Goodbye To All That

Spain, for so many, is the costas…the beaches, the bars, the booze….

I remember conversations with older cousins who talked grandly of the qualities of the various hotels on the Costa Brava as if all should know of them, from the catalogues so eagerly perused before Christmas, the holiday booked in January.

My father’s Spain was that of the civil war where he went out a dedicated Communist and came back totally opposed to Russian communism, hardened by the realities of a war without rules of conduct.

Leo’s Spain was that of the intermediate period, when the resorts were still fishing villages, where widows would touch a visitor’s suitcase for luck and to find a lodging you asked for a room at the bar.

He remembers the beaches being full of cactus, the sewage pipes disgorging their contents close to the shore and a gypsy family camping there losing their baby to rats… washing his shirt in a room above a bar in Seville and hanging it out of the window – dry in minutes.

He remembers too, when holidaying with his father, returning to their room to find the latter plying the young chambermaids with sherry while they danced together to music from the radio. Luckily for the chambermaids the German in the next room complained about the noise and made his views known. Picture a very large middle aged German and a squat elderly Belgian vis a vis in the doorway. The German expresses his distaste for the goings on. The Belgian replies

‘Hitler tot’…Hitler is dead…

Collapse of stout Westphalian party. While the chambermaids, the spell broken, depart about their duties.

When his father acquired a Spanish mistress, Leo was sent to Madrid to improve his education – or to be kept out of the way – studying at the university while staying with the mistress’ family in an upmarket area of Madrid. A fellow lodger was the son of Franco’s chief of police, banned from the family home for licentious behaviour, with whom he toured the bars and the less touristic areas of the city, giving rise to cries of ‘I remember when tapas, proper tapas, were free…’ memories of the mussel shells crunching underfoot on the sawdust strewn floors of the bars.

Just as well that the tapas were free…his father was distinctly stingy with support – the mistress clearly offering better value for money – while his boon companion was also starved of cash. They might have toured the barrios in an ancient Hispano Suiza, but it only budged when mummy coughed up spending money unbeknownst to her husband.

The diet in their pension consisted largely of lentils…the lady of the house announcing their arrival on the table with

‘If you don’t like lentils…you don’t have to eat them…’

As any meat accompaniment would have needed a microscope to detect its presence one must assume that her lodgers preferred lentils to starvation.

Apart from the lentils, though, it was an idyllic period in his life….no father on his back, free to spend hours in the Prado., wine and a tapa for a couple of pesetas….which all came crashing to the ground when the mistress produced a baby whose crying sufficiently annoyed its progenitor to set up mistress and child in their own establishment and summon Leo home to be sent to the Stock Exchange. Leaving Madrid in a snowstorm, sharing the driving with an English student returninghome for Christmas, he said farewell to Spain…and farewell to lentils.

I have only come there relatively recently, to another face of the country in our house up in the hills behind the Valencian coast. Lying quiet against the pines on the hillside, it looks out over the vines, the olives and the almonds below and, in the distance, the peak of Mount Penyagolosa, dominating the skyline.

The village names bear witness to the long occupation by the Moors, and the road that lies beyond the olives marks the traces of the Reconquest…that long crusade starting in the eleventh century, its aims not to be achieved until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. The road in question is part of a side circuit of the Camina del Cid

Camina del Cid

marking the trail of that somewhat mercenary warlord from Burgos to Valencia and is, in all probablility dreamt up by a tourist office somewhere in the area, the background information being full of ‘he must have’s and ‘he would have’s….but it is a spectacular route in its own right, especially in the mountainous sectors, and with villages well worth a visit in themselves, whether it is tiny Culla, clinging to its rock under the old castle walls, once the stronghold of the Knights of Montesa who took the place of the Templars when that order came to disaster, ruling what was then a disputed border area,

or the winemaking village of Les Useres, whence departs a journey of another nature.

On the last Friday in April, every year since the fourteenth century, twelve pilgrims and a guide, representing Jesus Christ and his disciples, set off from Les Useres to walk to the sanctuary of St. Joan de Penyagolosa,

over thirty kilometres away. The original purpose of the pilgrimage is forgotten, though tradition has it that it is to ask for rain, so vital in that barren country.

Pelerins de Les Useres route

The thirteen have to follow an exact ritual…from growing their beards, their distinctive blue clothing, the parts of the route which must be made in bare feet, the prescribed halts and, above all, the observation of total silence. The only music comes from those accompanying them as the group makes its way over rough tracks to its destination where they will spend the night at the sanctuary before a religious ceremony – Perdon – in which the guide addresses the pilgrims, who must never transmit what has been said to them, before setting off on the return journey.

