, sitting bolt upright in a very grand looking pram. The baby was me. I haven’t challenged her, but there’s every chance that my mum sold it to UFO magazine. This is because, to the average extraterrestrial enthusiast, the monochrome image would be considered unequivocal, photographic evidence of alien life form. An alien life form with a baby face, ridiculously large head, and the dress code of a Jane Austen heroine. But I also remember the pram in the picture, a classic Silver Cross Balmoral with its hand-sprung chassis, leather suspension straps and spoked wheels. It wouldn’t surprise me if its value was greater than the dreary terraced house providing the backdrop to the image.

The pram remained unchallenged until the mid 1960s when the first folding pushchair, the Maclaren Buggy, was developed. It sounded like something to be raced around a track at 100mph but was actually a flimsy, remarkable invention that solved the problem of travelling by car or public transport with your pram in tow. At the same time, it provided convenient handles around which you could hook your heavy shopping bags to ease your burden and put your child in constant danger of suffering an injury when the buggy toppled backwards because of the weight.

The pram initially survived the challenge from the folding pushchair because the buggy was only suitable for toddlers. Babies still needed prams. But by the time the price of a one bedroom flat had ballooned to the annual budget of NASA, mothers had no choice but to return to work a week or so after having their child. The pram was finished, replaced by the increasingly versatile pushchair that converted into a car seat, carry-cot, bath, hovercraft and small spaceship.

To be fair, the pram’s not quite finished yet. For a start, there are the local Rotarians who enjoy nothing more than dressing up as babies and having a pram race… well, perhaps not as much as being in the audience of a Noel Edmonds TV show. And go to a car boot sale or local tip to see a wafer thin man with an earring and a twenty stone woman dressed in a shellsuit pushing a rusted old coach pram. Its contents will include a dry iron with a frayed lead, a New Kids On The Block LP, a Sanyo Music Centre with Dolby and cracked Perspex lid, a Betamax video recorder and a dog. By any measure, this is quite a fall from grace for the pram that was once a status symbol to befit the Royals.

And so the perambulator must now take its place in museums and photographic exhibitions as a somewhat wistful reminder of its heyday. Oh dear, I called it a perambulator. I think it’s time to go and find that dog with high moral values and a tongue that doesn’t smell of fish.

 

 

Sexual Innuendo

 

Not so long ago, if you were watching a sitcom on TV and one of the characters said, ‘I didn’t know you had such a massive cock,’ it would cut to someone looking mortally offended but then immediately reassured by the sight of an overfed male chicken in a pen. Today, the same line would be followed by the shot of someone caressing their groin before uttering the follow up, ‘And my bollocks are pretty awesome too.’ This is because sexual innuendo is now passé. It can only thrive when sex and its related paraphernalia are taboo, and in these enlightened times, sex is everywhere.

The double entendre is as old as literature itself with historical rather than hysterical contributions from such heavyweights as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. Music Hall espoused the genre with Marie Lloyd singing ‘A Little of What you Fancy Does you Good’ and Max Miller cracking lewd funnies from his comedian’s little blue book. And of course there was Donald McGill, the godfather of the saucy seaside postcard, a phenomenon born out of the strictures of Victorian morality.

During the heyday of the British summer holiday, no trip to the seaside was complete without a paddle in sewage polluted waters, the wearing of a hat emblazoned with ‘Kiss Me Where it Smells’ – Widnes? – and the purchase of a smutty postcard drawn by McGill. Typically, the card might have had a picture of a wizened old man in a pet shop being served by a blushing lady with her more than ample cleavage, looking like two large pink melons, resting on the counter. The old man would be holding an empty birdcage and be saying, ‘But I wanted a pair of blue tits!’

The Carry On films and camp comedians like Larry Grayson inherited the tradition, making smutty innuendo their main currency, but when sex and sexuality became topics as openly discussed as the weather, the double entendre, like Samson shorn of his hair, lost its power.

The last bastion of sexual innuendo is in children’s live entertainment, in which the presenters have the unenviable task of wearing both a permanently painted smile and orange candy striped dungarees, as they attempt to amuse child and parent alike. A little bit of hidden smut has been the traditional recipe to stop parents, exasperated by the inanity of the material, from storming the stage with a carving knife to cut off a few heads and limbs. But with children exposed daily to sexual imagery and information, innuendo is losing its mystery, and I think we can all look forward to some blood curdling carnage at the Pantomime in the near future.

It’s a shame that sexual innuendo is dying. I’m going to miss it in the same way my friend’s Aunty Beryl misses her husband’s enormous cock. No, he didn’t keep chickens. He died when penis enlargement surgery went wrong.

 

 

Spinsters

 

Everyone in my generation had an aunt who was a spinster. They read People’s Friend, knitted for England, loved Max Bygraves, wore elasticated support stockings to conceal varicose veins, had lips thinner than a malnourished greyhound, were called Ada, Martha or Doris, and the nearest they had been to a sexual experience was sitting on a cucumber by mistake.

I worked with a few spinsters over the years, and I think the word that comes to mind is tense. If there was anything unusual happening in the office, such as the Christmas Party or someone’s leaving presentation, the office spinster would be the one person still sat at her desk, scowling in a display of self martyrdom to match any IRA member on hunger strike in the Maze Prison. Anyone daring to exhibit a modicum of enjoyment in their work was looked down upon as though either a sexual deviant whose particular inclination was bestiality, or a cannibal who enjoyed nothing more than a bit of nubile human flesh with their mash and peas.

So why were there so many spinsters about? The answer is explained by the laws of supply and demand. Firstly, the master military tacticians of the First and Second World Wars ensured that a sizeable proportion of the male population was killed off, thereby limiting the supply of husbands. And secondly, the legacy from the Victorian era of sexual repression meant that many women believed the male genitalia to have been hand crafted by the devil himself, thereby reducing the demand for a husband and his not negotiable, grotesque appendage. Spinsters were assigned to one of two groups. Those destined to be chaste and resentful, and those destined to be chaste and relieved.

But spinsters have now disappeared, literally, because the state says so. The 2005 Civil Partnership Act merged the old categories of bachelor and spinster into one androgenous label. Unmarried women and men are now referred to as single. Furthermore, single women are now accepted as mothers, as partners in long term relationships, and even as sexual adventurers. The institution of marriage may have survived, but women outside wedlock are no longer considered charlatans if adopting the kind of social behaviour unbefitting of a nun. Relatively speaking, women have been liberated, banishing the image of the dowdy old spinster to the past.

The disappearance of spinsters is something to which all but one of the population is indifferent. But who is this poor soul? Who is this person in despair? I can reveal it is the last of the Bachelors, and by that I don’t mean the final surviving member of the 1960s swinging Irish trio whose songs were so saccharine they could have opened a sweet factory and put Willy Wonka out of business. No, the final Bachelor standing is one so synonymous with celibacy, he makes the average Vatican Cardinal seem as promiscuous as Warren Beatty in his prime. One so asexual it hurts, and one who loved bachelorhood so much he sung a song about it. You’ve probably guessed the identity of our eternal bachelor.

‘Congratulations’ Cliff. You’re the last one standing.

 

 

The 18 Hour Girdle

 

In the days when the Ad Man ruled the world, there was a TV commercial that began with a number of passengers running up an airport stairway to board a flight, at the front of which is a middle-aged couple. When they reach the top, the wife stops abruptly in a moment of sheer panic. Her husband and the others behind are forced to a sudden halt and look surprised and alarmed. What has caused this poor woman to be struck down so tangibly by fear?

Is she a nervous flyer who has just seen the pilot downing another bottle of scotch? Is the thought of another holiday on the Costa Brava at the Hotel Infestedo just too much to take? Or is she concerned about the dramatic rise in oil prices and the consequential impact on the stability of the world’s nations?

All perfectly valid reasons to panic, but this woman’s moment of alarm has arisen because she has forgotten to put on her girdle. And since she’s not wearing her Playtex 18 hour undergarment, she simply can’t go on holiday.

This is really dramatic stuff. But wait a second. Our damsel in distress then realises she is wearing it after all. Thank goodness for that, and she’s not the only one relieved. Her husband is visibly grateful that all the money spent on their trip will not now be wasted, and their fellow passengers on the stairs vicariously share the couple’s joy. The final shot sees them on the tarmac at their destination airport, both wearing a Hawaiian Flower wreath and exclaiming how great she looks and feels. It’s a happy ending so beloved in the world of advertising.

So what were the indispensable qualities of the Playtex 18 hour girdle, as critical to life as a beating heart? It was effectively a cross between a corset and a pair of knickers, holding in the stomach, narrowing the hips, and flattening the bottom. For the average middle-aged woman, it did a decent job of maintaining a good figure where nature was having other ideas. But if you were a fatso, the girdle simply dispersed your excess weight to other parts of your body, so that the price of a relatively trim midriff was a Pirelli tyre on each upper thigh and an inflatable lifebelt just below the bosom.

The product sold in the millions and continued to do so until magazine editors discovered cellulite and Photoshop software. Women responded by discovering the fitness video and the ‘F’ plan diet. The female gender were now coming under constant pressure to look like the manipulated airbrushed images on the cover of every gossip and celebrity rag. The old tricks courtesy of the girdle were plainly inadequate and sales suffered. But its final death knell came about when the mainstream female population decided to fully embrace the sexual revolution.

For as long as chastity had remained a virtue aligned to sainthood, it hadn’t mattered that a woman wore underwear that would protect her nether regions from unwanted male attention with the ferocity of a pack of hungry rotweilers. But what if sexual promiscuity had been prevalent at the time that girdle sales were at their peak? Would the garment have been as popular? Let’s go back to the early 1970s and see.

 

A couple meet in a hotel bar and are instantly attracted to one another.

‘I’ve got a room,’ he says.

‘Then let’s stop wasting time,’ she replies, maintaining eye contact but allowing her outstretched palms to travel from her waist to her hips so as to emphasise her feminine curves. She is thinking, ‘I just can’t believe I’m wearing a girdle!’

The couple sneak past the repressed hotel owner at the reception desk who might otherwise insist on a copy of their marriage certificate. It takes two minutes for the key to open room 14 and, in their haste, they suffer carpet burns to their hands as they fall onto the threadbare Axminster floor-covering. The man picks up the woman and throws her on to the bed. She squeals, not in sexual ecstasy, but because a loose bedspring has almost given her an enema. Undeterred, the man joins her on the bed and gets a static electricity shock as he quickly removes her polyester dress.

But then he sees that she is wearing her Playtex and cries out in exasperation, ‘I can’t believe you’re wearing a girdle.’

‘I know, isn’t it marvellous,’ she gushes, the TV advert replaying in her head.

Half an hour later, and largely thanks to the steady hands and persistence of two neurological surgeons staying in the adjacent room, the girdle is ready to be removed. Unfortunately, the moment has passed, and the erotic charge of their initial meeting has withered away to be replaced by an awkward silence and a final, uncomfortable goodbye.

 

We don’t need Albert Einstein to explain why the twenty first century woman has rejected the girdle. The modern equivalent is something called magic pants, but you won’t see an ubiquitous advertising campaign for them, as there was for the Playtex girdle. The secret of magic pants, like any magic trick, is closely guarded, and their success relies on clandestine marketing. Even if they sell well, they will remain a niche product. The girdle is effectively finished.

The Ad Man is still at it, though he has given up the fight on behalf of the girdle, turning his attention instead to margarine and vegetable spread. However, don’t expect a TV campaign where a group of passengers are climbing an airport stairway to be halted by a middle-aged woman who panics and then exclaims in palpable relief, ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter.’

 

 

The Home Shopping Catalogue

 

My dad used to call it the mother’s bible.

‘Bloody hell, here we go again. What’s the lesson today? Grattan Chapter 4 Verse 10 or Freeman’s Chapter 2 Verse 3? Bloody hell!’

There were many different variants of the mail order catalogue, Littlewoods, Marshall Ward, Grattan, Kays, Freemans, to name but a few, and its market share of retailing was enormous during the years when women were still expected to give up work after having children. In this context, the catalogue served a number of purposes:

It provided easy retail therapy for the stay at home mums longing to own the latest creations as modelled by Cilla Black, Lulu or George Lazenby… to be fair, they didn’t want string underpants in their own wardrobes, but the Bond man’s picture was something to recall when being fumbled by their inebriated husbands after a Saturday night at the pub.

In the days before bankers decided to give interest free overdrafts to tramps and a platinum credit card to anyone with a pulse, the catalogue provided easy credit terms to make everything affordable.

These same mums became catalogue agents, earning commission on sales to help buy luxuries for the family such as food and clothing. The husband’s wage could then be used to pay for the essential items of cigarettes, beer, and a daily yank at the bookmakers, which is not as rude as its sounds.

And it gave young teenage boys their first sexual experience thanks to the lingerie pages, even if it was a girdle worn by a middle-aged model who was a dead ringer for your Sunday school teacher without the moustache, varicose veins and pipe.

But when it became the norm for mums to go back to work, the lowly paid job as a catalogue agent became one of the least desirable occupations, some way behind toilet cleaner, fish shop assistant and prostitute. At the same time, the High Street starting selling cheap imported products made by two year old children in foreign caves and sweat shops in return for dolly mixtures. With credit cards, bank loans and re-mortgages a plenty, the demand for overpriced goods from the ‘mother’s bible’ plummeted.

And the last rites were served on the mail order catalogue when the Super Information Highway morphed into the Internet and a new era of home shopping began. Young teenagers stopped looking at Joanne Lumley in a big bra and big knickers on page 221 and turned their attentions to silicon implants, anal action and hardcore porn on the net.

In a way, it makes one yearn for more spiritual times. Perhaps it was a bible after all. Herein endeth the lesson.

 

 

Tupperware Parties

 

Here’s some insight for the male reader. Do you know that sinking feeling you get when invited to a party, but given a choice, you’d rather peel off your skin and have a salt bath? Well millions of mothers and housewives had the same feeling of despair during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s when conscripted to attend the dreaded Tupperware party. This involved a two hour demonstration of uninspiring but functional plastic kitchen containers with an implicit obligation to buy some. No woman refused an invite for fear of being ostracised by her sisterhood, and not to buy anything was considered a sin close to first degree murder. It was a brilliantly inventive business model devised by the American company, creating demand for their product portfolio through female guilt and peer pressure.

This was a time when much of the population still believed that mothers returning to work were the devil’s spawn, and so all across the country, women were appointed Tupperware agents, earning a pittance and a juice extractor on sales from parties held in the houses of friends and acquaintances. The party host would be rewarded with free gifts based on the level of sales achieved. The other party-goers would buy the latest cereal container, and the one with the weakest will would accept the responsibility of hosting the next party.

It was the changing role of women that proved to be the downfall of Tupperware. The next generation of mothers refused to be constrained by domestic chores, demanding salaries and wages rather than a slither of commission and a lemon squeezer. Furthermore, this new breed of working mum was now sexually liberated, and so in place of the Tupperware Party came the Ann Summers Lingerie and Sex Toys Party. It was out with the plastic and in with the rubber and latex.

To paraphrase St Francis of Assisi, ‘Where there is a lidded jug may we bring love balls. Where there is a salad container, may we bring a dildo. Where there is a jelly mould, may we bring chocolate flavoured condoms. And where there is a cookie cutter, may we bring crotchless panties. Now that’s a party invitation the boys would like.

 

 

Unisex Hair Salons

 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young men and young women had a tendency to look the same, with the ideal frame tall and slim, and the chosen hairstyle, long and lustrous. Suddenly the high street hairdressers (Sandra’s or Diane’s) with their shampoo and sets, and the barbers (Colin’s or John’s) with their short back and sides, were under threat. The unisex hair salon arrived to fill the gap in the market, offering feather cuts for both the lads and the lasses. It was, however, a discomforting experience for both sexes. Conditioned only to conversing with Colin about football or the latest Ford Anglia, men found the relentless interrogation about next summer’s forthcoming caravan holiday in Rhyl intrusive. And as for the women, it was more than disconcerting to see a reflection in the mirror of a guy reading Cosmopolitan while doing everything to supress an erection.

Thankfully, fashions come and go quickly, and it was not long before the androgynous era passed and the gender divide reappeared, rendering the unisex hair salon an experiment doomed not to last. Notwithstanding the metro-sexuality of today’s average bloke with his hair grooming and skin products, the market for male personal care is quite distinct from that of the female, and masculinity is fashionable again. The modern young man doesn’t look like a young woman and vice versa… unless of course you happen to be a remote part of Uzbekistan, where a 1970s’ moustache remains as popular as ever with both genders.

 

 

FOOD & DRINK

 

 

A Full English Breakfast at Home

 

Show me a man who has a daily breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, black pudding, fried bread, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and I’ll show you the star of the TV documentary The 50 Stone Man Who Can’t Get Out of His Chair to Eat His Daily Breakfast of Bacon, Egg, Sausage, Beans, Black Pudding, Fried Bread, Tomatoes and Mushrooms.

The last communities to gorge regularly on such an early morning feast at home were the remote farms whose men were up at 3.00am readying themselves for an eighteen-hour day out in the hills with their sheep and an Arctic wind, burning enough calories for a cross-Siberian hike. The typical brekkie is now a bowl of cornflakes or a piece of toast, and for those selecting the healthy option, muesli, probiotic yoghurt and a drink of unprocessed goat’s milk.

It’s ironic that the outside world still considers the Full English as the unwavering breakfast of choice for the UK nation, a misconception reinforced by overseas visitors staying in our hotels, where the fried mass is habitually the centrepiece of the day’s first meal. And of course, at breakfast time when Brits holiday abroad, you can be sure of a fry up sitting next to the continental hams and cheeses.

New arrivals meander into the dining area at around 8.00am, pretending that they’ve been there a hundred times before. In reality, they are in a mild state of panic. After pouring pomegranate juice all over their Bran Flakes and toasting the fingers on their right hand, they pick up an empty plate and head for the section of silver domed-serving dishes under which lurk the components of the obligatory Full English. In their head, a thousand eyes have turned to pass judgement on their gluttony, a rare example of a perception commensurate with reality. We do judge. It doesn’t happen in a restaurant, except perhaps in a £3.95 all-you-can-eat Carvery with its early bird botulism offer. Yet at the breakfast table in a hotel, we stare at these people loading their plates with a mountain of scrambled egg, a stack of bacon rashes, and enough sausages for a ‘This Little Piggy’ rhyme, and conclude with the thought, ‘Greedy Bastards.’

Households still serve up the occasional Full English, but now it’s typically at lunchtime. Nobody has it as a breakfast. Even those craving a plate of greasy stodge as their first dish of the day to neutralise the hangover from last night’s three bottles of Jack Daniels and score of vodka shots can’t call it brekkie at three o’clock in the afternoon.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I need to have my own breakfast, and I’m definitely opting for something healthy today. I think I’ll have some alfalfa sprouts laced with fecal bacteria followed by a lemongrass stick, all washed down with a prune, tofu and stirred eggplant smoothie… on second thoughts, get the bacon, egg and sausage in the pan. I want a fry up.

 

 

Artificial Food Colouring

 

Smarties are ideal to consider the rise and fall of the artificial food colouring industry. Introduced in 1937 by Rowntree’s of York, the candy-coated chocolate beans came in pink, lilac, green, yellow, orange, red, brown, and cat shit, all colours created in a laboratory a few years earlier by a mad professor called Fritz with an IQ of 275 and an unhealthy S&M relationship with his Bunsen burner. It didn’t matter that the colourings were chemicals and dyes harmful to the human body, because they made food look much more appetising. Components included petrochemicals, coal tar, mercury, red lead, white lead, copper, arsenic, and blue vitriol, the latter perhaps inspired by Fritz talking angry and dirty with his favourite piece of chemistry equipment.

Fifty years of little change ensued until Rowntree’s / Nestlé replaced the cat shit bean with a blue one and made a big thing about it via a marketing campaign. The company issued badges with ‘I Support Blue Smarties’, ‘Blue Smarties are Brilliant’, and ‘Blue Smarties are Bluemin Smart.’ Blue food was unusual because there was no natural product coloured like an Everton Football shirt, and so this new creation owed its origins to a few oversized brains in the lab again. But by 2006, the new generation of Fritz-like scientists had established a link between artificial food colourings and a tangible risk to health.

Food manufacturers and retailers responded to the ensuing consumer anxiety by adopting alternatives from the world of nature, Nestlé re-launching Smarties with only natural flavouring and colouring. The blue had to go, making way for a soulless and bland white one. The sweets were safer, but the changes had diminished their technicolour magic. Fortunately, seaweed came to the rescue. Two years later, fuelled by more than twenty Facebook Groups, the makers of Smarties found they could produce a blue colouring from seaweed called spirulina. The Blue Smartie was back.

Science had triumphed over science, adding colour back into our lives and our Smarties without any of the side effects. Having said that, I consumed Artificial Food Colouring by the bucket load as a youngster, and it didn’t do me any harm… apart from the shaking, facial tics, sporadic blindness, hyperactive tendencies and aching testis, the latter a particular ball ache.

 

 

Chicken in the Basket

 

There is a long shortlist for the most depressing thing about the 1970s. The Winter of Discontent, Power Cuts, Oil Crises, Brotherhood of Man, British Leyland, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, I could go on. However, my personal choice would be the Cabaret and Supper Club.

Housed in the basement of a concrete building designed by a Brutalist-inspired architect, and with a name like ‘Bentley’s’, the venue aspired to be ‘The Talk of the Town’ but was more ‘The Bostock Pig Iron Social Club’ without the body odour. The country had a few of these cabaret venues, attracting some of the top entertainers of the day. ‘Jollees’, situated on the former site of the Longton Bus Terminal in Stoke-on-Trent – showbiz or what? – had a capacity of nearly two thousand. Acts such as Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison and Cilla Black all played there in its 1970s heyday. There was also the ‘Batley Variety Club’ in Yorkshire that enjoyed an even more impressive roster, including Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, and Neil Sedaka. (The latter’s 1971-1975 output is my guilty pleasure, despite the fact it’s so cheesy, you could play it on the stereo, eat a Whopper Jr, and turn your fast food treat into a Double Cheeseburger Deluxe with Added Cheese.)

In truth, all these turns played the cabaret clubs for one reason only, the size of the purse. Clearly, their dreams countenanced New York’s Carnegie Hall or the London Palladium, and not Stoke or Batley. Why else would these professionals subject themselves to the ordeal of singing in front of a sea of dour, repressed beer and Babycham drinkers? Moreover, they had to endure the constant smell of fatty food accosting their noses with the savagery of someone sticking two tubes of lard up each nostril, the audience being more interested in eating food than watching the cabaret. The menu offered only one meal, the fabled ‘Chicken in a Basket’, quite literally chicken and chips served in a wicker bowl lined with a red serviette.

When Shirley Bassey played her residency at the Batley Variety Club, you have to wonder what she thought of an audience that, whilst she sang, filled their gobs with deep fried food smothered in juices, salt, vinegar, and English Mustard. When the coach party from Barnsley dispensed with the unnecessary knife and fork, did it add a new poignancy to Shirley as she blasted out her rendition of ‘Goldfinger’?

But for every Batley Variety Club, there were a hundred Bentleys with third-rate artists and even fattier chips. This was depressing in itself, but there was a greater cause of the cabaret and supper club misery. The owners and proprietors aspired for their venues to be the next Caesars Palace, but the punters had no such aspirations. They just wanted to gnaw on chicken bones and smear their faces with grease. The concept was stuck in no man’s land between the flat cap whippet brigade laughing at the racist comedian, and the champagne caviar contingent listening to Sammy Davis Jr. The lack of authenticity was deadening to the soul.

The novelty of Chicken in the Basket soon began to wane, compelling club owners to get creative and think outside the box, though obviously not outside the basket. Was it possible to improve the conventional menu with its one and only chicken option? To most minds clearly not, but somebody somewhere had a spark of genius that set a new trend. The exchange between the Managing Director and the Catering Manager must have gone something like this:

 

MD: Hey Chef, any ideas to reinvigorate the menu?

CHEF: Not really.

MD: Well keep trying.

{Half an hour of naval gazing and silence follows}

CHEF: Wait a minute; I think I’ve got it.

MD: Not VD again?

CHEF: No, the menu.

MD: The Menu?

CHEF: Yes

MD: And?

CHEF: Scampi

MD: Scampi?

CHEF: {triumphant} Yes

MD: {Underwhelmed} Sorry, but I just don’t see it

CHEF: I haven’t finished.

MD: Go on.

CHEF: Scampi in a basket.

MD: In a Basket?

CHEF: That’s right.

MD: That’s bloody genius.

{Cue vigorous backslapping}

 

What killed off the cabaret and supper club was soaked in as much irony as the food was in fats. The 1980s introduced a new aspirational society, the very thing that club owners had strived to engender. However, their clubs were now a working class cliché, characterised most markedly by the Chicken and the Scampi in a Basket. People now had a much wider choice for their evening’s entertainment, and the cabaret and the supper went their separate ways. The musicians and comedians moved to theatres and arenas, while the food moved to restaurants where, unbelievably, the menu contained more than one meal from which to choose.

For those of us who lived the Chicken in a Basket experience, the memories, like our backsides the morning after the wicker treat, are difficult to wipe. Personally, I am struggling to cope with the recollection of Brotherhood of Man singing ‘Angelo’ on the car radio of my fuel-guzzling British Leyland vehicle, as I pass striking gravediggers waving Union Jacks following the previous night’s power cut and news about the Third World War. Glam rock my arse!

 

 

Food Sniffing

 

When I was young, nobody in our house threw away food, mainly because there was nothing in the cupboards apart from a jar of pickled onions marinating in what resembled my dad’s piss. Yet things were no different in households with a pantry stockpiled after ransacking the local Co-op following reports of an impending nuclear attack from the Soviets.

If meat went rancid, mothers cooked it for twelve hours on Gas Mark 9 and then served the incinerated joint alongside boiled potatoes, carrots, and gravy with more lumps than the stockings of a granny with varicose veins. If a block of cheese was so green with mould that Superman thought it was the dreaded ‘Kryptonite’, out came the grater to turn it into cheese with chives. And if milk went sour, it was in a jug and served up as new fangled yogurt stuff before you could say Ski. The only foodstuffs that ended in the bin were those that journeyed under their own volition, an army of strong-legged bacteria marching last week’s left over lamb chop across the floor to join the other waste.

Changes began to occur when our eating habits embraced more processed foods and became less reliant on fresh goods. Marks and Spencer responded by labelling their food products with a sell-by date, thereby reinforcing their ‘quality’ differentiation from other retailers who were soon forced to follow suit. Shops quickly realised that this was a gift from God. It greatly helped the internal process of stock control and increased demand for food, because customers were throwing away the shopping from last week that had passed its sell-by marker. Furthermore, when the supermarkets introduced Buy-One-Get-One-Free offers, punters couldn’t resist such bargains and bought more food than they needed, which subsequently passed it sell-by-date and ended up in the rubbish.

The introduction of ‘Best before’ and ‘Use by’ dates intensified the consumer’s confusion and paranoia. Compounded by the onset of a health and safety conscious culture supported by EU legislation, reliance on your nose to see if food was fit to eat had given way to a terror of swallowing something that might rip out your innards if used the day after advised. The fridge that used to be a metal box in the corner of your kitchen that kept food chilled was now a killer.

Food standard agencies restored some balance by outlawing sell-by-dates in 2011. Now only one date appears on food labelling in the guise of ‘Best Before’. The ‘Sell by date’ has gone, but its sibling lives on. Not that I’m saying all such dates should disappear. The public does need protecting from unscrupulous suppliers and shops who would serve any old shit to make a quick buck. However, food waste would reduce if legislators relaxed some of the regulations about dates used, and that would have to be a good thing.

Then again, what do I know about food labelling? You should probably take these musings with a pinch of salt, providing your Saxa is not past its best before date. Moreover, why listen to the preaching of a man that is well past his own sell-by date?

 

 

Home Made Fizzy Drinks

 

What a great idea! Why waste money buying lemonade or cola when you can make your own with flavoured concentrates and a carbonation machine? Unfortunately, there were a couple of flaws.

First there was the cost. Fizzy drinks began to get cheaper and cheaper, starting with the pop man who delivered them to your door, providing great value and every ‘e’ number known to man. Then the supermarkets introduced the multi-pack, driving the price down even further and killing the pop man in the process. So home made fizzy drinks lost the battle on price. More significantly, homespun carbonated pop tasted shite. Unsurprisingly, the idea soon went flat.

 

 

Meat Paste

 

It’s 2015, and a woman walks into her kitchen with its Aga, American Fridge Freezer, real wood worktop, and array of different sized cabinets. Her partner is gathering some thyme from the indoor herb plants that dominate the shelf above a small porthole window, looking out on to an allotment of home grown vegetables in one corner of their garden.

He turns to her and says, ‘What sandwich would you like for lunch today darling?’

‘What have you got hunny bunny?’

‘Well, there’s Argentinian Roast Beef, Mixed Leaf Salad, Dill, Cucumber & Pine Nuts. Or how about Atlantic Prawns in Marie Rose Sauce with Tuscan Celery?’

‘Could you do a Smoked Irish Salmon, Fruit Chutney, Egg, Bacon, Crayfish, Smoked Cheese, Black Grape, Ham, Tuna, Mediterranean Vegetable, Guacamole, Spicy Bean Pate, Pastrami & Roquette Baguette?’

‘Coming up!’

 

It’s 1976, and a husband navigates his way past a nylon strip door into a kitchen that smells of gas, chip fat and Dettol. His wife is wearing an oversized dressing gown, an Ena Sharples hairnet, and is standing there with a fag hanging from her mouth.

‘What do you want on your bread today?’ she says, half an inch of ash falling on to the stained lino.

‘What have you got?’

‘Beef paste, crab paste or chicken paste.’

‘Have you got any salmon paste?’

‘What do you think this is, Claridges?’

 

Meat paste could well have been the first genetically modified food, such is its taste. If there is real meat product within its ingredients, the recipe must be something like… ‘Take a piece of sirloin steak, remove all fat and gristle, throw the lean meat in the bin, then mix the fat and gristle with the mashed placenta of a geriatric mother and blend in the bowels of an ageing cow.’

Potted paste was at the core of the British diet during the post Second World War austerity years, alongside other delights such as powdered egg, luncheon meat, brisket, and small fragments of an ARP warden’s helmet. Some journalists would have you believe that the new era of austerity and public spending cuts will see the return of meat paste to the forefront of our diets. This won’t happen. At the prospect of saving money, a few misguided fools may be lured to try the traditional foodstuff, but one lunch later, and having vomited most of their internal organs across the kitchen floor, the return to the top of the charts of Nana Mouskouri wearing Kylie Minogue’s skimpy gold lame shorts is more likely than a repeat purchase.

Right, it’s time for lunch. I’m having a Cheddar Cheese, Ham, Avocado, Chicken, Bacon, Meatball, Roast Beef, Potato, Dill, Onion, and Pastrami Bread Roll. Claridges eat your heart out.

 

 

Mild Ale

 

Here’s a question worthy of a Mensa numerical reasoning test. If you were to drink four pints of mild every evening of the year with the exception of Christmas Day when the rate drops to two, a further four pints during each weekend lunchtime session, and this rate of intake lasts for sixty four consecutive years, how much beer would you have consumed?

The answer is enough to give you the liver of George Best, the complexion of WC Fields, and the temperament of John McCririck. For the nerds who have just reached for their pocket calculator, I can confirm that the answer is exactly 120,000 pints, enough to fill your average holiday villa swimming pool. And yet this has been my dad’s aggregate beery intake to date. He is now well into his eighties and yet he seems to be getting by. Perhaps the diet of mild and tripe is not as corrosive as the cocktail of scotch, wine, vodka shots, lager, and doner kebab that is the typical consumption for the binge drinker on a Saturday night out.

So what has happened to the nation’s once favourite beer, given that a young mild drinker is as rare as a charismatic train spotter or nymphomaniac nun? You could blame late twentieth century social changes that resulted in the disintegration of industrial Britain, but I prefer to point the finger at Bill Haley and his kiss curl.

Until ‘Rock Around The Clock’ came along in the mid 1950s, there was no such thing as youth culture, and young men dutifully drank the same beverage as their dad, which for the typical working man was mild ale. It didn’t matter that it looked like your granddad’s midnight piss with phlegm on top because it was a man’s drink, and its consumption was a bog standard rites of passage thing.

Whereas teenage rebellion had previously been measured in terms of not singing along heartily enough with the family to the chorus of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, the arrival of rock and roll was the first time that young people made significant choices that were contrary to the wishes of their parents. From wearing drainpipe trousers and crepe shoes to modelling a greased backed quiff, the age of the teenage uprising had begun, and mild ale had to take its place as an ultimate victim of this cultural change.

My dad continues to carry the flag for mild drinkers, usually these days in a dark corner of the local Wetherspoons, attracted by the £1.99 price tag for a pint and dung burger on a bun. If you are ever in my local town, look out for the old guy dressed in baggy jogging pants, Hi-Tec trainers, shirt, tie and flat cap, supping what looks like a glass of liquidised tar. However, don’t expect to get a lucid response from him. By this time, he’ll be on pint number 130,000.

 

 

Parker’s Pies

 

This is clearly the most parochial choice for inclusion in the book because these pies were only available from one shop, Parker’s, and in one town, my town. I have to confess to being a bit of a pie obsessive. You could give me earwax, and as long it was covered in pastry, I would be ready to tuck in heartily. And yet a Parker’s Pie was something else. Quite simply, I would rank it the nicest thing I have ever eaten in my life, even if this is viewed through the mists of time, wearing rose coloured glasses, with a judgement impaired by age. A unique, crisp short crust pastry covering minced beef in hot marrowbone jelly, I’m dribbling down my shirt at the thought of it.

Unfortunately, Mr Parker suddenly dropped dead and took the recipe with him to the grave. It might seem a bit callous, but I think it would have been better if his death had been a slow process involving a progressive terminal illness rather than a sudden heart attack or brain haemorrhage. At least then he could written down the recipe to keep the culinary masterpiece alive.

