dubiously true stories and cartoons

Friday, November 23, 2012


I have only been fishing two times in my life.

The first time I was ten years old and I was looking forward to it for three reasons.

1. I thought that it would be exciting.
2. I thought that it would be interesting.
3. I thought that I would really enjoy myself.

I was wrong on all three counts. When my stepfather (previously my Uncle John) woke me up it was still dark and it felt like I had only been asleep for about three seconds; my vision was blurred and I could barely stand up. He did, however, offer some constructive words of encouragement in order to get me motivated at that early hour. I was surprised by his positivity as he barked, “Get out of bed you bloody idle little bugger, and sort yourself out!” This unusual air of calmness and approachability on his part reassured me that this was going to be a day like no other.

My mother had somehow talked him into it. Fishing was his way of enjoying solace and gathering his thoughts for the week ahead and he didn’t want some snot-nosed kid, who wasn’t even his, ruining it for him. He was a difficult man to understand or even communicate with; he may have been charming when mum had met him but all that charm seemed to evaporate as soon as they were married and he transformed himself into a bully capable of sudden, violent and inexplicable bouts of rage (usually over trivial matters) that terrified me to the core.

On the flip side his generosity on birthdays and at Christmas was unquestionable. I always seemed to receive the presents that I wanted and he would always appear genuinely happy when I opened them. We always had fun on my birthday and over the Christmas period, but I suspect it was because my grandparents were there and they would have none of his bad tempers when they were around.

It was 3am. I never realised that there was such a time.

My stepfather had packed the fishing gear into the car the night before and there was there was a pre-prepared mid-morning snack of tongue sandwiches waiting for us in the fridge. We set off at about 3.30am and he drove the short distance to the spot on the Ribble River where he usually fished.

It rained all the way there and in fact it didn’t stop raining for the entire day; relentless, cold, driving rain that made me so miserable that I would have welcomed the end of the world – and just to make matters worse we didn’t catch a thing.

The worst day of my life (up until then)

I moaned and complained for the entire time we were sat drenched to the bone on that bloody awful river bank. My stepfather, to his credit, only told me to stop whinging once throughout the day. Most of his time was spent explaining to me that the weather wasn’t usually as bad as this and that in good weather fishing was very enjoyable.
It was the worst day of my life and as enjoyable as it may have been on a fine and sunny day I wouldn’t go fishing again for another twenty-four years.

I was in the Royal Air Force and stationed at RAF Belize in Central America when the next opportunity arose for to go on a fishing trip, this time with three of my friends.

In Belize you lived for the weekends in the hope that you could get some form of transport over to Ambergris Caye, where you could spend your time in San Pedro Town where there was white sandy beaches, coconut trees, beautiful women and lots and lots of bars.

Panorama of Ambergris Caye

Phil, Carl, Ritchie and I had managed to get a helicopter flight over there. That meant we arrived a day earlier than everyone else who had to squeeze into the one motor boat that made the trip each day on Saturdays and Sundays.

When we arrived at our accommodation on San Pedro we threw our bags into our rooms and went out to hit the bars.

The four of us worked in the Explosives Area at Ladyville, a couple of miles from Airport Camp, where RAF Belize was situated. It was a hot, sweaty and thankless job and our only release was to get over to San Pedro as quickly as possible on a Friday evening so we could spend the weekend chatting up the local women and getting hopelessly pissed. There was never any question about copping off with any of the women – the object of the exercise was to get as drunk as possible without (a) throwing up or (b) attracting the unwanted attention of the local or military police, and anyway, by 10pm the women had become understandably tired of our increasingly boisterous behaviour and had abandoned us for men who were (a) less drunk than we were or (b) had more money than we had.

It was around 10pm that we ended up in a bar full of Americans and we struck a conversation with four guys who were now living in San Pedro, after retiring from the US Special Forces. They told us they had their own boat that they had bought between them which used it to go fishing with. They were all from Texas but I can’t for the life of me remember any of their names and so for the purposes of this piece I’ll call them John, Clint, Burt and Kirk.

