Ian McMillan: Gong but not forgotten

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Many years ago we stayed as a family for a week in a guest house in Weston- super-Mare; we’d never been to that part of the world before and I suspect my dad chose it because he liked the name.

He loved place names that he could roll round his mouth and enunciate in his clear Scots voice: “We’re off to Weston- super-Mare!” he’d say, with just a hint of a tartan double-r in Super and Mare. It joined places like “Spittal of Glenshee” and “The Ballachulish Ferry” in my dad’s joyful gazetteer.

I always loved the moment when you first walked into a guest house in the far-off 1960s. No matter what time of day it was, you could always smell breakfast; there was often the sound of a muffled argument coming from upstairs; there were usually lots of knick-knacks on shelves and signs that said DON’T TOUCH; there was invariably a family who were just leaving, dragging suitcases along the floor and making it squeak. At this one in Weston-super-Mare there were all these things and, wonderfully, there was a gong, a big one, shining dully in the afternoon sun.

I was so happy. I’d never been to a guest house with a gong before. I’d read about guest houses with gongs in the adventure books I devoured – at some point in the country house, just before someone had been murdered, a maid in a pinny would sound a dinner. I know, I was reading far above my age. And my hat size, come to that.

We were on full board, which meant we got an evening meal. Which meant that at some point a maid in a pinny would sound the gong. On the first night I was beside myself with excitement. I was wearing my new corduroy shorts, the ones with the braces, and a polo shirt with stripes. My mam had tried her best to get my hair to lie down flat but it refused. I wanted to go downstairs to watch the gong being gonged but my dad, always a stickler for the rules, said we had to wait for the gong and then go down. And we couldn’t go down straight away either: we shouldn’t be seen to be too eager.

So the gong sounded, and it wasn’t just a single note, it was a building crescendo. We heard bedroom doors being opened and closed and families and couples and solitary blokes who were there for the birdwatching clumping downstairs. And we went down last. And I walked past the gong and it was still, ever so slightly, reverberating. I touched it and it stopped.

All week I begged and pleaded with my mam and dad to be allowed to go down just before mealtime so that we could watch the gong being struck. I blubbed and sulked. I refused to wash behind my ears. I asked nicely. I said please.

Eventually, towards the end of the week, they relented. We went down five minutes before dinner and stood there looking at the gong. A maid in a pinny stepped out of the kitchen and took the beater and raised it. I thought my heart was going to burst.

Then she did a wonderful thing that I’ve never forgotten. She gave me the beater and pointed at the gong. I could have wept for joy. I raised the beater above my head.

I bet you could have heard that gong in Darfield.

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