The Dirty Suit Men

Blimey we’re not toffs – we’re working class mate!

Logged: 21 September 2019

One day an archaeologist will shine a tentative light into a dark abandoned film vault, examine some grainy archive documentary film, and conclude correctly there was once a strange breed of men who worked at the London Docks. They dressed in a manner that defies logic. It had nothing to do with the complete illogic of dressing in a ludicrous ceremonial way beloved of the priesthood, the judiciary, the House of Lords, and Rap artists. I call them the “Dirty Suit Men”. As the name is one I invented, it’s unlikely academics will adopt it. They’ll probably arrive at something similar with a more fancy technical name that means essentially the same thing. I’m not upset about it. The papers academics publish are aimed only at other academics. I don’t begrudge them their own specialised language.

For those who don’t know, The Dirty Suit Men were dock labourers who, perhaps surprisingly from the standpoint of our casual dress-down era today, routinely wore three-piece suits and ties while loading and unloading ships. Their only apparent concession to being labourers was a flat cap. It’s possible they had anxieties about being mistaken for the gentry or bankers if they’d looked too smart on the dockside. Because of that they did whatever they could to ensure their suits were absolutely filthy, and drew attention to it by wearing a ceremonial flat cap of hard labour. This was not an odd choice made by a deranged few, but the absolute required uniform of the day. A scene in a documentary showing a large group of these men waiting for their work assignments at the docks makes it appear that Dirty Suit Men were being bred in captivity like Salmon – though obviously without the cages, water, and posh restaurants queuing up to cook and serve them to hungry customers.

Suits in our modern era have a single phase of life, after which they are left in the wardrobe, or find their way to a charity shop. Occasionally they’re just binned from the fear of being shamed as “unfashionable.” In the 1950s a man’s suit had four times as many phases to its life. Each was a step to a lower rung of the ladder. Each occurred once a suit had dropped to a certain level of wear and deterioration. Unlike today, a suit’s actual stylistic appearance then was never a factor, as owners of the notorious “Demob” suit would doubtless confirm if any survivors from that time weren’t justifiably embarrassed at having owned one.

The descending phases of a 1950s suit’s life are worth dwelling upon briefly:

Phase I): Sunday Best.
Phase II): Everyday work clothes for one’s employment.
Phase III): A suit for gardening in.
Phase IV (and normally the terminal phase): The suit to dress a guy in on bonfire night.

There may have been other lesser known phases, but they were all aberrant offshoots that didn’t occur very often. The bookends that defined the lifespan of a suit in the 1950s were “Sunday Best”, and “Bonfire Night.” How long it took to make that agonising journey depended on how much churchgoing the suit enjoyed during its initial phase, how many “dirty loads” the wearer worked on at the docks, how much gardening he did, and ultimately how much he enjoyed fireworks.

One renegade and showy refinement to the Dirty Suit Man uniform fell to those workers who were required to stand in huge vats of grain as they shovelled it towards a suction hopper, and others who dealt with assisting the passage of coal into a hold amid lethal turning machinery. They were rewarded with a dizzy badge of rank that involved tying straps around their trousers at regular intervals all the way up the legs. The theory or principle behind this was a practical one. It certainly wasn’t an aesthetic one. The legs were just strapped-up in the hope they wouldn’t flap about quite as much.

Trousers in the dark monochrome days of the 1950s generally had legs wide enough to smuggle an entire body in and still be worn. A stiff breeze would cause them to flutter alarmingly like flags during a storm. They even allowed some men to pretend to have a waistline that started around their chests, like a clown. This, inevitably, led to ties that were six inches long – again like a clown. Thankfully this uniform was spared the big floppy shoes. The only period in which I can recall men looking more ridiculous voluntarily was the 1970s – interestingly an era with trousers that shared some of those characteristics. Short ties are now making an unfathomable comeback at some schools. They looked idiotic in the 1950s, and they still look idiotic now. That’s probably why the kids love them.

Any trousers readily accessible for snagging by lethal, callous 1950s machinery capable of dragging a man to an abrupt and horrible death, needed a few cursory precautions. In this context of course, the word “precautions” is a relative one. Health & Safety regs then tended to be looked upon as slightly wimpish, and men who depended upon them even more so. The compromise between manliness and safety was a few straps on each leg. I haven’t been able to find any stats regarding their effectiveness, reminding me again of the joke about parachutes; nobody ever comes back to complain when they don’t work.

It wasn’t uncommon for social events involving dock workers of a certain age to look like a gathering of men who had been cannibalised for spare parts. Many of them lacked fingers, or some other useful appendage that when torn away didn’t result in immediate death. My father spent more than a decade working in that sort of environment. He was gifted with a macabre sense of fun, and indulged it by holding up a hand in greeting (when introduced to people who’d never met him before) that had half a finger missing. He was one of the lucky ones.

