What is a Cheese Cob? | Pushing the Wave

What is a Cheese Cob?

Opinion, 25 November 2022
by L.A. Davenport
Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station in London
I am trying to write this column on the train, but it’s proving quite hard to concentrate. Two members of train staff are gossiping quite loudly in the next row, and it is impossible not to eavesdrop, much as I would prefer not to. They are young, yes, and are talking about their young lives, which all seems a distant memory for me, but they are interesting, thoughtful and witty. It is nice to listen to them, in fact, especially for someone who loves hearing stories, and loves listening to the cadence of regional voices and their unique vocabulary. As with every new generation, they are also using words and phrases that I have never heard before, but it is easy to understand their meaning.

When I was a young man, many years ago, and was in my first few weeks at university, I and some new acquaintances took a bike ride out into the countryside. It was a get-to-know-you jaunt I suppose, as we hadn’t spent enough time with one another to know if we had the potential to become real friends, but we had an inkling that we might (we didn’t in most cases).

The aim of this friendship quest, in a literal sense, was a village a few miles outside the town, which was reached via rather lovely hedge-lined country lanes. The surroundings reminded me of my childhood, when we lived in various parts of southern Lincolnshire, with its very particular landscape and huge skies. It put me in a contemplative mood, and I struggled even more than normal to join in the conversation. I must have realised, perhaps for the first time, just how much I had missed that version of English life since we had moved to Leicester.

By the time we got to the village and found a place where we might buy some lunch, I had lapsed into near silence, plagued by the fear that I had nothing at all to say, not just to them but to anyone. Inside the small, spotless cafe, I watched with increasing nervousness my fellow students, enthusiastic and confident, and happy in their green youth, make their orders at the counter. My eyes darted from new acquaintance to white-hatted serving lady and back again, wondering what I would say, let alone order.

When it became my turn, I stepped up to the counter and pointed through the glass. “Could I have a cheese cob, please?”

“A what?”

I swallowed and looked around at my acquaintances. They were smiling and, I thought, judging me for having just been found out as an oik.

“Erm, a cheese cob?”

“What’s that?”

I looked around again, nervously. One or two of our group were laughing. I pointed at the glass again and struggled to think of another way to make my order, before I eventually said, relieved: “A cheese roll. Please.”

I don’t really remember the rest of the cycling adventure, apart from the ride home, during which I was also entirely silent. However, I do remember feeling shocked and puzzled that I should use a word, cob, that was common currency for a certain type of flattish, round bread roll in Leicester and be met with total incomprehension by someone who lived only 70 miles away.

When we moved to Leicester, at nine years of age, I hadn’t particularly noticed a big difference in dialect, or having felt misunderstood, but I suppose we were young. By the time I reached my late teens, I had a Leicester accent, and used Leicester dialect, and this was driven home to me on numerous occasions by the public school boys I met at university. For them, having anything like a regional accent or non-standard English was a no-no and they assumed that ‘they’, with their cut-glass accents and middle class mores, were by definition better than ‘us’.

That kind of negativity is infectious. It made me feel inferior and I wanted to erase this aspect of myself, as many others in my situation did.

I was openly praised like a dog doing a new trick when my vowels became less flat, and when I used the ‘proper’ words for things. And I was reminded, half jokingly, not to make similar, horrible transgressions again. Over time, I became moderately successful at playing the part, although I was never able to erase the ‘rougher’ aspects of my working class personality.

It was only years later, perhaps fully only recently, that I realised those public school boys were trying to force me to become like themselves not because to do so was inherently better but because they had erased their individuality to conform to the restrictive and uniform system in which they had grown up, and they wanted me to do the same. I was my own person, not an actor, with my own voice, literally, and my own way of being. They were not, and so I was a threat, who called into question their choices and assumptions about the natural order of things.

At the time, I was made to feel ashamed of my background, and that I needed to hide it. I have learned, now, to be proud of the journey that got me to where I am today, and of the twists and turns, and the rich and sometimes difficult experiences, that it involved along the way. Who knows; to have traversed the English class system from my rather small beginnings has perhaps even lent something to my writing. I certainly understand what it means to have nothing, and that helps one see the world in a different light.

