The Bubble Bloke

The horse brasses that adorn the soot-blackened chimneybreast of The Weighbridge public house in Darley Dale shine with a dull, polished gleam. The fire is lit - it's not the kind of raging inferno that would see off the worst of winter, but then this is spring, and the softly glowing embers are purely for effect. It's comforting. Just like the solid mahogany bar, the chunky oak tables, the faded pictures on the walls and the roughly hewn beams that lie exposed along the ceiling. It suggests an establishment with a long history of service to the working man, a comforting reminder of times past - of families brought up amongst smoke and steam; of an empire forged in a blazing furnace, or torn from the living rock, miles underground.

It's false, of course. The Weighbridge was built in 1982 and the photographs, the fittings and the tattered rustic charm were all supplied to order by a company in Nottingham. Even the short length of canal that snakes alongside the building was dug in the early eighties, and isn't deep enough to be navigated. It's phoney; it's all phoney.

The place is choc-full of incongruous reminders of a time when people used to be able to point at things they had 'made' or 'built'; rather than returning home with nothing more satisfying than the vague notion that certain obscure matters had been 'resolved' or 'actioned'. There's a picture of a smelting works on the wall beside the specials board; beside it sit a gaggle of girls from a nearby call centre, picking over the greasy remains of their battered chicken wings. On the wall opposite the main entrance is a tattered illustration of the workings of a cotton mill; nearby are a group of salesmen from a Volkswagen dealership, talking about commission and complaining about their lasagne.

And then, behind the jukebox, beside the window, beneath the sign pointing the way to the traditional baby changing facilities, I spot the man that I have come here to meet. In fact, it's difficult to miss him: he seems so out of place here. He's a man of some eighty years, thick set with a certain 'solidness' about him that suggests it is as much a character trait as a physical attribute. He still has a thick head of silver hair, neatly back-combed. Dark eyes beneath serious eyebrows stare unflinchingly out into the car park. There is an unmistakable air of patience about him, and his quiet, assured demeanour instantly make him a still point amongst the bustle of egos and inanity that surround him.

This is Albert Scroggs, and his rough hands and weather-beaten face are a far more telling indicator of the area's industrial heritage than any number of sepia photographs. He seems rooted here, and there is no doubt that his connections with this region go back a long way.

"I can remember when this place were old Hopkins' farm," he tells me as I sit down. He ignores my outstretched hand and forgoes any kind of formal introduction. "We used to play here as lads," he continues. "Changed a bit now." He finishes his pint and deliberately sets the empty glass down on the table before me. "Can't say as I really hold with this sort of thing," he says, glancing around him.

In the spirit of conversation I ask him if he's ever been here before. It's small talk, but I hope it will get us off on the right foot.

"Nope," he replies emphatically. "Full of wankers," he adds, then inches his glass towards me. "You gettin' 'em in, or what?"

Apologising for my lack of manners, I pick up his glass and make for the bar. This is my first meeting with Mr Scroggs, but I'm not unprepared. People I have spoken to have warned me that he's a bit of a character. He's also notoriously reluctant to speak to strangers, so I consider myself most fortunate to have secured this interview. Albert Scroggs, you see, is one of the last surviving bubble makers in the world today - that is, he spent his working life manufacturing the bubbles that go into fizzy drinks. And back in his day it was all done by hand.

"Course, it's all automated now," he tells me as I return to the table, and I detect a note of regret beneath his gruffness. "Mass production, see. All done by computers and stuff. It's what they call progress, but it's a funny sort of progress that puts thousands of skilled craftsmen out of work, if you ask me." He takes a sip from his pint, seems quite satisfied then suddenly looks daggers at me. "What, no nuts?"

The outburst takes me by surprise, and all I can offer by way of a stammering reply is a confused flurry of random consonants.

"Peanuts, lad," he says impatiently, his rough tones slicing emphatically through my feeble and incoherent babble. "Didn't you get any peanuts?"

I lapse into silence and shrug helplessly, hoping that this will suffice for an apology. He mumbles something beneath his breath and shoots me a black look, but I quickly prompt him to tell me about the art of making bubbles. Encouragingly, he seems pleased by my choice of wording.

