Thursday, 25 May 2017

Glorious Food of the 1940s & 1950s

It’s odd to think that ordinary run-of-the-mill Roast Chicken was once so revered that for us, and for most of our neighbours, it was Christmas Dinner, and everybody knows Christmas Dinner is the most special meal of the year. This was back in 1947 or 1948 when we, along with many others, kept fowl in the backyard, a belligerent rooster and a harem of hens. The Bassents next door kept Rabbits and fattened them for eating which I didn’t like to think about too much and occasionally, particularly on allotments, some people kept pigs. As the years progressed the much esteemed Roast Fowl lost its place at the top of the pyramid of prized foods and simply became a Sunday dinner. At the same time families like The Scutts of Springhead Road, who my mother regarded as decidedly Uppity, had already announced they were having Turkey for Christmas! So the formerly greatly favoured bird slid inexorably downwards, its demise coinciding with the Chicken Inn chain opening in the late 1950s. One by one all my Aunts led by Old Nan in her best hat and coat boarded the Saturday 11.10 Express to Charing Cross specifically for the thrill of a Chicken Dinner in Leicester Square at 3/3d apiece. It was several months before my mother could be persuaded to join them because generally speaking she didn’t hold with London, mostly because of the prices but by 1958 she had to admit that what with chicken still being quite dear in Gravesend, and when you added in the cost and the palaver of the cooking of it, an occasional 3/3d was not too steep. In any case whichever way you looked at it you had to admit it was a Day Out and everyone needed a Day Out from time to time and apart from all that, depending on what you ordered you could find an entire Chicken Leg on your plate together with roast potatoes, peas and gravy so you couldn’t complain. These days the bird has simply settled into becoming a midweek dinner choice whether roasted, poached or more imaginatively turned into a curry and the Chicken Inn chain is long gone.

Children of the late 1940s were accustomed to a diet that has largely disappeared and we were totally ignorant of foods that today’s child is completely familiar with. None of us had the slightest clue as to what a Kebab might be and although we might have heard of Pizza and perhaps even associated it with Italy that was as far as it went. Wimpy Bars were still firmly in the future along with Golden Egg restaurants and Chinese Takeaways. We would have been quite confused by a Big Mac, possibly associating it with some kind of rainwear. The only takeaway meal we were completely at ease with was Fish & Chips, an option that had been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. My mother who was born in 1908 remembered Fish & Chips as an occasional treat before WW1 and her own mother, spoke of the Fish & Chips in Bethnal Green with almost a tear in her eye. According to my Aunts, we who were growing up in the 1940s were a great deal better off food-wise than they who had been born back in Late Edwardian England. As a group they did not always agree with regard to matters concerning the past but as far as food was concerned they were for once in total accord. Their parents being afflicted with drunkenness, they were forced to become accustomed to hunger pains.

Fashions in food together with the availability of some items dictate that the culinary experiences of each generation will differ. For instance delicacies chosen to impress and prepared in advance of a Saturday visit by relatives would undoubtedly be a mystery to those born after 1960. Nevertheless the memory of the forward planning for such delights as Brawn or Jellied Eels is still vivid to me.

Old Nan always referred to Brawn as Head Cheese but of course it bore little resemblance to any kind of cheese I was familiar with. Usually I was sent to the butcher to order the pig’s head a few days in advance and told not to forget to ask him to split it. For Saturday eating I would be sent back to collect it before school on Thursday. Then it would be squashed into the biggest cauldron we possessed along with salt, onion and carrots and simmered on the scullery stove all day until the water was disgustingly gelatinous and as my cousin Pat observed, just like snot when you’ve got a really bad cold. By teatime the gas would have been turned off, all corners of the house would smell of boiled pig and the cauldron contents left to cool enough for the remains of the head to be pulled forth after tea and the meat patiently picked from the bones. I usually tried to dodge any assistance with this even if it meant electing to go to bed earlier than usual. By Friday evening both the meat and the liquid it had simmered in would be distributed among a number of receptacles and would long have set into typically unstable Brawn-like consistency, all ready to be consumed next day by the visiting relatives along with vinegar and bread and margarine, always referred to as bread and butter. Nothing horrified me more than having to sample it but the adults did so with enthusiasm and I would simply be sent to the off licence for bottles of Light Ale to accompany it.

