This probably won't feature on the next series of Quote ... Unquote (Radio 4, 23 January) but it was a fart which triggered the first quotation ever given to Nigel Rees.
Having just left school, he was working in a Liverpool warehouse when someone let rip posteriorwise. Instead of miming a casualty in a mustard gas attack, an elderly worker standing nearby quoted Gray's "Elegy": "It wastes its sweetness on the desert air." Classy.
Four decades and a long media career later, Rees is impressed by how agreeable his fellow-workers in Littlewoods were to a middle-class lad who was joining them for a few weeks before swanning off to Oxford: "I had kept quiet about it but they had probably been told I was a student. I don't recall them holding it against me or sending me up."
In fact the old boy who had come up with the quotation later remarked that he had a single book at home and would like to give it to young Nigel, who, being of the literary persuasion, would appreciate it.
Not that there was much time for reading what turned out to be a copy of Carmen, the novel on which the opera was based. Rees recalls: "It was physical work, stacking cartons of tinned food and clothing on to pallets and unstacking them to be sent to the various Littlewoods stores. It was pretty boring but paid £40, which was big money then. The time-and-motion people came in and some of the workers who were a bit thick thought that it was a competition – until it was pointed out that it was better if we all slowed down."
Working here gave him a valuable glimpse of working-class life. "It taught me what it would be like to do manual work for year after year. All you were good for when you got home was sitting in front of the television."
Later, when he started at Granada Television after Oxford, he knew that people were quite entitled to watch Coronation Street instead of Coriolanus. He left the warehouse because he was offered a job in menswear at the upmarket store Hendersons during the July sales. If a customer was trying on a suit which was big enough to flap around in the breeze, Nigel would point out, "Well, sir, you don't want it to be too tight."
Alternatively, if the suit was stretched over the chap's body like a drumskin, he would say, "Well, sir, you don't want it to be too baggy." This seemed to do the trick, as in his one week there he shifted a massive £485-worth of goods – and he was on a commission. No one gave him a copy of Carmen, though.
Nigel Rees's 'All Gong and No Dinner' (Collins, £12.99) is out nowReuse content