My failure to pass Maths O-Level three times (1973, 74 & 75) was not helped by my total misunderstanding of what a slide rule was meant for. If you wanted a straight line, with a little bobble in, then a slide rule was just that – forget that it was designed for complex multiplication and duplication; although, when I first got mine I thought it was broken as the middle bit kept sliding out.
Log tables were also useless if you were destined to regularly fail maths exams; however, if you had a slightly uneven desk, then a log table book was the ideal thing. Many restaurants use them for wobbly tables when they’ve run out of beer-mats.
My question is: what was the set-square for in the student Helix geometry set? Compass, yes – if you’d forgotten your darts; protractor, yes – if you needed to draw half a moon or an ox-bow lake. But a set-square? It would remain, gathering dust like Miss Haversham’s dining room, in your protective plastic wallet, with no ostensible use. Perhaps my school believed Tooting was going to be the source of budding architects?
It wasn’t until I failed my third maths O-level that I realised that trigonometry wasn’t a type of dinosaur, cosine was not a type of lettuce and Pythagoras’ theorem was not an ancient ruin just outside Athens.
Pi’s off, love!
I had the remains of an ME109 in my bedroom once; although this sounds like a quote from a cab driver, it is the result of my first (and only) attempt to construct an Airfix model.
As a child I’d go to tea with other kids and invariably see the Battle of Britain being fought out on their ceilings. I was very envious of this and decided I’d have a go. I’d start slowly and build up – I could, with one plane, re-enact Rudolf Hess’s lone flight to Scotland – on my ceiling!
Off to the model shop in Tooting Bec I went and procured an Airfix model kit of an ME109. I told the shopkeeper I was a direct descendant of Willy Messerschmidt and asked for a discount. With the Cold War still raging, this wasn’t bright, so set off home, together with my over-priced miniature plane.
Half an hour later I realised how tricky it was getting glue off carpet; and hands; and gerbils! The glue went everywhere except on the crucial hinge bits of the ME109. Half hour after that, with many pieces of balsa wood having been scattered to the four corners of my bedroom, it looked like Kenneth More and Robert Shaw had been in personally and destroyed it.
I never attempted to construct another model. I did keep the bits of balsa wood on the walls, carpet and various rodents with the vain hope of winning the Turner Prize; sadly, Tracey Emin had thought of this first!
During my school days in the sixties I was in danger of making school nit nurse redundant.
Whilst I never had a specific bath night, I do remember regular washing of my hair. It wasn’t the actual washing I didn’t like – I quite liked the smell of Vosene or the occasional Fairy Liquid when we were cutting back on shampoo – it was the methods my mother employed to get my hair clean.
We didn’t have a shower attachment which you affix to the bath-taps, but we did have a massive sink in the kitchen. If my mother washed my hair whilst cooking, there was the danger of coming out of the kitchen smelling of a combination of Vosene and egg ‘n’ chips.
My hair was washed over the sink with a plastic device which hung over the edge of the sink to help ease the shock of cold enamel on nape of neck; people facing the Guillotine were more comfortable. I preferred my hair to be washed whilst I faced the ceiling, as the yellow nicotine patch was preferable than looking at the potato peelings.
A cup was used to rinse my hair – most times it didn’t contain my mum’s Guinness, although I’m sure the iron might have strengthened my follicles.
My hair would then be vigorously dried with a tea towel from the Isle of Wight. As my head was being rubbed as if I were an old English Sheepdog I would see visions of Ventor, Alum Bay sands and Parkhurst Prison passing, at sub-liminal speeds, before my eyes.
I never did get nits, but then I’m told they don’t like clean hair. Or perhaps all head lice are allergic to potatoes?
The moment, after a journey of not 100-yards, when I’d crashed my mum’s Triumph 2000 into a tree next to a garage behind my Balham flats, I knew I was destined never to become a driving examiner.
I failed my first car driving test in Sutton and aside from having far too few lessons, it was an incredibly bright day and I realised how Saul of Tarsus must have felt on his way to Damascus (he probably wouldn’t have gone via Sutton).
On the notice board inside the test centre, there were posters encouraging people to become examiners; the ones I’d met weren’t the happiest: dicing with death several times a day and getting no reward were key reasons. Ironically, the test centre was close to the local hospital where I’d once been given Pethidine (if Jimi Hendrix had been a driving examiner, he’d have worked there).
