Child Exploitation


The tool of exploitation

In the small two-street enclave of Cowpen where I grew up, my friends and I got to know by name virtually all the adults who lived there. It didn’t take us long to suss out which housewives paid the best rates for errand-running, and when and where wedding scrambles were to take place. Our little syndicate of street cubs knew not to go carol singing at old Mrs W’s, as she was stone deaf, that we’d be chased away if we played football outside ‘misery-guts’ Barton’s door, and to steer clear of the Ramsays’ when playing knock-door-ginger, as the dad was a wild beast with a furious temper.

One of the scarier characters from my childhood was old Fraser, who lived at the top of my street. He had a shed at the bottom of the back lane in which he kept his bicycle and assorted tools. He was quite a surly man, and we would always stop whatever game we were playing to let him pass on his way to the shed. He had little time for children, and I was rather afraid of him.

Fraser had a crude NO PARKING sign in the bedroom window of his ground floor flat. He didn’t own a car himself, so I assume this sign was just his way of showing the world he was a busybody, and not to be messed with. For some reason I also remember him stopping on his way to his shed once to show us that he could still touch his toes at his age, and he challenged us to do the same (he caught me bending my knees, so I failed).

My friends and I had rescued a battered old pedal car from the rubbish and, with a toy machine gun fitted to the back, this became an armoured vehicle. An artistic member of our gang made the transition more believable by daubing military symbols onto the bodywork with white paint. Our brush wizard made the unfortunate choice of painting on symbols that had been adopted by the enemy during World War II.

I don’t know if old Fraser had fought in the War, or if he’d lost close relatives in that almighty ruckus, but when he saw the car in its new livery, he blew a gasket, ranting about murderers and threatening to tell our parents. We had no idea at that young age of the offensive nature of these symbols. We had seen them all over war films on TV and in our blissfully politics-free minds they just looked cool. A few days later the bin men took the car away.

My strongest memory of old Fraser though is one of a dirty trick and child exploitation. I was five or six at the time.

While hanging about alone at the gable end of our terraced street, I watched Fraser cycle to his shed on the other side of the road. He whistled a tune as he pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket, and he glanced over at me. After the old man had opened the shed and put away his bicycle, I was stricken with butterflies in the stomach when he beckoned me over. Rather nervously, I walked across the road to see what he wanted. Standing astride a fairly large puddle on the road right outside his shed, he plunged his hand into its depths and pulled out a small square grating.

“I’ve dropped half a dollar down there,” he said, “if you can find it, you can keep it.” He disappeared into the shed and returned moments later with a large ladle, which he handed to me.
I had no idea what ‘half a dollar’ was, but I was sure that I’d be able to buy chocolate with it. I got on my knees and lowered the ladle into the black water. I scraped it along the bottom, and pulled up a dirty sludge of water, gravel and mud, which I dumped on the kerb. Old Fraser saw this, and he fetched a galvanized pail for me to put the sludge into.

I toiled hard, eagerly looking out for the faintest glint in the mud. Eventually though, after many ladels, the puddle drained away and there was only a small pool left at the bottom. Fraser took the ladle from me and picked up the pail.

“It must have been washed away,” he said, and he returned to his shed. I went home with nothing more to show for my efforts than a wet sleeve.

At that age I was, like many children, trusting of adults, even those I was afraid of. As I got older, and childhood innocence was replaced by hard cynicism, I realised that there never had been a coin down that muddy sinkhole, and old Fraser had simply used me to drain the puddle from outside his shed. He could have at least given me a tanner for my labour.



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A Chewing-gum Standoff


Got any chungum, chum?

When I was a child, there stood a house at the top of our street that served as a general dealer’s. Several vending machines were mounted on the wall to the right of the bay window of the shop: one that sold cigarettes, and two that dispensed chewing gum, or chungum as we would say it (and I still do).

The brands of chewing gum that were sold through these machines were PK and Beech Nut, and my friends and I went through a brief phase of buying from them. This may have been because we wanted to demonstrate that our puny arms were strong enough to operate the turn knob that released the gum, or it could have been a desire to show that we were sufficiently grown-up to reach the coin slot, although some needed a bit of a bunk-up. Either way, our little gang shoved lots of pennies into these mechanical merchandisers, as we sought our regular chickle-fix. For a few weeks we strutted about with our jaws in a state of near perpetual motion, and our breath minty fresh. Alex Ferguson had nothing on us.

The Beech Nut machine was our favourite, because it had a trick up its sleeve. There was an arrow stamped onto the flat surface of the knob that was turned to free the packs of gum, and when this arrow pointed towards the buyer, the machine would give up double the quantity of gum: two packs for the price of one.

When the machine was due to cough up a double bubble portion, a sudden lack of enthusiasm swept over those of us in the gum queue. Nobody wanted to be the one to leave the next person with a double helping. After it became clear that prompts of after you were only going to fall on deaf ears, some kids nonchalantly strolled about, trying to give the impression that they weren’t interested in buying gum at all. Meanwhile, the more robust of our number stood against the wall by the machine, arms folded, waiting to pounce. Here’s a typical example of how the situation would unfold.