But I plead with you not to judge me on the basis of this heartless viewpoint. Any talk of a pie, and I lose my normal sensibilities. I need your sympathy. Remember, I am a pie obsessive.

 

 

Pineapple & Cheese on a Stick

 

The customary buffet served up at a celebration used to be a grossly unimaginative affair. It was a quarter of a sandwich on white bread with ham, a quarter of a sandwich on white bread with cheese, and a quarter of a sandwich on white bread with egg. If the host had chosen the deluxe option, the table also housed sausage rolls and pork pies. Party food on offer at this time reflected the eating habits of the UK, which was yet to embrace foreign food in any big way. The only regular Italian nosh in shopping baskets and trolleys was spaghetti in a tin, the little pasta worms drowned in tomato sauce and sugar. Meanwhile, consumers viewed the pizza with great suspicion as typically foreign Fancy Dan scran. Chinese and Indian food was popular but only within the confines of the carpeted walls at restaurants such as ‘The Golden Leyton Orient’ and ‘A Taste of Bombay Drains’.

The newly aspiring classes then began to experiment with food, the buffet picking up some peripheral agitation, and the most exotic item to hit the picnic tables of christenings, birthdays, engagements, weddings, and funerals was the pineapple and cheese on a stick.

Applying skills learnt from young cooks on the TV like Delia Smith, party hosts would get a cauliflower, cover it in tin foil, and then insert cocktail sticks all over the silver sphere, at which point the culinary work in progress resembled Smiffy from the Beano’s Bash Street Kids. Cubed cheddar cheese and pineapple pieces were then threaded on to the sticks to create something straight out of the 1956 ‘B’ Movie Attack of the Pineapple Chunks or its inevitably inferior sequel, Return of the Pineapple Chunks.

Spurred on by the success of the pineapple and cheese on a stick, self-caterers went mad and adapted the creation to produce the mini-pickled onion and cheese on a stick. The latter, however, could only be a pretender to the throne, pineapple beating the onion every time in the exotica stakes. Next thing, somebody came back from a day break to France and introduced the revelatory vol-au-vent to the British public, a wafer thin, savoury pastry treat filled with mushroom goo or prawn mush. Partygoers were now convinced they had joined the Jet Set.

Cinzano or Martini anyone?’

By the 1980s, a food revolution was underway whereby UK families readily welcomed overseas cuisine into their daily lives. This was partly an indication of British tolerance and open-mindedness, but also recognition that our traditional food was shit. Fast forward to today and dishes from all corners of the globe adorn our supermarket shelves, so much so that British grub is now a niche market, usually promoted under a ‘Gastro Pub’ brand identity.

Inevitably, the party buffet followed suit in broadening its horizons. At a function, we now get Taiko sushi canapés with pickled ginger and wasabi, vegetable samosas with date and tamarind dipping sauce, smoked salmon rolls, gruyere and leek quiche, chicken wontons with sweet chilli and Hoisin sauce, a mixed wrap platter, coronation wild rice salad, tarte au citron, terrine aux fruits exotiques, and a selection of petit fours.

The poor pineapple and cheese treat realised it couldn’t ‘stick’ around any longer and exited the buffet room hand in hand with its little pickled onion cousin.

 

 

Sixpence in the Christmas Pudding

 

Few realise that the coins in your pocket carry as many germs and bacteria as the average toilet seat, though this doesn’t mean you can pay for your groceries with the cover to your crapper, or use your spare cash as a seat when you fancy a dump. Given this information, the last thing to do with your small change is obviously shove it in some food and then feed it to your children.

Yet this is precisely what occurred when it was traditional to put a silver sixpence into the Christmas pudding. The person finding the coin in their dessert bowl on December 25th would apparently enjoy wealth and riches throughout the year ahead, with one big proviso… that they hadn’t swallowed the bloody thing. Thanks to the traces of faeces, urine and mucus streaked across the coin, the more likely prospect was a case of dysentery. It wasn’t always a sixpence used. Sometimes it was a tiny wishbone, a silver thimble, or an anchor, all ideal for creating a tracheal obstruction and death by choking.

We wish you a Merry Christmas!’

The custom became less common as more people bought their pudding from a shop, attracted by the low price tag and the new bland taste. Obviously, even in those less Health & Safety obsessed times, no manufacturer was going to put a coin or a wishbone in their mixture and so the annual pastime of ‘Who’s got the sixpence?’ – it must be little Johnny choking in the corner – became a feature of Christmases past.

 

 

Super Size Fast Food

 

Trips to McDonald’s with my three children were always a bit of a mixed bag. There was my eldest son who was the fussy eater. My daughter who had the appetite of a sparrow. And my youngest son who treated any visit to a fast food outlet as an eating competition.

Ordering for my eldest involved something like, ‘Plain Hamburger with no relish or gherkins, and could the girl with the blond pony tail prepare the fries standing on her head while reciting the Lord’s Prayer?’ For my daughter it was ‘smallest cheeseburger in the world please.’ And for our youngest, ‘Can we have a Super Sized McGiant Massive Burger with a Mount Everest Bucket of Fries and a Pacific Ocean of Full Sugar Cola please?’

The calorific intake for this Gulliver style feast was so vast, that if Sir Ranulph Fiennes had lived on a diet of Super Sized Fast Food when man hauling his sledge of nearly 500lbs for 90 days across the Antarctica continent, he’d have still made Christopher Biggins look like a stick insect. Fortunately, my son’s eyes were always bigger than his belly – quite literally the opposite of my anatomy – and he never got close to finishing his mountain of food. His competitive eating instinct did not therefore translate into body fat.

But there were plenty of takers who would polish off the lot, and it was only when Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me came along to show the damage to health from eating excessive fast food that McDonald’s withdrew the Super Size menu option. The food behemoth claimed it was nothing to do with the movie, that they were simply adjusting their food offer in line with consumer trends and preferences. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not the timing was a co-incidence.

I defend McDonald’s food because I enjoy it as an occasional treat. But you only have to look at the obesity in the States to see the impact this kind of fast food has had on the health of a nation. Things are changing though. When I was in New York recently, I noticed the McDonald’s window displayed the total calories of each menu option. This is applauded by food nutritionists, but as someone who enjoys the odd remorse free burger meal, I don’t want to be given my fast food with a Super Size guilt trip thrown in for good measure. Hey, maybe Super Sizing is here to stay after all.

 

 

The Low Budget Picnic

 

When I was young, apart from the odd camping trip, I never went on holiday with my family. Our summer breaks were filled with days out to any location where there was basically no chance of spending any money. This meant wherever we went, we took our own food in the form of a deeply unimaginative picnic, thereby discovering food’s underclass.

Our low budget picnic was never carried in a gingham lined wicker basket with accompanying co-ordinated plates, cutlery, wine glasses, napkins and tablecloth. It never contained such delights as spicy plum chutney, mature oval cheese, Scottish oat crumbles, Grandma’s home preserve or stuffed olives. And we never had a bottle of fifty year old Chablis or chilled champagne.

Our food was transported in a shopping bag with a few greying Tupperware dishes inside. For us kids, there was the delight of some cheap jam on white processed bread, and for the adults there was a jar of pickled eggs. To drink, there was a flask of lukewarm tea in which the milk had curdled, producing the taste of diluted disinfectant. O the joys of summers past!

To be fair, in those days you had to take a picnic because the choices for eating out or buying food were as limited as the meat feast option at a Vegan’s barbecue, particularly on a Sunday when the only shops open were Jewish tailors.

We are now spoilt for choice in our twenty four hour society with eating houses everywhere, sandwiches available at the convenience store, and hot drinks on tap at any number of coffee bars. Even for younger families on the breadline, a day out has to include a happy meal or a bag of chips. Kids these days understandably turn their noses up at a soggy jam butty and a drink of squash that tastes like weak piss. Nobody takes their own food, unless you’re either as tight as PJ Proby’s trousers or very old. And to recognise the PJ Proby reference, you need to be old anyway.

If you’re at the zoo, the beach or a National Park, and you see a group of people eating sandwiches from tin foil and drinking tea from a flask, the likelihood is that they will have lived through the Second World War. The women will be dressed in summer cardigans and polyester slacks, sporting a variety of blue rinsed hairstyles, and the men will have co-ordinated their wardrobes in the colour of baby shit, with their trouser waistbands circling the midpoint between their nipples and armpits. But as the number of these old timers naturally diminishes, the end is nigh for the low budget picnic, something to be welcomed, especially if you work for MI5.

I was recently at Manchester Airport waiting in the departure gate for a flight to leave and was amazed to see a group of four pensioners tucking into a picnic of the low budget kind, with the usual tired mix of sandwiches and tea. My wife’s eau de toilette had just been confiscated by security for contravening the airline ban on liquids, and yet these guys had managed to get two family sized flasks of hot tea through the surveillance operation.

I’m not the best flyer, and my over active imagination started to visualise the news headlines later that day.

 

Picnic Bomb Horror at 30,000 feet!’

 

 

The Martini Set

 

The most beautiful drink in the world”.

This was the strap line to the old advertisement for Martini, the gin and vermouth cocktail. The most beautiful? Really?

The glory days of Martini date back to the time when the marketing man could make a bold statement as far from the truth as a Baron Munchhausen anecdote and still get away with it. The recipe for Martini was simple. Take a touch of product placement in a Bond movie, add a colossal advertising campaign that associated the drink with the Monte Carlo jet set, and mix in a new aspirational society ready to swallow it whole. Bingo! Rocketing sales.

Yet imagine if the ad man had got it wrong. What if the product placement had been in the film version of On the Buses with Olive gulping it down by the vase? And then imagine if the advertising campaign had showed people in Barnsley eating mushy peas with their bare fingers and drinking Martini out of hobnail boots. Would the drink have been as popular because it truly was the most beautiful drink in the world? If you still think so, maybe you fell out of your high chair head first as a child… or even as an adult.

Those who endured the 1970s will remember the song that accompanied the adverts, a flagrant and irresponsible invitation to drink ‘anytime, anywhere, any place’. The suggestion from the images in the thirty-second commercial was to have your Martini on a luxury yacht in the sun-drenched, Mediterranean company of male and female models. This was the Martini Set, a group that only existed in the world of advertising, but a group to whom consumers aspired to belong. Unfortunately, this was a little tricky to emulate when you lived in Barrow, it was always pissing down with acid rain, and the locals in the Red Lion were either inbred or partially deformed due to the proximity of their home to the nuclear reactor at Windscale.

But fashions come and go, and the Martini set got stuck in a time bubble. Eventually, they and their chosen tipple became passé, overtaken by exciting new drinks such as Pernod, with its taste of aniseed balls and paraffin. The TV commercials continued to be made, desperately trying to maintain the association between Martini and status. And in the first decade of the new century, as the cult of celebrity became an epidemic, even the world’s best looking man was employed to promote the drink. Some of you might be thinking. ‘I don’t remember Shane MacGowan of the Pogues endorsing an alcoholic product, officially anyway,’ but it was actually George Clooney.

Heartthrob film star or toothless singer, it didn’t matter. The ad man had lost his powers and so the vermouth tipple couldn’t make the comeback that the marketeers plotted. It was apparent that the TV commercial aired in the middle of Coronation Street no longer guaranteed a sharp increase in sales. The game was up for the Martini Set.

The drink survives, mainly as a cocktail ingredient, but its heyday has gone. Move over Martini. Enter the latest most beautiful drink in the world. Chernobyl Spring Water anyone?

 

 

Tripe

 

I’ve never eaten tripe despite my dad’s constant nagging. Have I been unreasonable for the last fifty odd years in spurning his recurring offer for what was once part of the staple working class diet? Well judge for yourself.

Beef tripe is the lining to the stomach of a ruminating cow. Unwashed or green tripe, which contains some of the animal’s undigested food, makes a sewerage plant smell like orange blossom. Dogs love it, but canines also enjoy sniffing one another’s arse and find eating their own shit irresistible, so I think we can discount their opinion.

For human consumption, tripe is washed and cleaned with a kind of household bleach so that the foodstuff takes on the appearance of an alien life form with the stench of Domestos, thereby killing 99% of all known appetites. I think I rest my case as to why you’ll be hard pressed to find a dinner plate full of the stuff anywhere these days.

Or am I talking tripe?

 

 

FOOTBALL

 

 

Anoraks for Goalposts

 

As a youngster between the months of September and May, I would spend any spare waking moment playing football, usually in the local park. If possible, we would use a sapling tree caged by a wire mesh as one post and a jumper for the other, but more often than not, it would be two jumpers or anoraks making up the goalposts. The ball was a plastic Frido, and we wore any old crap on our feet. Nobody possessed a real football shirt. One lad called Alan, a Liverpool fan, found an old red t-shirt and literally painted the number ‘7’ on the back of the garment in Dulux white gloss. His hand was unsteady and his smudged attempt ended up as a ‘2’, though it looked to us more like a swastika. Alan’s bogus attempt at supposedly wearing official gear fooled nobody, and somewhat unfairly because of the apparent Nazi insignia on his back, he became known as Alan Hitler from then on.

The great problem with coats as makeshift goal posts was not being able to assess if the ball had (a) gone over the non-existent bar or (b) hit the non-existent post and rebounded out for a goal kick. Never mind goal line technology, we needed goal post technology. Add to the mix no referee, and it was clearly a recipe for more disputes than a British Leyland car factory. In many cases, these decisions remained unresolved where one team believed they were 7-6 in the lead while the other thought it was 6-6. In the end, it didn’t matter a jot. Typical park games had defences as threadbare as the hair of Ralph Coates and so scores were usually 24-21 and 32-25. Most players struggled with sums at school and so lost count anyway.

A stroll through my local park today demonstrates just how much has changed in the intervening years. The lads – and lasses – wear immaculate replicas of their favourite footballer’s jersey, they have specialist branded footwear, and they are playing with the official leather ball to that year’s FIFA World Cup finals. There’s no need to get out an anorak or a jumper to act as a goalpost, because council officials have erected a real goal and left it there for the duration of the football season. Even on fields where this is not the case, players bring their own goal complete with net. Either way, opponents no longer argue about whether the ball has gone in off the posts.

In the year that Alan’s unfortunate number 2 – maybe that’s why he walked funny – gave him the reputation as Adolf Hitler’s nephew, England became FIFA’s World Champions. Four decades on with soccer brands and merchandising a worldwide business, nobody needs to use their anorak as a goalpost, and neither does anyone expect the English to win the World Cup. Are these two things related? I think they may be.

 

 

Blow Football

 

This is not as saucy as it seems, and so your attempts to locate a DVD of Emmanuelle goes to Highbury is certain to end in disappointment. Blow Football was a staple of Christmas and birthday presents of the past. The most impressive thing about the toy game was always the box, which depicted an action shot of footballers in rugby shirts, knee-length shorts, labourer’s boots, and camel toe haircuts. The insides were less impressive. Two flimsy goals, a couple of straws, and a small plastic sphere were all that you got, apart from the instructions that read something like ‘Blow like buggery to get the ball into your opponent’s goal’.

Actual games of blow football were hazardous affairs. If both players were healthy specimens, there was no real issue, other than the abandonment of most games after five minutes due to a waterlogged pitch and light-headedness after such concerted blowing. The problems really started when the person at the end of the straw wasn’t well. The tube acted as a vessel for a mild version of chemical weaponry, with jets of virus-laden spit showering the opponent. The celebration of a close 3-2 victory proved premature, because illness then forced the victor to spend the next few days ill in bed. It was worse still for the asthmatic participant who would end a game gasping for breath and coughing any remaining phlegm over the other player.

The coming of electronic consoles and computers rendered football games from the pre-video age such as Subbuteo as old hat. Blow Football was different. It had already lost its place in the stockings and sacks of the nations… thinking about it; this talk of stockings and sacks makes me believe that Emmanuelle Goes to Highbury might exist after all.

 

 

Easy International Games

 

There are no easy international games these days’ is a relatively recent addition to the canon of football clichés, usually spouted by a national team manager bracing himself for a press onslaught after beating a country with a population of two hundred people and three goats by a mere six goal margin. A check on San Marino’s international record, however, may have you questioning the validity of this assertion.

Since their first match in 1990, the Italian principality has managed to win only one game, scoring a measly twenty-one goals, less than one a year. This chronic record confirms they are easy to beat, but it does not mean they are easy to play against. With two banks of five across the back, leaving just the club’s mascot Tommy the Terrier up front, they know how to defend in a ‘hack it away at any cost’ manner. They usually hold out for twenty minutes before the law of averages kicks in and they concede. By the end of the ninety minutes, another three or four have gone in and they leave the field satisfied with their 5-0 drubbing. The opposition traipses off, bruised and battered, but with three points in the bag.

In the days of shirts with collars, long shorts, and hobnail boots, if you were a good team, there were easy internationals. Hungary played five games at the 1954 World Cup and scored twenty-seven goals, and that was against the elite teams that had qualified. Tactics of the lesser sides were naïve, and the organised, disciplined and talented teams had a literal field day.

The swan song for the easy international came in 2001 within the Oceanian qualifying rounds for the World Cup, when Australia played American Samoa and won by the scarcely believable score of 31-0. Indeed, the Samoans might have been better placing all eleven men along the goal line while the Aussies took pot shots. The highlights on the American Samoan equivalent of ‘Match of the Day’ overran by a few hours that day because of the slow motion replays, and their Alan Hansen, crimson with rage, was carried off to A&E muttering ‘schoolboy defending’ and ‘diabolical’. It was a wakeup call for FIFA who proceeded to introduce pre-qualifying rounds in order for subsequent matches to have at least a modicum of competition.

Of course, if you are German and reading this, you probably have some justification in saying ‘Aber das Spielen England ist immer einfach?’ My retort of ‘1-5 Munich 2001’ is already starting to date.

 

 

England’s World Cup Song

 

In 1970, the England football team was hot, and not just because they wore suits, shirts and ties on their way to matches in the Mexican heat of the World Cup finals. They were reigning champions and looked on course to repeat the feat. That was until West Germany scored three goals to overturn a 2-0 winning margin with only twenty minutes to go in the quarter-final. In the same year, the team gave birth to a new phenomenon, the release of a song recorded by the squad ahead of a major tournament.

‘Back Home’ was a song with pedigree, written by the same team behind ‘Puppet on a String’ and ‘Congratulations’, both massive Eurovision hits. Considered on its own merits now, it’s no ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but the tune is undeniably catchy and a good sing-a-long number. Moreover, the vocals do sound like the actual squad members. It’s pitched in a key suitable for a bunch of butch footballers, nobody requiring the vocal range of the Righteous Brothers to hit the right notes. The record was a huge success and reached number 1 in the charts, spawning an unwanted ritual and many imitators.

England fans with an ear for music pondered what track might accompany the squad on their way to the 1974 World Cup in Germany. In the event, there wasn’t one. The team failed to qualify. The same happened in 1978, though by this time, other countries had weighed in. Scotland went to Argentina on the back of ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’, the most over-optimistic song since Private Tommy Tommyson’s 1916 self-penned ditty ‘I’m going to single-handedly destroy the Hun at the Battle of the Somme’. However, by 1982 England had re-joined the fold, qualifying for the finals in Spain.

The pop scene had moved on since Mexico ’70, and the charts were full of the New Romantics and the burgeoning electronic scene. Undaunted, the FA searched for another ‘Back Home’ and found ‘This Time We’ll Get It Right’ to which the second line should have been ‘Oh No, We Won’t’. It might have sounded OK if it was 1970, but twelve years on, it sounded as relevant as a pair of Terylene slacks.

The minstrel footballers were all Phil Collins and Billy Joel fans and plainly considered the song a dirge. In the video of the recording at Abbey Road, the lads displayed all the enthusiasm of Death Row inmates allowed to sing ‘25 Minutes to Go’ by Johnny Cash as a final treat before placing their arses on the electric chair. If the vocals on the final pressing are the actual players and not session singers, then I’m the codpiece of the Prince Regent. Inexplicably, the song reached number 2 in the charts, but the team’s demise in Spain awoke the public to the correlation between failing at the World Cup and having a shit record sung by the team.

The next FIFA finals reinforced the point. England qualified for Mexico ’86, and the FA suits excelled in finding an absolute shocker for the squad song. The record was ‘We’ve Got the Whole World at Our Feet’, and this time nobody paid for any session singers. It was so bad; it didn’t even qualify as being so bad it was good. The team may have had the whole world at their feet, but the public decided they could stick the song up their arses, the disc only reaching number 66 on the singles chart.

Two years later, with the England team ready for the European Championships, a couple of the younger lads at the FA – easily distinguished as they didn’t fight at Ypres – had a brainwave, though perhaps brainstorm is a better word. Instead of learning from the disaster of the Mexico ’86 effort and dropping the whole idea of the squad song, they approached the Hit Factory of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. These pop hit makers were hotter than a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion chilli pepper, with chart topping records for Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue already under their belts. The trio agreed to write and produce a record for the England squad ahead of the Euros. What could go wrong? In short, everything.

The song’s name was ‘All the Way’, and it went all the way down the pan. A slice of synthpop so anodyne, Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ was Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ by comparison. An appearance on BBC’s Wogan has manager Bobby Robson as lead singer, Tony Adams on a bench press, Steve McMahon refusing to lip-synch while riding an exercise bike, and the rest of the team including Gary Lineker swaying from side to side with footballs as props. Now this video was so bad that it was good. As for the single, it bombed, as did the team, losing all three of its group games before heading ‘All The Way’ back to the UK. It was the nadir of the tradition started by ‘Back Home’, and it proved to be the swan song. Two years later for Italia ’90, the spell was broken when New Order produced their classic ‘World in Motion’. The squad played a minor role with John Barnes rapping in the way only a footballer could rap, but it was the band’s record and not that of the England team.

It’s now an age since the FA allowed an England Squad to assemble in the recording studio to mumble into a microphone, thereby inviting public ridicule. They now concentrate on important matters such as the press conference, where they mumble into a microphone and invite public ridicule. Who was it said nothing changes? Buy him a drink.

 

 

Football Mavericks

 

The modern day Premier League footballer is a finely tuned athlete. He has to be, for there’s no hiding place now that the statisticians record every kick, header and fart in a game, producing a mass of performance data for analysis and review. Any player who has not run the equivalent of a half marathon during his ninety minutes on the pitch is highlighted as a slacker and called in for extra training with the spotty faced hoodies in the youth squad.

That said, in many ways, today’s top players are no different from those of yesteryear. They still love to drive a Ferrari at twice the national speed limit and crash into a group of senior citizens chatting about the price of cheese outside the post office. They still want to shag every female they encounter at a nightclub, or in Wayne Rooney’s case at the Age UK Christmas Party. And they still enjoy comparing and contrasting quantum physics with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity… or should that be betting on the 4.15 at Lingfield? But there are many old school footy fans who look back at the football scene in the 1960s and 1970s with a warm glow of nostalgia, ruing the uniformity of today’s soccer star while recalling, with nostalgic fondness, the football maverick.

This fraternity included the likes of Rodney Marsh, Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, Charlie George, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, who shared a number of particular attributes. They weren’t great team players, preferring to do their own thing by not giving a toss about systems, formations and tactics. They were universally adored and revered by the fans of their team. And they were prodigiously talented footballers who lived life to the extreme.

Even on match days, this might involve a cocktail of drink, drugs, and a contestant from the Miss World contest, preferably in one session, and preferably during the half time break of a mundane encounter against struggling Preston North End. Emerging from the tunnel for the second half and smoking a cigar the size of a submarine torpedo, the maverick would be as high as a kite, pissed as a newt, with a jizz stain the shape of Indonesia on the front of his shorts, yet he still managed to score a hat-trick, assault a member of the crowd using the corner flag as a spear, before getting sent off in injury time for head-butting the opposition’s terminally ill team mascot.

When the careers of these football mavericks came to an end, and the sporting obituaries were being written, the common theme was one of unfulfilled potential and a lack of caps… that’s international appearances not ammunition for their toy pistols. But no footballers in the history of the game have ever given better value for money than these guys.

They didn’t disappear overnight. The 1980s and early 1990s produced a hybrid maverick who, although a rebel at heart, still trained hard and accepted team orders. This included Gazza and Eric Cantona, probably the last of the breed before the financial rewards of the new Premiership ushered in the homogeneous, toned, multi-national robot soccer professional. If you want to relive the football maverick experience, I suggest you go to the local park this Sunday morning to see the chain smoking, inebriated footballer on show. You’ll have no trouble spotting one. There’ll be twenty two of them on the pitch.

 

 

Football Terraces

 

Prior to the introduction of all-seater stadia initiated by the Taylor Report on the Hillsborough tragedy, Liverpool’s Spion Kop was the most striking example of the football terrace. Named after a battle that took place on a steep embankment of the same name in the Boer War, it had a capacity of 27,000 and was a seething mass of heads and torsos with an unchoreographed, rhythmic sway. I remember my own time on the Kop very well. Five minutes before kick-off, I would be standing behind a crush barrier with plenty of space around me. Yet by the time the referee blew his whistle to start the game, there was more room in Barry Gibb’s Saturday Night Fever trousers. Fifteen minutes later, I had somehow moved about fifty steps closer to the pitch, positioned now by the corner flag rather than behind the goal and next to a guy complaining that someone had just pissed into his slip-ons while he stretched up to see the action on the pitch.

Then there was the genuinely witty singing, perhaps with the exception of ‘We all hate Leeds’, sung to the tune of The Dam Busters. The lyrics were:

We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, we all f***ing hate Leeds.’

It won’t surprise you to know that it didn’t win an Ivor Novello award.

If you want to see what the Liverpool Kop was really like in its prime, head to YouTube for ‘Dailymotion the Kop Anfield 1964’. A few things are striking. There are no women – you’ll see why – many of the men are wearing shirts and ties, and all ages know the words to songs by The Beatles and Cilla Black. There is also the incredulity of the well-spoken news reporter standing in front of the masses, speaking reverentially and eloquently about the unique community spirit of the Kop. The physical structure, the fans, and the Liverpool spirit were already there, but it took a Scot by the name of Bill Shankly to harness these components into one compound. Sport had never seen the like of it, and it never will again. Nothing could compare, not even Brazil’s Estádio do Maracanã.

In 1994, the last game played in front of the Liverpool Kop was a league game against Norwich City, which the Reds lost 1-0. It was an ill-fitting end to an era, yet the magic had long gone. The calamity that saw 96 lose their life at Hillsborough in 1989 was in hindsight the real end. The authorities had locked fans in like caged animals and saw the awful consequences of the misguided policy on that fateful day in Sheffield. They moved quickly to sanitise football grounds by making them all seated. Football has never been the same since, but that’s probably as well. The beautiful game will be around for as long as there is a ball to kick, and there will undoubtedly be a few further incarnations. The manifestation that had the football terrace at its heart and soul is now history. But what a glorious history it is, though I’m not sure the man with piss in the back of his slip-ons would necessarily agree.

 

 

Glenbuck Cherrypickers FC

 

Glenbuck was an Ayrshire pit village that at the end of the nineteenth century had a population of about 800. By the early 1930s, the last of the local pits had closed, effectively destroying the village. Today, it is little more than a hamlet. There is nothing particularly memorable about Glenbuck’s history, except for one thing, its football team. During a short history – the club’s fate also sealed by the end of coal mining in the area – Glenbuck Cherrypickers FC produced over fifty players who went on to play professional football. Amongst these, seven became Scottish internationals and two picked up FA Cup winning medals. The most famous of them all was the legendary Bill Shankly.

John Lennon is a hero for many reasons, but for an example of a bona fide working class hero, you should turn to Shankly. Glenbuck-raised in a family of ten, five boys and five girls, he was the youngest amongst the lads and had football threaded through his veins. His uncle played for Glasgow Rangers and his four elder brothers all made a living out of playing the game professionally at some stage, a path that Bill followed with unparalleled distinction. The Glenbuck community was staunchly socialist with an acute sense of fraternity and unity underpinned by a hard working ethic. Anybody in need of help found it satisfied unquestionably by neighbours, and no one embodied these values more than Bill.

After a successful playing career, performing at the highest level, he became an equally successful manager and in turn, a legend when he joined the ailing Liverpool FC in 1959. In the local people, he found kindred spirits, and they felt likewise. He inspired all around him and led the team to promotion into the top flight and to subsequent League and FA Cup wins, remaining in charge for over fifteen years. Despite great success on the field and the growing celebrity of the game, he remained firmly one of the people, a man who never betrayed his Glenbuck upbringing and values, and a man who believed in the principles of collectivism, working as a group for the good of the group. He retired from Liverpool too young at 60 and died too young, eight years later.

Eligibility to play for Glenbuck Cherrypickers FC was narrow in that you had to be from Glenbuck, unlike other pit teams who often picked a ringer from another village. This is quite a contrast to the current English Premier League where squads are a United Nations collective and the only hint of local talent is the lad on the burger van outside the ground who is great at keepy-uppy. Even when you drill down to lower leagues, you see the extent to which the parochialism of the Cherrypicker’s selection criteria is as distant as the pit communities of the past.

You don’t get clubs like this anymore, producing a ridiculous ratio of professional footballers, and you don’t get managers like Bill Shankly either. It’s a pity in many ways, but I hope that the legacy of fair play, justness, solidarity and equality that is central to the tale of Glenbuck Cherrypickers FC and William Shankly OBE never disappears. Some things in football are as important as life and death.

 

 

Half Time Scores on the Advertising Hoardings

 

In the modern age with its information overload, as a football fan watching the game at a stadium, you get to half time and then download on to your smartphone all the latest performance data from the other games taking place that day. This includes possession stats, team ratings, heat maps of outfield players, and the colour of the referee’s underpants. The score line is incidental because you already know it, having set up notifications on your football app to send you alerts when the goals go in.

A few years back, it was an old man in a mac during the interval that provided the first inkling of scores in other games. He ambled across the pitch and proceeded to hook numbered plates on to the advertising hoardings to display the half time scores. It may have been low-tech, but it was great drama, and as a Liverpool fan, there was nothing better than see 4-0 exhibited against the Everton game with the Toffees in arrears, especially if it was an FA Cup tie away at Gravelmuck Rovers from the Lancashire Pit League.

The routine died when some bright spark decided that advertising hoardings would be more effective if they displayed some form of advertising instead of a row of bingo numbers. It was goodbye to the half time scores on the hoardings and hello to promotional signs for Bovril, Holland’s Pies, and Higson’s Beer… the three-course meal of choice for the discerning football fan of the time.

 

 

Muddy Pitches

 

After graduating from my seven day a week paper round in which I earned the princely sum of £1, I readily embraced less taxing ways of earning money at the age of fifteen. This included washing the mud-splattered kits of my dad’s works football team at the local launderette, a visit that invariably induced scowls of disapproval from the regulars with their beehives, hairnets, and smudged lipstick. They made it clear I ought to have removed the clumps of earth and soil from the garments before loading my wash. The mud was an ever present, the shirts, shorts and socks always caked with sludge the colour of braised shit. The local pitches were terrible, and if there was a wet spell, the games were more like water polo than football. The playing surfaces for the professionals were not much better. A typical televised game from the 1970s has more sand than Brighton Beach.

Technology and money changed things. The modern ground staff have an array of techniques at their disposal to produce a bowling green of a surface. This includes fertilisation, aeration, topdressing, over-seeding, heating lamps, and transitional zone maintenance. Some grass pitches even have strands of artificial fibres sewn in for durability. The results are perfection and a million miles from the sand dunes and mud baths of yesteryear.

Even local amateur pitches are better than they used to be. Health and safety considerations are such that games are postponed if the ref feels more than two drops of rain fall on his nose, and so the churn of the playing surface doesn’t happen. The muddy pitch is no more, something of which the beehive ladies in the launderette would heartily approve.

 

 

Spot the Ball

 

A Spot the Ball Competition? Eh? Did you have to identify the gatecrasher at a eunuchs’ party night? That might have been more fun, but those of a certain age will remember the weekly contest that was a regular feature of the local and national newspaper sports section. A paper without Spot the Ball was like a man without his dangly bits.

It was a football based competition in which the ball had been airbrushed from an action photograph, and the task for you as the reader was to put a cross where you thought it should be. It was a case of using your skill and judgement based on the position of the players and the direction in which they were looking. Every Saturday evening, I would rush to the newsagents to buy a Liverpool Echo Football Pink. After scan reading the reports on the day’s matches, I spent the next half hour studying the competition photograph, trying to determine the likely location of the missing ball. Little did I know that it was a complete and utter waste of time.

I recall a picture that showed the outstretched hands of Tommy Lawrence, Liverpool’s pork pie munching goalkeeper, and a defensive wall of Gerry Byrne, Emlyn Hughes, Chris Lawler and Peter Thompson, each protecting their genitals with a cupped palm… hopefully their own. All five players had their heads turned back towards the Liverpool goal, while the free kick taker, Bobby Charlton, had his arms up in the air with an expectant look on his face. So where was the ball? It was clearly heading towards the goal, so I put my crosses in and around the goalmouth and sent off my entry in the hope of winning the cash prize.

A week later and the results were published. And there it was. The same photo this time with the ball in shot. And in which part of the goalmouth was the ball? The part next to the floodlights above the stand on the halfway line. Of course, how stupid of me! Charlton obviously took the free kick and hit it with such ferocity that it rebounded off the bar and travelled half the length of the pitch, gaining height to eventually join the seagulls circling above the terraces and houses of Anfield.

Unbeknown to the likes of me who didn’t read small print, there was a deceit going on. Because you couldn’t bet on an event that had already happened, promoters would be careful to place the ball randomly in the results photo, meaning that all my careful studying of the original action shot was as irrelevant as vasectomy advice to the eunuch. It’s a wonder Spot the Ball survived as long as it did, given these behind the scenes shenanigans, though eventually it did become tired and faded away. The final cross drawn on the Spot the Ball competition was a big black one applied by the newspaper editor to cancel the feature.

