I was eleven when I properly mastered the alphabet.
At secondary school we’d be seated in alphabetical order for every lesson. Thereby, that’s how I learned my A-W (we didn’t have anyone in our class named Xylophone, Yacht or Zither – it stopped at Williams).
At primary school we could sit wherever we liked. I avoided the girl who wanted to be a golden retriever when she grew up (she’d be 434 now).
The other difference was being called by your surname. No teacher called me Mick at secondary school. Nor did they call me Michael, a name which meant I’d not cleaned my room, I was late for my tea or both, so Richards was preferable.
Rather than learning more complex times tables, obscure African cities or historical events before Christ, we would, in a very regimented way, learn the procession of the alphabet because, for every lesson we’d be sitting, in order: Atkinson, Bates, Bird, Bower until Williams.
Although we all sat in the same order for academic year after academic year, from this group of ordered individuals, came an alpha male. He was Mark Finch – or Finno, as he deemed Mark to be far too effeminate for the classroom role he portrayed.
Finno was self-elected leader of the form for three reasons: he wore Cherry Red Dr Marten’s; he was the tallest and he was the first to develop pubic hair. By default, he became a Demi-god.
We were at a grammar school, but in our class, you didn’t need to go past the letter F.
And as we all know, there is no F in haddock.
In my Tooting secondary school, during the early ‘70s, I discovered that, as well as bringing in sweets, being able to mimic helped you not being bundled – the medieval secondary school event which involved thirty boys piling on top of one another preventing the entrance of the divinity teacher (and this was a bloody grammar school – no wonder Mrs Thatcher made no effort to keeps ours going).
Mimicking of teachers was the greatest and most revered talent to have, second only to being able to imitate a Trimphone (very popular in the ‘70s) – a great asset to have to confuse people in the silence within Balham Library.
I couldn’t imitate a single teacher, or phone apparatus, but could mimic an assortment of other people: including most of the Goons; Jake Thackeray and Dudley Moore. However, my piece de la resistance was my impression of Fyfe Robertson. Fyfe Robertson was a roving TV reporter in the ‘60s and 70s and would be sent to report from obscure places, invariably surrounded by sheep. He’d start every report with “Hello there, I’m Fyfe Robertson” and would confirm the obscure place where he was standing. I could sound like him and announce to my classmates “Hello there, I’m Fyfe Robertson and I’m standing on a traffic island in the middle of Balham High Road”.
I could also imitate the actions of Reg from the greengrocers opposite my flats, as this greengrocers wasn’t terribly well-known, my likelihood of auditioning on Opportunity Knocks was never on the cards.
I often toy with entering Britain’s Got Talent, but sounding like Bluebootle, Minnie Bannister and Eccles is never going to be as powerful as a song by Susan Boyle.
I never read as a kid (The Beano and don’t really count) but one book which I would absorb, lying on the shag-pile carpet in the lounge of my Balham flat, would be the Guinness Book of Records.
I wondered if I’d ever be in it.
I was quite tall as a kid and pondered whether I’d ever reach 8’ 11” – diet being key in height development. However, I can attest that egg ‘n’ chips consumed daily only gets you to six-foot, slightly smaller than marginally under nine-foot.
I deliberated if I could balance fifty spoons on my body? The fact that we didn’t have five, let alone fifty, spoons in our flat meant I’d have to attempt this world record in the ABC café on Balham High Road. Assuming you’d have to be partially naked, this would have only been practical in the warm weather. Either way, it’d have got me banned and I did so like the iced buns and cups of tea with more head than tea you got at the café.
What we did have in our flat were cream crackers. Could I eat three of these in under 49.15 seconds? Did you know it only takes ten seconds to become totally dehydrated? I found this out aged ten.
At 62 some records are now beyond reach. Sitting in baked beans for over 100-hours would never work – at my age I’d be needing a wee after half an hour.
Ernie Binks, the caretaker at my school, could multi-task: not only had he got a very useful left foot, he was also very adept at scattering sawdust.
There was no such thing as after-school club in the ‘60s in Balham, but at my primary school, if you stayed in the playground after the 3.30 bell had rung, the caretaker would give impromptu football lessons. He played in goal for Balham United, as far as we were concerned, it was like having Sir Alf Ramsey coaching us.
