From the comprehension book—Secondary English (Book 4) by Sadler Hayllar Powell:

The following piece of writing comes straight from the childhood of Clive James, the author of Unreliable Memoirs. [...] As you read this extract you will come across some fine comparisons which enliven and dramatize the writing.

Ron's wreck of a mother used to give us buttered bread with hundreds and thousands on it. It was like being handed a slice of powdered rainbow. They must have been a poor family but I remember my visits to them as luxuries. As well as the Technicolor bread and butter, there were vivid, viscid green drinks made from some kind of cordial.

I'm completely, utterly clueless.

  • "wreck of a mother" conjures up images of a 'broken' poor lady—in rags, weak, smelly, dirty. But I'm not so sure.

  • What can "hundreds and thousands" mean here? Icing powder sprinkled on top of buttered bread? That doesn't seem very likely, considering the fact that Ron's family is poor.

  • "powdered rainbow"? Sounds like multi-colour sprinkles. Again it's not very likely—how can a family so poor afford it? Plus, the book was written a long ago when sprinkles weren't as popular and cheap.

  • "Technicolor bread and butter" — why a capitalised T? Bread can be 'technicolor' I suppose, but 'technicolor' butter sounds ridiculous. But it might be some food style I'm not familiar with.

  • 1
    **wreck of a {noun}" (a cliche, hardly a "fine comparison") will have different meanings depending on the noun. An old "wreck of a bus" would be one in disrepair; a "wreck of a mother" would be one who was frazzled, overworked, very worried about making ends meet, disheveled, not concerned about her personal appearance because she has more important things on her mind, and so forth.
    – TimR
    Jul 31, 2017 at 10:54

1 Answer 1


These are "hundreds and thousands" (or sprinkles to American readers):

hundreds and thousands (sprinkles)

Taken from this related question: What is the name for a single item of hundreds and thousands

They're just dyed lengths (or sometimes small balls) of sugar.

Your interpretation of "wreck of a mother" is maybe a bit strong. She probably couldn't care for Ron properly or afford much, and she may not have been completely clean. She may also not have been emotionally or mentally stable.

Ron's mother (presumably) was unable to afford "real" sweets, but would still want to give Ron a treat, so she would do her best with what she had: bread, butter, and sweet bits of sugar. The purpose of the butter is to stick the hundreds and thousands to the bread.

I don't have anything to cite for the historical price of hundreds and thousands, but as far as I'm aware they've always been a relatively cheap thing.

@P.E.Dant is correct: Technicolor was both the (trademarked) name of a process for producing colour films and the company behind the process, so it is a proper noun and should be capitalised (although there is an argument that the trademark has become genericised and therefore need not be treated as a proper noun, à la "hoover"). In this case, it isn't the butter that is Technicolor, but the hundreds and thousands.

  • Great answer! Thanks. Does the 'powdered rainbow' mean what it seems likes it means? Jul 31, 2017 at 11:43
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    @SohaFarhinPine yes, the powder is the hundreds and thousands (which have many colours, like a rainbow).
    – LMS
    Jul 31, 2017 at 12:16
  • As additional context, Clive James is an Australian author and 'fairy bread' (the bread with hundreds and thousands on it he is describing in the text) is a novelty food in Australia often served at children's parties. It is a cheap food because you only need white bread, butter or margarine and hundreds and thousands.
    – Jay Bee
    Aug 23, 2023 at 21:15

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