Friday, 7 February 2014

‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’ (before CCTV)

The town that I grew-up in Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire, it’s people are very unique in many different ways, the town famous for it’s football team and of course it’s once great steel works now somewhat shrunken in size to once it was, remains a place on earth where its people have and enjoy a great sense of humour, that is the quality of being amusing or comic. I have always been of the opinion that despite everything that working class people and their families go through and are indeed put through, our humour remains our towering strength, and long may it remain so.

Underneath I have reproduced an excellent example of this working class humour, a post written by Arthur Catflap, and I have no idea if that’s his real name, that will have to remain a mystery. The post written for the Scunthorpe Independent News, a citizen led local news source for Scunthorpe, that I’ve been following for a few years now and which enjoys a large and growing following around the world is not surprising really as Arthur's post captures in his own words the funny side of life.                  

‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’

Now back in the 1963 there was a song riding high in the charts, sung by Booby Vee, called ‘The Night Has A Thousand Eyes’. In addition, on hearing this the other day it set me thinking. Today we claim in Britain, to be the most watched people in the world CCTV everywhere, ANP (Automatic Number plate Recognition) readers, mobile phone footprint and others; our daily life is always under scrutiny. However, I beg to differ for in my youth back in the 1950’s – 1960’s everyone everywhere was under close observation. Not a street in Scunthorpe was free from prying eyes, and information overload.

No stranger or local was excluded from observation, from the what, when and where was happening in the local neighbourhood, everything was observed, noted and disseminated at speed. All events transmitted via a system, not unlike today’s information superhighway, sometimes even faster, and often encrypted, so little ears where not able to understand.
Who or what was this phenomenon, who operated it, how efficient was it (very). Furthermore, in the days when even having a telephone in the home was rare, having a phone was the domain of doctors, accountants, and the local factory manager. In my day 1950’- 60’s my mum, aunt, nana, and neighbours and people down the street all combined to create a vast local network of local information.

How did it work? First you have to understand how life was different back then, most housewives (That’s was the term used back then, my spellchecker recommends homemaker) with children, stayed at home, working mothers were a rarity then (Back in 1951, only around 16% of mothers worked outside of the home.) In fact if you became pregnant this may well result in the loss of you job (Back in the 1960s, you could still quite legally lose your job if you got pregnant,) no maternity leave back then.

So how did this information network operate? First there was what was called the curtain twitching, on observing some activity in the street, the art of moving the net curtain slightly to observe, without been observed oneself, a true art in itself. Or the window had a large plant usually a large spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) these proved popular in the centre of the window, this allowing observation without curtain movement, my grandma, used one of theses to effect, and would even shame a SAS officer for concealment.

Now the information had to de disseminated, first area of information exchange the garden wall, hedge, or fence. Positing of information one to another, up and down the street. This was comically used in an act by the Northern comedian Norman Evans (1901-1962) in his (Over The garden Wall Too Routine) that was popular in the 1950,s.

watch Norman Evans Over the wall

Though looking at the clip it may remind you of a later act, made famous by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough in the 1970’s-1980 as Cissie and Ada (Ada Shufflebotham or Sidebottom and Cissie Braithwaite) in fact was homage to Norman Evans act. In addition, for your information, Dawson explained that this mouthing of words (or “mee-mawing”) was a habit of Lancashire mill workers trying to communicate over the tremendous racket of the looms, and then resorted to in daily life for indelicate subjects.

watch  Cissie & Ada – The Art Gallery.

And the full characterization representing this sort of neighbourhood tittle-tattle, or the neighbourhood know-all, and social commentator was crafted in Coronation Street, in the form of fearsome Ena Sharpeles (Violet Carson) as portrayed in the soap in the 1960’s. There were such women back then, and I now fondly recall seeing every day. (Actor Michael Melia has claimed in an interview that he thought the character of Ena was “the most forbidding face on the street. A harridan in a hair-net with a surly expression that could stop a grown-man in his tracks.”) These were the guardians, purveyors of social norms and commentary back then.
Then onward the next information exchange was usually the street corner, a famous information node. In the event of something urgent, a collection around a front door was necessary for fast dissemination of facts and events. In addition, would still give twitter, a run for its money, for speed.

However, the most important area for information or today the server was the corner shop, a fountain of all knowledge, rumour, Chinese whispers, and “did you know?” In addition, even at times some shopping as well! Even home to the payday loan of its day the SLATE (a record of a person’s debit or credit (in pubs and shops formerly written on a slate):Five quid,’ said the barman. ‘Put it on my slate,’ I suggested.)

It is most likely very difficult today to imagine just how the corner shop was part of the neighbourhood, before the supermarkets arrived (Self service back then) there were hundreds of them even in Scunthorpe.

watch Ena at the corner shop.

This was where information, was remarked on, and judgment passed, and then dispatched onwards, to people from other streets, for distribution over the garden walls, and so the cycle began again, closing the circle.

As for encryption so little boys/girls ears did not understand are as follows, often spoken in hushed terms. Not wedded “living over the brush”( The phrase, “living over the brush”, used to describe an unmarried couple who live together, originated in the tunnel building days of the 19th Century. If a boy and a girl (usually camp followers from the towns, prostitutes in reality) took a liking to each other than the other men and women would respect them as man and wife. They could not afford church wedding so, holding hands; they jumped over a brush or broom handle held by two older people. They were then “married” in the eyes of their peers).

The new washing machine is “On the never-never” (using a system of payment in which part of the cost of something is paid immediately and then small regular payments are made until the debt is reduced to nothing) back then known as Higher Purchase, today just credit.
In fact, one local company now long gone used instruct its delivery men, make a noise when delivering the goods. As this, no doubt would attract attention, curtains moving up and down the street. In addition, might create more orders for goods, it worked.

“Jezebel” my favourite but was in my adolescence before understood it (we was innocent then) once one of the most defining names given to a woman back then. (A woman who was regarded as evil and scheming).

There were lots and lots of long-lost words and metaphors, now long abandoned or deemed inappropriate as the world, society and attitudes changed at speed into the 1970’s. In some ways for me a lost time but I was there, and people do not always believe how it was within living memory.

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