I was less unsettled by Jellied Eels with the possible exception of the first part of the preparation. Everybody knew that to do the job properly you had to buy the eels not just fresh but definitely alive. We usually bought ours in Northfleet High Street after school and carried them home threshing around at the bottom of a shopping basket. I dreaded their approaching slaughter, not because I felt particularly concerned for their lives but because after chopping the bits carried on wriggling. Once an almost whole eel escaped before execution and had to be salvaged from beneath the copper while its tail still fidgeted on the table.

The squirming pieces were dropped into boiling water with salt, diced onion and bay-leaves and simmered until after tea when they were left to cool and ultimately served in much the same manner as the Brawn. By Saturday I would have put the demise of the unfortunate creatures aside enough to sample a small helping. My Grandmother was particularly fond of them and without fail every time she ate them told the story of how she was once friendly with Tubby Isaacs of Aldgate when he first opened his famous stall just after the First War and how he had passed it on to his nephew Solly in 1939 before the Second War and ran off to America in case the Germans won. Nobody could make Jellied Eels like Tubby Isaacs she maintained. And maybe she was right because I wasn’t overly fond of my mother’s version but then as a child I was somewhat choosy about all food, seafood in particular, favouring shrimps over everything else available at the time.

On Sunday afternoons the Shrimp Man trundled through the local streets with his pushcart, sometimes offering crabs along with the shrimps, cockles, and whelks all sold by the half pint or pint. If my mother felt the budget didn’t run to shrimps I was happy to settle for cockles but never whelks. We only ever bought half a pint of shrimps for me and my brother but as my parents always favoured whelks anyway, they usually bought a pint or two to share between them. Occasionally as a special treat we might have a crab.

Another food hawker was the Pease Pudding & Faggots man who usually came on a Friday or Saturday but wasn’t as reliable as the Shrimp Man. I was particularly fond of Pease Pudding which appeared to be quite harmlessly made from split yellow peas but not quite as keen on the Faggots especially after I once witnessed my Aunt Martha making them out of very fatty bits of pork belly and an evil smelling pig liver. She said she didn’t hold with buying them off the street because you didn’t know what was in them. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate response to that comment but I didn’t forget it.

The gastronomic highlight of our week was Sunday dinner which would always consist of a piece of Lamb or Beef together with roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and gravy made with Bisto granules. Afters would most likely be Stewed Plums and Custard in summer and Prunes or an occasional Treacle Pudding in winter. There would be at least two other meaty meals during the week, cheap cuts such as Neck of Lamb which would be made into a stew with dumplings or possibly Pork Belly or Brisket. Horrifyingly I have now lived long enough to see these cuts that I was always wary of in the first place, appear on upmarket restaurant menus along with very fancy prices. As much of the current customer base has no former memory of them they are greeted with Oohs and Aahs of delight. Being the rather fussy eater described, I wasn’t all that keen first time around so I avoid them if I can. Meals I was in fact more keen on included Liver, Kidneys, Stuffed Hearts and Sausages, most especially the latter.

In deference to my father’s Catholicism, on Fridays we always had Fish, even long after he had died. I found some fish meals, particularly those simmered in milk, most unappetising, mainly because my mother had never got the hang of how to thicken a sauce with flour and insisted that milk flavoured with salt and parsley was actually Parsley Sauce. She was never a confident cook, putting her lack of skill down to the fact that when she and her siblings were growing up in Maxim Road, Crayford, there was such a lack of food that my Grandmother had been totally unable to provide any kind of role model. Not that she expressed it quite in those terms of course. I definitely recall other Friday fish meals of Sprats, Kippers and Bloaters with much more enthusiasm than her attempts at simmered fish with any kind of home-made sauce. The sauces I was happiest with and accustomed to were HP, Daddy’s and Tomato.

