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Lady Lucky Peg

I’ve had a few people tell me my fortune, one was while I was legging it out of Balham Woolworth’s when I was a kid.

However, I have sought more professional routes: when I was seventeen, an industrial psychologist told me I should seek a career in hotel & catering.  As I assumed all hotels were on the coast, I feared it would bring back an attack of the ague (and other diseases prevalent in the 17th Century) plus I can’t cook; my guests would soon become disillusioned with nothing to eat but toast (my piece de la resistance) and an array of broken biscuits on one of my home-made doilies.

As a kid I often bought fortune fishes to tell me my destiny.  While they didn’t show me which career path to take, they did tell me whether I’d be jealous; indifferent; in love; fickle; false; tired or passionate.  As a nine-year-old I’d had to look up half the words, so tired it was, regardless of the position of the fish.

Most fortune fishes are made in Taiwan – it took me three sets to realise this and became even more tired translating the instructions from its original from Cantonese.

I tried it with real fish once (I’d lost my Mandarin/English phrase book) – after a while it remained motionless (it was dead rather than tired, as the explanatory chart said) – it curled up more than the fortune fishes.

These days, if I want my fortune told, I go to the Derby and buy as much lucky heather as I can until I hear what I want to hear: “in the future you’ll be less tired”.

Colin the Caterpillar pet

Living in a fourth-floor flat was impractical for keeping most pets.

Goldfish were always an option.  I would regularly win one at our Balham school fete. However, the quality was so poor, the fish would invariably have visited that great fish-tank in the sky, before I’d even got out of the lift on the fourth-floor.  A fete worth than death 😊.

Because there were large communal gardens in our flats, I would seek out potential pets with the hope of developing a deep bond.

I would often find caterpillars (the bonding lasted between 7 – 14 days due to the evolution the caterpillar goes through). 

The (un)natural habitat of the caterpillar is, of course, a matchbox (always many around the house due to my dad being sponsored by Senior Service).  Obviously, it needed feeding so, a variety of cabbage leaves were stuffed into the box (saved me having to eat my greens).  Friend for life (well, a fortnight, tops).

However, caterpillars grow into moths – which I discovered after opening its matchbox once and seeing it make a beeline for my mum’s coats!

I would have to mark the matchbox with a label “Mr Caterpillar” or my mum would take hours trying to light the stove with it. Aufwiedersehen, pet!

Threepenny bitcoin

I’ve never owned Bitcoin.  I’ve played bit parts in local Am Drams; was an avid subscriber to Titbits (I bought it for its gardening tips) and, as a kid, collected threepenny bits, but have not succumbed to the latest fad of crypto currencies (itself sounding like something Superman would be allergic to).

I’ve only just mastered decimal currency, so the last thing I’m going to do is invest in something in the ether (a thing which used to pervade every doctor’s surgery).

However, growing up (when Elon Musk was a fragrance and not an entrepreneur) I would devise ways, from the confines of my Balham flat in the ‘60s, of how I could pay for things without using actual money; ten bob notes were like gold dust back then (although, if they’d been made of gold dust, they’d have been worth a lot more than ten bob).

I would collect all manner of things, hoping I’d invented a new currency: what might the Esso 1970 World Cup star coin of Peter Bonetti be worth down the local newsagent?  Could I buy the latest copy of the Beano with a Kidney Donor Card? If I pressed enough silver-tops off milk bottles together, could I create a sixpence?

Might there have been an opportunity for barter?  The complete set of Thunderbirds bubble gum cards in exchange for a flock of sheep?  This was never going to happen as I was never given the Freedom of Balham, thus allowing me to walk my sheep over Wandsworth Common.

If I got given some Bitcoin, I’d try and buy the card of Thunderbird 3 going through the Roundhouse (I lied about the set being complete).

Welcome Map

In 1972, during our 4th year of secondary school, our year were let loose on/in Guildford.

Part of our Geography O-level course involved studying Ordnance Survey maps and knowing the difference between a Roman Tumulus and a motorway (you can’t drive a chariot on a motorway).

We were bussed from our school in Tooting and dropped, ostensibly, in the middle of nowhere (if you’d rarely ventured outside SW17, then the outskirts of Guildford were the middle of nowhere).

Armed only with a 1937 O/S map of the South Downs, a compass and a year’s supply of chicken paste sandwiches (no one had said it was just an afternoon, so I’d come prepared).

The more astute, but geographically-challenged, had brought a French phrasebook – they assumed, like our day trips to France, that Guildford was the place to procure flick-knives and lighters with flames so high they scorched most of your fringe.  The coach journey was so long, and so far south, many of my fellow pupils thought we’d travelled to Senegal (where the phrasebook certainly would have come in handy).

