This Sort of Thing...


Mucky Maureen


A fine poet once wrote…

Sometimes we’d go to the Derrisford caff

For a bottle of Coke and a bit of a laugh.

We’d waste so many afternoons

In the mother of all the greasy spoons.

It may even have been me who wrote those words but I’m sure I never could have done so without having fixed in my brain the wonderful memory of the woman who ran this delightful little coffee shop way back in the 1970s when caffè lattes were probably still only a twinkle in the eye of a fat, moustachioed, Rigoletto-humming man in Trieste and, in the Seacroft district of Leeds where I lived, people were more accustomed to requiring the services of a barrister than a barista.

Maureen was a jolly woman with a big round face highlighted by sparkling green eyes (sometimes with a hint of red) and a smile that revealed slightly more than the average number of teeth for a woman of her age in that part of the world. With her ample build and hair in a jet black Afro perm she looked a lot like Eddie Large and had breasts each the size of Syd Little; men who were the two components of the Little and Large comedy act that were considered hilariously funny on the television set at the time.

Her café, frequented by people from all walks of life, was a great place to go for the sort of person who might enjoy smoking a cigarette, especially a person who wasn’t supposed to be smoking cigarettes. Looking in through the big plate glass front window you’d see nothing but smoke. So any youngsters trying to up their street credibility a bit with a packet of ten Embassy, and not wanting their mums or dads to know they were smokers, could puff away all day in the Derrisford without being seen through the fog by anyone more than a metre away from them and therefore without fear of getting into bother. It was also a haven for the sort of person who was looking for a warm place to sit down to smoke a cigarette but who didn’t have the money to pay for a snack or drink because, as long as they sat at one of the tables near the back wall that were permanently shrouded in smoke, there was only the remotest chance that they’d be spotted by a member of staff and punished by being forced to eat a fishcake. Sometimes the café would close leaving customers stranded there for the night because Maureen hadn’t been able to see her clientele seated around the inner periphery of the establishment and the clientele themselves hadn’t seen Maureen locking up for the night and going home. They hadn’t heard each other either because of the coughing and spluttering of the extractor fan chugging away with its chronic bronchial problems; a couple of drops of hot dripping on its bearings would have made all the difference.

It’s strange to think back and remember that the cigarette smoke didn’t put me off going there. In those days I think everybody smoked except me. I remember my French teacher at school sparking up in class (which wouldn’t have been so bad had he been smoking Gauloises and thereby introducing us to an element of Gallic culture), my dentist having an ashtray on his worktop next to where he sterilised his instruments, and every single member of my family fumbling with packets of Senior Service and diamond-encrusted Ronson cigarette lighters (that they had all given each other as presents the previous Christmas) as we piled into our Ford Anglia to go away on holiday. I used to suffer a lot from travel sickness for which I got no sympathy as this weakness of mine would always delay the arrival at our nicotine-stained destination. But I’m sure their verbal abuse would have been even greater had I mentioned that I suspected that the cigarette smoke, together with the toxic fumes from my mother’s hair lacquer, might have had something to do with the projectile vomiting that seemed to travel at a velocity greater than that of the car itself.

What the Derrisford really excelled at in the field of damaging people’s health was its chip fat. Oozing down ever wall there were brown streaky coagulations of what had once been hot lard, but which now had inadvertently formed worryingly effective fly traps. Great wadges of it reinforced with dust and cobwebs clung to the sad remains of a previous year’s Christmas paper chain; a mere two links fastened to the ceiling with a grubby drawing pin for all eternity. A layer of burnt blubber at least three millimetres thick obscured the words on the Leeds City Council Public Health Department’s certificate of hygiene that hung on the wall beside a till that struggled to open because of the fatty encrustations that jammed the mechanism. Had the Exxon Valdez super tanker disaster taken place by the toilets, spilling quarter of a million barrels of crude oil onto the mat promoting Smith’s Crisps, I doubt if anybody would have noticed. Fifty years ago, grease was the word, apparently!

At the bookmakers’ shop round the corner people would place bets on which of the caff’s customers’ internal organs would fail first; their hearts or their lungs. The greasy plastic floor tiles caused a few people to slip but no one ever died of a broken ankle, as far as I’m aware.

