At the school where I worked there was an annual expedition-cum-challenge known as the Black Country Tie Night. Those who had passed the ordeal were entitled to sport a tie around the school featuring a foaming mug of beer. Another select club was wearers of the You Lad Tie, conferred on a teacher seen to stop a child in his tracks from a distance with a bellow of “You, lad!”
The Black Country is a region in the English Midlands, so called because it was heavily industrialised and in the old days everything was stained with soot from coal fires and furnaces. Before the recession of the early 1980s the area was still thriving and a key element in working class culture was an appreciation of beer. I remember a crossroads - I think it was in Lower Gornal - that had a pub on each corner.
There were many little breweries and pubs that brewed their own on the premises. Brands included Batham’s, Hanson’s, Simpkiss’ and Holden’s, the middle two now long gone. Some of the hostelries were very simple, not exactly spit and sawdust but certainly bare floorboards. It was in one of these that I saw something I fervently wanted (which is rare for me): a short-haired blue cat, muscular and disdainful of the customers as he made his way between the legs of the chairs and people. The next time I saw such an animal was when a similar one appeared from nowhere to inveigle her way into my mother-in-law's house. Bobby, a British Blue (as I now know), came to live with us for the next twenty years. What a peculiar coincidence; I am afraid to wish for anything else.
It was usual for us to start at the Lamp in Dudley, a Batham’s pub serving a light-coloured bitter similar to a lager but much mellower. Candidates for the tie would be paired with a marker who would check off pints on a beer mat as they were drunk, generally only one pint in each pub. And so the minibus made its tour around the Black Country. The challenge was to drink ten pints without being sick, at least not until after the tenth, which by tradition was always drunk at Ma Pardoe’s in Netherton (she was still alive and brewing back then). That one was served in two halves downed one after the other and then, if necessary, it was off to the gents’ in haste.
One time part way through the evening we bumped into a colleague who was having a drink with friends and asked what we were doing. When we explained he joined in. He was a big Jamaican with a great love of life and famous for his so-called Rocket, a punch prepared with over-proof Jamaican white rum and served surreptitiously to staff in the know throughout the final day of term, which gave a second meaning to the “staggered dismissal” of the children at the end. He was not expected to have any difficulty, even though he had started several pints behind the line; but after a gallon or so he looked stricken and said with tears in his eyes that he couldn't continue. He was most relieved when we clarified the rules for him: he had thought that he wasn't allowed to visit the toilet for a call of nature before completing. Having passed easily, he stayed on for further drinks after the rest of us climbed back on the bus.
The kicker in this challenge was that tie runs were always held on a Thursday so that staff had to come in the following day to teach. One of our colleagues turned up with straw in his hair, having not made it home the night before. The children appeared to be very considerate on the Friday, as I remarked to one of my coworkers, who explained to me that they would remember seeing their dad white-faced in the morning and had learned when it was wise not to provoke.
I never made the tie: I simply haven’t the capacity. Nor did the headteacher, a whisky drinker who asked if he could have doubles instead of beer, but was turned down. Rules are rules.
All is changed. In the ‘80s, secondary schools were male-dominated; now, only one in four of the staff is a man. We have to watch patiently as the women drink Prosecco and dance.