Although I recall a tin of Fry’s Cocoa suddenly appearing as a supper drink when I was about ten years old, few of us drank anything other than tea with our meals alongside the grown-ups. I was aware that some children were occasionally allowed Tizer or Lemonade but we only managed that on those occasions when we were required to sit outside a Pub with the adults inside. Even then Old Nan grumbled and complained that it was a waste of money saying she had no time for Bleeding Brahmans demanding lemonade to Sweeten Their Piddle. On Pub occasions though she was ignored and we couldn’t help but feel triumphant.

Breakfasts back then were infinitely more straightforward than they are today. There was no choice of Muesli and Yoghurt was unheard of so weekday breakfasts usually consisted of bread and jam in summer and porridge in winter. I should add that the porridge was of the rustic variety with no choice of flavourings and definitely not QuikCook. An occasional egg might be served to children on Sundays though their fathers and sometimes their mothers might have bacon as well occasionally. I envied Molly and Georgie a door or two down whose mother regularly provided Shredded Wheat but when I suggested we follow suit I was told boxed cereals were much too dear, like cube sugar which I also had a longing for and occasionally saw at their house. Old Nan said in her experience it was only Nobs and Toffs who went in for Frills such as cube sugar and it was likely such people went in for Real Cream as well. This remark caused me even more confusion because I thought Cream was the Libby’s Milk that we regularly poured over our tinned pineapple at Sunday teatime after consuming the compulsory two slices of bread and butter. The idea that there was something else known as Real Cream was astonishing.

Libby’s Milk was also sometimes served alongside the Sunday tea-time trifles my mother learned to make from Woman Magazine in the doctor’s waiting room. Her first attempt appeared in 1953 in honour of my brother turning six, not exactly a Birthday Party like some children were beginning to have in those post-war years, but all the same a most Special Tea. A Swiss Roll from the Co-op had been sliced and arranged at the bottom of a glass bowl, topped with a can of Fruit Salad and set with an orange flavoured jelly. This was left to completely solidify in our always chilly Front Room and when Bernard returned from school at 3.30 it was ready to be admired. His excitement was intense and even more so when the can of Libby’s appeared. He told me it was just like Sunday Tea Time and his ears turned pink with delight when we sang Happy Birthday.

Other infrequent treats were Lyons Fruit Pies, appearing on our tea table intermittently, never a whole one each, and cut reverently in half for my brother and me to share. It only occurred to me recently that my mother never appeared to partake of these occasional treats and I imagine that could only be because of the cost. An annual delight that all of us did take part in was the making and eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, served deliciously with the juice of a lemon and a sprinkling of sugar. Other festive food included Hot cross buns appearing without fail in time for Easter, though we never made our own, and usually we were also given a small chocolate egg like every other child in the street.

Throughout my childhood there were some foods that were completely free such as Hop Tops, Cobnuts, Chestnuts, Blackberries and Crab Apples and if you could face it, Hedgehogs. But you had to make the effort to collect them which of course we did with enthusiasm except for the Hedgehogs which were usually left to my Grandmother who was more resilient about the fate of small mammals. There were also foods that were purloined on a seasonal basis from local farmers such as Apples, Pears, Cherries, Peas, Beans and New Potatoes and we viewed these thefts less as pilfering and more as a Right passed down via generations before us.

Now looking back over those years between the mid 1940s and the mid 1950s I have come to realise that there were a number of typical Kentish dishes that I never came across. No member of our large extended family seemed to make, have any interest in making or the necessary knowledge as to how to make local delights such as Gypsy Tart, Kentish Pudding Pie, Cherry Batter Pudding or Lenten Pie. Others spring to mind also, but they all remained a mystery to me and I only tried them decades later as an adult with the assistance of a suitable cookery book. If she was still alive, Old Nan would undoubtedly say that this was because they were foods that only Toffs & Nobs ate but somehow I don’t believe that.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A North African Aunt

