What’s on the other side?

Shall we watch the Test Card; comment on the Open University’s lecturer’s sartorial elegance or The Likely Lads?

This would echo round my Balham flat in the ‘60s because, invariably, each night, this was the choice of viewing.  Having seen Martha Longhurst’s death by viaduct, I was always too traumatized to watch anything on ITV.

But nowadays we are spoiled for choice; but you still hear the perennial utterance of “there’s nothing on TV tonight”.

In the ‘60s, there were no remotes, so getting up and down to change the channel was part of an evening aerobics class.  The other challenge was making sure the aerial was correctly positioned. 

As part of my parents’ child labour activities, I’d often have to stand behind the TV with the aerial held high in the air so they could watch Compact clearly.   For years I thought it was a radio series.

Because the screen was so grainy, you couldn’t see the strings attached to many of the puppets.  I was always amazed that Andy Pandy could jump into his box like a Harrier Jump Jet.  The sound wasn’t brilliant either.  I’m sure, if there were modern day Flowerpot Men, Bill and Ben would sound quite articulate.

I’m still not used to a remote and often try and change channels with my glasses case.

No smoke without playing cards

As an only child, grandchild and nephew (not that you can tell!) it was my parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles’ job to entertain me. One uncle decided he would introduce danger into playtime within my Balham flat.

There was always a pack of cards lying around when I was a kid (my mum always wanted to be a croupier, but never got further than the church whist drive); my uncle would build towers with them. My uncle was a heavy pipe smoker, so his pipe was invariably on – nothing like going to school smelling of your uncle’s finest shag (insert your own gag here).

He’d inhale and blow the smoke through the bottom of the cards. The smoke would drift up and eventually exit through the hole he’d made in the top. The first time I ever saw the election of the new Pope on TV I thought, once the decision had been made, my uncle had been in the cellars of the Vatican blowing smoke up the Papal chimney.

We would lie down on the carpet of my flat (which wasn’t shagpile, so no running gag this week) to get the best effect of the smoke rising – and it is only now, with my mental health & safety handbook going cray, that I realise how dangerous this would have been!

Highly-flammable carpet, burning tobacco embers, child who wasn’t allowed matches until he was twenty-six – what could possibly go wrong?

Either we’ve elected a new Vicar of Balham, or the Fire Brigade needs calling.

Saying cheese is off, love

There was a photo booth by the ticket office of Balham Underground Station; I used it once.

I would walk past, during my commuting days, and wondered if I’d ever venture in there to produce four photos of increasingly inane grins as if practicing for a gurning competition?  

I never did.

Would I go in there with a girl and taking loving photos?  No, I rarely talked to girls during my teenage years, let alone persuade any of them to spend time in a darkened, underground cubicle, with a protective veil.

The one time I entered this magical photographic world, was to provide photos for my first passport. 

I wore a maroon suit and matching maroon double Windsor knot tie.  If I’d have worn any more maroon, people would have mistaken me for a Bishop – or a giant plum.  

The photos which did appear surprised me I was allowed into Luton Airport, not to mention entrance onto the Balearic Island of Mallorca!

(They do say if you actually looked like your passport photo, you’re probably too ill to fly!)

I was very much aware that many of these booths were used by couples.  I, however, stood outside, for what seemed like a millennium, alone, waiting for my four photos to drop into the receptacle.  It simply shouted: “Billy No Mates”. 

It was like waiting for Godot or, more to the point, waiting for Godot’s passport photos.

And smile 😊


The one thing about working from home is that the trolley doesn’t come round.  If I want a bun, cup of tea or a Wagon Wheel I’m going to have to get up and get it myself.

I worked in an office once where the keeper of the trolley would announce, around 11.00 each morning, ‘Trolley!’ in a voice like someone demanding a light be put out during the Blitz.

In the days before the confusion of which type of continental coffee you wanted and the shops supplying them not existing, trolleys would be rolled round offices.  They were like the school tuck shop, only on wheels and pushed by woman seemingly over 100 with a fag hanging out of her mouth, adding an unnecessary layer to her doughnuts. 

