Friday, February 05, 2010
Things once common, now extinct. No. 8: Milk.
There used to be seven different types of milk, according to an ex-milkman friend of mine; Gold-Top, Red-top, Silver-Top, Blue-Top, Green-Top, Sterilised, and one more that I can’t remember. All of these could be bought, delivered, or thieved, from the back of a float.
If milk floats are not quite extinct they're definitely disappearing into the sunset, or sunrise, the whine of their electric motors and the clink of bottles on the doorstep our morning alarmers no more. And milk is no longer heavily promoted as a drink. It's just something to drizzle onto your muesli, the 'skinny' in skinny latte, the froth on your cappuccino.
At one time there were Milk Bars (how rock’n’roll) on every corner, and milk vending machines on every station. Petrol and railway. I don’t know how much it cost to buy from such machines – I never put any money into them. As an eight year old I would have been more inclined to spend my threepenny bits on Bazooka Joes, or opium. (Children, I’m joking, of course. Black Jacks were far better value than Bazooka Joes.)
At primary school we had milk delivered in 1/3 pint bottles, galvanised crates of the stuff, which in winter were parked next to the classroom stove in order to thaw them to a point where they were at least partially liquid. When Margaret Thatcher came to power she famously stopped all this nonsense, by cutting out free school milk. ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher...’ was the slogan of the day. She would have got my vote as a child, but the mad old bat was about twenty years too late to be of any use to me.
I was no great fan of milk, and periodically petitioned my mum to let me have orange juice instead. Orange juice was available for those kids who had the necessary dispensation, but there had to be some pretty serious reason for it. I used to look with envy on those privileged ones, and wonder what they’d got that I hadn’t. Impetigo, maybe, or croup, or dengue. Whatever, I didn’t qualify.
Every billboard and TV advert encouraged you to ‘Drinka Pinta Milka Day', and you couldn’t argue with it. Milk was good for you - and it was especially good for your teeth. Milk was recommended by real doctors, along with Craven ‘A’ cigarettes, which were known to be kind to your throat. I'm surprised they didn't just add milk to tobacco (Milk Cut maybe) for a complete oral health package. But they put it into just about everything else, and we consumed milk lollies, milk loaves, milk choclolate, and milk shakes, knowing that we were really giving our teeth a boost.
I have a clear memory of sterilised milk, tasted for the first time when I went to stay with my cousins in Birmingham. As a West Country lad I’d only ever known untreated milk, bottled maybe a mile away from the cowshed. In fact I can recall my dad bringing milk home straight from the nearest farm, in a white enamelled jug. I've tasted it warm from the udder, too, one of those rites of passage you go through when working on farms as a holiday job. I can't say I liked it much. I do like cows, though, the smell of them and the heat they generate, so welcome on a freezing winter morning with an hour yet to go before breakfast time.
But Birmingham milk was different altogether, delivered in a tall bottle, sealed with what looked like a beer-bottle top. It had a very strong taste, not particularly pleasant, but not much like milk either, and so I preferred it.
The taste of Birmingham still lingers for me in what’s now called UHT milk – most commonly seen in those tiny plastic pots that squirt out more than they could possibly contain as you try to open them. So whenever I’m in a hotel room, and I make myself a cup of tea, I'm reminded of Brum. I think of the black pebbly soil, the echo of public swimming baths and the roar of the Midland Red buses. Hot summer holidays with my big city cousins.