I was an expert on being poor. When I came out of the army I took a job with a news agency, got married and was sacked the week after we returned from honeymoon.
The only work I could get was a casual Saturday shift on the News of the World, which paid £4 and 10 shillings in real money. My rent for two rooms in a very smart house was £2. I had married a Jewish princess who knew nothing about laundry, even if we had hot water. So we had to pay 2/6 a week to get the washing done. Didn’t cost a lot because I only had two shirts. We could do what we liked with the remaining £2 7s. 6d. which meant we ate every other day.
I had to keep half a crown back to buy myself into a lunchtime drinking school every Thursday at the Waldorf in Cooper Street, Manchester, where John Milligan, the News of the World editor, drank with the news editor, Graham Haslam.
At some time during the hour that followed the news editor would say: “Doin’ anyting on Saturday, Skiddy?” “Don’t think so, Graham. Why?” “Wonder if you would do the late shift for us?”
It meant a ten mile round walk to the News of the World but for a year that was our only income.
We were in the house one day sharing a cigarette we had made from the week’s collected dimps. The front door bell rang. I was wearing my good suit and my one clean shirt ready to go to the Waldorf, so I went down. There was a tramp at the door.
He said he had just come out of prison and did I have the price of a cup of tea. I said I was broke, and saw him look at the smart house in which I lived, the well cut navy suit and polished shoes I was wearing and then he looked back down the long drive to the road.
The look he gave me, utterly defeated and totally disbelieving, went straight to the heart. Halfway back upstairs I remembered the half crown I had put on one side to buy my way into the round. I ran after him. He looked terribly guilty but I pressed the half crown into his hand and returned home rejoicing.
My wife asked, while I was at the front door, why didn’t I pick up the washing from the front step?
I went back. No wonder the tramp had looked guilty. He had stolen it. For the next six months I had to sit in my vest whilst my shirt was washed under a cold tap so I could go to the Waldorf and get my Saturday shift.
Things gradually got better as the years staggered by. I was once a Chevalier de la Chaine des Rotisseurs or, to use plain English, a Knight of the Brotherhood of the Chain of the Turning Spit, a gourmet club which did things in fine style. Once we hired a dining coach to be put on the end of the Crewe to Bournemouth express on an occasion when we were eating away from home. My friend, the 9th Baron Langford, who was our Baillie and was kindly contributing several bottles of ’47 port, insisted the pair of us interview the station master at Crewe to ensure all was hunky dory. Station masters love a lord and this one donned morning dress and a topper to meet us. At the baron’s request, he introduced us to “our” engine driver.
“My grandfather,” confided the baron to the startled driver, “always maintained there was no greater pleasure than making love in a sleeping car as the train went over a set of points.” (The Brotherhood was very strong on such niceties. One elderly brewer assured me that no kisses were more erotically charged than when the girl had been drinking yellow chartreuse and the man green. An estate agent called Ramos declined a dessert that was served in a cocoon of spun sugar on the grounds that it would be like eating the pubic hairs of a fairy.)
“However,” the 9th Baron told the engine driver, “what might be an aid to lovemaking is very bad for port. So I would be grateful if you would slow down as you approach any set of points on our journey.”
The extraordinary thing was that the engine driver did.
On another occasion we had been to a Normandy banquet at the Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester where our guests had been Louis Edwards, the Lord Mayor of Manchester, and Sonny, the then Marquis of Milford Haven. After the meal, Geoffrey Langford and I took them to the champagne bar where Edwards ordered a tankard of Moet, the 9th Baron, Mumms, and Sonny, Louis Roederer.
To this day I do not know why, when it came to my turn, I asked for a chip butty. The waitress took the order without demur and soon returned with the champagne, followed by a waiter bearing the finest chip butty I have ever seen. The bread was home made, the butter runny and the golden chips had hard crusts protecting inner potato, soft as a baby’s cheek. The silver platter on which they were served also carried salt, pepper and vinegar. Interspersed ‘twixt chip and plate was a neatly cut, and probably ironed, square of newspaper.
“By God,” said the 9th Baron, “that looks good. Bring me one!” “And me,“ said the Marquis of Milford Haven. “And me,” said the Lord Mayor of Manchester.
I have achieved little in life but I did introduce the aristocracy to the chip butty. Which, on a point of information, goes very well with champagne and is as good a way as any to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Other members included restauranteurs who took it in turns to host our banquets. One, Roland Genty, had come to Manchester during the war to train as a parachutist to be dropped in occupied France. Roland was frighteningly tough. Quiche Lorraine was his signature dish. Naturally it featured on the menu when he hosted. Alas, there was a delay which seemed endless in the serving of his Quiche. He went to the kitchen to remonstrate. He returned and addressed us gravely:
“My Lord and messieurs, I fear there will be a delay. Unfortunately the waiter dropped a tray of the Quiche…and, naturellement, the chef has stabbed him.”
Alas, my appetite has diminished but happy memories remain. My favourite chippie was the Sea Waves fish and chip emporium in Menai Bridge on Anglesey. We usually had a table in the window, in the spotless tiled restaurant bar, furnished in bright white and yellow plastic. Rashid, the Turkish chef-owner, came to Menai Bridge via the Piccadilly Hilton and the Gleneagles Hotel. Much was expected and we were never disappointed.
Rashid was a consummate artiste whose fish and chips went through purifying fires of very high temperature to emerge with the lightest of sun tans, crisp and mouth watering. His haddock was so fresh I swear it was singing sea shanties. Rashid his skill with the mushy pea was legendary. He scorned to mush to viscosity, as lesser fish fryers do. His peas, though pliant to the palate, retained their traditional shape and texture.
A happy substitute has, I’m glad to say, been found in Dave, of Snappers in March, from where the dog also enjoys a tasty sausage. Oh, for the appetite of yesteryear…