Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stop me and buy one!

99 please ...
It seems so long since I last blogged.  This has been partly through idleness and partly through a lack of inspiration, but over the recent August bank holiday I heard a sound which took me back 30 years.  It was the sound of an ice cream van, and I realise that while I’ve often subjected you to tales of the various jobs I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that I was once Mister Softee.

During the summer holiday from university I heard through a friend about a job going with a local company selling ice cream.  I called the man who ran the family business and after a short interview I was given a van, a white smock, a round with some fairly exact timings and the promise of no basic pay but a 20% commission on all sales.  The round took a bit of getting used to; if you got it slightly wrong there was a risk of bumping into the ‘opposition’ which could have some fairly unpleasant consequences, albeit mostly verbal abuse and only the threat of physical violence.

The soft ice cream was made in a machine into which large cans of what looked like evaporated milk were poured.  The machines filled the liquid with air and froze it.  Mister Softee was the Lyons Maid brand.  It tasted identical to the Walls ‘Mr Whippy’ as far as I could tell, but the name wasn’t as titillating.  So when girls in the pub said “Ooh, are you Mr Whippy then?”, I had to respond sheepishly that I was Mister Softee, inevitably the cue for becoming the butt of impotency jokes.

I became a dab hand at pulling a soft cone (no smut please) and with practise was able to hold half a dozen in one hand, no mean feat I can tell you.  Apart from cleaning out the ice cream maker and avoiding the competition it was an easy enough job and I managed to earn a few quid to keep the bank manager from writing nasty letters about my overdraft.  However there were two things which were a source of annoyance: trying to stop the chocolate flakes for the ‘99s’ from melting (I wasn’t allowed to keep them in the freezer compartment because it discoloured the chocolate), and the immensely irritating jingle that I had to play at every stop.

The jingle was ‘Greensleeves’ and I challenge anyone to hear it, even in snippets, 50 times a day for weeks on end without wanting to scream.  For a few days I tried to vary it by allowing the clockwork thing that played the tune to wind down to produce a painful dirge that’s right up there with our national anthem for making you want to eat your own flesh.  I had to stop of course; not only was the ultra slow version even more horrific, but its distinctly downbeat tone had a negative impact on sales.  The fact is that kids want their ice cream van jingles to be happy tunes, and let me tell you, the customer is always right when you’re living off commission.

I only had the round for that first summer.  The boss was branching out and winning concessions to sell ice cream and eventually hot dogs and burgers at county shows, flower shows, race meetings and so on.  I spent the next two summers travelling around the UK.  It was surprisingly hard work because of the hours.  I remember working at a show one incredibly hot day and the queue never seemed to have less than 30 customers in it.  We were selling the ice cream faster than the machine could make it, pulling cones which had only just frozen enough to hold the cream together.

At first the boss paid for us to stay in B&Bs, but it must have cost him a fortune because before long he bought a very old caravan for us workers to sleep in while we were away from home.  To be fair it didn’t matter too much where we slept; we got pretty hammered down the pub after work each night, which took up virtually all the money we earned.  At the end of each summer I had little to show for it except a knackered liver and a desire never to see or smell another ice cream again.

Anyway, back to the ice cream van which jogged my memory the other day.  No prizes for guessing which tune it was playing, and even after all these years it made me want to run after it, not to buy anything but to beg him to turn off the music.  That Henry VIII has a lot to answer for.
Greensleeves was not my delight ...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You've all done very well!

Young Mr Grace

One of the many ways I bore ‘my readers’ (how grand) is with tales of the various jobs I’ve done over the years. Many of them were student vacation jobs, some enjoyable, others less so.

During my first Christmas holidays from university in the late 1970s I managed to get 3 weeks’ work at Rackham’s department store in Shrewsbury. I was not to be trusted with talking to customers or telling them in the style of ‘Are you Being Served’ that the sleeves of a new jacket would ride up with wear. Instead I was given the grand title of Display Manager’s Assistant.

My duties mostly involved fetching and carrying mannequins and other display paraphernalia from the attic store rooms down to the display windows at the front of the shop.  Incidentally, it’s harder to cart a mannequin around than you might think. Sharing a lift with customers and trying not to look self conscious was difficult enough, but I seemed incapable of getting the thing from the lift door to the display window without knocking someone’s hat off.

