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Friday, 12 September 2014

In England They Eat Cat Food

Tasker Dunham continues his account of a trip to Belgium

“What do you eat in England?” asked Hugo’s dad in English.

I was in Belgium staying with Hugo’s family on a foreign exchange visit. Hugo's dad appeared to be concerned that I was having trouble not only in understanding their French, but also with their unfamiliar food. These were not the only problems. We were drinking wine which at the age of fifteen was entirely new to me. If I had tried to stand up I would have fallen over. It was one of our first meal times and no doubt I looked very uncomfortable. I was asked again what we ate at home.

“Food,” I said, trying to be funny.

Hugo’s dad laughed and his mother asked “Qu’a-t-il dit?” (what had I said). He translated it for her.

“En Angleterre il a dit qu’ils mangent de la nourriture” (he said that in England they eat food). Horrified, I realised I might have implied that what we were eating now was not what I considered to be food. Was I red through embarrassment or because of the wine?

Belgian food certainly seemed different. For a start, there were no familiar bowls of breakfast cereal. Instead they dipped thick chunks of bread and jam into huge bowls of black coffee which quickly acquired a disagreeable film of jam, butter and breadcrumbs floating on the surface. They drank weak fizzy beer with every cooked meal. They enjoyed an unpleasant vegetable called “le chicon”, a kind of blanched endive with a bitter taste. This was in the days before ubiquitous international cuisine and mass foreign travel, when you could expect food to differ in different countries and regions.  I was just going to have to cope with it. I was there for two and a half weeks.

Hugo lived with his parents and sister in a square, but pleasant, averagely-sized detached house, with a large garden-cum-allotment behind. It was one of three or four on a hill, a few miles to the West of Charleroi, with a busy road at the front, and an open valley at the back. The region was, however, brown-field rather than green, as the main activity was coal mining. Industrial buildings and black metal stuctures mingled with terraced housing in grimy cobbled streets. Across the valley from Hugo’s house was an open-cast mine from which a line of pylons marked the route of a constantly moving overhead bucket conveyor, which carried coal past Hugo’s house to a railway somewhere beyond the other side of the road.

This kind of semi-industrial landscape did not dishearten me. It was not unlike parts of Yorkshire near to where I lived, around Knottingley and Wakefield, and my own town continually echoed to the clatter of shunting railway wagons and the roar of ships being loaded with coal. Nor was I bothered that the toilet was in an outhouse, because I had both seen and used outside toilets too. What did surprise me was that the house had no mains water. In the kitchen, instead of a tap, there was a hand pump to draw water out of the ground, and although at first glance the toilet looked normal, it had no water in the bottom, just a dark hole through to a cess pit. A swarm of black flies buzzed joyfully in and out of the hole. It was not somewhere you would want to sit any longer than strictly necessary, but it made things interesting when standing for a pee; you could try to beat your personal record in the number of flies hit and swilled down.

There was no bathroom, so you washed in a bowl of warmed water at a wash stand in the bedroom. Once a week we walked the half mile to Hugo’s grandfather’s for a bath. He had a normal bathroom, except there was no hot running water, so the bath was filled with water heated on a stove. To save on fuel you took turns. Being the guest, I was always allowed to go first, so at least the water was clean, but it could be scaldingly hot. 

Belgium, in the early 1960s, or at least the part I visited, had not yet recovered from the economic privations of the war. It was how I imagined Yorkshire must have been in the frugal 1930s. Even in the early 1950s, my early memories are of houses without bathrooms, with chilly outside lavatories and rudimentary plumbing. The Victorian terraces typically had a galvanised zinc bath hanging on the wall in the back yard, waiting for its once-a-week call inside, to be placed in front of the warm open fire and filled with hot water. This was how I had bathed until I was six. It was the same at my grandma’s house, where the only running water was a cold tap at the kitchen sink, with a foldable, wooden wash-screen to give a modicum of privacy, and she had raised a family of four there. She also had an outside earth closet, with openings through the wall to an adjacent, roofless ‘ash-midden’ to allow the contents to be shovelled through and burnt with the household rubbish.

