'The Art of the Blaggard'

by Dan O'Neill

Here is another tale from Overdale Road and like the others, it's all true.!

'The art of the Blaggard.'

'Blaggarding' (Irish usage) Being mischievous and causing trouble wherever you go.

I can't remember a day that went by in Overdale Road that we didn't find something to laugh at.

My Father believed humor could cure almost anything 'if you had enough of it' and my abiding memory of him is not his face but his laugh. When I look in the mirror I see the very same deeply etched 'laugh lines' around my eyes that he had, and without exception, I hear that laugh again coming back to me across the years.

My brother and I were very close to our father. He raised us alone and our relationship was often more like brothers than father and sons. Dad had a highly developrd sense of humor and we soon discovered we shared his love of 'Blaggarding' an old Irish term for mischief derived from the 17th century term 'Blaggard' meaning a scoundrel. He was a master of the art and we were quick learners, and in no time we were taking our first steps under dad's watchful eye.

It wasn't long before we turned our attention to blaggarding each other. There were so many episodes I have lost track of them but one of my favourites was on my father when we were in our late teens. My brother Mike was working in CAV Lucas factory in Acton as a trainee manager. Dad had got him onto the training scheme as he was the union convener in the factory and in those days strings could still be pulled.

Mike had access to a photocopier in the office and one afternoon he brought in Dad's water rates assessment from Ealing Council and copied the top letterhead and bottom of the letter with the signatures. He cut them out and stuck them to a blank sheet of paper and copied that, giving him in effect a blank letter from Ealing water rates department. He then typed a letter to Dad telling him Ealing council were installing 'flush meters' on all toilets in the South Ealing area as a pilot scheme for the rest of the borough. The meters would monitor the number of flushes and the contents of the toilet and the first twenty five flushes a month would be free but every flush thereafter would be charged at 3p for a 'liquid flush' and 5p for a 'solid flush'. The letter went on to say a council employee would be calling soon to inspect our toilets and arrange an installation date. Mike posted it in Ealing Broadway on his way home from work and we sat back to wait for the postman.

Two days later the letter arrived and when he got in from work, Dad carried it into the kitchen with the rest of the post as usual, made a cup of tea and sat down to open the letters. He had very bad eyesight and he often had one of us read his letters for him because it was quicker, but this time we made sure we were in the living room watching the telly so he read them himself, his face inches away from the letter peering through a huge magnifying glass he kept for the purpose. He got to the council letter and started reading.

"Another feckin' bill I suppose" he grumbled. But as he read further down he went silent... and then he lost it...

" Jeeezus! What the feck is this..?"

"What's that Dad?" sad Mike feigning disinterest.

"Come in here and read this back to me" said Dad.. Mike duly obliged. I was biting my knuckles on the sofa trying to stop laughing as Dad ranted and raged about the 'bastards in the council spying on his toilet habits and making him pay for the privilege.

Then Mike called me in to read it out loud and get my 'opinion' Of course I was outraged and poured petrol on the flames by I adding up the numbers and trying to estimate how many flushes we would do in a day, then dividing up the solid and the liquid flushes. We argued back and forth on that for a bit until we could see Dad was teetering on the edge and we innocently asked asked if he was going to let them put in the flush meter?

"I'll tear out those toilets with my bare hands and crap in hole in the back yard before I'll give those bastards a penny" he raged..

He determined he would call them from work the next day to 'straighten them out' and we said that was the best plan. You can't let them get away with that,

"Exactly, he said "sure where will it all end if you don't put a stop to it?"

I was working at West Middlesex Hospital at the time so I wasn't there for the phone call but Mike was. It took him a full fifteen minutes to stop laughing before he could tell me what happened.

Dad called Ealing Town Hall from his office the minute he got in. He got put through to the water rates department and asked for a man called Evans who was unfortunate enough to have been the signature on the original photocopied letter.

"Is that Mr Evans? Good... Tell me, have ye nothing better to do up there in the Town Hall than spying on people in their own toilets? Are ye getting a bonus for finding out how many times I took a crap on Monday or Tuesday or Friday...what kind of perverts are ye in the water rates office? Ye are a sick bunch and no mistake.. .... What?... I'll tell you what I'm talking about Mr Evans, I have a letter here in my hand from you about flush meters.. Don't deny it, it has your name at the bottom.."

Mike said that eventually Mr Evans calmed Dad down enough to read him the letter word for word and they found the fatal mistake. Mike had just typed a made up date for the letter but Evans spotted it and pointed out to Dad it was a Sunday and couldn't possibly have been sent by them.

There was silence for a moment and Dad said..

"I'll call you back"

At that point Mike decided to take off and hide in the toilets for the entire afternoon until Dad calmed down. I asked how he managed to do that. He said it wasn't that bad,

"I had a book of crossword puzzles with me and just sat on the toilet until it was finishing time." When he heard the others coming in to wash up before going home he reached up and pulled the chain and opened the door. Unfortunately three hours sitting on the toilet had cut off the circulation to his legs and he found he literally couldn't stand up and collapsed in a heap on the floor of the washroom, where Dad found him. He had calmed down by then and the sight of Mike thrashing around on the toilet floor 'Like a Mackerel in the bottom of a boat' reduced him to gales of laughter.