The Display Manager himself was a dapper, middle aged man called Robbie who frankly made John Inman look butch. He was always immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and had a wavy hairdo. While I somehow managed to get covered in dust and dirt just walking into the store room, Robbie never had so much as a hair out of place. His dress, manner and way of talking were enough to subject me to some outrageous comments from some of the others in the staff canteen, but despite their ribaldry and typical 1970s assumption that all gay men prey on teenage boys, Robbie was never anything but a kind hearted man who treated me as he would any other member of staff.

Furthermore it could hardly be said that he made the work taxing for me. Apart from a bit of fetching and carrying I did little more than help him dress the mannequins (again, not as easy as you might think) and also wait for him to tell me from outside whether to move something a bit to the left or to the right. 

You can only change a window display so many times, and consequently I got quite a bit of down time. Robbie was happy for me to pass the time quietly in the canteen (I have no idea what he did with the rest of his day), but this was soon thwarted, and I ended up doing odd jobs for other departments. I didn’t mind too much, although years later I realised that as an empty headed teenager I was not always the best candidate. On one occasion I was asked to walk to the bank down the High Street with a lady cashier, who was not much older than me. Unbelievably I was expected to be her ‘minder’ as she carried a huge bag of money, I think to obtain change for the tills. At this point in my life I was about as tough looking as the bloke on the ‘Mr Muscle’ adverts.

The store itself had 2 sides to it; that is to say the customers saw nothing but plush carpets, shiny mirrors, and courteous smartly dressed assistants selling what was generally considered to be quality products. Had they looked harder they would have seen dust and dirt behind the counters, staff toilets that might have harboured the plague, and poorly paid staff bickering in the canteen for the want of anything else to actually talk about.

Still, it was a painlessly short period of employment for me which paid me untold wealth in the form of £35 a week. This was enough to keep me in Christmas fags and booze, unlike the permanent staff in the canteen who earned not much more but had families to provide for. I was only 18 and a student; what other reward could I have wanted, except perhaps a visit from a young Mr Grace to tell us we had “all done very well”?

Mind your hats

Monday, March 26, 2012

Row row row your boat ...

I’ve posted a couple of times about the grammar school I went to in Shrewsbury and how in some ways it tried to emulate the rather more illustrious public school across the river.  Evidence of this in my early days there was the Latin crest on the school badge, the teaching of classics while looking down on modern languages, and being made to refer to the staff as ‘masters’ rather than ‘teachers’.  I didn’t mind any of this particularly; indeed I just accepted it for what it was, and in any event by the time I started there things were beginning to change with the arrival of a new headmaster.

Outside, this old school approach was carried into the world of sport.  No association football for us, it had to be rugby, which to be fair I did enjoy, although I never once felt the urge to throw a rugby ball around the park with my mates in my spare time.  The sport I took up with some relish though was rowing, which I first got into as a cox for my brother’s crew (which is not as ‘street’ as it sounds).

The cox had the relatively easy task of steering the boat and shouting instructions and encouragement to the oarsmen.  The fact that I was about 12 and could hardly see where I was navigating this expensive piece of equipment didn’t seem to bother anyone.  My main concern though was avoiding being held over the water from the pontoon by the crew and dipped in the river just enough to get uncomfortably wet.

A year or two later I was allowed to row too, and let me tell you that if you think it looks like hard work, it really is.  It introduced me to a world of ‘bum shoving’ and ‘catching crabs’ which is not as sordid as it sounds (technical explanation available on request).  We trained on the water 2 or 3 times a week, as well as doing distance running and circuit training, and looking back I must have been as fit as butcher’s dog.

In the warmer part of the year we would enter regattas all around the country.  Regattas were essentially sprint races against one or more other crews (depending on the width of the river or reservoir).  I liked rowing in the regatta races. They really hurt but at least they were over relatively quickly.

In the Winter we did ‘Head of the River’ races which were longer, endurance competitions where the boats did a staggered start at timed intervals. These could be truly miserable experiences – it was generally freezing, the race itself could be miles long instead of the usual thousand yards, and there would inevitably be congestion points as the faster crews caught up with the slower ones on an overcrowded river, with many curses and threats being traded between crews.  Strangely, the one Head of the River race which I really enjoyed was the 31 mile long Lincoln to Boston marathon, which we did just once and I loved it.  The aim on that occasion was not to win, but merely to survive.  Our training had included weeks of rubbing surgical spirit into the skin to prevent blisters on the hands. Trust me, it doesn’t really work, but for all that I got a great sense of achievement from just finishing the marathon.

