THE GREAT STROMBOLI
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Before going out with a shopping list, I would always ask my late mother if that was all and she would always reply "Not unless you see something out of the ordinary!"
As we get older and look back on our lives, there is a strong tendency to see things as a continual narrative of linked causes and effects, forgetting those one-off events that were simply "out of the ordinary."
THE GREAT STROMBOLI.
It was the early 1930’s. Due to the Depression the fishing industry had come to a dead stop in Great Yarmouth. My father was therefore out of work, courting my mother, both of them trying to save up enough money to get married.
One Saturday afternoon and being unable to afford no other amusement they decided to walk the couple of miles from Gorleston to the traditional Yarmouth Easter Fair in the market place.
In those days it thronged with visitors from all over the east Norfolk catchment area. There were the traditional amusements, sideshows, stalls, and the booths of numbers of street performers like the self billed Great Stromboli- escapologist extraordinaire.
At a time when a labourer's wage was less than £3 per week he was offering £20 to anyone who could prevent him escaping from the strait-jacket, locks and chains provided by his assistant
I will now switch narratives and hand you over to my late mother…
“We forked out sixpence a-piece and went into the tent to see the Great Stromboli going through his act. Your dad did not say much but just stood looking and weighing things up.
We watched the first two volunteers from the audience try and fail, then to my embarrassment, your dad stepped forward to be the third.
To everyone's surprise, not least The Great Stromboli’s, he refused the offered strait-jacket and shackles. Instead he drew something out of his coat pocket, something carried by many a fisherman, the small ball of waxed sailmaker's twine!
Never having seen such thread, the Great Stromboli gave a sneer while flexing his muscles and then twirling his moustache. However, your dad got him to kneel on the ground with his hands behind his back. He was wearing boots with loops in the heels so dad took the twine, cut off a short length with his jack-knife and tied a slip knot round his victim's right thumb below the joint. He then passed the thread through the two boot loops before tying the same knot to the left thumb.
Sure of easy success, The Great Stromboli took the strain on the innocent looking twine and with what he hoped would have been a roar of triumph, pulled with all his might. His reward was two thumbs in searing agony as the more he pulled the tighter the slip knots got.
Too late he realised the tensile strength of the waxed thread. It was like cheese-cutting wire.
Much to the amusement of the gathering crowd, the humiliated escapologist was forced to ask his assistant to cut him free.
Left with no alternative but to give dad his £20 and smiling through gritted teeth I remember his bitter words "You bastard! You could have had me cut off both my own thumbs!"
Dad nonchalantly trousered the bank notes.
"I reckon there's time for a pint and a shandy" he said as if it was something he did everyday. "Come you on over to the Wrestlers afore they shut."
Of course some things "out of the ordinary" happen much quicker or are far stranger. Many years ago I was waiting for the Yarmouth train on Liverpool Street station when I was approached by a sober City Gent...bowler, pinstripes, briefcase, rolled umbrella, newspaper tucked under his arm.
"Do you like midgets?" he asked and promptly stalked off towards the Underground...
As a student, it was too expensive to go home from London every time by train so instead I would travel by tube out to Epping and hitch lifts up the A11 on the strength of my striped cleege scarf. On this particular occasion, a guy picked me up late on a Friday afternoon as it was beginning to get dark. Despite my attempts at conversation he remained resolutely silent, eyes fixed on the by now dark road ahead.
Going along the Newmarket Straight, he suddenly broke his silence...
"Do you know how many cats-eyes there are per mile?" he casually asked.
Confessing that I didn't, he enlightened me...
"Twice as many as there are cats' arses!"
He then relapsed into his former silence and spoke not another word before letting me out at Norwich bus station!
(For non-UK visitors..."Catseyes" are the reflective studs along the middles of roads)