There was a Mexican standoff under the baking sun. Suspicious glances were exchanged through narrowed eyes and one boy licked his wind-dried lips. An older boy, almost an adolescent, swept his hair back with his hand. A bead of sweat ran down his temple, crossing a pulsing vein. He blinked. An empty crisp packet that floated by on the breeze distracted no-one, as the stock-still group waited.

And waited.

Then, movement: someone cracked.

A boy stepped forward and raised his coin to the slot. The others stood firm, suspecting a bluff, but the coin went in and the knob was turned. As the one who had weakened walked away, unwrapping his gum and muttering something about how childish the whole thing was, a free-for-all broke out, with tiny penny-clutching fists jostling and fighting in an attempt to make sure their coin was next to pass through the slot. Finally, after much pushing and pulling, one of the taller boys managed to shove his coin in and he reaped the spoils.

As the victor triumphantly paraded up and down outside the shop, holding a pack of gum aloft in each hand and trumpeting a Sousa march through tensed lips, the rest joined the one who had weakened in dismissing the whole episode as childish. Everyone had to make do with standard portions.

This chewing gum phase didn’t last very long, but not too many years later I regularly returned to the same spot, where I used the cigarette vending machine. The only thing that came free with those was a cough.




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Halloween, Then and Now


This is HAlloween This is HAlloween . . .

For a good few weeks now, supermarkets have allocated a considerable amount of aisle space to the promotion of Halloween related goods. Walking down the designated aisles in some supermarkets is a scarier journey than a ride on the Ghost Train at the Town Moor – and it’s free.

All of this razamattaz is a world away from the Halloween of my childhood. Back then, the only sign that the big night was approaching came when the local greengrocer dragged a tea chest full of swedes onto the pavement outside his shop (we called it a bagey or snanny, but never a swede). This only started about October 28th, and that was about as far as things went.

We set about carving our lanterns after school on the 31st. When I was very young, my elder brother hollowed mine out for me (we both nibbled on the scrapings), but I soon became quite adept at making my own. With the swede a hollow shell, I set about carving my lantern. The procedure is as clear in my mind as that of an old army veteran who can still assemble a rifle in seconds:

  • Scrape out a small hollow in the base to hold the candle
  • Carve the face
  • Make holes in the ‘temples’ to accommodate the string
  • Make a chimney hole in the centre of the lid
  • Make small holes either side of the chimney to accommodate the string
  • Thread the string through the holes on both parts
  • Light a candle and drizzle molten wax into the hollow you made
  • Press the candle into the molten wax and let it harden
  • Light the candle and off you go

On the night, we would gather with our lanterns beneath the dim glow of the street lamp at the bottom of the back lane. Here we told spooky stories to each other, with extra scare points being awarded for those who could pass their yarn off as having actually happened. After this we would take our lanterns around the streets, perhaps encountering other groups of Halloweeners on the way. Trick or Treat was still some way in the future and, while we were happy to shake down householders for cash via Penny for the Guy and carol singing, Halloween was a strictly non-commercial event.

So while there was no financial gain to be had at Halloween, I did enoy the occasion for the thrill of listening to those creepy tales in an atmosphere of cold air and candlelight, and because it was the one night of the year I was entrusted with a naked flame. I was fascinated by fire as a child, and the unpleasant smell of burning horsehair from old upholstered furniture is up there with those of carbolic soap and Meppo brass polish as well-remembered whiffs from my formative years.

Not long after I outgrew Halloween, I noticed that kids with lanterns had started knocking on doors and, once opened, a small pre-pubescent choir, whose voices ranged from with gusto to shy and mumbling, would regale the householder with the following rhyme:

The sky is blue
The grass is green
Have you got a penny
For Halloween

This request for hard cash laid the foundations for the importation of the whole Trick or Treat extravaganza from across the Atlantic, which in turn led to the mass marketing of the event we see today. Against this background, you might be expecting me to decry the whole Americanization of Halloween, but to do so would be hypocritical, as I have partaken in it and besides I quite enjoyed it (I hasten to add that I have never actually been Trick or Treating).

I still have in a box upstairs a collection of masks, various skeletons, bats, spiders and plastic pumpkin lanterns that I brought home from my mother’s house after she died. They hold fond memories of Halloween, which turned into quite a big night at my mother’s house, first when her grandchildren were small and then her great-grandchildren.

The walls of the living room were adorned with the aforementioned scary accessories, and my grandma, who was eighty at the time, got into the spirit of things by wearing a black bin liner over her cardy. There was always a huge pan of minestrone soup on the go, and the dining table groaned in a ghostly manner under the weight of plates of sandwiches, pies and quiches. Alongside these stood piles of cakes and biscuits that were on the forbidden list until crusts had been eaten. The food would be followed by the kids embarking on a Trick or Treat expedition, while we adults enjoyed a few chilled beers. A good time was had by all.

Nowadays, Halloween is geared as much towards adults as it is children. Fancy dress costumes of all kinds are available, as well as bloodthirsty accompaniments, like swords, maces and axes. This is all a bit gory to me; I prefer ghostly over grisly, The Sixth Sense over Saw.

