Trademark Takeaways™

Part One

What can you tell from the name of a shop?

You come to expect hairdressers called Hair Today Gone Tomorrow, or Ryan Hair where the basic cut is £1 but with added fees for sharp scissors and banal holiday banter. And trendier names like Hairdotnet, or Short n Curly’s – probably one to avoid. But you do wonder if they’re run by Sun editors – or that geezer from Huddersfield on the Malaga transfer who tinkers with what you say, has to have the last word, and always sits next to you.

In my home town of Ledbury only Hairwaves has taken the Sun route, the rest offering customers more flattering self-imagery with names like Topaz or Elegance. And only one takeaway has taken this tack. Open a year, The Town Fryer is the newest of four fish and chip shops, a sign of the profit in this line of business and, I suppose, Britain’s bloated eating habits. Luckily the owners realised that nobody understood why the handbell (apparently cast in a Motherwell steelworks in 1924 and affectionately known as Old Schoolie™) was rung outside the shop every evening, and quickly got rid of the man employed to desecrate the evening air with cries of ‘Oyez! Oyez!’

Another chippie, which also does kebabs, calls itself Quality. Whilst they turn out a cheap and generous wrap of cod and chips, and kebabs are, well kebabs (or KFC in disguise –  Kebabs For Cholesterol™),  the name is pretentious. I once chose a Cheshire hotel called Quality, but after being taunted all evening by Dulux Burnt Crust™ walls and waking up with spring-like circles across my torso I vowed not to fall for that name again. Next to Quality is a Balti takeaway with the equally audacious name of Paradise. Paradise it isn’t – that accolade can only go to the amazing Sitara contemporary Indian restaurant, outside which marshalls in high-viz jackets are deployed every night to steer airport-like queues desperate for at least a takeaway if they can’t get a seat. Paradise, Quality? It’s as if the rivalry in that street is in name alone. Next there’ll be a Cambodian takeaway called Utopia™ or a Nirvana™ selling Burmese. Or a hairdresser called Halcyon Hair™.

The best chippie is Y-Pass, sensibly displaying a Hammerite Pimply Glitz™ board at the entrance to an alley down which no-one would otherwise venture. It’s also marketed as ‘The One Down the Alley’, sported on staff tee-shirts, a cunning logo only they can lay claim to and far easier to give directions to than say:

‘The one next to the other place with the pretentious name, you know opposite the man who always complains about people blocking his drive, just along from that house that hasn’t sold in three years where someone was murdered in 1963, you know near the old ambulance station at the back of the sewage works’.

The One Down the Alley

But the name Y-Pass not only reflects its hidden nature; if you do go past you’ll miss out on fish cooked in the lightest of scrummy batters, chunky chips perfectly cooked in a crispy coating, and a superb collection of colourful cruets along the back wall. A raised counter almost hides the teenage assistant, though not as high as the serving shelf in a Pitlochry chippie called The Plaice to Be, where, as I sat reading the house Sun, food was being delivered at the top of giant fryers along which a tattooed forehead moved to and fro like a glove puppet, offering only a small target after closing time.

At the risk of sounding picky about the Y-Pass assistants, who are only doing what they’re trained to do, I baulk at one of today’s customer service traits – being asked if I want anything else. I can understand that it’s about secondary sales, and if it were executed in the old-fashioned way by a white-aproned gentleman with a Brylcreem comb-back spooning loose leaf tea into a waxed bag from a small lacquered drawer behind the counter and wrapping it with a twist of red ribbon I’d love being asked, ‘Will there be anything else for you today, sir?’ But not in a fish and chip shop where I’ve just placed a precise order for small cod and medium chips and am handing over the money. Then it’s just an irritating question.

Greggs are past masters. On my last visit, as I approached a customer assistant I was thinking,

‘No, no, please don’t say it!’

But too late. So advanced is the secondary sales training of Greggs staff that before I could speak she called out,

‘Anything else?’

‘No, please not that,’ I said. ‘Please may I have a Fatty Melt™?’

‘Anything else?’ she asked.

‘No, really – just a Fatty Melt™.’

‘Anything else?’ she said, staring blankly over my shoulder.

‘Okay, can I have one Anything Else™ please?’ I said, naively thinking this might fox her into giving me a Fatty Melt™. But instead it got worse as an assistant at the ovens spotted the bull’s-eye on my forehead and joined in.