 

 

The Magic Sponge

 

The importance of Sports Science in the modern football game is paramount. Major English Premier League clubs employ a whole department of specialists concerned with fitness, training, gym work, nutrition, health monitoring, injuries, and recovery. During training, players wear micro-GPS devices that contain gyroscopes, accelerometers and heart rate receivers that capture multi-performance and health data for later analysis. Injury prevention plays a major part in the preparation of footballers before they take to the field of play, but when the unfortunate does happen and the midfield general feels a slight pulse behind the kneecap, the coach takes no chance and substitutes him. If an operation is required, clubs fly their prized asset by private jet to the States to have corrective surgery undertaken by the world’s leading expert on cruciate ligaments. But was it always like that? What do you think?

Football clubs used to have somebody called the ‘trainer’, and his job was twofold. He organised training sessions to ensure that players perfected the star jump, and he also convinced them that their injuries were a trick of the mind. Fortunately, the trainer had more in his arsenal than just the powers of persuasion. He had the magic sponge. However small or big the match, a bucket of freezing cold water sat at his feet like a devoted dog next to its owner, and immersed in the bucket was a yellow sponge that demonstrated its supernatural qualities when a player picked up an injury during a game.

With the stricken man’s horribly contorted right leg facing the wrong way, the ref stopped play and gestured to the trainer who lifted up his bucket and leisurely ambled on to the playing surface. Meanwhile, the crowd read their match programmes, waiting patiently for him to get to the other side of the pitch. His diagnosis was immediate. This was a job for the magic sponge.

After squeezing this medical marvel to drench the injury with about a gallon of ice-cold water, it took about half a minute before the footballer was on his feet doing squat thrusts and stretching exercises in readiness to carry on. In extreme examples when a shoulder charge from the big lad up front had virtually decapitated the opposition goalkeeper’s head, the trainer called for a second bucket with a second sponge. Whether it was fixing a head, broken limb, gashed leg, twisted knee or hamstring strain, it didn’t matter. The remedy was always the same, a good old soaking from the magic sponge, supported off the field by cortisone injections for players with a limb hanging off. In the unlikely event that an operation was required, club officials used a bloke who had a surgery above the Kings Arms opposite the ground. He wasn’t a qualified medical man, but he was cheap, he was available, and beer was on tap downstairs as an anaesthetic backup.

Then money became more important than the football. Accountants produced balance sheets, and club officials realised that their greatest financial assets were the players. The bucket and its magical contents made way for the team of professionally qualified sports scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, and psychologists. In 1966, Liverpool won the First Division title using virtually the same eleven players all season. Current winners tend to employ about twenty-five, a higher figure partly through squad rotation but also because of the greater incidence of injuries. Whether or not this is due to the disappearance of the magic sponge is your call. I can’t say… magic circle and all that jazz.

 

 

The Male Perm

 

Those of you with dyslexic tendencies might read this as The Man Sperm, and I suppose the sticky stuff could disappear if IVF and related technologies continue to develop at their present pace. However, we can expect it to be around for some time yet, if only as a mouthwash for the more broad-minded woman. No, this is about the man’s perm, a fashion started in the Liverpool FC dressing room of the 1970s.

My theory is that Phil Thompson, impatiently using the hair-dryer, looked across at Kevin Keegan and saw that his team mate’s hair had dried quicker than spit in the Sahara. He looked down at his own trouser fringe and realised that these natural curly bits dried with only one stroke of the towel. The revelation hit him. ‘I want pubes on my head.’ Phil took the plunge, followed quickly by Terry McDermott, Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy. The image of the Scouser with a perm was thereby branded for immortal ridicule.

The perm was short for permanent wave and had long been a feature of hairdressing for the shampoo and set brigade, basically your granny having her locks done at places called Diane’s or Sandra’s. With the help of perming lotion, straight hair was given a tight curl so that women were able to perfect the highly desirable Harpo Marx look.

They didn’t even need to go to the hairdresser’s to get it done because there was the Toni home perm, which gave you the hair of the Jackson 5 but left your house smelling like a sulphur dump. And then there was the demi-wave, a perm with fewer calories. The curls weren’t as tight, opening up a plethora of hair styles for the female head.

But all these options were the remit of women. The only thing to go near a man’s hair had been a comb, a blob of Brylcreem, and Colin the barber. A new era of male grooming was born when the man’s perm took off, driven by the footballing brigade. The Coco the Clown look became a common sight on the streets and in night clubs, but just as football had introduced the man’s perm, so it also killed it off.

A new kid was in town, a hairstyle that committed such heinous crimes, the fashion police were initially overrun by the demands forced upon them. It was the mullet, where the hair was short on the top, short at the sides, and long only at the back. It had been around for a little while, most notably promoted by rock and pop stars such as Bono, Duran Duran, Limahl and Nik Kershaw, but it remained largely a show business phenomenon until the footballers popularised the cut.

In many ways, the mullet deserved to be a much derided style. The man’s perm was never strongly associated with vanity, its origins rooted in practicality. Whereas those who sported a mullet really thought they looked fantastic, a gift from God to the female population, a Samson for modern times. They were wrong, of course, because the mullet wasn’t cool, not even for a nanosecond. But, and it’s a big but, it does deserve credit for killing off the man’s perm.

The only place you’re likely to find a guy with permed hair these days is in old photo albums and boxes. And if you are one of those unfortunate souls who committed their hair crimes to posterity in such a way, I’m sure will find it a toe-curling, if not hair curling, experience to see them again.

 

 

The Rattle

 

Watch any black and white Pathe News footage of old football games, and this is what you see:

 

1. The players wearing hobnail boots with two pillowcases sewn together as shorts.

2. Everybody taking part has the same centre part hair style. With no such thing as gel or mousse, the look has been made possible by the dipping of heads in a tub of lard before taking to the field.

3. At the pace of a snail carrying a ball and chain, the outside right dribbles his way past two arthritic pensioners called Alf and Ted before he kicks the mud soaked, leather cannonball with all his might towards the goal.

4. The ball trickles harmlessly into the goalie’s hands.

5. The goalkeeper then gets head butted into the net by a centre forward called Nat, Stan or Tommy.

6. The referee awards the goal, and the scorer celebrates with all the enthusiasm of someone who has just discovered his pet dog has been crushed by a steam roller.

7. The keeper gets up and plays the rest of the game with a fractured skull and dislocated shoulder.

8. The film cuts to a shot of the crowd, a sea of flat caps, rosettes and wooden rattles.

 

The rattle, a staple accompaniment for the old school football fanatic, was made of solid ash rather than balsa wood. It was a heavy piece of kit that would have been lethal in the hands of a wrong’un. Fortunately, these were times when a football hooligan was someone who refused to clap politely when the opposition scored a goal.

The rattle made a loud clicking racket when rotated and had been designed during the war years as an aid to notifying people of a pending gas attack… something my dad might have used to warn us of his ritualistic one hour toilet visit on Saturday mornings. Football fans adopted the contraption as an easy means of making a din at matches, and it was soon heard on every terrace in the country.

But the noisy accessory fell out of favour when the game started to migrate away from its traditional working class roots. The Beatles had arrived, paving the way for the marriage of fashion and music to football. The game was getting trendy. With new role models like George Best, the terraces no longer needed the hullabaloo of the rattle because the crowds were starting to chant their own songs. The Liverpool Kop was central to this change, adopting ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and singing spontaneously, none more memorably than when they sang ‘Careless Hands’ after the Leeds keeper had thrown the ball into the back of his own net.

By the 1970s, the rattle was all but gone, though not before the new breed of hooligan adopted it briefly as a lethal weapon, leading to its eventual ban. It would never be seen again in our Football grounds. Anyone who can recall its piercing noise would agree this demise is something to celebrate. In fact, something to make a noise about, although I would respectfully suggest this does not involve a vuvuzela.

 

 

The Tackle from Behind

 

The Chelsea v Leeds United 1970 FA Cup Final replay is legendary. The referee, evidently a hippy high on brown rice and magic mushrooms, officiated the match in which there were punches, elbows, headbutts, high tackles, assault, GBH and affray, yet he only booked one player… and I think that was for suggesting the linesman’s shorts would be more flattering if the hemline was taken up half an inch.

If the game had been played today, it is thought that six players would have been sent off and twenty shown the yellow card. And yet the moustachioed, ex-professional, expert summarising, Tom Selleck look-a-likes still wistfully reminisce about the final and the good old days of football when fair play ruled and there was none of that continental diving nonsense. These same commentators, with a fashion sense to make the average dad seem as adventurous as Gok Wan, are now outraged that the tackle from behind has been banned by FIFA.

‘Football has become a non-contact sport,’ they say. ‘It’s a disgrace!’

Football a non-contact sport? Tiddlywinks is a better example of a sporting endeavour where the opponents don’t try and take two lumps of shite out of one another. The nearest thing to physical conflict in this desktop game is when an aggressive player loses his cool and aims a red counter between his opponent’s eyes rather than in the pot.

Football remains a tough game. Admittedly not as tough as an Australian Rules Football match in a Brisbane High Security Prison between the Serial Killer Inmates and the Psychopaths’ Wing, but a tough game nonetheless. For me, it’s good riddance to the tackle from behind. It symbolises what has been wrong with British football for many years with too much emphasis on aggression and not enough on skill. Its only true sanctity will be in the showers of the changing room of an American Basketball team. When one of those seven foot giants bends down to pick up the soap, you will unquestionably still get a bullseye view of the tackle from behind.

 

 

LIFESTYLE & FASHION

 

 

Big Glasses and Brushed Back Hair

 

Changes in fashion are like local football derbies, full of hairy arsed, testosterone driven men who want to come out on top at all costs. OK maybe not, but the coming out does have some common resonance. The analogy is actually about the difficulty to predict. We’ve all thumbed through old photos with a co-existing sense of hilarity and sense of disgrace at what we see in terms of style and fashion. And yet how often do those flares wider than the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel, or those shoulder pads the size of a baby elephant, come back in vogue to bring the laughter to a sudden stop?

My worst fashion felony is from the mid 1980s, and I’m wearing giant sized blue plastic framed spectacles that make me look like an extra from Hi-de-hi. I’ve brushed back my hair – thicker than a Family Fortunes contestant – to form a scaled down version of the beehive, and I’m holding my baby niece. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was an audition for the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The glasses look ridiculous, their farcical appearance enhanced by the framing of my eyebrows, a younger version of those sported by Dennis Healey. I thought it was an image to die for and, in truth, I should have been shot.

But let me apply the laws of statistical probability to reassure you that the horrific big glasses and brushed back hair combo will not be seen again in Everyday Street for at least another century.

Let’s say there’s a one in ten chance that brushed back hair makes a comeback, and a one in ten chance that big brightly coloured specs are once again centre stage in all the style magazines. To calculate the probability that both will appear at the same time, you have to multiply the probabilities together. i.e. ten times ten which equals one hundred. Therefore, in any one year, there’s only a one in hundred chance of countless idiots recreating my Child Catcher vibe. We can conclude with mathematical certainty that we are safe in our lifetimes.

And those concerned about the welfare of my niece needn’t worry. She has grown up unaffected by the trauma of being held by someone who made Freddy Kruger look like Andy Pandy… or at least that was the most recent message from the guard outside her padded cell.

 

 

Bowler Hats

 

The average American has an image of the UK represented by London and its associated icons. This includes the Houses of Parliament, the Routemaster Bus, Beefeaters, Queen Elizabeth II, Tower Bridge and Bowler Hats. They are all largely anachronistic, still around by virtue of tradition rather than modern day relevance, though it’s the Bowler Hat that takes the crown – not that crown Ma’am – for the greatest fall from favour.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bowler was an integral part of the attire worn by those working in the City of London, together with a drab suit, shirt, tie, umbrella, and a streak of dog muck from Threadneedle Street on the soles of black, shiny brogues. The headgear was long synonymous with the banker and civil servant, and its use was a sure fire way for TV and filmmakers to depict somebody as a business type.

The staid and sober nature of the hat was also a perfect foil for comedy, and so Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus all made full use of wearing one for comedic effect. When the Beatles returned to the States for a magazine cover shoot after their first triumphant visit, they wore Bowlers and suits to emphasise their Englishness. Other prominent portrayals included John Steed from The Avengers, Oddjob from Goldfinger, Alex DeLarge and his droogs from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and my Uncle Harry in some old home movies that to this day still bring shame on our family name.

By the 1970s, employers had relaxed their dress codes, and the Bowler Hat was the first victim of this change; not that businessmen started to wear Bermuda shirts, shorts and flip-flops. The change was relative, a different shade of grey or navy, perhaps a tie with a flash of colour, but whatever the adjustment, the formality of the traditional hat stood out as incongruous. By the end of the decade, the daily sight of a sea of bobbing heads walking across Waterloo Bridge bedecked in Bowler Hats had all but disappeared… except of course in the minds of our friends from across the pond.

 

 

Cotton Hankies

 

You have a heavy cold and feel a sneeze coming on. You know it’s going to have the force of a jumbo jet engine and quickly grab a man size tissue. Five seconds later, and a mixture of lime marmalade, piccalilli and egg white has travelled through your nostrils to splatter your Kleenex. What do you do with the soiled tissue? You don’t need to be a finishing school graduate to know to immediately throw the paper rag into the nearest bin, thereby avoiding any social embarrassment.

But not that long ago, when the paper tissue was still science fiction, handkerchiefs were made of cotton or linen, and its prompt disposal was not practical. These hankies were a common Christmas present given to the man with everything, often a boxed set with the receiver’s initials embroidered in one corner… not great news if your name was Terence Ian Thompson.

These gifts were usually left to gather dust in a drawer with the cheap after shave until the onset of a cold when the cotton hankie would come out of mothballs. But unlike the paper tissue, the soiled cotton handkerchief was stuffed back in a pocket, ready to deal with the next sneeze. This was quite a trick to achieve without displaying the previously deposited phlegm or mucus, now crusting like a Victoria sponge cake on Gas Mark 9. After a few goes, the hankie would start to resemble a pair of tramp’s underpants, and it became preferable to use your sleeve instead.

But as mass produced paper tissues became available in the supermarkets, the cotton handkerchief was rightly judged as hopeless. Some traditionalists might rue its passing as a sad event. May I suggest you get your initialled hankie out of your pocket to wipe away that tear in your eye? But be careful, you might end up with a bogey stuck inside your eyelid.

 

 

Dad Dancing

 

I love to dance. At a party or a wedding, I’m one of the first up on the dance floor despite being virtually teetotal. The problem is I can’t, except in the sense that I can waggle my arms and legs in time to a different song than the one playing in the background. It’s a cruel world in many ways, giving me the compulsion to dance without any of the technique. This inclination differentiates me from my peers, but not so the lack of ability. Guys from my generation didn’t dance, and if they did, they looked like either a marionette with broken strings or an alien from Star Trek coming to terms with Earth’s strange ways. At our local club/disco in the early 1970s, the girls would bounce up and down – they weren’t great movers either – in the middle of the room as though worshipping their handbags in a pile on the floor, while the lads stood at the side sipping beer and eyeing up tits and arses. Dancing was girl’s stuff.

We had classic Soul, Motown and Philly records to groove to, but for the lads it was always the music first and the dancing second. Only specific tunes like ‘Let’s Twist Again’ reversed the order. Disco and Saturday Night Fever came along and created a few ripples, dancing suddenly cool thanks to John Travolta, but it remained niche because it was about performance rather than community. However, when Dance arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a genre in itself, the gender divide dissolved.

The Happy Mondays had Bez, a man whose role in the band was ‘dancer’, spiced with minimal percussion. He became a role model for smack heads everywhere, but he also signified that dance was OK, even if you were a lad from a council estate in Salford. Acid, Whizz, Ecstasy, and other drugs associated with the scene, obliterated inhibitions and led to men dancing with as much sexual fervour as the women. Clubs cropped up everywhere, catering for all musical tastes, but the common theme saw dancing as an integral part of the evening. Add in the move to a binge drinking culture that further negated self-consciousness and the guy that couldn’t/wouldn’t dance became scarce.

The strange thing is that the modern lad can dance. Like me, he wants to do his thing on the dance floor, but unlike me, he doesn’t move like a man with a baseball down his pants. He has groove, and he has rhythm. I don’t know why. It’s just how it is. So next time you’re at a family wedding or a birthday party for one of the crusties in your family, drink in the ‘dad dance’ while you can. It’s an endangered species.

 

 

Darning Socks

 

I recently needed some socks for a summer holiday in Italy. Before leaving, I found a pack of five made from cotton with stretch reduced to only £3. They were black with different coloured toes and heels, and before you start visualising horror images of me in khaki shorts, beige sandals and black socks, let me reassure you that my sandals are dark brown. OK, they’re mid brown. I jest, of course. I may lack style, but I have learnt the hard way that the sock with sandal look is definitely one of the key fashion crimes to avoid at all costs. The real use for my Tesco bargain was to provide a comfortable lining between my sweaty feet and my boat shoes, with the socks discretely hidden beneath my full-length chinos. The point here is that at 60p a pair, they are almost disposable.

I could have saved the £3 and darned my old socks instead. Darning is a technique where you sew stitches in one direction – not the boy band – and weave a yarn in the opposite direction, thereby covering a hole. A popular ‘How to’ website has instructions for ‘How to Darn a Sock’ with nine steps and four additional tips. It also lists the things you need. These are Socks – not a massive surprise – Darning Needles, Embroidery Floss, and Big Plastic Balls. I’ve the socks and could get the needles and floss; however, the balls are a problem. I may have had a vasectomy, but it didn’t involve the insertion of synthetic, replacement testicles the size of footballs.

The availability of cheap socks has rendered darning as outmoded, and I almost have a ‘box-fresh’ approach to mine, not wanting to waste a few hours messing about with a sizeable needle that puts me in danger of feeling a big prick… who said the old jokes are the best? If you hear somebody saying, ‘Darn it’, whether it’s an instruction to mend your socks or the use of an old fashioned colloquialism, just tell them to get in the Tardis and head back to 1953. If they persist, tell them ‘to put a sock in it’… on second thoughts, bring back the prick joke.

 

 

Ejaculating

 

Ngaio Marsh was a crime fiction writer from New Zealand with a fondness for ejaculation. Before you get the wrong end of the stick – probably too late for most of you, and may I stress a stick is not involved in any of this – the number one entry within the author’s thesaurus next to the word ‘said’ was ‘ejaculated’.

Come now,’ ejaculated the Reverend.

The man of God might today be mistaken for issuing a masturbation clarion call with seconds to spare.

Goodness gracious,’ he ejaculated with surprise.

Time to get a tissue?

The quickest way to destroy the old meaning of a word is to create a new sexual or lavatorial association. Nobody ejaculates anymore… said the monk of a newly formed celibate order.

 

Full Dentures

 

The last resort of the modern dentist is to remove a tooth. They will first fill the cavity, secure it with dental cement, and perhaps do a spot of root canal work. If these options fail, the next stage is to have a crown fitted, using the chiselled down remains of your dodgy molar as the base. Only then, in the most hopeless of cases, is it time for an extraction.

This was not the case fifty years ago during the darker days of dentistry, when the most vulnerable to the prevailing butchery were young mothers. My mum has a full set of false dentures, having turned up at the dental surgery in her early 20s with a fragment of sugar puff stuck in a cavity. The dentist no doubt shook his head and decided the only option was to remove every single tooth in her head, paving the way for months and years of discomfort and inconvenience. She was not alone, the practice enough to wipe the smile off anybody’s face.

 

 

His and Hers Sheepskin Coats

 

I was channel hopping recently and came across an old edition of the world’s most confusing game show 3-2-1 on Challenge TV. In the programme, contestants had to find the answers to incomprehensive riddles while exposed to dire entertainment from variety has-beens and hackneyed repartee from the awkward host Ted Rogers who wore a toupee resembling a turd.

In this particular episode, one of the prizes was a pair of matching ‘His and Hers Sheepskin Coats’ as modelled every Saturday on Match of the Day by football commentator, John Motson. Let’s face it, what female wouldn’t want to look like Motty? The top prize was an eye-catching Vauxhall Chevette with bodywork so likely to rust that a DIY welding kit was an advisable optional extra. There was also a booby prize called ‘Dusty Bin’ with a face painted by the owner of a below average IQ, but my mind wandered back to the sheepskin coats.

It was the essential apparel for the sports reporter working on an outside broadcast in blizzard conditions while talking into an oversized microphone that appeared to be a saucepan with a wire sticking out of the end. The usual garment was the colour of curry from the chip shop and instantly turned a man into a rugged, masculine specimen ready to climb Everest without oxygen. The problem was the same coat turned a woman into a rugged, masculine specimen ready to climb Everest without oxygen. Unsurprisingly, the brief halcyon period of the sheepskin coat soon waned.

The longevity of BBC Sports Presenters such as David Coleman, David Vine, Harry Carpenter and, of course, John Motson, ensured that the coat remained on our TV screens, but when a generation of Armani suited ex-professionals with the vocabulary of a poodle replaced the old pros, the fur-lined clothing disappeared from our consciousness. More recently, the RSPCA have hammered the final nail into the garment by advising people not to buy sheepskin coats because of animal welfare issues. If you own one, it really is time to get rid. I suggest throwing it into the bin, preferably the Dusty Bin.

 

 

Jeans with a Crease

 

What is the ultimate crime of fashion? I suppose stonewash denim has to play a part, double denim ideally. And perhaps to top it off, the jeans should have a razor sharp crease running down the front, ironed as though trousers to a wedding suit. I’m a pacifist by nature, innately opposed to the death penalty. But the jeans with a crease misdemeanour, should it ever return, would truly test my resolve.

 

 

Milk Bottle Spectacles

 

I blame an episode of the Sci-Fi TV cheapie The Outer Limits from about 1964. As an impressionable and sensitive eight year old, I watched in horror at the alien with eyes the size and look of fried eggs, knowing that a raft of sleepless nights lay ahead of me. The image always came back to haunt me when faced with somebody who had an eye prescription of about -8.00, the optician having prescribed glasses with lenses thicker than the safety glass on a space rocket. The result magnified the eyes of the short-sighted individual to resemble those same fried eggs. Fortunately, age desensitised me to an extent from the horrors of the myopic, but technology has finally exorcised the issue for me. Lenses no longer need to resemble the bottom of a milk bottle for the nearly blind to see, and that’s something I’ll drink to… though not out of a milk bottle.

 

 

Paper Underwear

 

They were going to be the next big thing, particularly if you were size 26 with hips wide enough to launch an ocean liner. Paper knickers and paper underpants were going to revolutionise the undergarment trade as people switched their allegiance from conventional cotton briefs and bri-nylon undies to disposable products made from paper. No more stubborn skid-marks or discharges lingering even after a boil wash. The marketing guys came up with the strap line ‘Wear & Toss’, although this was a confusing message to younger men who struggled to have a fiddle while still wearing briefs. The material of the paper pants was the same as the J Cloth, strong enough to remove persistent grease stains from a stove but about as comfortable as a pan scourer around the crotch. They never caught on and soon the bottom fell out of the market.

 

 

Shirt & Tie on a Sunday

 

This is a question for the guys and for those women who like to power dress.

‘Have you ever wore a shirt and tie for a day at the beach?’

I thought not. In these days of tee shirts, shorts and mankinis, it’s hard to imagine a time when, such was the inflexibility of the male dress code, a starched collar and Windsor knot was the ever present weekend attire. This was the case even when this involved sitting on a deck chair in ninety degree heat with a knotted hankie on the head.

Sunday is a polarising day, and the divide is aligned to age. The young view the Sabbath as the dullest day of the week by some distance, as dreary as a trip to the pencil museum. In contrast, older people love it because of its different pace to the other days in the week. This might have more credence if the average oldie spent Monday to Saturday speeding along the highways in a Porsche Boxter rather than curled up in front of the gas fire watching an endless chain of Antiques, Property and Game shows on TV. But before the onset of youth culture created the divide between old and young, everyone was effectively old. You just have to look at those sepia tinged photographs, fading and crumbling in the loft, to see an eighteen year old man, dressed in a shirt and tie, looking every inch ready to draw his pension.

The days of the obligatory tie wearing on a Sunday has almost disappeared, along with the last line of the generation keeping the custom alive. But if you do see a suited and booted man this Sunday, looking uncomfortable as though he has just been to a Christening, there will be a good reason. A good reason that has nothing to do with the return of the old man’s dress code.

He will have just been to a Christening.

 

 

Shoes with a Built-In Compass

 

They were called Wayfinders, shoes for kids and paedophile scoutmasters, designed with the help of Baden Powell’s movement. The footwear had a moulded sole containing the footprints of ten British animals including the badger, stag, hedgehog, squirrel, fox, stoat, sheep and goat… perhaps they should have added ‘tit’ for the birdwatchers and comic irony. Best of all, hidden inside a secret compartment within the heel was a compass. The boy wearing Wayfinders, therefore, never got lost. However, in lifting his shoe to read his exact co-ordinates, the lad would invariably fall flat on his arse… perhaps exactly what the scout designer wanted?

 

 

Shop Assistants in Brown Coats

 

We all remember the ‘Four Candles / Fork Handles’ sketch from the Two Ronnies, a classic of its genre, in which Ronnie Barker played the shopkeeper of a hardware store wearing a three-quarter length coat the colour of a Caramac bar. The garment was the established uniform of men who worked in shops, the only variation being white coats for the butcher, the baker, although obviously not the candlestick maker. The brown coat disappeared when retailing morphed into a composite world of marketing, aspiration, commercialism and therapy, leaving the dress code for the male shop worker to change correspondingly into a hierarchical combination of suits, uniforms and thongs… the latter obviously only relevant at the more specialist end of the menswear sector.

 

Speedos

 

I have an instant photo in my possession, taken on an Italian beach in the summer of 1979, in which I’m wearing a pair of mildly obscene Speedos and have the physique of a famine victim with anorexia. My skin is paler than Ronald MacDonald, and I have a big red spot on my left thigh. Other than that, I look like Adonis at the peak of his masculine youth and beauty.

When I see the Polaroid now, it’s hard to feel anything other than deep shame coupled with regret. The regret stems from not using the Frisbee I’m holding to cover both my crotch and the zit, although as it’s the same colour as the rest of my body, the price of saving my modesty may have been a new found reputation for androgyny.

If ever you needed proof as to why no self-respecting guy today wants to be seen dead or alive in a pair of skimpy Speedos, you need look no further than this unhappy Italian photographic – with the emphasis on the ‘graphic’ – evidence.

 

 

The Hitler Moustache

 

It didn’t even start as the Hitler moustache. In 1918, while the anonymous Adolf was coming to terms with Germany’s defeat in the First World War, one of the most famous people in the world was Charlie Chaplin. The silent movie star’s ‘Little Tramp’ had taken the emerging Hollywood and film world by storm. The character was a scruff who had cultivated a small dark ‘stache’ under his nose, just about covering its width. He was a vagrant, a man in a child’s body – behave at the back please – and engendered a hugely empathetic response from cinema audiences.

By 1940, Chaplin’s toothbrush ‘muzzy’ had a usurper in the form of the German Fuhrer, now the most detested man in the world. It is difficult for current readers to appreciate the loathing people felt for the dictator but just think of your attitude to Jim Davidson and knock about 10% off. Hitler’s facial hair was identical to Chaplin’s alter ego, but he also brought to the mix a severe side part and a pair of mad, staring eyes. Although inspiring a level of worship similar to that of the Little Tramp, the German Chancellor’s sphere of influence was, let’s say, not quite as universal.

Chaplin clearly resented the hi-jacking of his Little Tramp’s trademark facial hair, because he made a film satire The Great Dictator, which was one long piss-take of Hitler. The movie was a huge commercial success and received five Academy Award nominations. Its leading light fully expected to reclaim the toothbrush moustache rights, but it failed to happen. Chaplin’s star waned when an aspiring actress served a paternity suit against him, generating a huge amount of negative publicity from which his career never recovered.

Meanwhile in Europe, Adolf lost the plot then lost the war. In death, he was to be forever associated with that hairy caterpillar on his upper lip, thereby rendering it socially intolerable to follow suit, at the same time dispatching his first name to the same level of unacceptability. Bizarrely, the only boy I’ve heard christened Adolf since 1945 was an American whose parents called him Adolf Hitler. They then gave the name Aryan Nation to his sister, and you won’t be surprised to learn that the children are now in care.

Interestingly, Hitler’s fellow despot Stalin didn’t suffer the same fate regarding his name and appearance. Parents continued to give the name Joseph to their newly born babies, and the swept-back hair and walrus whiskers became the trademark look of those attending Manhattan’s Studio 54 Club in the early 1980s… fancy that, Stalin a gay icon.

The only place you’re likely to see the Hitler moustache in this day and age is at a stag party for Tory activists or the Royal family, where you will see as many Nazi uniforms and swastikas as you would mushroom vol-au-vents at a grandmother’s 70th Birthday Party in Rochdale. I suppose I could have started its resurrection in the 1970s, if fate had decreed my upper lip to be a fertile place – I spent many teenage years waiting in vain for puberty to leave any kind of mark – but it was not to be. However, over the years I have managed to reconcile the hero and the villain of the toothbrush moustache in my own way. My benign temperament and physical inadequacies meant I was never in a position to terrorise and perform slapstick comedy simultaneously. Yet I have sported a regular Adolf side part, and some people continue to accuse me of dressing like a tramp… just call me Little Hitler, or should that be Adolf Tramp?

 

 

The Shellsuit

 

A fashion craze inspired by Kris Akabusi was never going to have legs… other than baggy ones with an elasticated waist. Yet in 1990, the shellsuit was the thing to be seen wearing. A nylon, lightweight tracksuit in any combination of bright colours, provided they clashed with the vehemence of Celtic and Rangers football fans at a Glasgow derby, the gaudy garment caught on as quick as a comet, its success propelled by the keep fit obsession of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Loose fitting and cool against the skin, the shellsuit was comfort wear par excellence, and most of the adult and child population were seduced into buying one. To a man, woman, boy and girl, everyone looked a tit. I had a particularly ghastly Gola example that was a few sizes too big for me. The bottoms made MC Hammer’s trousers look like skinny jeans.

As well as being the epitome of naff, the shellsuit’s material was inflammable to the extreme. Looking back,

it might have been safer to douse our children in four star petrol rather than dress them in a lilac, orange, yellow, and turquoise monstrosity that was liable to shoot up in flames when exposed to the afternoon sun and a couple of twigs.

But as the saying goes, the higher they climb, the harder they fall. And no sooner had the shellsuit scaled the giddy heights of its expeditious popularity, that it plummeted back to earth, landing in the attics and charity clothing bags of the nation. Most blamed its rapid demise on the almost overnight transformation from must have sporting fashionista item to trademark uniform of the chav and the scally. Others claimed its end was brought about by Harry Enfield attaching the fashion faux pas to his curly haired Scousers with their ‘calm down, calm down’ catchphrase. But I believe it was simpler than that.

We fashion criminals made the classic mistake of assuming that because an item of clothing feels good, it must look good. We took pictures of each and everyone of us in a shellsuit, developed the photos, and assimilated the results. There was a universal reaction. ‘Christ, that looks a sack of crap.’

Like the dinosaur, the shellsuit is extinct. Unlike the dinosaur, Stephen Spielberg is not making a film about them.

 

 

Vernacular of the 1960s

 

Let’s imagine a scenario where a hippy has woken from a forty year coma, originally induced by smoking a joint the length of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The young doctor leans over him, slightly disbelieving that the patient has finally regained consciousness.

‘Good morning, er… Mr Alpha Virginis, how does it feel to be awake and in the land of the living?’

The hippy nods his head up and down knowingly. ‘It’s a gas man, it’s a gas.’

The stiff medical man replies with either, ‘I think you’ll find that our anaesthetics have moved on somewhat in the last few years. We tend to use Fentanyl these days.’ Or he will waft his hand from side to side and say, ‘I do apologise. Note to self – no curried beans with sultanas for breakfast tomorrow.’

‘Mr Virginis, do you know where you are?’ It’s the nurse who has cared for him, year in, year out.

‘I’m not sure, but it’s far out man, far out.’

‘In actual fact, the hospital is very close to our city centre,’ says the doctor.

Unlike flares, guitar rock or haircuts, once a word becomes old-hat, that’s it. It won’t come back into fashion. It will only be spoken when there’s a desire to evoke an era or a time. And the decade that has suffered more outdated parlance than any other has to be the 1960s.

The development of the hippy culture, polarised from the ordered and compliance demanding establishment, paved the way for an idiom that would, in time, be judged something less than groovy, out of sight, and right on. Do you dig me? If you don’t, you’re a square.

See what I mean.

 

 

Woollen Balaclavas

 

I don’t look good in a hat. From a panama to a flat cap or a baseball cap to a bobble hat, regardless of style, I end up a doppelganger for a cast member of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest who passed the audition with flying colours. I think it’s due to the size of my melon head, sitting on shoulders narrower than the eye of a needle. And of all the headgear I’ve worn, the item that tops the ridicule chart is undoubtedly the woollen balaclava. Designed to cover all of your head other than an open panel for eyes, nose and mouth, it makes anyone look a twonk, but me especially. And I carry the scars, having worn it in the company of fifty seven thousand others.

It was Christmas in the early 1970s, and I was opening a gift that I assumed was a red and white Liverpool FC scarf. It wasn’t. It was a red balaclava. Apparently the shop had sold all their scarves, so my Dad had thought this was a good second best. I must have been full of seasonal bonhomie because I accepted it with good grace, and perhaps most astonishingly of all, wore it in full public view the next day for the Boxing Day match between Liverpool and Stoke City.

The game was a drab goalless draw, and I remember it for being the worst crowd crush I have personally experienced. At the time, I thought it was linked to the excessive number of fans who had illegally entered through the turnstiles. One of my mates never paid full price at Anfield because the ticket operators were so dozy. In hindsight, I reckon the squeeze was more likely caused by a message passed from fan to fan about some young prat wearing a bright red balaclava in the Anfield Road end, resulting in dramatic crowd surges from those trying to get a glimpse. A stupid looking hat had seemingly caused thousands of fans to bruise their ribs and gasp for breath. It was the first and last time I wore it.

