Stage fright

In the late ‘70s I joined an Am Dram group (still have shirts with stage make-up on).  We’d mostly perform in a Balham school hall, where there was more a smell of rotting plimsolls than greasepaint.

Having started with one line, I worked my way up to be given larger parts.  This impressed some of the younger girls in the group.  Well, one in particular.

We’d just performed a revue at the old Tooting Bec (Mental) Hospital.  Tough gig as many of the audience couldn’t clap as they still had their straitjackets on.

During the revue I’d sung, danced (albeit in a ballerina costume) and acted.

It was at this time when I’d started my career in advertising and earlier that day had bought the book, “Teach yourself advertising”; still haven’t finished it nearly fifty years on.

The show finished, and Tooting’s answer to Nurse Ratched had returned her cares to their rooms, we left the hospital to return to our respective homes.

As we approached Hurley’s on Balham High Road there were just two of us left.  Me and a girl in our troupe.  As we got to her house I was invited in for coffee, except it wasn’t for coffee it was for “coffee”.

With a fear of girls even now, being alone with a girl filled me with dread, especially after the door had been locked, the pet Alsatian, Himmler, tied up, no obvious sign of a percolator and the announcement of “mum’s out for the evening” I went into blind panic.

I stood up, announced that I had bought a new book and needed to read it before the morning and left, coffee-less.

Oddly I have three children, but back then, you could get all sorts of things off the Freeman’s catalogue. 

Wheelie TV bin

There was no better feeling of euphoria inside my Balham classroom during the ‘60s than when the school TV was wheeled in.

As schoolkid you couldn’t have given a monkey’s that you were about to witness the funeral of a great statesman, the launch of an ocean-going liner or the exploration of other parts of the universe.

Neither Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II (the boat, not the monarch) nor Neil Armstrong could take away that feeling of ‘soon, we’ll not be working.’  Only double playtime, or an inset day, had that ability of relief from the monotony of learning about the Stone Age; the four times table or the tricks of the baby Jesus in later life.

It would be the school caretaker who would wheel the machine into the classroom (there were no IT assistants in the ‘60s – the only IT we knew about those days was the creature from The Addams Family).   The TV was housed in a wooden box (the size of which wouldn’t have looked out of place outside Troy) and placed in the centre of the room, in front of the blackboard, thus hiding any trick way of remembering that four times four is sixteen.

And so, plugged in, warmed up (this took the best part of a week), we then sat watching corteges, yachts and automobiles (OK, Moon buggies).

At the end of it there was a sense of anti-climax as many of us had never heard of Churchill, unlikely to go on a cruise or fly to the Moon, we’d resume our daily tasks. I don’t think we missed much schooling as I know my four times table (up to 12), know how to slay a mammoth and know that the adult baby Jesus wouldn’t have needed flint to have started a fire.

78 trombones

I’m at that age when I’m starting to mishear and mispronounce things.  I blame events in 1978 and ageing relatives. 

During that year, every Tuesday I’d go to Karachi.  At least that’s what my Great Aunt told anyone even remotely interested in my whereabouts in the grocer’s housed in our Balham flats.  I wasn’t an employee of the Pakistan International Airways; every week, I’d go to St George’s Hospital in Tooting to learn karate (a kind of medical paradox).  Only 5,000 miles out (perhaps the Proclaimers did this trip and inspired their hit song?)

That year also saw the release of The Motors’ song “Airport.” I was still living with my dad (my mother having successfully constructed a tunnel four years earlier) and we’d always have the radio on. “Have they just sung ‘eff off’?”asked my dad. “No,” I replied, “airport”. He went off muttering something about Frank Sinatra being more articulate.

Later that year, while getting ready for work, doing up our respective Van Heusen shirts and arguing about the Old Spice being stolen again, we heard on the news that one of the members of the band Chicago had died.  The Newsreader went on to inform the listeners that, “one of their biggest hits was, ‘If you leave me now’”“Effing appropriate” said my dad (well, that was the gist of what he said).  And he wondered why he failed the audition to appear on “Fifteen to one”!

Vested interest

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There was a spectacular difference between physical exercise in primary schools to that in secondary ones.  

And what a surprise I got during my first PE lesson at my Tooting grammar school.  It wasn’t so much pretending to be a tree (something I’d done successfully the previous seven years), this was trying to jump over objects which looked the size of a fully-grown oak!

