Russian fly in the ointment


I was seven when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first aired on the BBC.  I immediately wanted to be Napoleon Solo and sent off to become a member. A few days later, with membership card proudly in my hand, I believed I would be a master spy before I took my Eleven-Plus.

During the series I always had my concerns about Solo’s sidekick, the enigmatic Illya Kuryakin; consequently, I wasn’t really surprised when he popped up, dressed as a British RAF officer, in Colditz – but that’s why Russian spies are so clever and clearly have a variety of seamstresses working tirelessly in their Gulags.

As a seven-year-old the name of U.N.C.L.E.’s nemesis, T.H.R.U.S.H., meant nothing to me. I’d yet to buy my first Observer Book of Song Birds and was unlikely to contract any sexually-transmitted disease (mainly because my mother told me never to sit on any strange toilets).  Looking back, Napoleon and Illya were unlikely to quash their arch-enemy by rubbing a soothing ointment on them.  Although eradication was the name of the game, I guess.

The show which rivalled The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on ITV was Danger Man – I also wanted to be John Drake and would stalk the corridors of my Balham block of flats seeking out enemies of the state (I suspected most of the cleaners and believed that inside their mops lay a selection of east European munitions).

Danger Man would occasionally feature cameo roles from famous actors, one episode featured John le Mesurier; I never wanted to be Sgt Wilson, but in increasing old age, can identify with Private Godfrey and his constant desire for the toilet; today I am more great uncle rather the Man from!

Deeper throat

barley sugar

I’ve not had barley sugar since 25th May 1967.

My nan had a cupboard like a confectioner’s and contained an assortment of sweets primarily designed for sucking. If there’d been a warning fifty-one years ago on one specific packet I’d have not missed Cubs.

Dressed in Cub shirt, adorned with collector’s and signaller’s badges and newly-won felt sixer’s appendage, shorts, socks (together with garters holding them up) and woggle in correct position (enter your own gag here), I was all prepared to shout “dyb, dyb, dyb”, play handball, run like a Banshee round Balham Baths’ adjoining hall and splatter over-cooked sausages to every part of the hall’s kitchen, my nan proffered me one last sweet from her store.

I’d never had barley sugar before and felt it would make a change from her usual offering of Acid Drops or Callard & Bowsers Toffees.  It would be the last time too as, after a nano-second, because it stuck in my throat.   The natural melting time for a barley sugar boiled sweet is around the best part of a decade (the time it felt this thing was stuck in my throat).  Cubs had to be attended at all costs, if only to see how far up sausages on too high a gas would ascend into the air.

I spent, ostensibly, hours and hours, being fed water as hot as possible to try and melt the stubborn barley sugar – was suffering third degree burns in my throat worth not being shouting at by Akela?

Eventually the sweet melted sufficiently for it to move through my throat. Cubs had been and gone and the sausage safe for another week before I returned as a maniacal Fanny Craddock.

I sat down, relieved;  my nan to put the TV on – the 1967 European Cup Final between Celtic and Inter Milan was taking place. I had been a hero like the Celtic players that night.  Less than a week later I saw, in the Radio Times, they had the European Cup Winner’s Cup Final on TV.  Glasgow Rangers against some team which I’d never seen on the Big Match.  Perhaps I might bunk off Cubs again?

Personification of Evel


I think it was Evel Knievel who once said: “You wait ages for a London bus, then fourteen come along at once”.  I was, despite owning a moped aged 16, never destined to follow the exploits of the master bus-vaulter.

In 1972, aged 15, my parents emigrated from Balham to Carshalton (it could have been Neptune, it seemed so far away). Transport back to family still in Balham would be a problem so my dad said he’d pay for me to get a motorbike.

Armed with a selection of Premium Bonds, illegal Singapore currency my dad had brought back after National Service and a handful of pretend coins from the Co-Op, I travelled back to SW17 to purchase a Harley Davidson.  Sadly, they never produced a range of mopeds, so an Austrian-built Puch Maxi S was procured.

