I am sure that there are tenpin bowling alleys still operating all over the country, or even the world. Probably I could be in one within half an hour. I actually don’t know. But theye were the big thing in the 1960s, the place where you went as a teenager, especially if you hadn’t the stamina to hang about waste ground or bomb-sites, and especially if you didn’t get on with ice-skating (see earlier blog). For a non-sporting kind of boy like me, they even seemed to allow yourself to kid your brain into thinking you were sporting, in a very obscure way, even if, as with me, you could hardly lift the balls off the place where they sat (the technical term eludes me), especially not the all-black ones, let alone hurl them down the polished parquet with any meaningful sense of direction towards the skittles, in the hope of a strike, or in the hope of nudging one skittle over, or even in the hope of an elegant movement of the ball along the troughs on either side. If I had any illusions that my prowess in tenpin bowling was going to attract a girl, they must have been staggering illusions indeed (and staggering was certainly something I did a lot of at the alley). About the most sensational thing I ever achieved at the bowling alley – the Locarno in Sunderland; it’s still there – was a spectacular, hour-long nose-bleed. I may have been the only customer at the Locarno asked to leave because I was discharging blood faster than a trained surgeon could have replaced it.
Bowling alleys were such big business then that there were even ways of dressing to go bowling (very naff), and there was one group (as in music) which actually dressed to appeal to tenpin bowlers (the Fortunes, at least in their first incarnation, as in ‘You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Mine’, a sentiment to which I subscribed quite regularly as a teenager).
However, one day, my relationship with the bowling alley changed. I saw an advert for a job there – they wanted a cleaner. And I wanted a job. Rather to my surprise, I was offered it, straightaway. I think it was six mornings a week, and the shift, which I know was four hours from 7.00 a.m. to 11.00 a.m., was paid at four shillings an hour (20p). There were four of us – two middle-aged women, one elderly man, and me. My duties were scraping chewing-gum from the snack-bar floor, and cleaning the Gents, and also, as the recognised junior, making the tea. You are going to have imagine the Sunderland accents, because it’s always pretty pointless attempting phonetics in print. And mine was posh, and probably cod-Wearside at the same time (people used to ask if I came from that faraway place, Middlesbrough, because they couldn’t place my voice precisely, any more than I could).
I thought making the tea was a soft job when I was given it. How wrong can you be. My first attempt was tipped down the sink without pause or consideration for my feelings. The man beckoned me over. He took the white enamel jug, and placed about sixteen tea-bags (still quite a novelty) in it, and then hot water three-quarters of the way up, and then advised me to ‘let it sit’ for five minutes. He stirred it firmly, added some milk, and then solemnly poured in a full pound of sugar, and stuck a spoon in the jug, so that it stood upright. ‘That’s how you make tea, bonny lad,’ he said.
This was an important lesson in life.