Mr Binks did have a very cultured left boot (probably the only thing cultured in Balham in the ‘60s) and this was demonstrated in the playground on many an early evening as he tried to encourage us ten-year-olds to “let them know you’re there”. Even though I played for the school football team my interpretation of this was to involve your opponent in some of philosophical debate (while also being concerned whether I’d ever get dubbin off my hands).
Unless you played football, Mr Binks was largely absent, unless, as they say on announcements on London Transport, there was a Code 3 incident. In which case he would enter our classroom with his bucket of sawdust, scatter it liberally, but accurately, after which we would return to advanced calculus or hitting a Glockenspiel very hard, depending on whether it was a Tuesday afternoon or not.
Mr Binks lived on site, probably with a forest of pine trees (native only to Balham) in his back garden, all ready for sawdust preparation. Thankfully he never mistakenly came into our classroom with a chain-saw rather than a bucket.
They won’t forget Ernie.
A supply teacher at my Balham school in 1968 proved I was never going to make it as an aeronautical engineer.
Instead of doing maths, history (always the bloody Tudors) or geography (the field trips were always to the field adjoining our school – so not much of a trip) – we were taught origami. The supply teacher was from India, so closer to China than Balham, so he had credibility with us ten-year-olds.
While my efforts to fly paper-airplanes were similar to watching grainy and speedy footage of man’s earliest “flight” I did become very adept at other things which involved the intricate folding of paper.
Although I should have been learning important dates in history, capital cities of the world and times tables past 12, because of the supply teacher, paper folding became my new obsession.
The making of water bombs resulted in the entire class up before the headmaster as we’d doused the dinner ladies during morning playtime; the thing I was best at was creating chatterboxes.
However, this talent was not one I should have taken with me to an all-boys secondary school.
My schoolmates, amazed at the proficiency of my origami, became slightly confused (the more sexually advanced kids in the first-year, slightly angry) when, after much swift action between both thumbs and forefingers – and vigorous counting at pace – they read, “kiss a boy” or “I love you”. These had worked as a pre-cursor to mixed junior school kiss chases, but rather made me a target during inter-house rugby matches.
There were many who wanted to tell me my fortune – many without the aid of a carefully folded sheet of A4 paper.
I changed secondary schools in 1972.
As well as studying different syllabuses, I was introduced to different hobbies.
At my new school my new friends had two hobbies: discussing what girls were really like? And plane- spotting. (If the latter hobby continued into your thirties, you’d never find the answer to the former!)
Plane-spotting involved journeying to Heathrow Airport (pre-Piccadilly line extension and Heathrow Express). We took a train from Balham to Clapham Junction, another train to Feltham, a bus to the airport (where was Sherpa Tensing when you wanted him?) and finally onto the observation tower within the main terminal, where we stayed for what seemed like the length of time it’d take for a return journey to Brisbane.
My interest in planes had been soured in the summer of 1968 by having to drag my nervous (and very drunk – too much Campari) mother across the tarmac at Luton Airport to board a plane to fly to Majorca (she wasn’t content having gastro-enteritis at home!).
My previous experiences of transport-spotting were ticking off 88, 155 and 181 buses (and the occasional Green Line to make my hobby seem exotic to my new school buddies) as they trundled down Balham High Road.
I ticked these buses off on the back of a Basildon Bond envelope stolen from my Nan’s secret stationery store; plane-spotting meant having a pad the size of an Encyclopaedia Britannica.
I lasted two trips, the journey tired me out – I assumed this was jet lag?
However, to ingratiate myself with my new schoolmates, I invited them to the top of my block of flats, so they could spot their planes there.
And from that time on I’ve always been able to tell my Qantas from my El Al.
Until the mid-Seventies I thought Dr Crippen was the fifth Beatle.
In 1964 my dad took me to Madame Tussaud’s to see the newly-installed Beatles waxworks.
I was seven and looking forward to seeing the Fab Four.
The train and bus journey from Balham to north-west London was a familiar one as my paternal grandmother lived nearby, so a visit to Madame Tussaud’s killed two birds with one stone – not dissimilar to Dr and the late Mrs Crippen!
Having made our way round the exhibition I remember thinking to myself that George Harrison looked a bit like President Kennedy, when I realised it actually was JFK (who wasn’t the fifth Beatle, either) – the clue being he was on his own, not holding a guitar and wasn’t part of a pop-combo involving Eisenhower, Harry Truman or FDR.
Modern culture box ticked, dad suggested a trip downstairs to the Chamber of Horrors.
