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Birdie and the Lobstersicon for Recommended story

by Harry Hargreaves

Contributed by 
Harry Hargreaves
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25 September 2003

In September 1938 the ship in which I had been serving was paid off and we were in barracks awaiting further drafting. The winds of war had begun to blow and ships that had been in reserve, most of them in low care and maintenance, were being reactivated. I and a few others were sent to the dockyard to be gainfully employed as care and maintenance crew for these ships.

As we were few in number and only one ship’s galley was working we were on canteen messing. The fact that no canteen had been provided seemed to have escaped the notice of the powers that be and here I must digress to explain this peculiar anomaly: the Navy feeds, or as the term goes, 'victuals', the ship’s companies in different ways, depending on the size of the ship or, in some cases, on the ship’s situation. The officers have a separate galley where their food is processed. In Cruisers (and above) the term 'broadside messing' is used. In this method there is a central galley where all the cooking is done by professional cooks. Broadside refers to the way the individual messes are laid out. Long tables normally sit broadside in the ship and depending on the number of men in the mess the number of tables allocated can vary, but it is rarely more than two. The members of the mess share an affinity, that is, the stokers have a mess, the communication people have a mess and so on. These messes can be on different decks depending on the ship. The food for a mess is allocated based on numbers and the galley staff issues the food to a couple of members of the mess who take it below where it is shared. Then there was - I say 'was', because this system has thankfully died - 'canteen messing'. This was a botched system where the supply ship or depot supplied certain basics, such as meat and vegetables. A very small money allowance was given to each man in the mess and this was pooled to purchase other food. Despite gross inefficiency, this system persisted in Destroyers and smaller ships until at least the end of the war.

It was totally inefficient because on many occasions there was no supply ship or base available and the pitifully small allowance never covered the main meal requirement from commercial outlets. We were constantly under-funded and found ourselves having to subsidize out of our own pay the amount necessary to make up the difference. One person in the mess had to coordinate and be responsible for the purchasing of the basics to make a meal, but no one wanted the job so it was assigned on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the disasters this led to on many occasions.

We struggled along, getting a ration of meat, some green vegetables, if available, and potatoes (which usually stank) from the dockyard stores. With this we could put together a main meal at noon but for breakfast and supper we were strictly on our own. There were twelve of us scattered between the ships, one or two from each branch. We all gathered in one mess on one of the destroyers for eating and sleeping. There was no heating and the moisture from cold condensation ran down the steel bulkheads. The situation was ridiculous and if this happened today it would make headline news and someone would suffer, that is if anyone would believe it and I still have difficulty believing it myself.

On one occasion, a Saturday, we had eaten our midday meal some hours before and had to think about supper. We had purchased some tinned corned beef, tinned sausages and that good old navy staple, tinned Pilchards. None of these appealed to the majority so we had to think of something else. One of the members of the group was a signalman called 'Birdie' Wing. In the Navy an artful dodger is known as a 'Bird'. This signalman was well named, according to both name and character. He should have had three good conduct badges, which were normally awarded to men who had completed over fifteen years plus of service. Birdie had none: in fact it was his proud boast that he had never had one they could take away, which was a common practice with those that transgressed. He was a big man, with the most devilish laughing blue eyes I had ever seen. He dressed immaculately even in our present sordid surroundings and in the tales I had heard there was not a signal staff on any ship who wouldn’t welcome him. He was apparently the best at his job.

Birdie came up with the suggestion that we should have lobsters. He knew a fishmonger who, on Saturdays, cleared out his stock of lobsters at half price. We thought it was a great idea so we all chipped in the amount he said he would need and off he went. It was raining and getting dark. The rain hadn’t let up all day and as he set off it seemed to get even worse. In Devonport and Plymouth the streetcars (or trams as they were called) were the main means of transportation. They passed right outside the dockyard gates, making it easy to get around. One problem however was that the top deck of some trams had no roof. Anyone riding up there was exposed to the elements and on a night like this it was misery.

Birdie picked up the streetcar right outside the gates and went inside, but someone had put a roofless car on service without regard for the weather. The conductor said, 'Sorry we are full up, you will have to ride on top.' Birdie gave a resigned shrug and went to climb the stairs when suddenly he stopped, 'Hey,' he said to the conductor, 'There is a dog in there on a seat.' The conductor pointed out that the owner had bought an animal ticket and the rules were it had to ride on a seat. 'But,' protested Birdie, 'I am the only one that needs a seat, surely…?' He didn’t get any further. 'Either go upstairs or get off,' was the answer. Birdie did not have much choice. If he got off he would be standing in the rain for fifteen minutes waiting for the next streetcar but if he went upstairs he would be at his destination in the same time. He went upstairs. When he arrived at his destination he was soaked.

He bought twelve lobsters, all alive and kicking, and carried them out in the basket provided by the fishmonger. He knew the terminus was only a little way on so he walked through the still pouring rain to where the streetcar started its round trip. He got onboard and bought a ticket for himself and twelve animal tickets. Under the astonished gaze of the conductor he proceeded to put a lobster on each seat with a ticket jammed in its claw. The conductor protested, 'You can’t do that.' Birdie looked down at him, 'Try and stop me.' The conductor looked him up and down and decided he had better get going. He rang the bell and the streetcar started for its first stop, which was outside a cinema. The performance had just finished and the queue in the pouring rain was very long.

There was a concerted rush to get on, but Birdie, standing on the platform, made sure that only the number to fit the empty seats were allowed into the bottom deck. When he reached this number he physically blocked the entrance for anyone else and pointed upstairs. It didn’t take long for someone to spot the lobsters and the riot started - mainly among the queue outside as the limited space at the entrance permitted only two people to be on the platform and it seems there weren’t two people prepared to try and physically remove Birdie.

The police car with Birdie and the lobsters arrived on the dock. Two policemen came onboard with Birdie and it was from them we got the story. Only by promising him a ride home had they managed to convince Birdie to collect his lobsters. While Birdie boiled the lobsters, the policemen had an illegal tot of rum. As they tried to explain Birdie's escapade they laughed until they cried, and we had difficulty getting the full story. They said they would dine out on the tale for the rest of their lives.

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