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Across the Pond Cultural Attache
By Ironteeth Rum Spigot (UK)
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The Mayflower steps. The Pilgrim fathers set sail from here seeking the New World, the steps a monument to their endeavour. Always thronged by touristas, “Grockles” here in Devon and “Emmets” over there in Cornwall. Boatmen ply their trade, trips round Plymouth Harbour, see the Dockyard, marvel at the warships and submarines, behold the matelots caged in their gunboats on this hot summer’s day, enjoy.
Fishing boats navigate their way past the harbour gates to offload at the Fish Quay then to tie up in Sutton harbour opposite Customs House.
The Fish Quay. The boats are in and out all hours of the day, mostly coming in during the evening. They land their catch at the Quay and in the early hours costermongers of all descriptions descend to browse and buy. Noisy, busy, barter and hustle of inveterate time-honoured piscary commercial enterprise delight Larry’s senses as he wanders through.
Fishermen and fish mongering types swarm the Quay. Larry can tell them apart by their dress. Fishermen engaged with their affairs, dressed in their thousand-miler Guernseys, with the usual knee length Sea boots, some in faded, well worn smocks others in oilskin jackets. All wore sensible, sound headgear, Greek fishermen’s caps and woolly rib hats de rigueur.
The vendors and vendees a different kettle of fish. White coats and clipboards, tweed suits, Hanna hats and various habiliments abound but Larry couldn’t care less about them. The fishermen are the true arbiters of good and bad here; the others are altogether finance freaks doing business.
Then there are the normals. Patrons from Plymouth, and surrounds, early risers coming in on the look see for good, fresh fish, and hopefully a bargain as well. There are small town Unhygienix on the dawn buy for their village shops, restaurateurs, hoteliers, landlords and the like. With their livings dependent on selling proper fish to normal people they seek quality, bulk buying a remote concept for them. Women, usually in the ascendance, show simpatico with particular fishermen or mongers, cultivated over the years, and a convivial symbiosis thrives.
The market is open for business seemingly all day and night and with all the endeavour, energy and labour expended a respectable esurience accrues.
Business establishments serving food and drink abound in the Barbie. Cafés, Restaurants, Coffee shops, Greasy spoons, Hamburger stands, Pizzerias, crowded Chippies and last, but not least, Watering Holes.
Of this bounteous legion one stands out. The Dolphin Hotel. Outside, it is a pair of white columns either side of two black wooden doors either side of two large leaded windows. An overarching curve displays “The Dolphin Hotel”. A blue painted wall highlights the contrasts and underneath on either side of the arch two sea serpents twist their tails in glorious colour.
It is an old fashioned, proper, drinking den with an historical glow. It is old and it knows it is old. The fisherpeople haunt it during the early morning and, once inside, it is possible to imagine all the pints of ale quaffed in times of yore by seafarers.
Always open; no licensing laws adhered to here. The Dolphin is frequented by the fisherpeople and their para-fisherpeople. The general populace enter during normal hours. Out of hours it is for the aboriginals ostensibly and occasionally the odd matelot will try his hand. This is not recommended if the intruder is one over the eight. The fabulous Beryl Cook immortalised the Dolphin in many of her joyous paintings.
Voyaging around in the early morning, sober and with leeway to do his own thing, Vallely savoured the sights, sounds and smells. He makes an observance of this civilised novelty, in the morning air he can be found scouting around and delving into assorted Plymouth neighbourhoods. This am, after finishing a night watch early he found himself, not unhappily, on the Barbican.
Lips quietly smacking as he envisaged a nice bit of Cod in white sauce with mashed potatoes and peas and looking appreciatively into the cold eye of a recently deceased, he was doing a mental Jewish march past when his cogitation was interrupted by a nearby ruckus.
A very intemperate, very cyclopean, hominid was manhandling an obvious fisherperson in a very ungentlemanlike manner. Without thinking, Vallely grabbed it by the collar, spun it around and kicked it up the arse.
The man stumbled forward and fell over. Immediately he was back on his feet and lunged toward Vallely, bellowing obscenities as he came.
Larry had the advantage, unusually for him, of being sober. He deftly sidestepped, and with some force, pushed him to one side.
Into a cartload of freshly caught fish. Larry heard a gratifying thud as his head walloped something solid. The Cro-magnom shook it’s not inconsequential skull, touched it and looked at blood. His eyes focussed on Vallely and he re-launched himself.
Straight into a two by four, wielded by the small fisherperson. She rained blows down upon him, on his head, his back, again and again until she was hauled off by other fisherpeople.
Larry had made the acquaintance of Dolphin Deb.
