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The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: The Peanut Vendor in Sidcup

Thursday 15 December 2011, 14:38

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor


Peanut picture by Steve Snodgrass under licence

Tom and I were broke.

We both had grants which were supposed to sustain us during our three years at drama school but too much drinking in the Station Hotel had dented our funds to such an extent that we'd been reduced to borrowing money from gullible first year students.

But it was the Station Hotel which unexpectedly came to the rescue. We were sitting in there one night, dawdling over our pints so as to save money, when Tom began staring at the small print on the back of his packet of peanuts.

"Guess how many ounces of peanuts there are in this bag?" he said.

"Give up", I said.

"Just two", said Tom, "Just two."

I wondered for a moment if our impoverished circumstances were beginning to affect Tom's mental processes. Things had surely come to a pretty pass when he was reduced to talking about peanuts.

And he clearly hadn't finished with the topic. "Right", he said "Just two ounces. And how much did we pay for those two ounces?" "I think it was nine pence," I said.

Tom was scribbling on the beer mat. "That's fourpence halfpenny an ounce", he said. "And that comes out at six shillings a pound. Six shillings. That's a huge sum. Six shillings for a miserable pound of peanuts."

He was now staring at the bag again. "Look here. It says the nuts are packaged by a company called Whiteside. Now how much do you think Whitesides pay for a ton of peanuts. If they paid what they're charging us, if they paid four pence halfpenny an ounce then the peanuts would cost them about six hundred quid. Right?"

I nodded. Better to say nothing and simply yield to Tom's contagious enthusiasm (It was, I can now reflect, exactly that compelling quality which ensured that Tom went on to make a fine living as a film and television actor).

"Now", he said, finishing the pint which was supposed to last him until closing time. "Do you seriously believe that peanuts in bulk cost anything like six hundred quid a ton. 'Course they don't. And that's where we come in. Tomorrow I'll put on my executive voice, ring up Whiteside and ask for their bulk prices. And then."

"Yes," I said emptying my own glass as a symbol of solidarity. "What then?".

"This is where the money comes in", said Tom. "We buy a bulk load of peanuts, divide them up into little two ounce bags and then take a cart out into Footscray High Street and flog them off for half the normal price."

"Why not warm them up," I said. "Get a paraffin heater on the cart. Put a tray on top. And go round the houses. Knock on the door holding a packet of hot peanuts in your hand. They smell the smell and can't resist. What a nice surprise for the wife and the kiddies. I'll take three packets."

"We need a name," said Tom. Between us we came up with Fireside Foods. And to celebrate we dipped into Tom's rent money and bought a round of whisky.

Tom rang Whitesides the next day and was so excited by what he heard that he dragged me out of mime class by waving through the window of the rehearsal room.

"You won't believe it," he said. "But we can buy peanuts in bulk at a price which works out at a shilling for a pound. If we then sell a two ounce bag at 5d instead of 9d pub price we make nearly one and sixpence for every eight bags we sell."

We could hardly wait. Within days we'd both got a peddler's license from the police and could legally sell our nuts on the streets of Footscray.

And the citizens of Footscray couldn't get enough of our wares. We made so much money in the High Street on our first Saturday that we abandoned the idea of trawling our cart round the houses in the evening and contented ourselves with going back to my digs and lying back on my bed surrounded by big plastic sacks of nuts still waiting to be sorted into little paper bags and lots and lots of money - pennies, shillings, florins, half-a-crowns, pound notes.

We began to think big. We could get some more carts and heaters and recruit first year students to take them to other shopping streets in the locality. How much would that come to in a week? How soon before we could buy our own van? How soon before we could increase our profits by buying in greater bulk?

And then the heatwave struck. For the whole of the next month the sun blazed down and the very last thing anyone in Footscray High Street wanted was a bag of hot peanuts.

We struggled on, red faced and sweating by our paraffin stove, still convinced that we'd discovered an idea whose time had come, an idea which would make us millionaires if only the weather would allow it.

But the sun never relented all that summer and we eventually abandoned the enterprise. The last but one act, I remember, was to distribute free bags of cold peanuts to all the third years at our drama school. The very last act took place in the garden of the Station Hotel just before we left for our summer vacation. After three pints each, we bought a 9d bag of peanuts, took it outside, and ritually buried it beneath the bushes, while Tom performed the last rites. In modern parlance you could say that we just failed to reach the tipping point - that moment when a product or a service or a kind of drink or a piece of music suddenly takes off, goes ballistic.

And that will be our subject today when I meet four academics who have been researching the concept of "tipping point" and considering what it adds to our understanding of trends and epidemics in a wide variety of fields.

That's in this week's programme or after the midnight news on Sunday or on the Thinking Allowed podcast.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed


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Identifying the top ten game changers operating in the UK today.


See the latest on our blog


Find out about this year's panel and theme