FROM the day I started infants’ school at the age of five, my mother insisted that I come home every day for lunch. Perhaps influenced by her own experience as a pupil during the war, she felt her precious son would be poisoned by school meals. ‘That muck!’
This meant a 15-minute midday walk each way, giving precious little time for actual eating. It continued at junior school, a ten-minute bus ride from home, for the dubious privilege of downing a fried-egg sandwich or other swiftly produced snack. It was the same when I arrived at grammar school.
Eventually I persuaded mum that I needed to be there for the whole of lunchtime, to attend Chess Club and other activities. She surrendered and stumped up what was always referred to as ‘dinner money’ – ten shillings (50p) a week – while warning that I would be horrified by the fare on offer.
How wrong could she be? It was a whole new world of culinary wonder. Every day saw a delicious main course with potatoes (never chips) and other veg, followed by a rib-sticking pudding to tide you through to teatime. Favoured dishes included bacon-and-egg flan, steak-and-kidney pie, liver and onions, shepherd’s pie, Lancashire hotpot, toad in the hole – all served in large rectangular steel trays, the contents of which the prefect at the head of the table would divide into eight inexact portions, keeping the largest for himself. I can still taste the cornflake tart, chocolate sponge, spotted dick, jam roly-poly, treacle sponge, Bakewell tart, raspberry sponge sprinkled with desiccated coconut, bread-and-butter pudding, apple crumble – all (except the chocolate sponge which had its own sauce) served with a metal jug of custard which always had a thick skin on top. I was never keen on the skin but others would fight for it. I feel sure there must have been a set of master recipes sent out to schools because friends brought up in other parts of the country remember similar delights.
At the end of my first week of school meals, mum asked me how I was getting on with them. ‘Oh, they’re OK,’ I said, adding loyally: ‘But not as good as you make.’ ‘Right then, from now on I’ll do you a packed lunch.’ ‘No, no, no, you mustn’t go to the trouble.’ ‘Well, if you’re sure.’ ‘Yes, mum, I’ll soldier on.’
The one pudding I avoided was semolina, which looked and smelled like wallpaper paste. I could never bring myself to try it. Many years later, when I met my future in-laws, Margaret’s mother asked me what foods I liked best. I replied that I would eat anything except semolina. Her face fell. It was a family favourite.
Even now, more than 30 years on, I have yet to taste it although there is usually a tin in the cupboard which the missus will scoff on the sly. My own secret vice? Anchovies.
Crossed wires at the Muckraker
IN the early 1980s journalists on the Mirror and News of the World in Manchester frequented a subterranean dive near Thomson House called the Moonraker, always referred to as the Muckraker, owned by a bonkers Greek bloke known as Mad George. One night, with closing time approaching, it became obvious that a Mirror sub-editor and a non-English-speaking Greek friend of George’s at the other end of the bar had imbibed too heartily, and he refused both further drink. When they separately protested, he said it was for their own good and told each chap that he would call him a cab. He then immediately forgot his promise.
Fifteen minutes later both guys accosted George and asked him what had happened to their ride home. He happened on the simple but brilliant expedient of telling each that the other geezer was his taxi driver and escorting them both up the stairs and out of the door. As the remaining customers filed past them, the pair stood on the pavement bellowing at each other, the Mirror man enquiring where the hell the car was, and the Greek presumably asking the same in his own language. How it ended nobody knows, least of all the two drunks.
Andrew Jennings, RIP
I LEARNED with sadness yesterday about the death of Andrew Jennings, the investigative journalist, aged 78.He was best known for exposing corruption in world athletics and football and, like me, began his career at the Burnley Evening Star before working for the Daily Mail in Manchester. He was renowned as a character and my favourite Jennings story is that one stifling summer afternoon he turned up for work in shorts. The editor sent him home to change. Jennings’s response was to repair to Moss Bros and hire a full evening suit which he wore, sweating profusely, for the rest of his shift.
Old jokes’ home
I CAN’T recall the last time anyone told me a joke, yet in olden times any reunion of friends would inevitably begin with an exchange of the latest gags. For example, who remembers the craze for puns on names, such as: ‘What do you call a woman with a goalpost in each hand? Annette. What do you call a man with rabbits up his bottom? Warren.’ And my favourite: ‘What do you call a woman who is holding a pool cue while balancing pints of lager on her head and shoulders? Beertricks Potter.’
Further suggestions welcome.
A PS from PG:
It just showed once again that half the world doesn’t know how the other three quarters live.
PG Wodehouse: Much Obliged, Jeeves