The woollen balaclava had been the standard winter headgear for baby boomer children like me, blending in very nicely with the mackintosh and the brogues in an era before anyone considered fashion and children could go together. There was an army of grannies and aunties equipped with knitting needles, churning out cardigans, scarves and balaclavas, with the odd eccentric creating a nice line in knitted willy warmers. But as the 1960s generation started to procreate, the obligation to kit out your off-spring in austerity style clothing began to diminish. Demand for the woollen balaclava plummeted, thereby becoming a niche product for the less than mainstream areas of terrorism, crime and Arctic exploration. Those following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen have continued to wear a form of balaclava under their extreme cold weather garments as they pull a double-decker bus from one side of the Antarctic Circle to the other. But rather than the woollen type knitted by your nan, it is made of fully weatherproofed polyester fleece.

As I have grown older and practicality has triumphed over style, there are moments when I hanker after the functionality of the balaclava, such as when standing in sub zero temperatures as the dog patiently crouches to crap on the pavement. I might be past the age where self-consciousness deters me from wearing something because it looks stupid, but don’t expect to see me in the crowd at Anfield in the near future, sporting a red balaclava. There’s looking stupid, and there are fashion crimes. It would be a clear case of guilty as charged.

 

 

NATURAL CAUSES

 

 

Carbolic Soap

 

A TV advertisement for Carbolic Soap was never going to happen, the product having the allure of a cleaner’s mop and galvanised bucket. If it had happened, it might have been something like this:

Hey you! Yes you! Do you want to smell like a toilet? Then you need Cobbler’s Carbolic Soap! In tests, eight out of ten school caretakers preferred it.’

Carbolic, a disinfectant soap, was an indispensable item for households during the first half of the 20th Century. People used it for washing and irritating the skin on their hands, face and private parts once a week in the tin bath. They used it to clean their clothes and even for scouring the chamber pot with those stubborn stains. Perhaps the most infamous use of the cleaning block was in school as a form of corporal punishment. Teachers with a penchant for sadism forced children, guilty of terrible misdemeanours such as wearing of odd socks, to wash their mouth out with the foul smelling soap.

Ubiquitous one moment, and on the slippery soapy slope the next, Carbolic moved aside for the Camay, Lux and Imperial Leather brands to capture the mass market in the new world of Commercial TV. The old disinfectant block survived for a while longer in hospitals, but ultimately the last slither disappeared down the plughole. Like the soap, nobody got into a lather about it.

 

 

Chip Pans

 

In the second half of the twentieth century, what did the government consider the greatest single danger to UK households? Soviet nuclear missiles? Social unrest? Industrial meltdown? AIDS? The burgeoning drug culture? No, the item that the authorities believed to be the greatest threat to the masses was actually the chip pan.

This had always been the most important piece of equipment in the kitchen. How else could the mothers of this land serve up a globular mass of fat soaked, fried potatoes to their starving families? I remember as a child watching the stove in wonder as the congealed white lard contents, encrusted with old food and a few dead bluebottles, liquidised into boiling oil before my eyes.

But such was the menace of the chip pan that millions were risking life and limb in the kitchen when using one. Over the decades, countless public information films warned us of the deadly threat to life posed by a pan full of white hot lard. There was a clear inference that swimming in shark-infested waters or paddling in crocodile swamps were safer exploits. The films told us that an over full chip pan on full heat was a fireball in the making that would leave you looking like a Golden Wonder crisp, avoidable only if you had a wet tea towel at your disposal.

Even towards the turn of the century, the men in grey were still churning out chip pan alerts, despite the long established presence of the deep fat fryer. But it was the events of 11th September 2001 that changed everything. Post 9/11, UK government officials finally accepted that terrorism from Islamic extremists was a greater menace to the nation than the traditional chip pan. The fryer’s loss of status as public enemy number one, and the arrival of the convenient oven chip, sealed its fate. The whole terrifying idea of frying in a chip pan had gone up in smoke.

 

 

Dogs Called Rover

 

‘John!’

‘Steve!’

‘Dave!’

‘Here boy!’

Dogs used to have names like Patch, Bouncer, Snappy, Blackie, Bonzo, Fang, Digger, Butch, Skip, Spot, Queenie, Fido, Champ, Lady or Rover, which I think may have also been the names of the Village People and their backing musicians. As a child, we called our first dog Whisky and the second one Brandy. It seemed only a matter of time before we had a Pernod, Vodka or Whitbread Mild, but the next one bucked the trend, and we christened it Skippy. Dogs were dogs, and we labelled them accordingly.

Now we live in an era where dogs are children rather than canines, and so they have children’s names. This seems to work for bitches with such nursery playground staples as Ava, Freya, Imogene, Scarlett, Alice, Amber and Florence. However, boy dogs don’t fare so well. The latest trend is for names that are deeply unfashionable such as Bill, Peter, Ron, Dan, Maurice, Dave, Cliff, John, Bob, Les and Terry, which also happens to be the classic Tottenham Hotspur first eleven of 1961.

It’s heartening to know that there’s a living creature at the peak of fitness and health that goes by the name of Kenneth, even if it is a Border Terrier. The other Kens are dribbling roast dinner down the fronts of their shirts, as their urethral valve is leaking a regular drip onto the crotch of their slacks. I don’t think Barbie would be too impressed.

OK, so we’re agreed on a boy Cocker Spaniel. What she will call him?’

Roger?’

Not now love, I’ve got a headache.’

 

 

Foreign Pop Stars with English Accents

 

Englanders, little and otherwise, do have a tendency to be a bit precious about their mother tongue, and for the faint hearted, let me assure you this is not about French kissing your mum.

The fact that English has been adopted as the universal language is reason enough for some people to reassert the superiority garnered during the years of British Imperialism by waving a Union Jack the size of a football pitch and singing Land of Hope and Glory at two hundred decibels. These same people vomit a soufflé of regurgitated carrot and turnip on hearing the Americanisation of words and expressions, as though indicative of a turgid deterioration in literacy. This really misses the point.

English as a language is so prevalent across the world because it is the first language of the United States, the nation that has distributed popular culture throughout the world for the last century or two. Today, we British travellers reap the benefits of this when visiting countries like Sweden where English is widely spoken and there’s no need to learn the Swedish for ‘cheapest massage please’. It is for these practical reasons that we ought to endorse Americanised English and accept it as part of the natural progression and evolution of our language.

One obvious manifestation of this stateside influence is the change in the accent of English speaking Europeans, demonstrated most notably in the pop business. Listen to Bjorn from ABBA and you’ll hear the clearly enunciated diction of a Radio Four newsreader, whereas the present day European pop star from Hungary, Norway or Germany, sounds as Californian as a Beach Boy. If you hear a sentence from one of the continental MTV generation, it will probably start with ‘Hey Dude’ and ends with ‘You Guys’, all delivered with the LA drawl of a straight to DVD jobbing actor. I don’t think Bjorn would approve.

And maybe there’s an argument that ‘English’ should be re-branded as ‘American’ in the same way the Marathon bar became Snickers and Jif became Cif. It might be another nail in the coffin of our national identity but there would be an upside in dealing with those whingers who have a coronary when they see a semi-colon instead of a comma or an apostrophe in the wrong place. It would bring a stop to all that.

A full stop.

 

 

Hearing Aids the Size of a Cow

 

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about the man with a giant alpine horn sticking out of his ear?’

What’s that? I can’t hear you. Hang on; let me stick this giant alpine horn in my ear.’

Technology makes everything smaller; at least that’s my excuse. The dudes of the 1980s walked the streets with ghetto blasters the size of a fridge on their shoulders, playing The Beastie Boys or Run DMC at maximum pumped up volume. Today they have every song of the last fifty years on an mp3 player small enough to be stored behind the foreskin of the man who complains that technology makes everything smaller.

Progress has long superseded the Swiss horn-styled utility for the deaf with a micro-chipped alternative barely discernible to the naked eye. Yet the old hearing aids were somewhat unusual, in the sense that most other inventions don’t see the light of day until they achieve a certain practicality. Imagine the scenario where a man in the 1960s had this great idea about a portable music gadget that can play tens of thousands of songs. Until technology introduced digitised music, the only way of making such a unit portable would have been to have a juggernaut the size of the Golden Gate Bridge to drag the device along.

As for vision, the acute short-sighted over the years may have had to suffer lenses thicker than the milk shake in Kelis’ yard, but nobody tried to hook over their ears a contraption that provided the equivalent of two Hubble telescopes for eyes. Yet for some reason, people once thought that a colossal brass ear trumpet with a tube like a tapeworm was an invention of miracle proportions, or at least they did until the first electric device arrived, after which they quickly put hearing aids the size of the cow out to pasture.

 

 

Hogmanay in England

 

With the exceptions of pissheads and the Scots – insert the obvious line here yourself – New Year’s Eve is the most depressing day of the year. Your best friend is enjoying champagne and caviar at The Dorchester in readiness to see the spectacular fireworks on the South Bank, while you’re slumped in a chair, scratching your genitals, and watching a Taggart repeat on the TV. The truth is, however, that your friend is now desperately trying to call his mortgage broker to raise funds via a property sale to settle the credit card bill just incurred at the luxury hotel. A few hours later, having stood in sub zero temperatures by the Thames without seeing one bloody firework because he was behind a US basketball team, he is on the phone to NHS Direct asking for advice about the symptoms of hypothermia. Could the end of a year get any worse? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

The White Heather Club was a BBC Scotland TV programme from the 1950s and 1960s that had a regular Hogmanay Special on New Year’s Eve. It offered a mocked up set of a country hotel in the Highlands, a whisky soaked host with sub-standard Elvis quiff, and jokes lamer than an elderly racing pigeon. There were hairy-legged men in kilts, Scottish dancing virgins, and Kenneth McKellar singing ‘The Lights of Old Aberdeen’. To end the show, the cast treated the viewers to a communal ‘Auld Lang Syne’ stiffer than a ten-day old corpse covered in starch in the deep freeze. This taste of Bonnie Scotland aired on national TV for many years and did a sterling job to reinforce the national stereotype of the land of thistle while depressing the shite out of the watching viewer experiencing Hogmanay in England.

Even after the BBC called time on The White Heather Club, ITV kept the Hogmanay broadcast going for many years. Over time, it began to leave more of the traditional Scottish elements behind, and inexplicably became an even more dismal watch. Ultimately, the show gave way as audiences dwindled, viewers preferring to do something less disheartening such as diving headfirst from the tenth floor of a block of high-rise flats into the concreted children’s playground below. Hogmanay returned to the Scots, and New Year’s Eve was marginally less depressing… in the same way that a man who owes £100,000 and then wins £1 on a scratch card is marginally less in debt.

 

 

Izal Toilet Roll

 

It’s about 1980, and you’re out in a public place when you suddenly realise you’re desperate for the loo… and it’s a number two. There are three scenarios. Actually there are four, because one is you crap yourself. But for this to happen, you’d have to be either a baby, ninety six and dribbling down your chin, or a teenage lad after an all-nighter on an 18-30 holiday in Malia. But let’s assume you’re a respectable, middle-aged person with effective control of your bodily functions.

In the first scenario, you locate a public convenience and do the business when the ring around your bottom is completely unblemished. You wipe it with the standard Izal toilet roll, and it feels like you are cleaning it with greaseproof paper. It is both uncomfortable and ineffective.

In the second situation you find a toilet, unload, but this time you have a slight rash on the skin around your posterior. You apply the Izal and wince. There is the sensation of scrubbing with a worn pan scourer. You limp out of the WC with watery eyes.

In the final scenario, you track down a lavatory and empty out. This time your rear end is on fire because you had a bad curry last night from the Taj Mahal, your local Indian restaurant, more popular with public health officials than the general public. It’s redder than the Chinese flag and as cracked as the ground in a dried-up basin of the Kalahari Desert. You tear off a few sheets of Izal and tentatively wipe your bum. You scream in agony. It feels like you have just taken an industrial strength, wire brush and employed some medieval, self-torture technique. You are carried from the toilet in a stretcher by paramedics and taken to the local hospital where you stay for three months. Skin grafts are progressively applied until your backside is close to normal again.

Izal was a medicated toilet roll that looked like tracing paper, originating from a time when personal and public hygiene was less than fastidious. It was found everywhere until the Andrex puppy lolloped on to our TV screens to leave a trail of velvety soft toilet paper behind that our bottoms couldn’t resist. Izal was soon a pariah in the weekly shopping basket and could only be found in public conveniences and local government offices where budgetary constraints rationed dumpers to one sheet per visit. Eventually, even these places funded from the public purse wanted better and Izal’s rock bottom popularity saw it discontinued.

But for many like me, weaned on Izal, it remains difficult to wipe away the memories of a thousand difficult shites.

 

 

Mateus Rosé Table Lamps

 

For the man and the woman on the street – and I don’t mean the vagrant and whore populations – the choice of wine in the 1970s for the UK was minimal, with German White, French Red and Mateus Rosé making up the list. The latter from Portugal stood out, and not just because it looked like the piss of somebody with a kidney infection. There was also the shape of the bottle. Instead of the usual sleek, long lines of a 75cl vessel, it was squat with the neck of a giraffe and the body of a pie-eating champion. The drink was the ideal companion for a three-course candlelit meal of Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Chasseur, and Black Forest Gateaux.

Some not so bright spark then had an idea. Just as he was ready to discard an empty bottle of the Portuguese pink stuff, he thought, ‘I know what I can stick in that.’ He thought again, realising he might be arrested and had a second idea, which was to put a candle in the neck. This worked a treat and soon caught on. The table lamp was a natural follow on from the candle. Soon, no self-respecting household with delusions of grandeur was without one. It was the closest thing to Beatlemania in the world of domestic lighting.

The fad lost momentum for two reasons. Firstly, a French competitor Rosé d’Anjou arrived to commandeer the dominance of Mateus, and secondly, people looked at their homemade table lamps and became conscious that they looked shit. The lights went out and never came back on again.

 

 

One Hundred Per Cent

 

Competitiveness is innate. It is not acquired behaviour. I’m a naturally competitive person, though I have learnt to lose with grace, a case of having plenty of chances to practice making perfect. The point with anybody involved in competition is that talent is never enough. Hard work, training, and mental toughness are all further, essential ingredients to success. In sport, you will often hear an interview where the athlete promises to ‘give 110%’. It used to ‘100%’ but along the way some bugger added 10% to the equation.

There is an argument that there is no such thing as 110%. Let’s say you have a meat pie, and if you did, I’d be lunging for you now due to my pie-addiction. Now if you sliced it in half, I’d attack you... hang on, let’s also say I’m chained to the floor. Right, so you have two equal pie pieces, one 50% and the other 50% of the total pie, which must therefore equate to 100%. To have another 10% pie requires the existence of a parallel universe. You get the idea, if not the pie... I’m now released from my shackles, giving 110% to get my hands on the steak and kidney delight.

In the world of mortgages, 100% has also disappeared, though in contrast to sport, so has the 110%. Anyone with a paper round prior to the economic and banking meltdown of 2008 had it easy. They only had to find a mortgage advisor who made Gordon Gekko seem like a stay at home mum, complete a Booker prize winning application form, and provide a self-certification form of their £200,000 p.a. income. The reward was a 110% interest only mortgage at a multiplier of five times salary, repayable over a three hundred year period.

When I delivered newspapers I earned £1 per week, just enough to get me in to Anfield, keep me on a diet of pie and chips, and fund my pinball machine habit. My paper round contemporaries of the ‘noughties’ owned £1m mock Tudor properties on the outskirts of town. It’s hard to dispute that in hindsight it was 100% certain that the banks would fail, or should that be 110%?

 

 

Plastic Covers Left on Seats

 

It was an age thing. If an older couple bought a new settee or Morris Marina – think glorified tin bath with engine and wheels – their instinct was to leave it unused. This mindset stemmed back to the ‘front room’ years.

The average working class terraced house in the 1950s was a ramshackle affair. The world of consumerism was still some way off and post-war austerity prevailed. The kitchen – normally called the back kitchen even though there wasn’t one at the front – was a workhouse of manual apparatus with no fridge, no washing machine, and even Dan Dare found the concept of a microwave too far-fetched. The living room was a cesspit, its seats a ragbag of different styles with rips and marks, their insides escaping into the open like sausage meat from the mincer. A flea-ridden mat sat on worn linoleum flooring, the wallpaper had more damp patches than the crotch of an incontinent centenarian, and a compound of cigarette smoke, fireplace soot, and powdered egg remnants choked its occupants. The front room could not have been more different.

Immaculately clean, pristine leather seats gleamed with the reflection of sunlight filtering into the home through ornate lace netting and silk curtains. A deep, rich mahogany sideboard sat proudly in front of the window, its highly polished top housing sepia coloured studio portraits of family members in opulent photo frames. There was an upright piano whose keys were last touched about thirty years ago, a bit like Great Aunt Florrie’s downstairs, so to speak. As for the floor, it was clean enough to serve dinner on, although suet dumplings and gravy might have been somewhat incongruous in such luxuriant surroundings where a silver tea set provided the final flourish, suggesting the Queen Mother would soon arrive for Afternoon Tea. And there’s the rub. Families kept these rooms free from inhabitation just in case people visited. But no one did. Aunties, uncles, cousins, friends and their children, yes, they came round, but they lacked the gravitas to be ushered into the front room. You had to be a council member, vicar, or royalty to gain admission. The front room remained unused.

A number of people weaned during these times found it difficult to soil anything new, other than their smalls obviously. To keep the settee pristine or the car seats factory fresh, these sad buggers failed to remove the polythene cover used by the manufacturer to keep the item unmarked up to the point of sale. Instead of enjoying the comfort and luxury of immaculate seating, some old couples sat on plastic sheets, thereby generating enough static electricity against the Crimplene of skirts or the Terylene of Everpress trousers to send a searing shock up to the already fragile and withering geriatric groin. The potential also existed for producing more sweat than the Cavern Club during a Beatles’ 1962 lunchtime performance. The rest of us looked on bemused.

Death, senility, and increased consumer value has sorted the problem. Nobody would think of leaving plastic sheets on their purchases anymore. And as they say in the film business, ‘that’s a wrap’… which I trust you won’t remove.

 

 

Scary Bikers

 

When I was a young man in the early 1970s, two scary sights frightened the crap out of me. Make that three if you count our Chemistry teacher Piggy McCabe, whose skirt was far too short. He really ought to have stuck to trousers like Mr Potato the history master, a man yet to discover the joys of dry cleaning. Ignoring these scholarly shockers, the first bloodcurdling spectacle for me was the skinhead.

The ‘chav’ of his day, the skinhead was a highly manicured hard knock whose haircut was a number 1 that induced a number 2 from people passing him in the street. My hair was shoulder length, and so I was the enemy. In our area, we had the warring factions of the Seacombe End Boot Boys (SEBB) and the Leasowe equivalent (LEBB), a kind of local version of Israel and Palestine. With my pal Blotto, we added a third party to the mix with CLIT, the ‘Clayton Lane Independent Troggs.’ We exchanged threatening messages on billboards but never came face to face. Just as well, two skinny lads armed with joss sticks and a couple of Traffic LPs were never going to be a match for fifteen thugs with flick knives, steel-capped boots, and angry dispositions.

Yet Skinheads were marshmallows compared with Greasers. These bikers, less than resplendent in their leather gear, terrorised everybody in their way. The clan were empowered and inspired by the iconography of the Easy Rider film and the exploits of the US Hell’s Angels, the latter notorious for the Altamont Rolling Stones concert where they acted as security for the event and murdered a man in the crowd. The sound of a Harley Davidson engine and the smell of unwashed pigskin struck fear into the heart and the guts of any young man during this era.

The skinheads disappeared within a couple of years of their zenith, but the greasers lived on. Over forty years’ later and they’re still here. The skeletons and skulls remain emblazoned on their black leathers, the hair is as greasy as ever (at least those that have hair), yet a more benign group of people you’re unlikely to meet. The testosterone laden highway terrorists of yesteryear have made way for a charity loving, community supporting clan. In my home area of the Wirral Peninsula, the ageing bikers, now joined by younger but equally benign and benevolent colleagues, organise a yearly ‘Egg Run’ delivering chocolate eggs to local hospitals and raising money for good causes.

We also have The Hairy Bikers, two cooks who spend their time in the obligatory leathers while riding motor bikes throughout the UK and Europe spreading the culinary word. They are the friendliest guys on TV, helping to promote ‘Meals on Wheels’, Mum’s cooking and even weight loss. The only knives on display are for cutting into a steak and kidney piecrust. ‘From Altamont to Si and Dave’ is surely a journey more remarkable than any undertaken on a Harley or a Triumph.

 

 

Star Jumps

 

The Hitler Youth movement did them. Anybody on National Service did them. Every Football team until about 1960 did them. The physical jerk I am referring to is known as the star jump. It involved wearing white gym gear, adopting an expression as benign as a taxidermist’s latest creation, and then jumping up and down on the spot in a way that extended your legs and your arms into a kind of star shape, or in other words, to look a right tit… or a left one for that matter. The Star Jump is now to exercise what tripe is modern cuisine. So, if you want a quick retro trip, do it the easy way. Have a bowl of tripe followed by a few minutes doing star jumps. Oh, and you’ll need kitchen roll, a sponge, and carpet cleaner to deal with your vomit.

 

 

Switched Off Mobile Phones

 

The proudest utterance from my wife’s mother is that she last topped up her Pay As You Go mobile five years ago. It was with a tenner, and she still has about £6 credit left on it. Whilst it’s possible that she’s rigged up some illegal technological scam, this is extremely unlikely given her woes with the TV remote control… I operate an around the clock helpline in this regard. As I see it, there is only one reason why her phone usage incurs so little cost. The phone is always switched off.

In common with many of her age and demographic, there is a belief that if the phone is left on, it’s not just the battery that drains away, so does the cash. And yet ask her why she has her little Siemens, and you might get a smack around the chops for being vulgar. But when you explain you mean her German built mobile phone with number keys the size of Big Ben, she will explain, with a complete absence of irony, that it’s so she can be contacted in an emergency.

Few people now routinely turn off their mobile. Silent mode, airplane mode, alarm functions, long battery life, have all contributed to the 24/7 handset. But my mother-in-law still persists with the practice. On the rare occasions that it is charged and on, heaven forbid if anyone decides to call. The ringing is greeted with a level of incredulity you might expect from a castaway who has been away from civilisation for fifty years.

‘What the hell…’

She picks up the phone and stares at it. Then she points it at the TV and tries to switch channels.

 

 

The Mobile DJ

 

Without exception, the DJ in charge of the mobile disco was always the second most miserable person at a party. I suppose playing the same records over and over again, didn’t help. ‘Come On Eileen’, ‘Dancing Queen’, and ‘New York New York’ on continuous rotation is not going to give you the disposition of George Formby on Red Bull and uppers. But there was more to this grouchiness than the drudgery of repetition. The Mobile DJ was innately dysfunctional, which is why he chose to be a Wheels of Steel man in the first place.

Here was someone devoid of personality, until he spoke into a microphone and turned into a transatlantic monster, shouting and mumbling in equal measure, his distorted words incapable of translation. You could discern the odd phrase or two like ‘number one smash’ or ‘that’s Black Lace’, but the rest sounded like a Deep Sea Diver impersonating King Kong with bad guts. Anyone approaching him for a request was met with an unsmiling shrug of his shoulders. If he had been Russian, he would have worked in the Gulag.

But the honour for number one grump at the function went to the DJ’s girlfriend. Superfluous to the extreme, she struggled to find any redemption from her role in proceedings and would have willingly swapped places with any other female in the room, even when Fred and Rosemary West were sipping sherry in the corner. If she had been Russian, the Gulag would have rejected her for being too downbeat.

So presumably, the DJ and his girlfriend were absolutely delighted when the mobile disco became obsolete, replaced by Spotify playlists and the surround speaker systems. We have to presume this, because we’d only get a distorted and incoherent response if we asked… and we’d need a microphone.

 

 

The Pipe Smoker

 

Peter Cushing, Eric Morecambe, Harold Wilson, Magnus Magnusson, Dave Lee Travis, Henry Cooper, Jimmy Greaves, Barry Norman, Ian Botham, Tony Benn, Rod Hull, Russ Abbot, and Stephen Fry have one thing in common. It might be two, but I don’t think Harold Wilson ever played Widow Twankey at the Sunderland Empire… I think his was at the Bradford Alhambra. Although I do have a vague recollection that the Gannex coated, ex Prime Minister did enjoy a winter season on Wearside in a production of Dick Whittington. Apparently, his Dick was something that just had to seen.

So what does bind this peculiar band of brothers together, if not Mrs Twankey? It’s obvious isn’t it? Each was the recipient of the official ‘Pipe Smoker of the Year’ Award, the honour bestowed by the British Pipesmokers’ Council to promote the joys of sticking a flattened plastic tube with walnut bowl in your gob, setting it alight, and then polluting the air with post war London smog.

The award was dropped in 2004, supposedly for falling foul of the laws on tobacco promotion. Should we really swallow that? I think that’s what they call spin. By the turn of the century, pipe smoking was about as popular as a tomato juice at a Munich Beer Festival, and it was struggling to survive.

Ostensibly a dummy or soother for adult men, the pipe was at its pinnacle of cool in the early 1960s when no self-respecting, Arran sweater wearing catalogue model would be photographed without something to point at in the distance and a pipe. Even M, the only man who could put fear in the eyes of James Bond, enjoyed a good old puff… but that’s the acting profession for you, I suppose.

This was also the decade I attended my first football match at Prenton Park to see Tranmere Rovers take on the might of Southport FC in the old Third Division. They lost 2-0. I stood on the terraces adjacent to the Cow Shed end amongst a group of older guys, to a man, pipe smokers. Roll forward forty years, and the chances of seeing more than two in a football crowd are as slim as a Milan catwalk model.

Some people bemoan the demise of the pipe, seeing it as a lost symbol of sophistication, masculinity and contemplation. The same people who long for a return to the times when men were men and women were glad about it. For me, its passing is not one to regret. The only thing I’m going to miss is the line about a bit of old ‘shag’.

Of course, you may disagree with these sentiments. If you do, may I respectfully suggest you stick it in your pipe and smoke it.

 

 

The Stag Night

 

I think I can lay claim to be one of the least rock and roll stags ever. The most potent drink I had all evening was a bitter shandy. My closest encounter with a stripper was handing my bomber jacket to the old woman in charge of the cloakroom who had a button missing from the front of her blouse. Best of all, in the early hours of the morning, I drove four mates home in my Triumph Herald. This was plainly ridiculous. The typical end to the stag night would see the groom-to-be stripped naked, tarred, feathered, and tied to a lamp post. It was not the norm for the stag to finish the evening as a taxi driver.

This was the late 1970s when the stag do was still about one night’s entertainment. It had progressed from a couple of pints of beer at your dad’s local the night before the wedding but was still not much more than a pub crawl followed by a few drinks and a dance to Status Quo in a seedy club. If the lads organised a stripper, she came with a python, stretch marks, and the Forest of Dean trying to escape from the lower reaches of her glittered leotard.

Nobody thought about a Stag weekend away or, less still, a Stag holiday abroad until the arrival of low cost flights. Suddenly, for a few hundred quid, destinations such as Amsterdam, Prague were as accessible as the cheap beer and sex on offer in these European hotspots. In less than a decade, the Stag celebration restricted to one evening has all but disappeared.

And dearly beloved, if any person here can show cause why any group of piss head lads should not spend more than one night behaving like adolescent teens, speak now or forever hold your peace… I think I’ll hold my peace, but I am tempted.

 

 

Whistling

 

All the great whistling songs pre-date the technological age. When Disney’s seven dwarfs suggested to ‘Whistle While You Work’, it was the 1930s when the word ‘Walkman’ would have been a Jarrow marching man’s answer to the question about how he was travelling to London. When Anna in The King & I suggested to her son that he should try to ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’, it was the 1950s when the word ‘iPod’ would have been interpreted as the talk of a madman who thought he was a container for garden peas.

But by the 1960s, the rot had set in. Harold Wilson delivered his white heat of technology speech, and the portable transistor radio arrived, ushering in Radio Luxembourg and Radio One to the ears of the nation. Why whistle that tune when you can hear and sing along to the real thing?

Confirmation that the end was nigh for the warble came with the arrival on the pop scene of Roger Whittaker, the all singing all whistling drip, whose brand of easy listening music was so middle of the road, you were in danger of being run over by a truck if you listened for too long. As for his trademark middle-eight tweet, it was advisable to have carpet cleaner at the ready, such was the likelihood of involuntary vomiting.

And whilst more credible artists such as The Smiths and Peter Bjorn & John subsequently recorded whistle related efforts, it was clear that this had occurred when their lyrical muse had dried up. With expensive studio time ebbing away, the artist had clearly panicked, invoking the spirit of Percy Edwards to produce the finished version.

It should be stressed that tuneless whistling will survive, such as the warble to get your dog’s attention when he’s dry-humping a pensioner in the park. But the brand of whistling with a full on, throaty vibrato, based on a cross between Mario Lanza on speed and a nightingale primed for mating, will soon leave us for good. The dictionary definition of whistling is the production of a high-pitched sound by forcing air through a small hole or narrow opening.

The whistle is dead.

Long live the fart.

 

 

PROGRESS

 

 

24-7 Video Recording

 

I spent much of 1991 in monochrome. Firstly, there were my clothes. Cardigans, jeans, shoes in as many shades of grey as the knicker drawer of EL James (that woman really should wash her virginal whites in a different load from that farmer’s muck-smeared sackcloth). My own sense of fashion at this time was as bright and vivid as a Chernobyl reactor, and it took a TV advertising campaign by Burtons featuring a man in the same drab clothes as mine to shake me into changing my wardrobe. Blue became the new grey, and it seems that EL James was listening, because two decades later she put the two colours together and made a fortune.

The other reason for my black and white world was the arrival of the portable VHS-Video Camcorder. I say portable, but you needed the upper body strength of Andre the Giant to carry one. The typical model was similar in size and weight to a shoulder-launched, multipurpose assault weapon. As the proud owner of my new JVC GR-C7, I had gone overnight from taking the occasional snapshot with my finger obscuring the lens of a Kodak Instamatic to being a News at Ten camera operator. If my children were eating Weetabix, I’d be there filming with the enthusiasm of a young Quentin Tarantino. If my daughter baked fairy cakes with her pal Bunty, I’d be the poor man’s Steven Spielberg perfecting close-ups of cakes that looked like charcoaled gerbils smeared in elephant shit. Like an over eager police marksman, if it moved I’d shoot it, though in my case with a camcorder rather than a semi-automatic. And as I recorded the mundane to view later in full colour on the TV screen, I saw everything in black and white because the LCD screen through which I monitored my suburban masterpieces was greyscale.

Despite my over enthusiasm for the task, there were far worse examples out there. The more obsessed men took it upon themselves to film their wives giving birth. As their partner panted and screamed with the decibels of a thousand Beatles fans at Shea Stadium in 1965, he would be stressing about light conditions and getting the correct white balance.

Technology soon came to the aid of me and my fellow shoulder and monochrome sufferers by developing smaller video cameras with colour LCD screens. The days of watching the world go by in black and white as you gave a piggyback to a baby elephant had passed forever. Ironically, the easier and more convenient it became to film your life, so we stopped, other than for special occasions like weddings, christenings, and circumcisions. Looking back at the footage taken, I am struck by the mundanity of it all, the poor quality of the images, but most of all I notice the colours. For me, seeing such footage from 1991 is how most people react when seeing the First World War with reds, blues, greens, and yellows on screen.

Yet now as the flecks of grey are invading my side part and my trouser waistline is migrating north towards the armpit circle, another colour change is pending. A sepia tinged wardrobe awaits, as beige and fawn become the new blue and grey. Fifty shades of magnolia, here I come… not in that sense you understand.

 

 

Black & White TV

 

These days, we take for granted our HD Ready TVs provide high resolution images of the zits on the face of the latest Britain’s Got Talent contestant. And so it’s hard to imagine just how dire television pictures were in the pre-colour days.

I remember trying to watch the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964 and hearing David Coleman’s classic commentary of Anne Packer’s heroics. As she came from nowhere to win the Women’s 800m, the BBC man gushed with the excitement of a monk discovering the joys of his own erectile tissue for the first time.

‘Fantastic run, oh, fantastic run, magnificent, magnificent, magnificent…’

Well it might have been, but all I remember seeing were a few fuzzy grey lines that made the screen look like an etch-a-sketch portrait of an alien humping a telegraph pole in a snowstorm.

‘For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in yellow.’

‘For those viewers watching in black and white, the pink ball is just behind the green.’

These classic football and snooker commentaries have taken their place in folklore. They clearly show why the arrival of the colour television put black and white viewers at a permanent disadvantage. And so it was no surprise when sport turned out to be the driving force behind the change to colour broadcasts. Even so, plenty of consumers held on to their monochrome sets due to the prohibitive cost of a colour model, which was expensive enough for many people to rent out their granny to a specialist agency so as to afford one. But when consumer electronics plummeted in price, the only reason not to upgrade the black and white goggle box was the TV licence. This annual government levy to fund the BBC cost a little more for a colour TV, and there were plenty of mingebags out there who begrudged paying the differential. I used to work with one.

She was called Isabella, an active Equestrian competitor alongside Zara Philips, living in the most exclusive part of Cheshire where any restaurant with less than one Michelin Star is considered down market. And yet she had some ancient Murphy UHF black and white set because the BBC licence fee was apparently too expensive. Mind you, this was the same person who routinely put copper coins in collections, thereby qualifying as the second most penny-pinching person I have ever met in my life.