When I was 14 in 1971 my mum was keen for me to learn to drive. The garages behind our flats were quiet and an alternative as the open fields in SW17 were long gone.
It was an automatic car but took me no time to get the two pedals mixed up as we hurtled towards a tree. I didn’t drive for a decade – deeply scarred, although not as scarred as the Triumph 2000!
I had more success with a motorbike and passed first time. Nowadays, the instructor follows behind giving instructions via a walkie-talkie; in 1978, when I passed, you were sent off and told to return in fifteen minutes; as long as you made a hand signal leaving the test centre and returned with a limited amount of blood on your bike, you passed.
I’m still not a good driver; it is inherent. My father took 12 tests to pass. It took me two and was glad to rid myself of L-plates, which for me meant liability, rather than learner. It still does.
It’s been many a year since I submerged U-Boats into my Mr Matey; bath times are different now I’m older.
In my south London flat, growing up in the 60s, no bath time was complete without a fleet of plastic destroyers and rather too much Mr Matey acting as dangerous mid-Atlantic cliffs and waves as I re-enacted the Battle of Jutland and scenes from The Cruel Sea. I was Noel Coward in my bath (without the smoking jacket, obviously).
However, as you get older, and as a boy discover there are other things to play with in the bath other than replica Bismarcks, a sophistication comes over you and Mr Matey is eventually replaced by Radox and then anything from Kiehl’s as you get older still. Plastic boats and rubber ducks are replaced by candles as you try and re-enact scenes from Barbra Streisand’s A Star is Born.
I can only assume Queen Elizabeth I only bathed once a year as no-one had invented Mr Matey or, in her case, Miss Matey. It might have saved Sir Walter Raleigh’s head if he’d brought some Bronnley Bath Cubes back from the West Indies rather than tobacco.
I still enjoy a bath; although I just lie there these days, my myopia bearing testimony that I should really have stuck to manoeuvring my replica HMS Victory more during my adolescence!
A new A Star is Born film is out; a new one was a due as it keeps the sequence of one every other decade going. Although -3 in 1954 when the second one came out, it is my favourite, as I enjoyed James Mason playing Rommel in it.
However, it was the 1976 version which I saw at the pictures: The Granada, Clapham Junction.
It was a time when they still had B-movies at the cinema. The B-film before the Barbra Streisand classic was a grainy, black & white film about Ernest Rutherford and him splitting the atom. There were no songs like Evergreen in this film; not even a clip of the future 1st Baron Rutherford for Nelson humming Don’t rain on my parade.
Aside from me and my aspiring Barry Norman mates, there was a bloke sitting down the front (arguably better than sitting in the back)) of the cinema. Thirty-minutes into the atom-splitting film the nutter turned around to me and my mates and asked: “Is this the Barbra Streisand film?”
The lack of naked bath scenes and an aging star driving into the distance (not to mention the lack of songs) were the giveaways. We suggested it wasn’t but stick with it as we’d paid our 4/6 (or whatever cinema entrance was in 1976) and there is a bath scene!
The main attraction started. Towards the end the Streisand character sings at a concert and several lights are lit from within the audience. This was the cue for the nutter to get his powerful, out-of-control French lighter out to join in the memorial of a lost friend.
Within seconds the Fire Brigade was called, he was frog-marched out by a fleet of usherettes and submerged in a giant water tank, lighter held aloft, singing “Hello Dolly”.
Sooty is 70.
My first-ever glove puppet was one of Sooty. One of the rare pictures of me ever taken was as a four-year-old in 1961 in my parents’ Balham flat with me holding Sooty in the style of the Boston Strangler.
What a lot of people didn’t know was that Sooty suffered from hydrophobia and his constant squirting wasn’t him being naughty, but simply trying to allay his deepest, water-borne fears.
Sooty was also an accomplished magician and dated Debbie McGee before dumping her for Soo.
Whilst working for the BBC the producers there were told that Sooty and new girlfriend Soo could never touch on screen; Sooty is reputed to have been the founder of tantric sex.
Sooty’s owner was also very accomplished; as well as (literally) having a hand in Sooty’s success, he was very good portraying Harold Steptoe.
Sooty’s inability to speak loudly was due mainly to vocal-chord damage attributed to his constant haranguing in 1948 across to the steps of 11 Downing Street of Sir Stafford Cripps about his austerity plans.
