Friday, March 5, 2010

We steal Deck Chairs

Magicians, clairvoyants, hypnotists, palm readers, tea-leaf readers, astrologists, tarot-card readers, Nostrsdamuses extraordinaires.


Who are these people? What thoughts flash into your heads when you hear these words? Have you ever met or consulted one? Are you one?

Well, I can’t answer most of those questions, even though in the course of my remarkable career I’ve been several of them, both in performance and, believe it or not, in civilian life. So I’ll leave you to ponder.

My earliest introduction to a human of this ilk and inclination was during my pleasurable childhood on Blackpool beach in the early fifties. My mother was giving an award-winning performance in a Ken Dodd summertime gala show as the leading fan dancer. During the daytime and evening shows I was left under the watchful eye of one of my mother’s closest friends, Gypsy Rose-Lee, known to her friends as Thora Higginbottom. Thora was a grand old lass in her mid-sixties, and she had had a palm-reading booth on the North pier handed down to her from a long line of Higginbottom-Rose-Lees. Her operation was, in the true sense of the expression, a family business.

My day started, as it did for all well-born Lancastrians, with at least three cups of strong tea.

The kettle was boiled on a small paraffin primus stove inside Thora’s booth. It was my job to mash the tea to its treacly strength and wash the plastic side plates before serving Madame Rose-Lee with her morning cuppa and fresh Eccles cake, provided by my mother. My daily chores done, I would stand on the pier, my mug balanced precariously on the old ornate Victorian balustrade. The seagulls swooped and soared overhead, and the smell of boiling lard from the nearby chippy rose into the air. It was from this high vantage position that I could communicate with hand signals and encoded whistles to my two friends who were deckchair thieves.

In those grand old days, when Blackpool was the hub of the English tourist industry, the summer months were the time of profit, not only for the providers of all the usual common and uncommon pleasures, but also for us beach urchins.

A lonely deck chair

 To secure the use of a deckchair, the casual visitor would have to cough up an old sixpence. Threepence was for the hire, and the other threepence was a deposit which would be returned to the hirer when the chair was brought back to the retailer’s stack.

Oliver, Neal and I were a team, a business, and our artful skills of deckchair theft had even been mentioned in the local rag with a page 3 headline, “Beware the DCTs”.

To give the rag’s sub-editors something to chew on, we adopted the name “C.O.N. and Associates”, not a bad acronym for Cess, Oliver and Neal.

On really busy days, and if Olly and Neal were otherwise engaged with their parole officer, I was forced to rustle up help from three other mates, Dave, Seth and Willy. On those days we became “The W.S.D.C. Incorporated”.

The procedure was simple. When I spotted a family of deckchair users leaving their chairs unattended whilst they walked down to the sea at low tide for a dip, I’d signal the position to the lads. In they would swoop, snap up the chairs, and dart back with them to our hidden stockpile under the pier directly below Gypsy Rose-Lee’s booth. When the tide was fully out it would take the unsuspecting tourists at least ten minutes to walk back from the sea line to find that their deckchairs had mysteriously disappeared.

Now, there are two rules for being successful, should you choose to follow a life of petty larceny. I’m sure, now, with hindsight, that the two rules we made are even followed by those sombre villains who deal in serious crime. Rule one is, of course, don’t get caught, especially in the act. Rule two is don’t get greedy and never cash in, or fence, your winnings till the coast is clear. The strict adherence to this second rule meant that we lived a life of luxury.

On those long summer days the sun would only start to set towards late evening. Most sun worshippers and deckchair hirers would start packing up their beachware at five-ish to return to their lodgings for an early supper, but the stragglers, as we called them, would wait till the sun finally set over the Irish Sea, which could be as late at ten-thirty. We always waited till all the stragglers, who looked a sorry bunch, sporting crimson sunburnt beer bellies and accompanied by screaming children whose backs looked as if you could fry an egg on them, departed the beach. That gave us just over half an hour till my mother came to pick me up after her evening show. We became the fittest local lads in the town.

We divided ourselves into two teams. Seth and I made up one team, and Dave partnered with Willy. Carrying, sedan-chair-style, ten deckchairs piled one on top of the other, we would run up the beach to the deckchair retailer’s canvas-covered overnight storage area. There were eight of these depots placed at strategic intervals on the one-and-a-half miles of beach that we covered between Central and North piers. We made a point of returning an equal number of chairs to each retailer. It seemed only fair, and we sussed out that distributing our assets to eight different fences would arouse less suspicion.

Robert's Oyster Bar

 The job done, we would meet up on the pier and share out our daily takings. On good days we would have stockpiled nearly three hundred chairs, that’s nine hundred threepences, and at two hundred and forty pence to the pound we’d make three pound fifteen shillings. That was enough for a carton of whelks, a carton of shrimps, and six oysters each, which we bought at Robert’s oyster bar on the promenade opposite North Pier.

For myself? Well, there was always enough left over for me to restock Toddie with a half pint of dry sherry purchased from Yates Wine lodge, which was also just across the road.

Yate's Wine Lodge

 My mother would collect me at about eleven-fifteen and enquire of Thora, “Bin a good lad, ’as ’e?”

“Nah problem at’ll. Fast asleep in t’ booth! ’E’s bin a gem. Spends most of ’is time with ’is mates. They all come up for lunch. Funny lads, call ’emselves the WDSCs, no idea what it stands for. Ah keep threatening to read ’is palm.”

“Why?” my mother would ask.

“’Cause ah’d love to know what it means and ’ow ’e always ’as enough money to keep buying me lunch!”

Needless to say, I never let her read my palm. However, I did learn some tricks of her trade, but that’s another story.


Catharina said...

Good story. I associate it with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stories.

Maggie Storey said...

This chapter of Cess brings bak to me lucid memories of Blackpool in post war Britain. I remember the stacks of deckchairs for hire on the beaches and the scores of holiday makers in rows along the water's edge baring their lily white skin in an attempt to "get a tan"You can smell the sea air. Evocative memories.

Jill Carrott said...

Seaside holidays in the fifties, yes but sunshine and sunburn I dont recall, windbreaks and umbrellas but we never visited Blackpool.

Gebo said...

Another picture made up of words.