Blog

Lavender fields forever

I don’t quite remember when the site of Morden Station was lavender fields; nor do I remember when the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were part of the Battersea Park Festival Gardens in the years before Christ; what I do I realise is the buildings I knew as kid are no longer there.

When I first started work, in 1974, my job was to collect regional newspapers from their London offices in Fleet Street.  Most of these buildings are now law firms.  So, if you need to get a copy of the Hull Daily Mail, Helston Packet or the Isle of Wight County Press, it’ll cost you £1,000 just for someone to fetch it.

Many old banks are now wine bars; old pubs are now wine bars and you can’t find a decent milliners for love nor money.  I now have my own anvil.

The Balham Odeon, where my mum and I watched 50% of Dumbo (we left early as it was too upsetting) and 30% of The Scarecrow (too much set in Dymchurch), turned into Majestic Wine.  I’d moved away, came back, sat in the shop waiting to watch Emil and the Detectives only to be sold a case of Rioja.  Not even close to a Kia-Ora or a tub!

The Mayfair cinema, Tooting, turned into a snooker hall and then a bank.  I assume it’s a wine bar now?  It certainly won’t be a haberdashery shop.

But the most disturbing thing, given that everyone is being told to drink more water, is, where have all the horse troughs gone?  They’re probably very small leisure centres now!

When I’m 65

When you’re a kid, there are various (usually medical) things which you observe that only old people use.

Last week, after sixty-five years, I had to buy corn plasters.  As a child, I was aware of aging relatives using them.  My question is, will I be using medical aids I’d witnessed in my Balham flat in the ‘60s?

Perhaps I’ll start dabbing myself with 4711 Eau de Cologne; I may start protecting my clothes with mothballs or begin sucking cloves for toothache (one of the few things not mentioned by the witches in Macbeth)?

I wonder if the bottles of Kaolin & Morphine; Milk of Magnesia and Friar’s Balsam I currently have in my loft are past their sell-by date?

Obviously, medicine has progressed over the past sixty-years, the doctor no longer visits with a black bag, but can give you a password for a Zoom call.

One thing is for certain, I won’t be creating my own laxatives.  I had a great aunt who lived in our flats.  Once she invited me into her bedroom as she was getting ready to go to work.  Aside from the overriding smell of peroxide, on her bedside table was a cup, full of brown water, in which floated several actual rotting senna pods.  The mere sight of these sent me rushing to her toilet.  I guess they worked.

Pass the smelling salts, please.

Goose feathers are off, love

I’m not so old that I remember writing with a goose feather, but writing implements have changed over the years.

I remember my first day at my Balham primary school; I sat at my new desk, wondering when my afternoon rest was going to start, when I had a lump of slate and chalk thrust into my hand.  Was I expected to start a fire with them?  Was this a type of drum? Was I to write the odds of the 3.30 at Newmarket?

Before this I’d only had crayons.  My nan had a biro to do the Evening News crossword every night. I wasn’t allowed that as, the only time I’d been given one, I bit the end off and got blue ink all over my mouth.  My mother assumed I was part of a royal family.  Biology not one of her stronger suits.

When I was ten, we were introduced to italic pens.  After ten years of mastering writing with crayons and the occasional pencil, suddenly everything had to be slanted – like I was doing my classwork from the other side of the desk.

At secondary school the desks were so old, there were still inkwells in every desk.  With the advent of cartridges, the only use of the redundant inkwell was to place your mid-morning tuck-shop iced bun in.   Although, if you found you suddenly had royal blue icing, the inkwells were clearly still being used.

But if your cartridge had run out, there were always the geese running amok on the rugby field.

What’s it Harry Worth?

The BBC is celebrating 100-years of broadcasting.  Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it had a major effect on my life.

As a kid, I would frequently walk down Balham High Road wondering why I couldn’t lift both feet off the ground in shop doorways. 

My mother always wanted me to have elocution lessons; this would have been pointless in south-west London – I’d have been better off copying Bill & Ben.

It was a great vehicle to see what possible lines of career you might take: I couldn’t have been a rag ‘n’ bone man due to my fear of horses; life on the open seas looked attractive except no episode of Captain Pugwash ever mentioned getting scurvy, being attacked by Spaniards or being only ten-years-old on board, having been pressganged into joining the Navy; nor could I have been Bluebottle as I don’t like big bangs.