Previously, I’d dressed only in vest, pants and ill-fitting plimsolls, prancing gaily around my Balham primary school hall, listening to a BBC employee who sounded like she’d a whole orchard of plums in her mouth.

At secondary school it was not called “Music and Movement”, although there was certainly movement (mainly avoiding the PE master’s eyes), but no music, although any funeral march or anything towards the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung wouldn’t have seemed out of place. 

Music and Movement was very innocent; I still have days when I wish I could suddenly become a horse chestnut (usually during endless Zoom calls).

When we didn’t have the radio, we’d have a kind, elderly teacher who’d play the piano (she probably tinkled on her church organ at weekends, like Violet Carson, only without a hair-net) as opposed to secondary school when our master, who, should you have tracked his genealogy back to the late 15th Century, you’d have gone directly to Tomas de Torquemada. 

The only good thing at secondary school was you didn’t have, chasing you throughout the lesson, was a girl who wanted to become a golden retriever when she grew up.  Especially if you being a tree was slightly too realistic.

Bunkered

As an only child I would often have to amuse myself with whatever toy raw materials I had around me.  I was obsessed, as a ten-year-old, with golf and would spend hours at night in the bedroom of my Balham flat putting a golf ball into a lone empty yogurt pot (pointless having two yoghurt pots as I had no one to call).

One year I was given the Arnold Palmer Pro Shot Golf game and, as golf courses tend to close during the hours of darkness, at night I’d set this up;  utilising the six available clubs, two bunkers and four out-of-bounds fences, I’d try and complete eighteen holes.

My golfing ability, due to playing too much Pro Shot Golf, never improved, so I’d never win the Morden Pitch ‘n’ Putt Open let alone the US one.

I never completed eighteen holes as invariably I’d get my finger stuck in the levering device which enabled mini-Arnold Palmer to swing.  I would then walk the walk of shame into my parents’ lounge, implement still attached to my finger, and ask for some butter to remove it.  As I walked back to my bedroom, I’d hear them talk:

“All he does at night is play with himself.”

“He’ll probably go blind.”

As I walked back, I thought: ‘I’ve got my finger stuck, it’s not taken my bloody eye out!’

Off topic

In my final year at my Balham primary school, apart from the playtime bell ringing, the favourite part of my time there was when the teacher announced: ‘It’s time to work on your topic’.

A ‘topic’ was a project which lasted several terms and had nothing to do with hazelnut-covered chocolate.

In 1967 there were thirty of us in the class (I was one of the few not called ‘Susan’) and our topic was to write about a county.  There had been thirty-six English counties, so the chances of getting Rutland (and consequently no work) was high.

I got Middlesex.  I wanted Kent as I was, even as a ten-year-old, a massive fan of the County Cricket Club and obsessive about cricket generally – which became horribly obvious as my topic progressed.

Two years earlier Middlesex had officially stopped being a county.  Surely better than getting Rutland?  No, new county boundaries meant for nothing in SW17 (not part of Westmoreland).

I could have written about Harrow School; Chiswick House or the 15th Century font in West Drayton; I chose solely to write about Middlesex cricket.

My topic could have included facts about Hampton Court and its inhabitants and history; I chose to write about the inhabitants of Lord’s (not even in Middlesex).

Leading up to my Eleven-plus, rather than plumping for Thomas Cromwell, I wrote (at length) about Fred Titmus.  I even referred to the English Test cricketer probably being a better offspinner than Katherine of Aragon.  

So, not so much divorced; beheaded; died; divorced; beheaded; survived, more stumped; run out; caught; stumped; run out; hit the ball twice.

How to find a clematis

Living on the fourth floor of a block of flats made gardening precarious.  While my Balham flats had a communal garden, it was not the same as having your own begonias or clematis to tend to; if you were to become Percy Thrower, you were restricted to indoor plants.

Consequently, we had a flat with more plants in than Kew Gardens.

With my mother suffering from arachnophobia, we didn’t own spider plants, nor did we have anything made out of macramé as mother didn’t like pasta. We did, however, have cheese plants (even though most family members were lactose intolerant). 

Aspidistras were few and far between as this was thought this was a child’s illness which gives you a sore throat and fever; rubber plants were acceptable as mum believed these acted as a form of contraception (constantly reading books past midnight on indoor plants ensured I remained an only child).

