A Long Time Ago

The old year sent on its way with a boot up the backside and the new one greeted with the wariness of one who has been had before, it is nevertheless a time when the past tends to creep into the consciousness.

This could be because no government offices are open to plague us, shops close for all of half an hour, the internet slows to a crawl while everyone tries out their latest iProd and the best that the television can offer is a hideous pastiche of Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels…false teeth figure largely, homosexuality has to be broadly signalled in a manner quite foreign to the original and novels that were masterworks of delicate observation have been perverted into Merchant and Ivory costumed slapstick.

Thus, there are some moments when thoughts of the past can creep in unobserved.

Christmas Day only became a holiday in Scotland in the late fifties…so the Christmas fever never really caught on with me. The birth of the Prince of Peace was just that…not an occasion to throw financial caution to the winds and splurge on a mountain of presents, decorations and food while averting the eyes from the bills due in January.
Not being too well in the run up to Christmas this year I was looking for diversion so turned on the T.V. and was presented with some woman decorating her house like a tart’s boudoir and an Italian themed Christmas party presented by another woman continually tossing her hair, pushing her bosom into the camera and licking her fingers while looking roguish. Must have been the tart for whom the other’s boudoir was designed.
Tchah! and Pah! Off with the box!

The arrival of Christmas card from a friend reminded me of our student days in London where we managed to miss the sexual revolution, LSD and anything even remotely swinging. It may well all have been happening, but not round our hall of residence it wasn’t.
I tried smoking a cigarette ( twice) and decided that wine was a lot more pleasurable, as evidenced by observing my tutor, having drink taken, attempting to descend the ascending escalator at Holborn tube station.
The student union bar…that place of suspiciously sticky carpet and dim lighting….falling into silence as the T.V. in the corner was turned on for the weekly emission of Noggin the Nog.

Later, visiting ex student friends, the same reverence would be shown for the Sunday afternoon post pub emissions of The Clangers…

Let all mortal flesh be silent.

The sailing club’s annual wrecking trip to the Norfolk Broads….usually wet and cold, encased in inflexible yellow oilskins which did nothing to enhance the wind reddened complexion, where the main aim was to reach Potter Heigham and get to the pub with the most remarkable collection of gins I have ever seen.
Getting back aboard could be interesting but at least you no longer cared that your bunk was a strange triangular shape which had you touching heads with the other occupant of your compartment while your frozen feet diverged to hit the bulkhead at the far end.
Potter Heigham’s other attraction was its medieval bridge. Not just for the bridge itself, but for the possibilities of mayhem that it offered.
If the water levels were high some of the high sided motor cruisers could not get under it. Some of the v necked pullovered skippers of said high sided motor cruisers would try anyway and get their craft firmly wedged under the arch, the strong current playing merry hell with their attempts to reverse as the men from the nearby boatyard gloomily launched their rescue craft.
Yachts had to lower their masts….the safe thing to do was to moor up alongside the bank, lower the mast and secure it before deploying the quants – long poles – casting off and attempting to line up on the bridge so as to go straight through.
Most sailing club skippers, raised on tales of Horatio Hornblower and Captain Morgan, would claim that it was easier and safer to line up on the bridge, lower sails and mast while under way and shoot it with the aid of the current. This took a crew with split second reactions who had not had drink taken the night before and usually ended in the men from the boatyard gloomily launching their rescue craft.
potter heigham bridge
The sailing club was just that…it sailed.
sailiong yachts norfolk broads
No engines, so you could spend a day tacking backwards and forwards in the face of a stiff breeze from the North Sea while high sided motor cruisers steered by gentlemen in v necked pullovers merrily passed you by, the wash of their boat knocking you back about another half an hour of tacking.
However, at some point in the trip one member would always manage to ram his bowsprit through the window of a cruiser rash enough to cross his bows – and with any luck it would prove to be the loo compartment with someone trapped within.

Warning…if you play this video apply the mute.

The Norfolk Broads might not have been swinging London…but it had its moments.