"Art?" he repeats. "Aye, you've hit upon the right word there lad. It's an art, all right. I was a skilled craftsman, me. Each bubble was made individually by hand. And we'd take pride in our work, as well. Proper bubbles for a proper fizzy drink. Done properly, the traditional way."

It's a tradition that goes back a long way. The method of putting bubbles into fizzy drinks has remained largely unchanged since it was first developed by the Persians around 300BC. Each bubble is first formed in a furnace by being blown, in the same way that a glass blower makes a bowl. This rough outline is then rapidly cooled and worked by hand or with a lathe until a perfect bubble shape is produced. This can take many, many hours of meticulous and detailed work, but it is essential that the final product is flawless. Only then can it be forcibly injected into the finished drink, using bellows.

Obviously, working on something so small, in a field which demands such precision, is not an easy task. A bubble maker will, of necessity, have spent many years perfecting his skills before being allowed to work unsupervised as a master craftsman.

"I spent seven years as an apprentice," Albert tells me in a low growl. "Not the sort of commitment you see nowadays, is it? Most of these little pricks..." He indicates our fellow customers with a contemptuous jerk of the head. "...Well, they spend two and a half hours sitting in some breeze block eyesore in the middle of an industrial estate and suddenly they think they know bleeding everything.

"Tossers, every last one of 'em," Albert adds. He coughs up something unpleasant and hides it beneath his beer mat, then stares out of the window. "Look at that dirty cow," he barks with disgust. I look, but I can see no one.

Albert makes to continue. "Anyways," he says, then stops when he realises that I'm still looking out of the window. "Oi! I'm not boring you am I?" he snaps. I apologise and implore him to continue. He does so, but seems wary. "Making bubbles is a tough business, real man's work," he says. "And a dangerous business as well. Now this lot -" Another nod to the other occupants of the bar. "All they do is sit on their fat arses, eating custard creams all day, poking and prodding at their keyboards and pretending to be working, when all they're doing is surfing the internet for lady porn and Star Trek."

Albert twists around and, quite unabashed, spits on the floor. The middle-aged woman tucking into the seafood platter at the table next to us is genuinely horrified, but Albert simply hisses at her and she turns away.

"Computers, eh?" Albert says with disgust. "Fax machines, mobile phones, photocopiers...pah! What kind of life is that?" I begin to wonder whether Albert's real gripe is with the technology, rather than the people. Then again, on second thoughts, he seems to have enough hatred welling up inside him to serve both.

"I mean, where's the danger in computers?" he persists. I nod as sympathetically as I can muster, then, realising that Albert's question is not a rhetorical one, I awkwardly stammer something about electric shocks, or the danger of accidentally swallowing a keyboard. Albert asks me if I'm trying to be funny. I reply, apologetically, that I am. He calls me a twat and tells me not to do it again.

"Now see here, this is good," Albert says approvingly as he indicates the notepad I am using. "Good, old fashioned paper and pencil. None of yer pansy electronic howsyafathers. And a sharp pencil too - you could have someone's eye out with that. And I respect you for that, lad. It's the only thing I do respect you for, though, so don't let it go to yer 'ead." He leans over to the woman beside us and pinches a couple of chips from her plate. She is startled, but doesn't protest and simply keeps her gaze averted.

"Of course, dangerous though yer average pencil is," Albert says, pointing at me with a fat, yellow stub of fried potato, "it's nursery stuff compared to bubbles. Let me tell you - one bad decision with a chisel, one slip with a file and... BANG! The next thing you know you're picking yerself up off the floor with half yer face hanging off. That's why bubble making was such a rare skill - not many youngsters managed to survive their apprenticeships. The 'Dreaded Explosions', that's what we used to call them. I lost a lot of good friends like that. Many's the time I would be carefully hammering away in the workshop when suddenly there'd be this almighty pop, the whole room 'ud shudder and shake, and I'd instinctively know that there would be one more empty place in the canteen that lunchtime."