Although the postman called twice daily to York Road and the surrounding streets, during my childhood I cannot remember my mother receiving a great deal of mail. Occasionally one of her sisters might write what were called A Few Lines informing of illness in the family or suggesting A Day Out to Maidstone Market. These letters followed a strict formula, always beginning with `I hope this finds you well as it leaves me the same’ and continuing in a kind of staccato shorthand where whole words were deliberately omitted making the writer sound as if they wrote in great haste whilst standing at a kitchen bench - `went market yesterday’ or `was up hospital Sat’ indicating that the writer shopped at the local market the previous day or visited the hospital for some reason at the weekend. There were never letters from my grandmother because having never been to school she could not write at all and when called upon to sign her name, did so proudly and aggressively with a cross. And while my mother was not a frequent receiver of letters, on the other hand my father both sent and received mail on a regular basis.

Perhaps I noticed these pieces of correspondence more acutely in my last year at primary school when Mr Clarke taught us how to write letters Properly, never forgetting to include our address and the date in the top right hand corner of the page. I certainly began to pay keen attention to the correspondence my father received, especially the exciting envelopes from North Africa with very foreign stamps.

I could not help noticing that my mother was invariably most unsettled by these letters, particularly when they contained photographs. She without fail steamed open every one, oblivious to the fact that she was usually being observed by me and then seemed to hover on the brink of tearing the contents into a thousand pieces before resealing them and placing them on the kitchen mantelpiece in front of the clock. Little by little I learned that the letters came from a Madame Rampan whose family had a farm of some description in Tunisia. After developing a debilitating illness during the war my father had been sent to convalesce there on two occasions, each time for some months and by all accounts had got on extremely well with the family, especially one of the daughters, the one called Dominique. He and she, it seemed became very good friends. The photographs were generally of Madame Rampan, her husband, her three daughters or a small grandson, the son of Dominique. The very first photograph to tumble from one of the envelopes showed a group of people with little Andre as a baby being dangled over my father’s shoulders by his mother. This particular image caused my mother considerable anger and then tears followed by at least a week of total silence.

Conflict between parents always causes concern to their children and I decided to try to get to the bottom of the problem by asking enthusiastic questions about the Tunisian family in as animated a manner as was possible with my mother hunched and miserable over the tea table. My father explained that Mr and Mrs Rampan were very keen for us to visit them for a holiday and told me all about the farm and how hot Tunisia was, a place where exotic and barely recognizable fruits such as grapes grew alongside more familiar things like oranges and lemons. Each time one of the airmail envelopes arrived he could hardly wait to sit down after tea, once the table had been cleared, to reply. Sometimes he sent photographs of Bernard and me. My mother observed the process desolately maintaining that nothing would ever persuade her to visit foreign places because she just didn’t hold with it and anyway she’d rather go to Margate for the day than contemplate places like Tunisia. In any case, we didn’t have money for such ideas.

The arguments about Little Andre and his mother became more frequent and I learned that Dominique was no better than she ought to be and I was amazed to observe my father swearing on his prayer book that henceforth neither she, nor either of her sisters, would be anything but just friends to him. I felt further compelled to sort out these complicated relationships.
I asked my mother if Mrs Rampan and Dominique were the same sort of friends as the Greek Aunts who had suddenly descended upon us a year or two previously, like a clutch of exotic birds, wearing furs and smelling of bluebell woods and causing great disharmony in our household. I was advised to button my lip so I went to where my father was cleaning his motor bike in the Anderson Shelter that had been turned into a garden shed and asked again. He told me I didn’t need to know the answer to that question right then. I asked when would be the right time to know with just the right amount of insolence in my voice but instead of the flash of anger I expected he simply looked resigned and told me he couldn’t really say when. One Sunday afternoon I tried a different strategy and approached him with a book of maps I had borrowed from the library. Where in Africa was Tunisia, I wanted to know, and just how hot was it there? Then just as I had predicted, he eagerly began once more to tell me how wonderful the farm was and that the Rampan family had treated him like the son they had never had and how he had learned a great deal of French whilst living with them. It seemed timely to risk mentioning Dominique and so I asked if she was possibly a New Aunt. He nodded with a far away look in his eyes, a chamois leather now motionless in his right hand. Feeling a strangely unfamiliar bond of sympathy with this father I had never quite adapted to having back from war in the first place, I assured him that I would love to go there with him even if we had to do so without my mother and brother. I added that such an arrangement would also be a great deal cheaper than the original idea and he smiled sadly.