Part of the reason for this might be down to a Halloween experience I had back in my childhood as I stood with friends beneath that dim lamp. At the bottom of our street, there were open fields that led to the river. Standing alone in these fields was a tiny brick-built structure with a pitched tiled roof and two windows. The building still stands, and I know now that it is an electricity sub-station of sorts, but as children we called it after what it looked like: the little house.

We were swapping ghostly tales, and a girl in our group told us that earlier, before it got dark, she had seen a strange man go into the little house. Once inside, she said, he had stood at the window, staring across the open ground at our street, right where we were standing.

“I wonder if he’s still watching us,” she said. As we all looked into the darkness towards the building, unable to see anything, a delightful spasm of terror ran down my little spine.

Whatever you do this Halloween, stay safe and have fun.


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When Children Were Encouraged to Smoke

Pram Small

Catching them young

Attitudes towards smoking have hardened considerably in recent years, particularly around children. Things were much different during my childhood though.

I quit smoking almost twenty years ago. The day came just after the Budget, when I told myself that enough was enough. I chose to go cold turkey and I am happy to report that I succeeded. The reason for this determined effort was my outrage at the price of a packet of ten cigarettes going up to £1.30. I couldn’t live with myself if I had to pay today’s prices.

I took up smoking when I was fifteen. This was an inevitable progression when you consider the starring role cigarettes had played in my life until then. Children today are protected from the evils of tobacco with measures such as age restrictions, advertising bans  and graphic images of what can, and will happen should you be foolhardy enough to take up the habit. More recently, a new ruling states that tobacco products must be stored behind screens in supermarkets. Efforts to keep children off the cigs were not always so stringent.

I remember from a very early age going to the corner shop at the top of our street for cigarettes for my mother. She smoked Player’s (which we pronounced ‘plares’), and I would often be dispatched to get her five, or ten, but never twenty. I remember studying the face of the sailor on the packet as I walked home. According to his cap, he was from the good ship Hero, but I didn’t like him because he had a beard. There was no security check at the shop; none of this ‘no ID, no sale’ protection for us. I was six-years-old, and I could obtain cigarettes with no more fuss than had I been buying a finger of fudge. I have to say, however, that the shopkeeper was a friend, and my mother was well known to her.

My mother did not forego tobacco while she carried me or my brothers, as smoking during pregnancy wasn’t seen as socially unacceptable back then. I remember watching her putting socks onto my infant brother with a lit cigarette hanging from her mouth. Of course we were told that smoking was bad for our health, but the message wasn’t hammered home with any force.

Cigarette advertising on TV was allowed in those days, and smoking was glamourized down to the butt on the small screen. Catchy jingles, like Never go without a Capstan, got into the minds of the nation’s smokers, and slogans like You’re never alone with a Strand reinforced the generally held belief that smoking was a sophisticated habit. Watching my grandma trying to knit with a dog-end in her mouth, squinting and grimacing as the rising smoke stung her eyes, showed me the other side of that particular coin.

In the USA, children were included in the target audience when The Flintstones, no less, appeared in a series of commercials for a popular cigarette brand. The modern-day equivalent of this would perhaps see Spongebob Squarepants puffing away on an underwater ciggie, and waxing lyrical about flavour. Another TV ad for cigarettes advised us to smoke their brand ‘for your throat’s sake’, while yet another informed us that their cigarettes were smoked by more doctors than any other brand on the market. Now there’s an endorsement.

Even before I embarked on my first cig-buying expedition, I had familiarised myself with the more tactile aspects of smoking. For my infant lips and fingers there were sweet cigarettes which came in brightly coloured boxes, often emblazoned with popular cartoon characters of the day to tempt young eyes. They came in push-up packs just like cigarettes, and they had pink tips for that ready-lit effect. My friends and I would hold them between our fingers like real cigarettes, and pretend to puff on them and flamboyantly flick off ash, before sucking the stick to a point. These counterfeit coffin-nails posed more of a threat to our teeth than our lungs, but they were very popular.

After a hard morning learning the seven-times-table, little Johnny is ready for his playtime sweet cigarette. He leans against a wall and pulls a packet of Popeye brand from the pocket of his shorts. Young Emily, the apple of Johnny’s eye, passes, and Johnny offers her a Popeye, holding the open pack in front of her. Emily snubs Johnny. “No thank you,” she says, “I prefer these,” at which she produces a packet of Superman from her satchel.

Who among us did not relive that scene with real cigarettes in later life?

As we got older, from about seven onwards, we moved up to more realistic sweet cigarettes. These were made of chocolate, and wrapped in what we were told was edible paper. They came in soft packs just like real cigarettes, and each had a genuine paper seal that had to be broken to get at the contents. The names and pack designs were often similar to existing brands, but there were also those that dropped any pretence and were exact copies of genuine packs. This less than subtle ploy allowed children to choose their preferred brands before they even started smoking.