Returning to our gossiping train staff, I had the sense when I was listening to them that they are blessedly free any sense of shame about who they are or where they have come from, and for that they should be proud. It will take them far in life, or at least as far as they want to go.
This week has also been one for renewing not acquaintances but friendships, and I have been back in London seeing people who are very close to my heart. In that, I include London itself, if it could be regarded as a person for the purposes of this idea. I lived in various parts of the capital for 18 years, and an initial love–hate relationship blossomed in later years into a deep connection, even if it was, by definition, somewhat one-sided.

I have enjoyed being back, walking the streets, visiting old haunts, seeing how things have changed and lamenting those places that are no more. London is a city in constant flux. The joke is it will be nice when it’s finished, and it is fascinating to see how history is not a remote idea in London, but embedded into the very surface of the city, plain for all to see.

One disappointment, however, was Battersea Power Station. That relic of times past has been on the cusp of a renaissance for decades, and I was excited to see how, finally, it had had its rebirth and become functional again. Yet it was not to be. I was instead sad to be reminded, once again, that there is clearly a distinct lack of imagination among developers. To put a generic set of anodyne shops in that of all buildings and ignore all the possibilities of its enormous space is beyond disappointing. In addition to which, it is now surrounded by architecture-by-numbers blocks of flats that would not look out of place in any one of a dozen major European cities. What’s the point? Does London need yet another one of those spaces?

Judging by the numbers I saw when I was there on Monday, there is clearly a moderate amount of interest in it, but I think it will need an awful lot more to keep people coming back when it is no longer a novelty. Frankly, I think Bluewater Shopping Centre is better done. At least it is more intellectually honest about what it is and what it’s for. It certainly makes a better use of the available space. Maybe King Charles was right about monstrous carbuncles.
One of the friends I caught up with is an old writing partner. He is the person with whom I discussed Starman, with Jeff Bridges, last week, and he appears several times in my memoir My Life as a Dog. It is always a pleasure to see him, as we have so much in common. But one thing that unites us is something we haven’t discussed for an aeon.

I don’t know what it was about the occasion (maybe it was the happiness at having a drink together after several months) but I found myself suggesting that we start a writing project, just like the old times. Well, not like the old times. We worked on several scripts together over the course of a few years, some of which ended up as short stories and novellas in my collection No Way Home. The aim had been to get them made as films, but getting funding for a project if you don’t, as we didn’t at the time, any kind of track record in the industry is extremely difficult.

The easiest way, as always, is if you know people. Alternatively, you happen to come up with an idea that is exactly what a studio or funder is looking for at that precise moment, and they are prepared to gamble some money on you (a highly unlikely eventuality). Otherwise, you have to struggle to get something made by raising the finance yourself. Not so easy if you don’t have a source of private funding. (All of which makes it slightly puzzling that so much absolute dross gets made and foisted upon the long-suffering eyes of cinema-goers.)

Leaving all that aside, we decided that, this time, we are simply going to write a script together for the fun of it, make it as enjoyable and entertaining as we can, and then see if anything comes of it. The idea is to have no pressure and no eventual aim, other than to enjoy working together again, discussing scenes and character motivations, and the films we love.

It all sounds rather lovely, but let’s see how long we can keep our ambitions out of it.
This week has also seen me delve back into early Paul McCartney albums after he left The Beatles. McCartney, Ram and Wild Life are, for me, fascinating documents of an always-curious artist exploring and finding his way after being so long in what became the biggest band in pop music history.

McCartney in particular has long been dismissed as unstructured and lacking in effort and polish, but that misses the point. After the incredible production standards and ambition of The Beatles, it was clear that Paul McCartney wanted to do the exact opposite and create an album of first-drafts, played and recorded naturally and without too much finesse. He obviously wanted tap into the raw, fresh sound of the rehearsal studio, and in doing so capture the direct and stripped-back musical aesthetic of Blues artists and early rock and roll.

As such, I think it’s a triumph, and a couple of reviewers have latterly realised that it’s an early example of what I suppose could be called garage or even bedroom pop. It’s certainly nothing like what was being done at the time, and is another example of Paul McCartney casually launching a whole musical genre before moving onto something else on his next album, a little like Bowie would do in years to come.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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What is a Cheese Cob? | Pushing the Wave