That time I sang Gracie Fields songs to prove I was British

“Do you like Gracie Fields?” asked the Landlord of the Rut & Tumble.

“Oh yes,” I said but more of that later.

I have thrown a few job interviews in my time. I think if you haven’t done that by the time you are twenty-one, you probably will be an unqualified success in your chosen field, an unemployable outcast or a member of the Tory government. Maybe all three. This piece is about racism, entitlement and the illusion of disappearing whiteness but, had I called this piece that title, none of my do-gooding liberal friends and family would have read it. They would have liked the link on social media and assumed that my progressive views generally chimed with theirs, which they do, before moving onto eat hand-smoked quinoa and vermouth-soaked avocado for breakfast or whatever the metropolitan, liberal elite that I call my friends do. So, in an attempt to justify an admittedly limited but growing readership, I have woven mildly-embarrassing, whimsical stories from my work history that, while being significant to me and explaining my chequered past, will illustrate the folly of that great myth that is the disappearance of white Britishness and British whiteness, while also dealing with notions of British identity.

Before I learned to sabotage job interviews there was a period where my need for money was so great that I would feign extreme keenness for any job I could get my hands on. I heartily regret this youthful work ethic and fully intend to bully it out of my own offspring if it appears. As a result of this character defect, I once toiled as the man that sucks the toner from used industrial printer cartridges in a small cartridge-making factory on the outskirts of town. Most people don’t realise that there was once a proud tradition of men, and they were mainly men, who’s choice it was in life to suck the toner from used industrial cartridges dating from the pre-industrialised agrarian times: the Toner Men. I worked in line next to man I will call Dean, who was a fugitive from de-industrialisation in another dieing industry. “What’ll we do when this all ends?” I asked him. “They’ll always need the Toner Man,” he told me before making a joke about Frank Bruno’s c*ck and a cordless drill. “The Toner Man means too much, man. He’s part of this country’s history,” he said before making a joke about Pakistani penises, poppadoms and curry. “We have to fight to keep our traditions pure, our hearts belong to these jobs and we have to preserve them so can keep a meaningful connection with the past. And so we can drive the Asians away from Cemetery Junction.”

In his way, Dean was right. Not about the racism and stereotypes about genitalia from other parts of the world but about the role of the Toner Man. There was a tradition and nobility to the work that stretched back for centuries. Right back to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was hard work but, as we finished each day, faces caked in black toner, we pulled off our white overalls, kicked aside the little bells hidden in each cartridge and downed our tools, we knew it was time to dance the dance of the Toner Men as so many had done before us, bringing in the seasons and sucking out the ink and we sang traditional songs:
I gave my love a cherry that has no stone
I gave my love a chicken that has no bone
I gave my love a seed that should have been sown
I gave my love a cartridge with no toner

It was moving and, as I washed the Toner off each day, I thought I about how much I respected the history of the role as Dean quoted snatches of Enoch Powell’s controversial speeches at me. Now, whenever I see Toner Men dressed up in white overalls it brings a smile to my heart to know that this great tradition, this great institution is being maintained by cultural curators. However, I am dismayed that the dance of the Toner Men, including the jingle of the cartridge bell, has been appropriated by the far right as a symbol of Britishness to the exclusion of all other visions of belonging. Especially since Dean was wrong. They did get the toner men in the end. It was the corporations and automation not Asians.

I was young and impressionable, not idle but motivated by a sense of something greater. I know it may seem stupid to some of you but I was motivated to do that job out of a sense of Britishness that was strong. My father was in the British army. My grandma worked tirelessly in the NHS. My family came to Britain to live and have me. I felt at home and, fortunately, I managed to do this job for nearly a year without getting sacked. I learned the trade and learned more and more from Dean and the others but, after a complicated incident in a stationery cupboard one Friday morning, I quit and sought alternative gainful employment as I had a small legal fine to pay.

This was a time before the time when Britain fell apart. I went to the Job Centre in the morning and had interviews lined up for the afternoon. Bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm I turned up at a pub that, although it needed a lick of paint, looked like it had my name on it. A pub that had been there for so long it seemed as if it would always flourish great and free.