Back to London in term time we would frequent a Chinese restaurant off the East India Dock Road in Pennyfields…..I cannot remember if it was called Old Friends or New Friends but it was cheap (even on a student grant), offered good food – the first time I ate squid – and the pot of jasmine tea was continually refilled. I gather it is now called Noodles and is frequented by the sort of noodle who works in the Evil Empire of finance which has taken over Docklands and changed it from a place where the toil was honest into a lair of vampires sucking the blood from the world economy.
Tchah again!

Not far away in Coldharbour was a pub called The Gun.
the gun pub
Here on singing nights bearded young men armed with squeezeboxes and wearing aran sweaters would foregather to sing sea shanties…
aran sweaters
Most of which were culled from the pages of Stan Hugill’s masterwork ‘Shanties of the Seven Seas’ because if you had asked any of these bearded wonders to undertake a voyage on a Cape Horner to the flaming coast of Chile in the guano trade they would, in that unforgettable phrase used by journalists of ‘The News of The World’, have made an excuse and left.
cape horner

Mark you, they’d have been right.
‘They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters’ have always had a hard and dangerous life and it’s not one I’d have liked to have had to endure….

So as the Christmas cards go into their box, taking the past with them, it’s back to the present, to the calls for cups of tea, the noise of the cane cutting machine and the Costa Rican sun….with just one last blast from the past.


49 thoughts on “A Long Time Ago”

  1. What a great post, Helen! I never had the pleasure of viewing Oliver Postgate’s work, so thank you for posting two examples here. I’ll do more research into his work. As a fan of sea shanties, I was, of course, delighted to hear your two audio postings here. Once again, you have enchanted. Thank you!

  2. Oliver Postgate did some lovely work…you’ll enjoy it!

    I hadn’t thought of the sea shanties for ages….and then up they popped, and several are now running round in my head….

  3. Helen, so much in your post that I concur with and want to reply to! Television – what can I say? Our brief encounter with it in the UK this Christmas left me gobsmacked and appalled. Why do intelligent people even turn on to all that crap, let alone put up with it?
    Student Union days…god and bad memories….our particular weekly weakness was the Hammer Horror movie on a Monday night, after which we would fight determinedly not to be the last to bed.
    The Norfolk Broads, Norfolk being my birthplace, I have memories of our annual outing in a rowing boat on the broads, usually somewhere near Filby, complete with packed lunch. My dad in charge of oars. It ALWAYS rained and ALWAYS when we were in the middle of a huge span of water with no shelter in sight. Mother’s grim face topped by a plastic rain bonnet sticks in my memory.
    London Docklands, I had cause to visit the Poplar Estate on ‘ the other side of the tracks’ in the course of my last job. The people of the estate had been promised that the development of Canary Wharf etc would bring jobs and prosperity; the ‘trickle down’ effect. Of course it didn’t. Only the menial and paltry jobs were ever on offer as the big boys moved in and sucked the heart of a thriving community.
    Finally, Sea Shanties. I happened to catch a BBC Radio programme on ‘Singing Together’ in which I and many like me heartily participated as a pupil of Great Ormesby County Primary School. Not exactly a Sea Shanty but a song etched in my brain. Do you remember ‘Donkey Riding’? Loved it then, love it now and will sing the first two verses with gusto whenever I can, much to the embarrassment of anyone listening. ‘Singing Together’ lasted until 2004, believe it or not. Much loved by teachers and kids alike when it started, apparently the BBC deemed it to be not musically or educationally highbrow enough. How wrong they were! Nothing like a good sing song to rouse the spirits.
    Thanks for the memory and hope your health has improved, Helen!!

    1. I too heard the programme on ‘Singing Together’….what a wonderful series that was – though from the programme i gathered it became somewhat PC at the end of its life…and I certainly remember Donkey Riding!
      Here’s a version that would never have made it onto the programme, PC or not..
      Was you ever in Quebec
      Stowing timber on the deck
      Where you break your bloody neck
      Riding on a donkey

      Way-hey and away we go
      Donkey riding donkey riding
      Way-hey and away we go
      Riding on a donkey

      Was you ever in Vallipo
      Where the girls put on their show
      Wriggling their arse with a roll and go
      Riding on a donkey


      Was you ever down Mobil Bay
      Screwing cotton all the day
      A dollar a day is the white man’s pay
      Riding on a donkey


