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.

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