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You say potato

Mr. Potato Head has just turned 70.

I would have hours of endless vegetable-related fun in my Balham flat as a kid. Although potatoes became quite dangerous if the plastic hat and moustache were still impaled while being roasted.

But, 70-years ago, were Mr. and Mrs. Potato (Senior) sitting down with their son asking whether he was going to be a chip; crisp or dauphinoise, only to be disappointed to hear he wanted to be a model?

Also, in 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh first brought potatoes to the UK, did he think their prime aim would be for children’s entertainment? Perhaps, when looking for El Dorado (the mythical South American city, not the BBC show), he saw someone with a head shaped like a potato with stumpy legs, sporting a small hat and moustache one would normally associate with risqué films in the 60s?

Growing up, when you had the introduction of ‘celebrity’ chefs, you’d never see Fanny Craddock sticking some comedy ears on a potato she was about to show us how to cook.  Perhaps, Johnny did this behind her back?  If so, you’d have thought it would have had a monocle like his?

Ballet High

It was November 1973 when I decided never to wear women’s clothing again. 

At the tender age of sixteen, I was asked to appear in a sketch my Balham amateur dramatics society were producing.  I’d been overlooked for many large parts, so this was my chance for glory. 

The sketch was entitled: ‘We’re the only girls left in the ballet’.  It was a three-handed sketch.   The other two were six inches taller than me, a generation older and had beards.  I didn’t start shaving until I was around 35, so could not compete in the facial growth stakes.

Aside from performing in the church hall, we would travel with our revues; these were invariably held in local mental homes (that’s showbiz!).  The downside to this was that the audience rarely laughed at what we thought were the right places.  We could have performed King Lear and they’d have probably complained that was too funny.

Meanwhile, with my first venture (that I’m admitting here) looming, I had to be helped into a tutu.  If Margot Fonteyn had ever visited SW17, she’d have had kittens. 

The dress cut into my crotch (almost acting as a vasectomy); I’ve still never taken to blocks of wood in the ends of my shoes and a mixture of muslin, gauze and nylon brings me out in a rash.

So, if ever you go to the ballet to watch Romeo and Juliet, if my stage career had taken off, I could have played the latter – although I’m not good with heights, so they’d have had to have cut the balcony scene.

Auf Wiedersehen, petting

It was 1972 when I first learned that heavy petting had nothing to do with animals.

Attending my school swimming gala at Clapham Manor Baths, on display, as a warning I now know, was a sign: “No Heavy Petting”.

My pets, prior to 1972, had been a mouse and a West Highland terrier; animals not renowned for their excessive weight.

As I looked at the sign I thought about animals I knew to be both heavy and aquatic; I began worrying that an alligator or Great White shark might suddenly appear during the 100-yard butterfly relay race.

Before this visit, to me the word “petting” meant a tiny zoo with goats, guinea pigs and gerbils (most small animals beginning with “G” basically).

Might very fat guinea pigs feature as floats for the participants who could not swim, perhaps?

My next worry was the potential disease one might get if a load of rodents were in the pool? Getting a verruca would have been the least of my worries.

After the swimming gala, whenever I was asked if I was interested in any heavy petting, my response was that I have a fear of water, and even greater fear of crocodiles.

A consequence of which was I attended my first date wearing water wings.

Stone me!

I wouldn’t have made a good caveman.

I remember in one of my first history lessons, at my Balham primary school, seeing pictures of cavemen.   I lived in a centrally heated flat, so that gaping hole at the entrance to the cave would have simply prompted cold after cold for me.  Remember, they didn’t have Lemsip in Stone Age times.

Before Tesco started in the Neander Valley, food was mostly obtained by slaying woolly mammoths.  (Imagine the Green Shield stamps you’d have got with one of those?)

Once slayed, you’d soon get tired of variations on the same meal day after day: Roast mammoth; cold mammoth; cold mammoth sandwiches; mammoth curry.  The job to have would have been spear-maker or owner of the local flint factory, such was the ever-present need to ward off hunger.