During the show, Sooty’s owner, star of Carry on Screaming, invariably had his suit ruined; the show was sponsored by Burtons and the suits actually free.
It was above a Burton’s where Sooty initially met Sweep, who, in 1948, was running an illicit snooker hall. Sweep spoke as he did as he’d previously had an unspeakable accident with a couple of billiard balls, a spider rest and several pieces of chalk.
Bye bye, everybody, bye bye
Just as King Arthur sought the Holy Grail, as a young man starting work in London in the mid-70s, my goal was, during my lunchbreak, to find the best sausage, egg ‘n’ chips; and preferably all for under four and six (even though Imperial currency was no longer legal).
To help him on his most Holy of quests, King Arthur had people like Lancelot, Gawain and Sir Percivale (whose close friends called him Lance); I had a book of Luncheon Vouchers.
As my work took me twice a day for three months to Fleet Street, I was tempted by one establishment: Mick’s Café (if I had a café that’s what it’d be called – wouldn’t be a proper caff if it was called Mike’s Café). However, as a very innocent eighteen-year-old I was rather scared to go in– I imagined the entire printing staff of the Sun, Daily Mirror and Reveille would be gathered there devouring all the eggs and leaving only streaky bacon and black pudding to mere mortals such as I.
As I became more senior, people would take me to breakfast and the attraction of pubs serving breakfast suddenly appealed; there were several in Fleet Street and a few in Smithfield, where the meat was fresh even if the people serving it weren’t.
The only danger was that you’d come out smelling of what you’d just eaten and, as you got older and forced to have annual medicals, the word cholesterol would become part of your vocab. In the mid-seventies cholesterol sounded more like a type of frothy coffee rather than something brought on by having too many BBBs.
More tea, love?
One week back in Covent Garden, after nearly four decades away, I have discovered they’ve moved the London Transport Museum from Clapham.
As kids in the 60s we would walk the along the A24 (probably a Roman Road which linked Watling Street to Offa’s Dyke via Gaul) from my flat in Balham to the huge hangar which housed more trams than you can shake a stick at just past Clapham Common Station. We walked, as this saved on the bus fare, plus we wanted to feel like Centurions.
No one was especially interested in 19th Century Tube trains, but it made a change from going to South Ken to see a blue whale, a dodo and a couple of coelacanths.
Also, in Covent Garden, there seem to be nicer shops than when I was last here. Indeed, the office where I was is now a Gap store. When I’d worked there previously the only gap was in the window next to where I sat giving me the impression of feeling like Bert Trautmann for my eighteen months tenure in WC2.
One thing I have seen is a lot of men in black jackets carrying square-shaped brief cases – presumably they are carrying portable chess boards – there are a few who look like Bobby Fischer, although with handshakes that they’re giving out, would struggle to move any chess pieces!
Because of the theatres round here I’ve already seen various celebrities – yesterday I saw Mark Thatcher – I assume he’s in The Lion King? I guess it’s just a matter of time before I see Eliza Doolittle?
Last Monday I moved offices and pondered how the contents of my desk differed to that of my first desk, which was situated just off the Strand in 1974 (in an office building, obviously, not me sat, on the Strand, at a desk outside the Stanley Gibbons shop).
The fundamental change on my desk being there is a PC now and no sign of a Newton’s Cradle (certainly no drinking bird with its nodding head slowly filling up with (in my case) Civil Service tea) – a must for any executive desk (not that I was anything like an executive in 1974).
I did have a typewriter – for younger readers this was like a PC, only with slightly more dexterity needed to type, although it did come with a selection (red and black) of typewriter ribbons; sadly, it didn’t have Tetris.
As well as the example of conserving momentum and energy (who said physics was useless at school?), aside from Newton’s Cradles being on desks, during the 70s, there would always be some form of calendar involving wooden blocks; and if you really were an executive, an angle-poised lamp.
The most senior person in the room would possess the pencil sharpener – scarily not dissimilar to ones you’d have had at primary school, so talking to your boss always left with you the feeling that you’d hope you’d not be tested on your four times table.
But no executive desk was complete without having some form of balancing toy. The trick was to tap the toy and set off the perpetual motion without being too cack-handed and knock it off. It would be the nearest any of us got to doing gymnastics.
Tomorrow I’m off round the shops in Covent Garden to seek out a 70s executive toy. I wonder if the drinking bird likes Irn Bru?