Kirk told us that they had all served in Vietnam together, but that was as far as he went. When we tried to get any of them to open up about their experiences over there they just changed the subject and so we just let it go. They had settled, they told us, for a quiet life on a desert island. It was Burt that suggested that we might want to go fishing with them the following day, but after my experience with my stepfather on that cold morning on the Ribble I never wanted to go fishing ever again.

“Hey, man,” said Clint, “it ain’t like that at all. When you come fishin’ with us it’s a whole new ball game.”

“Yeah,” said John, “Give it a go, man, and you’ll see how much fun it is.”

I reluctantly agreed and we were told to meet them at the jetty just behind the bar at 6am the next morning. None of us held up much of a hope that they would be there but we got up early anyway and strolled over to the jetty. In amongst all the small sail boats moored there, a huge motor boat called The Lone Star stood out and it was from this one that Clint emerged. “Hey, guys,” he called, “glad you could make it – come aboard – we’re just about to leave.”

As we were heading out to sea I offered Burt, who was driving the boat, a cigarette, but he just gave me a strange look and laughed out loud before yelling, “No man, I only smoke dope!”

60 second sketch of "Burt"

John, Clint, Burt and Kirk were all – as it turned out – dope-heads, which had probably accounted for the strange smell in the bar the night before, but Carl, Phil, Ritchie and I went out to sea with them anyway because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Lone Star was an amazing vessel – it seemed to be fitted out with everything that the modern sailor at the time would have required – not that I knew much about modern sailing methods. The thing is though, when I said everything I meant to say everything except fishing equipment. Apart from a couple of nets on poles there seemed to be a complete absence of anything that could even be remotely regarded as fishing equipment. There was, however, a plentiful supply of beer and marijuana on board, which kind of made everything all right, I suppose.

“I thought we were going fishing,” Carl said to John.

“Yeah, we are, man.”

“But there’s no fishing gear on board.”

“There is, man,” said John, who touched his nose and whispered conspiratorially, “you just ain’t seen it yet.”

Carl and me on The Lone Star. I'm the one in the loud shirt.

 Panic gripped me when he said that. Oh shit, I thought, we’ve set sail with four psychopaths who are going to use us as their fishing equipment.

In order to stave off our increased levels of panic and fear we drank as much beer as we could possibly drink in the time it took Burt to drive the boat into the middle of the ocean. But we needn’t have worried. John, Clint, Burt and Kirk had no intention of murdering us out at sea and using our chopped up remains to feed the fishes with. They were genuinely out to go fishing, albeit in a rather unconventional way. They were laid back dope-heads without a care in the world. They were retired and had no one to answer to except themselves and maybe the authorities should they ever be caught on board The Lone Star with a lethal combination of drugs, alcohol and explosives.

“Let’s go fishing, guys, called John from the stern of the boat. “Come and get your gear.”

We walked over to where he was unlocking a metal box. John smiled and winked at us as he lifted the lid. “Two sticks each, man. Just light ‘em up and toss ‘em in the water and watch all the little fishes float to the top.”

Dear reader, you may at this particular point in time be thinking along the lines that four guys high on marijuana and four guys half-cut from drinking too much beer in too short a time were perhaps not the ideal people to be handling explosives on a small boat a few miles off the coast of Ambergris Caye somewhere in the Caribbean and that they were (at the very least) contravening everything that was sacred to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – and you would be right in thinking that, were it not for the fact that the HSE was approximately 7424 miles away in Liverpool, England and the eight guys on the boat in the Caribbean at that particular point in time didn’t actually give a toss about Health & Safety.

We were instructed to light each fuse and count to five before throwing our stick of dynamite in the water; less than five seconds and the water would probably put the fuse out, more than five seconds and there was a likelihood that we could blow our own hands off. As we hurled the hissing dynamite sticks into the sea we had to shout, “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and then cover our ears. A huge pillar of water shot upwards and as the shockwave from the explosion rocked the boat from side to side we were drenched in the cold sea spray that fell all around us.

If I had to choose between my stepfather’s style of fishing and the kind that John, Clint, Burt and Kirk had shown us on that bright and sunny morning in the Caribbean I would have gone with our four new crazy Texan friends every time. It was over in a matter of minutes but it was better than the best firework display I’d ever seen. As each of our dynamite sticks detonated we leaped up and down on the deck of The Lone Star; we danced and whooped and sang like lunatics. It was easily the most fun anyone had ever had over a two minute period.