The biggest miser was a guy I worked with at Liverpool Council called Bill. In the final week before I left to take up pastures new, Bill used one tea bag to make three cups a day for five days, a total of fifteen cups of tea from the same Typhoo bag. You can imagine that the last brew didn’t even warrant the ‘looks like piss’ label.

Today, it’s easier to buy a second kidney or a small child from Malawi than a black and white television. The monochrome image may have maintained a sense of cool in photography, but in televisual terms, it’s about as popular as a sexually transmitted disease at an orgy.

A few years have passed since I last spoke to Isabella, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is still hanging on to her Black & White TV. I think I’ve got her email address somewhere, so perhaps next Christmas I’ll send her an e-card… in black and white of course.

 

 

Cassettes

 

Home taping is killing music! And it’s illegal!’

This was the old slogan from the British Phonograph Institute, the record industry’s association, in response to the perceived threat of home cassette recording on single and album sales. To put the ‘record’ straight, home taping was never going to kill music and nor was it illegal. And if recording the latest Felicity Kendall keep fit album to cassette was illegal, then presumably you were to be hung by the testicles and shot at dawn for masturbating to the soundtrack.

A few years before the BPI’s ill-conceived campaign, around the time Neil Armstrong was prancing about on the Moon, my elder brother had bought a second hand reel-to-reel tape recorder from the local junk shop. It was a chunky piece of kit, more at home in a Second World War bunker full of wired haired mathematicians than at NASA’s Mission Control Centre in Houston. We recorded a few spoken words and watched in wonder as the illuminated green bar moved left and right in response to the processed sound. When we listened to the playback, we heard two pubescent male voices speaking from inside a biscuit tin. We were mesmerised. It was as though we had invented television or discovered penicillin.

We captured music from the transistor radio, and although the recordings sounded more subterranean than X2 Zero from Stingray, we naturally assumed some kind of career in the recording industry was a cert. But a few days later, the novelty of our lowbrow recording was beginning to wear off. We had come to realise that handling the tape reels required the care, dexterity and patience of a bomb disposal expert. The reel to reel was quickly condemned to the loft.

So when the compact cassette arrived at an affordable high street price, we all lauded its appearance as the dawn of a new age. Unfortunately, this optimism was as short lived as the mayfly. Problems with cassettes included the difficulty of skipping to specific tracks, the ease with which the tape could be mangled by the cassette player, and the fact that the sound was normally accompanied by the hiss of someone urinating into a frying pan of boiling fat. Dolby attempted to solve this problem by suppressing some of the higher frequencies. The results sounded muddier than a 1970s first division football pitch at Derby County’s Baseball Ground.

But sales of cassettes were turbo boosted by the arrival of the Sony Walkman. Suddenly you could listen to what you wanted, when you wanted. This might be when walking, jogging, or simply fondling yourself on public transport. And the cassette was to enjoy an even greater longevity because, rather like the gin swigging Queen Mother, the Walkman proved to have a much longer life than expected. This was due to the unreliability of its natural successor, the portable CD player, which tended to behave like a seven year old girl, liable to skip at a moment’s notice.

The cassette Walkman was eventually finished off by the arrival of the digital jukebox, the mp3 player. In these iPod and iPhone days, nobody holds a candle to the cassette, sitting as it does in the no man’s land that separates the old school technologies of vinyl and the CD. And so it has been consigned, forgotten, to the past.

The BPI is still at it, now claiming that ‘illegal’ downloading is killing music. I think it’s time for someone to tell these fat cats that it might kill the traditional business model for the record industry, but music is as safe as ever. The BPI is as big a victim of the changing technologies as the compact cassette. And if that is a depressing thought for you, Mr Record Label Executive or Mr Old School Rock Star, as the bailiff drives away your Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, why not try and borrow a cassette copy of Felicity Kendall’s keep fit record? You could relive the good old days. And don’t worry, it isn’t illegal and it won’t kill you.

 

 

Changing a Plug

 

Key measures of an individual’s proficiency in the world of Do-It-Yourself tend to be things like the ability to fit a bathroom suite, re-wire the house, lay real wood flooring, or build a kitchen extension. Yet the DIY bar used to be set much lower in the old days. The real talent lay in those able to convert the classic Georgian banister rail in the hall into an American ranch style monstrosity that in five years’ time would be five years out of date. However, even something as trivial as the talent to change an electrical plug qualified for DIY ‘Brownie’ points.

Unable to do anything else, I embraced the recognition for this basic chore with open arms and a small screwdriver. Although not rocket science, you had to know what you were doing. You needed to match up the brown, blue and green/yellow wires with the correct earth, neutral and live pins, as well as choosing the appropriate amp fuse for your appliance. The undertaking may not have needed the dexterity of a gynaecologist on an open day at St Mary’s Convent for the Strict Order of the Virginals, but neither was it a job for a seven-foot tall cattle rancher with hands bigger than a bison’s backside. My fingers and thumbs were just about right. The importance of the task intensified during the transition from round to square pin plugs in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was common for shops to sell electrical items without a plug. People like me with a greater aptitude for taking the piss than undertaking minor electrical repairs had to face the situation and get proficient. Otherwise, my automatic belt massager would have laid there unused.

In time, legislation required all electrical products to come with a fully wired plug, and coupled with improvements in reliability and durability, the need for small appliance rewiring skills diminished. I was recently ironing when I noticed a few sparks coming from the socket. A quick inspection of the cable revealed a problem with the plug, and for the first time in about twenty years, it was time to change one. Surely, this was going to be like riding a bike. Well no actually. It doesn’t have any wheels for a start.

The first difficulty was buying one. The local B&Q, big enough to house the Boeing Dreamliner, seemed to have every DIY accessory other than a bloody plug, though I eventually found one in the £1 bargain bucket. When I arrived home, I embarked on my first plug change for ears. Five minutes later, I was cursing the poor quality of its component parts as my screwdriver tuned helplessly, the head of the screw worn away as though made of fudge. I soon gave up, threw the iron in the bin and made a quick trip to Tesco to get a new one. And that’s the point. For the rare occasions that you might need to change a plug, it’s such a faff, it’s easier to go and buy a new appliance. Your plug changing days are over. I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to you, but I’ve probably saved you from getting a more painful type of shock, assuming you’ve the same prowess as me in these matters.

 

 

Energy Saving Light Bulbs

 

The energy saving light bulb is like the mini disc, its technology as out of date as my dad’s wardrobe, even before its launch. With the mini disc, it was the iPod that rendered it obsolete, and with the low energy bulb, it’s the LED light. I’m sure few argue would with me when I say they’re crap anyway. They consume far less energy because they take so long to light up. You turn on the switch, trip over the dog as you scrabble around in the dark, find your seat, watch an evening’s TV, and just as the bulb achieves full brightness, you switch it off because you’re going to bed.

In contrast, LED lights are brilliant, literally so. They are a Tyneside drunk, giant tortoise and mp3 file, all rolled into one. Like the Geordie pisshead, they only need a chip inside to function, although perhaps not a bagful covered in cheese and vinegar. In common with the giant tortoise, they have an incredibly long life. And just as the record industry ignored the mp3 to milk the CD back catalogue cash cow, the lighting companies are playing down the benefits of the new LED technologies so that they can get their investment returns from their energy saving product portfolios.

But rest assured, within a short while, LED lights will be universal, and the energy saving light bulb will have been switched off for good. An illuminating thought, don’t you think?

 

 

Inaccurate Weather Forecasts

 

Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t, but having said that, actually, the weather will become very windy’.

These are the words of BBC Weatherman Michael Fish on 15th October 1987, a few hours before a storm with winds of hurricane force battered the South East of England and Northern France. The woman who had made the call had good reason to feel bitter about the misinformation. There is every chance that her efforts to put out the empty milk bottles before going to bed saw her left arm ripped from its socket and blasted into the stormy night sky like a rocket-propelled missile. The winds downed 15 million trees in the UK and at least 22 people lost their lives. ‘Very windy’ was clearly an understatement at the same level as ‘That Pol Pot was not the most tolerant person I’ve ever met.’

To be fair to the meteorological bods like Fishy, forecasts at the time used computer models with a level of sophistication only one-step up from a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Their predictions were as flimsy as the weather symbols Messrs Giles, Kettley and McCaskill pressed on to the map of the UK when on air. The reputation of weather forecasters, already dubious, suffered a terrible blow because of the great storm of 1987, a blow from which the profession has yet to recover.

The modern meteorologist can predict the climate with precision for the next few days thanks to information sourced via incredibly sophisticated mathematical algorithms that run on the world’s most advanced computers. Yet, despite the now unerring accuracy of their forecasts, the public still moan about the ‘bloody weather’ and ‘they didn’t say it was going to rain on the forecast last night’. So who’s to blame for the entrenchment of such attitudes, now unfairly applied to the new generation of weather presenters? It might surprise you to learn that it’s the newsagent.

When forecasters used to wing it and get things badly wrong, members of the public found it easy not to question the validity of the newsagent’s proclamation in early September that an October heat wave was on its way. A few decades on and nothing has changed. I’ve heard work colleagues say on St Swithun’s Day that it was definitely going to rain for the next forty days and forty nights. My challenge induced a look of hurt followed by an admission that the information came from Jack who runs the corner shop. Yet people only herald the man who shifts the Daily Mail, the Sun and The Times for his weather predictions. If he says that this year’s fashion colours are definitely going to be pink and mauve, his customers shrug their shoulders and think ‘dickhead’.

Inaccurate weather forecasts may be a throwback, and we may now have access to a plethora of different sources for climate information from TV, radio, websites and apps, but the newsagent can relax. It doesn’t matter that newspaper sales are plummeting, because customers will continue to call into his shop, if only to check on the long term weather prospects. And I suppose the odd one might be interested if this year’s colour is really going to be crimson… in truth, a very odd one.

 

 

Martians

 

The school playground in 1964 could be a terrifying place for me, and not just because Miss Osgood’s left eye drilled inside my head while the dodgy right one looked up to the skies in disapproval. The main cause of horror was Mars Attacks, a series of trading cards that depicted an invasion of Earth by Martians. These aliens sported massive helmets – steady now – to contain their massive brains, and they had a hideous, skeleton-like torso: think Stephen Fry living on Ryvita and Evian to get the picture.

We lads bought the cards in their droves and duly exchanged graphic drawings of brutal and merciless acts perpetrated by these monsters from Outer Space. There was the sadistic Martian leader performing experimental surgery on a live patient with all the finesse of Bert the Butcher and his meat cleaver, while the stricken man’s scantily clad female partner looked on in horror, presumably concerned that alien mutilation may invalidate a payout from his life insurance provider. There were giant flies, terror robots, an army of insects, and an alien militia heavily armed with artillery rays for shrinking, freezing, and incinerating. The Martians had no moral compass, proved conclusively when they toasted a dog in front of his horrified boy owner. The White House, Times Square, Manhattan skyscrapers, the Houses of Parliament, the Eiffel Tower, China and more geographical iconography suffered unspeakable destruction at the hands of these extraterrestrial fiends.

All seemed lost until the human race hit back by sending to Mars a battalion of testosterone-filled, square-jawed macho men with red helmets… I said steady on. The Martians didn’t stand a chance when faced with these plucky brave hearts who stormed the planet armed with rifles that had, wait for it, a very heavy wooden handle ideal for hitting a Martian on its oversized brainy head and discharging a plateful of spaghetti bolognese from the cranium to the ground. Our heroes made their getaway from Mars just before a gigantic explosion destroyed the planet. The cards outraged parents and the authorities acted quickly to introduce a ban. The school playground was a safe and friendly place again, Miss Osgood notwithstanding.

Nearly half a century later, and NASA scientists are getting small erections at the prospects of discovering life on Mars. However, we are not talking about death ray armed aggressors, huge flies or robots. If there is life, it will be in the form of microbes resident in the planet’s sub-surface. For those thinking that a ‘microbe’ doesn’t sound that big, go and treat yourself to a doughnut, because millions of microbes can fit through the eye of a needle, hardly the stuff of Mars Attacks! The passage of time and scientific discovery has destroyed the Martian of every Baby Boomer’s imagination. So be it. Who needs a Martian when you have Miss Osgood?

 

 

Newspaper Classified Ads

 

Ebay has killed the classified ad. Whether you want to buy a washing machine, a car, or a small child from the Amazon, you no longer scrutinize the newspaper for willing sellers. Even if you want a plumber – perhaps you have a leaking tap or want to shoot a home grown porno – you now head to Google or Yell.com. And what about holidays? To book a break today, the majority log on to the Internet, the traditionalists head for the Travel Agent, but very few scour the classified ads in the newspapers. Yet in 1978, the latter was one of the more obvious choices, which is how we came to endure a fortnight away from home with the scent of cooked lard assailing our nostrils at every waking hour.

The advert in the Daily Mail read:

 

CORNWALL: 2 Bedroom Mediterranean Style Apartment to rent – £50 per week summer rate. Tel: St Austell 53078.

 

This was cheap, two weeks in the heart of Cornwall for only £100. The foreign holiday was gaining in popularity, but for newly weds with a mortgage to pay, a UK destination was still the norm. A phone call later, and I had agreed to leave a small deposit to secure the first two weeks in July… well I was a bit excited about the whole thing.

The months rolled by until we were finally in the car on the road into St Austell, frantically consulting the road signs to locate our little piece of the Med in the South West. When we found the estate, it did not disappoint. A myriad of clean whitewashed buildings stretched out before our eyes. This may not have been the Costa Del Sol, but it could have been with the intense early evening sun casting long shadows behind us and a cloudless, vivid blue sky. We couldn’t believe our luck. Thanks to that small classified ad in the paper, we had a dream holiday home. But we soon discovered the drawback.

Our flat was in the shopping quadrant of the estate. And no, it wasn’t above the grocery store, the newsagents or even the launderette. It was above the chip shop, and every room smelt of salt, vinegar, chips and fat. We adopted the half glass full attitude and congratulated one another on having fish and chips on tap. Fifteen minutes later, we were staring disconsolately at a bag of grease laden, stuck together chips that looked like medical waste from a surgical operation. The next day, the weather changed, and we had to summon our innate Dunkirk spirit to deal with the biting wind, torrential rain and lard induced nausea. It was a long fortnight.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the following year we went to a Travel Agent and booked a holiday in Italy. We never trusted the classified ad again, and we’ve since been joined by the rest of the population.

But the story does have a happy ending… I still love chips.

 

 

Not Knowing the Result

 

There is a classic episode of the classic BBC comedy Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, in which Terry and Bob try desperately to avoid hearing the scoreline of an England v Bulgaria football international, so that they can watch the recorded highlights on TV later in the evening as though live. In truth, their plight has more to do with the parameters of sitcom-world than any reality of the time. This was 1973, decades before the information age, and a period when Teletext was still something from Doctor Who. The real problem was the exact opposite of what the Geordie boys experienced, because the rest of us were more used to the frustration of not knowing a result or a score. If you missed the five-second mention of your team on the local news after the main bulletin, you were knackered. Aside from the once a year events such as the FA Cup Final, Wimbledon, and the British Open Golf Championship, there were only a few televised sports broadcast with any in-depth coverage. These were Scrambling (nothing to do with eggs), UK Professional Wrestling (think WWE with the budget of a job seeker), and Bar Billiards with Fred Trueman (think UK Professional Wrestling without the budget).

Scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were, nonetheless, prophetic in their writing. In today’s age, there’s no hiding place from discovering what you don’t want to discover… my feeling every morning looking in the mirror. This, like Bob and Terry, can typically be a football result, but the phenomenon now extends to embrace TV shows such as The Apprentice (Who got the finger from Lord Sour last night?) or a US TV serial (How dry have the producers milked the original premise in yesterday’s cliffhanging denouement to Episode 48 of Season 14?). Having lost out to your conscience about whether to watch a programme live or attend your granny’s 112th birthday party, you get home high on Sanatogen and just check Facebook or Twitter before settling down to watch your recording. Inevitably, the first thing you read spoils the hour of TV ahead of you, removing all the jeopardy in less than 140 characters. And it can be a mix of old and new technologies that conspire to piss on your chips, something that happened to me with my mother-in-law recently, though I should point out that this did not involve her urinating over a plate of French Fries.

It was Wimbledon 2013 and Andy Murray’s historic final against Novak Djokovic, which unfortunately clashed with a meal booked to celebrate her birthday. My son and I were therefore only able to watch the first set before pausing live TV and heading to the restaurant. We made it clear that at no stage did we want to know anything about the Scot’s progress during the game, as we planned to get home and resume the final as live. Somehow, we managed this, and so after a pleasant Sunday lunch, we dropped her off and returned home to pick up where we left off. Cue the phone call from my mother-in-law.

In excited tones she said, ‘Do you know how Andy Murray got on? Cos’ I do.’

I gave her call short shrift, replacing the receiver with a thud. I knew straightaway that he’d won. Why else would she ring with a cackle of glee in her voice? Then my son pointed out that she didn’t like Andy Murray. He was a one of them dour Scots. The lack of a Men’s Wimbledon champion for seventy-three years was secondary to her memories of Cromwell’s glorious victory at the 1650 Battle of Dunbar. I was now convinced Murray had lost, and it threw me into a pit of despair. I had watched Roger Taylor – taking time off from drumming for Queen – get close in 1973, and I had seen Tim Henman throw it away in 2001, but this looked to be our nation’s best chance ever. I cursed that my wife’s mum had tuned into rolling news on Digital TV to get the result and, adding insult to injury, used an old school landline to landline call to spoil my enjoyment of this momentous event. Why didn’t she go the whole hog and send me a bloody telegram or even a carrier pigeon?

Once Murray had won the second set, I knew that my first inkling had been correct. He had won after all. There would not be enough time for Djokovic to play and win three sets, unless he was playing the British no.2. The rest of the watching public suffered in torment as Andy teetered on the cusp of letting things slip, but I was as relaxed as a Bob Marley fan listening to ‘Jammin’ while lying on a hammock and smoking a colossal spliff. The curse of ‘Not Knowing the Result’ had struck me on this most celebrated of sporting occasions.

You can’t have your cake and eat it – unless you’re bulimic – and so there has to be a price for the surfeit of information at our fingertips. Naturally, Terry and Bob failed in their mission back in 1973, and if you’re wondering whatever happened to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, the result will be on the local news after the main bulletin.

 

 

Teletext

 

I sometimes wonder how we used to get our information before the Internet. Was it my nan’s friend Elsie? Did she used to let us know that Mott the Hoople’s latest album was to be released on October 24th, and that the band were playing the Liverpool Stadium on November 17th, supported by Paul Rodgers’ new group, Peace? Was it the same well meaning busy body who would knock on the front door to recommend the latest novel by Ken Follett, the master storyteller? And was it Elsie who, over a nice cup of tea and rich tea biscuit, would explain the implications for world peace from the squeeze on oil prices by The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries?

I’m not too sure, but during the 1980s and 1990s, a key source for news and information was Teletext, the information service transmitted to TV sets alongside the programmes. BBC’s pioneering Ceefax, first introduced in the 1970s, was considered a marvel up there with sliced bread…. at least, that was my opinion.

We now had the latest news on tap, interactive puzzles, and a new way of watching football matches, refreshing the screen in the vain hope your team bagged three last minute goals to overturn a 2-0 score line. You could even book holidays through ITV’s Oracle service.

Your eyes would catch sight of a 14 day break in Albania for £59 on screen 95 out of 106, and you pressed pause on the remote control, just as the page had moved on to 96 out of 106. You would then wait about an hour for 95 to come around again, by which time the price had increased to £99. You would then ring the number given and be jubilant when told that there was still availability. But the jubilation deflated on hearing the news that the price on Teletext excluded the fuel surcharge, airport supplement, local taxes, duties, VAT, coach transfers and hotel protection racketeer levy. By the time you had booked your holiday, you were unsure that the new price of £399 per head was such a bargain after all.

Teletext was truly the precursor to the Internet, but it was analogue technology and ultimately had to give way to the digital age. It’s now at the end of the same journey that my nan’s friend Elsie took about twenty years ago. God rest her soul.

 

 

The Doctor’s Sketch

 

You may be thinking that I’m making a case for the passing of that staple of comedy sketch shows i.e. the doctor and his patient.

PATIENT: Doctor, can you help me? I appear to be a trifle deaf.

DOCTOR: Then you obviously need some cream.

PATIENT: Oh, and my legs feel like jelly

DOCTOR: Well, using the same cream will do the trick

PATIENT: But what about the rash on my testicles?

DOCTOR: Try the Cake Shop!

If that’s the standard of dialogue, I hope this entry works at two levels.

The Doctor’s Sketch to which I refer is the picture that your GP would draw to illustrate the anatomy of your ailment. If I had an appointment with my doc to discuss a painful abscess in a delicate area, I’d return home with a sick note, a prescription, and an accurate depiction of the male penis… well I suppose it wouldn’t be the female penis.

These days he uses Google. It’s just not the same. Moreover, when he enters ‘anatomy of the penis’ into the search engine, we are both initially subjected to a web page that promotes phallic enlargement and the opportunity to satisfy the salacious and unquenchable sex appetite of a mature called Janet who lives ten miles away in Bromborough… If I ever take up her offer, I’m likely to be back at the doctor’s when the Google search will be ‘sexually transmitted diseases’.

Call me old fashioned, but in those circumstances, I want to leave the doctor’s surgery with a picture in my hand entitled ‘The Pox’.

 

 

The Modem Screech

 

Dial up internet was shit – period, in fact, shitter than a period. Everything was so slow and exasperating. The experience started badly with the modem. After a few beeps of telephone dialling, there followed the high-pitched harmonics of an alien life form heading for a landing in the deserts of New Mexico, a squeal your blocked sinuses found especially agonising. Once online, the network disconnected as regularly as a husband listening to his wife talking about Janice in work at the same time that the semi-final of the Football World Cup is on the telly. Page loading was a hit and miss affair, often stopping mid-stream to leave you with half a screen. Early online porn enthusiasts were left wondering if the model’s left tit was going to be as memorable as the right one. Downloading music from Napster was not the few seconds now taken for granted with iTunes. A bar would move from left to right with the speed of the audience Clapometer from Hughie Greene’s Opportunity Knocks at the end of the swimsuit-wearing septuagenarian singing gymnast and terrier duo.

We all knew that this World Wide Web thing was the bee’s knees, and we ought to remember the pioneering times with great fondness. Yet the frustrations of the fledging technology overwhelmed the potential for any warm nostalgia, rendering us with the bitterness and irritation of an old man who has a bluebottle trapped in his long johns. Now that Broadband has sent Dial Up and the modem crashing – something it was quite proficient at before – only people with disturbed minds such as Cliff Richard fans miss the screech of the modem. Given the choice of listening to ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ or the alien sounds from my connecting Tandy v92, I would certainly be someone desperately searching for the headphone socket of the modem.

 

 

Whatever Happened To?

 

When I left school, apart from a small group of five or six pals, I accepted that I would lose immediate contact with all my other peers. As the years passed by, this always left room for a question like, ‘Whatever happened to Bernard Wignall?’. This in turn led to the answer, ‘Probably serving life for murdering his parents in the bath,’ which in turn led to the comment, ‘Makes you wonder why the three of them were in the bath together.’ There was a mystery about the fate of your old school yard contemporaries that fed your imagination and left your mind free from the inanities of real life. Today, everything has changed.

As a twenty something and part of the Facebook generation, you now get hour by hour status updates from anyone and everyone who was in your Class of 2005, most of whom you would rather have forgotten. This includes Kylie the fat girl with spots who wore a skirt so short, it looked like a headband stretched around two medieval oak trees. You’ve been kept reliably informed as to her six children from six different fathers, two English, one Afro-Caribbean, one Polish, one Chinese, and one guy who gave it large in Aiya Napa. Her eldest four children have either been given up for adoption, taken into care, or lost in the big Asda up the road. But the youngest two, Rihanna and Pink, live with her at home.

Kylie’s typical status reads, ‘Rihanna just shat her nappy and Pink spewed all over me’ leggings.’

Her friends empathetically respond, ‘Never mind babe, wait till yer get shit-faced on Sat’day night.’

How could life not be enhanced by such new found knowledge courtesy of Facebook?

It’s the same lack of mystery with anyone famous who has been missing for a good few years. Let’s say you’re listening to Bland FM, ‘playing the most insipid music mix in the North West’, and you hear a song by your favourite Motown/Soul crossover band of the late 1960s, the Detroit Diamonds. You think, ‘I wonder whatever happened to them and their lead singer, what was his name…Wrangler Crabs?’

Your first thought is the realisation that the band’s front man sounds like a groin infection from wearing slim fit jeans too tight. You then go on to Google and enter the band’s name. You’re delighted to find they have their own website and are impressed that they have invested wisely in search engine optimisation support, because their site is top of the listings. These boys have talent and commercial acumen, a deadly combination. Your sense of joy is further intensified when you see the band is just about to undertake a tour of the UK. They’re playing Smethwick (31st March), Batley (1st April), Grimethorpe (2nd April), and a few less salubrious towns in the following week.

But when you read the ‘Biog’ section on their website, you’re saddened to discover that Wrangler died of a heart attack in 1999 after reading his young grandchild the opening chapter from a Goosebumps book. Never mind, at least there’s the other lads, Johnson Merriman III, Abdul Ali Junior and Blind Bill Tangerine, all fine specimens no doubt. Or at least they were. The Biog explains that Johnson died of an overdose of Alka Seltzer twenty years ago, Abdul choked in a pizza eating competition – he was runner up – and Blind Bill was flattened by a monster truck when crossing the road.

You’re now thinking that the concert tour will be unbearable due to the overpowering smell of decomposed flesh, until you read that the average age of the current group is only twenty five. None of them were in the original line-up, but just as you are about to lose interest, you see that the new lead singer has a strong connection to the old band. His dad was the session bongo player on the recording of their smash hit, ‘Bongo Blues’. That clinches it, and you waste no time in booking two of the best seats in the house to hear the authentic sounds of the Detroit Diamonds. The concert is shit and a waste of £50… £65 including booking fee. You leave, cursing Google.

I was thinking of using a pseudonym for this book, in case the likes of Bernard Wignall happened to come across it and the enigma of ‘Whatever Happened to Chris Whitfield?’ was resolved. As for my nom de plume, I should confess that the front runner was Wrangler Crabs. But in the end, I have given Bernard what he needs and used my own name. I have to accept the inevitabilities of progress. My long life as a man of mystery has come to an end.

 

 

SOCIETY & POLITICS

 

 

£ s d

 

The British have a deserved reputation for innovation. Landmark inventions include television, the telephone, computers, the internet, steam trains, jet engines; the list is endless. Even the major sports of football, tennis, golf, and mouse ball skittles* originated from the land of hope and glory, and our contribution to culture in terms of music, literature and cinema is nothing short of remarkable. In short, we have led where others have followed, even if the nation’s ability to capitalise commercially on these strengths has never been quite so formidable.

* in truth an office game I once played when bored out of my skull producing consolidated financial accounts.

Nonetheless, there have been a few failures along the way. Take the Sinclair C5 electric car, for example, a kind of motorised wheelchair for the able-bodied lunatic. Or the Amstrad e-mailer, available for a bargain £79.99 with £1,000 added to your phone bill as a bonus. Yet these are small fry failures when compared to the pre-decimal world of pounds, shillings and pence. Given the simplicity and symmetry of decimals with the ever-present number ten as its base, surely this goes down as the worst British invention of all. Well, not so fast… coincidentally a major feature of the C5.

The origins of £ s d go back to the Romans. This makes it even worse. Anyone like me, subjected to arithmetic – it was called ‘sums’ but I’m trying to big up my formative years – at primary school in the 1960s, will still carry the scars of trying to add half a crown to three guineas and a florin. The fact it was the lads from Rome responsible for this just makes it worse. The same people that brought us roads, highways, aqueducts, surgery, newspapers, concrete, sewers and sanitation, also devised the basis for pounds, shillings and pence? At least I now have answer to that classic question of irony.

What have the Romans ever done for us?’

Well for a start, the buggers made sums really, really hard… which is why I bought that bloody Amstrad e-mailer.

 

 

Burglars

 

One of the boom industries in the 1980s was the Burglar Alarm trade. Wireless and microchip technologies were in their infancy, and so the typical installation had about ten miles of cable, a few ineffective sensors nailed to the doors, and a rectangular metal box stuck to the front of the house emblazoned with the letters P.I.S.S. Pete Ingram’s Security Services might have been more suitable, but the signwriter couldn’t manage it. The Burglary Sector was flourishing at this time due to a number of factors creating the conditions for every householder to believe their ‘chez nous’ was under 24-7 threat from hooded thieves.

The Thatcher government had made mass unemployment a key political aim and achieved it with aplomb, thereby greatly increasing the number of ‘have nots’. This coincided with the development of an aspirational society of ‘haves’ proudly displaying signs of their newly created wealth, such as wearing a hat made from ten pound notes. As the decade unfolded, there was also a growing drug problem and a proliferation of expensive consumer electrical goods cluttering up homes. And so it was that the ‘haves’ bought the latest TVs, video recorders and stereo music centres, while a section of the ‘have nots’ acquired a drug habit, burgled the houses of the ‘haves’ and sold their stolen wares to the ‘have nots’ who aspired to be ‘haves’, a vicious spiral that led to the burglar alarm explosion.

A few cheapskates installed a dummy P.I.S.S. box on their pebble dashing as a deterrent to any would-be robber, though it was largely a waste of time. The same reluctance to spend money on home security applied to their chosen electrical brands. Their houses were full of shitty, unreliable makes such as Fidelity and Bush, which had nothing to do with the nether regions of a Mother Superior except in the sense that the products were about as appealing as the nether regions of a Mother Superior.

The influx of home alarms quickly made burglary a riskier business, and with the advent of CCTV cameras, the thief’s lot was not a happy one. Then we saw consumer electronics plummet in price, which more than anything killed the market in hooky goods transacted in a dark corner of a dingy pub. The internet, as it has done with so many things, provided the final nail in the coffin. Why risk your neck climbing through the roof light of a house to pilfer a DVD with a sticking eject button, when you can email somebody for their bank account details and enjoy the life of Riley without leaving the comfort of your Spanish villa in Marbella? The streets and houses may have become safe, but the Ethernet cables, wireless signals and fibre optics are now the gateways to Crime City. Bob the burglar may have hung up his sack – sounds a bit painful to me – but he has embraced his hard drive.

 

 

Chimpanzees in Dungarees

 

The Tipps family were a national institution, icons from the golden age of television, the talk of every factory, office and school playground in the country. They were from simple working class stock, and people loved them for it.

Now they may have been simple, but they were certainly not ordinary because the Tipps were fully clothed chimps with the voices of film and TV celebrities. Stars of the longest ever running television advertising campaign that spanned six decades, these sartorial primates helped shift PG Tips Tea by the ton, catapulting the product from an also ran in the market to become the best selling brand in the UK, all in a matter of a couple of years.

One of their most successful commercials was set in Paris during the Tour de France, and its ‘Avez vous un cuppa?’ passed down into everyday lingo. The public adored it, bought more tea, and laughed until they wet themselves, partly from drinking too much PG Tips. We were too busy changing our soiled clothes to notice that the chimpanzee with the best lines had been forced to ride his bike along a concrete road until it crashed.

The complaints of the animal rights activist continued to be drowned out by our chuckles, until Brits finally recognised that pushing a piano up a flight of stairs was not normal behaviour for a chimp from the African rain forest. One of the reasons for this change in attitude came from the increasing number taking their annual fortnight’s holiday in Spain. Tourists would return home with a red face, a sombrero, and an instamatic photo of their gormless child, standing next to a chimpanzee dressed like Rod, Jane or Freddie.

But as we gradually learnt that these animals were being drugged and maltreated by their money making keepers, the end was nigh for the Tipps family, and in 2002 they were dropped, never to return. The monkeys on dope are still to be found in Europe during the summer months, but only in the sense that the dance scene has been embraced by construction workers from Grimsby.

Confirmation that the chimp in fancy dress has been consigned to the past was provided on a recent visit to Prague. I was walking across the Charles Bridge when I heard the unmistakable sounds of an organ grinder…. that’s the time-honoured street performer with a mechanical music machine rather than anything to do with the sexual technique of the Grimsby builder. The old music man displayed a permanent smile, a dancing chimp, and was playing a traditional Celine Dion tune. It was reassuring that, in line with modern trends, the animal was actually a cuddly toy, thereby saving a real chimpanzee from cruelty on two counts. The unnecessary human clothing and ‘My Heart Will Go On’ played on a constant loop.

I celebrated the sight with a drink… though not PG Tips.

 

 

Corporal Punishment in Schools

 

I still don’t know how I managed to avoid getting caned at school because I was never good at the obedience thing. Not that I was an anarchist or especially rebellious. I was just always up for a laugh. Chalking on the blackboard a picture of the History master with ears like an elephant, cracking an inappropriate one liner when asked a question in Science about thrust, or shoving two lacrosse balls down my shorts in PE… that was my sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, this propensity for disruptive behaviour led to my regular dismissal from class, forced to stand in the corridor for the remainder of the lesson. And yet somehow, unlike many of my school pals, I never suffered the indignity of a sadistic teacher beating the shit out of me with a piece of bamboo.

The use of the cane, particularly during my primary school years, was widespread. The instrument of torture ranged from the conventional long thin strip of rattan to the walking stick, as practised by Mr Tyrone the music teacher. It seems incredible now that seven year old boys – the unpunished girls were thankful for the positive side of a sexist society – were routinely lined up to hold out their outstretched palms so that the adult responsible for their care and education could administer a dose or two of acute pain. These young lads were apparently the evil off-springs of Beelzebub for whom the power of argument and spoken word was not enough.

But as the rights of the child became recognised, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) deemed corporal punishment a violation of their convention, and this signalled the end for the cane It was banned from UK state schools in 1986 – and to our national shame we were the last country in Western Europe to do so – though not banished until 1999 from private schools. The latter occurred despite a legal challenge from the headmasters of a number of independent church schools, who went all the way to the ECHR before losing their action. How very Christian of them.