Indoor plants are designed to be fairly indestructible, however, if you’re a teenage boy, the leaves make a very good camouflage hat in case the Nazis invaded again and a father who’d once seen a documentary on Fidel Castro and thought he could make a fortune selling cigars made from mother-in-law’s tongue.

But the most exotic plant in our flat was the Venus Flytrap – not wonderfully pretty, but we saved a fortune on tins of Raid.

Lava and lime

In the 60s you didn’t have to go to the edge of Mount Vesuvius to see lava, if you’d saved up enough Green Shield stamps you could get some in a lamp; if you had faulty wiring, there was that ever-present danger the eruption of AD79 would be re-enacted in your flat.

But, if globules resembling something out of the Quatermass Experiment wasn’t for you, then a fibre-optic lamp was the thing to adorn your bedroom in the (in my case) highly unlikely event that a girl might visit. 

In the 70s, in my Balham flat, I would turn my light on in the hope that it would act as a homing device to any unsuspecting girl in our flats (preferably one who liked cricket, Thunderbirds and Sven Hassel novels).

However, the only danger (there was no danger of anyone visiting) was that the fibre-optic lamp, though wonderfully pretty when lit up, would moult more than the hairiest German Shepherd dog. 

This was not advertised on the packaging and you only found out – given the room was in virtual darkness – when you trod on one. Think pieces of Lego, only with a skin-piercing syringe attached. 

I was clearly never going to make it as a Hippie, my mother had installed fire alarms in my room, so joss sticks were out of the question and the only flares I’d see would be my mother firing one out of our flat window signalling my dad had gone to work.

Wolf in sheepskin clothing

A sheepskin coat is not just for Christmas – unless your paternal grandmother has given you one.

Each year I would receive a big present, bought off my Nan’s Grattan catalogue.

Fashion ideas, however, differ when there’s a sixty-year age gap. 

I’d travelled on Boxing Day 1970 from our flat in Balham to my Nan’s flat in Marylebone, filled with great expectation as to what the ‘big’ gift might be?  The year before I’d been given an identity bracelet with ‘Michael’ engraved on it (my full name, which meant you’re late for your tea, your room needs tidying and/or you’re never going to get any O-levels reading The Beano).  The bracelet was so heavy my arm would hang like an Orangutan.

Would this year be different?

Once settled, I was presented with a package half the size of my torso (not another bracelet, then?).  Upon removing The Clangers wrapping paper I discovered a sheepskin coat which, if you were fifty, a football manger, selling an old Cortina or all three, it was the ideal present; if you were fourteen, you almost wished for another bracelet (at least both shoulders would droop).

But there was always a second, smaller present. More unwrapping, this paper time adorned with Atom Ant, it became evident my Nan had succumbed to the sales skills of the local Avon lady; as I unravelled, I found a bottle of Windjammer; a fragrance which sounded like it should be a cure for flatulence and certainly smelled like it.

In years to come I had visions of sitting in a football dugout, 1600E log-book at the ready, knowing no insect would come within 100-yards of me!

The Hoss has bolted

During lockdown many people have been lucky, once they’ve had enough of Lorraine on This Morning, to have a subscription to Netflix, Amazon Prime or have a reel of an 8mm cinefilm they found in the loft, to watch to while away the times they’ve been stuck indoors.

Imagine if this had happened in the 60s, assuming we’d had the technology?   Would we have binge-watched all 431 episodes of Bonanza? Had Zoom calls talking about ‘have you got to the episode when Hoss goes to the dentist yet?’

Today we have a plethora of Scandinavian murders to watch.  In the 60s, in my Balham flat where I’d be hoping perhaps this week I might see Alexandra Bastedo naked, I’d not even heard of Scandinavia, (these were the times when Iceland was still Bejam) let alone know what noir meant (I thought he played for Paris St-Germain).

The problem with many of these series is that eventually they have to insert a dream sequence.  You never got that with Tales of the Riverbank – suddenly Hammy wakes up and Southfork has been sold!

On far too late for a youngster like me, the daily eight-minutes of The Epilogue would have made a good box-set.  Although would it have been worth waiting for the big fight scene at the end between the Devil and St Michael?

But there were always circuses to fall back on.  60 years ago, to this day, on the BBC, there was Chipperfield’s Circus starring Mr Pastry – remembering how annoying he was, I’m hoping it was the episode when he gets eaten by a lion.  Too soon?