Afterwards we used the nets on poles to scoop the stunned fish up and haul them onto the boat. These were then placed in huge cool boxes where they would be later scaled and gutted and frozen.

“We live on fish,” said Clint, drawing from a freshly rolled joint. “It’s the sea’s bounty, man.”

Phil, in repose

The rest of the day was spent swimming in the ocean, drinking beer and chatting. As the sun was going down Burt turned the boat around and we headed back to shore. On the way back Phil was sick over the side of the boat. "Yeah!" yelled Kirk. "Lay some of that ground bait down, man!"

This cartoon was drawn the day after the trip. I've replaced the lettering because it was starting to fade and the name I used out there was Stan Terole, which is an anagram of No Letraset.

Later, Clint demonstrated to us how to roll a joint and how to roach it properly so you could smoke it right down to its last tiny leaf. He lit it up and offered it around as we lay on the deck looking up at the stars. Why not, I thought, and took a couple of deep drags. It was the first time I had ever smoked anything stronger than a Capstan Full Strength and it felt great. As I gazed up into the sky the stars seemed to shine just that little bit brighter.

Yeah, man!

It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

It was one helluva wild and crazy trip, man.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


AUTHOR’S NOTE: All dialogue attributed to my mother should be read in a comedy Northern accent.

I grew up living with the kind of physiology that could devour any amount of food without putting on one ounce of weight and let me tell you it was great. I used to love watching big-boned women (as my mother 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.

My mother used to try and set me up with the daughters of her friends and as soon as she told me they were big-boned I knew exactly what she meant.

“She’s just big-boned, Stephen,” she would say.

“You mean fat, don’t you mum.”

“No . . . well, it’s just puppy fat; she’ll grow out of it.”

“But won’t her bones be too big for then?”

“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.”

The food that I described above would never have been prepared by my mother; she was a reluctant cook. In fact, I would go as far as to say that she actually loathed cooking. When he was younger and lived at home my brother worked as a drayman. He would spend long hours lugging heavy barrels of beer down into the cellars of the pubs in Blackpool and he would return home tired and hungry. I remember him coming home one time and as he walked through the door my mother shouted, “Your tea’s in’t kitchen. You just need to warm it up.” 

Regarding what my mother said in the preceding paragraph, I must offer (before I continue any further) some form of explanation as to its meaning. If you are from the South of England you may, at some point in your life, decide to make the perilous journey north and visit Lancashire, Yorkshire or Cumbria; any adventurous travellers from London who decide to make the arduous and potentially dangerous journey to Scotland must make sure they pack their passports and a plentiful supply of jellied eels (as they are unavailable that far north). Once you have left the safe and insular world of the south there is a possibility that you may look upon Northerners with a certain degree of suspicion; if you do feel this way don’t worry – it’s a perfectly natural reaction and it does take some time to accept the fact that people you don’t know can be helpful and friendly towards you for no apparent reason. But apart from the odd gang of clog-wearing youths roaming the streets with woad-painted faces whilst playing the Hovis theme on brass instruments, our only real difference is that in the North we have dinner at lunch time and tea at dinner time.

I thought what my mother had said was strange as I had not seen her enter the kitchen at all that day and, indeed, when my brother stepped into that rarely used room his olfactory senses were not greeted by the aroma of freshly cooked food.

“Where is it, mum,” my brother called from the kitchen, “I can’t find it.”

“It’s right next t’cooker,” my mother called back. “You can’t miss it.”

My brother looked next to the cooker and there it was – a tea fit for a king. It stood proudly on its own as if to say ‘Look at me – I am the cornerstone of any nutritional diet’. It was a Batchelor’s Pot Noodle, and propped up next to it, placed there by my mother’s own fair hand, was a fork.

My mother’s idea of a square meal was an OXO cube.

