Ian McMillan: Scribbled notes that used to mean so much

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You still see milkmen floating by on their rattling floats but even the most dedicated milkophile would acknowledge that there aren’t as many home deliveries of The White Stuff as there used to be, and that’s led to a decline in one of the earliest forms of mass communication, the note to the milkman.

In the days when a lot of people didn’t write very much at all, these notes were almost like a diary or an autobiography. A growing family would lead to a note that said Two Extra Pints Saturday Please, or Orange Juice Every Day From Now On. You’d see them curled in the top of an empty bottle or sticking out from under a stone. In more innocent times they might say Going Away. No Milk Till Next Sat.

The best one I ever saw, and that I had explained to me by a literacy teacher, went back to a time when some milkmen also delivered bread and the note said ONE LOAF. PS MAKE IT TWO and the teacher explained that the person who’d written it probably wasn’t sure how to spell loaves (was it loafs?) so they wrote it in that odd way. I reckon future students could chart a course through the social history of Yorkshire and beyond by collecting and collating those notes. The trouble is nobody did. I kept the one about the loaf for a while but then I lost it, and I guess that’s the point about these notes, they’re ephemeral, they’re infinitely chuckawayable. In fact, in the same way that you find the pavements festooned with postmen and postwomen’s rubber bands, you used to find notes that milkmen had flung aside.

As the milk note has declined, however, some notes have increased. One I notice more and more is the note stuck under the windscreen of a car; this is often the opposite in tone to the benign scribble requesting more gold top and half a dozen eggs. They’re often rude and accusatory and written in shouty capital letters. Years ago my mate Martyn parked in a place he shouldn’t have and when we got back to the car the note under his windscreen read WAS YOU BORN STUPPID? There’s no answer to that, as Eric Morecambe used to say, and they haven’t got any less angry; somebody showed me one recently that said YOU PARK LIKE A LIZARD which is not only angry but poetic, in an odd kind of way.

I thought I’d make an active effort to collect notes of this kind as a valuable record of life in Yorkshire in the 21st-century; a kind of Domesday Book in biro. I daren’t go up to cars and look under the windscreen wipers, so, in the absence of notes to the milkman, I’ve started picking up shopping lists from supermarket trolleys in the hope of mining sociological gold.

The results have been slightly disappointing, if lyrical. One read Bread milk pots carts. One read Lottery Beer. I guess that carts means carrots, unless they want a cart full of pots, and maybe Lottery Beer is the expensive kind you drink when your numbers have come up.

It’s early days in the McMillan Shopping List archive, and only time will tell if I’m conserving something wonderful or if I was just BORN STUPPID.