Larry regarded appreciatively as the behemoth was escorted away by some other onlookers under the very, very, watchful eyes of the fishing fraternity.
Vallely turned back to his Cod and rummaged for shekels in his pocket when he was tapped, roughly, on his shoulder.
“You” a very large man in a ribbed bobble hat and a very large set of waterproof bibs, said unceremoniously, “come with me.”
Larry followed him obediently into the Dolphin.
It was like going back in time. A roaring log fire to his left and good old fashioned stone walls. Not a right angle in sight in this establishment. The bar was rough planking and the seats and tables made of English oak, he fantasised. The clientele were very, very seamanlike. Nautical and fisherman to the core. The ambient bouquet whiffed of fish, tar, smoking substances, various, sweat and a brew of spirits, Rum, Whisky, Gin, et al. He was reminded of the time when, in a brewery, they were invited down into the large storage cellar where they kept hundreds of barrels. Going down the wooden stairs they were encouraged to savour the “Angels’ Share”. The Dolphin certainly had its own “Angels’ Share”.
Rum was thrust into his hand and he looked into the bluest pair of eyes he had ever seen.
“Thanks, Doc”, she said.
Nonplussed, Vallely must have looked very bemused.
“Old Tom recognises you from the Naval. You stitched up his Grandson after a fight.”
A weathered, bearded face regarded him smilingly. Old Tom then said;
“He asked the lad if he wanted a neat, tidy job or if he wanted a scar that he could show his mates.”
There was a general chuckle of approval at this. Old Tom continued,
“He’s got a belter of a scar and he shows it to everyone, ‘specially the maids.”
“Aye, an’ you ought to hear some o’ the tales he spins about how he got it.” Another beard.
“Yup, that’s ma Billy.” Old Tom, Grandfatherly.
Unintended consequences, thought Larry.
“So, you’m a Doc what saves damsels in distress, are ye?” This from a very big chap. One eye, beard, pipe, toothless grin. Larry stretched himself looking for Robert Newton.
Many, many, many rums later they let him go about his business. They only let him go because he begged and told them he was on nights and had to get some kip.
“Yup, that’s true. Can’t be having the Apothecary being drunk on duty, can we?”
As he made his unsteady way across Southside Street he saw touristas at the Mayflower steps. This is when he cannot resist doing his thing for International relations. They Emmet around, babbling in languages, various, considerable variations in dress sense and style abound, nationalities determined by the cut of a pair of Chinos, the swirl of a peasant skirt or, one time, stirringly provocative dirndls. (Larry nearly lost it when he saw them. Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music. Jools was well inamoratad that night.)
Overshadowing all others, our American cousins stand out like a boil on a bishop’s arse. Kitschy cotton Bucket hats pulled down over their ears, loud sunglasses, multi-coloured Hawaiian shirts with a large belly bulging over polyester shorts, or trousers, open-toed sandals and white socks. The men are not much better.
Always with a satchel or a handbag, or man bag, clutching either maps or guide books, looking up at buildings and pointing and always, always, a muckle great Camera slung around their necks. Polaroids, Nikons, Kodak, Olympus, Canon, you name it. One time Larry espied a Hasselblad 1600F. He approached the wearer and was astonished to realise that he did not have a Scooby about the marvel he had round his neck. It was “A god damn nuisance, I ain’t borrowing this thang from my broker agin!” The language is unmistakeable and unavoidable. Loud, d’ye see?
Larry was once at a NATO reception in Rosyth where most of his NATO Squadron’s ships’ companies had managed to bring relatives over to Scotland to delight in all things Jock. He was enjoying the conviviality when above the hubbub, the not inconsiderable hubbub, he heard quite plainly an American female voice say:
“Edin-borrow. Gee, that’s my favourite town in the whole of Engerland.”
The silence was thunderous; Larry holding his ribs as tightly as he could and holding his breath more desperately. After a few moments the sound returned slowly and the American lady and her group were nowhere to be seen. Odd.
Back in the Barbican, the American Grockles crowd in front of the Steps taking photographs of each other. They hug each other, smile at the lenses, point to the plaques and the “Mayflower Steps” sign. Always, always, with eyes shaded by a hand they peer out to Sea, over the Steps wall, in a “Seeking out the New World” pose. Needless to say they are as happy as the proverbial in the proverbial.
No wonder. This is the very spot where their forefathers left this perfidious, imperialistic, tyrannical, religiously overbearing, misbegotten dominion. They left to build a world anew, in the year of our lord sixteen hundred and twenty.
This is when Vallely bursts their bubble. The Pilgrim Fathers did not leave from here, he tells them sadly.
