"The Big Cheese was too much for Jules. He finally threw a fifteen pound Stilton through the plate glass window of the store on the day that he quit. He completely lost his gourd. Cheese will do that to you...."

the big cheese
by mike morgan


I left South Africa for London during the winter of 1977, financially in a mess but willing to shovel shit in Louisiana, if necessary. Well, I didn't quite do that, but I had all that young man/high hopes malarkey floating around in my head, and so I viewed the task of gaining employment in this vast, grey, cold city as a challenge. The Boss once sang, "From small things baby, big things one day come." I started off about as small as they get.

It was a tiny delicatessan aptly named the Big Cheese, located in Hammersmith, West London, minutes around the corner from the Hammersmith Odeon, where the Bob Marley and the Wailers infamous Live album was recorded in 1975. The store was about the size of the bathroom in Freddy's Bar and it was stocked to the rafters with, believe it or not, cheese; Stiltons, Bries, Derbyshires, Edams, Goudas, Cheddars, Havartis, the whole magillah; cheese that smelled like armpits and last week's unwashed socks; cheese that looked too unmentionable to eat; Goat cheese, Feta cheese, Cheeses of Nazareth, this was a cheese afficianado's cathedral.

Not just cheese though; bleeding pates as well, goose liver all covered with aspic and looking too dodgy for this poor drinker's fritzy stomach; pork bangers too, brought in every week by a man whom I was convinced was Hammersmith's own version of Charlie Manson; and a ham and roast beef cooked in-house each day for the goddamn sandwiches. The Big Cheese was the most popular sandwich lunch store in the neighbourhood. People would line up outside of the shop and around the corner to gobble up a homemade pate and cheese sandwich. Disgusting it was, obese, pasty-faced English people, brought up on a diet of lard and grease, licking their chops, mumbling pat instructions such as "Same as usual," or "Could you put a bit more on?"

So this was how the day looked. Arrived at nine to let the bread man in. Opened the store at nine thirty and prepared for the sandwich madness which took place exactly at twelve noon, not at a quarter to, or ten after. No wonder they won the war, these bastards were so predictable. The sandwich prep involved cutting up forty loaves of doughy, blighty white bread, preparing the salad nonsense with those green English tomatoes, and dicing the meat on the electric slicer, which was also used to cut the cheese, so the vegetarians always had their knickers in a knot.

Customers would come into the store during the pre-lunch set up, and this was cruel and unusual punishment. Here you were trying to ready yourself for this onslaught of hungry, boring people and some prick is whining about a quarter pound of Red Gloucester. "What do you think this is a goddamn cheese shop, fer chrissakes I gotta make two hundred sandwiches shortly, and you're putzing around with your three slices of this and could you cut the fat off that, and is this cheese fresh?"

"No madam, we just don't know how to spell rotten, you quapid old sow!"

Then blast-off, and it was the re-enactment of the Battle of Blood River/Back to Bataan for two solid hours. Feverishly throwing these globs of meat and cheese onto bread, this was akin to the production line in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times gone bonkers. And then it would miraculously end, 'cos we'd run out of bread. That glorious moment when the last slice had gone, and there was a poor hungry wanker who couldn't get out of work on time and, with glee, you leered over at him and said, "Sorry mate, the sandwiches are off."

After that, the rest of the day would be a breeze, and you'd be able to muster all of your sarcasm and sledge hammer wit for the fools that came in to be abused while they purchased their cheese ration. And at six o'clock we'd shut the door, clean everything and hit the Swan Pub on Fulham Road. I did this for six days a week, although Saturday was not a sandwich day, for the spectacular weekly salary of forty quid.

There were two of us there. The first boss was a friend of mine, his name was Jules. I seem to have a knack for this, ‘cos my current fearless leader is also a Jules. This Jules wasn't a total berk though. He was from back home, and he had this burning desire to become an A & R man for a big record label, any old label. He wanted into the music biz badly, and he was extremely ambitious and careerist in his outlook, an irritating trait. The Big Cheese was too much for Jules. He finally threw a fifteen pound Stilton through the plate glass window of the store on the day that he quit. He completely lost his gourd. Cheese will do that to you.

This was about three months into my gig, so by the time the new boss arrived, I was the veteran on the block, the king of the jungle, the big kahuna, the sandwich heavy. Along came this stupid git, my next overseer Rodger. Rodger was a white Rhodesian who had spent ten years in the Royal Navy. He was a genuine skebenga*, who happened to be friends with the owner, cos I should've become the manager. Patronage and collusion amongst the cheese upper crust, I guess. The new Captain Bligh on this ship of fools was a former colonial bwana who spoke in this navy jabber to me all day – "Port, starboard, all hands on deck, tally-ho, aft, man the yardarm, landlubbers, damn the torpedoes," it was a a regular seaman's log of nautical patois.

But he was useless because he was so slow, and the Hammersmith ham and Gruyere crowd was not going to put up with this kind of ineptitude, no sirree! So my job got a lot harder. I originally thought that Rodger was just another schtumer**. But after a while, I noticed some decidedly loopy behaviour. Clearly, the man was not firing on all cylinders. Too much cheese.