The Good Life encouraged us to become self-sufficient; having a goat in a fourth-floor flat wasn’t terribly practical, but we did always have nice mohair coats.

The BBC connected people with one another: every Sunday you always wondered where Paderborn was and thinking it must be so awful that the people there were constantly looking forward to coming home for Christmas!  Even in January.

But there was little choice. If you’d been living on Mars and returned and turned the TV on and it was showing The Big Country, Billy Smart’s circus or Val Doonican with a particularly thick jumper on, you’d know it was Christmas.  There was no escape – especially not from Stalag Luft III, which usually preceded Val’s Christmas Jumper fest.

Goodnight children, everywhere.

Don’t tie that kangaroo down, sport, he’ll dob you in

One of the disadvantages of being brought up in SW London in the ‘60s and ‘70s was that none of the parks or ponds encouraged the local animals to help out the Police.

If there’d been an Outback within Tooting Bec Common, a Cockney Skippy could have helped identify villains.  Local Police could have been trained to speak Kangaroo.  “What’s that, Skippy, someone’s selling eggs past their sell-by date in Tooting Market?”

If Clapham Common Ponds would have been at the same temperature as the waters off the coast of Florida, Flipper could have made a second home there and have been a massive assistance to the constabulary operating out of the Cavendish Road Police Station.

However, my question is this: Why did the law enforcers, who, in Dr Doolittle vain, speak to the animals, always assuming there was a problem?  Was there not the outside possibility that both Skippy and Flipper, having befriended the local Bobbies, were simply trying to exchange pleasantries? 

I can imagine both Skippy and Flipper chirruping and squeaking away wondering, why do these people think a lifeboat’s adrift, or a body’s been found on Ayers’s Rock? All I want to know if they think it looks like rain?

I’ve always wanted to talk to dolphins and went to evening class to do so.  In the first lesson, I learned to count to ten in Dolphin; ordered two beers and mastered saying “you have the right to remain silent”.

Dingo took your baby?  Sorry, Skippy, that’s another series.

Sycamore or less

With the proliferation of computer games these days, I assume no one plays with flowers anymore?

Are daisy chains still made?  I assume, if you live next door to a family of aging hippies, they probably are?

I’m at that age when I don’t need plucking a dandelion to remind me to get up several times during the night!

Do I like butter?  Nowadays you’re asked about food allergies rather than food preferences.

As you get older, you’re more likely to worry about dandelion spores creating more weeds, not whether someone loves you (or not).

As a kid, growing up in the ‘60s and wandering across Wandsworth Common, I’d collect conkers.  Don’t know why: the fear of breaking the wrist which bowled a decent leg-break when I was 11, was never going to be risked in a school playground with a weapon baked in vinegar.

Walking along the street these days you never see people with green tufts of Goose Grass sticking to their clothes?  It was how Eric Bristow started.  Goose Grass was also called “sticky willy” – you can insert your own joke here, or, if this affects you directly, order some ointment.

Every time I walked past a sycamore tree on Tooting Bec Common I’d dream of becoming a helicopter pilot.

Luckily rationing has stopped, so I don’t have to drink coffee made from acorns anymore.

Nettle tea’s off, love.

Cane and unable

I was a goody-goody at school; this made receiving my first detention a big shock.

At my Tooting secondary school we had exams for everything: including PE. 

PE was not a strength.  Give me a ball to hit, kick or head and I’d be fine; get me to vault over anything larger than a matchbox, I wasn’t.

We were about to start a geography exam – I had an image of what an ox-bow lake looked like in my head – when the PE teacher entered to read out the results of the PE exam we’d recently taken:

Richards, 0%” – you couldn’t even get a mark for writing your name.  The consequence of this was a detention.

So, because of my inability to do a forward roll; leap over a buck or climb a rope, I had to spend an hour after school writing “Please give me a rope to climb, because it’s not at all futile” 100-times.

I also had to do a cross-country run – running round Wandsworth Common – seemingly 100-times.

And that was the only punishment I had – I don’t count mental punishment after every parents’ evening – “Michael could do better” and wasn’t Michael told about that later those evenings!

