Monday, 12 September 2011

Joe Carey

I had rather hoped that the high winds and strong rain that have been battering Britain over the last week or two would have subsided by now, but the weatherman advises us this morning not to stand under any large trees for the time being, because the remnants of that hurricane down in the USA has decided to take a little trip up here.

Having yet another valid excuse not to carry on with this bloody Sherborne stone job (I ran out of invalid ones ages ago), I might as well take your advice and give you another installment of what is shaping up to be my autobiography - I'll have to start thinking of a title for it soon. How about 'I did it My Way'? Seamus Murphy's (an old Irish stonemason) autobiography was called 'Stone Mad', so I can't use that. I'll let you suggest something, but keep it clean - actually, don't.

Talking about old Irishmen, a key figure in my childhood was a scrap-dealer called Joe Carey who was a regular visitor to our house, and because he did not have an inkling as to how to behave according to his assumed position in society, we never heard him coming down the back lane to the kitchen - he would just march up between the two classical pillars either side of the impressive, oak front door and lean on the bell until someone let him in. We wouldn't have seen him coming to the back entrance anyway, because he was about five foot two inches tall - about ten inches below window height.

His visits were almost encouraged by my father, because he was the prime source of spare parts for the obsolete cars he seemed to collect. Carey had a vast, filthy and chaotic scrap-yard about 4 miles from our house, and hidden amongst the great heaps of rusting metal were several models of dead vehicle which had interchangeable parts for some of my father's rapidly dying ones. The deal was that dad would give him any scrap in return for the odd brake-part, and the worn-out old part would be fitted to the car, in the hope that it would be a little safer than the bit which had stopped working altogether.

I remember when Joe Carey first turned up. He was riding a horse and cart and had pulled into our front drive leaning down to ask me if my parents had any rag and bones. Rag and bones? I felt able to tell him without consulting my parents that ours was not a household which produced commercial quantities of bone, but we might have a few rags.

So about once a month, the front doorbell would ring, and Joe Carey would be let in - virtually dripping with oil - and lead into the drawing-room where negotiations would commence over a mangled bit of old metal as my mother went into the kitchen to make a nice cup of tea. The situation would resemble (I later decided) a cross between a scene from Charlotte Bronte and Samuel Beckett, and the conversation was a lot along those lines too, with my mother's clipped, upper-class accent and Joe's southern Irish brogue.

We always drank tea out of mugs when I was growing up, but 'guests' were always served it in a bone china cup with a spoon and saucer, and sugar was placed next to it on the table for the guests to help themselves.

Joe would begin by spooning about 8 teaspoonfuls of sugar into the little cup, making sure he put the wet teaspoon deep into the sugar with each serving, then stirring it noisily for about 2 minutes. He would then plunge the spoon hilt-deep into the sugar bowl and leave it there, pick up the cup and saucer, pour as much tea into the saucer as it would take and unselfconsciously slurp it up as we looked on in amazement.

It was the first time I had ever come across the use of the question 'isn't it?' as some sort of punctuation, as in: "My wife has a terrible cold right now, isn't it?" Joe (or Mr Carey, as I was told to call him) seemed to finish every sentence with 'isn't it?', no matter what the context. These days, most British Asian kids use 'innit' for the same purpose, but in those days it was a novelty, isn't it?

I was brought up by my mother to be extremely class-conscious, and there was never a more extreme example of the difference between them as when Joe Carey was talking to my mother whilst drinking tea - and I mean 'whilst'.

Sometimes, me and my dad would visit Joe in his own environment, and once we got past the snarling German Shepherd, I was in heaven amongst all the tangled scrap. I just adored scrap yards when I was a kid, and I would still spend many hours in them now if they existed in the same form as they were about 40 years ago. Modern legislation and worries about the environment has put an end to the fascinating mixture of half-buried metallic treasures, and even if those old yards were still around, children would not be allowed to roam around in them for perfectly understandable Health and Safety reasons. You have to go to India these days to find children rummaging around in heaps of toxic waste.

As I said, Joe Carey was a very small, skinny man, and so was his son. One day, me and my dad were in his yard as Joe and his son were attempting - and failing - to lift a large engine-block off the back of his tatty cart. Alerted by the shouting, puffing and blowing, Joe's wife appeared from the inside of the house to see what all the fuss was about. We had never seen her before. She was absolutely, effing enormous, and towered over her son and husband.

