dubiously true stories and cartoons

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Batman's Autograph

The Tivoli cinema stood in the centre of town, tucked away in a v-shaped block that also played host to Yates’s Wine Lodge. Mum had taken me to see Summer Holiday there a couple of years earlier. She was a big fan of Cliff Richard, much preferring his bland wholesome style of rock’n’roll to the hip-swinging pelvic gyrations of  a certain Mr Presley and therefore she was, despite her protests to the contrary, a bit of a square on the quiet.
            The entrance to the cinema was hidden inside a covered shopping precinct within the block. Dimly lit and stinking of piss, it was the first stop for all the drunks that spewed out of the Wine Lodge in the early hours of the morning.
            I was twelve when I saw Batman – The Movie at the Tivoli on a cold Saturday afternoon in the January of 1967. The seats were uncomfortable, the heating was non-existent and the place was a dump, but it was closer to where I lived and cheaper than the Odeon. 
            When I was seven, Granddad gave me a small collection of Detective Comics that he’d been given by a friend of his where he worked. His friend had told him that his own son had left home and had grown out of them. And so that evening instead of the usual dirty old sweet, granddad gave me something altogether more exciting; he introduced me to Batman.
            I can still remember the first time I handled those comics – the feel and smell of the pulp paper on which they were produced, the brightly coloured artwork within their shiny covers, the brilliantly drawn panels of fast-moving action and the excitingly dynamic storylines. It must have seemed such a small thing for to him to do at the time, handing over a few unwanted second-hand comics to his grandson, but that one tiny, unsentimental act would set me off on a path that would turn me into a life-long lover (and collector) of comics. Even now, I can’t understand anyone growing out of something so wonderful.
            In 1966 Batman arrived onto the TV screens of Britain, and every Saturday and Sunday evening the youth of the nation would be transfixed, watching Adam West and Burt Ward playing the Caped Crusader and his young sidekick Robin.
Before Adam West took on the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery were the first two actors to play the Caped Crusader in the Saturday morning movie serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949). I remember watching these in the Odeon in Blackpool in throughout 1966 – they had been re-released to cash-in on Adam West’s incarnation.
I loved the TV series – it was campy and fun and the Batman comics at the time began to reflect the crazy air of the show. It worked primarily because Adam West, a gifted comic actor with a great sense of timing, played the whole thing straight and the jokes were pitched in such a way that adult audiences got them, whilst their children saw only the excitement, especially in the ZAP! POW! WHAM! OOF! fight scenes. There’s a great line in the first episode of the series. Batman and Robin dressed in their lurid costumes are walking through a groovy 1960s nightclub in their search for the Riddler’s lair. The barman asks Batman if he would like him to turn the lights on. “No,” replies Batman, “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
            Saturday night’s episode would end on a cliffhanger, with our two heroes caught in some fiendishly devious deathtrap, while the villains would all inexplicably leave them to their respective fates, from which they would then perform an unbelievably amazing escape at the start of Sunday night’s episode.
            The movie was released on the 16th December 1966 and with a bigger budget, it was able to feature the Bat-Boat and Bat-Copter, both of which appeared in a memorably hilarious scene featuring the Bat-Ladder, a rubber shark and a spray can of Bat-Shark repellent that the Caped Crusader just happened to be carrying in his utility belt. Audiences knew instinctively that Batman was climbing down the Bat-Ladder and not just some run-of-the-mill, bog standard ordinary ladder because attached to the bottom rung was a printed sign that read Bat-Ladder. As if all that wasn’t enough for Bat-fans around the world, the movie contained all four of the major villains from the series; Caesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Frank Gorshin as The Riddler and Lee Merriwether (replacing Julie Newmar) as Catwoman.
            I was in Bat-Heaven!
            In the June of 1967 an advertisement appeared in the Fylde Gazette announcing the arrival of Batman and Robin in Britain. Along with the Batmobile, Adam West and Burt Ward had arrived on our shores to promote the second series of Batman.
            Granddad pointed out the advert and my pupils dilated rapidly when I read that they would be signing autographs in Lewis’ Department Store in the town centre that very weekend. I immediately showed the advert to my mother, who told me that there was no way on earth she was going to traipse all the way into town when she didn’t need to do any shopping. She could see the desperation on my face and still she refused to take me, even after I had repeatedly asked her.
            Grandma and Granddad were both busy that weekend so there was no one who could take me. “I’ll go on my own, then,” I said defiantly.
            “You will not go on your own, Stephen!”
            That was her final word on the matter and I knew she was serious because she had called me Stephen – in italics.
            Batman and Robin were there for just one day and during the days leading up to the event my selfish mother dug her heels in and flatly ignored all my increasingly pathetic pleading.
            There was no one to accompany me into town and so there was nothing else for it; I had to defy my mother and go on my own without telling anyone.
            What could possibly go wrong?
            Lewis’s Department Store was hot and muggy and a crowd of people were clamouring and shoving their way forward, trying to get a glimpse of the Caped Crusader. I was rake thin, and so able to scramble between the legs of the awe inspired crowd and reach the front with no problem. I was dumbstruck when I reached my exalted position and when I held out my hand Adam West shook it and pressed a small scrap of paper into my sweaty palm. I carefully unfolded the white square and gazed in adoration at the autograph.