The odd occasions when my father slipped or was knocked into the dock water from a ship, always led to him spending a few days in hospital. The dock water was so polluted at that time it was like falling into a vat at a chemical plant. People who wrinkle their delicate noses and wave their hands in the air self-righteously whenever they’re in the vicinity of someone using an e-cig might want to think about that and develop a sense of proportion. Your parents and grand parents had it much worse.

Actors

Logged 16 September 2019

A witty American said once that he could never tell if actors talked like Englishmen, or if Englishmen talked like actors. That’s an adventurous thing for an American to say when he’s been bought up with a language that has its roots in Elizabethan English and all of the elastic rules that implies. I think he had a point, though, at least in relation to films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It was a land where actors could sound very strange indeed. By coincidence they were also condemned to say the most ridiculous things in equally ridiculous voices. For example an early British talkie had a scene where a man had been discovered rifling through someone else’s cabin on a ship. Instead of being arrested he was instructed rudely to “Make an account of yourself!” The spasm of over-acting that vented those words onto the sound stage was like listening to someone sitting on a “whoopie” cushion.

Actors have a harder time with language than just about anyone else because so many of the words they have to use in their professional capacity are someone else’s. There are times when I struggle to make myself clear even with my hand leading the script. If I were compelled to use a script by the hand of another there’s no telling what I’d say. Actors for the most part don’t get much choice – especially (I’m told) on all of the many permutations of Star Trek: Next Gen, where creative deviations from the script are frowned upon with considerable ire.

Old films, with all of their quirks of language, are actually portals into a lost age. The age they’re closest to is ancient Egypt because of a still and dusty sense of preservation about them. One aspect of this is especially noticeable in 60s and 70s television plays. The world passed at a much slower rate of spin then, and the pacing of drama was matched accordingly. It wasn’t unusual for a television play to be a lot like watching paint drying, albeit quite intelligent paint. In defence of these plays I should add that what they lacked in action they more than made up in Pinteresque dialogue. 

Harold Pinter, for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember him (which obviously includes almost everyone below pension age today), was a famous playwright with a reputation for squeezing the subtlest nuances out of a script. Like most successful writers, his style was copied reflexively without any sense of shame, and sometimes without any sense of knowing when to stop. The dialogue that grew from those plays was tagged as “Pinteresque”, often unjustly in that it just combined the repetitive aspects of subtlety and nuance but lacked the innate talent of the master.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was commonplace for earnest writers to fill TV scripts with agonisingly long scenes where actors stared open-mouthed at each other to the accompaniment of a dubbed-in ticking clock (probably to give the audience a metronome sound to hold on to, or think they’d slipped into a coma). There was usually a moment in the script where one actor would “surprise” another by appearing “unexpectedly”. After the requisite minute or so of silence while they goggled at each other and/or examined ornaments within arm’s reach, one of them would make a verb-based statement:

“I’m going out for an hour.” 

The shock of breaking the silence was like a voice from a table top seance:

“Going out?”

“Yes……..going out…….for an hour.”

“An hour?”

“Yes…..just for an hour.”

“Ah….just for an hour then.”

“Yes….going out….for a walk…….for an hour.”

“You won’t be going far.”

“Far?”

“If you’re only going out for an hour………you won’t be long…..on your walk….your walk for an hour. You can’t walk far and back in an hour.”

“No…..I’ll only be out walking for an hour.”

Just an hour?”

“Yes….just an hour.”

“Well then you can’t walk far and back…….if it’s only an hour.”

“No, it won’t be far. I’ll only be an hour. I have to get back in an hour.”

More silence.

“See you later then.”

Some of those plays were 90 minutes long, though obviously it seemed like 90 days. It’s a lost embalmer’s art.

While playwrights and scriptwriters were indulging themselves by trying to be Harold Pinter, actors (well…..some actors) were indulging themselves in quite another way. A film called “Georgie Girl” is a perfect example. In it, James Mason confined his statesman-like indulgence to a brusque “no-nonsense” northern accent. Lynne Redgrave was content with re-inventing herself as Joyce Grenfell’s younger sister (there just isn’t space for me to explain who Joyce Grenfell was – sorry). Alan Bates, however, was where the fun veered off the tracks. He personified what would happen if a four-year-old had been allowed an adult’s power and free access to stimulants. In fairness, that aspect of his performances were the same regardless of what he appeared in. For good or ill it nudged the red line for me in Georgie Girl.