These columns of Portland stone that form the Commemorative portico were thrown up in 1934 and the pier that they are standing on is only one hundred years old. Some old houses were knocked down to build the road around the Citadel and this jetty was constructed then.
Our colonial cousins are usually unhappy on hearing this and often “Frigging God-damn Limey con” can be heard. But Larry helps out here.
Vallely explains, gently, that Yes, they did leave from this harbour, but not from this spot. They left from the spot where the harbour wall used to be and he points to the Western side of the harbour.
At the Admiral McBride public House.
“No way. The Pilgrims didn’t even drink alcohol, let alone use one of your pubs!”
That always reminds Larry of a visit to Cairo, the day after a major earthquake. The First Lieutenant thought it would be a good idea to let the Doc have a couple of days R and R, whilst the frigate transis the canal. In an earthquake zone? They took a bus to the Pyramids and when they got off in the shade of Cheops one of the Greenies looked around, shook his head, and said very loudly to the Egyptian guide.
” They can’t have been all that clever, those old Pharaoh blokes. They built these piles right next to the town!”
The guide was unimpressed by the stupidity of these British.
But here, in the Barbican, the Americans are not being facetious. They mean it. They seem to have no grasp of time lines in an historical content. History begins for them in 1492 with Columbus and later in 1776 on the fourth of July. Any building more than 200 years old is considered ancient.
Larry, again gently, explains that the Admiral McBride is Victorian, over 200 years after their Fathers.
They still look dubious. Vallely explains that local historians and archaeologists place the actual site where the Mayflower pushed off is in the McBride.
All they have to do is go in to the pub and look around. There is plenty of evidence and documentary proof that that is where they left from.
Always piqued, they take him up on this awesome charge on their long held beliefs and follow him into the Admiral. On the wall are plenty of commissions and endorsements, some legal, some academic, proving the truth of Larry’s statements. This, usually attending imbibitions of a couple of tots from the bar, helps put their minds at ease.
Consider. Here they are, in the Barbican, Plymouth, England. At the place from where the Pilgrim Fathers braved all to start their nation, and it’s all a con. The Steps are not the real place. The real place is here….in a Pub!
Vallely usually drops his next bombshell now.
“Would you like to see the very spot where they steps really were, all bona and real and not another con? It’s here, only a few feet away.”
They look around, scanning for likely places, but there is no neon light, no great arrow, no nothing. But they want to know. Larry leads them to the spot, after getting permission from the Staff. He leads them to………The Ladies toilet.
Aghast, they don’t believe him. The Staff and other clientele assure them that this is the very place where their heroes left these shores, but the big nobs don’t want the world to know about it. Bad publicity and all that. Where would they get all the big shots and their entourages to grandstand in here? Their kind live for ceremonies and a loo is just not good enough.
When the Americans see the small cubicle in the Ladies they usually cringe but then Larry says:
“Imagine when you get home and all those boring friends of yours show you their photographs of their world trips. You know, the big headed, stuffed up, been everywhere, seen everything, what have you done? types. Just show them photographs of yourselves at the REAL MAYFLOWER STEPS. No tourist crap for you! You got to the heart of the matter and gone done the real McCoy, Y’all.”
The next thing is they are cramming themselves one by one or two by two into the cubicle. Cameras shuttering apace. They look around, test the walls, check the ceiling and point down at the pan. Then with eyes shaded by a hand they peer out to Sea, through the toilet walls, in a “Seeking out the New World” pose.
Vallely always enjoys doing his morsel for Anglo-American relations.
In his compassion he never bothers to tell them of the Charlotte and Friendship taking convicts to Australia. In 1837 they landed at Port Jackson, starting a British Colony, they later changed its name to, what was it? Oh, yes….. Sydney. All under the leadership of one Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N. the father of modern Australia.
Benevolently, the six Plymouth Company ships that took people from Cornwall, Devon and Dorset to start the New Plymouth settlement in New Zealand, he never mentions.
However, they all left from here also.
That would be overkill. Larry was a sensitive Bunny.
As he looked over to the small group bunched at the Steps, he was self assessing his degree of squiffiness. Finding this challenging he faultlessly adduced he was too far gone for his cross Atlantic détente ambassadorship. After suitable self apportionment of disapproval he determined his objective……to the Hoe, to the Hoe, onward and upward……….to the Hoe.
Larry found a nice, pleasant spot on the luscious grass and spread-eagled out happily. He knew he was under the protection of Gog and Magog here, even if they can’t be seen anymore. Bloody post-Elizabethans. He succumbed squiffily and zonked out.
Vallely was adrift on night duty that night, again.