I Moved South And Joined The 11 O'Clock Tea Set (28 September 1973)
The custom of “elevenses” was one I scarcely knew in my early days in the north. True that millworkers, who began at 7a.m., did have a break between 9 and 9.30. But that those who did not start until 8.30 or 9, especially office workers, might need any kind of refreshment at mid-morning or mid-afternoon simply did not occur to anyone.
Certainly there was no such cuppa in the office where I worked for my first seven years, but I never missed what I never had.
When I got to working in the cities I came across the beginnings of the custom, but for myself the habit did not really begin until I was over 30 and in the army and taking part in the usual mid-morning NAAFI scramble. It was also during war service that I found the habit to be almost universal in the south. Since coming to Bletchley I have been making up for lost time, both morning and afternoon and am now perpetually drunk not on alcohol but on tea, which for me must be strong and sweet and also hot at the start and preferably not made from tea-bags.
I also drink coffee, though that does not fulfil the primary purpose of a quick, thirst-quenching pick-me-up to the same degree. Cocoa I never look at today.
If you suffer from insomnia, but are otherwise in reasonable health, you might try a civilised version of that same routine, remembering that the double-quick change from freezing cold to rosy-cosy warmth is of the essence.
When on my rounds in my early days in Bletchley I called at varying places for a cuppa. Actually, there were two or three calls where I could have one for free if I chanced to be there at the right time. One was the council offices.
This was a vital call for news other than council items, and probably still is. For instance, it quite frequently happens that some well-known person who has lived in the town practically all his or her life has to spend the last years with a son or daughter many miles away. When death occurs the relatives appoint an undertaker at their end. All come to Bletchley for the funeral and all are away again in two or three hours. A reporter can only pick up such cases by being forewarned and that is made possible by the fact that notice of a proposed burial in a council cemetery has to be given to the council offices.
Just as useful in my time was the fact that several members of the small staff regularly had news of sporting and social activities with which they personally were intimately connected. And they were most hospitable with their tea – at the right time.
Occasionally I also had similar hospitality at the police station – and not in the cells either.
Apart from those free cuppas and others which could be had at various regular meetings of women (with myself often the only male present) I made use of the local cafes, not simply for the break but for the fact that often where there’s a cup of tea there’s a jug of news if you know one or two of the people around.
The old Coffee Tavern at the railway station was very useful if you were up that way and so was the former café-cum-bar on No. 1 platform, though the tavern was much cheaper – in fact it was the cheapest place in Bletchley by about a halfpenny a cup. It was in the place on No. 1 platform that I first met Mr. Bob Maxwell.
Actually I was at the station seeking someone else, but in the course of the inquiry I was introduced to Mr. Maxwell and he straightaway congratulated me on being the first journalist to get in touch with him in this part of the constituency, which was not surprising seeing there weren’t all that many to beat anyway.
Occasionally I called at Mrs. Perrin’s corner shop, and it was there that I literally had a big surprise.
The shop stood at the top of Duncombe Street on the opposite side to the Park Hotel. It was pulled down to make way for one of the piers that now carry the rail flyover across Queensway. The shop sold cakes, sweets, tobacco and that sort of thing and between the counter and the door were two or three café tables. Mr. Jim Shaw helped Mrs. Perrin with the business.
I was sitting there one day having a quiet cuppa and gazing at the stuffed fish in glass show cases on the walls when the place suddenly went dark – all except Mr. Shaw’s face, which lit up in a grin.
I turned round slowly and was flabbergasted to see an elephant standing in the doorway, with its trunk reaching forward into the shop and waving about near my right ear. I had to believe it because Mrs Perrin’s wasn’t that kind of drink and in any case this elephant wasn’t pink. While I was still blinking, Mr. Shaw came out from behind the counter with cake in his hand. The elephant quietly transferred it from its trunk to its mouth, then simply backed and ambled away accompanied by its seemingly small keeper.
“Never forgets to call for its cake when they come this way,” explained Mr. Shaw, referring, I believe, to the circus that used to visit the market field where Sainsbury’s mammoth store is now being built.
I have read recently of an elephant that used to make a similar sort of call at Little Brickhill every time it passed that way. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was the same animal. What I would like to know is what it did if it ever again came looking for Mrs. Perrin’s shop and found nothing but a lump of concrete.
Mind you, even our urban councillors have been known to wilt for lack of a little refreshment. My first one or two Bletchley Council meetings were only 20-minuteaffairs, but only about a couple of years later the next chairman, Mr. Spencer Johnson, protested at the increasing length of the meetings and hoped some arrangement for a break could be made, if only for tea or coffee. Perhaps he had been going straight from his office to the meetings.
However, his comments were duly noted and the next meeting was interrupted midway by a bustling at the door and in came one or two trays of tea or coffee with the compliments of the Community Centre. I forget how long that service lasted or even if it was repeated at all. But there were many council meetings during the following 20 years when I could have done with it.