dubiously true stories and cartoons

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Washing Powder

Back in the 1970s packets of OMO washing powder could be seen everywhere. Adverts appeared on television extolling the virtues of its ability to transform the filthiest of whites into something so dazzlingly bright that you had to wear sunglasses to look at them. Gazing at a white sheet washed in OMO was akin to staring at the sun with the naked eye. It was amazing. So, if the cleaning power of OMO was so astounding why is it that it mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of grocery stores and supermarkets throughout the UK?

Fortunately I have a theory about that.

In the 1970s I was in the Royal Air Force and a member of the Tactical Supply Wing (TSW), which was made up of cadre (full-time) and non-cadre (part-time) personnel. TSW was based at RAF Stafford and its primary task was to provide front-line refuelling of helicopters. For the personnel involved this included six-week tours in Northern Ireland as well as various field exercises living in tents in all kinds of weather in the UK and abroad. Non-cadre personnel had regular jobs at Stafford and at irregular intervals throughout the year they were called away from their posts to support cadre members on selected exercises. Cadre members, being full-time, were able to pick and choose the good exercises for themselves, leaving the non-cadre members to contend with the rubbish ones. 

For example, during one particular year a series of three exercises were carried out. The first, a one-week exercise in Lincolnshire in February where it was so cold and the earth was so hardened with frost that it took a monumental effort just to hammer the tent pegs into the ground was comprised of 10% cadre and 90% non-cadre. Those of us selected for this initial exercise were told that in order to maintain continuity and effectiveness we would all be selected for the two exercises that followed. This is what is commonly known as ‘bending the truth’. The second exercise, two-weeks in Denmark in April where the weather was starting to warm up and a free day was included where we could drink ourselves into oblivion in the nearby town of Vejla was comprised of 60% cadre and 40% non-cadre. The third, a three-week exercise in Turkey in June, where the weather was hot and the accommodation was purpose-built fan-cooled barrack blocks was – Surprise! Surprise! – comprised of 100% cadre. 

As a non-cadre member of TSW you didn’t volunteer to go on exercise (unless you were a military cabbage or a straight out-and-out nutter) – you were selected and there was no getting out of it. I was a non-cadre member and, as such, dreaded the arrival of the chit that fluttered its way through the internal mail system informing me of the imminent exercise for which I had been arbitrarily selected. For most of the non-cadre personnel, it was a week or a fortnight of hell but for some, two weeks away on a TSW exercise was a welcome break from the monotony of their jobs and/or their wives, even though it meant living in a smelly six-man tent in a field in the middle of nowhere with rudimentary washing and toilet facilities and subsisting on an exclusive diet of Compo rations that made you fart and backed you up for about a month afterwards. 

Compo (or Composite) rations had a long shelf-life and were designed, using a variety of canned, pre-cooked and freeze-dried foods, for minimal preparation in the field, and the TSW Compo-fed fart they induced was something to behold. It was long, fruity and stank to high heaven. No-one escaped the combined effects of eating Compo rations and using rudimentary washing and toilet facilities and after a relatively short period of time (usually a couple of days) tents and clothing were permeated with the noxious odour of a combination of aviation fuel, fruity farts and unwashed sweaty men. After another couple of days no-one noticed the smell because everyone had got used to it. There was, of course, the occasional fart that was so disgusting it cut its way through the pervasive stench like a hot knife through butter and caused everyone in the tent to choke as if they were being strangled by invisible hands and we would dash outside to breathe in some welcome fresh air, but after another couple of days even those farts didn’t bother us. 

I was a married man at the time and the first thing my wife ordered me to do when I arrived home was to strip off my clothes. This was not a signal for sex – she wouldn’t even kiss me. It was so the clothes I had been wearing for the past two weeks could immediately be placed into the washing machine. My wife refused to even touch my clothes (or me) after I had returned from an exercise until I had spent at least thirty minutes in the bath, scrubbing by filthy body and washing my greasy hair. While I was in the bath my clothes were being cleaned in the Hotpoint twin-tub washing machine using OMO washing powder. After bathing and then scrubbing away the scum of two weeks in a tent with five other men from the inside of the bath, I would shave the stubble from my chin, splash on some Brut aftershave, spray my body with deodorant, get dressed and go downstairs. Then, and only then, would my wife welcome me home with an embrace.

