Tinned peas: an Australian delicacy.

Image: Insignia and medallion.The hazards of miscommunication.

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My dad was a gunner in the army during some part of his war service. It was because he was called away for some sort of special signals exercise or training that he became separated from his unit and was consequently some days late in crossing the channel, thereby missing the worst of the fighting on the beaches of Normandy, a great stroke of luck in my opinion, since I might never have been, had he landed in the very thick of it on D-day. Respect to all those who did. Dad was later in coastal defence and told stories of watching shipping leave the port of Harwich from his radar post in Ostend.

But speaking of signals, doubtless you’ll have heard the apocryphal story illustrating how messages get garbled in transmission. Major Ponsonby-Smythe sends a message by word of mouth from the trenches back to General Bagshot Withingstall-Hepworthy at Headquarters. “We’re going to advance. Send reinforcements”. The message is passed from mouth to mouth until it is rendered at HQ as We’re going to a dance. Send three and fourpence.

Well, something of the sort happened in our family when I was a young teenager. We were on holiday someplace and had to telephone home to check that grandma was OK in our absence. This was long before the invention of those handy devices so aptly presaged in Star Trek, the personal communication device strapped to the wrist by which, miracle of miracles, you could speak to anybody in the known universe right there and then, from wherever you happened to be. We call them mobile phones these days (yes, yes, cell phones in the US…).

Image: Red telephone box.

Down but not out. In 2013 this box on a bleak hilltop in Wales has seen better days but still had a working mechanism inside.

To telephone granny we had to find a red public telephone box. Even harder, we had to find a red public telephone box that had not been vandalised or robbed of its cash box, for in those days one had to pay for each and every call on the spot with coin of the realm, making phone boxes a target for thieves and miscreants.

This was just after the nation had gone decimal and the old penny (240 to the £) was replaced by the new penny (100 to the £), so that what had been a two-shilling piece, often called a florin by a generation older than me, was replaced by a ten-pence coin, which we youngsters promptly shortened to ten-p.

Having located a working box, Dad asked for the number, for in Britain not so very long ago you had to beg an operator to make a connection to anywhere beyond the hailing range of a man with strong lungs. Phone numbers then were a combination of the place name plus the actual number.

Dad asked for our home number which I’ll render (falsely) as “Neston, 1234”.

“Weston 1234,” the operator repeated confidently, and plugged her stretchy wires into the appropriate switchboard sockets.”

“No,” said Dad, repeating again, “Neston 1234”.

“Weston, 123…”

“No!” Dad was quite patient at this stage, repeating Neston several times, growing a little more frustrated with each iteration of the misunderstanding which progressed through Weston to Heston, Keston, Beston and Leston, so far as mother and I, waiting outside the box, could make out. “Neston,” Dad said, “Neston,” again and again, enunciating as clearly as possible but failing to make the operator understand.

After several misconnections and understandable confusion on the part of persons unknown who were faced with this unfamiliar voice demanding to know if they were alright, father rattled the handset rest in frustration, like they used to do in old films and somehow mysteriously had their call restored instead of simply cut off. Finally, fuming mightily, he got the operator again. “ah-NESTON-ah, 1-ah, 2-ah, 3-ah, 4-ah,” he demanded stridently.

“Weston….”

Dad held the earpiece at arm’s length, glaring at it as though he could hardly believe its stupidity. “N,” he bellowed into the mouthpiece, “N for Nitwit, E for excruciating, S for stupid, T for trollop, O for onomatopoeic, N for numskull.”

Mother and I, burdened with shopping bags, fell about laughing on the pavement outside the box.

Aided by father’s unarguable mnemonics, the operator duly made the connection and instructed father to insert coins. Finding no more in his pockets he turned to mother, who by this time was not only laden with shopping bags, she was thoroughly weakened by mirth. “Tinned peas?” he requested urgently with knitted brow, having apparently abandoned his British nationality for Australian. Image: Tinned peas.

Mother, rummaging through her shopping bags, looked at him quizzically. “What do you want tinned peas for at a time like this?” she asked very reasonably.

Father, red in the face by now, looked crestfallen. “Tinned peas,” he repeated in austral tones that suggested incredulity at the apparent dissolution of intelligence that seemed to have befallen the entire world about him. “Tinned peas, woman! Coins of the realm! Florins!”

Finally understanding that he wanted ten-p coins mother provided the necessary and father completed the call, later assuring us that granny was perfectly happy at home, except for being dragged away from her comfy armchair by the fire to answer the wretched telephone. Ten-pence coins have ever since been referred to in our family with a perfectly straight face and without a hint of irony as tinned peas.

But here’s the point of this story. My brother-in-law Tony remembers the incident entirely differently. According to him it happened much more recently, when we three were on one of our yachting jaunts to the Isle of Man. We were anchored at Port Erin and father wanted to go ashore to call home. Lacking the required coins he asked if either of us had any tinned peas, at which Tony and I collapsed about the cabin helpless with mirth while father grew purple of face, unable to see the joke.

Which version is right? In a way, both. I have a disastrous reputation in the family for memory (I can’t even remember everyone’s names!) so it is my belief that I have inadvertently conflated two separate telephone-related anecdotes, and probably added a few embellishments that I simply made up. Phew! Good thing I ran into to my sister and brother-in-law before posting this one, and got the genuine lowdown. Imagine the ramifications of failing to give credit where credit is due.

Imagine also the consequences of remembering things falsely. People go to jail on that sort of evidence, don’t they? Inspiration for a novelist in there somewhere, I think…

Father died some years ago. I mourn his passing. He was a good father, a great friend to me. We sailed many a mile together and he taught me so much of practical use and interest, from the basic geometry of navigation with mariner’s chart, sextant and compass, to history and, well, just how to be a man. Thanks Dad. Love you loads.

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