Cards on the table


It is that time of year when Christmas card arrivals gather pace.
In my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, my mother would hang cards over hastily-erected pieces of string which, the more cards we received, the greater the chance of being garrotted!
In those days you’d buy a box of mixed cards, marginally heavier than greaseproof paper adorned with various winter and/or biblical scenes; the hierarchy of your friends and family would be determined by whether they got the (un-Christmassy) robin, a snowman in the shape of a wise man or the baby Jesus surrounded by donkeys, incense and virgins.
However, something which has crept into Santa’s postbag is the round robin letter from people you’ve not heard from since exactly a year ago!
Sadly, and this might be an only child thing, I couldn’t give a toss about the successful summer’s holiday, how (insert your own pretentious child’s name here) has integrated into the local Kindergarten or how the entire family is learning Italian – such was the triumph of the aforementioned trip to Tuscany and everyone now knows how to correctly pronounce the word Latte.
Also enclosed in the envelope is a picture of the entire family (many of whom you’d not have babysit your own kids) all dressed in the same onesie taken at Christmas last year; which begs the question: why do people dress normally for 364-days of the year only to have a total sartorial brain aberration at Christmas?
Happy Christmas, mine’s a Latte and Arriverderci, Roma.


Do you want to build a cardboard snowman?


When did Advent calendars become the monsters they have?
Gone are the days when you’d have a flimsy piece of cardboard, as near as you could get to being homemade, adorning your mantelpiece.
In my Balham flat, in the sixties, the moment December arrived I’d erect mine (Advent calendar) and wait, with childlike anticipation, until the 24th (the night before Christmas when I’d also be hurriedly, and badly wrapping, my mum’s Bronnley bath salts).
However, my brain must have been like a goldfish as, when the 24th came, the only number with a double door, behind which was always the same: the baby Jesus lying in a manger. You’d be lulled into a false sense of security all month as you’d open one each day to reveal a picture of a snow-covered post-box, a robin, an old fish (if you’d got your calendar free from that month’s Trout and Salmon magazine) – items vaguely relevant to Christmas and then, bang! The baby Jesus again.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of the baby Jesus being there – certainly in preference to a dead trout. However, these days the windows are no longer pictures of sugar cane sweets, holly or an immolating Christmas pudding, but actual gifts.
They are now as big as houses and many theme-based.
The Wise Men weren’t in Frozen, but if you were to look at any Advent calendar today you might be fooled into thinking that Elsa, Anna and Olaf were the bearers of gifts.
In 4 BC you’d have not been able to take Myrrh or Frankincense back to the Bethlehem branch of John Lewis!

Buckle up


The nights are drawing in and with that the advent of cold weather.
I look back to my childhood in 1960s south-west London and wonder why I never had hypothermia more frequently?
My winter attire was a mac (I’ve seen thicker veils) with a belt which, when my mother put it on me, acted as a tourniquet; a yellow and black school scarf which itched so much it was like having Scarlet Fever permanently; and gloves, which were attached to a long loop of elastic, taken, I think, from my Nan’s knickers as she coincidentally never left her flat during winter. I refused to wear a balaclava as I found the thought of messing up my hair abhorrent and one of the major reasons I never joined any terrorist organisations.
Everything was marked “Michael Richards Class 7” and all this whilst wearing shorts! Captain Oates had more protection!
Nowadays there are so many German-sounding layers of clothing to keep you dry, warm and to cheat the wind. I was not allowed to wear such things as my Nan thought there was a danger I’d look like Himmler. Given his uniform was made by Hugo Boss, I fear she may have missed a trick; still, I enjoyed the sanatoria which were located by the seaside!