It was also a welcome break in the day; fag breaks were a thing of the future working in ‘60s and ‘70s.  Plus, if I’d got on the smoking carriage of the Tube from Balham Station, I really didn’t need a fag break.

The tea-lady was scary and/or predatory.  Did I want to sample her iced buns when I finished work?  Probably not, and always had a note from my mum excusing me of such liaisons dangereuses.  

So, work for me, around 11.00 in the morning became like school PE lessons: full of dread and the fear my pants would fall down while doing a handstand, thus risking getting third-degree burns off a giant tea urn.  

When you wishbone upon a star

The best bit about Sunday lunch, when I was growing up as a kid in SW London, was the thought that your future was about to be changed by the successful pulling of a wishbone.
However unprepared you were, if you won, you still had to make a wish.  
My enduring wish was, as my nan subscribed to Titbits and Reveille, that she’d leave the room long enough for me to look through her magazines – or search for the ladies’ underwear section of her Freeman’s catalogue.
I should have known that no wish was ever to be granted as the ominous signs of chicken gravy suddenly splattering over my Sunday best shirt wasn’t that encouraging.
The pulling of the wishbone was an excellent diversion from my parents who would stare like Victorian schoolteachers at my uneaten sprouts.   My parents would watch the wishbone-pulling competition as my nan, with her non-pulling hand, whisked the unwanted sprouts into her many-pocketed housecoat.   Although, always unnerved as to the origins of her next day’s bubble 😊
It was the ancient Romans who invented this tradition and believed it gave them luck.  Sometimes, with my nan’s roast chicken, I think that’s the period in which she’d bought her joint.
We tried pulling a T-bone steak bone one Sunday – I nearly dislocated my little finger.

Iron filing a complaint

The only job I could have done in the Police, should I have chosen that career path, rather than advertising, would have been creating photo-fit pictures.

I’d watched Z-Cars; Police 5 and Softly, Softly as a kid, but owning a kit with a man’s face, a magnetic pen and a pile of iron filings, gave me the feeling, this was the vocation for me.

Living equidistant between Tooting Bec Police Station and Wandsworth Prison, I feel it was fate I should own such a toy, and possibly become the next Albert Pierrepoint (he began life creating photofits, until he won some rope in a raffle).

But, watching Stratford Johns in Softly, Softly, I was always surprised, when a victim was asked about their assailant, that the iron filings toy wasn’t produced!   

If the assailant looked like The Hood from Thunderbirds, they’d be easy to catch; or a pirate with an eye patch or with a moustache so outrageous, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a WW1 German general.   Although,  I don’t remember anyone in the Great Train Robbery looking quite like any of those?

Sadly, I never really mastered the art of iron filing face painting.  I think the magnetic pen was faulty as my faces wouldn’t have looked out of a place in a Picasso painting.

If I had got that job the Police would constantly looking for a woman with an eye where her ear should be.

Keep ‘em peeled (wherever they are on your body).

Making a right old red rackety

If you buy a comic these days for a grandchild, child or yourself if you’re still thinking you’ll get a decent idea of dress sense from a copy of Bunty, there are always free gifts attached.

If you were brought up in the ‘60s, as I was, then a free gift with a comic was a rarity. You were more likely to see a Penny Black, unicorn or hen’s tooth attached to your Dandy than a set of stickers, pencils, or transfers.

And so, when one of my Beanos arrived sometime in the mid-sixties, and had a “Red Rackety” attached, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, pooh (I’ve cleaned that up as this is a family blog) or have breakfast, as my old nan would have said, such was my excitement.

However, it was my poor, old nan who got the wrong end of this DC Thompson act of goodwill.

The “Red Rackety” was something you whirled, like some Dervish, above your head; it then created a strange noise. The secondary (unscripted) noise was the smashing of my nan’s ceiling lampshade. This was not in the instructions.

