Charity begins at home.
When her partner was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer thirteen years ago, Melody began a journey of raising money for charities and good causes that has continued long after his passing.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m Portsmouth born and bred. I was born in 1963 and went to all local schools, Westover, Langstone and Great Salterns, the year it changed from a grammar school into a comprehensive. My mother was from Scotland and my father was a Pompey lad. I have two brothers from my mum’s first marriage and one from her second. One of which, Nigel, we lost to the disease Polio, eighteen years ago, when he was 32.
When asked, I say that, as kids, we didn’t have much. but we had everything. Despite being the baby of the family, I was pretty much brought up as one of the boys. We had to do everything together. When mum bought the boys guitars and they didn’t want to play them, I had to try, just so they didn’t go to waste. I still can’t play the guitar. I always wanted to play the drums [LOL]. They went to karate, I had to go to karate. Whatever they did, I had to do. Mind you, I got my own back when I started dancing. I made them go as well (LOL). My mum, being Scottish, ruled us with a rod of iron. If one of us did something, the others had to follow on. With hindsight, it gave us all a good grounding and was a very astute approach to tackling life in general. It encouraged me to not be afraid to try new things when I got older.
I find, with age, that I selectively forget about the things that I’ve done nobody likes a smart @rse. It’s only when the occasion merits it that I mention that I ‘just happen’ to have done whatever. Canoeing, had a go at that. I got my diving ticket when I went to Portugal for two weeks holiday. I trained in dance (The Iris Barns School of Dance), and I can tap dance. I’ve done pantomimes at the Kings Theatre , but I can’t do heights though. You won’t get me anywhere near an amusement park ride which involves going up in the air. I’ll have a go at most things. Why not?
And you own and run the ice cream kiosk adjacent to Southsea Pier/
Yes. Officially it’s ‘Melody’s Shoreline Ice Cream Kiosk’, but most people just know it as ‘Melody’s’. I’ve had the kiosk for nine years and this is my tenth season.
Wasn’t Southsea Pier famous for nearly burning down in the 1970s?
I was eleven at the time, June 11 1974, and I remember it well, because I rode my bike all the way down to the seafront to watch it burning.
The blaze was the biggest in Portsmouth since the Second World War and the flames could be seen all along the West Sussex and Hampshire coastline. The pier had been used for the pinball wizard scene from the film ‘Tommy – A Rock Opera‘ featuring the band ‘The Who‘. The fire started when powerful arc lights, shining through a ballroom window, set fire to curtains causing £500,000 worth of damage.
What happened after secondary school?
I went on to Highbury College in 1980 and trained in catering. I took a two year City & Guilds Restaurant Diploma course which covered restaurant management, the first part of professional cookery and Guéridon Service. That’s where you take a service trolley on wheels to customers’ tables. A la carte food can be carved, filleted, flambeed or prepared and served directly in front of the customer.
Flambé dishes first become popular in the Edwardian era, i.e. the first claimed flambé dish was crêpes Suzette which was invented by Henri Charpentier, working as a commis at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo (1894), in honour of the Prince of Wales’ girlfriend, named Suzette.
Had you always wanted to work in catering?
Well, I think I was probably always heading in that direction. I started work early, washing up at the local ‘Jolly Sailor’ pub, when I was fourteen. I did waitressing until I was seventeen, before going into restaurant and function work. Whilst I was at college I did waiting and serving food on South Parade Pier.
So you went straight into the restaurant business from college?
No. After college I had a short period in a factory which I hated, but I had bills to pay. I’d inherited a property that I couldn’t afford to look after, so I had lodgers in to help cover some of the finance whilst I took the factory job. As it happened, one of the lodgers worked on the Pier and she needed some catering support for a big function. I mentioned that I’d had catering training and she offered to pay me enough to cover taking a day off from the factory. She was impressed enough with how it all went to suggest that I should leave the factory job and join her. It turns out she was planning to leave in six months time, and suggested that I could take over her position in a catering supervisor role, which I did, and I stayed there until 1985. It was pretty grim in those days. Working 90 to 100 hours a week for peanuts really. But it did give me valuable experience in catering for a wide range of functions, weddings, dinner dances etc.
What happened after leaving the Pier?
I had a series of catering jobs throughout the eighties and nineties. Among others, I was manager at the Curzon Rooms Restaurant in Waterloovile, Landlady at the Gravediggers Pub in Southsea. I had a very very short spell with the council, and I also ran the Blue Lagoon at Hilsea for a couple of years. I then took on a cafe to start working for myself for the first time.