            I thought, Wow!
            Nothing else. 
            Just Wow!
            Then I was pushed and jostled back by the enthusiastic crowd.
            But the pushing and jostling didn't stop and an unexpected dig of someone's elbow in the small of my back sent me crashing to the floor. I slid along its polished surface until my head hit the side of a wooden shop display and I felt a sharp stab of pain in my neck. At first I thought nothing of it, but then I heard a woman's voice screaming hysterically. “Oh My God!” the woman screamed hysterically, “He's bleeding!
            I instinctively brought my hand up to where the pain was. As I did this I felt something warm running over my fingers and down into the sleeve of my shirt. When I pulled my hand away it was covered in blood. Now I’m not good with blood, especially my own, and I tend to go into shock until someone qualified reassures me that I’m going to be all right and so therefore my head started to swim, a sudden dizziness overcame me and then I passed out.
            The next thing I knew I was on a stretcher being jogged up and down by a couple of blue-suited ambulance-men. We were in the basement car park of the store, heading for a waiting ambulance. Through watery vision I could see the Batmobile standing silently over on the far side of the dimly lit car park.
            "What do you think of that, then, kid?" one of the ambulance-men asked. "How would you like to go to the hospital in that?"
            Bugger the Batmobile, I thought, what's mum going to do when she finds out about this?
            With the siren wailing, the ambulance sped through the busy streets until it reached the ugly sprawling mass of red bricks and concrete that was Victoria Hospital. The vehicle screeched to a halt and the doors flew open. Strapped to a stretcher trolley, I was hurtled down long corridors and round sharp, blind corners, faster than a speeding bullet.
            In an examination room a white-coated, kindly-faced doctor poked, prodded and scrutinised me. I was surrounded by space age looking equipment that appeared to have been borrowed from the set of Star Trek.
            "Stitches," I heard the doctor say, softly. "Have you informed the parents?"
            "The mother’s on her way."
            "Now then, son," the doctor said, turning to me, "you're going to need a few stitches, and because you're twelve you're old enough to have them put in without a general anaesthetic."
            All the moisture in my mouth suddenly evaporated and a wave of self-pity swept over me. I looked at the doctor with a mixture of terror and confusion in my eyes.
            "Now, don't be alarmed. You're a big lad now. We're going to give you a local anaesthetic. That just deadens the area where you've been hurt. Trust me, you won’t feel a thing. We can give you a general anaesthetic that will knock you out if you like, but it’s not advisable. Anyway, only sissies and girls have general anaesthetic. You don't want all your friends at school thinking you're a sissy, do you?"
            Yes! Yes! I thought. I do! I do! I do want them to think I'm a sissy!
            "Honestly, the stitches won’t hurt. You'll just feel a tingling sensation at first and after that you won’t feel a thing."
            He lied. There may not have been any physical pain – but psychologically it was agony. At that moment I didn't see the kindly-faced, soft spoken doctor. I saw a maniac and all I could think of as the needle wove its way in and out of my skin was: You fucking liar. You fucking fucking liar!
            Mum arrived a few minutes after I’d been sewn up and found me looking sorry for myself in the recovery room. My obvious discomfort had no effect on her mood whatsoever because she had traipsed all the way into town without needing to go shopping – and she was furious.
            "What did I say to you?" she thundered.
            I had to think of something fast and it had to be plausible. "Err . . . I came into town with . . . err . . . Pete Webster and his mum and . . . err . . . we got separated  . . .err . . . and err . . .I fell over and . . . err . . . cut my neck open."
            The doctor gave me a scornful look, but he didn't say anything.
            "Serves you bloody right, then," Mum said, as she grabbed hold of my ear and dragged me out of the recovery room.
            When we got home we had jam sandwiches for tea and, as I stuffed one into my mouth, I reached forward and pressed the large bakelite button on the television and waited for the old black and white, tube driven monster to warm up.    
            I was just in time. It was a new adventure. A new story. A different villain, and I remember thinking, just before the doorbell rang, I hope The Joker's in it this week.
            As the sound and picture merged and the fuzziness disappeared, and the familiar Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na  Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na signature tune began to fill the room, I heard my mother call to me from the hallway. “Stephen!” she yelled, “me and Mrs Webster would like a word with you about what happened this afternoon!”
          Did my mother ground me for the rest of my natural life? Did more lies save me when Mrs Webster told my mother what really happened that afternoon? Could this be a ghastly end for me?
            Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

I was devastated when I heard the news that Adam West, the Caped Crusader himself, had died. The 1966 series of Batman was, and still is, one of my favourite TV shows. On my birthday last year I treated myself to the complete remastered series on Blu-Ray and have watched it frequently since then. Adam West was a master of comic timing who reached a new generation of fans with his hilarious Mayor Adam West in Family Guy, not forgetting the animated film Return of the Caped Crusaders, where he was reunited with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar. He will return again soon in his final performance as the Caped Crusader in Batman vs Two-Face, which will also feature William Shatner as Harvey Dent. This post is a remastered version of a previous post from about four years ago and will serve, hopefully as a tribute to the cultural icon and absolute legend, Adam West.
            For a generation of kids who grew up in the 1960s he will always be their Batman.
            May his Bat-Signal shine on forever.

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.