Filled with a growing enthusiasm for North Africa the next day at school I elaborated on the theme and told the tight group of girls who were currently my friends, Pam, Pat and Pauline, that our family was organising a North African holiday for the following year. They were pleasingly impressed though just a little confused as to where precisely Tunisia might be, Pam wondering if it was as far away as The Isle of Wight. Walking home from school I told Molly whose geographical knowledge was less patchy, and she told her mother who told Mrs Stewart who must have mentioned it to her daughter Beryl who although she was a C stream student had a certain way with words and could hold her own in a verbal dispute.
We were waiting in the Friday dinner queue when Beryl moved in to attack me.
`Your Dad’s got a Fancy Woman out in Africa!’
I was appalled. We all knew that Fancy Women were nothing to boast about so I vehemently denied the fact.
`Yes he has because my Mum and my Nan both was both talking about it the other night.’
I told her in that case they were both dirty liars.
Beryl looked immediately injured, `It’s a known fact that your Dad goes in for Fancy Women – what about them Greeks? My Nan says you only had to look at that lot to know they were Fancy Women.’
Outraged and becoming awkwardly tearful I insisted that those Greeks were my Aunts.
`You can call them Aunts if you like,’ Beryl jeered, pleased with the attentive audience of dinner queue girls, `Everybody else calls them Fancy Women.’
As we moved a few paces closer to the vat of banana custard on the dinner trestle Beryl warmed to her theme adding, ` Your Dad has been carrying on with that clippie from the 496 bus too – he’s well known for carrying on my Mum says.’
I told her that her Mum was an ugly pig with a smelly bum and moved to kick her but she deftly stepped sideways and the kick mostly landed against the dinner trestle, hurting me more than her and causing the Dinner Lady to wave a spoon and tell me to watch my behaviour.
Beryl collected her dish of banana custard and almost skipped back to the table she shared with five other C streamers promising she was going to tell both her Mum and her Nan the names I had called them.

I was troubled by the dinner queue exchange and on the way home asked Molly for her opinion. She said that she had always considered my father to be a good example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man and so he was bound to be prone to carrying on. It would be something he had no control over like having freckles. Once men reached middle age, she added, it was better for all concerned if they were just ordinary and plain looking. This discourse did little to make me feel more positive.
I felt even worse a day or two later when I was accosted by Mrs Stewart with a threatening look on her face, advising me what she would do if I ever called her names again and adding that in any case she didn’t want her Beryl to have too much to do with me. Apparently she had not yet forgiven my family for the business of my Aunt Freda and the Black Market nylon stockings during the war. To my relief she did not go on to remind me of the baby switch incident when my new brother had been substituted for her Little Julie.

Nevertheless, feeling that a certain amount of Right was on my side since as an example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man, my father was less responsible for his actions than he might otherwise have been, I pointed out that her Beryl should not have said that he had a Fancy Woman in Africa because that person was just my new Aunt Dominique . In fact just like the Greeks who turned out absolutely definitely to be Aunts. I added that neither did he Carry On with the clippie from the 496 bus.
Mrs Steward looked at me strangely, opened her mouth, closed it again and with what seemed a monumental effort, stopped herself from saying more. She walked away and I was left with an odd feeling of unease and a great desire to have an ordinary sort of father, one who bordered on being plain and who didn’t Carry On too much.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Adventures In Ebooks

Fortunately I am not obsessive about checking my book sales which is just as well because too much checking only leads to disappointment. I was talking to a friend the other day who asked how often I did actually check (and made me promise to be honest) - when I said about once a fortnight she nearly dropped her Skinny Milk Latte into her lap. She admitted to checking twice daily and looked around furtively as she spoke.
So I'm glad I'm not too obsessive. On the other hand it really is about time more interest was shown in the Harlotry volume. The loyal band of followers is straggling somewhat. I'm almost disappointed in you all!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