“Have you worked in a pub before?” asked the golden-haired landlord, who had a tonsure just like some kind of mediaeval monk masquerading with a Paul Smith shirt and some Ray Bans cocked on his head. There was something prime ministerial in his manner. “This place has survived two world wars and the cheap deals at the Asda up the road.”

“Yes,” I answered half truthfully. A two week spurt in a theatre bar at Christmas had been like living death, serving hordes of snappy parents and grandparents as their snivelling children ran about and threw sweets and leaflets on the floor shouting ‘it’s behind you!’ I would later have to pretend to clean that floor. Those were the days when you could get away with a white lie of two in a job interview.

The man looked at me suspiciously and pulled out a cigar. I could tell he wanted to let me in. He nodded gravely, considering the import of his decision. He motioned me in, then picked out a cigarette case from his breast pocket. “This saved my granddad’s life at D-day.” He paused. “He used to drink here and my great grandad who died at the Somme did too. This pub’s always been in our hands and we’re like a family. Name a British beer,” he said after an appropriate pause.

“Grolsch,” I answered, quick as a flash.

He looked disappointed.

“Heineken,” I said.

He shook his head. The sunburnt bald spot rebuking me.

“Guinness-”

“That’s Irish,” he whispered, unable to contain his rage, his voice escaping in a visceral hiss. I thought that he would hit me and, as I was stoned and slightly disorientated by this line of questioning, I admit I was scared. “Spitfire or Bombardier,” he said, grabbing me by the wrists while shaking his head. I could tell that he wasn’t angry at me, just angry at a country that doesn’t relish its heritage enough to teach it. “Those are British beers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said turning to go.

The landlord stroked his chin and read my CV. “I can see you work hard. You told me about your time as a Toner Man. I see you’ve got an A* at GCSE history. That’s very important. You also like music – a fine occupation for a young man. Bertrand Russel once said: ‘He who joyfully marches to music rank and file has already earned my respect’. The job’s yours if you can sing the wartime classic ‘Home! Sweet Home! Do you like Gracie Fields?”

“Oh yes,” I said because I wanted to belong.

I gulped. I know lots of all songs. In fact, I thought I knew them all, but it was hopeless. As I sweated there, standing to attention in front of a signed photograph of Bernard Manning, I knew that everything was lost. The flag had gone down on Hong Kong. The steak house in town had closed. It was over. I couldn’t do it. It’s one of those songs that you know without knowing but still can’t fully sing. In my head I heard the words but they were muffled and foreign, as if in a different language, a language I should be able to speak. I free styled lyrics that scanned and finished in the right place. I can’t remember exactly. I sang something about Marmite, John Cleese, Torvill and Dean but the silence when I finished was tragic. “Get out. This is a builder’s pub,” he whispered. “That’s not good enough, son. I tried to give you a chance. If you come to our country, you should learn our ways.” There were tears in his eyes.

The taste of beer was never one of my favourites and, to be honest, I didn’t like Gracie Fields. Did that make me any less British? Born in a hospital in Reading that had been opened by the queen. Schooled on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Benny Hill, I thought I felt British. Back then I was a fan of tart-fuel, the type of drinks that the Daily Mail warned would either send you blind or give you syphilis. This was before red wine both gave me and cured of me of cancer (I think) and I set off to drown my sorrows. Fortunately I made it through the shopping centre free of syphilis but haunted by the spectre of the landlord. I went to a shop to exorcise my demons and stumbled out with a six pack of alcoholic Vimto, unsure of whether I had really forgotten the words, or whether the small changes I had made to the lyrics had been my way of resisting his idea of Britishness. As I walked, I knew that I respected the landlord for his commitment to history and the deep rooted nature of his beliefs but I wondered whether his clinging onto these ideals left him in a tragic fantasy, clutching onto memories while the world carried on: the Chinese shop selling food in the evening, South asians, West Indians and White British people bustling through the evening in this quiet town. I thought about Enoch Powell and his ideas about Rivers of Blood, aching at the pain he articulated while hating what seemed like cold calculation behind every word and then I puked up in Smelly Alley.

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