The shop I visited on Garratt Lane, Tooting was called Elite Motors. Growing up in 60s/70s south London, “elite” wasn’t a word we’d heard much, so we unwittingly called the shop “e-lights” (the shop is probably now selling vaping mechanisms).

Elites did well out of me; I bought three bikes there. However, I was more Mr Sheen than Barry Sheene and after a succession of minor accidents felt there was some supreme being telling me it was time to learn to drive.

On my travels back and forth from Balham to Carshalton, I remember vividly riding through Mitcham Common and the temperature dramatically dropping several degrees. I could have ridden blindfold and known exactly where I was – although this would have consequently entailed more arguments with the bridge over Mitcham Junction Station!

I miss not having a bike, although my most embarrassing biking moment is still etched in my brain: having toppled over at Amen Corner, Tooting, I was asked by a frail, old woman if she could help get my bike upright again? It was at this point when I realised that old people act as very good fulcrums!

I won’t ever be attempting vaulting over buses any time soon as my Red Rover is about to run out.

Not a sniff


Hay fever was the reason I failed my O-levels. I should know, I’m a doctor, well, I once owned a plastic stethoscope from a 1960s doctors and nurse kit.

The hay fever season has returned to these shores (probably from Russia); I remember back to being sixteen in 1973, sitting my O-levels and contracting, for the first time, Allergic Rhinitis – which is the correct medical term for hay fever and not the name of the cross-eyed rhino in Daktari.

My desk, inside the hot, imposing, alien school hall on Battersea Rise, looked more like a chemist’s than a work station. If I’d had a bottle of ointment to treat marsh ague, some pampers and a box of prophylactics I could have rivalled Balham Boot’s!

I’d never had hay fever before and went to every exam armed with pen; Piriton; a Penetrol inhalant – which unblocked noses with power like that of a flame thrower; paper hankies; cloth hankies – all with a big “M” on (and a diagram of an oxbow lake, which I’d sewed on the night before my Geography O-level) and lucky (or not in this case) Gonk!

I also had a slide rule which proved more useful during my music O-level – underlining the name Chopin – than it did when I sat my maths O-level!

Despite having a desk which resembled that of a fifteenth century alchemist (I could turn base metal into Kleenex) I didn’t do very well with my science exams.  Not so much not knowing my arse from my elbow, I didn’t even know my amoeba from my elements tables.


Gloves aren’t off


I was told, after winning a new client, that my presentation had been “entertaining”. The person telling me this hadn’t actually been at the meeting, but they had heard and asked why?

“I used several glove puppets,” I replied.

I hadn’t, but it did remind me of my (rather too many for a boy) massive collection of soft toys I’d accumulated as a kid – including many glove puppets.

I have an early picture of me, aged four, throttling Sooty. As a kid, growing up in the sixties, many of the childrens’ programmes I watched invariably had glove puppets as part of the merchandise.  I was never that interested in string-puppets (although Muffin the Mule had been legalised by the time I was ten in 1967) but my loyalty remained with things you could stick your hand into (I should have been a vet rather than choosing a career in advertising).

My favourite was Willie Wombat (still illegal in some States in the US) – Willie Wombat was to Tingha and Tucker as Knots Landing was to Dallas.

As an only child, and with a collection of glove puppets large enough to form several football teams, I would invariably re-enact big football games in my bedroom (although doing this didn’t stop me having bad eyesight!).

One evening in mid-June 1970 Willie and Wendy Wombat became Gerd Müller and Uwe Seeler and snatched three late goals for a very antipodean-looking West German team against an England XI consisting of Sooty, Sweep and Sue as the front three. No contest.

I’m still technically a member of the Tingha & Tucker Club. The newsletters have dried up due to Tingha and Tucker moving the America to work on a koala stud farm.  However, if ever I feel nervous I simply sing Auntie Jean’s Wibbly Wobbly Way.

Next week: Why Twizzle defies every aspect of modern day health & safety.