I love it when people say something fairly simple and then follow it with an extraordinary explanation. Here are three examples of that.
I was born in Bradford in 1950. There, as a baby, one of the things I learned was that when Jack fell down and broke his crown (meaning the top his skull) he went to bed and patched his head with vinegar and brown paper. This nursery rhyme reflects in part a traditional belief that vinegar stops bleeding. This stems from the centuries-old practice of women drinking a little vinegar in order to reduce their menstrual bleeding. Amazingly, there’s actually some truth in this folk-cure.
There is, however, no truth at all in what I was told by one of three very old women who confronted me outside our local fish’n’chip shop when I was about nine years old. In those days you could buy a portion of fish’n’chips with scraps for just seven old pence (less than 3p). I used to put a little salt on mine followed by as much vinegar as they’d allow me to shake out of the bottle. I’d then eat my fill and finish off by drinking the salty vinegar. On this particular evening, I’d been to cubs and had then called at the chippie with a couple of friends on the way home. Standing outside, we’d finished our food and I was about to drink the vinegar when these three old women, horrified, shouted at me to stop. ‘Don’t do that, lad…!’ exclaimed their ringleader before adding ‘Vinegar dries yer blood!!’
That was in Bradford. For example number two we go forward a dozen years and the setting moves 130 miles south. In 1971, I graduated from Birmingham University with a never-to-be-used honours degree in Industrial Metallurgy. As a student, I’d lived in Kings Heath. As a graduate, I’d moved to nearby Moseley and the top floor flat in Queenswood Road which became my home until I moved back to Bradford in June 1978.
In 1970, shortly before I’d moved into Queenswood Road, a man called Abdul Waheed had opened the city’s first Balti house at 256 Ladypool Road in the Balsall Heath / Sparkbrook area. Very soon there would be dozens of restaurants the length of Ladypool Road. He called his curry house Saleem, meaning welcome, but people thought that was his name and it soon became Saleem’s Restaurant, which offered its welcome for almost half a century, only closing in 2017. By then, Abdul had died and it was run by his two sons.
Had you turned left out of Saleem’s and walked the half mile to the top of Ladypool Road, you’d have reached Moseley, the border marked by a name-change to Church Road. Turning left a few hundred yards further up you’d have been in Queenswood Road. If you’d done this during the mid-1970s and had rung the top bell of number 39, I might have invited you in.
Coming from Bradford, I loved curries. Days after moving in, I discovered Saleem’s which, with its stacking chairs and bare Formica-topped tables, was more a café than a restaurant. Abdul’s food was both cheap and excellent. I was his first white customer. Made welcome, I got into the habit of eating there regularly. Often I’d finish my food and stay on to read a book, write a poem or chat with Abdul. We got on well. He was the first person to send me an Eid card. Glued onto the front was the skeleton of a leaf which bore the carefully hand-painted figure of a woman in a sari collecting water. I still have that card.
What struck you as soon as you walked into Saleem’s was the set of large paintings hanging on the wall, each depicting a bulky Asian man stripped to the waist. These were Abdul’s cousins of whom he was immensely proud. Back home in Pakistan, they were all famous wrestlers.
Abdul’s family had a pet, a large and very smelly aging Alsatian dog. This over-friendly creature wandered constantly between the tables happily checking out every customer. Abdul’s wife spoke no English. She’d sit in the corner near the kitchen, peeling and dicing vegetables, and occasionally using the knife to trim and clean her toenails.
There was also an elderly white woman who came in to clean. Abdul and the rest of the staff all called her ‘Mum’. One day, after I’d been stroking and fussing over the Alsatian, Mum came over to my table and, leaning on the handle of her broom, looked at me thoughtfully for a while and then said: ‘I love dogs, me…’ There was a long pause while she stared into the distance behind me as if weighing up that information. Eventually, just before turning away to continue sweeping the floor, she added: ‘Sometimes I think dogs is more ‘uman than what people is.’
Forward two decades for my third example. In 1993 I began a two-year stint as resident storyteller at Eureka! the children’s museum in the Yorkshire town of Halifax. Some lunch-times I’d wander up the road to Piece Hall Yard, the town’s ancient walled market square. It would later fall into ruin, but has since been fully restored. Back then, there were two floors of mainly craft and collectors’ shops built into the walls, the upper level accessed via a raised walkway running round the inside of the four walls. In one upstairs corner was my favourite shop, a wonderfully chaotic second-hand bookstore.
I was standing outside it one day when two women approached. One of them was about to go in when her friend grabbed her arm and pulled her away. As she did so, I heard her say ‘Don’t go in there!’ only to pause before adding ‘You know I ’ate books… they’re so bleedin’ ignorant.’
Ignorant, in Yorkshire, means rude, and I knew straight away what she meant by that. When you’re with someone else, it’s rude to ignore them by simply reading a book, just as people will turn off the television out of politeness when they have guests. But that doesn’t detract one iota from the sheer beauty of books being ignorant, dogs being more human than people, and vinegar drying your blood.