J. (snif)F. McGowan, Scruples and the Food of the Gods.


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One of the great hazards for parents in the raising of children, is the fact that children see clearly and say what they think. They haven’t yet learnt the restraints of good manners and tact. They stare. They speak aloud in church. ‘Why has that grandaddy got a big nose?’ He had too, a magnificent bulbous conk with road-maps of veins on a lurid purple background. There were little craters caused by many a siege of drink. I had been wondering about it too. ‘But why has he got a big nose?’ It was spectacular. ‘Shhh, shhh’ was the best I could manage. ‘Is this the bloody bus, Daddy? Why is it a bloody bus? We didn’t miss the bloody bus.’  ‘Shhh,shhhh.’ An attractive young lady sitting opposite, began to giggle. ‘I like the bloody bus.’  Shhh,shhh.’ We were on a warning any time that we went into J.F. McGowan’s shop. J.F.punctuated every syllable with a sniff. ‘Don’t stare.’ Don’t giggle, especially if your brother punctuates every sniff with a nudge. ‘He is scrupulously clean, you know,’ my mother would say by way of summing up the frequent discussions about J.F. We could sniff all do a sniff good sniff impression although sniff it was sniffly forbidden.  He wore a scrupulously clean white shop coat. He ran a scrupulously clean Victorian style grocery shop. Serious business was transacted there. His sisters, The Misses McGowan, ran a sweet shop next door. That was the business, or bees knees as wittier boys would say. I never quite understood that. That’s a Miss McGowan sitting at the upstairs window. A young girl. I knew her as an old lady, behind a glass counter full of sweets. You probably remember your own catalogue of sweets and toffee bars from those days. Honey-bee bars were by far my favourite. Gloriously sweet, they softened in the warmth of your hand. You could literally stretch one out to last a whole afternoon. They picked up fluff and sand from your pocket, giving extra texture. They cost a penny each. I had a penny once, a dull, brown one with a hen, a harp and some chickens.

I know what a scruple is. I learned it in the school across the road; scruples, grains and grammes..Apothecaries’ measure. We learned Troy weight and Avoirdupois tables… pounds, ounces, stones, hundredweight and tons….miles, furlongs, perches, rods….roods, acres, square miles and square miles(Irish)… Most of all, we learned how to transmute numbers into money……4×12=48…pence four shillings. 3×9=27…pence two and three. That’s two shillings and thrippence. Simple. Four shillings would buy all the purple-wrapped chocolate in The Misses McGowans’ shop across the road. There were purple boxes of chocolate in glass cases with sliding doors. Some boxes had wonderful pictures on the lids. You could paint the town red with four shillings. Cadburys painted their own town, Bournville, purple but it has no pub…so you couldn’t paint the town red anyway. Never mind. I had a penny. I could have gone to Annie Murray who sold aniseed balls and penny bars. I could also have gone to Miss Collins’s shop at the other end of the row. I hesitated. A classmate and a crony, a side-kick, a partner in crime, stopped me. He offered to swap his shiny new penny for my dirty, old worn one. He showed it to me. I was wary. Why would he do that? I should have been suspicious because of the way he held it, encircled by forefinger and thumb. I could see the shiny harp, far brighter than my one. His pal extolled the merits of shiny money. I was dazzled. I made the trade. They turned and ran. I can still see the soles of their shoes as they disappeared down the street, two clean pairs of heels. I can hear their laughter. Why would they do that?  I looked at the ha’penny in my palm in utter astonishment. There was a shiny harp all right and a shiny pig with some shiny piglets on the other side. I’m still astonished by the rip-off. That expression didn’t exist at that time. They weren’t scrupulously honest in their dealings. I had to settle for a couple of aniseed balls. It’s too late now, sixty eight years or so after the crime, to instigate legal action. I have no witnesses. I thought he was one of the good guys. I still do. Strange.

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A teacher told me not to use yellow in painting. ‘Yellow is a vulgar colour’. I believed him for years and painted turgid brown pictures. One day I discovered yellow and the sun came out. There are many different yellows. My former bank manager, for whom I had written some of my best fiction, met me in a shop. ‘How’s the writing going?’ he asked. ‘Not too bad,’ I replied, ‘but I haven’t struck gold yet.’ He smiled. ”Maybe you have.’ I took his words to heart. I have managed to keep myself uncontaminated by wealth for most of my life. I never see a ‘great deal’.  I don’t think I have ever ripped off  ‘a sucker’. Neither though, have I bought any gold bricks from philanthropic fellows on street corners, or real estate in the Everglades. I learned a hard lesson outside J.F. McGowan’s. So where is the gold?

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A little grandchild plucked a dandelion for his Nana, who was going into hospital for an operation. Another one gave me a chocolate egg from a yellow bag. Another one made a get-well card for her. It is bright yellow. The sun is shining.



The other grandchildren and our children, rang up with advice and encouragement. ‘These doctors know what they are doing. Don’t worry.’ An old lady in the hospital advised me to eat only yellow food, to ward off glaucoma. I will look into it. A little yellow man kept me out of the traffic. Ronald MacDonald dropped in to cheer me up. A great man, Ronald. I could never fill his shoes.

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It seems that the doctors do know what they are doing. Nana is on the mend. The sun came up this morning. The bees knees. The gold is all around us.

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J.F.had his own heart-breaking personal tragedy. We should not have giggled at his sniffing, but we were children.