“The days of pulling the central lever are behind us” – Hazel Blears, quoted in The Guardian, 23 February 2007
Readers of a certain age will remember the levers. There was a row of them, colour-coded, black and pink and orange and cerise and yellow and golden and dun and red and lavender and green and mauve and coffee and blue and wheat and white. They had to be pulled in a precise order, of course, which changed from hour to hour. It was not well-paid work, being a lever pulling person, but it was dignified and responsible and important work, and those who pulled the levers were accorded due respect. And none gained as much respect as the puller of the central lever, the only one which changed colour, or rather was wrapped in burlap sheaths of different colours, hour by hour, and sometimes minute by minute, by dint of a scheme so abstruse, so utterly bewildering, that those responsible for it rarely lasted more than a couple of months in the job before they had to be retired off to a seaside resort. Pebbleheadâ€™s bestselling paperback They Selected The Burlap Sheaths For The Central Lever : True Stories Of Heroic Colour-Coding is a useful, if failed, attempt to demystify the whole shenanigans in words of one syllable.
It is sometimes hard to comprehend just how important the levers were. Nowadays, we are able to live happy and fulfilling lives without them, without the relentless pulling of themâ€¦ or so it seems. I have my doubts. It is not mere nostalgia that makes me hanker for the days when the pulling of the levers, and particularly the pulling of the central lever, was uppermost in peopleâ€™s minds, drawing us together, binding us, giving us a sense of common purpose.
Blodgett always remembered his time as the puller of the central lever as the happiest period of his life. His enemies said â€“ still say! â€“ that he only did the job for the free toffee apples, and normally one would agree. I have had stern words to say about Blodgettian gluttony myself, but for once I think his motives were pure. After an apprenticeship on the golden and pink levers, he stepped up to the central lever pulling position on St Gertrudeâ€™s Day in 1952, and none who saw it will ever forget the beam of fantastic glee on his pockmarked and greasy face as he stood there, on his plinth, as the duty cadet swapped a blue for a slightly different shade of blue dyed burlap sheath on the central lever. The flock of trained nightingales on the railings burst into joyous song. Fiery stars flamed in the sky. Blodgett waited for the parp of a cornet which would be his signal to pull the central lever for the first time. Just thinking about it makes me want to weep, so please forgive my snufflings, as I forgive those who snuffle before me.
Who would have thought that Blodgett would be the last person ever to pull the central lever? He did so for many, many years of course, with gusto and vim, to the applause of those who were, very occasionally, allowed past the railings to watch. But came the day that the pulling of the levers, the black and pink and orange and cerise and yellow and golden and dun and red and lavender and green and mauve and coffee and blue and wheat and white ones, as well as the central lever, became somehow irrelevant to our town, mocked even, seen as an antiquated and idiotic ritual. And Blodgett and the others were paid off with a crate of toffee apples and given free cabins in the hills, and the levers rusted, the burlap sheaths were left to rot, the nightingale trainer was taken to a quarry and shot by the new regime, and one day gigantic bellowing engines came and flattened the square where the levers and the railings had stood for a hundred years, and it was all gone.
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. An evaporated milk factory was built on the spot, indecently fast, and I watch children cycle round and round it, and I shout at them, and wave my bludgeon, and they cycle round and round and round.