I’d watched the initial episodes of Dr Who (albeit from behind a sofa) so the thought of being face to face (or face to wax on this occasion) with a selection of poisoners didn’t fazed me.
Except it did later that evening, as I couldn’t sleep thinking the likes of Crippen, Haigh and Christie were in the next flat! I’ve never had nightmares like it – except when I’d drunk Newcastle Brown Ale mistaking it for Virol.
It took several decades before I visited the Chamber again, in comparison, Hitler seemed quite innocuous; probably because he wasn’t wearing glasses like Crippen or Christie?
During the evening of December 24th 1978, it snowed in Balham.
It wasn’t until after I’d sung the last verse of “Hark, the herald angels sing”, and stepped into a scene from a Bing Crosby film, that I realised the change in the weather.
For a Nano-second it looked idyllic, until I realised that my transport home at one o’clock in the morning to Carshalton, was my 400cc motorbike.
The trains had long stopped running, plus my mother had warned me that travelling on the night bus was how you caught VD, so motorbike, that evening sponsored by Captain Oates, it was.
I immediately regretted not asking Santa for a John Curry annual rather than the Barry Sheene one I’d requested at the Balham Co-op earlier that month.
This was the winter of discontent, an appropriate noun as I anticipated the slowest motorbike ride ever. However, going along the relatively flat Balham High Road was fine until I reached Church Lane, which, at that moment in time, looked like the top of the ski jump at Garmisch-Partenkirchen!
I clung to my bike like Marcel Marceau fighting against an invisible wind, to the bottom, to Amen Corner (famous for its joke shop, which seemed decidedly inappropriate that evening).
From there on it’s flat and got back on my bike, thinking it must already be Easter!
I arrived back safely, only to face the return journey the next day.
I have yet to get the feeling back in many of my five extremities!
Which diary will I get this year? Desk or pocket? Page-a-day or five-year one, complete with padlock and key? Or a Samuel Pepys one, which is already filled in for you?
As a kid my dad would always buy me the MCC diary, which I’d pour over in my Balham flat in the 60s discovering which far-flung places the England cricket teams would be travelling to over the next five or six years.
Growing up, Lett’s was invariably the diary brand of choice.
In 1967 an ancient relative mistakenly gave me the Lett’s Brownie diary; whilst the dates worked ok, I spent the entire year desperately trying to lend a hand!
As I grew older and didn’t feel the need to train for any more badges (having learned how to tie knots, clean my shoes and make a receptacle capable of containing an emergency sixpence) but received diaries containing all manner of information: maps, geo-political statistics and the posher ones, a linen bookmark.
But much of this information – like the GDP of southern Tanganyika – I’d learned through my old school exercise books; on the back covers of which were housed data which could have enabled me to have been the first six-year-old to appear on Mastermind.
As well as showing you simple multiplication tables, you also learned that four noggins made a pint, four farthings made a penny and twenty-one shillings made a guinea. Although my later diaries would show an actual map of Guinea!
I even know how many mickles make a muckle.
For this year’s birthdays I’ll be sending everyone 36lbs of hay, which is a truss, which, in my day, used to be a type of surgical support.
Happy New Year – even though it is already February in Tanganyika!
In 1847 Christmas crackers were invented.
As a child, in my south London flat, a disturbingly cheap cracker would sit next to my turkey dinner. As I grew older, so I realised what a massive disappointment its contents awaited me with its unveiling.
Coupled with the shock of the noise from the actual cracker (the cheaper the cracker the more likely you’d get second degree burns from the errant sparks) was a useless plastic toy.
For someone who takes pride in their hair, the thought of covering it with a flammable paper hat was abhorrent. When this occurred you hoped there’d be a temporary wig inside rather than a compass which was clueless about where magnetic north was!
Less than an hour after the last cracker had been pulled (despite the awaiting disappointment you still wanted to be pulling with an aged relative and thus claiming two-thirds) the remnants would be gathered up and thrown away, sometimes in a bin, sometimes, if your host was particularly myopic, into the cold meat and bubble for the next day!
The only evidence there’d been any crackers was the most elderly relative still wearing theirs who, when suddenly waking up, would ask which one was Morecambe and which one Wise? The answer being neither of them as neither appeared in The Great Escape.
I always knew that Christmas crackers were fundamentally wrong as you never saw the Queen delivering her message wearing one or reading, from a small piece of paper, that a mince spy is the person who hides in a bakery at Christmas.