I can only assume no one ever got told off for drawing on the walls.  Everyone was very capable, it seems, of drawing bison, but precious little else.  The day after fire was invented, the health & safety officer was appointed.

If you were the local outfitter you’d have asked if the mammoth suit was to be three-piece or not?  And did you want the design to be houndstooth or sabretooth?

Of course, you didn’t need a coat in the summer months.  It was warm 2.6 million years ago; this was when outdoor badminton was invented and Health & Efficiency first published.

Roast coelacanth anyone?

A jumper’s not just for Christmas

A joke within my family, at Christmas, would be, who was the previous owner of your present?

My dad and I would travel from Balham to Baker Street to see his side of the family.   They never bought us new clothes.  My aunt, his half-sister (different fathers, not that she only 50% of her torso), would give my dad jumpers from her local charity shop or from her (recently dead) husband. 

Dad would have preferred the charity option, as his brother-in-law had been a foot taller, so the arms of the jumper would hang down, making dad look like a bespectacled orangutan.  Didn’t make his tree-hanging ability any greater, though.

One year dad was given a jumper, and for once, the label had not been cut out (my aunt should never have been allowed near scissors).  My dad didn’t like it much, so decided to return to the shop, from whence it had come.

These were the days when you didn’t need a receipt.  Dad handed over the jumper, hoping he’d get a refund or coloured jumper other than the yellow he was handing back (handy if there was a fancy-dress party and you had to go as a condiment).

After a while, the assistant returned to my dad saying this line had been discontinued – for seven years.  My dad had been waiting a while, but not seven-years.

Next Christmas, my dad got his own back on his sister and gave her a Ration Book.   This was 1973.

Pass the bloody parcel

I’ve had a fear of cheese for exactly 58-years now (I’m writing this on 5th April 2022, the day I turned 65).

My parents had thrown a party in our Balham flat when I was seven.  Twenty kids all in one small lounge, together with two heavy smokers and an assortment of matches and lighters scattered like cushions in a Habitat furniture display.  What could possibly go wrong?

One lad at my school at the party was very susceptible to nose-bleeds – they were so regular, if we’d been allowed watches, you could have set your time by him.  Of course, during a very competitive Postman’s knock, my mate’s nose began to bleed.  The flat turned into the set of Emergency! Ward 10 as my mother’s Bracklesham Bay tea towel quickly became a tourniquet.   Several of the guests (can you call seven-year-olds guests?) thought this was real life “doctors and nurses” and had replaced the much-promised Pass the parcel round. 

Not content with the salmon and chicken paste sandwiches, I asked my mother for a cheese sandwich.  When it arrived, I decided I didn’t want it; my mother made me eat it and my relationship with Camembert; Edam or even a Dairylea triangle ended on that fateful April 1964 afternoon.

Still, everyone got cake and an item of stationery (as one did in those days), although my mum got the rubber order wrong, thus avoiding many young pregnancies.  

Having a butcher’s

Nicknames can be a cruel thing. 

I wasn’t wonderfully grateful to Gerry or Sylvia Anderson introducing the British public to Joe 90 the moment I entered my second year at secondary school!   If only I’d had his magic glasses – I could have suddenly sworn in Russian to the boys in the playground who likened me to the string puppet!

But it was the school holidays which were the most ignominious. 

My mum would insist on dragging me the length and breadth of Balham High Street, introducing me to numerous shopkeepers as her “little Mickey Mouse”.  When you’re ten or eleven, and you’re first contemplating asserting your masculinity, you really don’t want your mum referring to you as a cartoon rodent!

As if being mistaken for her younger brother wasn’t embarrassing enough, mum was stunning; she couldn’t add up or spell but had certain assets which were seemingly very attractive to the male shopkeepers of SW12. 

We’d visit various butchers, where the staff were excellent examples of the fayre they were selling, as their arms looked like giant hams.  