If cigarettes weren’t your thing, there was always Spanish Gold sweet tobacco. This was shredded coconut flavoured candy that came in packs like regular hand-rolling tobacco. I have an unpleasant memory of being violently sick at the cinema after eating this tobacco-conut while waiting for a Sinbad film to start. I suspect to this day that I was actually munching on my dad’s Old Holborn, which I picked up by mistake when the lights went down.

Finally, at Christmas, I was given the lodestar that would guide me towards Planet Nicotine: a chocolate smokers’ kit. This was a brown box with a clear cellophane front panel on the lid, behind which sat foil-wrapped cigarettes, pipe, cigar and even a book of matches, all made from a particularly delicious brand of chocolate. I was sold, and it was only a matter of time before I took up smoking for real.

Many of these sweet tobacco products are still available, but they do not occupy prominent positions in almost every shop like they did when I was young. Those sweet cigarettes in the coloured boxes are now called candy sticks, and I do not know if they still come with a pink tip.

So smoking played a big part in my upbringing; I bought cigarettes for my mother as a child, I watched countless adverts for tobacco products on television, and ate my own weight in sweet cigarettes. By the time I reached adolescence, I was, to misquote Jaggers in Great Expectations, “qualified in all ways for the tobacconist”. Yet, when I took to smoking the real thing, my parents were enraged, and I had to indulge in my new habit secretly, away from their gaze.

One lesson we learn as we grow up is that the world can sometimes be a topsy-turvy place.



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My CVD and Me


Can you see it?

I recently read Danny Baker’s autobiographical book Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s quite a good read – I did laugh out loud a few times, especially at his tale of what happened when he went to see the musical Hair, and he had a brush, literally, with a naked male dancer. Danny is a few years older than me, so I was able to relate to many of the events he mentioned from his childhood, like foraging for Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfire wood, attending his first football game with his dad, and getting his first tracksuit.

While writing of his school days, Danny tells of the time a nurse came to carry out Ishihara tests to see if he, or any of his classmates, suffered from colour vision deficiency (CVD), or, to give it its more common name, colour blindness. I remember having these tests too, and failing miserably. I’m sure you are familiar with the Ishihara test; the pupil looks down a scope at a slide made up of many coloured spots in which a number is hidden. I went into the test confident that I’d do well. This is pretty much what happened.

“What number do you see?” the nurse said as I peered down the scope. I could see nothing but a mass of randomly coloured bubbles. I gave it a shot.

“Three,” I said.

“It’s a nine,” she said, “Next slide.”


“That is a seven,” she said, adding, “This is not a guessing game, you know. If you can’t see the number, just say so.”

And so I had been introduced to my first affliction.

In his book, Danny reveals that he hoped he would turn out to be colour blind, as he saw it as a sure-fire way to attract sympathy from girls. He was so determined to succeed in this that he deliberately gave wrong answers in the test. The nurse soon found him out, and he completed the test correctly with a perfect score. After I was confirmed to be colour blind, far from attracting sympathy from anyone of either sex, I was deemed a weirdo whose life must be like one long Charlie Chaplin film. Of course, colour blindness is nothing like that at all. I can see pretty much everything the same as other people.

But the condition does come with its irritations, the main one of which is that some people, on learning that I am colour blind, will hold up objects and ask “What colour is this?” (It’s a bright yellow tennis ball, and that’s a blue water pistol. Oh, and this is a red pool ball inside an orange sock that I will clout you with if you ask any more daft questions).

Out of curiosity, I recently took an online Ishihara test to see if I would fare any better than I had as a child. I did very badly. My girlfriend, Lucy, did the test with me and, apart from freaking out when she viewed one slide that had no number on it, she reeled off the numbers like a bingo caller. Where she saw a 27, I saw a pea omelette. Her 84 was a bowl of Skittles to me. I could only make out two numbers from twenty-four slides.

Despite this, my CVD has not caused me any real inconvenience or grief. As a youth, I was often mocked for referring to the purple pool ball as blue, and I was once disqualified from applying for a job on the railways because perfect colour vision was a pre-requisite, but that’s about it. In fact, my CVD almost came in useful one night when I was busted by RoboCop’s TV Licence checking twin. I tried to make out that, because of my CVD, I was unaware that the set I had was colour. The guy wasn’t having any of it.

As I type this, I am wearing red jeans and a pale blue T-shirt with darker blue writing on it. As I can see all of this, you might be wondering how CVD affects me at all. Well, I was recently using a computer drawing application and I selected a colour to fill a shape. If my life depended on it, I could not tell if the colour was green or orange. It looked green, but the more I stared at it, it took on an orangey look. It was quite frustrating.

And it is with an orange and green tale that I shall finish. In concluding his piece about colour blindness, Danny Baker refers to a  caller to his radio show who’d had his afternoon at the football ruined by his CVD. There had been snow on the pitch, and the referee had opted to use an orange ball. This was fine, until the ball went into an area where the snow had thawed. To this colour blind spectator, every time the orange ball went against the green background of the turf, it vanished before his eyes. It was like a live action spot-the-ball competition.


As for the spotted image at the top of this post, those with normal colour vision see an 8, those with red green colour blindness see a 3 and those with total colour blindness see nothing.