Despite all the training we only ever won one competition. Winners were generally awarded engraved pewter tankards; pints for the oarsmen and a half pint one for the cox.  Speaking of pints, the regattas often had a beer tent where it was possible to get served at a ridiculously young age, and this was some consolation for getting knocked out in the heats. It was strictly forbidden by our teachers and parents, but sneaking a beer without them noticing was half the fun.  And far better to swallow beer than the water we had to row in at some places. There was said to be a rule at Liverpool Regatta that anyone falling in the Mersey was required to have their stomach pumped. A fanciful schoolboy rumour perhaps, but there were certainly a lot of oily toxins floating about the Victoria Dock in those days.

I stopped rowing completely once I’d left school.  I doubt I’d ever have become a Steve Redgrave or a Matthew Pinsent, but when I watched them on the television winning gold medals at the Olympics I would sometimes wonder if they too had ever dangled their cox in the water!
The river Severn at the English Bridge, Shrewsbury. The brick building behind is the Wakeman, the other grammar school in the town where I wouldn't have been able to play rugby or do rowing. But I would have played football there, and the school overlooked 'Gay Meadow', which was then the home of Shrewsbury Town FC.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Nee nah nee nah ...

At the time of writing this I am lying in bed feeling under the weather. I always feel guilty about being off work when I’m sick. For all my moaning about my job and the people I work with, most of whom I am at best indifferent to if I’m honest, I must have some deep seated sense of loyalty to the office which still manages to produce a flicker on my Give-a-Fuckometer.

God knows why that should be so; I work for a government organisation which has fostered an atmosphere of uncertainty about its future (and indeed mine) and is devoid of sensible planning and decision making. I'm expected to do more with less, to forego any sort of pay rise for the foreseeable future, and pay more into a pension fund which will ultimately pay out less than I was promised when I entered into a contract of employment with the civil service. Officially I'm expected to do this without criticising the government because at work I am their impartial employee. Well I’m not at work now; I’m at home sick, so fuck ‘em!

I had actually intended to write about the time I had appendicitis. I should actually say 'times' in plural, because for a couple of years in my late teens my appendix was a grumbler. It would enflame giving me sickness and incredible pain, only to subside again after a few hours. One day, aged 18 and away at university, I realised that the time had come to have it removed. The big clue was the fact that I was literally banging my head against a door because of the agony. With a friend I walked to the nearby C&A hospital in Bangor, North Wales. I walked because ambulance drivers were in the middle of a dispute, and although an ambulance might eventually have come, walking seemed better than just waiting.
I got there not a moment too soon. In little more than the time it took for a male nurse to shave off my pubic hair with a dry Bic razor, I was wheeled off to theatre. The surgeon told me later that the appendix was on the point of bursting when he took it out.
After a couple of days in a hospital bed (during which a huge nurse asked loudly right across the ward whether I’d moved my bowels that day), I was released into the care of my personal tutor, whose car caught fire on the way back to my hall of residence. I was then taken back to Shrewsbury where I recuperated at my girlfriend’s parents’ house. My own parents weren't getting on too well at the time and I just wanted peace and quiet.
I still have the scar from the operation of course, but it’s faded quite a lot now. I quite like having scars, albeit not very noticeable ones. There is a tiny one on my right leg even now from when my brother threw a dart in it. The scar has moved around over the years as I’ve grown. And I have one above my eye which I got falling out of a shopping trolley in Germany (I was 21 and pissed; the doctor who patched me up didn’t believe a word of it). As for mental scars, I guess we all have them too and you sometimes have to be much braver about those. Maybe that's something to blog about another time.
Left a bit, right a bit ...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Dude, Where's My Cardiophobia?

(Don't) be still my beating heart

On Sunday 18 March 1973 I was 12 years old when I saw a man drop down dead from a heart attack right in front of me, and I was haunted by it for over 30 years, so much so that I can remember the exact date after all this time.