It’s somewhat depressing to read about the number of people and, moreover, teachers, who would like to reintroduce corporal punishment, but I guess every cross section of society has people who lack the understanding of human nature to appreciate that violence on a child is fundamentally wrong and ultimately counter-productive. To prove my point, I would be happy to meet up with anyone who still believes it is right to beat a youngster, and in a gesture of reconciliation for the occasion, I will forego my principles and embrace the ethos of corporal punishment. Get me a birch, cane, strap and cat o’nine tails. I’ve got a beating to administer. See how you like it.

 

 

Free Market Capitalism

 

The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the simplicity of the Morning Star crossword, all demonstrated that Communism was a flawed ideology. Admittedly, one based on good intentions and sound theory, but in practice, human nature will always engineer some form of hierarchy and resultant ruling class. In the Communist model, corruption facilitated this natural order and led to an exploitation of the masses, albeit in a different form to that despised by Lenin and Marx. The capitalists in the West celebrated its downfall by proclaiming that Free Market Capitalism was the one and only. They were wrong. It all came crashing down in 2008, paving the way for Don McLean – taking time off from Crackerjack – to update ‘American Pie’ with the words ‘the day the market died’. However, unlike the old Communists who accepted their experiment had failed, the Free Market evangelists remain in denial.

Capitalism is fundamentally an economic system in which private individuals and corporate bodies are free to trade in goods and services with prices determined by the forces of competition, and where investors collect the profits and accumulate wealth for the good of society. This malfunctions in practice for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is a recipe for the exploitation of employees because their wages are a cost, and so the lower the wages, the lower the cost and the higher the profit. Some employers would pay their staff in jelly babies – Asda Smart Price – if they could. The unrestrained free market model typically sees employers treating their workforce like shit, in fact worse than shit. When we want to get rid of our faecal slop, we do it responsibly and with care, using sewage treatment plants. The company obsessed with maximising value will get rid of its unwanted ‘waste’ by sending a SMS message with PR spun text that essentially reads ‘piss off down the sewer’.

The next flaw is the risk factor. The capitalist assumption is that profit goes to the providers of capital because they take the most risk having invested their cash in the enterprise to get it going. That may be the case with Vic Davies the general contractor – inevitably named VD Contractors Ltd – who sets up a company employing his wife, Jack Russell Terrier Spit, and his mate Jim, the slow lad from the pub. However, if you take most businesses and corporations, ownership is a function of institutionalised investors who spread their risk via unit trusts and index linked portfolios. When a company fails and goes into liquidation, the losers are invariably the employees and the creditors. The price of the equities held by the shareholders at the time of collapse might only be a Polo Mint per share, but they only bought them last week for a Rolo in the hope they went up in value. Employees put their livelihood on the line when committing to an employer and the creditor allows unsecured credit terms knowing that in a failure they are unlikely to get a sausage – even if they’re a butcher – because the owners will have structured things so they don’t lose out. Even in small companies, this usually involves transferring the assets to a phoenix company owned by Spit the Jack Russell.

Another problem is that shareholders are mostly pension funds and insurance companies, and so they leave the day-to-day management to a Board of Directors. These guys – they nearly always have a todger, even the women – are paid salaries and bonuses the size of Pavarotti to deliver maximum profits for the shareholders, an arrangement that led directly to the financial meltdown in 2008. For the CEO to get his bonus, he incentivised his team who incentivised their teams who incentivised their teams, creating a downward pyramidal vortex of financial incentives as unrealistic and destructive as my impersonation of Elvis Presley. As each year went by, the targets and rewards became increasingly ambitious. To achieve objectives and earn the annual wad for that holiday in the Maldives, managers and employees conspired to achieve targets by overriding normal business risks and controls. If you were a 55-year-old refuse collector who wanted a £1m interest free mortgage over 40 years, no problem. It proved that unchecked greed ultimately results in bad business decisions and collapse.

Perhaps most tellingly of all in the undermining of the Free Market Capitalist ideal, some companies are so large and anti-competitive that they cannot afford to fail. This is what happened with the banks. Their interconnectivity and reliance on one another to raise short-term funds meant that we didn’t really have a plethora of independent financial businesses. We had one interdependent global institution that was only as strong as its weakest link. Governments couldn’t allow banks to fail for fear of the domino effect. The risk ultimately rested with the taxpayer, that’s you and I, unless your employer pays you a shit wage or you are billionaire Philip Green, in which case you don’t pay tax.

Capitalism only works in conjunction with social and fiscal policies of governments. Surprise Surprise – calm down Cilla not you – this is something that sits between the extremes of Communism and Free Market Capitalism. Prior to 2008, business leaders ruled the world, but that has now changed. Elected officials and politicians are back in charge, and for all their faults, if we don’t like what they’re doing, at least we can get rid of them, though I admit that’s a tad more difficult in the likes of China. Free Market Capitalism has failed, and failed as conclusively as Communism. First the Berlin Wall, now Wall Street, right wing think tanks need to get real and admit that it’s time to give up. Every dog has its day, but I’m afraid yours was yesterday, and you left behind a massive turd that still stinks to this day.

 

 

Front Doors Left Open

 

The homes during the Depression of the 1930s in Back Gasworks Street were two up two down, that’s rooms not residents. There was usually about fourteen of the latter including Mum, Dad, Nan, Granddad, nine kids and deaf Auntie Alice. The young ones slept in the lounge using two dead dogs as pillows and the embroidered skins of fifty rice puddings as a blanket. The only heating in winter was methane gas, in plentiful supply courtesy of Granddad’s chronic flatulence. The pantry was empty other than a selection of dried pies, stale bread and insects, with dinner usually a plate of fat. There were more cockroaches than shoes for the children whose clothing had more holes than their smallpox-ravaged faces, and they played games in the street using dog shit as a prop. Hard Times?

Poverty may have been rife, but there was still a strong sense of community spirit amongst the people of Back Gasworks Street helping to compensate for the hardship suffered. It was a neighbourly feeling strengthened by the residents’ perspective on the world that failed to stretch in their minds beyond the end of the road. Foreigners comprised people such as the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Germans, all universally detested. Then there were Mancunians, Tykes, Cockneys, Brummies, Geordies, Glaswegians and Dubliners, all despised with the same fervour as the foreigners. And finally, there was the real enemy, the folks that lived a little closer to home in the adjacent streets of Back Gasworks Street North and Back Gasworks Street South, loathed with the greatest intensity of all.

This universal bigotry and intolerance served to reinforce the unity and kinship of those who lived in the street, feeding a strong, mutual trust, reflected in the custom of leaving the front door open for any old Tom, Dick or Harry to walk in at their will. If Betty in number 4 wanted to borrow a cup of sugar from Edna in number 8, she could take a rest from breaking her back on the mangle and just go and fetch it for herself. The open door was the symbol of a community at peace with itself, even if this meant it was at odds with the rest of the world.

The Second World War came and went – indisputably the least incisive summary ever written of 1939 to 1945 – followed by the introduction of the Welfare State, which meant that during the 1950s and 1960s, UK poverty began to decline. Town Planners tore down the terraces of Back Gasworks Street and moved the residents to Uranus House, a high-rise block of flats. Overnight, the spirit of belonging that glued the old community together drained away, front doors remaining firmly shut. Twenty years later, the local council employed a man called Dynamite Dick to demolish Uranus House… and for lovers of adult films, I’m afraid he used explosives rather than his appendage. The tenants moved to a row of newly built terraced houses, but the front doors stayed locked. And so it seems that in places other than a sitcom – ‘Good morning Gerry, I see you’ve let yourself in’ – the door has firmly closed on the open door.

 

 

No Smoking Areas

 

I’ve only ever had one single drag of a cigarette in my entire life, and it nearly choked me to death. I was a fourteen year old paper-boy, seduced by the display of Woodbines, Park Drive and Players No. 6 behind the newsagent’s counter, and I wanted a piece of the action. My elder brother duly obliged, offering me a spare Embassy Filter and my near death experience ensued. Forty years on, and I’ve never been tempted once to try again. Perhaps if I’d choked on my first pie, I wouldn’t now carry the burdens of living life as a pie addict.

Smoking has always struck me as an inexplicable addiction. There’s no taste or hallucinogenic quality, and it’s no longer thought that nicotine is an addictive substance on par with heroin or minced beef and gravy covered in short crust pastry. Yet as a group, I sometimes feel sorry for smokers, now that they’ve been ostracised from society with a ferocity second only to sex offenders. Ultimately however, my sympathies diminish when I recall the impact of passive smoking over the years. I can’t forget the coughing, the retching, the litter, and the clothes stinking to high heaven. Interestingly, what has been an imposition to me sounds like a lifestyle choice for the modern student.

One thing is certain though, life is now simpler for the non-smoker. Until recently, when making a booking at a restaurant, you would be asked the question, ‘Smoking or Non-smoking?’ You’d never had a cigarette in your life and naturally opted for the latter. That evening, you would endure a meal sat on a table enveloped by so much fog from the adjacent guests in the smoking area, you thought you were dining in an old East German pig iron factory.

It was the same with a flight where the smoking section on the aeroplane was traditionally situated in the rear of the fuselage. Even when allocated a seat in non-smoking, if the passenger immediately behind you was in smoking, you would have to brave a journey on the edge of an asthma attack as projectile smoke rings invaded your air space.

But now that the authorities have banned smoking in public places, the often ludicrous no smoking section is no more. In its place, we have smoking gardens in pubs and restaurants and smoke alarms in airline toilets for the mile high club to bang their heads against… oh this is no good, I can’t go on. The buzzer on the cooker is going. My M&S steak and kidney pie in flaky pastry is ready.

I need a fix.

 

 

Pensioners

 

This is not as controversial as it seems, so please be assured that the EU is not planning to introduce compulsory euthanasia for adults who reach the age of sixty-five, although there is a strong argument to apply this rule to fans of daytime TV. The fact is, to be labelled a pensioner, you need to be receiving a pension, and there are more hens’ teeth out there than decent occupational pension schemes.

The problem is that the pension planners of yesteryear made a number of fundamental errors. Firstly, they assumed that retired employees in the future would have the life expectancy of a housefly that had feasted on rancid dog shit. Then they failed to anticipate that company directors would take the entirely reasonable step of using their employees’ pension funds to purchase luxury yachts, islands in the Maldives and Bugatti Veyrons. And they also took for granted that stock markets returns would remain as consistently high as Keith Richard or Ozzy Osbourne on smack. As a consequence, today’s pension fund liabilities have punctured a hole in company balance sheets the size of a Siberian diamond mine, and pension schemes have been replaced by the equivalent of a Nectar card provision.

But what about the state pension? Surely this great institution will continue and the tag of pensioner will survive? Unfortunately not. All Western democracies are basically insolvent, and our government is not alone in planning to increase the retirement age in the next few years. But as the maths have been performed by the same kindergarten treasury officials who use crayons and picture books to produce their wildly inaccurate forecasts for economic growth, you will only be entitled to receive a state pension when you’re about one hundred and ten. So get used to working because you’re going to be doing it until you drop.

And while you’re at it, condition yourself to being served in the supermarkets by staff members who look like the figs, walnuts and prunes for sale on the shelves. You’ll also need to be prepared to go to restaurants with a loud hailer so that the hard of hearing waitress is able to get about fifty percent of your order correct.

But it’s not all bad news. Just think, we’ll all be able to buy a stamp at the Post Office on a Monday morning without having to join a queue of pensioners longer than a tapeworm. A tapeworm that smells of lavender and piss.

 

 

Photographs of Children in Public Places

 

My youngest son loves to take the piss out of me, something I greatly encourage. I’m sure it’s borne out of affection, but even if this were not the case, I would welcome it, having done the same with my old man and many others over the years. Moreover, my DNA is clearly creating the compulsion. In short, I am responsible. It can be a photo of me asleep on the settee posted on social media as ‘My Dad is Dead’, or an unflattering shot of me with two chins and eyes closed with some reference to the failure of ‘Care in the Community’, or a video of me dancing to a slab of 1970s’ Cheese. The common denominator is ritual humiliation and an internalised reaction from me of ‘That’s my boy’.

Some people with a more traditional mindset can misinterpret such good-natured ribbing as disrespect, none more so than when he has rifled through the old box of photographs in the attic and posted a few snaps of me online from the 1980s. I was a dad with young children during this decade when attention naturally switched from me to them. I consequently wore anything within arms’ reach, giving zero consideration as to style and fashion. A quarter of a century on, and a photo of me surrounded by a gaggle of kids and looking like someone who should be arrested is uploaded by my son as ‘Dad – The Paedophile Years’. Now this is funny because I’m not a paedo, and everybody knows it. The sub text and real message of the post is ‘Here’s my dad dressed like a twat’.

My grandchildren will have fewer opportunities to keep the tradition going. Despite everybody from five to ninety-five carrying a camera phone around with them on their person and millions of snapshots appearing every minute of every day, there is now a problem taking photos in public places where there are children. Child Protection Legislation and the Data Protection Act have made Local Authority Officials nervous of paedophiles capturing illicit images. Swimming pools, play areas, and swings are typical of places where anybody framing a picture these days has one eye on the image and one eye over their shoulder on the lookout for an officious jobsworth ready to put an end to proceedings. Schools commonly ban photographs at Sports Day events and Nativity plays for the same reasons. Privacy watchdogs invariably refer to the wrong interpretation of the laws, but headmasters and council managers are the ones in the firing line from politicians and the press when something goes wrong, and you can understand why a zero tolerance policy tends to prevail.

Around the same time as ‘Dad – The Paedophile Years’, I enjoyed a period of doing a bit of children’s entertainment. It started after a few problems with acts booked for my own children’s birthday parties. We had the woman dressed as a Disney character who complained when the children walked out of her less than compelling performance. Then there was the magician who was double-booked and turned up for the party just as we were packing up to go. The latter incident was the turning point. When it was clear ‘The Magic Man’ was a no show, I shouted for the kids to gather round and told them I had good news and bad news.

‘The bad news is the magician can’t make it.’

The young partygoers all jeered.

‘But the good news is I’ve just saved my self £50!’

The kids all jumped up and down with glee as if Mickey Mouse had walked in the room.

For the next party, I took no chances. I had a puppet theatre, glove puppets, music, and second-rate magic tricks. It should have been a disaster, but it worked. The secret was to speak to the kids as though they were adults, and although there was admittedly an edge to the performance, I was careful to avoid any reference to the ‘F’ and the ‘C’ words. Let’s be honest, no child at a birthday party wants to hear about Figs and Cabbage. I started to get requests from friends of my children to do a stint at their parties, and my unwillingness to accept any money from the parents added to my attraction as a huge draw. My short career came to an ignominious end, when at a seven-year old boy’s birthday bash; a group of lads stormed the stage, ripped the puppets off my hands to destroy the illusion and demolished the puppet theatre like Pete Townsend in 1971 with his Fender guitar. I retired, all the time thinking I might return to it one day.

In many ways, now is the ideal time to revive my act. It would be a nice little earner and a bit of fun to boot. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. Parents seeing a middle-aged man turn up in a fez and a box of tricks will want to see his DBS/CRB check, Public Liability Insurance certificate, two independent references, and a statement confirming he never earned a Jim’ll Fix It badge.

The world provides a much better deal for the young than it used to, with the rights of children enshrined in charters and legislation. Yet the price paid seems to be the end of innocence, not that of the kids, who will never lose their purity of thought and virtue, but that of the adults and the guardians. We live in a world where you are a paedophile until proved otherwise, and so photographs of your family in public places will neither gather dust in a box in the attic, nor take up disk space on your Smartphone. Not to worry, sons will find other ways of ripping the piss out of their old man. They have to. It’s not negotiable.

 

 

Public Information Films

 

Politicians are elected to make sensible decisions on behalf of the electorate, such as awarding themselves above inflation pay increases, authorising their own expense claims for sex trips to Thailand, and for frightening the shit out of the nation’s children via the medium of the Public Information Film (PIF).

For many years, these government shorts played on TV and in the cinema, alerting the public, particularly the younger members of our society, to the multitude of dangers they faced as they went about their everyday lives. Whether it was falling into a river of rusted Ford Anglias, getting run over by a car, having your legs cut off by a train, or pouring boiling chip fat over your head, the threat of death or mutilation was always just around the corner. And to reinforce the point, the film-makers would often use a menacing voice-over, a Psycho style soundtrack, and a grim reaper visual. It made The Outer Limits seem like Andy Pandy.

The golden age of the PIF was the 1970s when the government machine churned out film after film. There was Rolf Harris, teaching us to swim and play the stylophone at the same time. Jimmy Savile, telling us to clunk-click every trip after slamming the car door off its hinges. And there was a Lycra-clad Darth Vader in a CCTV control centre, somewhat dubiously spying on youngsters to teach them the Green Cross Code. And there was even Dr Who, explaining to kids the incredibly simple acronym SPLINK for safe road crossing. I think it stood for something like:

 

S – Stare at your feet as you cross the road

P – Put your hands over your ears because of the noise

L – Leave a little turd in the middle of the carriageway

I – Inhale the exhaust fumes from a passing HGV

N – Nut anyone who tries to overtake you

K – Kick any old aged pensioner who gets in your way

 

But the most fondly remembered Public Information Films are the Charley Says cartoons. The star was an indecipherable and accident-prone ginger cat called Charley who sounded like Zippy from Rainbow with his fingers in the electric socket. He was the pet pussy of this young boy with the hair of a Vietnam War protester and the clothes of an incontinent OAP. In each short, they warned of the everyday perils facing children, and in their extremely prolific year of 1973, no less than five different animated Charley films were made. They highlighted the danger of falling in the water when fishing with your dad for condoms, the likely facial disfigurement from spitting sausages sizzling on the stove (try saying that pissed), and the foolishness of leaving a plate of cooked fish on an oversized tablecloth next to a boiling hot teapot, particularly when an excitable cat was in the room. Regardless of whether or not the Charley series got the messages across, they remain at the heart of nostalgic PIF thinking because they weren’t as terrifying as the usual offering.

By the 1980s, the Thatcher government had embraced the Public Information Film. They used it as a vehicle for giving away the family silver via the sale of shares in public utilities, and for highlighting public health issues such as the famous AIDS monolith campaign, in which we were basically warned to adopt the sex lives of a Trappist monk so as to avoid an otherwise certain death.

But as technology advanced, and we became more information self-sufficient, the need for the Public Information Film receded. It is still there, but only for such mundane things as completing your tax return. Today’s PIF has all the entertainment value of decaying pork chop trapped down the side of a settee, and it’s a cert that nobody is ever going to get nostalgic about the modern government short.

I wonder what Charley would think of that? Probably, ‘ra ra row ra ra row ra row ra ra row ra.’

 

 

Squatting

 

For female readers now panicking about how they will relieve themselves without showering their legs when caught short on a disastrous camping holiday in Dartmoor, please rest assured that this type of squatting is the gate crashing of somebody else’s unoccupied house to set up home.

Squatting in the UK goes back a long way to when the ruling classes were heard to shout ‘the Peasants are Revolting’, hardly a revelation given the filth and squalor of the times. This was the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. Fed up of wars and taxes, the serfs marched into London, killed anybody connected with the Royal government, and took up sticks within the newly available accommodation.

Throughout history, squatting occurred in one form or another and the practice gained fresh momentum in the 1960s with the counter culture movement, a section of society attracted to living somewhere for nothing, thereby subverting social norms and effectively redistributing property wealth. This is why in the UK squats are not associated with the poor. The image held by the majority is a doss house filled with anti-establishment, drug riddled men and women who squat and defecate wherever they choose, as if on that camping holiday in Dartmoor.

The British Government recently introduced legislation to make squatting in residential property a criminal offence, signalling an end to the practice of those with no income living in a £5m London town house… unless you are the partner of an MP enjoying the elected official’s second home.

When asked about their image of a squat, what would the average person on the street say? They’re likely to consider it untidy, dirty, strewn with discarded spliffs, bongs, unwashed plates encrusted with brown rice, and unintelligible music blasting out into the early hours of the morning. The squat is dead but has a natural successor. Let’s raise a glass of cheap wine to the university student accommodation.

 

 

The Deferential Working Class

 

This section was nearly ‘The Working Class Tory’, but this individual survives, albeit as an aspirant who wants to climb the social ladder rather than accept a place on the bottom rung. So this chapter is dedicated to that lost breed of citizen, unfailingly content to demur to the ruling order. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Deferential Working Class.

The zenith – and strangely the nadir – for the working class who knew their place was unquestionably the First World War. Millions of subservient Tommies took up the rallying call of Lord Kitchener to head for the slaughter in the fields of Belgium and France. Over three million members of the British Imperial Forces were either killed or wounded, as General Haig implemented his recurring plan to sacrifice every potty trained male civilian in order to advance as far he could spit the stones from his marinated olives, naturally fed to him by someone from the deferential working class. It was a strategy crafted with deeply unimaginative flair about five hundred miles away from front line action in a sixteenth century castle on a shiny walnut table with shiny leather upholstered seats, proceedings routinely interrupted for smoked salmon and Beaujolais dinners. Meanwhile, as a distraction from the horrors of trench foot and warfare, the troops endured a diet of bully beef and dry biscuits, encrusted with fragments of brain and guts from their splattered dead colleagues, all washed down with piss from the latrines.

But by 1917, the Russians were revolting… I blame too much vodka and a lack of moisturiser to be honest. Famine and war had taken its toll on the peasants when Karl Marx – so much more serious than his brothers Groucho, Harpo and Chico – inspired the proletariat to overthrow the monarchy and seize power. The Russian working classes had done it, the question was, could the British conceivably to do the same thing? In a word, no.

The 1920s saw the first ever Labour government, the General Strike and the Wall Street Crash, all of which shaped changes to the social hierarchy. But then a man with a little moustache introduced a brand of Fascism that galvanised the UK populous in opposition and ushered in a return to the natural order. Those less conversant with military and political history may be wondering how Charlie Chaplin made such a difference, and if this is the case, may I respectfully suggest you ask your GP for a lobotomy.

The undoubted leadership qualities of Churchill further harnessed the one nation spirit during the Second World War thereby suppressing any class struggle, but with the celebrations of VE Day still ringing in the ears of revellers, the ordinary working class man and woman were ready for change. Deference was on the slide, and it was to diminish with the passing of every subsequent decade. Today, it’s as rare as a red squirrel singing Frankie Vaughan songs in a top hat with its tackle hanging out of bri-nylon pants.

The last embers of deference may be smouldering, yet paradoxically, privilege is thriving. At the 2015 General Election, the masses elected two former members of the Bullingdon Club to run our country. To be invited to join this Oxford University dining fellowship, one requires more cash reserves than the Bank of England and a plum in one’s mouth larger than the bollocks of Gulliver with mumps. One must assume that the ideal preparation for heading up our national government is to get pissed on a daily jeroboam of vintage champagne, gorge on a suckling pig smothered in caviare, vomit it over the head of a manservant, destroy other people’s personal property with the vandalistic fervour of the Millwall FC hooligans of the 1970s, and exercise the misogyny of Euripides

And this is why I want to make a rallying call to the masses. Now that we have conquered the disease called deference, let us turn our attention to privilege. Why should somebody benefit so gratuitously as a consequence of their lineage? Is not every child born equal? How can it be fair that the wealth and status of your parents so affects the opportunities afforded to our next generation of young people? Is it not time to affect a change for the better? A change that will see every boy and girl of this nation given the chance to succeed to the highest office in our land. A land where an education at the local state school is afforded the same value as that of an Old Etonian. A land where your social mobility is not dependent on your bloodline. A land that is fair. It is time to rise up. It is time for every hard working man and woman to say enough is enough and take the fight to the top. It is time for revolution. A revolution where, if necessary, we will spill our own blood and the blood of others to achieve the goal of creating a better, fairer society… hang on a minute, where is everyone?

Why am I talking to myself? Oh dear, it looks like we’ve lost the deference but gained something else. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Indifferent Working Class.

 

 

The Pools Coupon Collector

 

Accepting your place as working class is made easier when there’s a chance of a quick way out, however tenuous. I assume it’s the same when millions watch shit on TV like The Adventures of Katie Price’s Placenta, happy in the knowledge they might escape this compulsive voyeurism when the television spontaneously combusts. I’m not saying there are hordes of ordinary people yearning to break out from their communities, but the thought that they can be catapulted overnight into the Martini Set has always been part of the deal.

The dream usually starts with the words, ‘If I win the lottery…’ For example, ‘If I win the lottery, I’ll buy a million fags from the duty free.’ Yet the National Lottery only started in 1994, so what happened prior to this? What gave the proletariat the hope they could go from living in a home where you pissed over the wall into your neighbour’s backyard to a place where you pissed onto a mink covered toilet seat? The answer was a social misfit in an anorak called Malcolm who had a comb over hairstyle and called every Thursday evening for his money and the pools coupon.

The Football Pools took off because it was the one and only passport to riches for the masses. At its peak, there were over fourteen million players trying to win the weekly jackpot with a correct prediction of eight score draws. And so Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters had to employ an army of Malcolms to act as agents and collect the coupons, paying a decent commission in the process. In fact, by the time the pools companies, the agents, and the tax man had taken their respective share, there was very little left in the ‘pool’ to pay out as prizes. We didn’t know at the time, but we were getting ripped off more than a pair of whore’s drawers.

The football pools seemed to be a fixture here to stay, until the State intervened and introduced the National Lottery. Designed to distribute over eighty per cent of its takings in prizes and good causes, the new numbers game with the giant jackpot signalled the end for the less generous pools. The working classes readily adopted the Lottery as their new big chance to get rich quick, and the Malcolms had to comb their hair, put on their anorak, throw away their leather satchels, and start a journey towards the sunset and oblivion.

While a few old time punters still play the pools via the Internet, the pools coupon collector is as extinct as the Stegosaurus. The Malcolms have attempted a resurrection in the form of delivering free newspapers, but this modern version is not the conduit to a fortune. Reading about the latest dog fouling sensation in the local park or the latest half price sand and cement promotion is hardly life changing stuff.

But for the younger proles, there’s a new kid on the block in the quick escape stakes… football. The average lad now wants to be a Premier League Footballer, and the average girl wants to be one of the wives or girlfriends. In the vast majority of cases with the lads, there is a major impediment to achieving the dream, namely a complete lack of natural footballing talent. But there’s no such worry for the Wag.

A decent pair of tits, hair extensions, a slab of fake tan, and a shameless night club stalking technique are all that’s required to win the jackpot of a £50,000 a week man. The fact you marry a Neanderthal with the intellectual capacity of a cashew nut doesn’t seem to matter. And it couldn’t be easier. What’s more, you don’t have to stand in a newsagent’s queue to buy a lottery ticket with a ninety year old woman taking half an hour to find her £1 stake in the form of loose change from every crevice of her purse. And nor do you have to endure the social discomfort of a Malcolm standing awkwardly at your front door every Thursday.

Sorry Malcolm, but you’re like smallpox. You’ve been eradicated and forgotten. I hope that doesn’t offend you too much. If it does, please feel free to write to that local paper you deliver and complain.

 

 

The Stiff Upper Lip

 

This is not a section about Botox, otherwise it would be called Stiff Upper Lip, Lower Lip, Cheeks and Forehead. No, the subject here is British reserve, the nation’s long established reputation for staying calm and composed under extreme circumstances. You know the kind of thing.

Roger’s nylon pyjamas have caught fire, and as a vortex of flames shoot up his back, he says to his wife, ‘Excuse me dear, would you mind terribly getting me a bucket of water or something? My back is getting spiffingly hot.’

So what are the origins of the stiff upper lip? Is it so engrained in our national character that we are all destined to act with natural understatement? Whatever pre-disposition there may be within the British psyche, it was certainly honed to a new level in the Victorian era when an outward display of affection or passion was considered socially unacceptable. In fact the modern day equivalent would be a man dangling his tackle in front of a nun’s face, or a woman getting her tits out for the lads as a hoop-la target.

But the zenith of the stiff upper lip occurred during the Second World War when the nation took its lead from King George VI and Queen Mary. The Royal couple were the living embodiment of sang-froid at a time when its importance had intensified as a coping mechanism for the terrors of war. Though it has to be said, the nationalistic and unquestioning military feature films of the 1950s rather overstated this understatement. The typical wartime yarn had Kenneth More’s wounded soldier struggling back to base.

‘Lieutenant,’ says an astonished private, ‘are you alright?’

‘Taken a bit of a hit old chap but nothing too bad,’ says Kenneth. He is dismissive.

‘But, but…’

The private’s words trail away for good reason. Kenneth has lost his arms, his legs, one ear and half a nostril, though he hasn’t lost his thirst.

‘Fancy a cup of tea old chap?’

Fast forward to the modern day and we are a people who openly express emotion, passion and our feelings for one another, where a reality TV programme is considered unbroadcastable unless there is someone filling a bath with their own tears. So when did the stiff upper lip lose its starch?

Some people attribute the change to Princess Diana and her ex communication from the Royal family, but Diana was a relatively ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. She simply reflected what had already happened. Women were liberated, men were in touch with their feminine side, and youth culture, with its inherent anti-establishment core, had relegated understatement to take up its only safe residence in our sense of humour.

It still exists as a kind of romantic ideal, and the Americans in particular still have an image of the average Brit as utterly redoubtable in adversity, a trait greatly admired by our friends from across the pond. Unfortunately, they’d need to travel in the Tardis to view real life examples, outside a few of the older members of the Monarchy. I suppose there’s an ironic synchronicity that the stiff upper lip is most valued by the US. This is the nation that injects enough Botox to fill the Grand Canyon and performs more facelifts in a month than sperm in a healthy scrotum. In California, it’s normal for an upper lip to be stiffer than the appendage of a dog on heat.

We British don’t approve, but we’ll apply a little of that remaining traditional reserve and say nothing.

 

 

The Traditional Grammar School

 

I’m not an advocate for our remaining Grammar Schools, but I have to assume they are better than the one I attended in the late 1960s where the set up was based entirely upon the ideals of Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

There was the lunatic maths teacher, prowling in front of the class to identify the unfortunate soul who had forgotten to do his simultaneous equations homework. He would then kick his shins from under the desk.

There was the music teacher whose lesson would involve singing sea shanties as he ceremoniously undressed one of the more angelic looking boys, removing the poor lad’s tie and unbuttoning his shirt. We responded to this by singing Booby Shafter instead of Bobby Shaftoe.

There were the power crazy prefects who operated a version of the fagging system, which meant that the new intake of eleven year old pupils spent their first year fetching and carrying for these sixth form, Fascist inspired seniors.

There was the conscription to extra-curricular activities such as the House Choir in which I had both ears mashed by an especially merciless prefect. On hearing my understated treble squeak of ‘Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho’, he wanted me to sing louder and so contorted my lug holes with his clenched fists by way of encouragement. I increased the volume but my screech took on an even higher frequency. The prefect went on to become a local Tory Councillor. I leave you to draw your own politically correct conclusions.

There was the school uniform dress code, more rigid than that of a female in a fundamentalist religious group. In my very first week at the school, our dog feasted on my new, officially approved white plimsolls, and so I had to wear black pumps as a late replacement for PE. The master looked at me as if I had a couple of dead puppies strapped to my feet and banished me, like a leper, to sit out games.

And of course, there was the obligatory corporal punishment, administered by the introverted, repressed, anachronistic headmaster, liable to go purple in the face and uncontrollably apoplectic when caressing a long thin flexible piece of rattan. So what type of sin was deemed worthy of a thrashing? Exposing one’s private parts to the biddy nurse? Pouring a pound of sugar in the petrol tank of the French Master’s Beetle? Firing a marrow-fat bullet from a pea shooter to blind the left eye of the cantankerous dinner lady? No, it was usually something as unforgivable as making the noise of a kazoo via the use of a comb and piece of tracing paper. Is it any wonder the less stable in our nation are calling for the return of the birch or the strap?

Yet despite the long embedded rituals and tyranny of my typical grammar school experience, the winds of political and social change were about to blow them all away. The school became a Comprehensive and any pretensions of being a mini Westminster, Eton or Harrow disappeared as quickly as the iron discipline, bullying and – to provide some balance – the academic excellence. The traditional Grammar School had failed its final examination. It was time for Flashman to turn in his fictional grave.

 

 

Unrepentant Politicians

 

Elton John informed us that ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’, and for many this is as true as ever, though not for politicians. Barely a week goes by without some government minister or MP standing in front of a bank of TV cameras and microphones uttering the word that Elton struggled with so much. The standard context is where an elected official has made front-page news for all the wrong reasons. A kiss and tell from a crack-whore and her pet alligator has exposed his infidelity, not to mention his sexual leanings towards amphibians. An investigative journalist has published video footage of him accepting a £100,000 bribe from North Korean diplomats in exchange for classified defence secrets. And to cap a difficult week, police have found the remains of three former business partners under his patio.

‘I am here today to say I am sorry. In fact, I am very sorry, very very sorry. I couldn’t be sorrier. I am the sorriest person who has ever been sorry in the history of the planet Sorry. I am so sorry that if you cut off my arm, the congealed blood and sinews would form the letters S.O.R.R.Y to spell out the word sorry. I would now ask the press to respect my privacy and allow me to return to my normal life. And let me finish by leaving nobody in any doubt that I am very, very sorry, very sorry indeed.’

Not so long ago, politicians were far more defiant in difficult circumstances, helped by a much lower level of media scrutiny. There was the occasional smidgeon of contrition over a personal indiscretion, but the concept of apologising for any consequence of governmental or party policy was unimaginable. They were unrepentant and unapologetic.

In reality, at least beneath the surface, they still are. Their words are like the products on the clearance shelf at a Poundland sale i.e. very cheap. Those in politics find it supremely easy to say sorry, but being sorry; well that’s a completely different thing. Thanks to our mad world of rolling news, tabloids and the internet, you won’t find an openly unrepentant politician any more. If one came out as such, the mass media would have a field day. Sorry Elton, you were wrong. It appears that sorry is now the easiest word.

