Thursday, 1 December 2011

What the Butler Saw

I was putting some petrol in the car yesterday (something you have to do quite a lot if you run an old Volvo) when I saw a mildly unusual sight.

As I was looking through the clear plastic window at all the white numerals spinning around (have you noticed how fast they spin round these days?) when I saw a large fly on the inside, trying to get out. As I was wondering how it got inside there, a spider appeared from somewhere within the pump and got hold of the fly, bit it, then carried it off for what might have been the only dinner it would ever have in it's solitary, petrol pumpish life.

I was so transfixed by this little drama, that I spent quite a few minutes staring at it whilst standing about a foot away from the pump, and it occurred to me that the girls inside the garage shop might have thought that I was so horrified at the price of a few litres of petrol, that I simply couldn't believe what I was being asked to pay, and had to triple check it to make sure I was not dreaming.

Thinking about it later, I realised that the spider and fly scenario in the pump reminded me of the summer holidays I spent in the penny arcade on Brighton's Palace Pier as a child. This arcade was crammed with machines about the same size as a modern petrol pump, and they all had glass windows with static displays of badly modeled, sensational events such as 'An English Execution', 'A French Guillotining', 'A Haunted Graveyard', etc. etc.

They were all late Victorian contraptions, and probably were installed at the same time as the pier was built, and - being in the days of pre-decimalisation - they all required a large, copper penny to get them going. Often, the pennies put into them were as old as the machines themselves, but still in circulation after about 120 years.

The 'English Execution' one involved a rickety wooden scaffold with three dolls standing on top of it. You shoved the penny into the slot, and this fired up a primitive electric motor which began noisily cranking up the gearing which animated the figures. A priest began silently intoning the last rights to the condemned man, the executioner eventually pulled a lever, and the felon dropped through the open trapdoor to his death, dangling on the end of a bit of frayed string. The lights would go out and the machine completed it's final cycle by winding up the dead man and closing the trapdoor again, ready for the next time he had to die.

'The Haunted Graveyard' would begin with the church clock-face dimly lighting up, then striking midnight with 12, tinny-sounding clangs of a spring-metal bell. As the chimes rang out, a drunken man who had collapsed in the graveyard (bottle still in hand) would stare in mute horror at various tombstones which would open up to reveal a hideous corpse which raised itself out of the grave to leer and wobble in front of the drunk. At the twelfth stroke, all the lids would be closed and the lights went out.

My little animated tableau cost quite a bit more than a penny yesterday, but at least I got half a tank of petrol out of it as a bonus.

There was also a 1900s 'What the Butler Saw' naughty video machine which I occasionally used to take a peek at if nobody was around, but that's another story - the ending of which you know too well to have told.


  1. That photo could easily have been me - 6' 3", still wearing short trousers, cranking and wanking.

  2. Oh Tom,
    More wonderful memories of my childhood. Our family would often have a day out to Southend, and my favourite part was going to the Kursaal. To get to the rides, you had to walk down a long corridor, lined on both sides with those machines and my favourites were the ones that you have just described down to the last small detail. I think that there was also one with a masked executioner, chopping off someone's head ! I loved them. There were also the ones where, if you got the silver ball in the correct hole, you won a tube of fruit gums or fruit pastilles....... oh, and the fortune teller. Then it was on to the Big Dipper and the Water Chute...... The water chute didn't even run on a rail....the boat just went headfirst into the water and you had to be dragged back to the side by a man with a pole !!........Happy days.

  3. Might be a good idea to install a 'happy ending' machine at the fuel pumps to at least give some relief to handing over £50.00 for a litre of petrol.

    I notice that many petrol staions already have the hygienic glove and tissue dispensers ready to go...

  4. My favourite penny-in-the-slot machine was at Victoria station. For a single penny you could stamp your name on a thin strip of aluminium. On the front of the machine was a huge dial and pointer, with which you selected the letters, spaces, etc. I can't imagine why I found it fascinating... maybe it was because I was about 5 years old.

  5. I love (as you know) these little snatched moments of observation..... when you see something "great" in the insignificant
    nice post thomas

  6. I'm still waiting for the happy ending, Chris. I stamped my name on a bit of metal too, Cro - Tim Stevenson.

    I love little snatches as well, John.

  7. P.S. - Trying to get my balls into the right hole is where it all went wrong for me, Jack@. (Is that enough inyerendo now?)