But through a combination of skill and good fortune, Albert survived the Dreaded Explosions and became a fully-fledged craftsman. His experiences took their toll however, and Albert became a lonely and solitary man. Just knowing that one of your best friends could be wiped out by the Explosions at any moment was enough to dissuade most bubble makers from forming emotional attachments. That's not to say that Albert lacks any sense of fulfilment, and he remains very keen to remind people of his many achievements.

"It's been estimated that in all my career I must have made about two and half million bubbles," he says with obvious pride. "Two and a half million! Not bad, eh? And out of all them bubbles, there weren't a single dud. I started out making bubbles for lemonade, mostly, but as soon as my talents were recognised I were promoted to Champagne. And the proper stuff, mind - none of yer cheap rubbish. I was making bubbles by appointment to the King. Oh aye, people knew that if they were drinking Albert Scroggs' bubbles, they were in for some guaranteed fizz. Got to be quite a celebrity, too. Folks would come to watch demonstrations of bubble making. After the war I even did a theatre tour. It were a sell out!"

It was during this tour, in Coventry in fact, that Albert managed to create the world's largest bubble. With a diameter in excess of fourteen feet, the record still stands today. Experts estimated that had it burst it would have had enough explosive power to flatten everything within a radius of six miles of the city centre. And if the prevailing winds had been unfavourable it could have seriously distressed a sizeable area of the countryside that lay beyond. But Albert had had too much experience in his trade to allow that to happen: the demonstration went without a hitch, Albert received three standing ovations, and the bubble was later safely deflated by the Royal Marines Pop Disposal Squad.

But Albert's celebrity was not set to last. The introduction of automation throughout the fifties and sixties meant that bubble makers like Albert Scroggs were becoming increasingly redundant. Albert managed to hang on for a little while - working mainly in the luxury end of the market, where hand-tooled bubbles were still in demand. But eventually, Albert had to bow to inevitability.

"We just couldn't compete," he reflects bitterly. "Of course, we didn't think there was any real threat at first. The first automatic bubble makers were very unreliable. Admittedly, they were fast, but the quality of the bubbles they produced was very poor. There were a lot of accidents, an' all. All it takes is one bad bubble to get caught up in the mechanism and the whole thing would jam up. And when that happened it was only a matter of time before the pressure would build up and the bubble would crack, setting off a chain reaction that would reduce the machine and everything around it to a pile of mangled metal. Quite often they would take all the operators with it. It was tragic, of course, but then these lads were not skilled craftsmen like us, so we couldn't help but laugh."

But improvements were quickly made and the industry eventually became completely automated. Today's industrial bubble making units can make upwards of five thousand bubbles an hour, in a multitude of different sizes, colours and even shapes. What's more, hardly anyone ever gets exploded. Albert, meanwhile, has hung up his apron, sheathed his chisel, and the only bubbles he makes nowadays are in the bath. Nevertheless, he still finds himself yearning for the values of a bygone age.

"Look at that," he says as he holds his half-empty glass up to the light. The froth clings to the sides as I watch Albert's distorted face through the golden liquid. "Now take a look at all the people in here - over by the bar, sitting at those tables, grouped around the fruit machine. Filth, retards and slappers - every last one of 'em. Do you think they give a toss about the time and effort it took to put all the bubbles into the drinks that they keep throwing down their necks? No, course they don't. And do you want to know why?"

Albert brings my attention back to the glass he is still holding up before me.

"This is why," he says. "Look at the bubbles. Perfect, aren't they? Every one of them. But there's no character, no life, no joy. No one has sweated and struggled to make those bubbles. No one has put their life on the line. No wonder no one cares. No wonder I don't care." He sighs. "It's sad," he says mournfully.

He tilts the glass back and drains it, slamming it down on the table between us as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yes, it's very, very sad," he reiterates. Then he belches loudly, looks pointedly at the glass... then at me... then back at the glass. "I expect," he says, staring straight at me as if daring me to contradict him, "that you'll be wanting to buy me another?"

And I agree that that is exactly what I'll be wanting to do.

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