It's about this time every year that HOTH, SBOTH and I pile into the family car and take a trip to Blackpool. This is a family Tradition. With a capital T. That is, something we Always Do and have done since SBOTH was not quite a year old. Cars and jobs have come and gone (as have hair, teeth and weight), but the Family Outing to Blackpool remains a constant. There was one year when someone else took SBOTH instead, but we don't like to talk about that and, if I do, it's usually with a cat's bum mouth. We tend to go early in the evening, timing it so we're there not long before the Illuminations come on but before the rowdy crowds, lakes of vomit and fist-fights start appearing. I could do without explaining to SBOTH what that man with a willy-shaped hat on and the lady in the flashing bra are doing behind the bins, thank you very much.
The trip follows the same kind of routine every year - a wander on the front to spend the equivalent of the national debt of a small country in the arcades. No longer the 'penny arcades' of my youth - long gone are the crank-handled one arm bandits, replaced with acres of neon and flashing lights, loud beeps, boops & sirens, geared to grab the attention of kids and instant entertainment addicts. Still, SBOTH actually won some money on the 'coin shove / Tipping Point' machine this year - an event as rare as the coming of Halley's Comet or England winning the World Cup, but much more exciting. Of course, he ended up putting it all back in - but that's part of the fun. Apparently.
Next comes fish and chips at our favourite chippy. It's a bit of a drive away from Blackpool itself, away from the main drag and the churned out buckets of grease selling for £2.99 a throw (up). It is still really popular - there can be queues out of the door on some nights. The fish is cooked fresh to order, piping hot in a crisp, tasty batter, translucent and delicious. The chips are chunky, proper chips - all different sizes and 'gob scadding' (mouth scalding) as my dad says. I think we'd been visiting the place for about three years, eating the goodies out of paper while sitting in the car, before I realised there was a restaurant attached and we started 'sitting in'. It's delightfully olde-worlde with proper Formica tables and leatherette seats. Thankfully the Trendies haven't got their manicured mitts on this place yet and long may that continue.
This year we piled in as usual, took our seats and waited for the....well, waitress (yes, the place still offers waited tables) to come and take our order. Having demanded our delights - two 'Dining Room Specials' (cod, chips, mushy peas, bread & butter and a cup of tea so strong it could hold its own in a fight with Mike Tyson) and large cod & chips for SBOTH - a boy who loves his fish - we relaxed and chatted, as you do. Then HOTH then noticed that the vinegar in the plastic bottles looked suspiciously pale. Instead of the dark brown malty colour you normally associate with chippy vinegar, this was a watery, translucent colour. Sort of the colour of your wee after a really heavy night out on the lash, probably involving a kebab and some ill-advised shots near closing time. Or is that just me?
To say that I like my vinegar is to say elephants are slightly larger than an amoeba or that the All Blacks are a bit good at rugby. I love the stuff. I have been known, on occasion, to drink vinegar from a pickled onion jar (don't judge me). The sight of this stuff worried me. I had a taste. I had another taste, just to make sure. My heart sank. The owner had obviously watered it down. A LOT. I'm all for businesses maximising profit and cutting costs, but this was ridiculous. This wasn't vinegar as we knew it anymore. It was inert. It was so watered down it had practically changed state into an alkaline. My friends, this was homeopathic vinegar. One part acetic acid to a million. A shark couldn't have sensed the vinegar in that bottle. I was Very Disappointed. Fish & chips without vinegar is like Morecambe without Wise, Ant without Dec, Donald Trump without his wig....I silently fumed and contemplated a sulk.
The waitress brought our lovely food. My fish lay there, hot & tempting, begging to be drowned in vinegar, sprinkled with salt and devoured. I didn't want to disappoint it. HOTH took the bull by the horns. He asked the waitress if they had any sachets of vinegar available, something that could legally be called vinegar. No, sorry, they didn't. I began to half-heartedly splash some liquid on my dinner when she reappeared with a full, unopened, unsullied bottle of The Good Stuff. Real, proper vinegar - the stuff that makes you cough when it evaporates as it hits your chips. 'I told him he waters it down too much.' she muttered. I could have hugged her. She stood over us as we liberally splattered our dinners with it, joyful in the malty, tangy smell (except SBOTH. He hates vinegar. He's weird. Unless he had so much of the stuff while in the womb it put him off). Food duly anointed, the waitress took the bottle back off us and away, hidden again like contraband until someone was brave enough to ask again.
I'm very happy to report that, after that, the food was as gorgeous as ever. Hot, tasty, huge portions filled our bellies and set us up for the finale to the trip. The Illuminations themselves. SBOTH always buys something light-up, neon and twizzy on a stick to wave around on the journey (that ends up forgotten in the Narnia under his bed by the end of the following week) and we set off 'to see the lights'. A drive down the Golden Mile 'oohing' and 'aahing' at flashing light-bulbs in colourful arrangements like we've never seen electricity before. The only time of year when you willingly drive at five miles an hour in a humongous line of traffic and don't moan. Vegas it ain't, but it's Tradition and something we hold dear. Some parts of the display are better than others - the sparse strings at one end, melding into character pieces - one year, sponsored by Hollands, there was a section of illuminated pies with unsettling faces on them, nearly put me off my pastry - and finally on to the terrific tableaux, huge screens and animated displays like Alice in Wonderland, Native Americans, a pile of pirates prancing, the Haunted House. They save the best stuff to last. If you accidentally come into the display from the wrong end it must be really disappointing.
Lights looked at, we set off home. SBOTH falls asleep in the back, twizzer in hand & snuggled under coats. HOTH & I singing along to the tunes on the radio like a cut price Sonny & Cher (I refuse to be drawn on who's who), driving home in the dark and wondering just how many more times we can do this before SBOTH decides it's lame and refuses to come along anymore. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Until then, the Tradition stands. Just stop watering down my condiments and we'll be fine, okay?