      Was you ever in Mirramashee
      Where you tie up to a tree
      And the skeeters do bite thee
      Riding on a donkey


      Was you ever in Equiquay
      Round and round the bloody bay
      Loading nitrates all the day
      Riding on a donkey


      Was you ever off Cape Horn
      Where it’s always fine and warm
      Where there’s a lion and a unicorn
      Riding on a donkey


      Was you ever in Cardiff Bay
      Where the folks all shout hooray
      Here comes Johnny with his six months pay
      Riding on a donkey

      And what folly to have first changed the format and then to close the programme down altogether. It gave children a shared culture…and if the self proclaimed highbrow fartarses had thought about it, it is that shared culture which produces art and music. Not the stuff produced by the Saatchi stable….sterile, puerile, sensation seeking.

      Oh the rowing boat, the sandwiches and your mother under a plastic rain bonnet! You describe it all so well that I can see it!

      And as for Poplar…all the false hope…what was ever going to ‘trickle down’ to these people….or to anyone else. The bog boys only need servants, not colleagues.

      I wasn’t much involved in the S.U….but it was nice to drop into the bar for the Noggin the Nog sessions….

      And the television! I don’t often tune in but i was feeling too tired to read and gave it a whirl…
      What a mistake! Most of what was on offer was mindless….it could suck the life out of you watching too much of that!

      Thanks for the kind wishes…I’m on the mend.

  4. Great post, Helen. Glad to have missed Mapp and Lucia as I loved the books and have my own version very clear in my head. Delighted to see Noggin the Nog and The Clangers again though – the latter have always been a great favourite of mine. Something about the passing of the old year that makes one think back. Thank you for giving us a little glimpse into some of your memories…the 60s may have swung by you but I am pretty sure you managed to store up some very interesting tales! All the best for the new year – hope you are back to full health now. Axxx

    1. I could not watch more than a short burst from time to time…it infuriated me to see such a travesty.

      Noggin and the Clangers…back to the age of innocence, I suppose.

      It was the Christmas card that started me off…I was just starting to put them away and wallop…there came a wave of music and memories.

      Thanks for you kind wishes, I am feeling better now…well enough to make tea, anyway!

  5. Well past the Bah! humbuggedness now….I don’t “do” Christmas. Well, certainly not the commercial, Yankified crap.
    Loved your student day tales. And “Donkey Riding” was one of the songs we sang(bellowed?) at school,though I have no recollection of the verse about girls wriggling their arse…we were 9 or 10.
    And so, the planets wheel through their ordained skies and most of us get on with the business of living.In my case, grumbling about the lack of a proper wet season!
    May your year be a happy and healthy one, with lots of pithy blog tales, please!

  6. I detest the commercial Christmas…on Christmas Eve I saw grown men buying knick knacks of Father Christmas clinging to a chimney and climbing up and down it to some pathetic song…where are their brains!

    No, I don’t think the girls figured in our version of Donkey Riding either!

    Our wet season wasn’t all that wet either….and now summer is in full swing. We shall be longing for a few dark clouds by April…

  7. We had such a lovely noncommercial Christmas. Quiet and low-key with an exchange of a box of pears and homemade cookies for some handmade knitted cotton dishcloths. What are we, pioneers? No, just in total revolt against all of it except the lovely music, food, and time together.

    Now I have to say that I burst into laughter (which we both know is such a rare occurrence) at the Uncle Albert video. The intense schadenfreude of the cackling observers reminded me in the strongest possible way of some of our own boating disasters which always and only happened before a crowd! Oh, the humiliation!

    1. We had a very quiet Christmas…but a New Year which was somewhat more mouvemonte…..
      The traditional cauldron of boiling lard in which are cooked squares of pork, plantains and potatoes…accompanied by tomato salsa piquante…and vast quantities of beer…. national anthem and fireworks at midnight…and the feast continues….

      So glad you enjoyed the Uncle Albert moment…people used to spend their holidays on Potter Heigham bridge just to watch the disasters……

  8. If I swap your London student’s Union for Birmingham and Chinese for Balti, you are almost describing my younger life. You almost had me shouting “motor gives way to sail” before hearing the crunch of deck against stainless steel stanchions, and as for getting stuck on the East Coast…..been there, done that and died with embarrassment more times than I can remember. I joined you and all other Benson lovers in hitting my head against the wall, but having spoken to some who have never read the books but liked the TV adaptation, they will buy the books and be given a treat.

