Small Beer, Smaller World

Our story starts and finishes in 1977.

For it was in that year that My Dad and I went for a drink to a pub called the Lowther Arms at Scilly Banks, near Whitehaven, Cumbria. Nothing unusual about that; especially in this part of the world, where every second pub seemed to be called the Lowther Arms, after the Lowther family, the Earls of Lonsdale.

No, what was unusual about this was it was the smallest pub I’d ever been in, and although only seventeen I’d been in a few. The Lowther Arms was basically a ‘two up, two down’ miner’s cottage very typical of this formerly industrialised area of the West Lakes. Small towns built to house the Iron industry’s workforce like Frizington, Arlecdon, Rowrah – (some of them no more than villages or hamlets really) often consist of a single row of terraced cottages, almost defiantly ‘staring out’ the bleak mountains of this less fashionable part of the Lake District.

Formerly the Lowther Arms (with the red door)

In our tiny public house the beer was served directly from the kitchen, where the pints were pulled and placed onto a rudimentary bar. There was a till. The bar also created a partition between the kitchen and the hall. The front room, to give you some idea of scale, was roughly the size of a front room and served as ‘Public Bar’. It was furnished with bench seats which ran round almost all of the wall space and a couple of tables each with two pairs of chairs. After that, there wasn’t space for much else – apart from the drinkers. And it was packed. Fifteen people. You can imagine the noise.

If you didn’t like the ale or gin and tonic then you were out of luck, because there wasn’t much else. Otherwise, your drinks were brought to you at your seats by the lovely, but painfully slow septuagenarian hostess. Parched and dry, you sat patiently, eagerly willing the aged barmaid, hip joints creaking and groaning, to make it in one piece; while your pint glasses slid drunkenly from one end of the tray to the other as she negotiated her way past sleeping dogs, coal scuttles, logs of wood and other drinkers.

It was a fascinating place, made all the more so by a couple of old ‘gadgies’ Bill and Ted, we got chatting to. Typically, my Dad initiated conversation so smoothly that I assumed he had met them before. He is a master at this. He hadn’t. Met them I mean. The two men, I guess in their mid 70’s, were local born and bred and had accents you could cut with a knife. I needed all my concentration to unpick and figure out what they were saying. Anyway, it turned out that the pair: Bill born in Arlecdon, six or so miles east as the crow flies, and Ted in Pica, about three and a half miles more or less north west, had met in the early ‘30s working at the Crowgarth mine in Cleator Moor, some four miles or so from the pub.

Arlecdon and beyond to Ennerdale

Amazing to think that such heavy industrialisation, was just a stone’s throw away from some of the most spectacular natural landscapes, hillwalking and climbing in the world. Take Ennerdale for example – less than ten miles away! My Dad began waxing lyrical about his beloved Lake District.

Ennerdale Water from above Pillar

He has walked, climbed and camped on every inch of it since he was a boy and knows The Lakes like the back of his hand

My Dad taking a break from waxing lyrical abot the Lakes

My Dad taking a break from waxing lyrical abot the Lakes

He doesn’t need to look at a map. He knows where he’s going. His passion is genuine. As a kid I would (as I would now) follow him to the ends of the earth and never once feel the need to look up to check we were going in the right direction.

Ted, rouses us from our reveries of cool, sweet-tasting mountain streams, hillsides thick with bracken, the colour of the heather, and the comforting smell of woodsmoke at day’s end.

‘Ahhh.. I dunno what all the fuss is about’ he says and in a comment which echoes in my ears still,  continued ‘People are always going on and on about Ennerdale. I dunno what all the fuss is about. I was born in Pica – lived all my life there. I’ve never even been to Ennerdale. Why should I? It’s only a bit of water and some hills.’

My eyes were beginning to glaze over.

Yes! But what water what hills!

Andy Daly

 

The Things We Say. The day I met Noddy

Well, thank goodness Diff was awake – I knew he’d get it, and first too.

He did.