People do gather to watch or to follow for part of the way, but this is no tourist attraction like the medieval fairs which render horrid the summer scene…those men have a serious purpose and, I imagine, the journey offers the opportunity for self discovery.

Here is a video made in 1998, which gives a flavour of the pilgrimage…it is a bit long…but so is the route!

While so calm and quiet now, the area has its stories….its wild isolation offering refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution in France, centuries later its conservative tradition providing support to the Carlists in the mid nineteenth century civil wars which while in theory disputing the succession to the Spanish crown, were in fact a face off between a liberal, urban, centralising government and traditionalists, who wished to preserve established religion and the particular laws and customs of the regions making up that crown. The civil war of the twentieth century, child of the Carlist Wars, did not pass it by….after the decisive battle at Teruel across the mountains Franco’s forces and the remains of the Republican army made a race for the sea…Franco winning and cutting the Republic in two, leading to its defeat. There were supposed to be Republican guerillas operating up in the hills into the fifties, somehow avoiding the genocide that accompanied Franco’s victory.

To this day ‘don’t mention the war’ is good advice….

While so many villages have all but died, the one closest to the house is – by village standards – booming. A butcher, several bakers, a supermarket with a fresh fish counter, an odds and bods shop, a hardware shop and white goods shop…where they delivered me a new washing machine before I paid for it… and the best maker of turron – nougat – that I have ever encountered. Not to speak of the bars and restaurants ranging from the plastic chairs and drop in when you like to oak doors and entry by appointment. There is an active cultural life…from historical research to, inevitably, bulls running in the streets, a big music programme for the kids…massive bonfires…all making for a community spirit.

There is even a bus….leaving at 5.30 in the morning and returning at 6.30 at night…but it is a bus…and I have taken it.

It is about the only village not perched on a hill….I remember being driven up to Xodos one day…stopping at the roadside halt to watch the eagles rising on the thermals before going on to the village itself where we ate a snail and rabbit paella for lunch in the plastic chair style caff by the church.

while closing the shutters of the house at night the lights of Benefigos would be shining across the valley like a beacon of security.

It is yet another goodbye, this year….the house has to be sold. The gentleman, in every sense of that word, who looked after it is no more and, given the state of Leo’s health, and now mine, the less complications in our life the better.

I came late to Spain….I came late to a house which has the most peaceful atmosphere I have ever experienced….and I have to lose both.

Getting on in life is a bugger sometimes.

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Time Travel, without the Tardis

fontenoy1

 

My father sang from morning to night, when not absorbed in finding the right combination for a five horse accumulator….opera, light opera, folk song, dubious ditties from the music halls and the army , songs of liberation, songs of despair…

Thanks to him I am probably the only person – apart from Mark Mills in Mayenne – to know the words and music to ‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’.

I grew up with his voice – a light tenor which did not quail at producing the Song of the Hebrew Slaves, nor Stenka Razin – though his lyrics were not those of the Red Army Choir.

 

 

To this day I cannot find a reproduction of the tune to which he sang ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’…nor can I reproduce it, having the voice of a honking seal…but his voice remains alive in my memory.

Why has this come back to me now?

Because with the limitations imposed by Leo’s state of health our world has closed down somewhat….no longer possible to get up one day and decide to take the bus to Nicaragua the next to look for vanished towns and petroglyphs….no more impulses to take a ‘plane and explore the old silver towns of Mexico….

We have become static…but only physically. Thanks to those who fed our minds when we were young we have plenty of material upon which to ruminate while sitting on the balcony looking out over the valley.

My father gave me music and an insatiable love of history, where picking up one thread will lead you to a whole stretch of fabric to explore.

I can still hear him declaiming Thomas Davis’ poem ‘Fontenoy’…

‘On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge, remember Limerick! dash down the Sacsanach!’

Not great poetry, as he would have been the first to admit, but what threads to follow!

Fontenoy was a battle in the War of the Austrian Succession, fought in 1745 near the town of Tournai in Belgium…then known as the Austrian Netherlands.

The French forces were led by Marshal Saxe,  one of the many  illegitimate sons of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who had taken service with the French…..you could have many an hour of exploration  just following the thread of foreigners who became distinguished in foreign service…

Here are two….or perhaps three….

Eugene of Savoy

eugeneof savoy

Rejected by Louis XIV he took service with Austria and in company with Marlborough his armies knocked the French for six in the War of the Spanish Succession. Threads from Eugene lead back to the court of Louis XIV and the case of  the the poisons which blew the French court apart with rumours of murder and black masses performed upon the body of Mme. de Montespan, the current mistress of the king. Other threads lead forward to the wars against the Ottoman Empire and the tangled history of its oppression in the Balkans which gives rise even now to the qualms of states which have historically been in the front line against the Ottomans when faced with a massive influx of mainly Muslim immigrants.