Because we rarely had much money, juggling her housekeeping would involve me adding up various items of meat; this was rewarded with the question: “What shall we have this Sunday, chicken or beef?  What do you think, my little Mickey Mouse?”  My career as a butcher was instantaneously and metaphorically chopped off in its prime.  

What was advertising’s gain was a piece of scrag end’s loss.

Sling and arrow

In 1972, in the 4th year of my Tooting grammar school, we had a term learning First Aid.

A few lessons of Latin and suddenly everyone thought they could be a doctor.

Sadly, we were so badly behaved in these eight-weeks, the only thing we learned what to do was make a sling. 

Broken leg; typhus; West Nile Fever?  We’d have been quite hopeless – unless any of these conditions could have been cured using an old Cub scarf.

These days, most homes will have sophisticated First Aid kits.  With the contents, you could carry out minor operations – although you’d have to keep your work surfaces clean – and clear.

Growing up in the ‘60s, if your ailment wasn’t treatable with Germolene, Friar’s Balsam or three miles of lint, you’d be put on the cart the moment it entered your street. 

If you broke a limb playing sport at school, the deranged PE master would tell you you’ve got another one.  The school First Aid kit consisted of a sponge; a bucket filled with water from the River Wandle and a junior hacksaw from the metalwork classroom should anyone have gangrene before the master put them on the 155 bus home.

To paraphrase Robert Duvall, “I love the smell of calamine lotion in the morning.”

Keeping abreast of things

Like me, my dad was in advertising.

His speciality was industrial advertising; most of his clients’ ads appeared in magazines like What’s New in Hydrocarbon Processing – he would read it for its gardening tips.

He would often bring these magazines home – they often had riveting articles about heating, ventilating and riveting promoted on the front covers.

So, when I found a copy of Playboy in a dark cupboard in our Balham flat, I was very confused.

Had my dad won a bra advertising account? Was this research? Was one of the “contributors” going to feature in one of my dad’s ads?

I’d never before seen an ad which featured a naked woman holding up a tunnel support. 

My next question was why this magazine was in the cupboard and not lying on our coffee table alongside the Radio Times or Woman’s Own? Or my Beano?

Because, as a ten-year-old, I wanted to follow my dad into advertising, I thought I’d do my own research.

I was researching away when my mum found me in the darkened cupboard.

“You really shouldn’t be looking at magazines featuring ladies’ bare breasts, Michael.”

“Bare breasts, mother,” I replied, “I’d not noticed; I was reading the very well-written in-depth articles.”

She took the magazine away, probably to be used as a rolling pin later that evening on my dad, muttering, “no bleedin’ wonder you’re always having to go to the opticians!”

Cutting the mustard

I think my maternal nan had lodgers; I think they were The Borrowers.

Every Sunday I’d walk, with my parents, down one flight of stairs in our Balham flats, to lunch at my nan’s.

Everything was laid out on the table, the roast was brought in, then the condiments: salt, pepper and, and this is where my suspicions were alerted, a very small bowl, full of mustard, plus an even smaller, exceptionally tiny, tiny spoon!

All through lunch I’d be looking around looking at cracks in the skirting board for any evidence of stunted human life. 

I assumed The Borrowers didn’t have Sunday lunch.  Was this part of the rental agreement with my nan – you can live here, but we want your spoons every Sunday?  Did the size of the spoon affect the taste of the mustard?  Did The Borrowers insist, as part of this bartering system, on it being Colman’s own brand and not some muck from Dijon?

My nan had an old crimplene house coat she’d wear permanently.  It had two pockets: one would store the sprouts I’d not eaten, having deflected my parents’ attention before whipping them off my plate; the other might have The Borrowers’ bedroom?

My paternal nan also had tiny spoons.  Whenever I’d make the journey to Marylebone to see her, dessert was always served with a tiny spoon with “LCC” on it.  Perhaps another side of The Borrowers family lived there – a family of kleptomaniacs who stole from local council offices?