When A Tiger Ate An Usherette Called Iris

People don’t talk much about Going To The Pictures these days so maybe they simply don’t go or more likely they have a more up to date and conventional term for the pastime like Seeing a Movie. Back in those years following the war we definitely went to the Pictures and to do that we went to a Picture House. As I’ve said previously my own favourite Picture House was the Wardona in Northfleet though I frequented the place only rarely because my mother was sure I would Catch Things there. The things she most feared me catching were Nits and TB. She favoured The Majestic in Gravesend which was flashily decorated in red and gold. Old Nan who knew everything about The Pictures said it had opened in 1931 and at the time had a cafĂ© for patrons and four dressing rooms for the convenience of those appearing in Live Shows. I don’t actually remember any Live Shows but I suppose there must have been some at one time. It was certainly a popular place in the late 1940s with long queues outside on some Saturday nights, depending upon what was showing of course. At popular times there was an organist called Reggie New and an usher who walked up and down the queue calling out, `Seats in all places’. When I was very small I have a faint memory of us going to see Casablanca there which I found exceedingly boring . We also saw Bambi and Snow White which were both considerably less tedious even though the forest fire was alarming and the witch terrifying.

Of the four Gravesend cinemas my own preference was The Regal. To be perfectly honest I was not keen on frequenting The Majestic by myself especially when attempting to get into an age restricted programme because the woman in the ticket office was particularly astute at querying if you were really fourteen or actually only twelve. If you were in fact only eleven that could be quite awkward despite the plush surroundings. The Regal was less lavish and had been designed by someone called Charles Lovell opening as long ago as 1914. It had 750 seats in the auditorium and over 300 in the balcony as well as two boxes for the local elite. It had originally been called the Gem Picture Theatre but in 1934 it was taken over by Union Cinemas, spruced up and renamed The Regal. Old Nan clearly remembered the re-opening in May of that year because she and my grandfather had come all the way from Crayford to attend and catch a glimpse of not only Jessie Matthews but Doris and Elsie Waters also. It was clearly quite an occasion and after the excitement of rubbing shoulders with the stars they had treated themselves to a fish supper in The High Street before downing a number of Gin & Tonics at The Three Daws. This story, told a number of times as I was growing up did not impress me at all because I had no idea who Jessie Matthews was and only a dim awareness of Elsie & Doris Waters who were to me, two very boring radio personalities who seemed to say things that made my mother and the Aunts laugh a lot. The best feature of The Regal as far as I was concerned was that the staff in the ticket office were usually not quite as fussy as those at The Majestic and because of this eleven and twelve year olds were privy to a wide and exciting range of restricted programmes that these days would not raise an eyebrow.

Regal fussiness was more to do with allotting seating and the two usherettes were quite determined that anyone who looked under the age of fifteen must sit as far Down The Front as possible and preferably in the first two rows, in fact in the cheapest seats, tickets for which I seem to recall were a mere nine-pence. This was usually easily enforceable because child patrons generally had in fact purchased the cheapest seats and in any case in those days as a rule children did what adults told them to unless there was a fool-proof way of not doing so.

My mother was not in favour of the cheapest seats because she had read somewhere that viewing from too close a proximity to the screen would inevitably lead to blindness in later life. She firmly believed that my Grandmother’s cataracts were a consequence of this habit. Therefore although we were not as frequent cinema attenders as our neighbours, when we did go we always sat At The Back, in the Good Seats, sometimes paying as much as one and nine-pence for a matinee performance. So when my brother and I were sent off on a Saturday afternoon in March 1953 to see `The Greatest Show On Earth’ starring the dashing and handsome Cornell Wilde with whom I had fallen passionately in love, although I was not quite thirteen and Bernard only six years old we were given the exact money and told to only buy Best Seats. I importantly joined the ticket office queue and duly purchased two one and nine-penny tickets. It was quite a surprise therefore when presenting them to the bored afternoon shift usherette to be ordered with a simple flash of her torch to `Go down the front’. I carefully held the tickets up again for inspection and said firmly, `I’ve paid for back row tickets – one and nine-pence each!’ Looking a little impatient and raising her voice she flashed the all-important torch down the aisle, `All children down the front,’ she said abruptly and quelling my next protest before I could actually utter it she added, `And no lip if you don’t mind.’