I never got the cane – which was still in use. 

However, the only violence I witnessed was, because I was caught singing Wizzard’s Angel Fingers during O-level music revision, a blackboard rubber – hurled at the speed of light, with the accuracy you’d have wanted on The Golden Shot.

Not very hungry caterpillar

Even though I only lived feet away from my Balham primary school, my mother thought it best I attended school dinners.  I lasted one day.

I remember sitting down on a mashed potato-ingrained table and chair.

What I’d not anticipated – never having had it at home – was caterpillar – in the salad.   Lettuce, yes; tomato, yes; the odd spring onion. 

Never a caterpillar. 

We did live on the fourth floor of our flats, so I assumed, as I sat staring at said caterpillar moving slowly over a slice of beetroot, they weren’t capable of climbing up 100-feet of brickwork?

I’d never seen mashed (this was a masterpiece of overstatement) potato like it.  The original King Edward they used was more mashed.  And why was it grey?  Had they used grey butter? Lurpak had grey packaging, perhaps they’d used that?

But it was the sponge pudding which was the pièce de resistance, as we like to say in Balham.  If you wanted the quickest way to dehydrate, the sponge pudding offered this.   Adding the chocolate sauce would have had Lady Isobel Barnett not knowing which clue to give the listeners!

When asked, after I’d arrived home, what I’d had for my school dinner, I said Roast Swan, as I dreaded my mum ordering hundreds of caterpillars to make me feel like home.

I’m still waiting to fully digest the sponge pudding.

Not so glorious mud

As a kid, growing up in my Balham flat, I had central heating; Hot Wheels and 35 glove puppets.  It begs the question: why on Earth did I play in puddles the moment it rained?

We had no running rivers with bridges over them (I’d have built one, but wasn’t terribly adept with Meccano), so there were no opportunities for playing Pooh Sticks

But, when it rained, we had puddles and would reenact Pearl Harbour.

Because I wasn’t well-versed in laundry matters, I would get very dirty – and wet.  Having built dams using stones; half bricks; mates’ satchels, we imagined we were fighting Admiral Tojo until I had to go in for my tea.

Thrilled with the fact I’d subverted the Japanese Navy, and knowing I wasn’t about to have Sushi for tea (this was Balham in the ‘60s), I would re-enter my flat.

The moment my mother saw my clothes, she went berserk.  I immediately apologised.  To which I heard the all-too-frequent refrain: “You’re always bleedin’ sorry, Michael”.  Being called “Michael” meant trouble; I was no longer “my little Mickey Mouse”.

It was a quiet teatime that evening; we watched I love Lucy in total silence while eating our smoked haddock.

As I explained to Sooty and Sweep, two of my glove puppets, who were on each hand – how was I to know mud was difficult to get out of a brand new school shirt?  Was I sponsored by Dreft?  Sooty never did answer. 

Crazy horses

Through abject fear, I’ve never touched a horse. 

Playing Totopoly was the nearest I ever got to going anywhere near the likes of Arkle, Mr Ed or the Woodentops’ Dobbin. 

Living on the fourth floor of a block of flats was impractical keeping a goldfish (they don’t like the altitude), let alone having my own little pony.

You rarely saw horses running wild across Wandsworth Common as if they were on the Argentinian Pampas. 

I had one stand next to me as a kid, queuing to get into Stamford Bridge; it was hard to determine, as a nine-year-old, which was the scariest – a seemingly giant horse or the travelling Leeds fans in the late ‘60s?  

When I was in the Cubs, I once visited Tooting Police station – as a visitor not on remand – they didn’t have a badge for that (I assume a hand-woven depiction of a pair of handcuffs would have been the motif)?  Luckily for me, our Cub pack visited the day the horses were out: probably performing at Badminton (the place, not the game – horses have very poor hand/eye coordination). 

I’ve never even ridden on a seaside donkey (probably wearing the obligatory “kiss me quick” hat put me off as it’d mess up my hair).  

Unless they start filming the Lloyds Bank ads on Tooting Bec Common, I fear I will never ever touch one. At six-foot I’m unlikely to make it as a jockey – we won’t go there regarding making the weight, although, during this summer there were days when I thought I could easily be involved in the 3.30 at Newmarket.