"Get out of the bloody way!", she bellowed at her boys and pushed past them to the back of the truck.

With apparent ease, she picked up the 3 CWT engine block between her two bare hands, turned around and walked it over to a corner of the yard where she tossed it nonchalantly on top of some others, then stormed back into the house, leaving my dad and me staring at each other in disbelief.

My mother used to be a fashion model...


  1. Quite obvious why he married her then, Tom, wasn't it? Those old characters seem to be creatures of the past now.

  2. Hahahahaha.....what a great story Tom.....and, the final florish about your mum. Brilliant.

  3. I am not sure if you should be posting these stories should be saving them for your book....HONESTLY.

  4. Tom, I feel like I know.... but only through John's (Going Gently) eyes.
    Now I have a chance to see if he is correct!
    I can see that you are a story teller. I enjoyed this post immensely. Mr. Carey reminded me of a few characters in my father's family.....'salt of the earth' my grandmother would say.

  5. Let's start again....Tom I feel like I know you....(there that's better).

  6. My father belonged to the Ancient Order Of Hibernians and brought home a few characters like Joe Carey.

    Great story, topped off with that last line!

  7. 'Stone the Cro's'...?

    Our local King of the Gypsies, Nelson Smith, was a bit of a Carey. I think these characters are still about, it's just that the tales haven't got tall enough yet.

  8. Here are the results of my 30 seconds worth of brain storming for your book title:

    - Written in Stone

    - A Chip of the Old Block

    - Stone Cold

    - Shaping up Nicely

    - Much Ado in Bath

    - The Artist in Me

    (O.k. I'm lacking a bit of brilliance in the morning.)

  9. Oh I love this story, though Raz is quite right about one thing Tom - once these stories are posted on your blog, they're considered published by the publishers. They are well worthy of a book and definitely one I'd want to read. The idea I have for a title is an expression used frequently around here - 'Stone Me'. Oh well whatever title you decide, keep writing, they're good.

  10. so Molly cannot you "officially" publish the same story in the guise of a novel then?

  11. I think it might be worth checking. May be different if you self-publish.

  12. P.S: ' Cast the First Stone ', 'Romancing the Stone' ( that's as dirty as I could get), 'Stone Me ' ( a la Hancock) or, my favourite, simply 'STONED' !!

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  14. thanks molly

    as for the "stone" titles

    what about
    Bedrock memories

  15. 'Tom: Diary of a Psycho Chiseler' by Anon.

    'Candlestick Carnage' by Tom Chandler.

    'F**k Me! My Love of Candlesticks' by Tom 'Oops Matron' Stephenson

    'From the Stone Age' T. Stephenson

    (I want money for these...)

  16. number three is a bit Russell Brand!

  17. Noooooo! I HATE Russel Brand!

    It would probably be more of a 'coffee table' book - lots of pictures. Like Madonna's 'SEX'!

  18. ...and stone grinders.

    Ssshhhit! Teacher's coming down the corridor!!!!

  19. I suppose you could call your book simply "Stoned". For cover art you could have a block of stone crushing an antique glass and candlestick.

  20. Tom, of course you can publish it because it has been done. Recently in fact. By "The Pioneer Woman Blog," she wrote her story of how she met her husband. It was in many short stories. It was picked up and was made into a memoir. She does have quite the following however. She is probably making tons of money from that site. I adore your last line about your mother. Very fine writing as always. Joe keeps me up to date if I fall behind.

  21. Due to H.I. commandeering the iMac last night to watch a depressing european art fillum and me going to bed early, I haven't read all your comments until today, so thanks for them all and the lousy suggestions for book titles. (!!! LOL ha ha ).

    In the unlikely event that anything I write gets committed to paper, it will not be an autobiography anyway, so the thing about 'pre-published' doesn't affect me either way. I am only sixty, so I have the rest of my life to look forward to, and I hate it when superstars like David Beckham prematurely put their unnoteworthy experiences to date into a book.

    I think I'll call this, 'Diary of a Ghostwriter'.