I see a 3.

You can take the Ishihara test yourself here:


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Freeing the Alnwick Two


Rev Buckle disturbs the burglars

Let me take you on a journey back in time. To 1879, when Victoria was on the throne, Disraeli sat in No 10, and Alexander Graham Bell was progressing with his new invention, the telephone.

Inside a vicarage in the remote Northumberland village of Edlingham, six miles south-west of Alnwick, an incident occurred that saw two innocent men imprisoned, and the methods of the local constabulary heavily criticised after it emerged that police skullduggery was afoot. The case was also instrumental in bringing about the formation of the Court of Appeal.

In the early hours of a February morning, in 1879, at Edlingham Vicarage in Northumberland, the elderly Rev. M H Buckle was woken by his daughter, Georgina, who was in a state of alarm. She whispered to her father that she had heard noises downstairs. With a candle in one hand, and a sword in the other, Rev Buckle descended the stairs to investigate, and he came across two burglars busy ransacking the vicarage. A struggle ensued, in which the candle was snuffed, the sword was swung, and a shotgun was fired. The burglars fled, leaving Rev Buckle with shot in his shoulder, and his daughter more seriously wounded in the groin. Fortunately, both survived.

In such a sparsely populated area, the list of possible suspects was short, and it wasn’t long before suspicion fell upon two renowned poachers from Alnwick, Michael Brannigan (29) and James Murphy (19). It emerged that these men had been out during the night (as poachers are wont to do) and, on this basis, they were arrested on the morning following the robbery.

While in custody, the police pressed the men as to their whereabouts the previous night, and what clothes they had been wearing. Murphy revealed that he had changed his clothes when he returned from his poaching expedition, and so an officer was sent to retrieve them. Murphy’s fiancee, Agnes Simms, handed over the clothes, which were sent for examination.

Brannigan and Murphy were taken to the vicarage to take part in an identity parade. Neither of the Buckles was able to positively identify them as the intruders. It would perhaps be a little optimistic to expect them to, considering the Reverend only got a fleeting glimpse of the burglars by the light of a single candle.

A week after the arrests, there came a breakthrough when a doctor discovered a scrap of newspaper in the pocket of Murphy’s jacket; a scrap that had been torn from a copy of The Times found at the vicarage. Although it is difficult to perceive why a burglar would have such a worthless yet incriminating piece of evidence in his pocket, and why it took a week for this evidence to come to light, it did place Murphy at the scene of the crime.

The accused men maintained their innocence, stating that they had been out poaching with their terrier (they had no firearms) and that they were nowhere near the vicarage on the night of the shooting. They told police where they had hidden their prey, and an officer was sent to check out the claim. He found dead rabbits exactly as described.

This factor did not help their cause, however, as at the trial the jury returned after three hours of deliberation to deliver a guilty verdict. The men were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Brannigan was taken to Dartmoor, while Murphy went to Portsmouth.

What the police did not know, however, is that the jacket given to them by Murphy’s fiancée did not belong to Murphy at all. While fetching Murphy’s clothes for the police officer, she noticed blood and feathers in the pockets of his jacket: enough to send Murphy to prison for poaching. In a bid to protect him, she handed over a jacket that belonged to his brother-in-law, a man named Redpath, telling the police that it was what Murphy had been wearing on the night of the crime. It was in the pocket of this jacket that the crucial scrap of newspaper was found.

Redpath was never a suspect in the crime, so how was there evidence that placed him at the scene? The answer is simple: it was put there by the police in an attempt to strengthen their case. The police were in possession of Redpath’s jacket and the newspaper for the duration of the investigation.

When this information came to light, the vicar of St Paul’s in Alnwick, the wonderfully named Father Jevon J Muschamp Perry, took up the cause of the convicted men. He investigated other possible suspects in the area, and he soon homed in on one George Edgell, a known criminal who had also been out on the night of the shooting. Under pressure from the tenacious vicar, Edgell finally confessed to the crime, naming 53-year-old Charles Richardson, a local hard man, as his accomplice.

After seven years of wrongful imprisonment, Brannigan and Murphy were released, their pardons being signed by Queen Victoria herself. They each received £800 in compensation, and both men went into gainful employment using skills they had learned in prison; Brannigan as a  wheelwright and Murphy as a baker.

With a clear case of evidence fabrication on their hands, the police called in Scotland Yard to investigate and four police officers were charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. They were found not guilty through lack of evidence and released.

Edgell and Richardson fared a lot better than the pair originally sentenced for the crime. They were given just five years each. It is fortunate that neither of the Buckles succumbed to their injuries, as we would undoubtedly have seen the hanging of two innocent men.

To finish on a happy note, Agnes Simms, Murphy’s patient fiancee whose quick thinking inadvertently provided proof that the police had tampered with evidence, became Mrs Murphy.






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Nightmare on Strawberry Place


A young Joseph in his burger-selling days

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I started going about with my friend, Stan, on his hot dog van, this being an old Mini van with a fibreglass shell fitted to the back. I didn’t get paid, but being out and about was better than watching telly at home. We parked outside various pubs and clubs in the area, and on Saturdays we went to St James’ Park if Newcastle were playing at home.