It was summer time, and, despite English summers being a cruel joke, the Big Cheese had a wee bit of a flying insect problem. One day, in walked a rather innocuous looking British bureaucrat type. He sniffed around a bit before introducing himself as "Carruthers from the Health Inspector's Office. You gotta do something about these flies, my good man. If you don't, we're closing you up." And so began the epic Big Cheese fly counter- insurgency campaign of 1978.

Rodger immediately barged his way out to Sainsburys and bought a slew of those fly paper stickum strips. He then proceeded to hang them all over the shop, at eye level for the customers. It was like being in the fucking rain forest. This madness all came to an end when one of the fly strips got entangled in a blue hair's wig, and the entire rig fell into the bowl of mackerel pate. Rodger smothered her threats of potential law suits with idle navy banter. No more sticky stuff.

Next day I came to work and there was this huge ultra violet fly killing machine in the corner, and it was hissing and snapping and fizzing and making all of these very scary electrical noises, while basking us in this toxic, radiated glow. I told Rodger that I would not work with the x-ray Eye of Zoltec zapping me and contaminating workers, patrons and the food alike.

"Bugger it!" he replied and stormed out of the store lugging this monstrosity, only to arrive back twenty minutes later with five giant canisters of Raid/Kill/Zap-Em-Dead pesticide, which he then let off, transforming the place into this foggy nightmare of an Ypres trench.. Two customers and myself ran gagging from the shop. We couldn't see, we couldn't breathe and all of this was happening in a fresh food store. We had to shut the shop up early that day. Rodger did manage to kill the flies though. By then, I was convinced that he was totally bananas.

My next and last encounter with his insanity was on garbage day. We stashed the garbage in the small room upstairs and, every Tuesday, it was laid out in the street for collection. It was a pain in the arse, ‘cos you had to lug this stuff up and down a very narrow stairway, and there's something about toting garbage around, it's such a meaningless exercise. "Here, help me with this garbage, would you?" "I can't right now, I'm dealing with my own garbage." Rodger decided to mickey mouse this routine by taking the rubbish onto the roof and hurling these heavy bags of cheese droppings onto the sidewalk, clueless as to the mayhem, chaos and sheer Nagasaki that he was causing. One moment, I was standing behind the counter, flicking ashes into the chippolata sausages, then Bob's your uncle, this giant projectile came hurtling past the window. It burst upon impact and sent the afternoon shoppers scurrying for their lives. He chucked about twenty bags of this flotsam and jetsam overboard, before the coppers came and hauled him off to the Nick. It was the last time I ever laid eyes on him. Rodger took out the trash and never came back. Cheese must've gotten to him.

I knew my days were numbered there. I was beginning to get this perverse joy out of shocking the customers. I was turning into a health hazard. I naturally took the page out of the Monty Python cheese emporium skit. "I wouldn't try that Madam, I don't know where it's been," or "Looks a bit off to me and smells dreadful I might add."

One final Big Cheese titbit of skinner***. Both Jules and I wanted out of there like crazy. Virgin Records was an expanding company at that time. They put a big ad in the paper. "Learn to manage a record store - Become a trainee manager." Most of the honchos at Virgin were South Africans. We thought we had an in. We both had successful interviews and the fellow told us that we were on the short list. Great! No more cheese, records instead. Records don't smell. They're fun to listen too. I can't imagine ever listening to cheese, but then you can't eat records, so what's the point I say. We emphasized our experience in the retail business (cheese), the usual customer-is-always-right baloney.

About three weeks later, an oddly familiar face came in. I've seen this geezer before, but I can't remember where or when (too many nights in the Swan were wreaking havoc with the memory bank). Smack dab in front of me, this bloke pocketed a big hunk of Jarlsburg, and he eyeballed me as he was doing it. "Look," I said, "I know these are hard times, and if you're starving and really need that piece of cheese, you can have it. But just ask?." He stared at me and promptly shoved a jar of English Colemans Mustard into his other pocket giving me a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it look, which was nothing. I was going to do sweet Fanny Adams about it, not a sausage, bugger all. This could've been a homicidal maniac here – The Strangler of Ten Rillington Place or the Slagenham Slasher. What did I care. It was just a lousy piece of cheese. And forty quid a week wasn't enough. "Here, need anything else?" I said, beginning to get the shoplifting urge. What the hell, free cheese for everybody. Cheese workers have a May Day too. And as I'm bent down fetching another piece of cheese for him, he abruptly left the store. "What a strange man," I thought.

Jules sauntered back in from his smoke break and said, "Hey I just saw the Virgin Records interviewer come out of the store, did we get the jobs?" This guy had come in specifically to test us on our shop-lifting policy, and I failed miserably. Jules didn't talk to me for weeks.

Last time I was in London, I went by the cheese shop. It's still there. As I walked in about eleven o' clock that morning, I got this what-the-fuck-do-you-want mug from the desperado behind the counter. "Nothing," I thought, but I knew. I knew what was going through that poor sap's mind. In exactly one hour, he was going to be sandwiched to death. Because that's the way life is at the Big Cheese.

notes:
* Skebenga - Zulu for unsavory character, no-goodnik;
** Schtumer - Cockney for bad situation
***Skinner - Boer for scandal, rumor.

(Originally run April 2002)


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Smokebox Archives.


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