‘Anything else?’ she called. ‘Anything else?’

‘Anything else?’ said the first assistant.

‘Anything else?’ called a third lady from behind the cake counter.

To this intimidating echo I left the shop, foodless, wondering how they survived in these harsh economic times. But escape wasn’t simple. As I made off along the High Street I turned to see a gaggle of hair-netted Greggs assistants exiting the shop in my direction, the original three in the vanguard, then another trio who’d presumably been buttering bread out the back, followed by a fresh hatching of fully fifteen, intonating their mantra in the same menacing voice as the gas-masked schoolchildren in Doctor Who chanting : ‘Where’s my mummy? I want my mummy.’

‘Anything else? Anything else? Anything else? …’

As they shuffled towards me, my only way out was jumping on the passing 476, although I did look back from the rear seat of the bus all the way to Hereford.

Part Two 

Shortly after coming to Ledbury I tried Tang’s Fish and Chips and Chinese Takeaway at the far end of town. Expecting, as the name promised, a piquant portion of arguably Britain’s favourite dish, I faced a fillet of fish resembling the spongy brown-paper parcel holding an impossible tie or knitted gloves sent by my Auntie Kate every Christmas until I was thirty five, and chips like elvers – hard to hang on to. First impressions count. With good Chinese takeaways nearby or an excellent pizza from the earnestly named Pizza House I’ve never been tempted back. And why pass Y-Pass?

The name Golden Gate evokes images of the grand gateway to a Chinese city, belying its true position on the corner of the car park and opposite the old rope factory. The service is friendly and the food tasty and reliable with an added assurance on the menu that:

“All food sold on this premises do not contain any genetically modified products or genetically modified ingredients, as pledged from our suppliers.”

Well that’s all right then.

But for me the best Chinese takeaway in town is Wing On. The food is plentiful and cheap but its character intrigues me more. Family run by mother, son and teenage daughter, each has a prescribed role. The willowy Miss Wing On’s job is to lean on the back wall scrolling her mobile and trying to get you to look at her so that she can glare at you for looking at her.The only practical help I’ve seen her offer was years ago in school uniform slapping Polycell High-Drip™ putty glazing on the outside windows.

Polycell High-Drip™ putty glazing.

Mrs Wing On is the powerhouse. Whilst her English only stretches to the menu headings, her attitude is precise and helpful. The kitchen is her domain but she controls the cash and keeps a maternal eye on the counter. Short and bustling, she exudes feminine wile and sharp business acumen.

During advertisement breaks on the large Panannoyic™ TV at the end of the counter, the twenty-something Mr Wing On takes the orders. As you approach the counter and make eye contact you’re met with a glazed stare something between a frightened rabbit and a bloke waiting for you to say anything or nothing that justifies the first punch in a fight.

‘What you want?’  he says, sharply. ‘You want order?’

Both questions suggest that Mr Wing On is either in self denial about his role or fails to understand it. As you read out each dish, adding the numbers for confirmation, he snaps ‘Yesses’ in the manner of a frustrated Basil Fawlty, as if he already knew what you were having and wondered why you were telling him again.

‘That all?’ he says finally, in a tone that suggests you’ve under-ordered but which is marginally more palatable than ‘Anything else?’ He then whisks the order into the kitchen before retiring to his television.

Twenty minutes is ample time to wallow in the ambience and free entertainment. Two overgrown Christmas cactuses, tired with age and flowerless for years, fill the bay window. These botanical delights are viewed from one of four ill-assorted 1960s straight-backed chairs, the kind you find at a car boot sale, placed either side of a Flaminghel™ gas fire you wouldn’t dare light. If you plugged into one of the power points on the bare walls, say as a writer using the creative atmosphere to type up a piece about isolation cells, you’d be advised to wear proper wellies and latex gloves.

The recently redecorated paintwork in Wilko Slush White™ thinly masks the Homebase Oily Mist™ of the previous fifteen years, and the putty to the inside windows is from the same Polycell High-Drip™ batch as outside. Behind the counter, two long, narrow wall shelves are stocked with secondary sales products. On the top shelf is a single bottle of Amoy light soy sauce and two of Yeo’s hot chilli, on the bottom one four cans of Coke, spread evenly.