Alan Bates passed through Georgie Girl like a blast of air from a window that had just crashed open in a storm. Whenever he had some dialogue his voice, eyebrows, and nose all elevated at the same moment in a twitchy preliminary filled with the sort of tension that precedes a steam pipe about to blow. After a moment of insane hyena-like grinning he strikes an abrupt pose and says, in a very cheerful, fake-posh voice, something like “I say………have you met my father-in-law? He’s awfully grand.” Alan Bates is what would happen if William Shatner’s DNA were exposed to the same radiation that created The Hulk. 

It’s alright – you did your best

kodak-brownie-44a
Kodak Brownie 44a
Logged 6 September 2019

I built my first camera when I was six. It was made out of clay. It had a working viewfinder born of a mad, though essentially meaningless sense of attention to detail. I’d punched a hole through the “camera” in the viewfinder position from the back. The hole was big enough to see through. It’s worth stopping to think about what sort of logic was at work. Why was it an absolute necessity for a camera made out of solid clay to have a viewfinder? In essence this was my first experience of a simulator. It was also my first experience of being ahead of my time by using a simulator to accustom me to handling something real later without risking any of its hazards. I have to be honest and admit that fact slipped by me unnoticed at the time. I was foolishly (or delusionally) proud of it upon reflection decades later.

Obviously being solid, my first camera lacked many of the other prerequisites of photographic gear, not least of which was a shutter mechanism. It follows there was obviously no dark chamber to accommodate film either as there was actually no space to accommodate anything. That ruled out any possibility of the camera being functional other than as a trophy, or something with which to smash a window in an act of impulsive vandalism.

Astute readers will have guessed by now this entire exercise was an attempt by an experienced teacher to keep very young children in a classroom quiet for a while by giving them something recreational and creative to do. It met with complete success at my desk. I worked in absolute silence with my chin hooked down on my chest in concentration. I’m inclined to believe it would have seemed worryingly obsessive to normal adults. Fortunately the only adult present was a teacher. While I’m not in a position to say categorically that teachers aren’t normal, it has to be said my behaviour didn’t appear to trouble ours. Draw your own conclusions. Perhaps she was practically-minded and astute enough to know how to create order from chaos by that stage of her career, and not complicate it with over-analysis.

In the same lesson, and with more ambition than sense, I also made a clay submarine. It was my first experience of diversifying (and to be fair my first marine engineering project). The submarine was a more hurried project than the camera had been. Unfortunately it showed. It lacked the basic blueprint of me having one at home to use for guidance during the construction phase. What that project revealed to me subsequently, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, was the value of having multiple irons in the fire because of the extent to which life is filled with disappointment and failure.

If I’d had the experience and comprehension to think it through, the relative speed with which I built the sub in comparison to the length of time I took over the camera would have been a warning. I’ve a vague recollection of my teacher spotting me adding the sub’s conning tower as a separate prefabricated unit, rather than extruding it from the main body. Then as now, I was contemptuous of advice, come what may. My recollection of her voice, if I have one, is of a distant muffled drone from afar to which I nodded absent acknowledgement while paying absolutely no attention. What did she know about building submarines? I knew what I was doing. I’d drawn upon the same manufacturing technique with complete success using plasticine on many previous occasions. Here was a material that looked and felt the same. What could go wrong? Exactly what could go wrong became clear a day or two later when the camera and the sub were fired to finish them off. It has to be said the sub did not emerge anywhere near as well as the camera.

The camera was a triumph, even down to the pedantic if unevenly carved letters “K..O..D..A..K “ – a critical detail I’d picked up from a Kodak Brownie 44a roll film camera at home. Because of my unsteady hand with the pointed end of a spatula, this engraved brand name on my clay camera looked a lot like the name of a murderer written in desperation by a dying victim. I didn’t care. My teacher applauded the functionally useless viewfinder borehole, and my head swelled with a sense of accomplishment. It was a short-lived swelling, however. The submarine project was a barb that popped my ego.

My marine engineering project was delivered to me in two sorry pieces that illustrated how far assumptions or inattentiveness can lead us into disaster. The conning tower had dropped off during firing because I’d attached it after building the vessel itself. It was a fundamental manufacturing flaw my teacher had warned about. In my ignorance I assumed clay was the same as plasticine because it looked and felt the same. This was a harsh lesson learned; don’t take anything for granted (especially in engineering). In that sense it was hands-on education at its best.

If nothing else, this was definitive evidence that I was right to follow my instincts later and became a photographer rather than a marine engineer. We live in a very litigation-minded society today. People are abruptly intolerant of mistakes, especially when they’re at sea and a torrent of water is cascading in through a hole, rather than draining out as it does from a bath. Nobody’s going to be tolerant of human error while they’re struggling to put on a life jacket and find their way up a slippery ladder to escape. “It’s alright – you did your best” is what kind parents say when a child has left splayed fingerprints everywhere after cleaning the family car windows. It isn’t something anyone says when Air-Sea Rescue have just received another scramble call because some idiot has realised too late that not everything floats, and clay isn’t the same as plasticine.