It was while we were at one of these home games that Stan asked his boss if I could have a burger barrow of my own, and I was delighted when he said yes. This was in the early 1980s, a period when football hooliganism was rife at English grounds, but I was happy to take the barrow because I would earn a bit of cash, and get to watch the football free gratis too. The rates of pay were 12.5% of the take, which rose to 15% if I passed the £100 mark. I only ever achieved this higher rate a few times.

My routine was to turn up at the ground at about noon, three hours before kick-off. The burger barrows arrived in a Luton van, and I would help unload them with other vendors. The company that owned the fleet had a franchise with the football club, and they operated from a base in a blue painted snack hut that stood in the Gallowgate end of the ground. We were each given stock and a float and sent on our way.

With my burgers bubbling and sausages simmering, I hit the streets and set about selling my wares; hot dogs 35p, Westler’s hamburgers 50p, and a cheese slice on top for an extra 10p. It was hit-and-miss trying to find a pitch that wasn’t encroaching on those of my better established colleagues, but I found a few decent spots.

I never had any real trouble while on the barrow, but I did have to put up with drunken shenanigans occasionally. One time, a group of, shall we say high-spirited fans started wheeling my barrow along the street while I was serving a customer. It was a nuisance, but it wasn’t malicious. As it happened, the day I made the most money on the barrow was also the day I had my most frightening experience.

It was a fine winter’s afternoon, and Newcastle were playing host to Exeter City in the fifth round of the FA Cup. The Grecians, to give them their nickname, played in the third tier of English football, one below the Magpies. This factor, plus the away fixture, made Exeter rank outsiders. There was a bumper crowd of over 36,000, and I’d made a tidy sum in the pre-match bustle. Everyone seemed happy, including those who turned up in black and white kilts.

At three o’clock, I would take my barrow through a narrow gate, and park it up by the blue hut. Then I could go and watch the game from the Gallowgate end. The only downside to this arrangement was that I had to leave about ten minutes before full-time in order to take up my position ready to serve the exiting hordes.

With the Exeter game under way, I parked my barrow as usual, and went up the Gallowgate steps to watch the match. I don’t remember too much about the action on the field, but when I left, Newcastle were winning one-nil, courtsey of an Alan Shoulder goal. Back at the blue hut, I lit the gas on my barrow and wheeled it out of the ground into Strawberry Place, where I parked right outside the gates. My friend with the van was next to me.

As I was serving, there came an almighty groan from the crowd above; Exeter had equalised very late into the game. The mood of the crowd changed in an instant. It was now dark, and disgruntled fans flooded onto the streets. I had a crowd of youths around my barrow, all asking to be served at the same time. It was difficult to deal with, but I kept on. I don’t know which impoverished parts of the city some of these young urchins came from, but there were several requests for a bread bun dipped in gravy, which I sold buckshee for 10p. One lad who asked for a bun dip ran off without paying when I handed it to him. I wondered why he didn’t ask for something more substantial.

Then an argument broke out at the next barrow along from me, between the vendor and a customer. Things turned ugly and a scuffle broke out. During the melee some youths made off with the barrow, and it ended up on its side, its hoard of meat products disgorged onto the road in a stream of boiling gravy.

I stopped serving, and closed the lids on my barrow. Stan had seen the trouble too, and he took refuge inside the mini. I parked up my barrow in front and climbed into the passenger seat.

I have never seen such a free-for-all. Scavenging hooligans ignored scalded fingers as they pulled burgers from the steaming gravy. The vendor, who stood out in his white overall coat, tried to plead with the mob, but for his trouble he was dragged onto the road and pulled to the ground. The change in his overalls pocket scattered all over the road, and this made the mob even more clamorous, as burger-chewing thugs picked up what change they could from the road. Finally, the police broke up the mini-riot, and we helped the vendor get his barrow back on its wheels.

I came away with over seventeen pounds that day, my highest ever earnings from the barrow, and easily enough for a good night out back then. A few days later, Newcastle went down to Exeter for the replay, which they lost 4 – 0.

A few months after this incident, Stan inadvertently left the hamburger gas ring on in the van overnight, a careless act that left the entire interior covered in a thick layer of soot. He was sacked for this and my days on the barrow came to an end.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the burger barrow’s days were also numbered. With the coming of the Sky generation and the abolition of the terraces, the matchday experience became geared less towards fans and more towards customers. Football clubs now award huge catering franchises to companies that can deliver a wide range of good, if hideously expensive, food and drink.

The old school burger barrow like the one I operated is a rare sight outside the ground these days, as people take advantage of pre-match food and drink offers in local bars. I have heard though, that if you listen carefully on an autumn Saturday afternoon, above the rustling of leaves being blown about in Leazes Park, you can sometimes hear a man’s voice, low and rasping, say:

“D’ye want onions on that, mate?”




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My OCD and Me


The cup in the photo is one of six I recently bought from the reduced shelf in a local discount store. Two of the cups are emblazoned with the word TEA, and four say COFFEE (I drink more tea than coffee, but hey ho).