Dear reader, let me introduce you to Mr. Douglas Futers, Popular Music aficionado extraordinaire. He knows everything about everything and  has been to more gigs than we’ve had collective  hot dinners. He’s seen Hawkwind (‘Silver Machine’ Remember?) 742 times and is now deaf as a post.

Of course! It was Noddy Holder, the band was Slade and the record, the evergreen ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ a hit for the band first time around, Christmas 1973 (Flares, Strikes, ‘For mash say Smash’ and Advocaat)

If you didn’t know, and although you probably really couldn’t give a shit, I’m going to tell you anyway; the story is that this seasonal ditty which has etched its way into our national consciousness, along with Turkey, old St. Nick and Dicken’s ‘Christmas Carol’ was in fact recorded over a blistering hot week in New York, late summer of that year. Apparently, Lennon (that’s John, Liverpool, musician not Aaron, Spurs, winger) was in the next studio recording ‘Mind Games’ at the time.

The song was a hotch-potch of snippets that Nod and Jim Lee had lying around. They were given the final touch, it is reported when (I love this …)  Nod “After an evening out drinking worked through the night at his mother’s house in Walsall to write the lyrics, which he completed in one draft.” You see? a genuine slice of British Popular Culture. Bowie, meantime, earnestly doing his Willliam Burroughs’ ‘cut-ups’ must have been wondering where he went wrong.

Anyway, it just so happens that last week I had occasion to be in Birmingham. We took our eldest up there so he could attend an Open Day at Aston University, which is, in case you don’t know slap-bang in the centre of town. Wouldn’t have been my choice personally, it has to be said. To me, Brum has always been where people speak with a speech impediment rather than an accent; A place to be avoided at all costs, using one of the myriad motorways which appear designed expressly for such a purpose.

Anyway, we drop Laddo off, and from where, when we’ve turned the corner, he makes for the lecture theatre to hear all about International Business with Spanish. Or, if he were more like me at that age, make for the nearest pub, to really start ‘getting the taste’ for the West Midlands and the good folk therein.

We’re left with a couple of hours to kill, and as we’re over the road from the ‘Bullring’ Birmingham’s infamous shopping centre we decide to nip in and take a look. Well: pleasantly surprised is the reaction. They’ve made a damned fine job of re-inventing the ‘old’ Bullring which I last saw in about 1979, and was, let’s face it not only an eyesore, but an earsore, armsore and legsore it was so bad. Not so today. In fact it looks like every other modern shopping centre in whatever city or town you care to mention.

I was still pondering this transformation in the Bullring gents toilets, whilst drying my hands. I was using one of these new-fangled blown air hand driers. Similar to,  but not the Dyson airblade, it looked like an open letterbox in the wall. And, it was pretty pathetic: a brief vision passed before my eyes of the Facia of this thing being removed to reveal two wheezing old men blowing through it from behind. This nightmarish thought was soon banished by an awareness that someone was standing behind me…

I turned and looked. It was only Noddy Holder! The owner of the best pair of lungs this side of the Mississippi Delta!

What to say? I can’t come over all fawning fan – I’m nearly 50: No, no, no that won’t do. What about a ‘cooler’ approach? Drop in a ‘Blokey’ comment which might initiate a conversation.

That’s it! I figured.

Of all the things I could have said or asked him – such as ‘What was it really like to work with Dave Hill?’

‘Why the Mirror Hat, Nod? and how did you keep it on?’

Failing that, ”Ere Noddy, you know when Don Powell lost his memory, were there ever things you told him that hadn’t happened, just for a laugh?

No, of all the things … What do I venture forth with?

    “These hand driers are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard”

He looked at me and snorted a snort which was somewhere half way between ‘Yeah’ and ‘What the **** are you talking about?’ – I’m still analysing it.

….and made his way out.

Moral of the story: Be prepared! Get a notebook, list everyone famous you would like to meet. Add 2 or 3 questions for each and carry it round with you at all times!

© Andy Daly  2010