Once back to his TV Mr Wing On is more relaxed. Gentle conversation breaks out as we watch Ice Truckers together.

‘You do that?’ he asks as a brawny American pitches his thirty ton truck round impossible bends on the edge of a precipice that gives me vertigo watching.

‘No, would you?’ I say.

‘No’ he replies with a glint that tells me we could become good mates if the food would only take a little longer.

Between such abrupt exchanges I browse the house Daily Mirror, turning the frail, brown sheets with care to prevent the five week old paper from disintegrating like the crumpled pages discovered behind beams in a Victorian parlour conversion. With the upshot of Cheryl and Ashley Cole’s secret meetings a month earlier now clear, letting customers compare it with the Mirror’s predictions at the time is a coup putting Wing On way ahead of the takeaway pack.

I normally go for the spicy Singapore Chow Mein or the House Special Curry, and I’ve never been disappointed. A visit always ends on a happy note. While Mr Wing On channel-hops between Bridezillas and Come Dine With Me, and Miss Wing On mutters profanities from the kitchen corridor, the smiling Mrs Wing On personally delivers the bag and itemises its contents before sending you off salivating.

Whether ‘Wing On’ is of culinary significance in its chicken and duck dishes like say ‘bone in’ for haddock or ‘rindless’ for bacon I’m not sure, though in number 127: Chinese Surprise (Wing On)™ it seems likely. But they’ve wisely seen fit to use their name to mouth watering effect in the slogan that fronts the menu – Bring on a Wing On™.

Paul Costello © September 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8

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Monsieur Costello va au bord de la mer

‘Vous parlez Français?’ says Jean-Yves after a hearty handshake.

‘Un peu,’ I say with the wide-eyed smile inculcated in me at American Convention-style training sessions – in Hackney.

‘Vous, Anglais?’ I say.

‘U-u-r-r …’ he says with raised shoulders and a palm-down swivel of the right hand.

‘The last skill you’ll need is speaking French,’ a colleague, Jetty Jones had assured me, having worked with the French-speaking Monaco team in the Olympic sailing a few weeks earlier. ‘They all want to practise their English.’

Except that is Jean-Yves, the Chef de Mission of the French Paralympic sailing team, who it seems doesn’t have much to practise. Jean-Yves cuts a grandfatherly figure and is utterly charming. And he is the man I shall be working for while the rest of the squad focuses on its real concern – sailing.

I’d spent three months revisiting the subject for which I got a ‘2’ at GCE, but which was thick with rust after half a century. Being offered a Games Maker role with the French delegation in Weymouth and Portland was a privilege, but could I cope with their mother tongue?

“Monsieur Dupont prend le petit déjeuner à sept heures, et part pour la gare où il achète un journal et une pomme.”

In Living French – Complete with CD borrowed from my local library, the lingo felt familiar despite the time lapse. Breakfast, newspaper, apple – this would be a cinch.

“Pierre était assis sur les rochers avec Madame Leblanc.” Rocks – that might be useful, what with being by the sea.

“Il a vu un homme dans un bateau de pêche.” Fishing, sailing – boats, just the same!

Armed with Jetty’s assurance and knowing I could make a real contribution when it came to men buying apples and women meeting friends in the park for coffee and cake while they watched pretty, green ducks, I was ready for action. Until, that is, Jean-Yves did the palm-down swivel. Bloomin’ French! The language I mean, not the people. The pressure was on.

Enter my French colleague Christine who’d lived in England for years and, like Jetty, had carried out the role of NPC (National Paralympics Committee) Assistant the month before – in her case with the French Olympic sailing team. To ensure Jean-Yves got the right support, we agreed she would be his main contact. For the next two weeks Christine translated at meetings, made transport arrangements and dealt with unexpected visits from French schoolchildren wanting to wish their heroes well, while I stood by like an apprentice waiting to pass the 15 mm spanner, ill-equipped to join in quick-fire conversation about sail measurement, registration of radios and the likely impact of a deep cyclone tracking through the Channel.

The pressure was off, but I needed to contribute more. On the second day, at coffee outside the team’s storage container, I slipped a banana onto the makeshift table, silently rehearsing what I’d practised to perfection in my B&B:

‘J’ai acheté cette banane dans l’épicerie à côté de la gare à sept heures trente ce matin.’