All the really good food I remember as a youngster was cooked by my grandma; cottage pies, Lancashire hot-pots and (my favourite) ham shank cooked in a thick pea soup. I always had two choices for every meal – take it or leave it – and if I left it, my grandma would cover it in foil and it would sit in the refrigerator until the next morning, when it would be served up cold for my breakfast. I soon learned that if I wanted to avoid congealed food for my breakfast then I had to eat everything on my plate the night before.

There was only one thing I wouldn’t eat – gooseberries. I hated gooseberries and I still do. Whenever I try to eat one it feels as if someone is pulling my face inside out. Gooseberries make my teeth itch. When I was living with my grandparents I had an illustrated book about a boy who used to pull faces all the time.* His parents told him that if ever the wind changed then his face would stay the same. Of course the boy didn’t believe them and when the wind changed while he was pulling one of his grotesque faces he couldn’t change it back. After reading this story I was terrified of eating gooseberries in case the wind changed as I was eating them.

(The book I described above is not When The Wind Changed by New Zealand author Ruth Park, which was not published until 1980. I distinctly remember reading this story when I was living with my grandparents in the late 50s and early 60s. If anyone my age has any idea what the book is called and who it was written by please let me know by commenting on this blog.)

My mother cooked almost exclusively out of packets or tins. My stepfather (formerly Uncle John) was the same (not that he cooked at all when he and my mother were together) but when mum left home for about a month after one of their many blazing arguments, leaving me behind with him, we ate nothing but beans on toast for every meal until she returned. I hated my stepfather and I hated living under the same roof as him without the protection of my mother.

He was not the brightest of men and when words failed him he quickly resorted to violence. I remember one time when I took two crusts of bread upstairs to my room because I was so hungry and within seconds of entering my room my stepfather burst through the door and began punching me because I had apparently stolen them. The irony of the situation was that he had lost his job as a bread and confectionary delivery man at Sutton’s bakery because he had been part of a criminal enterprise there that had been stealing loaves and cakes from the backs of delivery vans for a third party to sell at Blackpool market. When their marriage finally disintegrated it was one of the happiest days of my life because I knew that I would never see this lumbering bully of a man again, but it would be a long time before I could eat beans on toast without thinking about the violence he arbitrarily doled out to me and my mother in order to vent off the frustration and anger caused by his limited vocabulary.

(I write another blog called A Life In Cheese, which one week featured a recipe for Gourmet Beans on Toast, taken from a book that I made up called Cooking From A Can by the fictional author Claire Friteuse. Claire is based on someone I know from New Zealand who has never really got to grips with cooking real food. She is also based on my mother (the lack of culinary skills bit at least) and just to make the recipe more interesting I attempted to write it in the style of Nigella Lawson. If you would like to read the recipe, follow the link on the picture below.)
Click here to take you to A Life In Cheese

I finally rediscovered real food when I joined the Royal Air Force at the tender age of sixteen. There were boys who I joined up with who complained all the time about how bad the food was but for me it was exactly the opposite. When I first walked into the Airman’s Mess, having spent years eating from packets and tins, it was like mining for gold and hitting the mother-lode. Not only were there about five different choices of meal I could also eat as much of it as I wanted. I could go back for seconds or thirds or even fourths if I so desired.

At the start of my training at RAF Hereford I weighed just seven and a half stone; a year later at the end of my training I had gained three stone.

The problem with giving up packet and tinned food is that you tend to become like one of those holier-than-thou ex-smokers. You know the ones – the born again non-smokers who have puffed their way through forty un-tipped Capstan Full Strength every day for the past thirty years but now they’ve stopped and they’ve become almost evangelical in their loathing of people who either don’t have the will-power or inclination to quit. 

This is what happens when you stop eating packet and tinned foods. My wife and I were invited to my friend Danny’s house in Winchester for a meal. Danny and I were both on the same creative writing course at Winchester College and we got on well with each other because of the stuff we used to write. The tutor was a very prim and proper lady who blushed whenever we read out anything that was a little risky, which obviously encouraged us to write stories that became increasingly ruder as the weeks wore on. We both found this hilariously funny and when he invited me over to his rather large house in Winchester I gladly accepted. His wife had cooked a fish pie, which looked and tasted delicious . . . right up to the moment when she told us that the mashed potato topping was in fact made from Smash (the powdered potato mix that was successfully advertised in the 60s by robots who laughed about us humans using real potatoes and mashing them with our steely forks . . . ha ha ha). Suddenly the fish pie was not as delicious as it was moments beforehand and we began to pick at it like two spoilt children. It was a horrible thing to do and I sincerely regret feeling that way. We never mentioned this to Danny or his wife and if they ever do read this blog I would like to say from the bottom of my heart that I am truly very very sorry.

