Coconuts! – Why Life Doesn’t Always Hand You Lemons And What To Do With The Things It Does Give You
Coconuts have followed me around all my life. Not literally, obviously. I haven’t been stalked by the hard-skinned seeds of tropical palms as I’ve wended my way through the world. That would be mental. Coconuts have played a surprisingly prominent part in my life though, despite not being readily available for quite a large part of the beginning of it.
You couldn’t buy coconuts at the supermarket when I was a kid. In fact, you couldn’t buy lots of things that we take for granted now at the supermarket when I was a kid. Chillies. Only specialist stores in London stocked those back then. You could just about get bananas, but even they were still considered fairly exotic.
Now, you can buy all sorts of things. Plantains, eddoes, mooli, tuna that isn’t in a can. Places like Lidl and Aldi even sell things like ostrich steaks and kangaroo burgers. The very idea of those would have had my mum and dad retching back in the 70s. Despite the fact that they were entirely unfazed by eating things like tripe (cows’ stomach linings), lights (sheep’s lungs) and sweetbreads (the pancreas of a lamb or calf). Different times, my friends, different times.
During these different times, the only way a city kid like me would get his hands on a coconut would be if his dad won it for him at the fair. It was a bit of a mystery where the fairground people got the coconuts from, but they must have bought them in bulk and carried them around in their trucks for years. Some of them were so old that the coconut water inside them had evaporated by time the dads knocked them off the shy with one of those little wooden balls.
It was one of these dehydrated monstrosities that gave me my first taste of coconut flesh. . “Here Michael, try this.” one of my mum’s friends had said, before handing me a piece of fairground coconut with great ceremony. I bit into it. It tasted like cardboard. (I was seven years old at the time and had chewed quite a bit of cardboard by then, so I can assure you that this is an accurate comparison).
Fortunately, not long after that, my opinion of coconut was transformed when I was given my first Bounty bar. Very tasty. A couple of years later I graduated to Cabana bars. I don’t think they make them anymore, but they were like a sort of souped-up Bounty with caramel and bits of glace cherry. I was addicted to them. I stopped eating them though, after “The Cabana Bar Incident”.
I’m not terribly proud of “The Cabana Bar Incident”, so before I tell the story I like to point out that I was a nine year old boy when it happened. And all nine year old boys, no matter how cute and endearing they may appear, are evil little bastards.
One afternoon, I bumped into a lad who was a friend of a friend. I didn’t know him very well and he was a year or two younger than me, but I knew he had some cool toys, so I hung about with him for a bit in the hope that he’d invite me round to his house to play with them.
As was my habit at the time, I fancied a Cabana bar, so I nipped into a newsagent and bought one with the last of my pocket money. As I unwrapped it took my first tiny bite – I liked to make them last- my companion asked if he could have some of my chocolate. I didn’t want to give him any, obviously, but I really wanted to play with those toys so I reluctantly handed him my recent purchase.
He peeled back the wrapper and stuffed nearly the whole thing in his mouth in one go. He stood there chewing it with a self-satisfied grin on his face. Not an easy trick to pull off, but he seemed to manage it. What’s a boy to do under those circumstances? When a younger boy has just swallowed the last of your pocket money in the form of your favourite chocolate bar? Well, I did what any self-respecting nine year old boy would do. I grabbed him, threw him on the floor and kicked the shit out of him. Never saw him again.
I did, however, see the friend who had introduced us in the first place. This friend informed me that the boy I had given a kicking was, in fact, diabetic. He needed that chocolate bar to stave off an attack of hypoglycaemia. Once he’d stopped chewing, he would have replaced my chocolate immediately. He couldn’t tell me that at the time of course, due to having his mouth completely full of Cabana bar. Oops.
After that, the only coconuts I had any truck with for a while were Kid Creole’s backing singers. For obvious reasons.
I’ve discovered a few things about coconuts since then. For instance, they are technically a drupe, not a nut. Whatever a drupe is. Also, it’s virtually impossible to make a bad curry if you make one of the ones with coconut milk in it. But the most interesting fact I learned about coconuts was gathered on a trip back to my home town, Newcastle upon Tyne.
I had my missus with me and it was her first visit to the place of my birth. We had just stepped off the train and heading towards the town centre when a vagrant headed straight for us. Or so we thought. In the end, he actually rushed right past us in a haze of alcoholic vapour. As he passed by, he was shouting something at the top of his lungs. “The coconuts, the coconuts!” he was yelling, “they just don’t stack up!” And in a weird and vague way, me and my missus sort of knew what he meant.
This isn’t what I learned, by the way, in case you’re wondering. The difficult nature of stacking coconuts. Coconuts are semi-spherical. It’s tricky to stack spherical or semi-spherical objects on top of one another. I already knew that. There’s a phrase : “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. There’s also a story that this phrase originates from the old days of the navy.
The story goes that old sail driven warships used to stack their cannonballs on a kind off brass plinth called a monkey. When it got really cold, the movement of the metal cannonballs caused by their contraction would make them fall off the plinth. Hence “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.
The story is complete horseshit of course. If you were on the rolling, pitching gun deck of a warship, you wouldn’t store the cannonballs by stacking them up in pyramids on metal plinths. They would roll all over the place and there’d be broken shins and shattered ankles all round. You’d store the spherical ammunition in some sort of box or trough or something. “Cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” means exactly what it sounds like it means.
So no, the thing I learned about coconuts wasn’t that they don’t stack up. What I learned, from a man who was either a gibbering basket case or a stark raving genius – it’s often hard to tell the difference- is that coconuts are, against all probability, an interesting metaphor for life.
Coconuts are wonderful things. Don’t get too smug if life, metaphorically speaking, hands you a lot of them though. Because even if you do get a lot of them, you sometimes just can’t get them to stack up. Life’s like that. No harm in trying though.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2015