When I make a drink in this new crockery, I must use a cup that bears the name of the beverage I am about to prepare in it; I can’t make tea in a cup that says ‘coffee’, and vice-versa. If  I fancy a cup of tea and there are ‘coffee’ cups in the cupboard, and no clean ‘tea’ cups, I will either wash a cup or make coffee. Yet if someone gives me tea in a coffee cup, I will happily drink it; it is only when I am in control of the situation that I must impose these odd rules.

This irritating episode is a typical example of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that dictates certain areas of my life. Here are some more examples.

I used to live in an apartment block where twenty copies of the local free newspaper were left on a shelf in the lobby for tenants to take. I would never take the top copy, but I’d always pull the second or third newspaper from the pile. I have since moved from that building, but I sometimes buy a newspaper on a Saturday, and when I do, I take a copy from below the top one.

I must put on my right shoe, sock, slipper, flipper or flip flop before the left. If I inadvertently put on a left boot first, and I was merrily lacing it up when I realised my mistake, off it would come.

I avoid chopping or slicing vegetables twelve or thirteen times (twelve slices means thirteen pieces).  I had a tin opener that required thirteen turns to open a tin can. I avoided this number by putting in several short turns. The big question here, of course, is why count cuts or turns at all?

I’m no expert, but I think the answer to this may stem from my youth when I worked as a roofers’ labourer. I would go up the ladder 100 or so times a day, often in isolation, as the tiler might be finishing another roof while I prepared the next. For some reason, I started counting the rungs of the ladder in my mind as I went up. This mental counting stayed with me and, I think, branched out into other areas, including food preparation.

This is one area of my OCD where there has been some improvement, however, and I am pleased to report that I have almost completely banished counting from my mind, and I no longer slice my mushrooms in the manner of the Sesame Street vampire.

The challenges facing an OCD sufferer were brought to the fore in the 1997 film, As Good As It Gets, which stars Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall, a genius writer but awful neighbour. His OCD sees him avoid cracks in the pavement, while simultaneously dodging physical contact with other people. He takes brand new plastic cutlery to his local restaurant every day, where he is rude to staff and customers. At home, he turns every lock and flicks every light switch five times. He washes his hands with a brand new bar of soap, which he bins, and then he washes again with a second new bar, which he also bins.

Although As Good As It Gets is a comedy, the manner in which OCD intrudes into Mr Udall’s everyday life shows that it can be a debilitating affliction that can cause considerably more unpleasantness than the relatively minor inconveniences I endure. Yet, like Tourette’s Syndrome, which many people percieve to be nothing but comical outbursts of profanity, OCD is often viewed as an amusing condition, a sort of eccentricity, rather than a genuine mental health condition.  It is certainly no laughing matter.

You may think that the OCD  symptoms suffered by Melvin Udall were exaggerated for effect, but this is not so. A look at genuine cases of OCD shows that common traits, such as aversion and repeated actions, are prominent in the lives of many sufferers. One such sufferer was the Serbian/American inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943).

Here are some similarities between the real Tesla and the fictional Udall:


Medical experts can offer no definitive answer as to what causes OCD, with various schools of thought suggesting genetic, neurological, behavioral, cognitive, environmental, or a combination of any of these factors as the primary cause. As for me, I’ll continue to take a newspaper from below the top copy, I’ll put on my right boot first, and when I compare my own OCD to that of the likes of Tesla and Udall, I’ll count my lucky stars (as long as there aren’t thirteen of them).


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Learn to Swim, Young Man, Learn to Swim

I refrained from some of these

I refrained from some of these

I was never a great swimmer. An earlier post on here about me doing sixty lengths is correct, but I had built up to that. I’m about to take up swimming again as part of a get fit kick (doctor’s orders), but I am currently so out of condition I think I’ll be lucky if I manage six widths.

My first ever trip to the swimming baths was with my class in junior school (as it was then called), and I remember it for several reasons. When we entered the changing room, pupils from the previous lesson were still getting dressed. I don’t recall which school they were from, but one of their number had left a pair of badly soiled white underpants under the bench, which the instructor had discovered. As we waited, the instructor held up the noisome knickers and asked each pupil in turn:

“Are these yours?”

Even though I was not a suspect, I was so alarmed by the manner of the interrogation, I almost had cause to leave my own underpants behind. Not surprisingly, the soiled clothing went unclaimed and one lad went home minus his linings.

As we changed, I glanced nervously at the entrance to the pool, which was a narrow opening. At the bottom of this was a small square pool that was filled with dark liquid. I couldn’t tell how deep this was but, in my child’s mind, I imagined children stepping into it and disappearing into its depths. For some reason I thought that we would all be challenged to leap over this as some sort of test. Of course, the pool was filled with disinfectant to prevent the spread of verrucas, and it was only a few inches deep. Having seen others do it, I plodged through happily.

The pool was another matter. I had never been in water deeper than the paddling pool at the local park, and I gasped as the water came up to my chest. I soon adapted, though, even going on to win the breath-holding competition. As time went on I learned to swim with confidence, without ever becoming particularly good at it.