Pippa Dee Pippa Dum

baby doll

I remember vividly the first Pippa Dee party I ever attended.
My mother would throw such parties for her friends in our Balham flat.
The invitation was never officially extended to me as I’d have been sent to bed earlier after a mug of warm milk, a chocolate digestive and above the legal limit dose of Gripe Water (I can never drink Ouzo now without conjuring up scary bedtime stories).
I can recollect entering a lounge through a fug of Embassy cigarettes, the bouquet of Blue Nun and witnessing rather a lot of Innoxa make-up to see several women holding up Baby Doll negligées.
The nights were drawing in and my practical, eight-year-old brain, calculated that the length of this garment wasn’t practical and probably wouldn’t have been for the guests’ daughters’ Barbies.
My stay (before I could be offered a fag or a sip of Black Tower from a glass procured courtesy of the local Esso garage) was short-lived and my return to my bedroom was threatened with less Gripe Water the subsequent evening!
I’m assuming that Pippa Dee parties were replaced with Ann Summers parties – with even shorter negligées, although probably more fire retardant?
Whatever happened, a Baby Doll night dress nor a vibrating rabbit could never replace a container which kept food fresh. But then, there’s nothing sexy about a Tupperware box and certainly wouldn’t make you smile quietly to yourself!

Dungeness monster

dr syn

Once a year, during the summer, in the sixties and seventies, I would leave the safety of my parents’ flat on Balham High Road and temporarily set up camp with my paternal grandparents in a rented house on the coast somewhere.
For several years, we rented a house at Greatstone, on the Kent coast; we were so close to the Dungeness nuclear power station, I’m surprised I never grew a third arm.
Money was tight and our humble abode reflected this (even the squatters had given it a bad review on Trip Advisor) and for our evening meals we were given a budget of 8/6 (42.5 new pence for my younger readers).
As we sat, waiting to order our evening dinner at a cafe in New Romney, mathematical juggling was the name of the game. (8/6 in 1970 is worth £6.24 in today’s money). Being good at darts as a 12-year-old stood me in good stead!
However, my dilemma was that I wanted sausage, egg AND chips AND cassata siciliana – the combined cost of which was ten bob – one and six over my allotted allowance.
Did I go the high cholesterol route or a lump of multi-coloured ice cream with random bits which’d stick in your teeth most of the holiday?
New Romney is famous mainly for smuggling during the 18th Century. I bet Dr Syn, the fictional anti-hero who operated around these parts, had more than eight and six to spend for his tea? I couldn’t even afford sherry trifle, let alone anything with brandy in it!



As a kid, growing up in south London in the sixties, around this time of year I often balanced the preference of being hanged, drawn and quartered with that of root canal treatment.
Our firework displays, in early November, would be held near the garages at the back of our Balham flats; the oo-ing and ah-ing would be interspersed with offerings of home-made toffee from a “responsible” adult who clearly moonlighted as the local dental nurse.
Guy Fawkes obviously never witnessed a firework display and I wonder whether he’d have been proud of his eponymous day being celebrated by people succeeding where he spectacularly failed on that fateful November evening in 1605?
Toffee was introduced into Western diets around the turn of the 19th Century, just before the time the cost of dental crowns surged.
1868 was the year of the last public execution in this country and coincided with the advent of Starbucks and Pret, thus occupying people during their lunch breaks in the absence of a hanging.
So, when you’re next in line for your convenience lunch, spare a thought for the man who inspired sparklers, bangers and Roman Candles and think: “it could be worse, the avocados might have run out, but at least I’ve not been chopped into four pieces and my penis is still intact!”
Next time you’re ordering rocket, make sure there’s no blue touch paper attached!


You can ring my bell (unless you’re selling something)

door knocker

I could never have made a career in campanology.

As a teenager I sang in a church choir which would perform two concerts a year.  As I lived in the flats next door to the church on Balham High Road, my task was to call on the 600+ flats to sell tickets.

I didn’t know, in the mid-70s, that so many different doorbell chimes existed.

The task of selling tickets to hear Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah was hard (the residents were more likely to listen to “Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep” than Chopin, “Ernie” than Elgar or “Shang a lang” than Shostakovich).

We thought we’d have more luck with people whose door chimes played a sophisticated tune, sadly they had the sound because they liked the tune in a cigar advert!