Although we had a proper bathroom at home, I had little idea then that some people’s houses were better equipped or cost more than others. It never occurred to me to be judgemental about the primaeval facilities of Hugo’s house. I simply accepted it as it was. It is easy with twenty-first century hindsight to declare such arrangements barely fit for habitation, but this was how large numbers of people had lived for decades.

In any case, Hugo had two things we didn’t, a futuristic looking television set with an enormous screen, and the first Rolling Stones long playing record with the song ‘Route 66’. We played it repeatedly. I liked it for the music. Hugo liked it because he wanted to be Mick Jagger. He practised for hours with his microphone in front of a mirror in the loft.

Hugo’s dad took us on the obligatory sight-seeing trips. We climbed the Lion’s Mound, a statue of a lion on top of an artificial conical mound at the site of the Battle of Waterloo. We saw ‘le mannekin pis’, a hideous, two feet high, bronze fountain in Brussels, in the form of a naked boy urinating in a basin. We visited the Atomium, a bizarre, futuristic, three hundred foot, nine-sphered construction in the form of an iron atom, a gleaming statement of post-war confidence erected for the 1958 World’s Fair.  

Atomium and Mannekin Pis 1965

But elsewhere in Belgium, post-war confidence seemed in short supply. Hugo took me several times by ancient tram to the equally ancient cinema in Charleroi. Neither the trams nor the cinema looked as if they had been painted since the 1930s. I sat through endless French films listlessly monitoring the slow rotation of the only thing I completely understood, an illuminated clock at the side of the screen labelled ‘Tic-Tac Pontiac’. On Easter Sunday we went to watch a noisy carnival at the nearby town of Fontaine l’Évêque, where a procession of children, uniformed musicians and costumed characters, some wearing enormous papier maché heads, walked through the centre throwing gifts to the spectators shivering in the rain and sleet.

Fontaine-l'Eveque Carnival 1965

In Charleroi there was an old-fashioned street fair of a kind perhaps not seen in England since before the war. There was an ornately decorated fighting booth, where all-comers could challenge boxers and wrestlers to bouts to earn a portion of the takings if they survived three rounds undefeated. The Master of Ceremonies banged a drum and goaded passing men with accusations of feebleness and cowardice, which, together with the provocative posturing of the fighters, quickly collected a crowd which goaded and postured back. Perhaps the crowd contained accomplices to help raise the temperature, because things rapidly began to get heated. A scarred but muscled boxer looked far too intimidating for anyone to take on, but one of the wrestlers, a bald thin chap hardly bigger than me, with a ridiculous handlebar moustache and an effeminately patterned leotard, soon attracted a challenger who impudently threatened to pull off his whiskers. This pre-show was probably far more entertaining than the fight itself - I don’t know, we didn’t pay to go in. 

Another stall had a platform with huge slabs of meat on metal hooks at the front, and a barred window at the back. A snarling black-faced wild man with a bone through his nose peered menacingly through the bars. The showman roused the crowd by cutting off chunks of raw meat and throwing them into the cage for the savage to devour. He then heated a thick iron rod in a brazier to a brilliant red-hot glow, and seared it into the hanging meat, which spat and sizzled as it burned, giving off clouds of rancid smoke. He reached into the cage with a meat hook, caught the wild man around the neck, violently pulled his arm through the bars, and rubbed the red hot iron hard across the palm of his hand to demonstrate his immunity to pain. Again, we did not pay to go in, but I wonder for how many years afterwards the stall was allowed to continue. In England by then, we were beginning to find the comparatively innocuous Black and White Minstrel Show extremely objectionable.

I went out late one night after dark with Hugo and his friends equipped with buckets of paste and wallpaper brushes to put up “Marche Anti-Atomique” posters on noticeboards and any other suitable surfaces around the village, to the consternation of Hugo’s father who declared I would be deported if caught by the police. It goes without saying that we simply ignored any ‘défense d’afficher’ (no bill posting allowed) notices we came across.

