On Location: Frank Bruno and the art of bagel making
Columnist of the Year 2015, Mark Steel, is Commentator and stand-up comedian who has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 19 March 1999
The flamboyant and colourful clientele remain constantly jovial, undisturbed by the abuse doled out by late-night curry house yobs. "Creeeam cheeeese," screamed the campest skinhead dressed in rubber I'd ever seen. "Whack us a pair of tunas," said the hard bloke behind him. Then came a pair of coppers, and a couple who must have been to a fancy dress party, him as Oscar Wilde and her in a 1920s Charleston outfit. If a Red Indian had come in, this queue could have earned a fortune as a Village People tribute band.
The bagel itself is a traditional Jewish roll, sweet, with a hole in the middle, filled with smoked salmon, herring or other, more gentile, fillings. In the back half of the shop, the process of making them entertains the queueing customers. Sweating, agile artists rapidly but delicately brush each bagel before swinging a tray carrying 60 of them into a huge oven, while their colleagues knead enormous blocks of dough, and everyone shouts at each other across the clattering of bagel-related accessories.
This never slows down, even during quiet periods, and you wonder whether it's an addiction; and whether, on their days off, the bagel-makers stay at home slamming their oven door shut, chucking Polos into trays, and yelling "MORE DOUGH", at passing strangers.
In the corner, chomping on a slice of salt beef, was Douglas. Chunks of bagel were spilling through vast gaps in his teeth on to his crumbling black coat. He was Scottish and had worked on the oil rigs for several years but had to leave when he became disabled. He now lives in a homeless person's unit. "Usually ah come here in the afternoon," he said. "Ah get here at four, and stay until midnight. I've nothing else to do, have I? They always see me all right for bagels."
But today was different. He was here at night, to listen to the radio commentary of the fight at Madison Square Garden between Holyfield and Lewis. In the moments before it began he was joined by Reg, who'd come off a night shift on the Underground, and the three of us moved as close as we could to the crackly sound of Frank Bruno imparting his expert analysis.
"Lewis is making this look so easy, he's a dangerous dude," said Frank. "He's walking it," he enthused after each round. "He's walking it," said Reg and Douglas to everyone who asked. "He's scoring so many points with his jabs," said Bruno. "He's scoring so many points with his jabs," said the little man serving cheesecake one minute later, to a pair of lads on their way home from a rave.
Once every two rounds, the tempo of commentary would increase, along with a surge of ringside yelling. We'd all stretch an inch nearer to the radio, and at that moment the woman in the corner would turn on the bread- slicing machine, which clattered like a fruit machine coughing out a jackpot - you could shut your eyes and imagine you were in a steelworks.
"Pleeeeease, can't you do it between rounds," we'd plead, but she just looked puzzled and carried on.
The fight ended. "Lewis is easily the champion," said Frank, and everyone agreed. But we hadn't seen a thing; we only had Frank's word for it. For all we knew, Holyfield had spent the whole fight pinging Lewis's nose with an elastic band, while Lewis yelped,"Ow, stop it, that hurts."
"It was much closer than you seem to think," said a British journalist to Bruno. "Rubbish," shouted Reg and Douglas. And then the verdict; the infamous draw. "Well they were watching a different fight to me," screeched the little man behind the counter.
"To be fair, we didn't see it," I interjected pathetically. "Ye can tell by listening tae the radio," spat Douglas.
But now Bruno was on a roll. It was disgraceful, scandalous, shameful, appalling. To break up the adjectives, he actually said "know what I mean". And then he went for a big finish. "That Holyfield is a man who believes in God. So he must look in the mirror and say to himself, `as night is night and day is day, Lord, I know I lost that fight'."
Suddenly the regular kledank-kledank of trays in ovens was interrupted. "That Bruno," screamed an Italian baker, slamming down the tray of bagels he was brushing with oil, "he talk a-nothing but sheet!!".
And he sat down for the first time in at least two hours and howled with laughter in an Italian accent. This brought the whole bagel-making process to a halt, creating a log-jam of dough and stacked-up trays.
And it was all a touch ironic. Because the last time British people thought there was about to be a British world heavyweight champion was just before Bruno fought Tyson. Then Bruno was clumped on to the floor in the third round, and we all suddenly thought, how did we fool ourselves? This was Iron Savage Penitentiary Terminator Crocodile Tyson - against Buttons from Cinderella.
Which leads me to the sad declaration that this was the last of these visits, as I'm supposed to be writing a book and a radio series, both of which take bloody ages. But I would like to thank this newspaper for giving me the chance to write these pieces, and the readers who've read them.
What they've confirmed for me is that while the class divisions which shape our society are enormously complex, give or take a few grey areas and exceptions, working-class people are creative, positive, amiable, humble and unselfish. And the rich are ignorant pigs. Ta ra.
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