 

 

THE OFFICE

 

 

Businessman’s Lunch

 

Some readers will be disappointed at this entry, notably those who enjoy a hedonistic life style, which by my definition is booking a table in a restaurant for 8.30pm and not getting home until the ungodly hour of midnight.

To explain, we need to quote from the Urban Dictionary, which defines ‘Businessmen’s Lunch’ as ‘A trip on Dimethyltryptamine or the less commonly used 5-Methoxy-Dimethyltryptamine. DMT is widely regarded as the most intense psychedelic experience attainable using drugs. Many users experience religious or philosophical epiphanies during a trip.’

Whoa! That’s not the business lunch I’m talking about. For me, a bad trip is a wet November weekend staying at a Groupon discounted 2-star hotel in Blackpool with fried egg and salmonella for breakfast and a resident, stubborn floater in the en-suite. My Businessmen’s Lunch was the mid-day special at any Chinese restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s.

Accountancy is hardly the most gripping of professions, and auditing is about as bad as it gets in the world of finance. Within auditing, internal auditing is the pits, so when I was an internal auditor with special responsibilities for travelling to locations in grim, Northern mill towns to check internal control compliance, I was inevitably looking for something to brighten up my day. That relief came from a lunchtime visit to the Great Wall of China – not the wonder of the world but the Chinese in the precinct – to enjoy the special menu for business people like me.

Using cocktail sticks to keep my eyelids open, I’d check Goods Received Notes to my GRNI list and pray for time to move faster towards lunch. When the clock eventually struck 12.30pm, I was spring-loaded for the off like an Olympic sprinter on the blocks in the 100m final. One day, I ran down a stairwell with such fervour, I expelled an involuntary fart that reverberated at a multi-pitched, soaring volume thanks to the highly polished brick walls and concrete floor. Seconds later, unable to turn back because of my momentum, I appeared at the foot of the stairs where a welcoming party of three, tight-mouthed female office workers were waiting in undisguised disdain to identify the culprit. It was not one of my proudest moments. I walked brisker than ever to the restaurant that day.

Ushered to a table in the corner, the waiter – a person of extremes having either the face of the Dalai Lama or that of a Burmese Torturer – would then hand me a flimsy sheet of paper on which today’s menu was typed. It was never big on choice and read something like:

 

WANK FAT RESTAURANT

BUSINESSMEN’S LUNCH

Monday 20th October 1986

*

Sweet & Sour German Shepherd Fat Balls with Fried Rice and bits of fluff from the lino that the broom missed

*

Battered Banana drenched in a Lake Ontario of congealed syrup, piss and dandruff

*

Solidified Coffee served in a cracked cup

*

Price £2.00

 

At such a low price, it was a clear bargain, though one that came at a cost. Walking back to the office, I felt I’d swallowed a bowling ball, the food weighing heavy in the pit of my stomach. There was no chance of an embarrassing reprise of accidental flatulence, because my speed was that of a sloth. However, this was far from the case a couple of hours later, when the combined digestive impact of fat, sugar and bacteria manifested itself in my guts as the methane equivalent of Krakatoa. To avoid further social humiliation, I performed the ticking and cross balancing in the afternoon while fidgeting uncomfortably in the chair, desperately trying to hold in the wind screaming to escape. The solo journey home in the car later in the afternoon was always a joyous occasion of palpable relief, except for that day when pulled over by a traffic cop for a routine enquiry. He put his head into the car, reeled backwards and almost collapsed, waving me on without asking a question. Such was the power of the old Businessmen’s Lunch.

Inevitably, as the food we ate became more adventurous and cosmopolitan, the £2 bowling ball meal at the Chinese retreated from our lunchtime menus, by which time I had fortunately moved on from auditing to the riotous, pleasure-seeking world of financial accounting. I was lucky. I had no need to try the new Businessmen’s Lunch, that psychedelic trip on the good ship Dimethyltryptamine. I got my kicks elsewhere. I got my kicks and religious epiphanies from the Regulatory Framework of Accounting.

 

 

Carbon Copies

 

Before the arrival of the Xerox machine in the 1960s, if you needed a copy of a document, you had to create a carbon copy at the time of its preparation. A sheet of dark coloured carbon paper was sandwiched between two documents and pressure from writing or typing on the top one caused the pigment to create a duplicate on the one underneath. There was, however, collateral damage from the process, your fingers and hands turning a shade of black and blue. This was particularly unfortunate for the habitual nose-picking office worker. More than a few ended up sitting at their desk with the conk of Papa Smurf.

 

 

Computer Manuscript Paper

 

Once upon a time, the office was all blue-black ink, carbon paper, memorandums, and bound ledgers with more leather on display than Alvin Stardust’s wardrobe. Now it’s desktops, laptops, tablets, emails, and servers. It’s not quite the paperless environment, but there’s a lot less of it around. However, there was a transitional period between the ledgers and the digital networks, when paper usage per department correlated with the number of rain forests obliterated. It was the age of computer manuscript paper, so called because the thin green, horizontal lines across the page resembled something on which Beethoven might have written his unlucky 13th symphony.

Early computers were like industrial sized washing machines, housed in air-conditioned rooms and looked after by young operators with greasy hair, no friends, and polyester suits drenched in stale sweat. Data could only be stored on large reels of magnetic tape, information therefore largely inaccessible and retrieval painfully slow. The solution was to print everything on massive reams of continuous stationery, each page lightly perforated at the edge for easy tearing. Office workers collated the printouts, put them in large binders, and hung them in tailor-made open-fronted cabinets. To the casual observer, the supervisor of each section seemed to have in all the glory of its one thousand volumes, the collected encyclopaedic works of the ‘Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau’ from the 11th century Chinese Song Dynasty.

The coming of the VDU and floppy disk ushered in a new wave of innuendo material and a change in the reliance on the hardcopy report. They also provided a reprieve for the rain forests. Laser printers then arrived to transform printouts to normal A4 output, and we said farewell to Computer Manuscript Paper… cue sad music, preferably Beethoven’s 13th.

 

 

 

Memos

 

In the days before there was a computer on every office desk, the primary means of communicating internally was via the hardcopy memo or memorandum. It was a stiff, formal method of corresponding.

 

MEMO

FROM: Mr. C. Lion

TO: Mr G. Raffe

DATE: 23rd February 1978

REF: Chester Zoo

 

Further to your memorandum of the 14th inst, I onfirm that two employees are unable to make the conference scheduled for Chester Zoo next month. They are Anna Conda and Ella Fant. Should you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact Mike Hunt.

 

The 1990s killed off the memo. The email arrived to provide a handy, newly informal means of communicating with those fellow workers sitting inches away from you in a bank of four workstations.

 

From: [email protected] Sent: 4th June 2015

To: [email protected]

 

Ref: Fanny Wartz

 

Hey Neil, I can see looking over the desk you’re struggling with the invoice backlog. Would it help if you had some additional resource? I can offer you Fanny.

 

 

Microsoft Office Assistant

 

Microsoft Office with its Excel spreadsheet, Word Processor and PowerPoint presentation program is an astonishingly successful software suite. First introduced in 1989, over a billion people across the planet now use it – including me as I write – yet despite this achievement, it didn’t stop the programmers producing a feature in Office ’97 that was to irritate and exasperate customers for nearly a decade The mistake was a paper clip named Clippy.

Clippy was an interactive, animated character that provided intuitive help as you navigated the program. The trouble was he was such an irritating little shit. Even someone like me with a naturally calm temperament found him infuriating, popping up in the corner of the screen to ask questions like the annoying child of hippy parents.

Are you writing a letter?’

I was just scribbling a few jottings. ‘No!’

Are you trying to connect to the internet?’

‘Oh just f*ck off!’

Such insults had no impact, because Clippy had skin thicker than a rhinoceros. Every Office user desperately looked for the option to disable him – preferably a kneecapping carried out by a contract killer – and even Microsoft relented by changing his default setting to off. After this, if you wanted to use him due to your masochistic tendencies, you had to turn him on… for the stranger types out there, this meant dressing up as pole-dancing paper clip and doing something obscene with a stapler, ruler, and corrective fluid. Bill Gates and his cohorts ultimately got the message and not only killed him off but also used him as central to their marketing campaign for the newly launched Microsoft Office 2007. The ads depicted the character demoted, having domestic squabbles, and drowning his sorrows in beer. Nobody felt sorry for him.

The magazine of the learned body the ‘Smithsonian Institution’ nearly got it right when it referred to Clippy as ‘one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing’. Surely, it was such a shitty feature that this should have read ‘in the anals of computing’.

 

 

Office Tea Breaks

 

When I started work as a clerk in the 1970s, all the managers were men schooled by the military via National Service, and the typical supervisor was a thin-lipped, repressed spinster that still resented her mother’s ‘how’s your father’ with a visiting sailor in 1934. The layout of the desks reflected this backdrop, organised in rows and facing the front where the person in charge looked back in disapproval at anything other than alert diligence. It was just like school. The only way to get through the day was to count down the time to our tea break.

10.30am arrived, and we downed our pencils, papers, and rubbers… and for readers who have seen too many Carry On films, not that kind of rubber. One of the team made a quick cup of tea, usually like piss, but we didn’t care. We only cared about playing cards. After a few hours’ drudgery searching the card index for National Insurance numbers or purchase order references, we welcomed the card games like a prisoner tasting freedom from Wormwood Scrubs for the first time in twenty years. Three card brag, gin rummy, pontoon, and poker all enjoyed periods of popularity. We didn’t play for money, just for the fun of it all.

Our department occasionally had a new starter who was far from being the ‘sharpest tool in the box’, although indisputably a tool. In the spirit of maintaining team harmony, we would go back to basics and have a game of ‘snap’. If our new colleague failed to progress, we would give them their own deck to play pairs. One guy called John was a particularly hopeless case, unable to grasp any of our games. We played a version of ‘Craps’ using cards instead of dice, and he interpreted the objective as to who could shit the biggest stool.

‘Six inches long with a tail, beat that!’ he proudly proclaimed.

It was time for him to play pairs on his lonesome.

The introduction of more flexible working patterns began to impact on the routine of the office tea break. Flexitime, shifts, and more part-time working meant that people were coming and going at different times of the day, and the communal breaks and card schools disappeared.

The former army majors and forty-five year old virgins retired to tender their allotments – cue disgusted face from the spinster for this sexual innuendo – replaced by a younger generation that did not see somebody talking about last night’s TV during the morning or afternoon as the work of the devil. And by the time computers and the internet arrived on desks, the tea break itself was gone.

Anyone for craps? Right John, I’ll fetch the tape measure.

 

 

People Who Can’t Type

 

1977 was the year that the Punk revolution of Malcolm McLaren and his Sex Pistols hit the mainstream and subverted the monarchy’s plans for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, ensuring that the British Establishment would never be the same again. Punk meant it was alright to wear a bin liner, stick a safety pin through your nostril, and gob to your heart’s content… although some thought I’d got carried away at this new found freedom by spitting on the vicar at my nephew’s christening. I still maintain it was a tickly cough. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner of the nation, another revolution was under way, albeit one of less significance. I was learning to type.

In those days, there weren’t many young males who could handle a typewriter, other than the inbreeds of Gloucestershire participating in the annual ‘Throw a typewriter down the hill while eating cheese’ contest. Typing was unequivocally a woman’s job, and I was predictably mocked by the older females in the office when composing my own letters. My typing technique was far from perfect, but I was by no means a one-finger man, so to speak. I was a self-taught, two-fingered operator and proud as a peacock.

But as Punk gave way to New Wave and New Wave gave way to the New Romantics, the typewriter had to make room for the word processor. The typing pools disappeared, secretaries were re-branded as Personal Assistants, and my USP as a man who could type was under severe threat. And by the time House and UK Garage were providing the soundtrack to the appearance of the personal computer in every living room, the ability to type had lost its place as a niche skill. The same technology that had killed off the typewriter democratised typing. Like sex in a farce, everyone was doing it. My boast was dead in the water.

It was enough to make me spit.

 

 

Strict Dress Code for the Office

 

The world of work has long been skewed in favour of the male population, and despite progress, there’s still a fair amount to do to redress the balance. However, one area that has favoured women over men is the Office Dress Code. The traditional arrangement was for men to wear a suit, shirt and tie all year round and for the girls to wear whatever they wanted. This discrimination was paradoxically a by-product of the institutionalised discrimination propagated by the ruling masculine class against their feminine counterparts.

Men were the managers, the ones in the important jobs that required a skill set beyond the capability of those without a dangly bit between their legs, and one consequence was clothing. If you were in charge, you had to dress accordingly in garments as sober as a devout Mormon. The ‘fairer’ sex could wear anything because they had the shit jobs. They were typists, secretaries, and post room clerks. In fact, as a key adornment to the look of the office, a strict dress code for them was never going to happen.

In my mind, this all came to a head on 3rd August 1990, the day the UK registered its hottest temperature of the century. I was working locally and left for an extended lunch, as it was my young daughter’s birthday party. Travelling in a Fiat Greenhouse with plastic seats, by the time I pulled up outside our front door, I was that wet with perspiration, it was as though I had thrown my clothes into the River Mersey and put them back on. I was soaked through with more drips visible than at a Young Conservatives’ Conference. A sudden surge of indignation overwhelmed me, as I thought of the women back in the office in their thin cotton tops, skirts and espadrilles, and unlike Ernie in the Cash Office, I wasn’t perving. It just seemed so unfair that they were dressed for the summer, while I could have survived an Arctic trek in my gear.

Trailblazing for the male gender, I rushed inside and changed into something more suitable for spending time inside a deep fat fryer. After a few cocktail sausages and a game of pass the parcel, in which I was gutted to lose out to a three-year-old called Laura, it was time to head back to work for the rest of the afternoon. I glanced down at my attire and concluded that a Frankie Goes to Hollywood ‘Relax’ t-shirt and shorts combo might be a bit too provocative for the office. I compromised, searching for a smart casual look. I put on a clean shirt but didn’t bother with a tie, the latter the most absurd part of the dress code. I found a smart pair of long shorts in navy that looked like suit trousers cut off at the knee. The biggest dilemma then was what to wear on my feet, and my choice was an unequivocal mistake on par with Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in 1941. I had a pair of shoes-cum-sandals that were half brogue / half flip-flop and in navy, a perfect colour match with the shorts. What the hell was I thinking? I was ready to leave when I panicked, the intense heat now affecting my judgement. I rifled through the bedside cabinet drawer until I found a plain pair of lemon socks, the same shade as the shirt. My self-satisfaction at achieving this level of lemon and navy blue colour co-ordination blinded me as to the fact I looked an absolute tit.

I was confident that disciplinary action would not ensue from my flagrant disregard for the company dress policy. I was number two in the hierarchy, and my manager was a modern thinker. However, I didn’t foresee the humiliation. It’s difficult for today’s reader to imagine how unusual it was in 1990, notwithstanding a temperature of 37C, for a man to be working in an office wearing shorts. Finger pointing, guffaws, squeals and sniggers greeted the walk of shame towards my desk with the sandal brogues and sock combination the number one target for the ribbing. The whole idea had backfired. As shame enveloped me, I felt hotter than a steak and kidney pie on Gas Mark 4, and it really seemed I was living through one of life’s classic nightmares, the one where you turn up for work not wearing any trousers.

Fortunately, the coming years brought a relaxation in attitudes towards dress codes for men in the office, a change that correlated with the increasing importance of women in the workplace. From a situation where the norm was for pregnant women to give up their jobs, we are now on the verge of there being more females than males in the UK workforce. Yet women still earn less than men do, and men still don’t have the same dress freedoms in the office as women, despite a few Star Trek tie-wearing civil servants trying to get a legal ruling for them to wear a nice skirt suit number. Nonetheless, Dress Down Friday has provided John from Sales Ledger with the opportunity to replace his Monday to Thursday grey slacks with a pair of maroon cords that are two sizes too small. If able to talk, they would say, ‘How about this for a nice, clear outline of my private parts?’

Employers know better than to insist on a formal dress code, unless the same formality applies to the women on the payroll. The days of my ritual humiliation for wearing summer clothes instigated by females wearing summer clothes are well and truly over. Well, they are in the office. Outside 9 to 5, it’s business as usual

 

 

The Christmas Party in the Office

 

Let’s make it clear, the Office Christmas Party is alive and well. It routinely involves party hats, a three course meal, a disco, the girls from accounts getting rat arsed, Steve from Sales exposing his private parts, and the Managing Director shagging the arse of his PA in the toilets. It’s the season of goodwill, and everyone has a good time. But it all takes place at a local restaurant or hotel and not in the office itself.

The Christmas Do held in the office is now a myth. Yet every year, lazy journalists provide a survival guide to the Office Party with a photo of the celebrations taking place in something like the Purchasing Department. Even The Office perpetuated the falsehood by setting its Yuletide bash in the Slough Industrial Estate building, long after it was passé. Its real heyday was in the 1970s, and I should know. Because I was there.

I remember one year in particular. We were partying in the spot where there was usually a discussion regarding a missing delivery note, and everyone was getting pissed. I was compos mentis because I was on the coke, the fizzy drink not the powder… these were more innocent times when a drug habit was your Aunty Val’s addiction to soluble aspirin and sleeping tablets. I could see Lavinia, the office stunner, surrounded by a group of males, buzzing like flies on fresh shit. Pete ‘the moustache’ Bennett emerged as the victor, leading the long legged beauty towards the makeshift dance floor to the sound of Tavares booming from the distorted speakers of DJ Barry’s disco. At that moment, I felt two arms envelope me, and my heart sank like the Bismarck. It was Julie from Invoice Matching.

Julie was not the most charismatic of individuals. She had a face that had gone ten rounds with George Foreman, the physique of the long lost triplet to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and convected the aroma of an unwashed Sumo Wrestler in a sauna. The problem was, with a few bevies inside her, Julie thought she was Farrah Fawcett-Majors and I was the Six Million Dollar Man. So when she started to fondle my bionic parts, I shouted for help. My cries were ignored, especially by Pete and Lavinia, now sword-fencing with tongues. I had to engineer an escape.

I just about managed to wriggle free from my captor’s grip, yet the only route to freedom was blocked by a couple of desks in the corner. I tried to do an Eddie Kidd and jump over, but my right knee caught the corner of a comptometer… a big old heavy mechanical adding machine for those interested in the history of accounting technology. I landed the other side in agony but managed to crawl to outside the gents, where I collapsed to the floor, almost losing consciousness.

As I leaned back against the wall, cold sweat dribbling down my forehead, the door next to the boys’ room opened. Out walked Barbara, the comptometer operator, adjusting her blouse and pursued by the Deputy Accountant. I reasonably assumed that they hadn’t been dealing with a particularly challenging financial reconciliation. The dreaded Julie suddenly reappeared, launching herself on top of me, and I had to summon my last drop of strength to wrestle clear and take refuge in the gents. This didn’t stop her. She followed me in with the determination of a lion that hadn’t eaten for a week, could smell raw flesh, and was taking part in the annual ‘Which lion can eat the most human flesh?’ competition.

I locked myself in a cubicle with Julie banging on the door, and wondered what next. My saviour came in the unlikely guise of Ralph from the Cash Office. He walked in, said hello to Julie as though she was waiting for a bus, and entered the adjacent cubicle to mine. He then proceeded to crap out his innards. This was too much for Julie, and she beat a hasty retreat.

I stayed still, setting a new world record for holding my breath, but eventually I had to race out and was relieved to find that Julie was nowhere to be seen. I’d had enough and decided to go home, though not before I glimpsed Pete and Lavinia writhing against one another in the stationery cupboard. The sword fencing had progressed to a form of judo, and Pete looked a black belt to me. It was true what they said. The Christmas Party in the office was a recipe for Roman degradation and immorality. I drove home in my Austin Shed, listening to Andy Williams singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in the hope of regaining some faith in the decency of human nature, though I didn’t quite appreciate the irony of the hymn’s title.

This was a typical year, and there were a fair number of similar parties held in the office that followed with the same level of impropriety. But the onset of the health & safety culture and the arrival of the desktop computer killed the office as a venue for a party. Desks became workstations that couldn’t be moved because of all the IT cables, and unless your workplace had a function room, the Christmas Party was forever transferred to the local hotel.

As I write this, I’m off to our own Office do this Friday, proof that all is well with the annual works celebration. The only certainty is that there won’t be a Farrah Fawcett who sees me as the Six Million Dollar Man. The ravages of time have seen my value deflate somewhat dramatically… by about one nickel under six million bucks.

 

 

The Filofax

 

The 1980s were like marmite. Some consumed it by the bucket and enjoyed every mouthful, while others spread it on their toast before spilling their guts. It was a decade of excess and deficiency born out of the political changes sweeping the country during the Thatcher government’s time in office. The natural economic realignment that followed the industrial relations difficulties of the 1970s was taken so far to the right, if the world had been flat, we would have fallen off. The laissez-faire policies produced winners and losers. The losers had no job, self-worth or hope. The winners had a Filofax.

Ostensibly a glorified diary, the Filofax was a personal organiser bound in high quality leather that was the essential accessory for the aspiring executive. The genuine users were the epitome of personal efficiency and used it to optimise their organised worlds, but there was a breed of individual to whom the Filofax was a high end status symbol. A breed otherwise known as dicks.

I worked with a dick whose name was Richard, though for additional comic effect, I will refer to him as Dick. This guy was so full of shit, he should have had the initials ‘WC’ emblazoned on his suit jacket with a toilet roll hanging from his shoulder. He was one of the early adopters of mobile phone technology and his handset, the size of a house brick, would dangle down from its trouser belt attachment like the deformed penis of a Cannibal tribe leader.

Dick was also very fond of his Jujitsu and enjoyed nothing more than spontaneously practising his kicking technique within the confines of the office, always choosing the easiest of opponents. You’re probably thinking that must have been me because I have the natural aggression of Piglet on dope, but I was always able to dodge his flailing leg. In actual fact, it was Dick versus The Filing Cabinet and, unsurprisingly, Dick won every encounter. The dents in the office furniture and the scuffed toecaps of his shoes bore evidence to this fact. No doubt, he recorded all of this in his top of the range, brown leather organiser.

As technology advanced, the Filofax slipped down the status hierarchy and very quickly became passé. The dicks turned their attentions to electronic organisers, the forerunners to the current crop of blackberries, smartphones and iPads. And if you’ve bought this book from a car boot sale in the year 2025, may I speculate and extend this list to include the mobile phone/life support machine with unlimited texts, unlimited calls, unlimited internet and unlimited resuscitations. The Filofax user, within the context of these technological whipper snappers, now looks as dated and relevant as the policies and ideology of a certain greengrocer’s daughter from Grantham, Lincolnshire. I don’t expect the Filofax to make a comeback. As with Mrs Thatcher, its demise is not for turning.

 

 

The Millennium Bug

 

This was the gravy train to end gravy trains for IT consultants. In fact, there were compartments for Bisto, Oxo cubes, and Granny’s homemade stock. As the twentieth century due to a close, computer experts informed executives and company directors that a ticking time bomb was certain to cause Armageddon on the stroke of midnight, 31st December 1999. The problem related to early programming code that had used only two digits to represent the year, so that when ‘99’ switched to ‘00’, nuclear plants would explode, electricity power would be lost, and Noel Edmonds would spontaneously combust… so it wasn’t all bad then.

Talk of programming language to business leaders and politicians of the time was akin to now having a discussion with your granny about which AMD Radeon™ HD graphics card is best for her gaming needs. The people in charge of our daily lives panicked and set in motion the gravy train with a cargo of bullion for a generation of IT specialists.

The firm I worked for spent millions on the problem, and all across the globe there were countless teams set up to head Project Millennium or Project 2000. The Millennium Bug was a gift from the gods for the media who love nothing more than a story that may lead to the end of the world, and they fed the watching and reading public with countless scare stories about the pending doom.

On the day itself, the final day of the twentieth century and the eve of the new Millennium, IT managers and staff were on call to deal with the emergencies as they occurred. Every TV and radio studios on Earth had some kind of running link to monitor what was happening. On BBC, there was Peter Snow anchoring a live Millennium Bug Watch. The clock was to strike midnight in Christmas Island first, the place where Roy Wood’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ dream was real. The lanky presenter and a couple of computer boffins braced themselves for what was about to go wrong. In the event, nothing occurred.

Sod all occurred in New Zealand and Australia as well. This was turning into the non-event of the century, of the Millennium in fact, although as it was the first day there wasn’t much competition. But then drama! Peter Snow put his hand to his earpiece and warned of news coming in from Japan. The watching public experienced a wave of sympathy for the Japanese people. Hadn’t they suffered enough at the end of the Second World War with Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Surely, there wasn’t a final blast of horror for the populous to suffer and endure.

‘I’m hearing that a young boy’s digital watch has stopped in Tokyo.’

And that was it. Nothing as dramatic as this happened as the international time line navigated its way past midnight in China, India, Russia, Europe, Africa, South America, North America and finally American Samoa. Naturally, the IT Consultants, Project Managers, Business Leaders and Politicians congratulated one another on steering the world through the crisis. Bullshit! There was an issue with the two-digit year, but to pretend that it could affect every single piece of IT programming in the history of man was a deception originating from a place only occupied by a certain few and borne out of greed and a love of gravy.

The Millennium Bug will never reoccur, and not just because we will have to wait another thousand years for the next one. The generation who are now managing directors, chief executives, and elected officials are products of the computer age. The only wool you could pull over their eyes is that knitted by your gravy making granny, taking time off from choosing her AMD Radeon™ HD graphics card.

 

 

TRAVEL & MOTORING

 

 

Amateur Car Mechanics

 

My first car was a ten-year-old Austin 1800, a vehicle with the panache of a garden shed on wheels and the allure of a wet Wednesday in Rawtenstall. But it was my pride and joy… at least it was until the brakes failed.

I was following my brother in his Morris Mini, and as we approached a roundabout, I pressed the brake pedal. There was nothing. In an instant, I turned into Jackie Stewart, crunching down to first gear and pulling the handbrake to slow down from my dramatic starting speed of about 15mph. By the time I hit the Mini’s boot, the impact was enough to create a dent the size of a golf ball. But the dent in my confidence was bigger, and my attachment to the garden shed would never be the same again.

So what happened next? Did I find the nearest phone box to call the AA or RAC? Did I contact a local garage? Neither. I rang my girlfriend’s mum. She was a recent graduate from the Stevie Wonder School of Motoring and towed me home in a journey, so hair raising, I think I had to be removed from the vehicle with the steering wheel stuck in my grasp.

My girlfriend’s dad proceeded to fix the car, using a trusty soldering kit on the offending brake pipe. He didn’t drive, knew very little about cars, but he was very good with his hands, which made him eminently qualified to deal with a car repair as critical as brake failure. This was the 1970s when every father would get a Haynes Car Manual as a Christmas present, and car mechanics were precisely that, mechanical. You didn’t need a degree in electronic engineering or expensive maintenance equipment to fix a motor. The real enthusiasts would spend their Saturdays taking a gearbox out of a Hillman Avenger, and their Sundays, putting it back in.

We now drive computers rather than cars, and so the amateur mechanic has all but disappeared. These days if you break down, don’t ring your dad for assistance. He will have received a DVD on English Ashes Victory for Christmas and not a Haynes Manual. He’ll be as useful as a Viagra tablet in a monastery.

 

 

British Cars

 

Car making in the UK is thriving. The twenty first century has ushered in record years for the industry in terms of production, and the continued presence in the global market of prestige names such as Bentley, Rolls Royce, Jaguar and Land Rover makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there are a couple of complicating issues. Bentley is owned by Volkswagen. Rolls Royce is also in German ownership with BMW. And the Jaguar/Land Rover brands are now part of the TATA group, which is based in India. One kick in the face for ‘winning’ World War II and another for colonialism. Furthermore – apart from a few Airfix kit type manufacturers owned and run by a father/son outfit who still think they’re in 1935 and operate out of a converted cowshed in Somerset – all vehicles produced on home soil are overseas based car brands.

But is this such a bad thing? Maybe our willingness to embrace this change is a reflection of our attitude to multiculturalism, diminishing any nationalistic consideration to one of secondary importance. It doesn’t matter anyway. British cars were shit, and I know. Because I owned them, and I drove them.

My first few cars were all British, though not because I consciously supported a ‘Backing Britain’ campaign. I don’t recall painting my face white and red with the cross of St George before signing the HP agreement. It was because they were cheap. The cars were all part of the British Leyland Group who made a succession of models that must rank amongst the worst ever made, and I had a good few of them. They included the truly dreadful Austin Allegro, a vehicle with all the style of a mobile nuclear bunker. It had a square steering wheel, the first and only time in the history of the world that a wheel has been square. And when cornering, there were more audible squeaks than from an army of mice who had just discovered the discarded Common Market cheese mountain.

The UK car industry was once second only to the US in the automotive stakes and might have stayed there but for some characteristic complacency. The country had emerged from the Second World War with a distorted sense of nationalism and didn’t see the need to follow the lead of other countries who knew that the future of the car industry lay in both domestic and international markets. There was the odd exception during the decline that bucked the trend, the Mini for example. But taken as a whole, British Cars during the second part of the 20th century can be best described like me after a speed dating session: Dull, old fashioned, unsexy, unimaginative, and with a terrible body.

In the same way the female population aren’t losing sleep over me, don’t fret about the lack of real British Cars. Drive your Fiat, Audi, or Citroen, and remember what’s really great about Britain. This is particularly helpful if you are going on a long journey, keeping your mind occupied for a few hours while you try and think of something.

Ah, that’s it… self deprecation.

 

 

Bus Conductors

 

In my experience, career lessons in school were a waste of time, given that most of the lads in my class wanted to be astronauts. This included John Williamson who, as well as being morbidly obese, was scared of heights, discovered one day when he had a panic attack on the wall bars in the gym. I lost touch with John, though I was pretty sure he’d never achieve his ambition of making the crew of a NASA space mission, and specifically an Apollo moon landing. His only decent ‘O’ level grade, in Domestic Science, probably didn’t help. This was John’s favourite subject because he loved cakes. He wasn’t great at baking them, but he was unbeatable when it came to eating them.

My aspirations were not as grand as John’s. I wanted to be a bus conductor, and the shuttle I dreamed about was the Seacombe Ferry special to New Brighton. My brother and I spent many a day in the summer holidays with a runabout bus pass, riding around on all the local buses and collecting discarded tickets off the floor. At the end of the day, we would go home, rearrange all the dining room type chairs to recreate the layout of a bus. My brother would be the driver, and I would be the conductor. ‘Fares please,’ I would ask our imaginary passengers who exchanged imaginary money for the 1d or 2d tickets gathered earlier. Meanwhile, my brother was at the wheel of the number 4 bus to Saughall Massie, making the noise of the vehicle’s engine that has to be said sounded more like something coming out of his backside.

There was no abuse from our invisible travellers. Nobody told me to piss off. Nobody pulled out a flick knife. And everyone willingly handed over their pretend fare. This was a time when the old working class deferential acceptance of authority still burned, albeit a glow rather than the fiery furnace of earlier in the century. The bus conductor was respected, and I looked forward to the day that I left school, donned the cap, uniform and badge to say, ‘Fares please’ for real. But then the Leyland Atlantean arrived to replace the Routemaster and destroy my dreams.

The Atlantean was a new breed of bus that had its engine at the rear and its passengers’ entrance at the front. Suddenly, the driver was accepting fares as well as driving, and the bus conductor’s role was redundant. Almost overnight, the traditional cheery bus driver and equally cheery bus conductor morphed into one grouchy hybrid, who instead of greeting you with a friendly good morning, treated the passengers as pond life. I changed my career aspiration to rock and roll, which never quite turned out. Oh well, transport and music’s loss was accountancy’s gain.

The bus conductor survived a little longer in London, where the Routemaster was a key icon of the capital city, until finally consigned to the occasional tourist route following the introduction of disability legislation. My childhood career ambition will never now materialise but what about John’s? Who knows, he may have made a fortune selling a self-help book called ‘How to avoid panic on the wall bars’ and have his name on the list to go up in Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Space Ship One. Perhaps he could put his domestic science qualification to good use and bake the first Victoria Sponge in space. Stranger things have happened… though not many.

 

 

Car Ashtrays

 

It’s a good job the only thing I smoke is a kipper… and that’s meant literally rather than an S&M euphemistic basis. My car is five years old, and I’ve just realised it doesn’t have an ashtray. This is despite having two cigar lighters, though I guess the latter is the old jargon that has stuck. When smoking’s reputation had been heading towards social unacceptability, car manufacturers surreptitiously rebranded the old cigarette lighter as the cigar lighter. Post smoking ban, the brochures now refer to auxiliary 12V power sockets, though we still call them cigar lighters.

There was no such easy repositioning for the ashtray. With the detrimental effects of passive smoking established and an increasingly litigious society, the big car firms took no chances and removed them. You might find a small coin holder that can double up as a place to deposit your ash as well as your cash, but that’s about as far as it goes. As somebody weaned on being a passenger in a car with the ever-present stale stench of Golden Virginia adhered to every surface and every crevice, including my own, I welcome this change with open arms. I will not countenance any more long journeys trapped in a metal box on wheels with more smoke than a chip shop on fire. Thank your god that the car ashtray is not going to do a Phoenix and rise from its ashes.

 

 

Cars without a Radio

 

If listening to your Dr Dre back catalogue has inspired you to pimp up your Citroen Saxo so that you now listen to N.W.A. singing ’100 Miles and Running’ at 200 watts on your 7.1 surround sound speakers with front and rear sub-woofers, you might be surprised to learn that, not so long ago, the vast majority of cars were driven with absolutely no in-car entertainment whatsoever. A vehicle with a radio was a luxury, high end model that the average man in the street could only dream about owning, in the same way he could only dream about having an extra-marital affair with Raquel Welch.