James Keith

james keith

Forced to flee Scotland by the failure of the Jacobite rebellion he took service in Russia and was  part of the conspiracy which put Catherine the Great on the throne but as the eye of that lascivious monarch turned on him thought it advisable to take service under Frederick the Great of Prussia whose attentions were reserved for his guards. An intriguing story from his time in the Russian service finds him meeting another exile in foreign service…the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire.

"These two personages met and carried on
their negotiations by means of interpreters.

“When all was concluded they rose to separate, but just before leaving,the grand vizier suddenly went to Marischal Keith and, taking him cordially by the hand, declared in the broadest Scotch (sic) dialect that it made him ’unco’ happy to meet a countryman in his exalted station.

“As might be expected, Keith stared with astonishment, and was eager for an explanation of the mystery.

” ‘Dinna be surprised,’ the grand vizier exclaimed, ’I’m o’ the same
country wi’ yoursell, mon! I mind weel seein’ you and your brother, when
boys, passin’ by to the school at Kirkcaldy; my father, sir, was bellman o’ Kirkcaldy.’

The Scots…they get everywhere…

But who fought at Fontenoy?

The English and the Dutch on one side, the French on the other, but with the French were the Irish Brigade,  successors to The Wild Geese,

Wave upon wave of Irishmen left their native land after the failure of rebellions against England…in the sixteenth century it was the Flight of the Earls where the men went mostly into the Spanish service…in the seventeenth the Wild Geese, the Jacobite army under Patrick Sarsfield who were forced to leave under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick following their defeat by William of Orange’s forces – , the King Billy of the Troubles in Ireland – and entered the service of France.

On Fontenoy all was lost for the French…the English were advancing solidly despite the hail of fire….when at last the Irish Brigade were thrown in, advancing with the bayonet to the cry of

‘Cuimhnigidh ar Liumneac!  Remember Limerick!

They turned the day. The English, who had been steady under terrible losses and who were in sight of victory, had had enough…they did not break and run, but they retreated, leaving Marshal Saxe the victor of Fontenoy…and the French masters of the campaign in  the cockpit of Europe.

Not least because the British were called home to deal with the ’45…Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England…..

And what do these threads have in common?

People displaced from their homes by war and politics, doing what they can to keep body and soul together.

And in today’s world, from Syrian refugees to African child soldiers, we don’t seem to have learned very much.

We two might be obliged to be stay at homes these days, but the threads of history can still allow us to travel in time and give us a context to today’s world and its problems.

All while drinking tea  – or something stronger – on the balcony.

 

 

 

 

How I came to France

I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.

In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.

I saw this film on the television when a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.Tout de suite.

I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).

Forgive me…..I was young.

A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.

France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.

The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.

Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.

In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.

I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.

I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!

Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.

At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.

You know you are in France.

Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.

Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.

Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.

The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August.
It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.

The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.

I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.

Nothing New Under The Sun…

dicese-poitiers.com.fr

As the French economy turned down and the votes for the Front National turned up the Sarkozy government thought best to draw the fangs of the FN by starting a debate about what it was to be French, which roused a great deal of noise and fury but arrived at no conclusions.

Waste of time, of course: any reader of the Daily Mail has the answer on the tip of the tongue….
Eats snails, has unsavoury urinatory habits in the male (possible link?) and makes improper use of hand and head when playing football.

And there was even an answer in France among – the beaufs – not that they would be listened to as not having passed the portals of the Grandes Ecoles, except as labourers…..
Anyone born in France who is not a bougnoul.

A bougnoul?

Someone of North African descent, now extended to anyone darker skinned than the average non bougnoul Frenchman.

The word might be relatively modern….probably from the colonisation of Algeria….but the sentiment is not.

I would often be included in the boules party at Jules’ place when walking the dogs in the evening, followed by the glass or two at the kitchen table, mustard glasses on the oilcloth and a plate of biscuits put out but left untouched.
They were the sign that we were not alcoholics….just there for the booze…but they remained untouched.

Jules was recounting a run in he had had with a man who had bought one of his sheep and was reluctant to pay for it….a man from the next commune just over the departmental line.

His wife was not surprised. She certainly wouldn’t have dealt with the man.

Who is it, I asked, curiosity being my besetting sin.

That man out at Humeau….you know…does eau de vie and honey.