I used to play for a junior football team and on that particular day the opposition had failed to turn up.  Still, we had the pitch booked and we were all changed and ready to go, so our manager decided we may as well have a game between ourselves.  Of course some of the dads who had expected only to play the part of spectator and taxi driver joined in with us, just as I did in later years with my own children.

Everything was quite normal until one of the dads just keeled over backwards and hit the ground with such a thump.  After the initial consternation we were sent off to the changing rooms, dragging the man’s distraught son with us.  Someone was telling him not to worry and his dad had only fainted, but I think we all sensed it was worse than that.  After what seemed an age, an ambulance came but by that time we were changed and heading for home.  It was at school the next day that we knew that he’d died from a massive heart attack.  He was 46 years old.

I hadn’t known him that well and I wasn’t a close friend of his son, but it affected me quite badly.  It wasn’t that moments before he collapsed he’d chased me round the pitch after I’d made some cheeky remark to him; I didn’t feel guilty or anything like that.  I knew I hadn’t done anything to contribute to his death, but even so I was badly shaken by the whole event.  I would lie awake at night listening to the beat of my own heart, convincing myself that it was irregular and that it was on the verge of stopping.  I became morbidly convinced that one day I too would die of a heart attack.

I don’t know why this obsession took such a hold of me.  Stranger still, although I became aware of the risk factors of heart disease, I did nothing to protect myself.  I may have got plenty of exercise (I was sports mad), but I’d already started smoking and as I got older I smoked more and more heavily.  As soon as I could get served in pubs I would drink like a fish, and I never turned down a plate of chips or a bacon sandwich.

In fact, I was and still am fairly outgoing and mostly a happy person.  Yet the worry was always there at the back of my mind.  I couldn’t even have a hangover without assuming that the occasional palpitation must be some sort of sinister foreboding.  It didn’t bother me by day, nor when I was in the company of my friends, or busy doing homework or, later, working for a living.  But at night, while everyone else slept soundly, I would frequently lie awake in the dark, listening to my chest.

This nagging fear that my heart would suddenly give up on me remained in the back of my mind until I was well into my 40s,  when it pretty much left me almost as suddenly (although less dramatically) as it had come.  I don’t know if it was because I’d simply reached the age where I’d outlived the dead man, or whether I’d just got so used to the fear that it became bedded down too deep for me to notice it any more.

Of course I now know that if I’d talked to someone about how I felt there’s a good chance I would have been able to deal with it better.  The closest I got was saying something to my brother a couple of days after it happened.  Big mistake, he laughed.  I can’t blame him, it was so ridiculous I’m sure I’d have done the same thing.  I’m glad however that in later life I always made a point of taking my own kids’ worries seriously, however silly they may have seemed to me.

There’s no punchline to this post, and nothing here of any interest to the reader.  Indeed you’re probably thinking it’s a strange subject for someone to blog about, but I’m not too bothered about that because writing it down has helped me to bury it, finally.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas


A quick glimpse at my blog tells me what I always knew would happen, namely that my initial enthusiasm would wane and the frequency of posts would decrease accordingly.  Nevertheless, I’m not one to give up so easily, and what better subject to rekindle my desire to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) than the approach of Christmas?

God knows, I’m not a religious man (see what I did there?), but I like Christmas.  I do, I like the run up to it and I like the day itself.  I don’t much like Boxing Day (apart from the re-heated Christmas lunch which always tastes better second time round), and I can’t abide all the advertising which seems to start around September.  Have you noticed how some TV Christmas ads have become an event in themselves? What on earth is the world coming to? And I don’t like the forced bonhomie served up by the television, or by some of my work colleagues for that matter (you know, the ones who would happily stab you in the back at any other time of year and then want to exchange Christmas cards with you).

So what do I like about it? Well, memories I suppose.  I’m quite a nostalgic person.  There are some areas of my past I prefer to block out, but Christmas isn’t one of them.  When I was a child I loved the excitement of putting out a pillow case on Christmas eve. I knew it would contain as a minimum a white sugar mouse, a couple of tangerines (really!), sixpence in shiny new pennies (I’m sounding like my own grandfather now), a box of something like Matchmakers, and of  course the ‘main present’.