In spite of moving the banana from side to side and repeatedly glancing at Jean-Yves and the banana in turn, he didn’t take the bait. Nor did a personal approach bear fruit the following day. Jean-Yves seemed every bit a family man, so I casually left my wallet open when he and Christine were (I think) discussing the ballasting differentials of the 2.4 yacht being raced by Damien and the Sonar yacht of Bruno, Eric and Nicolas. As soon as Jean-Yves noticed the photo of my daughter Lily I was ready to say:

‘C’est ma fille Lily. Elle a seize ans. Elle vit dans un joli village où ils ont un boulanger, un boucher et un petit lac. Elle prend son petit déjeuner à huit heures avant d’aller à l’école, et prend toujours une pomme à manger plus tard.’

He never did. Despite freezing like rabbits in headlights when the other asked a question in his native language, Jean-Yves and I always managed a friendly smile, but our longest exchange was him pointing skywards and saying ‘vent’, which only led to a mutual chuckle and nod of the head, leaving me no wiser as to whether there was too much or too little wind for sailing.

After a few days I realised I was missing the point. And it was the Games Maker uniform that did it. From the first day I dressed up I’d felt proud to be one of seventy thousand volunteers chosen to represent Great Britain. The camaraderie and mutual respect between Games Makers reinforced this, as did drivers on the workforce shuttle buses who always offered a cheery: ‘Morning, how are you today?’

But I soon saw what the uniform also meant to those we were supporting. Each team had different needs. Singapore sought physical help preparing their boat, the Spanish wanted escorting to Weymouth to look around, the Danish liked domestic support at their house, and Jean-Yves looked for language and organising skills. But a common demand of athletes and officials across the twenty or so teams was simply for us to be there, in our conspicuous purple and scarlet, as a point of reference.

I forgot about contributing in the narrow way I’d expected, and helped however I could, displaying my uniform and wide-eyed smile with pride. Now I could detect the joy in a loud ‘Good morning!’ as the Japanese man and his wheelchair tore past down the slope like a seventeen year old in a Peugeot 106; I could feel the appreciation of a lone Argentinian whose boat trailer I helped push to the measuring sheds; and in the coffee queue I could share the frustration of a Brazilian sailor when zero wind meant no sailing.

In return I enjoyed the privilege of seeing dedicated athletes tend their boats, jumped at Jean-Yves’s invitation to follow races on a tracking screen in the athletes’ lounge, and basked in watching with the public from the ruins of Sandsfoot Castle. And it was utterly uplifting hearing Games Makers greeted in such glowing terms by athletes, crowds and the media.

Sailing finishes, with no medals for the French but a clear pride in taking part. The nine-man team lines up for the coach that will unite them with colleagues in London for the closing ceremony. I play down my joy at Helena winning gold for GB in the 2.4 class and Alexandra and Niki bronze in the Skud, but frankly my loyalties are divided after being attached to the French for so long.

As they board, there are air kisses and prolonged French farewells with Christine and a genuine handshake and ‘au revoir’ for me. Last in the queue is Jean-Yves who, outstanding manager that he is, courteously sees each colleague onto the coach first. He then takes me quietly to one side and with measured diction says:

‘This morning I got up at seven o’clock and walked to the beach. On the way I went to the shop with the little yellow door and bought a small bag of red apples. This one is for you. I shall eat two on the coach, and the rest I shall feed to the pretty, green ducks in London when I go to the park for coffee and cake. Goodbye Paul.’

‘Merci. Moi aussi, j’aime les pommes rouges,’ I say. ‘J’ai toujours deux kilos à la maison sur un plat bleu dans ma jolie cuisine. Au revoir Jean-Yves.’

Paul Costello © September 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8

Postcards from Weymouth

Effing Postcard from Weymouth

Dear Grandad Greg

Strange place Weymouth.

Just went for a quiet early evening drink in the Welcome Inn. Was all right until a handful of blokes, sat at the bar in football shirts limp with wear and streaked with Pukka Pie, started bragging loudly about their sexual exploits. Trouble is they interspersed the ‘F’ word so frequently I couldn’t tell when they were referring to the subject at hand and when it was just for effect. Effing this, effing that. Effing effing. Effing annoying it was.