Despite all this, it was a friendly place and always bustling with people taking pleasure from an item from the extensive menu, be it the extravagance of a fried egg sandwich or something more simple like a Penguin chocolate biscuit. It was the ideal spot for people to go to after they had just finished doing something else. Tucked away at the end of an arcade in a 1960s built concrete shopping centre it would be patronised by housewives who fancied a bit of a break before struggling home with their heavy bags of groceries. Doris and Winnie giggling about what the cheeky young man who worked in the butchers had said when they asked him if his sausage was nice. Brenda counting up the pennies in her purse and calculating that if she got off the bus two stops earlier than usual, with the fare that she saved she’d have enough to buy a custard slice to go with her frothy coffee. Sheila emerging triumphant from the Universal Bingo Hall (a gambling den for middle-aged women from all corners of the Cosmos, not just planet Earth) to blow her entire winnings on a Cornish pasty from the ‘hot snacks’ cabinet above which sat an illuminated sign suggesting that they might be tasty.

There were groups of men who had just finished signing on at the Labour Exchange and had nothing to do until their next excursion to sign on at the same place the following week.  And there were bus drivers who had ten minutes to spare before turning round their Leeds City Transport racing green Daimler Fleetline vehicles to commence the journey to Bramley Town End, the terminus at the other end of the number sixteen route which undoubtedly boasted a greasy spoon café but surely not as greasy as ours.

All of the Derrisford’s customers could be described as slippery customers but that wasn’t so much a slur on their character as an observation of how shiny their clothes and bodies had become whilst spending time in the vicinity of the deep fat fryer. But Maureen would welcome them all with her big smile and some loving words such as, ‘Before you sit down will you go and get me twenty fags?’

I would sometimes go there with my friends on the way home from school. We’d usually each have a bottle of Cresta (you may remember the cartoon bear saying ‘It’s frothy man!’ in an American accent in the television adverts). When we first started holding these innocent little sessions we would ask for Coca Cola but we were always palmed off with something manufactured at a chemical plant in Middlesbrough that was much more sugary and much less healthy than ‘the real thing’. I’ve never liked Coca Cola, or any product that’s been an attempt to imitate it, but I drank it as a teenager because I was very health conscious and the adverts said ‘Coke adds life’ at a time when I was still a little too young to kop on to the ‘Guinness is good for you’ campaign. Our little gang so wanted to just ‘hang out’ like Fonzie and his mates did at Arnold’s Diner in the television comedy series, Happy Days. There wasn’t another café for miles, there wasn’t a record machine for us to put another dime in and there were no hot dogs, bagels or root beer on sale but we did at least have the advantage of not having to comb Brylcreem into our hair, as Arnold’s customers did, because the fruit of Maureen’s mucky chip pan added oils to every part of our bodies as soon as it had entered our digestive systems.

‘Do you have desserts?’ a lady with a crocodile skin handbag and shoes and absolutely no tattoos or scars on her own skin once asked.

Maureen responded with ‘What’s desserts?’

‘Puddings!’ said the posh lady, looking down her nose. She must have come on the bus from Roundhay, a couple of miles away along the ring road, where the cafés served ketchup from stylish red and green plastic dispensers in the shape of a huge tomato and the sugar in the bowls on the tables was in individual cubes rather than just the one big lump, as we had, formed by years of wet coffee spoons being dipped into it, each time a bit more sugar adhering itself to the lump in a way similar to that in which stalactites and stalagmites are formed.

Looking round to ensure that she had an audience, Maureen’s grin illuminated the entire café as she replied, ‘Oh, puddings! Yes! We’ve got two types… steak and kidney or black. What do you want?’

The lady with the crocodile skin suddenly lost her appetite, asked to settle her account and left.

Forty years or so later I would sometimes have an hour of free time late in the afternoon so I would call into the Costa coffee shop near where I lived in Wiltshire. It was never busy at that time of day so it was nice to have a bit of a chat with the people who served me my double espresso and a biscuit that cost twice as much as the coffee before sitting down to read my book in very civilised and relaxing surroundings. However, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the young secondary school children with their laptops and their mobile phones, sipping their cappuccinos or disgusting looking pale brown drinks with marshmallows and cream layered on top as they practised their French vocabulary or discussed why Garibaldi’s actions in 1860 were important to Italian unification.

