Ian McMillan: Flimmin flobes that light up my days after decades

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It must have been the autumn of 1966 and me and my mate Geoff were at my Uncle Charlie’s house on North Street trying to see how fast light actually travelled; we enjoyed doing experiments like this and in the past we’d hurled a tin of baked beans at a pile of sand using a primitive catapult to see if it could travel back in time and we’d jumped off tall kitchen stools in chest waders to find out if weightlessness was possible in Darfield. It didn’t and it wasn’t, but we weren’t put off. Science, as far as our questing junior school minds were concerned, was the most exciting thing ever.

We’d read somewhere that light travelled really, really fast (to use a technical term) and so Geoff had borrowed his dad’s camera and we were trying to catch the moment that light actually left the bulb to carry out its task of illumination. My job was to click the light on and off and on and off as fast as possible and Geoff’s job was to take the photos. It was late afternoon and we’d got the curtains closed and the light flashed like a storm.

Suddenly Uncle Charlie appeared, his false teeth gleaming like piano keys. ‘What tha doin?’ he shouted wheezily, ‘you’ll fuse the flimmin’ flobes!’ Even as I write this, 50 years after the incident, I’m starting to laugh.

What Uncle Charlie was trying to say was ‘You’ll fuse the flaming globes’ but in his anger (and the fact that his teeth were rather loose and he’d just woken from an afternoon nap) he tangled the words up in knots.

I’ve just had to stop writing and walk round the room thinking serious thoughts in order to calm myself down and stop my shoulders shaking. I know: It’s not that funny, it’s just somebody’s uncle getting some words wrong, but to me it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

I reckon we’ve all got giggle-triggers like this, every family will have a memory of something someone said that reduces them to tears of laughter. The word that actually gets me, to be honest, is ‘flobes’. For some reason Uncle Charlie always called lightbulbs ‘globes’, and me and Geoff believed that the word took us back to a time when globes were fragile and precious things attached to a gas mantle or a candle.

Yes, that’s right, we weren’t sure how old Uncle Charlie actually was or when the 19th century was and whether Uncle Charlie was involved in it. If a bulb went he’d say ‘Nip down to Parry’s for a globe’ and even as he said it sounded old-fashioned. But Flobes: what a word!

I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve had to stop writing and splash water on my face and slap myself around the chops. The best thing was that once Uncle Charlie had said it, he said it again: ‘Stop messin’ or you’ll fuse them flimmin’ flobes!’ Saying the word twice underlined its slapstick potential and reduced me and Geoff to quivering masses of laughter. Charlie wasn’t impressed. ‘Ah dun’t know what you’re laughing at’ he said ‘flobes aren’t cheap!’

I know, I know. He said the word three times in the space of less than a minute. Too perfect. Too funny. I’ll just have to walk round a bit.