When was this?
That would have been April 1999. But then in January the following year, my partner John, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so, as you can imagine, everything changed. Initially we didn’t know how bad it was or what to expect. Unfortunately, and I found this out before John was told, in the April of 2000 he was given the prognosis of having an estimated eighteen months. I decided to give up work in the June to spend what time we had left together. I passed the business, lock stock and barrel, on to my brother.
That must have been a really tough time?
Not easy, that’s for sure. We decided to marry, pretty much in secret, as a personal wish of John’s. We’d actually been together for nineteen years, but had just never gotten around to tying the knot. We arranged for a special license to allow us to marry at home, with just two friends as witnesses. It was all very low-key. I invited family and some friends for a drink after it was all over, without telling them what it was for. After they’d arrived I just happened to mention ‘oh by the way, John and I were married two hours ago – cheers’. John lost the battle in August 2002.
I fell into the drinks cabinet for about six months, feeling sorry for myself, which is a fairly typical response. Luckily I recognised that I needed something to focus on to keep me going. So I got a volunteer job in a charity shop for one day a week. However before I knew it, that one day had turned into two days, then three, then four. If I’m honest, it was mainly through my inability to say ‘no’. Of course, voluntary work doesn’t count towards paying the bills, so my dwindling savings was the spur to start working again.
What sort of thing were you looking for?
I expected to drift back into catering again, but just as I was due to go off on holiday, to recharge by batteries after everything that had happened, I got an unusual offer. A friend and owner of one of the seafront ice cream kiosks said that he was selling one of the kiosks and would I be interested in taking it on. I said give me two weeks to think about it whilst I’m on holiday.
And the rest is history?
Yeah. I thought, do I want to work for somebody else again, sit and do nothing until the money runs out completely, or try something new?
Were you anxious at all?
Not until I opened the kiosk for the first time [LOL]. Although I’m a people person, and happy to do pretty much anything to do with catering, I knew absolutely nothing about ice cream. Still, after nearly ten years, I must be doing something right. In reality, it’s not just an ice cream kiosk. Because it attracts people from all walks of life, in a strange way, it’s a sort of community hub. It’s certainly served me well as a base to promote and advertise the charity work that I’ve done.
Do you know much about the kiosk’s history?
Not a great deal, but I do know that it used to be a ‘Rock Shop’ back around 1912. Of course it now has metal shutters, but back then it would have had roll up black out blinds over the door and counter openings, a lot more innocent times. I know this because I have a photograph (below) showing them, along with a horse and buggy out the front, and a coach station where the old Marine Cafe used to be.
In at the deep end
How did the sea swimming start?
I’ve always swum. But it wasn’t until I had the temporary job with the council, which entitled me to a free swimming pass, that I took the time to learn properly. I would have been about twenty-six at the time. It was in the pool that I met my, now good friend, Jacques. It was her that encouraged me to take part in my first charity swim, which was a ‘BT Swimathon‘ in 2000.
QUOTE The BT Swimathon is an annual nationwide swimming challenge, which began in 1986. The event encourages swimmers across the UK to swim a variety of challenge distances at their local pool and raise money for charity. Since established, more than half a million swimmers have taken part, raising over £38 million for charitable causes. END QUOTE
My partner, John, owned a night club at the time so I had the opportunity to ‘mug’, as I call it, the customers for some charity donations. So the two of us raised money through our businesses. I took the sponsorship money, made the donation, and then promptly fell off of a trampoline and broke my ankle before I could get anywhere near the pool!
So you had to cancel the swim?
I should have done, but because I’d committed to it, typical me, I wasn’t going to pull out. So I opted for the shortest distance that I could, which was 1500 metres (1 mile). But next time around I did the full 5K. Jacques and I did three more swimathons together before I lost John. The next charity swim we opted for was in aid of Prostate Cancer research. They took so long to organise it that Jacques and I said ‘sod this, lets just do it ourselves’. So we did, and have done ever since. We organise the event, raise the funds, take part, then send off the cheque. Different charities and swims each year.
Are all the charity swims pool based?