Most wives hated it when their men went away on exercise, but one in particular took her hatred so much to heart that she began to lose her grip on reality. She began to incorrectly suspect that her mild-mannered husband (a Corporal who lived opposite us) was not going away on exercise at all but having an illicit affair with another woman and in her increasingly delusional state of mind she went to insane lengths to ensure he never went away anywhere – or at any time. One afternoon, as he was getting changed into his uniform to start an Orderly Corporal duty, he opened the wardrobe doors and discovered to his horror that she had taken a Stanley knife to all of his RAF shirts and slashed them to ribbons. On another occasion my wife and I were woken in the early hours of the morning by a commotion going on outside in the street. My neighbour was about to go away for a six-week stint in Northern Ireland. A Land Rover was parked outside his house and the two SACs who he would be sharing the duty with were desperately trying to remove his wife from his leg. She had her arms locked around his thigh and was being dragged along the ground in her nightie, screaming: “Don’t go! Don’t go! I love you! I love you!” The two men managed to extricate his wife from his leg and they bundled him quickly into the Land Rover and drove away at speed, leaving his wife sobbing and screaming on the lawn outside their house.

Some wives, though, were happy to see their husbands go away. With so many men away from home for long periods of time it was inevitable that a minority of unscrupulous wives would begin having affairs and a packet of OMO was essential for their nefarious nocturnal activities. A carefully placed packet of OMO in a street-facing window by the cuckolded man’s wife was an all-clear signal to her lover, an unholy acronym that stood for Old Man's Out.

This practice went on for months without anyone ever realising, or even noticing. This was understandable as most married men are not particularly observant at the best of times when it comes to the whys and wherefores of their wives behavioural patterns. A woman can change her entire appearance – like, for instance, getting her long hair cut short – and three whole weeks may pass by before her husband looks at her and says: “You look different. Is that a new dress you’re wearing?” 

Like all secrets, the secret of the OMO code eventually came out. How it happened no-one knows, but once it was out it spread like wildfire throughout RAF Stafford and within a matter of days made its way to every RAF station in the UK. Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) shops were the first to bear the brunt of this revelation as sales of OMO plummeted sharply to zero. Civilian grocery stores and the rapidly emerging supermarkets were the next to be hit as husbands began to accompany their wives on their weekly shopping trips, informing them in the detergent aisle that they preferred to have their clothes washed in DAZ instead of OMO.

The affairs still went on of course, but sales of OMO, in the UK at least, went into a rapid decline. It’s still sold overseas in places like the Philippines and New Zealand, but it’s hard to convert OMO into a lover’s welcome call as the Philippines first language is not English and New Zealanders have all but eschewed the use of vowels in their everyday speech, therefore making it nigh-on impossible to form an acronym using just the letter ‘M’.

So, there you have it – my theory. You may choose not to believe it and discard it as just the ramblings of someone with an unhinged mind and too much time on his hands. But if you think about it for as long and as hard as I have you’ll come to the same inevitable conclusion. And you’ll know that I’m right.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


I decided to go to by train to my mum’s funeral on Wednesday 18 January. I thought it would be easier than driving through Bradford and having to find car parking. I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried. Here is what happened. I haven’t made any of it up.

The alarm goes off. I get out of bed, shower and get dressed in my dark suit. I check to see if I have everything – phone, mum’s eulogy, clean underpants in case I have an accident. I pull on my dark coat, leave the house and head off to the railway station.

I pick up my pre-ordered day return ticket from the machine at Carlisle station. After asking a member of staff about trains to Preston I’m directed to Platform 1 where the 05:15 train is waiting. I’ll be in plenty of time to catch the connection to Bradford. What could possibly go wrong?
The train leaves the station and two minutes later the guard checks my ticket.
“Are you sure you want to be on this train?” he asks.
“This is the Preston, isn’t it?” I say.
“Yes. But this is the one that goes all the way around the west coast. It takes four hours to get to Preston.”
“You’re joking! I need to be at my mum’s funeral in Bradford at 11:30.”
“That’s not going to happen if you stay on this train. Whoever told you to get on this train was an idiot. He should have directed you to 05:18 mainline train that left from Platform 4.”
“Any suggestions about what I should do?”
“Well I can let you out at Dalston, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. You’ll have to make your way back to Carlisle from there.”