What would Mucky Maureen have thought of them? What would they have thought of the Derrisford Caff? They would probably have logged on to their TripAdvisor accounts and left a comment describing it as ‘Deep fried fag ash’.

Maureen wasn’t mucky at all. She was merely a strong, down-to-earth woman dealing with the general public in a tough working class area of the north of England in the days when health regulations and political correctness were barely a glimmer of what they are now. For me mucky has always been a comedy adjective used to describe something or someone who is a bit less than pristine in respect of hygiene, or sometimes in respect of morals. Mucky Maureen was an epithet my friends and I stuck on her without really thinking and as the years have gone by it has remained intact in a nostalgic and loving way. It just ran off the tongue and seemed to fit. Through no fault of her own she was a victim of alliteration. She could just as easily have been tarred with the ‘Heavenly Helen’ or ‘Enchanting Emily’ brush had her first visit to the registry office gone a different way.

I knew Maureen but I very much doubt if she was aware of my existence at all. I used to visit her café regularly but didn’t get noticed because I never caused trouble and rarely even spoke. But I’m proud to be able to say that I definitely knew her and her direct approach as far as customer relations were concerned has, as a consequence, been something I have often thought about when having to work with the general public myself. The general public is a complex phenomenon that never fits in with business plans and which tends to be plain bloody awkward a lot of the time. At the end of difficult working days in the past I was often tempted to write a strongly worded letter to my MP suggesting the abolition of the general public, but then I considered the possibility that the government might agree and what followed would be all my fault. It’s little things like the differences of opinion in how to deal with bad tempered old men who haven’t got the right money to pay for their purchases that start world wars, you know. Maureen may have had a bit of a mouth on her but, in her defence, she was able to deal with difficult people without starting a world war. Or maybe she did start one but nobody noticed because of the density of the cigarette smoke and the noise of the fan.

In another arcade adjacent to that in which the Derrisford Café stood was the Dodson Bros Frozen Foods Emporium. Frozen food then was the latest new thing in the ever improving lifestyle of post-war Britain. It didn’t seem post-war at the time. It seemed like ages after the post-war age but, looking back at what we had in 1973, the way we went about things had a lot more in common with the 1950s than it had with our world today. Frozen food meant that people with not very much money in their pockets and living in the sprawling council estates of industrial cities could cheer themselves up with a few strawberries in February. I was all for this everybody-cheering-up approach which had probably been started by the Beatles but at the age of fifteen I wasn’t old enough to be a member of the Beatles, who had split up by then anyway. So when I was offered a Saturday job at this fine new retail outlet I jumped at the chance and went on to spend many a happy moment introducing to people unusual foodstuffs previously considered delicacies and only ever seen on episodes of the Whicker’s World television travel show. The meat and two veg population of East Leeds suddenly had a third veg to contend with.

In this new world of vol-au-vents, halibut and mango flavoured ice cream we would sometimes yearn for the old, more simple days and a bit of grease and stodge in our food. So Walt, one of the two brothers who owned the shop, might suggest that he and I take luncheon in the premises of our dear Maureen. We almost always ordered a mixed grill which was served with a helping of French fried potatoes that bore absolutely no resemblance to the chips that we got on the days when we went to the rival fish and chip shop for our saturated fats fix. They were like no other chips on earth. They could best be described as a blob of mashed potato completely and utterly saturated with the most saturated of saturated fats and topped with a sprinkling of the black bits from the bottom of Methuselah’s own chip pan. I only ever ate them / it because of what my mother had told me about the plight of the poor starving babies in Africa.

Her face brimming with pride, our chef placed the two plates of fried things that had formerly been known as animal body parts and potatoes on the table in front of us and said in a combination of French and Yorkshire accents, ‘Bon Appétit!’

I don’t know why we were surprised because this wasn’t our first experience of this particular house speciality. Perhaps, as regular and valued customers, we had been given an extra cup of molten lard by our hostess and it had at last become a bit too much for us. Someone had to say something. Calmly, Walt looked up and said, ‘Maureen, I have never before in all my life tasted chips quite like yours. How on earth do you do it?’

Maureen looked around her to ensure that nobody was listening, leant forward a little and in a lowered tone she replied, ‘It’s my little secret so don’t go telling no one,’ before pausing to survey the café again for eavesdroppers and spies and then adding, ‘I put a little bit of salt in the fat.’


Mucky Maureen

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