Hugo and his friends also ignored the widespread ‘défense d'uriner’ notices (which translates just as you imagine), going about their business brazenly in full view of the road, even if caught in the glare of car headlights. I suppose a country that has a peeing cherub as one of its main tourist attractions is hardly likely to have any inhibitions at all about urinating in public. 

Hugo’s friends also had no inhibitions about smoking and drinking. Neither had minimum age limits in Belgium, and teenagers openly did both without disapproval. A couple of Hugo’s friends regularly and flamboyantly smoked the local ‘Belga’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Zemir’ cigarettes, which came in paper packets of twenty-five, rather than the cardboard tens and twenties in England, at a fraction of the price. Like most European cigarettes, they had the distinctive, musty smell of Turkish tobacco, very different from the milder American varieties smoked in England. I took a couple of packets home for my dad. I don’t know what happened to them, but I never detected their pungent aroma in our house. I suspect my mother put them in the dustbin. 

It was perhaps unsurprising that Hugo’s family habitually drank weak beer with meals, bearing in mind their water came untreated from the ground, but I was surprised that teenagers of my age could buy and drink alcohol without restriction in the equivalent of English coffee bars. In England, as I was later to find, it took a certain courage to go into a pub for the first time, even on reaching the age of eighteen, but we spent hours in Belgian cafés drinking the local Extra Pils and Stella Artois (years before it was available in England) and playing ‘kicker’ (pronounced ‘keekay’, the table football game with wooden footballers fixed to spinning metal rods), which the Belgians played with incredible skill. I could never replicate their unstoppable bullet-like shots, executed with a near-imperceptible flick of the wrist. The only way I could get any kind of power was by vigorously spinning the rods right round, but that was not allowed. 

As the days past, I realised I was having a great time. In fact, I returned the following year, and then for a third year after that. I even improved my French a little. 

I supplemented the Belgian cuisine by carefully rationing out precious chocolate biscuits brought from home. It gave Hugo’s sister the perfect come-back to my earlier gaffe of implying that English food was better than theirs. They had Kit-e-Kat cat food in Belgium, but had never heard of Kit Kat chocolate wafers. Watching me undo a red and silver wrapper, she choked in triumphant laughter as she struggled to get out her words. 

“En Angleterre ils mangent des aliments pour chats” (In England they eat cat food), she said.

Monday, 1 September 2014

M Dunham Are Crap

Tasker Dunham discovers you shouldn’t use words if you don’t really know what they mean.

“That’s wrong” said Geoffrey Bullard in a condescending, “you must be stupid”, “I’m-top-of-the-class”, omniscient kind of way. He was pointing at the words written neatly in red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage. He gloated arrogantly as he corrected me. “It should be M Dunham is crap.”   

Why should I embarrass myself by explaining that the words were exactly as intended? You talk about football teams in the plural. “Swinefleet United are good this year.” “Selby are terrible.” You can put it in a song: 

M Dunham are crap,
M Dunham are crap,
Ee aye addio,
M Dunham are crap.

It must have been my dad who first pretended we were football teams competing against each other in a league. He was B Dunham, I was T Dunham, my brother Martin was M Dunham, and M Dunham were crap, as proclaimed in bold red wax crayon on the back of the asbestos garage. 

I didn’t realise when I wrote it that wax crayon on asbestos panelling is like permanent marker – waterproof, indelible, and not-fade-away. So there it was, and there it must have stayed until the garage was demolished over forty years later, decades after we had moved. It’s intriguing to speculate about the people who later gazed at the back of that garage and pitied the poorly educated child responsible for such semi-literate graffiti, and to imagine them wondering who was M Dunham anyway, and why was he crap? 