Then from the other side of the room I heard a group of excitable students saying ‘like’ a lot. I found it hard to tell whether they actually liked whatever it was or just wanted their friends to think they liked it by using the word like. Like they kept effing saying they were like effing cool about Green Day, but were they effing really like?

While this was going on like, a coach load of like really old people with effing elasticated M&S waist bands came through the effing door wittering on about like ‘not remembering what they’d come in for’. Like what’s the effing point of like going into a pub if they can’t even effing remember why? And another thing: if they effing … if they effing like … no, sorry, it’s effing gone.

To make things effing worse, in a like snug at the far end of the effing bar, trying to hide from all the like hubbub, four effing boring businessmen were like prattling on about effing blue sky effing thinking, and how one of them had once like gone into an effing Barclays meeting and effing forgotten why he was there – except like to make sure of an effing obscene effing bonus at the end of the year I expect.

Then a baby on the next table started effing crying like really loud. On the one hand I could really like effing sympathise with it, since even in its effing infant state it was already like looking around and getting depressed about the prospect for the rest of its effing life of having to deal with these like effing weird kind of people. But like the effing little tyke had like decided to come into the world with no idea why, and clearly hadn’t been thinking outside the effing box before it like did so.

All this got too effing much for me, and I found myself like screaming just to hear my own effing thinking join up. Clearly nobody else was singing from the same effing hymn sheet, so with a three hour runway I like parked the remains of my Dartmouth Ale and headed for a quieter effing hostelry.

That’s all for now. Will write again and tell you about the sights I’ve seen on the beach.

Love Paul

A Nice Day on the Beach

Dear Grandad Greg

Here’s the other postcard I promised, from Weymouth beach!

I’ve been watching young Council workers, with the rather ominous title ‘Beach Control’ on their black tee-shirts, collect people’s deck chair money. But honestly grandad, they have no respect. I just watched an elderly person taking a while to find her change, when the collector kicked the wooden support out of its socket at the back leaving the mesmerised lady floundering in a melee of wood and canvas.

At eight pounds for half an hour, pedalos are dear, but I had a go. It was only after twenty minutes, when I’d made little headway, that I realised the same beach controllers were having a laugh at my expense. The pedalos were tied together like a snake at the water’s edge, and they’d put me in the front one without disconnecting it from the rest. I’d been trying to pull eighteen pedalos with one pedal! Having already seen what they can do to people in deck chairs, I laughed along with the youngsters.

On the family beach there are donkey rides. As soon as I saw them sauntering along the firm sand, tiny passengers hanging on tight, I noticed their legs were abnormally long, six or seven feet in some cases; a bit like those old paintings of cows and horses. Apparently when an obstinate donkey refuses to walk any further the man switches the child to a more cooperative donkey, leaving the objectionable one to come to its senses. I saw a moody donkey called Scargill quite unconcerned when he was left to sulk with the incoming tide lapping round his legs, knowing he’d be left high if not dry and could wait until the tide receded before reconsidering his position. When I went back later, with the tide right up, I found him and three others, head and shoulders sticking happily from the water like Anthony Gormley’s ‘Iron Men’ on that beach in Lancashire!

Best of all was the Punch and Judy show, although it wasn’t quite how I remembered. It started innocently enough with Mr Punch winding up the audience and Judy rocking her baby, and when Mr Punch threw the baby down the stairs, the constable thrashed Mr Punch with his truncheon and two boxers beat the hell out of each other I really started getting into it.

But the mood changed once the crocodile appeared. It looked bigger than usual, and since the baby had gone quiet since the crocodile’s entry I began to have my suspicions.Within minutes of its arrival I noticed a few mums move in and usher their children away. In its second appearance, by which time the watchful constable had also gone missing, the crocodile seemed even larger. Mums and dads jumped into the arena frantically grabbing their children, whilst the swollen crocodile loomed over the edge eagerly eyeing the remaining toddlers whose parents had gone off for ten minutes peace. Judy hadn’t been seen for a long while, and I last saw Mr Punch disappearing down the crocodile’s throat like the boat owner in Jaws, defiantly crying, ‘That’s the way to do it!’

Then the arena fell silent, and being the only one left I assumed the show was over.

Well, that’s all from Weymouth. Say hello to Uncle Ian for me.

Love Paul