LONDON – The Ballad of THE BIG DRY.

The last of my savings went on a Skiing trip to Igls, Austria. It took about 8 of us a day and a night by minibus to cross the channel to Belgium, cross Germany via Munich and into Austria for a six day stay. As there were no momentous happenings, I shall give no details, except that I loved the experience and met a couple of lasses with whom I connected again; one in Holland, the other in London.

The employment agency for casual labour called Industrial Personnel Services had three branches in 1969. I made use of the one nearest to Camberwell (where I stayed with my brother), in The Cut, a street around the corner from the Old Vic Theatre.

I would catch a bus down Kennington Park Road, past Elephant & Castle, and get off somewhere near Waterloo. Again, sometimes there was a day or two’s work and sometimes not, but at least they provided the transport or fare to get there. Some days I humped sacks of rice in a curry emporium – what wonderful smells! On others I unloaded steel from trucks, washed cars in second-hand car lots, or wrapped parcels, amongst other one-off jobs. And got to know more of London. I am not a city fan, but I loved London – it was like a whole lot of villages strung together…

Barrow, Hepburn & Gale, Bermonsey.

Barrow, Hepburn & Gale, Bermonsey.

As the management found me to be unswervingly reliable, I was put on a team that had longer term contracts, which made my income steady. The first was making suitcases at a factory about two miles away on Long Lane, Bermondsey. Barrow Hepburn & Gale had been a tannery and were makers of leather goods, but our team from IPS manned a cheaper line of suitcase production. I took over the roller-cutter from the previous operator who was also the team supervisor, who had been promoted to IPS management. My next supervisor was Dennis Barrett, an Australian. Ours was the 2pm to 10pm shift. From a list of dimensions, I cut the sheets of board into strips and rectangles, then trimmed them in the guillotine cutter, before passing them on to the shape-pressers, sewers and gluers who passed them on to the hinge-, handle- and foot-fitters, all of us being from IPS. The team supervisor was also our transport driver from the office and back. The only problem with that shift was getting to the pub before it closed at 11 pm. Fortunately it was just around the corner from the office. The Old Vic pub was our watering hole. Thirst governed the speed of our return.

The Ballad of THE BIG DRY

There is a legend, so men say,

That is still told in pubs today.

It is a sad tale of two men cursed

With one almighty, continual thirst.


All day they’d strain and toil and sweat,

Adreaming of the coming wet.

Each second, minute, hour would pass –

Nearer to that golden glass.


Now Beanpole Pete and Lofty Den

Were tall and rangy, scrawny men.

With scorching throats and lips, all day

They fought to keep that crave away.


With nerves on edge, they longed for night –

One careless word could start a fight –

And every sense was beer wards turned,

Every fibre of their beings yearned.


And then, at last, t’was Lofty Den,

Who announced the stroke of ten

And then began that fearful race –

With massive strides, they left that place.


Each day it happened, the crave got worse:

They couldn’t get rid of that terrible thirst.

There might be a cloud, there might be a moon,

Come hell or high water, here comes the monsoon.


The engine starts with a cough and a roar –

(You could hear them comin’ ten mile or more!)

The wagon is thundering, God, don’t let it die!

They’ve gotta get there to kill the Big Dry.


With hell behind them and heaven ahead,

Thru’ fences and fields and hedges they sped.

With Den at the wheel and Pete looking’ out,

‘Twil soon be the end of that terrible drought.


With never a thought for line nor stop-light,

(Three traffic-wardens died one night.)

Over pedestrians, kerbs and ruts,

nearer the grog for their scrawny guts.


Along the last straight, tear round the bend,

Another Big Dry is nearing its end.

The squeal of tyres as brakes are applied

Warns the two barmen, Get ready inside!


They were good barmen, straight and true,

They knew what the terrible Dry could do.

Each day that lager, they stocked and nursed

To await the men with the bottomless thirst.


Two scrawny shoulders crash down the door,

The drinkers inside all dive for the floor.

Two pints already stand there in the room,

All golden and glowing, the start of monsoon.


As they bellied the bar, you could hear the men sigh:

“Here’s to the end of another Big Dry!”

As they lifter their elbows, someone let out a cheer,

And the drink that they drank was the good lager beer.


They spoke not a word, there was nothing to say.

Men stood there watching, keeping out of the way.

No, not a word between them had passed,

‘Twas the end of another Big Dry at last.


Now this lager did, as a good lager must,

Gouge out the dry and the burn and the dust.

Man, it was a sight, those drainpipes would swallow

One pint, then another, the next one would follow.


The barkeeps would shout, “C’mom, ya sluts,

“We gotta fill up them scrawny guts!”

And the maids kept on fillin’, a gallon or more,

Until the Big Dry was a dead ‘un, for sure.


Then came the day that the keg ran dry –

Have you ever seen two grown men cry?

And down the bar the word was passed:

“Those scrawny ones will never last!”


A fearsome shout gave Lofty Den

As he broke to pieces one of them barmen

And no-one there could stop nor check

As Beanpole Pete broke the other man’s neck


Those two scrawny men would very soon die

If they couldn’t get a lager to end the Big Dry.

Or maybe you’ve never seen any men cursed

With that long almighty, continual thirst?


The blood and tears flowed free that night –

It took three battalions to stop the fight.

When they tallied the bodies there were two even score

And two tall men also stretched on the floor.


Yes, that Beanpole Pete and that Lofty Den

Would never sink lager pints again.

But I guess that there, way out on high

Them scrawny men still beat the Big Dry.

Pickled in brandy or pickled in wine,

Pickled in lager is just as fine.

If you wanna see their grave then ask

The way to their tomb, it’s a big beer cask.


It stands way out on the top of a hill,

Where Pete and Den still drink their fill.

Pay your respects and do not doubt,

They died that night of a terrible drought.


Now you may cry or you may laugh,

But read it there on their epitaph:

“Not through wounds do they here lie,

But through no end to the big, Big Dry.”


Peter J. Earle & Dennis Barrett, London, May 1969.

About peterjearle

Writer of thriller novels. 6 Published: 'Purgatory Road', 'The Barros Pawns', and the Detective Dice Modise Series:'Hunter's Venom - #1' 'Medicinal Purposes Only - #2', and 'Children Apart - #3; and 'Tribes of Hillbrow'; all from Southern Africa.
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1 Response to LONDON – The Ballad of THE BIG DRY.

  1. Pingback: Tracing Brian Bright | Peter J. Earle

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