"They mash them with their steely forks . . . ha! ha! ha!"

(On the creative writing course one week we were given a homework assignment that was to “Describe a member of your family – real or imaginary”. I was very proud of what I wrote, but it was a million miles away from what the tutor was expecting. If you are interested you can read it by clicking on the tab The Policeman’s Son at the top of this post. Fittingly the tutor did not ask me to read aloud anything else to the group for the remaining few weeks of the course.)

A few years later we were living in a small village in Cambridgeshire where we met a very nice American family.  Stacey was a Warrant Officer in the US military and worked at a nearby airbase and his wife Lisa worked in the Disney Store in Cambridge. They had three kids and we got on with the family very well. The year before Stacey was posted back to the States he invited us over for Thanksgiving. I’d never been to a proper Thanksgiving dinner before and was looking forward to it immensely as I had heard that there was always a vast quantity of food to be eaten.

Now, we British are fairly reserved when we talk about the size of things. For example, when we talk about a vast quantity of food what we really mean to say is that there was rather a lot, but not so much that we couldn’t finish it. When an American invites you over for Thanksgiving and he tells you that there is a vast quantity of food he really means that there is vast quantity of food. There were twenty people at Stacey and Lisa’s Thanksgiving dinner that year but there seemed to be enough food to feed twenty thousand. To give you an indication of the size of the spread that was set before us I only have to tell you that the turkey was bigger than my five year old son.

If you’ve ever observed a dog eating its food you will have noticed that it is very different to the way a cat eats. Cats eat very slowly and gracefully; they leave food in the bowl when they have had enough to eat and then they go off somewhere and clean themselves. A dog on the other hand can’t eat its food fast enough. It wolfs it down whether it’s hungry or not because it still hasn’t been domesticated enough to understand that it will always be fed on a regular basis. It’s hard coded into them, part of the genetic make-up passed onto them by their distant ancestors. Strangely it’s also the way I was thinking when I was presented with the mountainous table of home-cooked food on Thanksgiving; I looked at it and my brain automatically reminded me of the days when my mother cooked exclusively from packets and tins and my subconscious mind shouted, “Eat! Eat! Eat! You may never have this opportunity again!” My brain shut down everything in my body that may have distracted me from eating and I began to hoover my way through tons of turkey, heaps of mashed potatoes, piles of vegetables and huge wedges of pumpkin and banoffee and pecan pies.

By the time I had finished eating I felt like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life; if I had eaten another thing I would probably have exploded. The only word that left my lips during the four hours that I was lying on the floor after the meal was “Yum.”

I woke up the next morning and weighed myself, discovering to my delight that I was the same weight as I had been the morning before. I looked in the mirror and saw that my figure had returned to its normal shape and realised at the same time that I was ravenously hungry. 

As I ate my way through the four Shredded Wheat that I had fixed myself for breakfast an advert for Shredded Wheat appeared on television that featured the England cricketer Ian Botham who set a challenge for me: “Bet you can’t eat three,” he said. 

As I had already successfully eaten three and was now hungrily tucking into my fourth, Botham’s statement was both redundant and stupid. Did the makers of Shredded Wheat know this? Were they aware that two Shredded Wheat were never nearly enough to satisfy my hunger even on a normal morning?
Oddly though, when I typed in the phrase four Shredded Wheat a green line appeared beneath it and when I did a spelling and grammar check I was told that it was a Number Agreement and that I should Consider Revising

Does this mean that Microsoft Word also thinks that the maximum number of Shredded Wheat anyone can eat at any one time is two?

Apparently Shredded Wheat is good for the calcium in your body, which means if you eat enough you can develop stronger and bigger bones.
Maybe my mother was right about those big-boned girls after all.