Get off the train at Dalston. It’s pitch black. There are no taxis or buses and it’s a four and a half mile walk back to Carlisle. It’s a dark morning. I’m walking down a dark road. I’m wearing dark clothes. What could possibly go wrong?

I get hit by a car. The first thing that comes into my mind, after saying Ow, is thank goodness I’m wearing clean underwear. The car’s wing mirror caught me on the wrist and it’s quite painful. Thankfully nothing’s broken. Even more thankfully the driver stops and gives me a lift to Carlisle. I explained to him what had happened and that I was on my way to my mum’s funeral, but all he says is that I should have been wearing reflective clothing. I don’t think wearing reflective clothing is appropriate for a funeral and besides, if I’d been wearing reflective clothing the driver would have driven straight past me and I would have had to walk the entire four and a half miles, thereby probably missing the next train to Preston.

I catch the next train to Preston. As I’m sitting there looking at the bruise that’s forming on my wrist I think how lucky I was getting a lift. More importantly I think how lucky I was not to get killed on dark road.
Everything goes well from that moment on. I change at Preston and board the correct train to Bradford.

Arrive in Bradford. I’m picked up at the station by my son Daniel and his wife, Katy. My sister, Anne, and her husband, Gary and their two sons Dwayne and Keiron are all just about ready and we leave for the Crematorium.

Mum’s funeral is non-denominational because we are a family of atheists. The service was very nice and I’m asked to read out mum’s eulogy. Because it’s a celebration of her life and not a sombre event I wrote the eulogy in a light tone. Here it is:

Edith Owen was a fantastic cook. She made lip-smacking Lancashire Hot-Pots, delicious Ham Shank in Thick Pea Soup, gravy rich Steak and Kidney Puddings and belt-tightening Full English Breakfasts. She made all-sundry of perfectly cooked roast dinners with all the trimmings. She baked cakes, biscuits, fruit loaves and bread and Rice Pudding that everyone fought over in order to get the most skin. Unfortunately her daughter – my mum – did not inherit many of my grandma’s extraordinary culinary skills and instead cooked almost exclusively from tins and packets and wondered what the best thing was before sliced bread. Mum was not a natural cook. Her cooking skills were not gleaned from Fanny Craddock or the Galloping Gourmet but from the instructions on the tins of Fray Bentos pies and Campbell’s Soups, and her idea of a square meal was an OXO cube.
Here’s a story my wayward brother, David, told me once. He was working as a drayman in Blackpool and when he returned home tired and hungry after his first hard day of draying he was expecting mum to have prepared him a hearty meal. As he walked into the house mum informed him that his tea was ready for him in the kitchen. As he stepped into the kitchen the first thing he noticed was the complete absence of any cooking aromas. This was followed by the realisation that there were no pots or pans of delicious food on any of the rings on the top of the oven. In puzzlement he asked mum where his tea actually was.
 “It’s right next t’kettle,” mum called back. “You can’t miss it.”
On closer inspection of the kitchen area my bother did indeed notice that his tea was stood proudly next the kettle. It was not, as he had expected, a delicious pie stuffed with meat and potatoes or a hearty stew packed with fresh vegetables. It was, instead, that cornerstone of any nutritional diet, a Batchelor’s Pot Noodle, and propped next to it, placed there by mum’s own fair hand, was a fork.
“But it’s just a Pot Noodle,” said David, “and I’ve been working all day.”
“Stop your complaining,” said mum, “I’ve taken the top off and boiled the kettle for you.”
Mum used to call me ‘Hollow Legs’ because I grew up living with the kind of physiology that could devour any amount of food without putting on one ounce of weight. Back in the late 1960s I worked as a Commis Chef in a hotel in Blackpool and I used to love watching big-boned women (as mum used to call them) slavering as I tucked into mountainous piles of mashed potatoes and slabs of steak the size of my head, knowing that just a morsel of what I was eating would put pounds onto their hips.
Mum once tried to set me up with the daughter of one her friends and as soon as she told me she was big-boned I knew exactly what she meant.
“She’s just big-boned, Stephen,” she said.
“You mean fat, don’t you mum.”
“You cheeky bugger; you never listen to what I tell you. She’s a right nice girl, she is – too bloody good for you, that’s for sure. I don’t know why I bother.”
It didn’t matter, though, if my girlfriends were big-boned, small-boned or had no bones the same thing would happen whenever I took one of them home to meet my mum. The first thing she would do would be to tell them all about any embarrassing mishaps that had occurred throughout my entire life up until that exact moment in time. And the second thing she would do was to reach for the dreaded photograph album, which always seemed uncannily ready to hand. Her fingers would nimbly skip through the pages until she reached one particular black-and-white image. It was taken by her using her old Box-Brownie camera and it showed me as a cute, loveable blonde-haired six year old on a summer’s day at Morecambe Bay wearing what can only really be described as a girl’s swimming costume that my mum had knitted out of wool. Mum would sit there with my girlfriend, pointing at the photograph and cackling to herself and say, “Ooh, wasn’t he a lovely little boy? And look at him now, the lanky, long-haired lout.”
She may have said to me, “I don’t know why I bother,” but, the thing is, she did bother, because she loved all three of her children, even my wayward brother. She walked away from all her marriages clean, taking nothing with her except her children.
So how do I remember my mum? Well, she was an intelligent, well-read woman with a sharp, idiosyncratic, often sarcastic sense of humour.
She called the music I listened to ‘heebie-jeebie’ music, but she liked Cliff Richard, preferring his bland, insipid version of rock’n’roll to that of the hip-swinging, electrifying sound of Elvis Presley, thereby proving (to me at least) that she had absolutely no taste in music whatsoever.
Material things meant nothing to her and she happily gave away all my treasured Marvel and DC comics to a jumble sale after I left home to join the RAF in 1970 (a collection that is now worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds). But I’m not bitter about that.
She was stubborn and determined and she didn’t suffer fools. She told people exactly what she thought of them. She was small of frame but a giant fireball of rage when angered.
In her forties she lied about her age constantly, passing herself off as younger than she was, until she reached an age where she was happy to admit how old she actually was. At the age of eighty-one she had lived longer than any member of her family before her, something of which she immensely proud.
She moved here to Bradford from Plymouth when she was seventy-nine. I had just begun working in the Middle East and Anne and Gary cared for her and showed her love and understanding in her final years as dementia began to tighten its grip on her once sharp and active mind.
When we were together we often annoyed the hell out of each other and we fell out frequently and sometimes didn’t speak to each other for great lengths of time. But when all’s said and done I loved her as all sons should love their mothers and I will remember her as an amazingly strong woman who lived a life full of surprises and she was loved, not just by me, but by everyone who knew her.

We go to the Care Home where mum spent the last four months of her life. Sandwiches, nibbles and drinks have been put on. I have a couple of rather large whiskies and then at 14:00 we go to the pub, where I drink too many beers and we all tell funny stories we remember about mum. By the time I have to leave to catch my train my cheekbones are aching with laughing so much. It was, as it should have been, a real celebration of mum’s life. She would have liked it. It’s just a pity she wasn’t there to enjoy it.

I’m on the train to Preston. I’ve been up since 04:15. I’m tired and a bit drunk. What could possibly go wrong?

I wake up as the train is pulling into Poulton-le-Fylde.
Poulton-le-Fylde is two stops after Preston.
I jump on the next train back to Preston, but arrive there at 21:50, four minutes after the last train to Carlisle. The next one is a 05:45 the following morning.
I’m advised by one of the station staff to try the bus station. There maybe, she tells me, a bus to Carlisle. It’s worth a shot.

The earliest bus to Carlisle is a National Express coach at 02:10 that gets me into Carlisle at 04:15. It’s a four hour wait in a cold bus station, but it’s worth it.

Arrive back at my flat, tired and perhaps a little wiser from the experience of the last twenty-four hours.

I'd like to thank everyone for their kind words of condolence when I announced the passing of my mum on 30 December 2016. They were a great comfort to me and my sister on that sad day. Her ashes were spread off North Pier in Blackpool on 28 January.