A FRIDAY evening tradition when I worked in Blackburn in the 1970s was a crawl around a group of eight or nine run-down town-centre pubs known collectively as the Barbary Coast. Most of the other customers were ruffians, prostitutes or both.
How my fellow sub-editors and I escaped without coming to serious harm was purely a matter of providence – particularly with my being young, daft and drunk.
One time we were in a strongly Catholic boozer when a thug came round with a collection plate. ‘What’s that for?’ I asked him. ‘For our brave lads in Belfast.’ ‘What, the Army?’ ‘No, you stupid f***er, for the Provos, the IRA.’
I started to protest about funding terrorism only to find strong arms lifting me off my seat and out of the pub. It was the landlord. He told me: ‘If you’re trying to get yourself killed, you’re going the right way about it. Now bugger off and don’t come back.’
I was rejoined by my buddies after they’d finished their pints (and mine), and we headed for Yates’s Wine Lodge. If you weren’t three sheets to the wind when you went in, it wouldn’t take long to get you into that state. Yates’s specialised in weird wine-based concoctions among which was ‘beef and malt’, which so far as I know was a mixture of South African red wine, meat extract and Marmite. Sounds disgusting and it was; therefore a challenge to the youthful drinker.
The most rapid route to oblivion came via The Blob – a lethal mix of fortified Australian sweet white wine, sugar and a slice of lemon, with hot water to ensure rapid absorption into the bloodstream. Sort of a poor man’s whisky all-in. Later when I was working in Manchester, a News of the World colleague and I had several of these at Yates’s and got so drunk that he couldn’t get up the steps back into the office. He staggered off home and I said he’d been taken ill, fooling nobody.
The irony was that Yates’s, Britain’s oldest pub chain, was set up with the intention of weaning gin-drinkers off spirits and on to wine – its motto was Moderation is True Temperance. I used to have a Yates’s T-shirt with that on the back and it raised a few laughs, I can tell you.
The first Wine Lodge was set up in the former Angel pub in Oldham in 1884 and within two decades there were more than 20 around Lancashire. In 1920 the company bought farmland in Cheshire and raised a herd of Hereford beef cattle. The meat was sold at Yates’s butcher shops in Blackpool and Manchester, as well as in some of the larger Wine Lodges.
By 2007, when the words ‘Wine Lodge’ were dropped from the name, there were more than 130 Yates’s across England, Scotland and Wales. And when you asked for a beef and malt, or a Blob, you were met with a blank stare.
AMONG my neighbours in Blackburn was an elderly former soldier named Joe, an attendant at a British Legion car park. One night in the pub, he announced that he would probably not be back for a while. Asked why, he replied: ‘Arms’.
All became clear at work when a court report arrived saying Joe had been given five years for gun running – using his Army contacts to supply weapons to Ulster loyalists. I never saw him again.
The earth floor firebug
WHEN I was at junior school there was a deeply troubled girl in our class – I’ll call her Christine Atkinson. At the age of ten she could neither read nor write, never spoke and used to attract attention to herself by throwing full bottles of school milk against the playground wall. Eventually she was moved down to the infants where they tried her with a new-fangled system called the Initial Teaching Alphabet. She was still there when I left after the 11-plus exam.
The next time I saw her was when, as a 19-year-old cub journalist, I went with a photographer to report on a house fire in Burnley. It was a terrace slum which, incredibly, still had an earth floor turned to mud by the heat.
Standing in the back yard were a teenage couple with a babe in arms. The mother was Christine Atkinson. As the snapper took pictures of the blackened ruins, I started to interview the child’s father. He stood there with a stupid grin and started rubbing his middle finger and thumb together. I asked him: ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘Money,’ he said. ‘How much for my story?’
‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but we don’t pay for interviews.’
‘What, not even a few quid?’
‘Huh,’ he said. ‘Wish I’d never started the bloody fire now.’
Old jokes’ home
YOUNG chap gets a job as an apprentice zookeeper. On his first morning he’s patrolling the aviary when he sees a dead zebra finch in its cage. Anxious not to get the blame for its demise, he quickly throws it into the lions’ enclosure. In the primate house it gets worse – two dead chimpanzees. Over the lions’ fence they go. Finally in the insect house he finds a hive full of dead bees which have started to decompose. He tips them into the lion section. At this point one of the lions wakes up and asks his mate: ‘What’s for lunch today?’ ‘Oh, the usual,’ comes the reply. ‘Finch, chimps and mushy bees.’
A PS from PG
After the above seedy tales, I think I should raise the tone with a lengthier-than-usual PG Wodehouse extract. This one is from Very Good, Jeeves, and follows a scene where Bingo Little and his wife have been expressing their love for each other. Bertie Wooster is speaking:
‘In these days of unrest, Jeeves,’ I said, ‘with wives yearning to fulfil themselves and husbands slipping round the corner to do what they shouldn’t, and the home, generally speaking, in the melting pot, as it were, it is nice to find a thoroughly united couple.’
‘Decidedly agreeable, sir.’
‘I allude to the Bingos – Mr and Mrs.’
‘What was it the poet said of couples like the Bingeese?’
‘“Two minds with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one”, sir.’
‘A dashed good description, Jeeves.’
‘It has, I believe, given uniform satisfaction, sir.’