I hankered at one point for a Johnny Seven gun.  I’d seen them in the shops, I’d seen them on TV.  I even knew a boy who had one, the lucky bastard.  I never got one, but around that age I did get a train set so the disappointment didn’t last too long. Mind you, as every other gift from my relatives that year was a train set accessory, it’s just as well I was pleased with what I got.

In my late teens, Christmas was far more about the pubs staying open late on Christmas Eve and the ritual midnight snogging of every girl you fancied. I would generally sleep the next day until it was time to get up and pick at my lunch, being much too hungover to do it justice. Even at that age I was still slightly annoyed if lunch wasn’t over and done with before the hour long special edition of Top of the Pops came on the box, during which those appalling self-absorbed Radio One DJs would review the hits of the past year.  It seems sad now that the programme should have had such an importance, but this was in the days before MTV, and my record collection was pretty dismal. 

Years later I had the pleasure of seeing my own young children enjoying the tree decorating, putting out a mince pie and a glass of sherry for Santa (not forgetting a carrot for Rudolf), and the early morning excitement of opening their presents. And I got to appreciate the sentimentality of Christmas, mostly through reading Dickens who played no small part in making it a loving family occasion.  In the run up to Christmas each year I still get myself in the mood by reading an extract from ‘Pickwick Papers’, the first half of Chapter 28 to be precise: (link here) which contains the most marvellous and evocative description of a coach journey on a frozen Christmas Eve.

It’s a cliché, but to me Christmas is about family, by which I mean just me, my wife and sons. Those other family we care for we see during the year anyway, and those we don’t bother with at any other time are hardly likely to enhance our Christmas day. Now my boys are older it’s become one of the rare occasions in the calendar when we spend a few hours in each other’s company. And it’s worth it for that alone.

The Johnny Seven gun, which I coveted but never got. You have no idea how big a deal this was to a six year old.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Keep on the Grass

Insert joke about different shaped/sized balls here

A few weeks ago, when we were still enjoying what laughably passes for the summer in this country, I was taking a lunchtime walk to get out of a hot stuffy office, when I was suddenly hit by a very strong smell of newly cut grass.

It’s almost a cliché that aromas can transport your mind elsewhere, and particularly so with newly cut grass which many people cite as a favourite.  But for me it really did take me back, not to a specific moment, but to the period of my life spanning the ages of about 10 and 15.  In those days I spent most of my free time playing sports; football mostly but also some rugby, and on one or two scary occasions I dabbled in cricket.  Forget the sound of leather on willow, the sound of leather on shinbone brought tears to my eyes.

My mates and I seemed to spend every waking moment running about on various sports pitches (not always with permission), in parks or just in someone’s back garden.  A rare thing back then was to come across some actual goalposts (yes – we did use jumpers), but when you found some with nets attached, it was like striking gold.  In a haze of nostalgia most of these memories relate to glorious summer afternoons and evenings, although it’s hard to forget literally crying in pain as my frozen hands thawed out after a wintry rugby match, made even worse by having been steamrollered by a team of giants.

I suppose in this day and age it’s almost fashionable to avoid such places in case it brings on hay fever or an asthma attack.  40 years ago I hardly knew anyone with asthma; now it seems to be all the rage, and indeed neither my wife nor my 2 sons are strangers to a Ventolin inhaler.  Perhaps back then it was just as prevalent and we simply didn’t know we had it.

I loved playing team sports.  I was never too good at competing on my own.  I used to row for my school (yes I know, but I’m really not that posh), and although I was hopeless and uninterested at single sculling, I became ultra competitive in fours or eights.  As part of a team I liked the camaraderie, the common purpose, and what Sky Sports pundits call the dressing room banter.  The latter was much more noticeable playing Sunday league football.  In later years (I didn’t hang up my football boots until I was 43), it was one of the few occasions when I could be laddish and immature in that special way that we men have without feeling any shame. Training with people instead of alone was far more enjoyable; so much easier to make yourself sprint up and down a frozen pitch if all your mates are suffering with you.

But the real reason for enjoying team sports, as I’m now prepared to admit, was the opportunity to be praised and validated by my peers.  Not that I was ever that good at anything, but I was proficient enough at most sports for the occasional contribution to be appreciated.  I enjoyed the feeling of winning together and I suppose it made the losing much easier to swallow too, and heaven knows I’ve seen plenty of that!
They left the nets up! We've struck gold!!