In fact I did mind because I had been about to enlighten her about the blindness that could eventuate from sitting too close to the screen. I minded very much and had begun to feel just a little bit fearful of a possible fight but also indignant. Bernard tugged at my hand anxiously and looked as if he was about to cry, `Let’s do what she says,’ he urged. But I had already decided to ignore her because Right was on my side and so I began to drag him into one of the back row seats whereupon she took his other arm and started to propel him towards the front of the auditorium with her torch. Infuriatingly he obediently went ahead of her intent upon not missing the beginning of the afternoon programme where the Pathe News might still be showing dramatic footage of the devastating recent tidal surge that had even affected people we knew of in Northfleet and killed hundreds that we didn’t know at all. But I had already begun to feel the stirrings of fury that in subsequent years would become all too familiar a sensation when face to face with injustice and discrimination. Rushing ahead of the huge arc of her torch I pulled him back, holding his upper arm firmly with one hand and the one and nine-penny tickets now becoming creased and sweaty with the other. On the way in I had idly noticed a door that said Manager’s Office. Managers I knew had power and sorted out problems. `I’m going to see the Manager,’ I said firmly, `Because you shouldn’t be making us sit in cheap seats when we’ve got tickets for dear seats.’ She shrugged but just a little diffidently.

Bernard had begun to cry properly now, big tears rolling down his cheeks, `I just want to see the circus people,’ he said. I told him he would definitely see the circus people because the Manager would sort out the problem and as I spoke I imagined a performing tiger tearing out the throat of the odious woman with the torch, forcing her to drop it in the aisle as she screamed in anguish, vainly trying to fend off the animal but not before it wrenched her right arm out of her shoulder. This particular circus scene was so very pleasing that I pictured it all over again before plucking up the necessary courage to knock on the door that said Manager’s Office.

I banged on the door as loudly as I could but nothing happened until I knocked for the third time. He was short and plump and looked ill-tempered; patches of underarm sweat were evident on his otherwise whiter than white shirt. He had blue braces and a jacket draped over the chair-back beside him in the tiny space. `What do you want?’ he asked irritably glancing at Bernard whose nose was now running because of all the tears.
Battling the inner turmoil I was feeling I explained the problem and also elaborated on the reasons why, the danger of blindness in later life emanating from the first rows of the stalls. I showed him the creased and now very damp tickets which he smoothed on his blotter, nodding as he did so, `Yes these are back stalls all right’ he said. Still looking exasperated he led the way back into the auditorium which was now nicely filling and called to the abhorrent usherette, `Iris - these customers have the correct tickets for back seating,’ he said.
She shrugged again and told him that the kiddies had seemed to have lost the tickets and if only she had seen them there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.

`She’s a liar,’ I said and turned to Bernard who was still weeping but more quietly now. He was in no state to support me
The Manager sat us in the back row just as the Pathe Gazette rooster appeared on the screen. A moment or two later he returned with a packet of Polo Mints which he handed to Bernard who stopped crying at once.
Despite the undoubted attractions of Cornell Wilde, Trapeze Artist, I didn’t feel entirely normal for at least half an hour, endlessly reliving the bloody demise of the much despised Iris, she whom the circus tiger pinned to the sloping aisle of The Regal Cinema and then consumed so completely that all that was left of her by intermission was the abandoned torch still shining its arc towards the screen. Beside me my brother now cheerfully munched on Polo Mints.

As we waited for the bus home he said, sounding suddenly very grown up, `It’s worth complaining isn’t it Jean?’
I nodded and tried to appear sophisticated, still feeling edgy and ill at ease about what had happened.
Decades later, on a visit back to Gravesend after The Regal had become first a Bingo Hall and then the United Church of the Kingdom of God, I was abruptly reminded of that afternoon when I had been ardently in love with Cornell Wilde and when a tiger ate an usherette called Iris.