(LOL) Well once I was at a pool supporting the NSPCC when somebody said ‘if you like swimming that much, why don’t you swim the Channel’? I said ‘No way, I couldn’t swim the Channel’. ‘Yeah yeah, you’re just saying that’. ‘No, I really couldn’t swim the Channel because it would terrify me. There are things in there that don’t like us’. ‘Oh, I was going to sponsor you £50 if you would do it’. I said ‘Alright, I won’t swim the Channel, but I’ll do it in a pool. I’ll even be lairy and do the equivalent of Dover to Calais and back, on a challenge swim, over six weeks. Can I have my £50 now?’. ‘Yeah, when you’ve done it’. So that’s how that one came about. So we swam from Dover to Calais in Eastney Pool which, I can tell you, is a very short pool. A total of forty-four miles. I had to fit it in between work, of course. The pool was really good about it. They gave their permission, didn’t charge us for our time in the pool, and arranged for a checker to officially count the laps. People got an idea of what was going on and kept out of the way, 280 (ish) lengths at a time. Then, two weeks into the swim, I fell ill, so I had to cram it all into four weeks. Some weeks I was doing 760 lengths. It worked out at something ridiculous, like 3844 lengths in total. I went down to the pool, probably, four times a week. I swam for the NSPCC and Jaques swam for Tom Princes Trust (local family based cancer charity). When we’d completed the challenge, we held a celebration charity evening in a local club. All the raffle prizes and food were donated etc. In the end I raised £1200 and Jaques raised £800, plus £400 on the night, which we split between the charities.
When did the beach swimming start?
It was Jacques that invited me to join in the with a small group of ladies, not long after we first met, who took a daily early morning dip in the sea at Southsea. In fact, I’ve been doing that now for eighteen years. Doesn’t matter what the weather is like, rain or shine, even in the depths of winter, you’ll find us down here. Of course, when it’s really bad weather, December through to March is the worst time of year, it’s, more often than not, just a quick dip with about thirty strokes. But it’s really refreshing.
It must make your skin as tough as leather?
Actually no. It’s the exact opposite. it’s really soft and supple. It would be interesting to to know the results of some sort of study on skin as a result exposure to the natural salts and suchlike in the water.
Here’s an odd little fact. I went along to the doctor a while back with a problem with my ear. He said, “you swim in the sea don’t you?” I said, “yes, how do you know that?” He said, ‘ you’ve grown an extra bone in your ear’. Apparently, it’s quite common in boys, who swim more than girls when they are younger. It seems to be the body’s natural defence to try to protect itself.
Most avid surfers have at least some mild bone growths (often referred to as ‘surfer’s ear’ or the medical name of ‘exostoses’), causing little to no problems. The condition is progressive, making it important to take preventative measures early, preferably whenever surfing. The condition is not limited to surfing and can occur in any activity with cold, wet, windy conditions such as swimming, kayaking, sailing and diving etc.
I take the same attitude that they have in the Caribbean. They don’t call it a swim, in their terms they call it a sea bath. Most of the time that’s what I think of it as. I go in, swim, come out, wash off and go to work. It’s really invigorating and makes you feel alive. It’s not just the chill factor; you’ve got the salts and the minerals, which can’t be all bad.
Some of the charity swims have not been in the pool?
Eight years ago, we swam from Eastney to Southsea Pier. No wet suites, just bathers. I was so cold after that one. The first thing that I said when I got out was ‘get me a bottle of brandy’ [LOL]. We arranged the date around the weather and the tides etc. It turned out to be the exact opposite of what it should have been. Heaved down with rain with a ‘wind over’ tide (Sea conditions with a tidal current and a wind in opposite directions, leading to short, heavy seas.). Jacques, who is 1.5 feet taller than me, could get her neck out of the water, whereas I was getting swamped all the time. That was a tough one.
The year before last, 2011, we did a 1K sea swim with the Macmillan charity. That was to encourage people to swim in the sea and to raise funds obviously. Myself, the ladies from Macmillan and a Triathlete friend, Derek, organised it between ourselves. My contribution was talking to people and getting donations. We raised a total of just under £10,000 from that one event.
You’re a real water baby then?
Definitely. I think we are born either sea/beach people or countryside folks. Even though it’s open and sprawling, I would find the countryside quite claustrophobic to live in. Everywhere I go, I must have water. I’ve turned jobs down because there’s no water within half a mile. I was headhunted for a job in Coventry. When I turned up, the first question I had was ‘where’s the sea?’ ‘Oh it’s in that direction, about an hour on the bus.’ ‘Sorry not interested then.’ Pure heaven for me would be to live on one of the Napoleonic forts out in the Solent. Totally surrounded by water. Or maybe a small island somewhere [LOL].