My dad had a succession of cars during my upbringing, none of which provided any music other than his rippling flatulence that had a tendency to start in one octave and move up to another by the time they were fizzling out to the sound of a ‘Bloody hell!’ exclamation. It does make you wonder how we survived the methane poisoning and kept ourselves occupied on longer journeys. OK, we didn’t exactly travel the Paris-Dakar rally, but there were plenty of occasions when we were in the car for a few hours at a time. Today’s kids can watch a Disney film, play hand-held computer games, or generally fiddle about on a Smartphone or Tablet, but in our day the best we could manage was a marathon game of eye-spy or scissors paper rock. Imagine, if you can, the amount of adrenaline rushing around our little physiologies on such occasions.

By the time I had passed my driving test in the mid 1970s, it was still normal to buy a car without a radio, though it was customary to have a one installed. The sound from this in-car equipment left much to be desired, appearing to originate from inside a tea caddy buried ten feet under ground. Yet it was still an essential upgrade for any serious young car owner. Unfortunately, this made your vehicle a honey pot for thieves. This was an era when as soon as you turned your back, someone stole the skin from your rice pudding.

Other important upgrades included faux-sheepskin covers draped over the harsh vinyl seats to avoid frostbite to your arse on cold January mornings, and a similar furry steering wheel cover for the same reason. The final non-negotiable accessory was the phallic wooden gear knob, emblazoned with the car maker’s logo that replaced the shiny piece of coal on a stick original that came with the vehicle.

Some over enthusiastic drivers didn’t know when to stop and covered the top of their windscreens with ‘Geoff and Linda’, and in homage to Starsky & Hutch even had a long white vector stripe painted onto their pride and joy. The latter may have looked the part on the American detectives’ classic Ford Gran Torino, but on a 1971 Austin Maxi, it looked shit.

Eventually, car makers decided to provide more on the fascia than a glorified speedometer, so previous optional extras became standard and the car radio was one of the first items to make this transition. The days of long solo journeys within the confines of your jam jar, singing into the rear view mirror faded away. And unless your name is Adele, that’s probably no bad thing.

 

 

Hitchhikers

 

At the age of fourteen, I pleaded with my mum and dad to allow me to go to the 1971 Lincoln Folk Festival. I was desperate to see James Taylor, The Incredible String Band, Tim Hardin, The Byrds, and a thirty-year-old hippy called Geraldine dancing naked in the cornfields. Their refusal was hard to take because my pal Blotto was going; though admittedly he was much older… he had just turned fifteen. The reason given was the price of the ticket, a full £2. Given that my old man had recently bought an old Austin A40 for a ludicrous £1, he clearly considered the price to be the equivalent of two cars. My plans to hit the road like a junior Jack Kerouac by hitchhiking to Tupholme Manor Park in Lincolnshire had generated no reaction or concern for my welfare on the part of my parents. I suppose that if my dad was happy to pay £1 for a car, road safety was never going to rank very high on his list of priorities.

It was a different era though in terms of perceived danger for such exploits. Motorways in the early 1970s were not the car parks they are today. There was still something called the open road, and an even distribution of vehicles sauntered their way along the growing network of these big highways. In contrast, however, the motorway junctions bustled with activity. Yet it was not an excess of cars ready to join the slip road that created the hubbub. It was a group of young, long-haired, bearded hippie types holding up the back of a Cornflakes box with names like ‘BASINGSTOKE’, ‘BRISTOL’, and ‘BATH’ scrawled in crayon. Plenty of motorists stopped to offer lifts to these thumb-waving travellers, with lorry drivers always the most likely to pull over. It was an accepted part of the modern world. Unlike their parents, for whom a bus ride to the next town was a long distance adventure, this new breed of young person wanted to travel, and in the absence of cheap alternatives from bus, coach and train operators, hitching a ride was the only viable option for many. It was not a risky thing to do. Even the girls considered it safe.

If the old man hadn’t baulked at the £2 Festival entrance fee, my hitchhiking adventure would have been a non-event anyway. Blotto hitched an uneventful lift in the front seat of a Comma truck sign written ‘Bill Crabs the Fishman’, bouncing up and down like a jack-in-a-box while the driver picked his nose and itched his groin all the way to Worksop. Then he had a final forty miles in the back of a Morris Minor driven by a vicar and his wife, both massive Incredible String Band fans. That said, the festival itself might have held a few more perils for me as a fourteen year old. Pagan rituals, alcohol, pot, heroin, latrines and penis-dangling Morris dancers could have all left their mark. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Hitchhiking suffered a steady decline with reducing numbers choosing to travel that way and fewer drivers willing to stop and carry strangers as passengers. Cheap travel arrived, more people had their own cars, and the Thatcher years changed the public’s general perception of hitchhikers as freeloaders. The interior of vehicles became more luxurious, enabling drivers to retreat into their own comfortable world, thereby eradicating any prospects of inviting an outsider with muddy boots and body odour into such a haven.

The thought of a fourteen year old hitchhiking across the country is unthinkable in this day and age, though perhaps not as unthinkable as a teen still awaiting his first pube, standing next to a whisky drinking, pot smoking, Morris dancing Pagan who is freaking out in a barley field to the sounds of Sandy Denny & the Happy Blunderers. Yet the ultimate, unthinkable thought is driving along the open road in a car that cost a £1, perversely my dad’s most successful motoring purchase ever, sold six months later for £50, enough to buy Lincoln Folk Festival tickets for me and twenty-four mates. Getting us all there, however, would have been quite a hitchhiker’s challenge.

 

 

Joint Passports

 

The photograph in my first ever passport was ridiculous. I was laughing so much that I had tears in my eyes. The year was 1979, a time when the laxity of airport security was a million air miles away from today’s hi-tech body scanners, face recognition systems, and over-eager strip search officials. A family in the late 70s heading off for some Mediterranean sun might have Mum carrying the baby, young daughter carrying Peppo the doll, Dad carrying a BOAC bag on one shoulder and an antitank weapon on the other, while young son carried a small BOAC bag and a replica antitank weapon. The officer would apathetically wave everyone past.

Passport control was a different kettle of fish. It was a much stricter affair. All passbooks were stamped and Customs officials in all countries scrutinised the photographs within to ensure an exact likeness. Any doubts and another bureaucrat provided a second opinion. Against this backdrop and for ten long years, I had to walk through airport border control sections pretending to laugh like a drain. A decade was a long time to regret corpsing in the instamatic booth like Brian Johnson and Aggers on Test Match Special, but spare a thought for my wife. This was a joint ‘husband and wife’ issue, and so she had to suffer the recurring image of my repellent gurning as we passed through Passport Control together.

In 1988, the UK adopted the standard EU passport, and the joint version ceased to be available. My wife was delighted, almost replicating my expiring passport photo. As my next passport was going to be a solo affair, I was determined not to repeat the mistake of last time. I overcompensated. The snapshot for the next ten years had me looking up from the page like an unshaven Soviet KGB spy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I despaired that I now had to approach the Customs official as a stranger to my Philishave, shaking with anxiety, and with the menacing leer of a contract killer.

Now that I am finally able to shake off the extremes of my early passport photos, things have changed anyway, the old laminated picture replaced by a digital face image. Strict rules now apply to the photograph, necessitating a straightforward, neutral expression. Furthermore, the emphasis of airport security has switched from passport control to the baggage checking area which means you win some lose some. Yes, I no longer have to laugh like a hyena or scowl like one of Stalin’s henchmen at the airport, but I do have to leave my antitank weapons at home these days.

 

 

MOT Wrecks

 

‘The modern car is incredibly reliable, especially when compared with vehicles of the past. Manufacturers now offer seven-year warranties in the comfort that technology has transformed the durability of their automotive range. If only this had always been the case. The mass-market jalopies of the 1970s and 1980s in particular, were about as dependable as a punctured condom, and some looked like one. I learnt to drive in a prime example.

My dad’s Hillman had a few issues, the brakes perhaps being up there as number one. On my first lesson, he explained that the vehicle’s braking system needed bleeding.

‘Bleeding what?’ I thought. ‘Bleeding replacing? Bleeding repaired?’ The answer should have been ‘Bleeding hell!’

There was air in the pipes, and this meant that when my foot pressed the pedal to bring the car to a gradual stop, nothing happened.

‘Pump the bloody things,’ barked the old man.

‘What?’ I replied, my voice unable hide the onset of mild panic.

‘Tap your feet on the pedal, like you do on the bloody drums.’

I followed his instructions and after about ten piston thrusts, I felt a small amount of resistance and to my relief the vehicle came to a halt at the tip of the junction.

There were other calamities, such as when we were driving home from a night out at the Liverpool White City Greyhound Track. I wasn’t at the steering wheel, which was just as well. I didn’t really have the experience to handle a situation where the driver’s side front wheel flew off and crossed the carriageway, only stopping in its tracks thanks to the sturdy construction of the 43c bus stop.

Then there was the Baby Austin 7, built in the 1930s, driven in the 1960s, by my dad of course. Its existence, like the exhaust, clung by a thread. One pleasant Sunday afternoon, my grandparents were sat on the back seat when the frame collapsed. The next thing, their knees were touching the car’s roof while their heads tilted backwards, giving them a more than decent view of the vehicle’s exhaust and spare wheel. My granddad swore like a trooper with Tourette’s at the best of times, but even my nan used a few expletives that day.

Few of these cars escaped the onset of corrosion, certain models worse than most. The British Leyland badge, for example, was a guarantee of bona fide shite. After only a few years, the telltale signs of rust and rot appeared on the sills. Ball joints, big ends, prop shafts would all fail, and brake shoes and pads would last for about as long as a lollipop. Oil leaks were as frequent as toilet visits for a gastro enteritis sufferer, leaving a similar brown sticky stain, in this case on the road. There might have been some compensation if the cars had conveyed the appearance of a Lotus or Ferrari. Alas, they unfailingly had the design attributes and style of an outside bog.

The MOT test was less stringent in those days. You’d turn up at your local garage, and the exchange between you and the mechanic would be on these lines.

‘Hi chief, I’m after an MOT.’

‘How’s she driving?’

‘Well she’s a thirsty beast, enjoys a pint of oil every day. But I suppose, apart from the steering wheel, which is always coming off in my hands, the brakes that squeal like a couple of mating pigs when I press the pedal, and the burning smell that comes from the front tyres, she’s driving really well.

‘Sounds like a pass to me. I’ll get you a certificate.’

Consequently, hordes of MOT wrecks littered the streets, death traps on four wheels. It was only after about fifteen years – when the vehicle had no doors and an engine noisier than a Jumbo Jet – that the owner had to take the rusted remnants to the scrap merchants to get a fiver for his troubles. Today, scrapped cars are often roadworthy, the problem now being one of demand. Cars are cheaper, relatively speaking, and we have a more affluent and aspirational society. Few people want to own or drive a clapped out old car, even if it passes its MOT. The days of the MOT wreck have gone, and you need to go to India or the like to see surviving vehicles of that ilk.

This is not something I would choose as a piece of wistful nostalgia. I can’t forget hurtling down a steep hill, my foot pumping on the brake pedal like John Bonham, the chassis of the old car wailing like Jimmy Page’s Gibson Les Paul, and the voice in my head screaming ‘In My Time of Dying’ like Robert Plant. The old bitch on four wheels may have always come to a standstill, but the thud of my heart like a John Paul Jones bass line is hard to put out of my mind. It reminds me that a ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is far from the most appropriate way to describe my attitude to the old MOT wreck.

 

 

Picture Postcards

 

This used to be the routine for the first two days of a foreign package holiday:

Your flight departure is delayed by eight hours due to an unofficial strike by baggage handlers who have walked out in sympathy with the sacked workers of a spoon factory in Sheffield. You’re a non-smoker, but the only seats left are in the smoking section next to the morbidly obese guy who smells like a blocked drain, suffers chronic flatulence on the turbulent journey over France, and chain-smokes Capstan Full Strength for the duration of the flight. At the moment the plane touches down at its destination airport, your luggage is half way to South America.

The coach transfer deposits other couples and families at a variety of plush five star hotels, but your accommodation has the appearance of an electricity sub-station. Last on the drop off schedule, it is inaccessible to all vehicles except children’s scooters. You have a final hike up the North Face of the Eiger carrying your suitcases – nobody had yet considered putting wheels on them – before collapsing in the foyer of the hotel, surviving only because the porter, a Cuban GP earning his fortune abroad, is able to use a defibrillator to resuscitate you.

The next morning at the welcome meeting, you spend half your annual salary on trips and excursions to museums, archaeological digs, and a traditional sausage, chips and beans barbecue as recommended by your travel company’s representative, paid a basic salary of dry bread and water but Zimbabwe inflation style commission rates.

You then smear your body with best cooking fat, lie on a sun lounger draped in tin foil, and proceed to sleep all day in the boiling sun. With third degree burns to your body, you ignore the warnings about the local water having the sanitation of a Bombay sewer and drink half an ocean, spending the next few hours on the toilet, pebble dashing the pan as you cough and tap dance in an attempt to cover up the sound of a thousand deflating balloons.

You gather what little strength you have left and drag yourself to one of three million identical souvenir shops on the main street of the resort. You buy about a hundred postcards and as many stamps. The cards show photographs of impossibly blue skies and unoccupied beaches, and you can tell the images are about twenty years old because the five cars parked in the picture are straight from a black and white Francois Truffaut film starring Jeanne Moreau.

You retire back to the hotel and forego your night’s sleep by writing your postcards with the same, uninspired and unoriginal words. ‘Flight a bit delayed, hotel and food great, weather really hot, going to barbecue tomorrow. To moisten the stamps and stick them to the cards, your tongue is put to more use than a Bangkok whore entertaining a coach full of sex tourists. You then spend about two hours trying to locate a postbox and eventually find one with a slot the size of a sparrow’s arse.

And so finally, within forty eight hours of your arrival in the resort, your main mission has been accomplished. You then sit back and relax for the rest of the holiday. The postcards take six weeks to arrive.

None of this seemed to matter because the picture postcard remained as central to the summer break as stomach upset and sunburn, until technology made all the difference. Mobile phones, Internet cafés, 3G, 4G and wi-fi transformed how we communicated with people back home, and the postcard quickly lost its place as part of the essential holiday experience. Whether or not this is something to regret, only you can say. Answers on a postcard please.

 

 

Sombrero and Donkey Souvenirs

 

There was a time during the formative years of the package holiday when the airport baggage carousel of any incoming flight from Spain comprised as many giant toy donkeys as suitcases. Returning tourists, waiting to collect their luggage and furry animals, had two things in common. Faces redder than a lobster at a ‘traffic light on stop’ face painting party and a ridiculously oversized sombrero on their head.

The Iberian summer holiday was still novel enough to be a status symbol at this point. The trailblazing traveller wore his giant Mexican straw hat and carried his deformed Eye-ore so as to assert bragging rights. Once home, the hat was hung on the wall in the lounge – using one of the many sharp pins extracted from the donkey with consummate ease by a two year old child – until next year’s sombrero took its place.

But as the summers passed, the number of sombreros and donkeys on the carousel dwindled, partly as a result of Spanish holidays becoming as common as the racegoers in the Newton Stand at Haydock Park, and partly due to the EU toy regulations that outlawed death traps like the furry mule. A new more sophisticated working class tourist had arrived, a tourist so sophisticated, they knew the ‘j’ in Majorca was not pronounced like the ‘j’ in jam. This new breed recognised that the traditional Benidorm souvenirs were naff and decided to move up market. It was official, the toy donkey was an outlaw and the sombrero, old hat. Cue the new kid on the block. The fish paella fridge magnet.

 

 

Tax Discs

 

The Tax Disc was introduced to the UK in 1920 to evidence payment of the newly established Vehicle Excise Duty. It was supposed to finance the upkeep of roads and highways but soon fell into the Treasury’s general bucket of cash needed to fund MP’s essential expenses such as the vet bills for his sexual partner of choice. There ensued a century of frustration on the part of motorists trying not to tear the disc in half from its perforated backing, a frustration reinforced by the futile attempts to keep the disc adhered to the windscreen with your body’s final globule of spit. However, when police became able to scan number plates and get instant access to details of any unpaid duty, technology banished the tax disc to the windscreen in the sky.

 

 

The Choke

 

S&M enthusiasts may be groaning at the thought that their favourite dance is on the way out.

What? No more gasping for breath with my eyes popping out as my legs do the involuntary splits and Steve the DJ plays ‘Silver Machine’ by Hawkwind?’

Worry ye not, devotees of pain, this choke was the little knob you pulled to get started in the morning. Males with clear memories of their teenage years are now nodding sagely, but I’m talking about the stalk on the fascia of your Hillman Avenger, Austin Mini or Ford Cortina, drawn out by hand to get the right petrol and air mix for the car’s engine to spark into life.

The modern motor rarely has a problem starting. You might return from your two-month sabbatical helping under-privileged baboons in Fiji and then spend two hours exploring the airport’s long stay car park, the length and width of twenty football pitches, eventually spotting your motor covered in ash from the recent Icelandic earthquake. You get in the car, and it stinks. As you ponder on the science that has trapped the odour of that squelchy fart you emitted just before you left the vehicle eight weeks ago, you spot a mouldy peach that you inadvertently left on the driver’s seat. Naturally, you have just sat on it, the first time in your life that you are not physiologically responsible for the putrid smell coming from your backside. You then turn the ignition, not doubting for a second that the engine will immediately purr into action and grumble like a cat with a rash on its bollocks. Your Ford Fiesta obliges and off you drive home.

Before cars became computers on wheels, starting your jalopy of a morning involved the jeopardy of a game of Russian roulette. Damp mornings were a distinct problem, because spark plugs, leads, and carburettors were like distracted female office workers ogling the ripped, shirtless window cleaner drinking his Diet Coke; they found it difficult to function when moist. On such days when you switched on the ignition, it was no surprise to hear the engine turn but not fire. My response, in common with every other hapless driver whose knowledge of car mechanics fitted on the back of a postage stamp was to pull the choke out to its maximum. It was a futile action, because the fuel mix was not the cause of the problem. Yet still we attempted to yank the choke from its socket while tapping our feet up and down on the accelerator as though dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis singing ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’. It was inevitable that these desperate attempts to get moving would rapidly drain the car battery of its power, and soon the turning of the key produced nothing other than a click, a whirring, and an expletive from your lips that rhymed with ‘pluck’.

Marooned, the solution was not to call the AA or RAC, whose annual subscription cost more than your car. It was time to get in touch with your pal who duly arrived with his vehicle and a pair of jump leads. Confusion over which battery terminal was positive and which was negative led to you receiving a shock on par with Aunty Beryl venturing into the male changing rooms at the park believing it to be the Café where they served a nice Afternoon Tea. Finally, with hair as frizzy as Jimi Hendrix, your vehicle was ready to drive away.

The other thing about the choke was remembering to push the stalk back into the fascia. Bemused as to why your fuel gauge was visibly moving towards empty, you reached your destination and noticed that you’d been driving for thirty miles with the choke out. The arrival of the fuel injection automatic choke made things a whole lot simpler for the driver, and manufacturers quickly adopted it as the norm.

No drivers mourned its passing. In fact, it was celebrated, though not via a dance that left you gasping for breath with your eyes popping out as your legs did the involuntary splits and Steve the DJ played ‘Silver Machine’ by Hawkwind.

 

 

The Landing Clap

 

Avid readers of Fifty Shades of Grey may expect this section to be about shagging at the top of the stairs and picking up a sexually transmitted disease to boot. Such one-track minds may be disappointed to find it concerns flying. I am far from the greatest flyer, though if I had wings and feathers, I might fare better. To deal with my anxieties, I read up on the subject of aviation and learnt that the sector is the most safety conscious industry in the world. By any measure, flying is incredibly safe, something that today’s passengers largely understand. Travellers who board a flight fully expect to arrive at their destination, and though some find it difficult to relax in the air, few spend their time convinced the plane is about to plummet to earth. There was a time, however, when it was all very different.

Early holidaying pioneers believed they were taking their lives in their hands by flying on a Boeing 727 to Majorca (madge-orker) and Ibiza (eye-beezer). The meal of boiled beef and carrots served at 35,000 feet was the ‘last supper’, and the pilot’s message to ‘fasten seat belts as we are about to begin our descent’ was translated by panicking ears as ‘WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!’ Fifteen minutes later, the plane landed safely on the airport tarmac to the amazement and acute relief of half those on board.

Spontaneous applause i.e. the Landing Clap then broke out in celebration for having survived the ordeal, though it was only a stay of execution. In fourteen days, they would have to do it all again.

We no longer hear ‘The Landing Clap’ in the traditional sense, but a few young lads return home with their own versions including ‘The Zante Clap’, ‘The Malia Clap’, and ‘The Thailand Clap’, something that clearly does not warrant a round of applause.

 

 

The Open Road

 

I passed my driving test in June 1975, a time when the majority of households in the UK, rather than having a car, had a trolley made out of half a shed door with the wheels of Aunty Brenda’s old pram. I celebrated with a punch of the air, a prawn cocktail, a glass of Liebfraumilch, and a drive along the open roads of the Wirral Peninsula, relishing the newfound freedom of having a full driving licence. Traffic jams at this time were as scarce as a virgin in a brothel, and so when I started commuting from to Manchester in the mid-1980s, I found I could leave the house at 7.45pm after my three sh’s – shower, shave and sh… you know the rest – to get to the office one hour later.

Roll forward twenty years, and the same journey was taking nearly two hours… so was the sh, but that’s age for you. The average household now had two cars, and so motorways had become a car park early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Some colleagues boasted about beating the traffic by leaving for work early, but I had no inclination to get out of bed at 2 o’clock in the morning to defeat the rush hour gridlock, particularly as I’d only hit the pillow at midnight after getting stuck in traffic coming home the night before.

I blame Dr Beeching, whose prognosis in 1963 – he should have stuck do diagnosing colds and flu – was that the UK railway branch network should be rationalised in the same way the Luftwaffe rationalised the city of Coventry in 1940. The future was a car owning population, the choo-choo an anachronism belonging to a bygone era. People wanting to get from A to B had no option but to learn to drive and get a car. Millions got wheels, and it was not long before the open road closed for business.

 

 

The Reliant Robin

 

It’s a popular misconception that the three-wheeled car immortalised in Only Fools and Horses is a Reliant Robin. It’s actually a Reliant Regal, the Robin’s predecessor. Furthermore, the image above is the vehicle’s final incarnation, the Reliant Rialto. So that’s cleared things up for the petrol head anoraks out there. But for those members of the public with a life and a modicum of emotional intelligence, we’ll stick with the Robin tag.

The Reliant Robin was made of fibreglass, a material only slightly more robust than balsa wood or papier-mache. In a collision between a Reliant and another object such as a stray balloon blowing across the road, the three-wheeled jalopy was likely to be a write-off. Reliant drivers travelled in morbid fear of passing pedestrians with a cold. Its handling was so fragile that it took only one violent sneeze for the car to be blown from one side of the carriageway to the other. Although not a death trap in the same league as the chip pan, it was never going to win any safety awards.

It seems ridiculous now, but there was a time when all teenage lads wanted to own a Reliant Robin. We didn’t look at Jaguars, Rolls Royces, Bentleys or Lotus Élans. We simply yearned for the fibreglass oddity from the Reliant stable. This was nothing to do with aesthetics of the vehicle. It was an ugly beast – on which subject Princess Anne owned one – that looked like a cross between Thunderbird Four and an invalid carriage. Nor was it linked to its performance. It had a brake horsepower low enough to struggle in a milk float race, acceleration from 0-60 mph in about five minutes, and a top speed of about 62 mph, if going downhill, pushed by the England Rugby Union First XV, and propelled by the remnants of Hurricane Colin.

We wanted a Reliant because you could drive one at the age of sixteen on a motorcycle license, a full year before being able to drive a normal four-wheeled car. Fifteen-year-old boys gathered in groups all over the country to discuss the practicalities of buying an old three-wheeler to go on a touring holiday, have a day out at the seaside, or for the more ambitious, go stock car racing. The lad born in September was nominated as the driver because his birthday came round first. A savings club was set up, which after a few months totalled about five quid, just enough to buy a steering wheel cover, thereby ending the dream. Nonetheless, for those young lads with the financial means, the Robin remained a prized asset.

But when the government changed the rules so that a sixteen year old could no longer drive a three wheeled car, demand for the Reliant was badly affected. The only customers left were the diminishing number of war veterans who still had a piece of shrapnel stuck in their head, specifically in the part of the brain that identifies shame.

The last Reliant Robin crawled off the assembly line in 2002. I’m hoping that when the final car was wheeled out to a fanfare, it was a dignified exit. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it toppled on to its side when the local Mayor’s wife coughed up a vol-au-vent that had gone down the wrong hole.

 

 

The Road Atlas

 

For the first thirty years of my life, I found navigating my way to unknown places an absolute breeze. It was as though I had an internal compass guiding me, a natural partnership between nature’s magnetic forces and my own. Though ask any member of the female population, and they would question any association between me and inner magnetism. And yet almost overnight, I lost the power, unable to tell my north from my south, my east from my west, or my arse from my elbow. As regards the latter, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve bent my arm and shoved it down a toilet.

Despite the change, I lived in denial, still believing I had the ability to get from A to B without reference to any road map. Things came to a head on a visit to a Travelodge in Barnsley with my wife. And before you ask, no, it wasn’t an anniversary treat… I think it was her birthday.

It was well into the early hours of the morning as we drove around the outskirts of the town centre, searching in vain for the cut price hotel. By 2.00am, and after the umpteenth drive along the same by-pass, my wife’s patience snapped at my increasingly desperate comment, ‘But I’m sure it used to be there, between that chippy and Harry Spratt’s 50p Shop’. I learnt my lesson, and never again would I delude myself as to my directional capabilities. I bought a Road Atlas.

I loved pouring over the details of the motorways, the A roads, the B roads, and the larger scale city street map sections. However, there was still a problem. I only studied the maps after a journey. Before its start, I would scan the atlas with the brevity of an emotionally fragile and squeamish President of the Hedgehog Lovers’ Society who can see the remains of a spiky creature that has been pulped by an Eddie Stobart lorry.

My failure to reach journey’s end in a straightforward way continued until the day Sat Nav reached the High Street. At last I could drive with confidence to any destination, my every move dictated by a woman in a sultry voice… I’ll resist the temptation to make a cheap shot about the gear knob. As the word on the street about GPS technology spread, its adoption became widespread, and the Road Atlas became an anachronism. My first Sat Nav was at the budget end of the market and had a tendency to send me via Australia. But when I invested in the market leader, the prospect of driving aimlessly around the outskirts of Barnsley for a few hours became a distant prospect. I had, with the help of technology, rediscovered my inner magnetism. Girls, form an orderly queue please.

 

 

The Suitcase Without Wheels

 

Well we’re getting towards the end of the book, and so it’s nearly time to pack my things and go on my merry way. The good news is that my suitcase has wheels and an extending handle. I could fill it with a car battery, a couple of dead bodies, my sister-in-law’s rock buns, and I would still be able to transport it with ease from A to B.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1987 that somebody first had the idea to design a case with wheels and a handle. It was an American airline pilot called Robert Plath who instantly became a hero to the millions of travellers throughout the world who had struggled for years with slipped discs and aching muscles, carrying their wheel-less luggage with only arm power to help.

My personal nadir in this context was in the summer of 1992. Euro Disney had just opened in Paris and we booked a family holiday there, staying in the Davy Crockett Camp Ground. At the entrance to the site, the connecting coach dropped off me, my wife, three children, mother-in-law and all our luggage. My wife carried our youngest who was tired after a long journey. My other two children carried small backpacks. My mother-in-law carried her handbag. And I carried four suitcases, a folding buggy and an asthma nebuliser. By the time we reached our holiday home, my arms stretched so far to the floor, I looked like King Louie from The Jungle Book.

But visit any airport these days to locate a suitcase without wheels, and you’re more likely to find a suicide bomber with an armed policeman enjoying a latte and chocolate muffin in Costa Coffee. If you do see one making its way around the carousel, it will be battered, made of hard leather, the colour of shit, and held together by an elasticated snake belt. Its owner will have no shame.

Now it’s all easy peasy thanks to Mr Plath’s creativity. Putting wheels on a suitcase is arguably the best invention since… the wheel?

 

 

****

 

 

HELL

 

 

We live in an increasingly secular society. Scientific discoveries have furthered our knowledge and understanding of our origins, thereby completely undermining literal interpretations of Bible stories. Does anybody seriously believe that the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden actually happened? Did God create this man called Adam – in the process consciously designing something as physically hideous as the male scrotum – and then deposit him in a place full of beauty with a tree that housed an evil snake and a forbidden apple? And did the man in the clouds – it’s a surprise he hasn’t been hit by a 747 in recent years – take pity on Adam, realise he was lonely, and create a woman called Eve, though give credit where credit is due, he made a better job of Eve than he did with Adam? And when they munched on the apple, did God really lose his composure and banish them to fend for themselves in the malevolent world outside? And am I George Clooney’s better looking brother?

What about ‘The Flood’? And I’m not talking about the terrible wet weather we had the other year in Shropshire. Are you somebody accepting without question that a man called Noah constructed a boat big enough to hold two of every animal on earth, and then had the wherewithal and means to locate, capture, and pack millions of these creatures onto his vessel? And why was this lad call Noah selected? While the rest of the world seethed with evil, immorality, and sin, was there just one man perfect enough for God to save? If so, he was clearly the Batman of his day. And did it rain for 40 days and 40 nights – like that holiday season in Rhyl when I was young – flooding the earth for 150 days? And could it be true that God surpassed Stalin and Hitler by destroying all life other than the residents of the SS Noah’s Ark? If you still hold the opinion that this is historical fact, may I suggest you request Dignitas vouchers for your next birthday gift.

Perhaps most sacrosanct of all, do you really have faith in the validity of the Virgin birth? Personally speaking, if my wife told me that she was pregnant, and that the baby was the result of a visit from an Angel who informed her of an immaculate conception, I’d have some serious doubts about her fidelity.

And what about the existence of Hell with its burning fires, malicious snakes, and horned ringleader Satan… an individual who these days makes a fortune from merchandise licensing arrangements at Halloween. (God clearly has an issue with the poor snake, though it begs the question as to why Noah included the slimy reptile on his boat trip). Purveyors of Christian values struggle with the argument that the murderer who repents his sins and accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour will go to Heaven, while the peace loving, compassionate and caring person who rejects the Lord is banished to eternal damnation in the den of Beelzebub. The trend is to emphasise the symbolism of Hell rather than its existence as an actual geographical location deep within the earth’s bowels – presumably stinking of shit – although recent Fracking initiatives may provide the answer sooner than we think.

The modern theologian interprets Hell, the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, the Virgin Birth and all the ridiculous Biblical narratives as figurative rather than anything based on actual happenings. Religious teachings have moved to adopt a more credible approach to these tales of the Scriptures. The truth is that religion is anachronistic. In the past, it provided a convenient means of creating social order, but customs, judiciaries and democracies have combined to supersede the holy model. Now the populous has seized control from God, passing their own judgement with fewer and fewer believers and even less churchgoers. The downside to the demise of faith and the growth of secularism is the starkness of mortality, but for most of us, this is not such a bad thing. If we embraced faith, our destiny would be clear. Tolerance of homosexuality, masturbation, working on the Sabbath, sex before marriage and gossip – a typical day for Alan Carr filming Chatty Man on a Sunday – would send us to the searing heat of Hell, the Devil’s underworld. Thank God, it doesn’t exist. If it does… fracking hell!

The book of Revelation is the last part of the New Testament, and whilst Biblical scholars have revised its text many times over the years, you won’t be surprised to learn that after my assessment of religion and its sacred teachings I am not proposing any revision on my part. Chimpanzees in Dungarees – The Collection is a far from spiritual book. In fact, it’s about as far from spirituality as Galaxy MACS0647-JD is from planet Earth. However, I do hope that you have found it an entertaining, engaging and fresh book of revelation. The revelation that nothing lasts forever. The revelation that more often than not this is a really good thing. And the revelation that you can write a book that deconstructs free market capitalism in the same pages that you reflect on the demise of the pineapple and cheese on a stick.

The bible ends poetically with words ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.’

I hope you are happy with the best I can manage.

‘The grace of all disappearing things be with you all. Amen.’


Chimpanzees in Dungarees: The Collection

When did you last see a Chimpanzee in Dungarees, laughing at a Sexist, Racist and Homophobic Comedian sat next to a Newly Wed Virgin holding a Baby Called Keith and eating a Meat Paste sandwich while drinking a pint of Mild? And how long is it since you went to a Tupperware Party attended by a member of the Deferential Working Class, a Football Maverick, Bus Conductor and Streetwise Dog? And have you recently seen anyone sporting a Woollen Balaclava and Shellsuit in a Reliant Robin with a Pools Coupon Collector and Spinster wearing an 18 Hour Girdle in the back? What about a Hitchhiker thumbing a lift from a Scary Biker, a Rebel Teacher and an Unrepentant Politician all on their way to enjoy Hogmanay in England? Or a Martian with a Hitler Moustache having a game of Blow Football while eating Pineapple and Cheese on a Stick and listening to an Ugly String Quartet playing England’s World Cup Squad Song? Or how about a Rock Star Planning to Retire, Squatting in a One Screen Cinema, with the Front Door Left Open, watching Desperate Dan in a Bowler Hat teaching the Birds and the Bees to a Cast of Thousands wearing Paper Underwear? Fashions come and go, technology advances, social acceptabilities change and gender roles shift. There are so many reasons why something can be everywhere one day and on the slippery slope to oblivion the next. Chimpanzees in Dungarees - The Collection has two hundred such disappearing things, written with one sole objective...to take the proverbial and have a laugh… or is that two objectives?

  • ISBN: 9781310557958
  • Author: Chris Whitfield
  • Published: 2016-06-20 23:40:13
  • Words: 97021
Chimpanzees in Dungarees: The Collection Chimpanzees in Dungarees: The Collection