Number Seventeen of the regular HebWeb column from local writer and story-teller, George Murphy.
Murphy’s Lore 17 - Wednesday, 24 April 2019
I like hearing apocryphal tales, except when I fall for them.
You know that one about the woman who called her infant son ‘Gooey’ and tried to get him on the register at his local nursery and when the secretary asked her to write his name down, she’s told that G - U - Y was in fact pronounced ‘Guy’? It turns out her Gooey was named after a Guy in her favourite Mills and Boon novel - she just got the pronunciation wrong.
Well a teacher in Mixenden (who went on to become a Head) told me that tale. But it’s funny how history repeats itself, because years later a teacher told me the exact same story about her school in Tod.
Uncle Billy and the tape worm
When my present wife’s Uncle Billy was a boy he started losing weight, inspite of eating every meal put before him (and after that trying to lick the pattern off the plate). The doctor told his mum to starve Billy for two days, then cook a big meat and potato pie* - oh, and be sure to bank up a big, blazing fire.
Two days later, the doctor called round and helped Billy’s dad to tie the frail, wan looking but ravenous child to a chair. Then his mum brought in the big meat and potato pie, Billy’s particular favourite. She placed it on the table in front of him. Tortured by its wonderful aromas, Billy started writhing and rocking in his seat, desperate to bite through the pie’s golden crust to its hidden, delicious innards. His eyes bulged and he suddenly looked as if he was about to vomit, when a whopping great tape worm sprang out of his mouth. Fortunately, the doctor was ready for it and with practised hands, he caught the parasite in his coat before wrestling the squirming, spitting creature onto the blazing, sizzling fire.
Years later, a doctor friend politely told PW that the Uncle Billy story was implausible and, he’d go so far as to say, physiologically impossible. Which is a shame, because I’d enjoyed imagining young doctors practising tape worm catching as part of their initial training.
At a conference, Michael Rosen told me, in the version he knew, the tape worm was sliding out of a completely different orifice and was eagerly looking around for the pie when the doctor bashed it on the head with his hammer.
As we run Father Christmas and fairy tale stories past them, it’s only fair to allow kids a fair hearing when they tell us their own fantasies. At Lee Mount, in my first year of teaching, David had a number of challenging behavioural issues, due to suffering from RLSS, or ‘right little sod syndrome’. Despite initially believing that I was put on this earth to support kids like David, I was mightily relieved when his family and David moved away to London.
My joy was short lived - a few months later he was back. When I asked him about his life in the capital, he told me he’d been walking on Tower Bridge one day when it started to open, but he just managed to dive across the gap.
When I told him I lived near Savile Park, he said he’d once been all the way up to the top of Wainhouse Tower - right up to the revolving restaurant.
No sugar please
My dad was standing to attention on the scorchingly hot dock in India, one soldier amongst hundreds who had just disembarked. Several huge tea urns were wheeled in front of the troops. At last the sergeant gave each line of men the order to stand at ease and then to file forward for their drink.
When it was my dad’s turn he said, "Excuse me, sergeant, can I have my tea without sugar, please?"
In response the sergeant barked out, "Attention!" Instantly, the whole company followed his command. Then he ordered my dad to turn and face his comrades.
"Now, I want you all to look at young Private Murphy here. Private Murphy has just informed me that our tea isn’t good enough for him, oh no, oh no, oh no! Private Murphy would like his own special cup of tea to be served without any sugar!"
The men didn’t need to be ordered to laugh.
My sisters and I squirmed every time dad told this story, but one day PW heard this same tale in a radio programme about the apocryphal stories told by servicemen when they returned home to their loved ones.
Spring is sprung, the birds is riz and the dinky, cappuchinno coloured ducklings are going about their biz, drawing impressive silver arrow heads as they zip across the canal - so small and fast you can hardly count them. It’s more engaging than any plastic duck race. In a week or two the duckling numbers will decline, for which the heron, being the king of the river, usually gets the blame. I remember a TV programme, though, where a moorhen dad (or was he a coot?) quietly drowned his more laggard offspring until his family became a more manageable size.
A few years ago, granddaughter and I went out on a fowl feeding mission, armed with peas and other recommended non carbohydrate foodstuffs - anything except bread. As the ducks gathered expectantly, we cast our goodies onto the canal’s still waters. Each fowl watched the peas sink into the murk below them and looked up at me with WTF? thought bubbles above their sleek, disappointed heads.
Butter up award
This blazing Easter weekend the folkloric toast landed belly up when I watched a wonderful Pace Egg play, the best one I’ve seen in years. Well, actually the only one I’ve seen in years, but it wor cracking!
The event was only slightly spoiled for me, when I had to hare off before the hat was passed round, realising I’d come out with my son’s empty wallet rather than my own half empty one.
Back to true tales. A professor friend told us about a family visit to her sister in London. Their yoga teacher aunty told our friend’s little girls they should have proud, celebratory names for their female parts - and suggested some examples.
Next day on a crowded tube train, the youngest daughter asked a standing passenger, "Excuse me, lady… please will you move your fanny away from my face?"
A couple of singers I admire have heard me sing this song at different times and said they’d like to use it! So here’s the words:
A thousand feet up to the sky,
The road runs through Old Town.
Where Acre Mill, below the moor,
Wor once its blackened crown.
And Stoodley Pike across the way,
Still warns that war will kill.
But no-one warned the workers
Not to work at Acre Mill
For 30 years at Acre Mill
The workers gave their trust,
But bosses lied, a thousand died,
Who breathed asbestos dust.
And students who worked summer months,
At 50 wrote their will.
They lost the autumn of their days,
Who worked at Acre Mill.
Sing their chorus,
Gone before us.
It’s a great crime,
Gone before time.
Gran’ kids not seen,
Laik on t’ town green,
It’s an outrage,
Robbed of old age.
An’ should you walk
On t’ Old Causeway,
Soon after day’s begun.
When valleys are all full of cloud,
But t’ hills stand proud in t’ sun.
And larks exult in t’ skies blue vault
An’ silver glints in t’ rill,
Remember those who trod that road
To work at Acre Mill.
Or when the valley bustles,
But snow slows life on t’ tops.
An’ bells ring out from Heptonstall,
But Causeway traffic stops.
Come take a walk down to Lane Ends,
Wrapped up ‘gainst winter’s chill.
And share a toast to absent friends
Who worked at Acre Mill.
It’s reckoned that around a thousand local people have died whose lungs became contaminated after working at the factory - or from washing contaminated overalls, or playing near air vents, etc. - many of the deaths occuring decades after the original contact. I saw a recent estimate that the global, annual, death toll from the use of asbestos products is still around 2,500.)
* PW points out, on behalf of fellow Geordies, that her nanna actually baked a ‘pie crust’, which somehow had a cup in the middle and … well, Wikipedia it.
** copyright retained for commercial recordings, etc.
If you would like to send a message about this piece or suggest ideas, email George Murphy