How about living abroad?
Not sure about living abroad, but I love visiting the Caribbean. A totally chilled out way of life. When I go on holiday, I like to spend time with the locals, eat the same food etc. I can’t see the point of going abroad and eating what you would at home and only staying in a hotel or whatever.
The Last Resort
This is not the first time that Melody has been in the limelight. Back in 2010, Portsmouth University student filmmakers, Russell Oastler, David Kinnaird and Lucas Way wanted to make a documentary film about the decline of Portsmouth as a traditional seaside resort. Russell’s mother worked in the chemist where Melody collected the prescription for her husband John and then, later, for her mum. On one such visit, the two women were chatting about Melody’s daily dips in the sea, when she mentioned that her son, Russell, was looking for volunteers for his documentary film ‘The Last Resort’. It was after meeting Melody and the swimming ladies that Russell changed the emphasis of the documentary to be more about them.
(Russell and David are now part of the successful ‘Igloo Films‘ independent film production company.
The Last Resort wins 2010 student film award
Shortcuts Org UK – 2010 Guide Award for Best Film
In the film ‘The Last Resort’, you make a point of saying how you think of yourself and the swimming ladies as a small community, united by your interest in sea swimming?
When I lost John, I didn’t want to know anybody, or come out of the house. In my grief, understandably, I was really angry with the world. At the time, it was the ladies who I swam with that pulled me out of that dark place. It would be Dorothy (sadly, now deceased, and kindly paid tribute to by Russell in the film), whom I called Grandma, that would knock on my door and say ‘are you coming out to play?’. I didn’t have the heart to say no. Of course, it was the best thing for me at the time.
It’s a Dog’s Life
Who’s the faithful companion?
This is Oscar, a ‘Bearded Collie’, who I’ve had from one day old. One of my brothers was breeding and showing them, and said that he had one with a spot on his head that was no good for ‘showing’. It was about six months after John had passed away, and I just took to Oscar straight away. My brother insisted on calling him Spot, but I called him Oscar.
How old is he?
He’s eleven years old the latest in a long line of dogs. I’ve always had animals, mainly cats, but Oscar is the first dog that I’ve owned and trained from a puppy.
Does he follow you into the water when you swim?
Not really. He’s a bit nervous and doesn’t like to be out of his depth in the water. He’s quite happy to sit and wait for me to finish swimming. If I go further along the beach, I’ll call out to him and he’ll follow along beside me on the beach, until he gets bored. Then he’ll just sit down and wait.
What’s on the horizon for charity swims?
The next one is a private charity swim in September for Alzheimers UK. It’s the last part of my dedication to my mum, who we lost last year. I started training back in January through to March, but, due to a shoulder injury, I’ve only just got back into the water again.
You said that you had a bit of a ‘do’ in your mum’s honour
Yes, we had an amazing send off for her. Scottie, as she was known, was very well-regarded around here. We wanted the whole thing to be a celebration of her life, and not a downbeat affair. It was quite something actually. We had a Scottish piper on arrival at the crematorium and at the end of the ‘party’ that was held at the Royal Beach Hotel. Steve Kingsley (high-profile Portsmouth Disc Jockey) did the disco. The whole place was decked out with Scottish flags and memorabilia. We had a meal, rather than the usual buffet or sandwiches, with drinks on arrival. The full works. She was a person full of life, a performer, an entertainer, a helper and would have loved it. Mr Gilmore, the manager of the Royal Beach Hotel, did us proud. As a tribute to my mum and her life, I’d pledged to raise £2000 for Alzheimers UK by the end of this year (2013). So, instead of flowers, we asked everyone to donate the money instead. We got £400 from just those donations alone.
As a follow up, in the March, I decided to run a charity evening. I sold the tickets and was adamant that ‘everything’ would be donated. Nothing was going to cost. I have a friend who did the disco for nothing and I supplied and cooked all the food. Everybody donated prizes ranging from manicures, pedicures, massages and hairdressing, through to things like a motorcycle training course. A ridiculous amount of things. I thought that I might sell 70 tickets at best. But I lost count of the actual number. We had people who would buy a ticket, say ‘I can’t come’, but happily put it back in the pot to sell again. I think we had about 130 on the night and raised £2200. I’ve since sold a couple of items of furniture that were my mum’s and had a few odd donations. It’s all mounting up, and the swim in September is the final thing. Everyone is asking me to do another party night, because is was such great fun. It was a really wild night. I have a lot of good friends and supporters out there who are there when I need them, without asking. You know who you are. Thank you.