Another week there was a “Whoopee cushion” – a trick to play on old relatives. As you become an old relative yourself, you realise that there is no need for any form artificial stimulus like a “Whoopee Cushion” 😊.

Scampi in a basketcase

People rarely serve food in baskets these days.  Is there a world shortage of baskets?  Is eating from a basket one of the ways to catch consumption?  Were there outcries from the World Scampi & Chicken Protection Society?

Every Friday night, during the ‘70s, after choir practice (this isn’t a joke), we would go to a pub on Wandsworth Common, where I would pad out half a pint of lager and lime for several hours and eat chicken or scampi and chips out of a basket.

During the evening the Salvation Army would enter and flog the customers War Cry; the more drunk were enrolled and would find themselves playing a tambourine the following Sunday.

Friday night was complete: meal in a basket; lukewarm beer and a crossword puzzle to do where most of the answers were Biblical characters.  Having sung about most of them earlier in the evening, I had a distinct advantage.

But the basket gave it its own magical flavour – like hot chocolate after you’ve gone swimming or been rescued after several weeks down a pothole.  

I would often wonder, during Sunday dinner, why the most chipped plates in the world were brought out and the food not served in a basket?  I guess gravy could have proved messy had the weaving not been as tight as it should be.

One day, they stopped serving food in baskets.  I went up to the bar and said, “Basket?”.  I was banned for a month.

Dad, what’s a tumulus?

Are we nearly there yet?  The plaintive cry I’m sure we’ve all heard (and probably said). 

With modern-day sat-navs the answer to this can be given to the precise nano-second; when you had a series of Esso road maps, a compass which was originally in the heel of your shoe and an old London A-Z, those ETA predictions became harder to determine.

We struggled whenever we drove anywhere outside of Balham High Street – our A-Z was so old it only had Watling Street and Offa’s Dyke marked on the pages – if friends or relatives lived in Roman villas we’d get there, otherwise it was very hit and miss.

Travelling abroad was trickier – the countries were physically bigger; so, it seemed, were the road maps.  

It’s tricky enough going round the Paris Périphérique, let alone trying to navigate it with a map larger than the windscreen in front of you flanked by irate Parisians.  It’s no fun playing pub cricket driving through the Loire Valley either.

I thought, having begun to study map-reading preparing for Geography O-level, that I’d could be more useful.  However, driving from Balham to Dawlish (not quite Paris to Dakar), my dad needed to know how to get to the A303; me pointing out, using my school Ordnance Survey map, slag heaps, narrow gauge railways and coppices, added several days to our journey.

Are we nearly there yet?  No, but I think we’re near an area with non-coniferous trees.  Handy for logs, but not if you want a cream tea. 

Benny and the jet wash

In 1970, a mate of mine’s family decided to leave Balham and move to the West Midlands (might as well have been Jupiter, it was so far away in my mind). 

My mate would not have been missed by the usherettes of the Balham Odeon as he was loosely related to St Vitus and couldn’t keep in his faux velvet seat for more than a minute.  During the screening of Zulu, he imagined the cinema to be Rorke’s Drift and fashioned a Zulu spear out of an empty tub carton and threatened to impale the projectionist.

After an absence of a year, we got in our family Ford Poplar and travelled the 100-miles (which took about another year with my learner driver dad) to a village just outside Leamington to visit the Balham emigrees.

We were greeted, on arrival, by my mate’s mum, who, having been brought up in Clapham, oddly now sounded like Amy Turtle – she even had an old housecoat on – I assume this would have been handed out by the estate agent upon arrival?

My mate’s mum had Italian heritage, so, if anything, I was expecting to possibly hear some female version of Mussolini, not something off the set of Crossroads.

Once we’d finished and headed home, I think elements of this change of accent worked by osmosis as my mother called me “Benny” down most of the A1.

“I love you, Miss Diane”, was my only retort to her as we ate our all-day breakfast at 10.00 pm at Newport Pagnell Service Station.