    1. I used to sail out of Woodbridge and assorted Essex ports for some years…a good recipe for getting stuck somewhere or other with unusually adhesive mud…..

      Well, if people are led to the books then that’s a positive I hadn’t considered…and they’ll meet Captain Puffin…

  9. I simply was too tired last night to read and enjoy this post, so left it for this morning. To the post I can now add the pleasant repartee. My stories are from a different continent but from the same kind of upbringing. My college days were so long ago, but I remember them pleasantly. I encountered sea shanties there, the entire folk music movement swirled around me then and the histories they embrace interest me yet.
    Thanks for the review, and I wish you a good new year.

    1. I’ve been having difficulties in commenting on your blog …sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. so I hope the glitch gets sorted now the hols are over. That shirt you put up was fabulous.

      The folk movement was in full swing, wasn’t it….and the interest in those who made those songs too. Seemingly now the idea is to suppress any genuine popular culture and impose a fake culture imposed from above.
      Lindsay referred to a programme for schools…Singing Together…it went on for years, from wartime onward and taught children not just the joy of singing (or honking like a seal in my case) but a knowledge of traditional songs. Friends with grandchildren tell me that those children don’t know any of those songs…

      Happy New year…and good weaving!.

  10. I’ve never got caught up in Christmas fever, the whole shebang is so obviously artificial and big business-inspired. The level of personal debt in the UK is now apparently at its highest level ever, with frenetic Christmas spending partly to blame. Jenny and I have a few modest decorations, a sensible amount of good food and drink and that’s it. Why people have to decorate not only their house but the bushes and trees outside their houses I fail to understand.

    I’ve never been sailing in my life. It looks like rather a lot of hard work for not much reward. But whatever floats your boat, as it were.

    1. I have never understood why people go so mad…lumbering themselves with debt in some cases. Here people get double pay in December…the idea being to enable them to pay their end of year taxes…but you can imagine where the dosh goes…

      I loved sailing….though preferred having a bit more room than that available on what could as well be called the Norfolk Narrows…

  11. How delightful a reminisce that was.
    Men in Arran sweaters, yes I saw some of those, the ‘Dubliners’ live for one, and no I would not go on a Guano ship either. I saw a programme on that, ships sailing from Wales round the Horn and up to the Galapagos type places and back again. Rough time indeed.
    Christmas was different then, Dad went to work as normal, though whether normal work occurred is doubtful, until about 1960.
    I would prefer a cruiser than a yacht myself, all that sailing is hard work for the lazy and the cabins are warmer. I once dreampt of owning a narrowboat as I thought that life cheap and attractive. Too poor now.
    What a good read that was, the laughter makes me glow!

    1. Gracious, yes, the Dubliners! How could I have forgotten about them!

      Nothing on earth would get me on a sailing ship in the guano trade….I still remember my father referring to Herman Melville’s ‘Two years before the mast’ as ‘Twenty years up the pole’ which about summed up our joint view of the occupation.

      Friends thought of a narrow boat, but apart from the problem of working locks there was also the bigger problem of paying for a mooring, so they gave up the idea.

      What you need is a gin palace which never leaves the marina….you’d have even more of a laugh if you were to watch the weekend antics of the owners – and their ‘guests’. You wouldn’t need reality television…

  12. How deliciously ironic that I happened to read this marvellous post while my laptop was busy downloading the first episode of Mapp and Lucia, as I didn’t see a single minute of TV over Christmas and New Year. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve had chance to watch it, but I may well not be downloading the others…. 🙂

    I enormously enjoyed your eclectic mix of video clips and you sent me back in time to my own student days in the mid-sixties, though in Oxford. not in London. There may have been drugs back then, but they never came my way and the nearest I came to sailing was trying to punt on the Cherwell, where on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I dropped the college boathouse keys in the river and had to retrieve them!

    As for Christmas fever, you know from my blog that I try to keep Adven. For me Christmas proper doesn’t start until the eve and I’m still happily enjoying the twelve days as I type. Sorry to hear you’ve been unwell. I do hope you’re now over it and ready to get to grips with 2015.