When I switched schools, my swimming lessons took place at the local public pool. This had a deep end of twelve foot six, where stood two springboards and a high dive platform. During one lesson, when I was about twelve, the instructor marched our spindly legs up to the deep end of the pool, where we stood clutching our own arms for warmth. We were told to split up into two groups: those who had gone in off the high dive platform before, and those who hadn’t. I fell into the latter camp.

As we shuffled into our respective groups, I looked at my fellow top board virgins with dismay. This motley crew comprised three girls, a boy with acrophobia, and the class geek, who had special dispensation to wear his glasses for swimming lessons.

At that age reputation was everything and sheer pride prevented me from joining the ranks of this less-than-robust bunch, so I fell in with the tougher ‘haves’. We were sent on our way to the top board while the instructor shepherded the other group to the low diving board where he would have them walk the plank.

We gathered at the bottom of the steps that led to the top board and when I looked up at the climb ahead of me, I wished that I’d been honest and went with the other group. Too late now, I was half way up the steps with people ahead and behind. These experienced top boarders discussed whether they would be jumping or diving off. I wondered if I’d be able to go off at all.

I got to the platform where I watched closely the two who went before me, looking for hints. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t be seen to hesitate, so I simply marched off the edge and let gravity do the rest.

I did not hit the water cleanly, although I avoided a painful belly flop. As I submerged, a feeling of exhilaration came over me because I hadn’t bottled it. I surfaced and then swam towards those who had jumped before me. As we larked about in the shallow end, I felt like I had joined an exclusive club. Yet to this day I have never repeated the act.

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Bouncers: Then & Now

the blue star of bethlehem

the blue star of bethlehem

I was in a busy bar recently (not the bar in the photo above), and there was this guy who’d clearly had too much to drink. A barmaid pointed this out to one of the door staff, and he took matters into his own hands. He went outside to seek a colleague, and the pair of them marched the drunkard from the bar. He wasn’t being rowdy or offensive, he was just drunk.

But this is the lot of the modern doorman; a certificated, well trained professional whose job comes with considerably more responsibility than it used to. It is possible that this doorman’s training had taught him that it is an offence to serve someone with alcohol when they are in a highly intoxicated state, and this could be why the drunk was ejected. Doormen have come a long way since the rough and ready bouncers of my youth; these days they will politely open the door for you. Back then, about the only thing they would open for you was your eyebrow.

In those days, before diplomas, NVQs and certificates, the only credential a prospective bouncer had was his menace. He had to be seen to be up to the job, and this meant getting stuck in. As a result of this zeal, I witnessed several incidents at a local night club, long since demolished, where bouncers, if not actually instigating trouble, did little to quell it. This in turn made the bouncers fair game to those customers that fancied a bit of sozzled sparring. At that particular night club, rumour had it that bouncers received a bonus for every piece of tooth they had embedded in their knuckles at the end of the night.

Gigs were a particularly combative arena, with fans trying to get onto the stage, and bouncers repelling each attack. Like a giant game of British bulldog, the two sides would go at it; the slight, but agile fans against the burly bouncers. On one occasion, at a Vibrators gig I believe, I saw a punter bite the finger of one of the bouncers. He really gnawed into it and the bouncer yelled in pain. It was a terrible thing to do, biting is a horrible, cowardly act, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for the injured bouncer, who’d been dishing out blows only moments earlier. And speaking of biting, an ex-bouncer friend of mine carries a permanent reminder of his days on the door; a huge chunk of one ear is missing. It’s a risky job.

I had several unpleasant run-ins with bouncers, most particular with a couple of old school bruisers in Newcastle. About a dozen of us had gone to see a friend’s band play at a city centre night spot, and we all met in a bar that was directly opposite the venue. One of our group had overindulged at home before coming out, and the bouncers turned him away for being drunk. It was all for one in those days, and so we hatched a plot to sneak our excluded comrade past the doormen.

We swapped jackets, and spiked up his hair with water. He borrowed a friend’s glasses and slipped on a headband (hey, this was the eighties). With the disguise complete, he made a second attempt at gaining entry, accompanied by a borrowed ‘girlfriend’, who would pay the admission and hold him up. We watched from the bar and we loved it when our plan came together. He was in.

Mission accomplished, we finished our drinks and crossed the road to the gig. It was at this point that I discovered a flaw in the plan. The bouncers recognized the jacket I was wearing and they refused to let me in, thinking I was the drunken punter they had turned away earlier. I remonstrated with them, but to no effect. I wandered around the exterior of the building in search of a weak fire exit, but found nothing. A second attempt at negotiation ended with the two burly, but not very fleet of foot, bouncers chasing me up an alley, while issuing all manner of threats. I admitted defeat and headed for the bus station. I learned the next day that there had been trouble outside the venue at closing time, and one of the bouncers had taken a pasting.

I’m not saying that modern day doormen are pussycats – far from it. They still need to get in amongst it when trouble starts. But with improved training, better monitoring and liaison with the police, and a much less threatening presence, the whole ambience of a night on the town has improved immensely since my youth.

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