So, Geoffrey Bullard remained in ignorance of our imaginary football teams, and when he wasn’t round at our house bullying me, I could play imaginary football games in the back garden. I had a full league of teams and fixtures, and played out each match on my own on the pitch of dried mud we optimistically called “the back grass”. This differed from “the front grass” only by being slightly bigger, and by not actually having any grass, except that is for a few odd blades that struggled out of the earth before being unceremoniously stamped back in again by the boots of make-believe teams of footballers. I ran up and down with a ball, puffing and panting between one goal defined by chalk marks on the wall of the house, and the other by the clothes posts near the back hedge, at the same time providing the roars and boos of the crowd, together with an excitable commentary. In my head they were all there, two complete teams of players, spectators, a commentator, the referee, linesmen, and the trainer with his ‘magic sponge’. I drew up team sheets, match day programmes, fixture lists and league tables. I was everyone and did everything. These days kids do the same with consoles and games with names such as ‘Top European Football Manager III’, but my fantasy was played in the back garden, much healthier for all that running around outside in the fresh air, with more highly developed transferrable skills for all the manual record keeping, and no less unsociable than fantasy football on games consoles. 

T Dunham was of course the best team by far. They always won and hardly ever conceded a goal. They usually beat M Dunham (who really were crap) by several goals to nil, and “The” B Dunham (my dad had once been to watch “The” Arsenal while on holiday in London) by a similar margin. It was not long before T Dunham were promoted out of the league containing the other Dunham teams into the local district league, where they played against proper teams such as the dockers and the railwaymen, and teams from pubs and the local villages. I picked my team for each match, and posted the team sheet on the wall inside our team hut, in other words the yellow shed. The team was always set out in traditional 2-3-5 formation, with a goalkeeper, two full backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In those days we always had a centre forward, inside forwards and wingers; no one had yet heard of modern formations involving sweepers, overlapping midfielders and offensive 4-3-3 game plans.

One day, Geoffrey Bullard noticed a team sheet on the wall of the shed. “What’s that?” he asked, looking carefully. My full team was laid out for him to see, ready for the West Riding Cup Final between T Dunham and Norton Woodseats. The captain, ‘Dunham’, in other words me, was on the left wing, the position I had played the only time I was ever selected for my school. The other imaginary players were also names from school. ‘Gelder’ was inside-left, ‘Longthwaite’ was centre-forward, and, as I realised to my consternation about the same time as he spotted it, ‘Bullard’ was centre-half. 

“Why am I only at centre-half?” he demanded.

I cringed inwardly while he thought about it. He considered himself one of the best footballers in the school, and naturally assumed his rightful role was top goal scorer in the forward line.

“Actually,” he then said weighing it up, “I would make a very good centre-half,” and proceeded to let me off the hook by showing no further interest.

But the wax crayon was still there on the garage, and in due course my mother spotted it.

“It won’t come off,” she sounded annoyed, “and anyway, what does it mean?”

It dawned on me that I didn’t really know what ‘crap’ meant either. I’d heard people say it, and thought it a satisfyingly grown up word to use. It just seemed to mean someone or something wasn’t very good. You could snarl it in real disgust, curling your upper lip, emphasising the ‘r’ and spitting out the final ‘p’. I’d started using it whenever I could.

“What’s this word, ‘crap’?” my dad asked. My mother had obviously been talking to him.

It was my dad’s sister, Aunty Dorothy, a hospital nurse, who gently enlightened us as to what it meant.

“Was it you who wrote in wax crayon on the back of the garage?” she took me aside and asked in her quiet way. “You wrote, ‘M Dunham are crap’, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well you do know what it means, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It’s very very rude,” she said looking concerned,  “it means babba.” *

I wanted to giggle, but tried my best to look horrified and apologetic.

“It’s not a word we should be using at all,” she warned sternly. “And in any case,” she continued, “it’s wrong to say that. It should be M Dunham is crap.”

* It seems that use of the word ‘babba’ to mean poo is not as universal as I once thought. An internet search reveals very few examples. Similarly, ‘trump’ meaning an emission of wind (I resist an easy American political quip here) also seems mainly to be a northern expression. Both were common in the part of Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The word ‘crap’, on the other hand, was beyond vulgarity, and never ever heard. It goes to show how much things have changed.