Yes, I did. Sold under cover eau de vie at higher prices to foreigners.

Not that you can trust any of that lot out there, she continued. They all have the ‘teint bazane’. (acute accent on the final e).

Teint bazane? Swarthy.
Not, in my view, noticably so compared with their neighbours on this side of the departmental line…but enlightenment was at hand.

Descended from the Saracens beaten by Charles Martel at Poitiers! They ran and hid in the forests and there they are today!

Given that this was in the 1980s and the battle of Poitiers was in 732 that seemed a mighty feat of folk memory. Clearly these early immigrants from North Africa had about the same level of appreciation as did the later wave of new arrivals.

Further to the south, a commune bears a name referring to a legend concerning the same flight of the defeated from the battlefield…..St. Sauveur de Givre en Mai – Holy Saviour of Frost in May.

Legend has it that a band of Saracens holed up in the local church in the month of May some six months after the battle, defying all efforts to dislodge them.
Eventually they made an agreement…if there was frost overnight, they would surrender.
Coming from southern climes, they could not imagine such a thing, but, lo and behold when they emerged the next morning, the ground was covered in frost and the trees were white.
They marched out with the honours of war…to leave the village in peace.

Ancestors of the honey man at Humeau? Who knows.

Ah! Say those who know their rural France…the Saracens had not reckoned with the Saints de Glace…the Ice Saints.
St. Mamert, feast day on May 11th; St. Pancrace, feast day on May 12th; St. Servais, feast day on May 13th.
One of the first things I was warned of by my neighbours when moving to France was not to let the sudden warmth of spring go to my head in the garden.
On top of not casting clouts I had to beware of the ‘lune rousse’ in April and May when the sudden chill risked burning the young shoots and the Ice Saints.

Only when their three feast days had passed should I even think of planting out the tomatoes….

As in the case of the sheep, a financial reversal can bring up all sorts of reactions, and racism is one of them.
Nothing new under the icy skies of the economic lune rousse.

Shopping with Mother

flickr.com

No, not shopping with mother as of recently…the scythes on the hubs of the wheelchair, the walking device held in rest as if pricking into the lists and the purse providing a safe environment for elderly moths…..

Shopping with mother when I was a child and we had just moved to Surrey.
We moved further into Surrey a little later, but this is the period I remember – perhaps because it was all different.
Different accents, different houses, different schools.

We could go in two directions.

To the right it was a long walk along the ribbon development of thirties houses, detached or semi behind their gates and hedges – privet much in evidence with the sharp smell of its flowers in summer; old man’s beard showing its feathery heads in autumn.

We would pass the unmade up lane with the wooden weatherboard houses one of which was home to an elderly maiden lady who would give me moss roses in season while she and mother drank tea under the trees….
We would pass the house on the corner with the monkey puzzle tree – home to a cantankerous and incompetent doctor who is responsible for the damage to my middle ear (I have a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to health professionals)…
Further on there was the house ruled by the whims of an African Grey parrot, companion of an old Scottish lady – relict of a minister – who used to give me Beauty of Bath apples from her tree while my father tidied up her garden…
Then to the parade of shops near the church to which I was despatched for Sunday School on the dominical afternoon to allow my parents time to dispute the nature and availability of marital rights.
For some little time I suffered a confusion between marital rights and Marian rites – probably due to the High nature of worship on offer at said church as commented upon by the minister’s relict – but kept my confusion and subsequent enlightenment to myself.

The fish and chip shop…working up for its lunchtime trade…the sweet shop next door, beautifully positioned opposite the zebra crossing serving the children from the school opposite.
I remember the dragon of a crossing keeper who would shout at children who crossed the road to visit the sweet shop only to want to cross back again with their booty once selection had been made among the pear drops, wine gums and chocolate bars.
I used to wonder whether she was responsible for the accidents to children on the sharp bend by the church back down the road…but, again, kept my thoughts to myself.

Past the photographer with wedding pictures in the window where mother would drop in rolls of film to be developed or collect the results in heavy paper envelopes, strips of negatives tucked into the special pocket.

The pet shop opposite was not on my mother’s rounds…my father would take me there to buy biscuits for my dog,Sandy; large ones of different colours…I remember beige, red and green…and black, charcoal ones, said to counteract the flatulent effect of the green ones.
Clearly, no one had told Sandy. I learnt to take cover whenever he would stir, heave himself up from his rug and take a stroll down the hall; seconds later the lungs would be overwhelmed by a smell so virulent that you would think that thirty school canteens had simultaneously decided to boil cabbage to death.
Silent but deadly…that was Sandy.
The pet shop was a delight as its owner had a mynah bird which could imitate …as I recall…every regular customer and I was thrilled when I in turn had the mark of its recognition as it gave forth what was evidently my standard cry…’There’s the mynah bird…’

But, back on mother’s path, the road began to run downhill into the main shopping area…butchers, bakers, grocers and – to me the high point – the Co-op.
The Co-op did not stock food…but it seemed to have everything else and above all it had those wonderful change machines…little metal tubs on wires which would whizz at ceiling height between the wooden counters and the cash desk.

