IN A recent column I recalled how my parents enjoined me to follow a career in law, which I evaded by judiciously failing A-level Latin, thus ensuring a rejection from Leeds University. But there were two other scrapes with the legal profession before I became a newspaper hack.
The first was at the age of 16 when I had completed O-levels and was thoroughly sick of school. I told my form teacher I was leaving and he asked what I planned to do next. ‘Something to do with the law, I suppose.’ He must have mentioned it in the staff room because soon afterwards a history master approached me and said he had a friend who was a solicitor looking for a ‘bright young lad’ to be his clerk.
I did some quick research and discovered that, to get on in life, a legal clerk needed to take articles as soon as possible. This was a binding contract in which the employer agreed to teach the principles and practices of the profession, after which there was a good chance of the clerk moving up to become a solicitor himself.
I won’t name the lawyer involved, although he’s long dead now, but he wore a preposterous ginger wig and had an office in Colne, the next town to my native Nelson. I turned up there and after a desultory conversation during which he displayed every sign of a crippling hangover, he offered me a job on £4 a week. When I asked about the chance of taking articles he guffawed and snorted coffee all over his desk.
After I left the building a girl who worked for him as a secretary ran down the street after me. She was Dorothy Holt, elder sister of a lass I knew from school. ‘Don’t, whatever you do, work here!’ she warned. ‘He’s a bloody monster! And he’s always drunk.’ It seemed like sound advice, and helped me decide to persevere with my A-levels.
I’ve already described how I fell in love with journalism the minute I crossed the Evening Star newsroom threshold two summers later. As a junior reporter, I was required to take a school-leavers’ course at the Thomson Regional Newspapers training centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. This began the following January, leaving me with six months to kill. I filled the interval by working at a cardboard factory.
In October, when all my friends had gone off to university, polytechnic or teacher-training college, my mother spotted an ad in the weekly Nelson Leader. It said the local magistrates’ clerk was seeking an assistant, who must have at least two A-levels at grade A. Mum’s eyes lit up when she saw the salary on offer, a lavish £4,000-plus compared with the £14 a week I’d be getting on the paper. She persuaded me to apply – with reluctance.
One lunchtime the following week I was in my bedroom in vest and underpants, busy applying TCP to the many paper cuts I had sustained at work. There was a rap on the door and my mother showed a tall and cross-looking gentleman into the room. It was the magistrates’ clerk, a beady-eyed bloke by the name of Wrathall, who had decided to take a stroll down from the court to take a look at me. He was clearly unimpressed by my dishevelment, not to mention the roll-up and can of beer I had on the go. He asked why I had applied for the job and I replied: ‘The money, to be honest.’
A week later I was summoned to the spider’s lair. ‘I’ll be brief,’ he said. ‘I have to offer you the post because you’re the only applicant with the right A-levels. But I strongly advise you not to take it. I think you are entirely unsuited to the legal profession.’
I had already decided that all the money in the world could not persuade me to work alongside this humourless twerp. ‘Don’t worry, mate,’ I replied cheerily. ‘You can stick your job where the sun don’t shine.’
In later years I often encountered Wrathall in court when I was in the press box (not the dock, thankfully), and he never failed to give me an evil glare. I also saw the ginger-wigged lawyer, who had clearly forgotten our encounter. On one occasion he was late for a case, with the accused already in the dock. ‘Any idea where your solicitor is?’ the chairman of the magistrates asked him. ‘Well he can’t be far away, because he was having a pint with me over the road a few minutes ago. He’s probably in the bog.’ Sure enough, m’learned friend burst in shortly afterwards, apologising profusely and blaming a traffic jam.
In another case, an old school friend now a solicitor told me that he was in court waiting for his case when a serial drink-driver came up before the bench. The prosecutor recited a catalogue of appalling offences concluding with the latest, when the accused, refreshed as a newt, had smashed his car into a church while a wedding was on. Eventually it was Wiggy’s turn to put the case for the defence. He stood up, eyed the magistrates unsteadily, shrugged and muttered: ‘What can I say?’ before regaining his seat. The great defender, eh? Dorothy Holt, I am for ever in your debt.
Plumbing the depths (Part 2)
MY reminiscence last week about a Greek lavatory with no paper led to an email from expatriate Burnleyite Bob Lee. He wrote: ‘There’s a bar here in town called (very originally) Cheers. Plumbing can be very iffy here in Spain and loo design can exacerbate any “ventilation problems” (a euphemism for rank pongs). I ventured into the Lilliputian-sized gents’ convenience to relieve myself of several pints of Strongbow one summer evening. The whole toilet was three metres by two and a half, comprising a urinal in the main area and a tiny lockable cubicle with lavatory. Windowless, no ventilation and black hole of Calcutta-esque. The smell that assaulted my nostrils can only be described as foul. I muttered, “Hell fire! It smells like something’s died.” To which a quiet voice rejoindered from the closed cubicle, “You wanna be in ’ere, mate”.’
Recipe corner: Boiley
This one is from my better half, who writes: ‘I am not sure this is how it is spelled but I tried “boilie” as well and that turns out to be pellets for catching carp, not the same thing at all.
‘This is a very early memory. My mother used to make it for me if I was not feeling well and nothing else would tempt me.
‘It is simply sliced white bread, either in pieces or whole, sprinkled with sugar and then covered with hot (not boiling) milk. You could cut the crusts off for true luxury. When you have eaten the sugary bread, you lift the bowl and drink the sugary milk. Delicious. I found a few similar recipes online, one which recommends toasting the bread, one suggests a dash of vanilla essence and another replaces bread with brioche, toasted or otherwise. Apparently in the North the dish is called pobs.’
A PS from PG:
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to have to face over the breakfast table. Brainy, moreover.
PG Wodehouse: Carry On, Jeeves