He admitted later he was impressed at our caper, but he also told us this meant the gloves were off and from now on it was every man for himself..

My favourite form of blaggarding was 'going foreign' The art of spotting an opportunity in a social setting, completely out of the blue and switching entirely to a foreign persona without warning to your fellow blaggards who have to handle the new situation without batting an eye. My brother was very good at it, and one episode in Harrods was particularly memorable.

It was New Years Day. 1977. We had celebrated in the usual style the night before in Magees club, surfaced late and were lounging around the living room watching 'The Wonderful World of Disney' through bleary eyes and trying to ascertain what was so fecking wonderful about it..when Dad barged in charging around the little room with with the vacuum cleaner, getting us to lift our feet or move our chair until finally he switched off the racket and said..

"Look at the pair of ye. Anyone would think you had a hard night of it. When I was your age I'd drink ye under the table"

He would too. He never seemed to suffer from hangovers and we couldn't understand how he did it.

"If you think I'm leaving the pair of ye lounge around here blocking the place all afternoon ye have another think coming. Get your coats and go on out for a walk."

We moaned and grumbled but we knew when Dad meant business so we followed his instructions and stood in the living room in our coats wondering where to go.

"I don't care where ye go, just get moving"

At that moment an advert came on the TV for Harrods new years day sale.

"There ye are, Harrods, and bring me back something nice." He said.

We had no intention of going to Harrods but as we shuffled past Northfields station, we decided it might be worth a look and twenty minutes later we were stepping out of Knightsbridge station and on our way to the fabled department store.

I should have known there would be trouble. But a hangover has a way of muffling warning signs until it's too late. The place was full of people. We followed the crowd lining up for the escalators and Mike got on first, I was behind him and a step lower. We were packed like sardines, there was no space to move and as we got about half way up to the first floor, Mike let out a blood curdling scream. I looked up to find him staring down at me with a quizzical look on his face.. Looking around I saw everyone else was looking at me too. They thought I was the screamer. Of course I tried to tell a particularly angry looking old lady who had received the full force of the scream standing next to Mike that it wasn't me and pointed to Mike, but he gave me an ice cold almost pitying look and of course my protests just made me look even more guilty. I was never so glad to get off an escalator in my life and when I asked Mike why he did it, he denied it!

I should have turned for home then but I didn't.

I was on my guard then and desperately trying to find a way to pay him back when we found ourselves in the toy department.

We wandered around looking at the displays and as we were about to leave we passed the desk on which the till stood. Underneath the desk was a shelf with a rather battered dustpan and brush that was presumably used to tidy up breakages etc. during the day before the cleaners came in in the evening.

Mike stood still in front of the desk staring at the dustpan. I nudged him but he wouldn't move.. The sales assistant spotted us and came over to ask us if we needed any help. I was just about to say, "no thanks we are just leaving" when my heart sank.

"Hello yez... excuse pleez.. how much dis iz pleez.."

Mike had 'gone foreign' and there was no escape.

The assistant asked if Mike meant the dustpan and he indicated he did. She said

"I'm sorry, that isn't for sale it belongs to the store"

This was the wrong answer. Mike became agitated and gestured again at the dustpan..

"No..I buy..I buy.. how much pliz..?

His accent was a baffling Arabic/eastern European cocktail and the poor woman had no idea how to respond. She took a deep breath and pointing at the dustpan said in a kind of pidgin English that she thought he might understand if she said it slowly enough..

"This ...eees...no..for...saaaale.. understand?"

Mike gave her a blank look and I rolled my eyes.

At that moment the senior sales assistant arrived and asked if there was a problem. The first assistant explained the situation and when the senior tried to explain it to Mike, he only became more excitable and pulled out a bunch of fivers waving them in the air pointing at the object of his desire and declaring,

"I buy I buy..How much..?"

At this point the sales staff decided they needed help and tried to ask my brother where he was from..

He jabbered something unintelligble and they retreated to discuss their next move. All the time I was standing there saying nothing and I assumed they thought I spoke even less English than Mike did. Mike was muttering to me now in gibberish and they decided to have another stab at the language barrier.

"We...(pointing at themselves)..will...take...you. (pointing at Mike) .to...Hard..ware.. department...(pointing at the sky) . And YOU can.. buy...a NEW one.."

We both looked up at the sky but Mike wasn't having it and so they decided they needed a translator. Harrods had a staff of translators on hand for just these situations but what translator to call? They decided we were from the middle east and a call was put in 'upstairs' for a translator. We dragged it out for a few more minutes until the phone rang and we heard the translator was on his way down. Mike knew the jig was up at that point and he again pointed to the dustpan and said..

"So...eez no for sale?"

The sales staff let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and confirmed that it wasn't for sale and with that, he grabbed my arm, tossed his head and in his best effeminate voice said,

"Well in that case, come along Darling, we're leaving"

and we flounced out leaving the flabbergasted assistants open mouthed.

We even remembered our promise to bring back something nice for Dad. A brand new dustpan and brush from the hardware department which we waved at the toy department assistants as we walked past heading for the escalator..!

There were so many blaggarding adventures they would fill a book on their own, but then that might give you all 'ideas' and there are enough Blaggards in the world already without you lot adding to them..!

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