There was a Marks and Spencer but we did not darken its doors. Mother objected to their prices and to that fact that they had no changing rooms, so that if something did not fit you were obliged to make a special trip to return it.
I wonder if they were placing their money on the markets overnight even then…
If so they made nothing from mother.

British Home Stores on the other hand, did have changing rooms and their quality was every bit as high as that of M and S so while knickers and liberty bodices – was there anything so ill named – were bought at the Co-op, dresses blouses and skirts were bought at BHS.

This was as far as we went, unless taking the train to London, or when, occasionally, my father would walk us all down to the old fashioned pub near the station where we would sit in the beer gardens – lush borders worthy of a country house garden – while Sandy would eat crisps – the twist of blue paper containing salt having been removed and added to my bag – and I would sip at my sharp, fizzy lemonade.

If we turned left when leaving the house then the walk was shorter…but steeply uphill. We knew no one on that stretch and clearly did not enter The Cock Inn which had no beer garden but did have a door mysteriously labelled Snug.

At the crossroads at the top of the hill was a large pub….white, with car parking space in front. Going straight ahead led to the swimming baths to which schoolchildren would be bussed to have their heads held under chlorinated water in a laughable attempt to teach swimming. Luckily I contracted what was unblushingly known at that time as African Foot Rot which released me from that particular torment.

On the right was the wool shop. I dreaded mother turning that corner as it meant sitting on a chair for a long time while she and the owner discussed exactly what sort of wool would be suitable for yet another knitted skirt and jumper set to make my life unbearable. To this day mention of ‘heather mixture’ can depress my spirits and make me start to itch.

On the corner itself was a butcher’s shop. A proper one. Poultry with ruffs of feathers hung head down; rabbits swung by their hinds, blood at the nose. No turkeys…it was before turkey time…but geese, yes. What were called ‘green’ geese in the autumn, fresh from feeding on grass, and ordinary geese at Christmas.
No meat on display…everything was kept in the cold rooms behind and I used to position myself to catch the waft of cold acrid air as the door was opened.

To the right was the row of shops leading to the cinema.
I remember the Home and Colonial Stores with its gold lettering on a black ground, where mother bought tea and bacon – often, all too often, the ultra salty Ulster for boiling – and J. Sainsbury, all marble topped counters and white tiled walls, where she bought breakfast sausage…a liver based delight which I would gladly meet with again.

On that road too was the bus stop where the chocolate and yellow coaches of Surrey Motors would pick up passengers for day or afternoon trips in the good weather.
Mother and her sisters would sometimes book tickets for themselves and their children; cream teas figured largely as did historic houses, though I also remember a trip to the Cheddar Gorge notable for one young dare devil standing on a cliff edge shouting
Look, Mum…no hands!

No, not one of us.

And on the same road was the ironmongers, delighting in the name of Sprange, which I used to think might be the name of one of the utensils sold there…for it sold everything from buckets to mouse traps via sink plungers and tools.
Crowded shelves lined the walls; there was a wooden counter in the middle; items hung from the ceiling and the men in brown warehouse coats who served knew where everything was.

They might have been traditional, but they were not behind the times.
At a time when aerosol cans were a novelty they stocked them, bearing a product for disseminating scent for use in the loo, which came in colours supposedly appropriate to the smell of the contents….pink for roses, blue for lavender….
Several ladies were interested in these delights to the detriment of their family budget and they were selling fast on a day when I followed mother inside.

What was to happen next would confirm for me that the British – at that time – were a very self controlled race.

One of the brown coated gentlemen approached the elderly lady at the head of the queue.

Yes, madam. how may I help you?

I want an arsehole.

Not a twitch from the man at the counter. Not a sound from the customers.

Certainly madam. Which colour would you like?

A blue one.

Certainly, madam…I’ll just have it wrapped for you.

No comment was made, no knowing looks were exchanged even after she left, purchase tucked in her shopping basket.

Once mother had bought the steel wool she had come to buy we too, left the shop.

Did that lady say….

Yes she did.

And then we both had to sit on the seat by the traffic lights, laughing until our stomachs were sore.