Bad Dinner Guests

Logged 4 September 2019

Zombies throughout film history have been burdened with a variety of appealing or appalling personal habits. Opinions on them, pro or con, vary according to whether you’ve led them or been eaten by them. Opinions on cannibals have a tendency to be very similar.

Film-makers can never agree exactly on what typical zombie behaviour is, and that’s clouded the subject for the rest of us. The most consistent behaviour I’ve identified (with zombies, not film-makers) is that of being impatient diners. Their impatience is pathological and impulsive – characteristics they share with smokers who are equally impulsive, though obviously not – I hope – for the same reasons. In defence of smokers, I’ve yet to see them gnawing on anyone in the leper-sheds they’ve been banished to outside of some office buildings. At worst their gnawing targets fingernails.

In today’s judgmental, born-again prohibitionist world, smokers are treated disgracefully – much worse than the reanimated dead. It’s impossible to justify. If you have a zombie round for dinner it’s always going to end in a mad clatter of plates and cutlery, shrieking, and overturned furniture (and perhaps a visit from the Police). I hold smokers in higher regard because none of them have ever tried taking a bite out of me at dinner. Contrast this with the behaviour of zombies who, routinely, tuck into anyone who strays within grabbing distance. Trust me, it’s not smokers who need legislating.

Government, as ever when dealing with controversy, is silent about the persistent lawlessness and general lack of hygiene of zombies. Grudgingly, it looks askance at some of their more extreme behaviour, but that’s all it does. Government is like Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now” when he saw Martin Sheen gaping at a mass of decapitated heads jammed onto spikes:

Awww…man….you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far.”

At this juncture I should declare that I haven’t smoked since I was aged ten. When I did it was an experiment that a friend and I executed in conspiratorial silence (twice) like members of the resistance, though without a clue of how to do it properly. We grasped enough of the basics to light the right end of a cigarette and dock the other end with our eager mouths. The rest was guesswork based on casual observation that drew on unimpeachable sources such as episodes of “The Saint” and “Man in a Suitcase”, or just about any 1960s TV show, including (bizarrely) Thunderbirds and Stingray. In the 1960s, even the puppets on TV smoked (they made commercials too, but for lollies rather than cigarettes).

My friend and I didn’t persist with the smoking experiments. The only tangible success we had throughout was drawing on the cigarettes until we had hamster cheeks. We held the smoke in our mouths for a few seconds, presumably looking like Popeye, then blew it all out as if it had been an accomplishment. “So that was smoking” we thought. Fantastic! We finished one cigarette apiece in this idiot manner, then put the pack away feeling like we’d made an advance, though without really understanding why. I still don’t understand why.

Some element of this must have troubled us dimly. A day or so later we repeated the experiment using the same methodology. Predictably and depressingly it brought us to the same inconclusive results. As a vehicle for establishing our radical credentials it was completely useless. It followed that we didn’t attempt the experiment a third time, or at least I didn’t. I lost touch with my co-conspirator when life’s events parted our ways a couple of years later. I don’t know if he was ever tempted again. I suspect not. Smoking was just a phase we went though in the same way that some young people become communists while at University.

It’s likely I’m better disposed towards smokers than zombies because I’ve actually tried smoking, albeit in an imprecise way, while I’ve never tried eating anyone. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer it when my food stays still on the plate rather than fighting back or trying to escape. I’ve also found smokers to be good company for the most part. I’m not convinced the same can be said for zombies for any part. Even when they’re quiet there’s a sense they bring with them of being trapped in a car with a wasp walking about on the back window. You can’t help but keep looking over your shoulder at where it is and what it’s doing.

For me the worst aspect of zombies is their complete absence of versatility. Smokers throughout history have been able to do virtually anything but stop smoking without becoming irritable. All zombies can do (if the film and TV people are right) is sway about making ridiculous noises and lunge abruptly at anything that moves. Although that’s never prevented someone from having a successful career, especially in mainstream media, nobody’s going to be discovering the next great advance on penicillin that way. Zombies are also a novelist’s nightmare. There are pockets of readers who still take some pleasure in descriptions of shafts of light projecting obliquely into a smoke-filled room. Nobody’s going to linger over a tender scene where the major component the author has to work with is carnage, other than Hannibal Lecter.

Ultimately the choice between zombies and smokers is a simple one that can be given form with an equally simple checklist. What do you want someone to bring to the table (sometimes literally)? If the answer is good conversation, wit, and agreeable company, smokers tick all of the boxes. If the answer is horror, a rank smell, and bad table manners, then zombies are what you want, and my blessings (for whatever they’re worth) go with you. They just go with you from afar.