    1. For me too.Christmastide starts at Christmas….apart from any other considerations, start it long before and your enthusiasm runs into the sands by Boxing Day.

      Thank you for the good wishes…now on the mend I’m glad to say!

      I was so disappointed in Mapp and Lucia…the heavy handedness of it all…it reminded me of the treatment handed out to Wodehouse when they televised Blandings….like hippos plunging through a formal garden which, come to think of it is not a bad description of the actors involved.

      How on earth did you recover those keys! I have visions of full diving suits and copper helmets with your husband to be pumping air from a punt above you…
      We did have fun though, didn’t we, back in those dark ages!

      1. We did indeed. I was extremely lucky that I dropped the keys right by the bank at LMH, where the river is only chest-deep. I located them with my toes, took a deep breath and held my nose with one hand and crouched down to pick them up with the other. 🙂

        1. Thank goodness that they were – relatively – close at hand. We took something like that very seriously in our youth, didn’t we….rather than bowling up to the relevant authority and suggesting they claim on the insurance…

          1. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to do what you mention. I was such an innocent about things like that back then.

          2. No. it wouldn’t have occurred to me either… if I’d lost the things it was my responsibility to sort it out would be how I saw it, rather than to shrug it off in an insurance claim. Perhaps that was why insurance premiums were more reasonable then….

  13. I would have commented sooner but it took me the better part of the day to go through all the great material in your post. Well, I had to start with some rum since nobody listens to sea shanties without a draft of the demon rum. Then Noggin the Nog led me to quaffing the eggnog, with a generous dollop of brandy. At that point I found the notion of Clanger rodents in space completely reasonable.

    The Norfolk Broads was a surprise since I expected a bunch of pushy ladies from Virginia but now I want to visit – what a lovely spot! Hopefully, my sailing skills are better than Uncle Albert’s.

    So much to enjoy in one post. It was a very pleasant time and much enjoyed. Farewell and adieu you lady of Costa Rica.

    1. Had I but known that you were complementing the text and clips with appropriate liquid nourishment!
      I could have elaborated on the gins available at the Falgate pub….promoted the delights of a gin and Campari mix…and suggested care when handling a Dublin Dynamite – still cider and Irish whiskey in equal large measures.It was supposed to repel the chill…after a couple you could repel boarders…
      Mark you if that lot had followed the egg nog you might have felt that the Clangers were inhabiting your head instead of the screen.

      Yes, I can imagine your relief at the true nature of the Broads…and if you can you should go. Beautiful, (windswept) landscapes…and you should visit the east coast while you are about it from the nudist beach at Hunstanton – recognisable by the blue coloured aliens inhabiting it – down to Mersea for the oysters.
      I think you’d need a few gins to equal Uncle Albert though….

      So glad you enjoyed it, but please do not fit Max with another Norse helmet in your enthusiasm for Noggin the Nog. You’ll get one of those looks and he’ll start digging up the bed…

  14. Wonderful memories Helen. A lovely post. Christmas doesn’t mean much to me either parrticularly living here. I was in the midst of the drug scene, but somehow avoided it. I could see how people lost control when indulging and being someone who always liked to be in control, made sure I didn’t succumb.

    Hope you’re feeling much better now. Happy New Year xx

  15. They don’t make children’s programmes like that any more. Wallace and Gromit are the nearest we have now to the 70s charm of eccentricity, and their films are not specifically for children.

  16. I loved the comment how “we managed to miss the sexual revolution, LSD and anything even remotely swinging.” Reminds me of when I, perhaps 20 years old at the time, asked my dad if he, born in 1940, had ever participated in being a “hippie.” His response: “Heck, no. I was too busy working and raising a family. I didn’t have time for that foolishness.”

  17. I thought of Philip Larkin’s oft-quoted line from “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me)–/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” Well, “Meet the Beatles” came out when I was 12, and I grew up with the Beatles, becoming ever more psychedelic with each passing year and ever more dedicated to “sex, drugs, and rock n roll.” I have no regrets, though my life now is completely different. It makes life interesting if you go through various phases, survive them, and eventually figure out what is truly important in the long run.

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