I hear that you’re good friends with our Lord Mayor? (The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth at the time, Frank Jonas)
[LOL] Not quite. On the last Friday of September, for the last ten years, I close the kiosk down and make fifteen cakes or so and sell them off as a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of cake, £2. All my takings for that day go to the Macmillan charity. We sell cards, maybe have a competition to guess the weight of a cake, or how many lollies there are in a jar. All small-scale, but it adds up. On average, we raise between five and six hundred pounds a year. Last year (21012) the Royal Beach Hotel, Southsea, held a charity coffee morning. The Lord Mayor attended to show his support while I was holding mine across the road at the kiosk. I dropped by to see how the event was going and the Mayor said he would come on over to my kiosk and say hello to some people in return. We got chatting and it turned out he was raising funds for Alzheimer’s as well. He asked if I would make a cake for a charity coffee morning that his team had arranged, to be held at the Portsmouth Guildhall. I said “No problem, how many bits do you need?”, he said “Around ninety, or something around that number”. We also bought some tickets, and encouraged my friends to do the same, for a ball that he had arranged. At the heart of it, he’s was just an ordinary person, making the most of his position, trying to do good work.
Fifty not out.
What do you think the future holds for Melody?
I’m toying with the idea of going back into catering. Maybe a take on coffee or sandwich shop. It has to be something that’s community based, so I can be in touch with people.
Where would this cafe or sandwich shop be? Portsmouth or the Caribbean?
[LOL] Realistically you couldn’t live there (the Caribbean) but it would be nice. Even so, I don’t know that I could
Apart from Oscar – do you have any other ties in the area that would prevent you moving away?
Probably not. Mum passing away last year means that I no longer have all the responsibility that was associated with her condition. I can’t remember the last time I was able to think of it like that. We all feel responsible in those circumstances, and now that I’m no longer in that position, and reaching the milestone of fifty this year, it’s given me cause to think ‘what’s next?’ I’d now like to plan what to do with, what is likely to be, a good ten years of working life. With mum, it was a case of planning for five to ten years for her; with John, it was planning how we were going to spend our last 18 months together. I’m now in the position of planning just for me, which I’ve not done in a long time. I’m a little bit adrift at the moment; I’m really not sure what I’m going to do. On the one hand it’s exciting, on the other it’s quite terrifying. It’s weird, I’m waiting for something to turn up. I get the distinct feeling that there’s something I’m supposed to be doing. I just don’t know what it is yet. I’m pretty sure that It’s just around the corner, whatever it is.
I’ve had a hankering to move down to Dartmouth or Dorset way. People say that I couldn’t move that far away, because I’d miss all my friends etc. But I’m such a people person that I’d make new friends. That’s what I thrive on. Being front of house, or running pubs, as I have done in the past, makes you that sort of person. Do I need to live where I am? I don’t know. I don’t want for anything. If I was given a million pounds tomorrow, what would I do with it? You can be wealthy in life, wealthy in your friendships, wealthy in where you live, but you don’t need to be rich or wealthy financially. I consider myself to be lucky with what I have and have had. I’d still buy a nice dress or shoes or whatever, if the fancy takes me. But I don’t really want for anything.
So, a blank sheet of paper is the worst thing for you.
Yeah, I need a goal. I sort of do things back to front. I’m headstrong in that respect. If you give me a challenge, for the right reasons of course, I’ll say yes, then think about how I’m going to achieve it. But it’s unlikely that you’ll stop me from doing whatever it is. If it takes me ten years to do it, once I’ve committed to something, I’ll just keep going. I’m very much of the mind-set of ‘all or nothing’. If I commit to doing something, I undertake it wholeheartedly. It’s not in my nature to do half a job. If you’re going to have a cup of tea, have a nice cup of tea. What’s the point of going to trouble of making a rubbish one. To some people, it’s over the top. But that’s just the way I am. I’m not religious or superstitious, but I am spiritual. I do believe that things are there for a reason and we all have a purpose in this life. You may not know what it is, but I think we do have one.
Over to you
If you wish to donate to any of the charities mentioned in this piece, direct links have been provided within the text and for convenience directly below. Alternatively drop by at Melody’s kiosk to say hello, there’s bound to be something that she’s raising money for. Don’t be shy.