Saturday, 24 May 2014

An Easy Touch

I was ten years old in 1971 when Britain went decimal. Out with the old money (twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound) and in came the new. It seemed like a good time to collect coins. It was a short lived craze that I probably shared with thousands of others who saw 1971 as an opportune moment to quickly amass a sizeable collection of newly worthless coins (though my avaricious little mind imagined untold riches in the future). Pennies, halfpennies, threepenny-bits, shillings, half-crowns – some worn thin with use – were quickly accumulated. The constant touching and sorting of coins was a slightly queasy affair: your hands quickly began to smell of money – a sort of acrid metallic sweat. My favourite job was dipping the coins in vinegar to clean them.
To ‘touch’ someone, in a vernacular sense, can mean to extract money from them, so that to be an easy ‘touch’ is to be someone who lends money easily but with the inference that you are not so much generous as just a little bit gullible. The person putting the ‘touch’ on the other is the operator; the person being ‘touched’ may never get their money returned. To be touched can also mean to have a mental disability, though I don’t think anyone has ever quite associated chronic gullibility with mental impairment (but I could be wrong here). Touch and trust, touch and money, touch and mind. One of my favourite sentences in the whole wide world is a question that the Mass-Observation team used to ask in the 1930s (quickly and amidst a barrage of other questions): “do you welcome or shrink form the contact by touch or smell of your fellow men?”
At some point between decimalisation and today the manner by which cashiers gave you your change changed. It used to be that cashiers and shop-keepers would count the money into your hand, starting off with the lowest domination and working upwards. You could pocket the money as you went along. Then someone must have decided that this was not the way to behave. Perhaps people just shrank from placing coins into hot sweaty hands; perhaps it was a security measure; perhaps it was an efficiency drive. At any rate something changed. Today when you pay for some sweets with a ten-pound note you will receive your change as one packet: a five pound note with various coins stacked upon it. I used to find this particularly awkward as I tried to pick the coins out while holding the note and trying to stop the coins sliding off, but now I’ve learnt to bend the note so as to shape into a funnel so that I can pour the coins into my purse: one less touch of flesh and metal money. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Silver service and tears

I think if I wrote a novel it would have to be set in a hotel, or perhaps the story would revolve around a restaurant. After I left school I spent a number of years waiting on tables in hotel restaurants and then later in restaurant-bars in London. I generally enjoyed it and always had a sense of the theatre and mystery of such places: who were the nervous couple giving off such a strong sense of trepidation; who was the woman eating alone with such a singular expression?
When I first started-out I worked in a smallish provincial hotel that thought of itself as rather posher than it really was. Waiters had to learn ‘silver service’: a system where every part of the meal was served separately by the waiter onto the customer’s place. This meant that you turned up at the customer’s table with a trolley with a large variety of serving dishes. First you would spoon on the main element of the dish (usually some greying meat and gravy), and this would be followed by a myriad of vegetables. By the time you had finished serving everyone the one thing that you could be sure of was that the food was now at best lukewarm. The danger was with anything gloopy like mash-potato: because you were serving one-handed (the other hand held the serving dish) you had to flick the serving spoon to get the mash to leave, which could then hit a puddle of gravy which in turn could splash onto the customer. I was taught silver service by a man who had first worked as a waiter in a restaurant in London in the 1940s where waiters didn’t get paid. Instead they paid a small amount to the maĆ®tre d and lived entirely off their tips.       
There is one day of waiting on tables that is etched in my memory. I was working in a trendy new restaurant on the banks of the Thames. It was a very busy Sunday lunch with over a hundred covers booked. At some point, early in the service, the chef and the sous chef had a fist fight. The manager sent them both home and stepped in with a junior chef to take over the cooking. Meals were taking over an hour to get to the tables. We were giving away free drinks. The customers were furious. My job consisted mainly of apologising and trying to placate the customers. For three hours I sucked-up all their fury, all their frustrations, all their indignation. At the end of the service one table said I had done a brilliant job. That was too much. I went and sat by the river and sobbed big fat tears that fell in the Thames and were washed out to sea.