The most worrying noise was the bark of a clearly dangerous dog. Either the dog behind the door had trained at Wandsworth Prison or had three heads, and therefore guarding the gates of Hell (I was in my mid-twenties before I realised that Hell wasn’t on the fifth floor of my block of flats).

Many doors had spy-holes and the chances of the door being opened to a long-haired git in a cassock and surplice was never going to happen unless the Archbishop of Canterbury had moved county.

However, the most disturbing thing for a shockingly naive teenager, was the sound of “My ding-a-ling” playing as Mrs Robinson, the siren of the third floor, opened her door.  I could have died and gone to Heaven – bit like Elijah!

Is Chris Tavaré out yet?


In the 1970s, when foreign travel started to take off, access to information at home was limited to your daily newspaper, News at Ten or a set of reliable homing pigeons; the lack of news, once abroad, was frustrating and people would scour kiosks in Spain and France hopeful of a two-day-old Daily Telegraph sent from Blighty.

Your holiday would be ruined, not just for NOT drinking the water or failing to take your Enterovioform three-years before your trip, but if you weren’t up to speed with the Test or County Championship cricket scores.  You wanted to be that person, like the major in Fawlty Towers, who goes back to the (almost built) hotel and announces that “Hampshire won!”

But was there that same demand in this country?

I remember the man who sold newspapers and magazines outside Balham Tube station, who called everyone “John”; was he visited by people who’d wandered off the beaten track (as Balham rarely gets a mention in any Michelin guide) looking for a copy of Paris Match (seeing how the latest strikes were going), Süddeutsche Zeitung (sending off for the deck-chair-sized towel offer) or El Pais (how many Brits had drunk the water?) and if he was, did he call them Jean, Johann or Juan?

Chalky White, whom you’d could identify and win £5 if you were carrying a Daily Mirror on holiday (invariably in Shanklin), is alive and well and waiting to be spotted in Bali.   Hope he’s taken his tablets!

You say Sudoku…

tube train

I’ve been commuting or forty-five years now and the activities on my journey home have changed considerably.

In 1974, when I first started journeying back to south-west London, having got on at Embankment, I’d have finished the Evening News picture crossword by the Elephant and would have (unsuccessfully) spotted the ball by Clapham Common.

The only time you’d have heard the word wireless on the Underground would have been people telling you what they were going to listen to on it later that evening!

Now papers are packed with things like Sudokus and other things which sound vaguely like types of motorbikes, martial arts or members of the Imperial Japanese Navy! (Ironically, the No. 1 when I first started commuting was Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting, which is a martial art).

No more do people get the Evening Standard to look for the stop press to see the teatime cricket scores, they can listen on their phones to former public-school types telling you exactly that, whilst throwing in cake recipes.

These days you’ll know in pretty much in advance what the next day’s newspaper headline will be and no longer will reading “Queen Anne, dead” be a surprise.

Futoshiki? Thank you, but I’m allergic to most fish.


A Meccano bridge too far


I was never destined to become a civil engineer with the toys I was given as a kid.

In my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, there wasn’t a sniff of Meccano; although my mum was constantly hoovering up discarded pieces of an Airfix ME110 I’d scattered in a fit of pique to the four corners of my bedroom (mum was careful hoovering as she thought she might find a miniature Rudolf Hess, although may, in the sixties, have been more constructive looking for Martin Bormann!).

I only had one rectangular piece of Lego – with which I could pretend was a table, a sentry box or bench depending on which side I laid it.

So, my creative construction juices were never encouraged as a kid.   I did have a Willy Wombat glove puppet but, as anyone who’s ever watched the National Geographic TV channel will know, marsupials aren’t renowned for their construction skills (although very good at transmitting urgent messages).

So the much-needed bridge over the River Wandle was never going to materialise with me as the project manager.

I did, however, play with my Spirograph a lot, which might have been the cause of my myopia 😊