We were left, with our map, to find our way back to the city centre, remembering everything we’d been taught about contours and railways (disused).  Having not paid too much attention during the class we did ask, in very broken (and slow) French, the way to the Centre Ville – ironic given this was nearer Dorking than Dakar – we’d have been better off talking in Cockney rhyming slang.

We arrived safely but disappointed the tourist shops had nothing in with which you could start a fire, but we did get lots of very small bottles of marmalade and enough Kendal Mint Cake to make us feel nauseous before we’d got to Leatherhead.

The game of the name

You can usually tell a person’s age by their name.   In the ‘90s I worked in a hospital shop; my co-worker was called Dorothy – she was about 100.

Because of the success of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, published in 1945, many boys were subsequently called Thomas, Gordon or Percy (being called Percy made you tougher at school); although Duck and Fat didn’t take off as much.

I would sit in Balham Library in the late ‘60s devouring these books wondering why I was called ‘Michael’?  Had my mum had a visit from an Archangel?  Did she aspire to buy her underwear at Mark’s?  I so wanted there to be an engine called Michael.

The Famous Five, published shortly before Thomas, would have had an influence on girls being called Ann or Georgina (the consumption of ginger beer surged during this period too).

With the advent of TV, I wonder how many twins were called Willy & Jenny or Bill & Ben or Ron & Reg (little known characters from Tales of the Riverbank)?

When I was born, in 1957, the top girls’ names were Susan (90% of our class were called Susan, including a couple of boys); Linda; Christine and Margaret (everyone wants to be called after a princess).  Michael was the 4th most popular boy’s name; David, John and Stephen being the top 3 – all four named after Kings – England, Israel and Heaven.

I got off lightly, as modern culture is hugely powerful with childrens’ names.   Michael is preferable to Kylie, Peppa or Laa-Laa and given The Lone Ranger was at the height of its fame when I was born, I could easily have been called Tonto.

Taxi!

One of the first books I remember reading was Ladybird’s Tootles the Taxi (an early Dostoyevsky work, I think). 

The book included other vehicular stories, aside from Tootles, who, stated in rhyme, why he wasn’t going south of the river after 8.00 pm.  I was a fan of Mickey the Mail Van (he doesn’t exist anymore as he’s been replaced by delivery drivers who send you a text saying you’re seventh in the queue, although the sixth is in Truro, so don’t hold your breath) as we shared the same name and Willie the Water Cart as his name (when you’re four) was comedic (although that never quite worked with Willie Whitelaw).

My love of this book was a consequence of having gone in a taxi, aged two, having had my fingers caught in a Tooting toy shop door jamb.  I cried (obviously) but shut up the moment I was in the cab.  Luckily my fingers were saved by a janitor with a couple of old plasters and a needlework kit working at the now defunct Balham hospital, St James’ – you wouldn’t have trusted any of the doctors there. 

In later life I once asked a cab driver if their taxi was called Tootles.  I never asked a second time, although I was told, for the best part of an hour, how Mrs. Thatcher would have handled COVID.

My next book was Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, which was a shame, as it put me off boating for life.

Window of opportunity

Car window activity has waxed and waned over the years. There are fewer things happening on car windows; even tax discs have gone.

During the ‘60s, I would travel in a relatively naked Ford Popular with my parents in and out of Balham with nothing more than “AUG 64” displayed in the bottom corner of the windscreen.

As things developed, people would add where their car had taken them (we had a sticker proclaiming ‘VENTNOR’ – I’d have preferred something more exotic like Vienna, Vietnam, the Viking Coastal Station).

People then began adding their names (it was always a couple, having BILLY NO MATES plastered, in a green laminate, across the top of your windscreen wasn’t ideal); you’d walk down the streets and see RENÉE RENATO; BURKE HARE; ADOLF EVA and suchlike adorning the cars.

Behind the names, dangling, would be a pair of furry dice the size of which looked like they’d come from a Brobdingnagian Monopoly set.

I could never understand the use of a nodding dog (usually an Alsatian) – hardly a deterrent to car thieves.

Furry dice has since been superseded by worry beads (with the state of my driving I should have a Vatican’s worth of rosary beads hanging from my rear-view mirror) or tiny fir trees, like the ones The Borrowers would use at Christmas.

Nowadays you know how many kids people have ‘on board’; their other car is a Dinky and, if you’re Scottish, a sticker saying ‘ÉCOSSE’, as the French dislike the Scots marginally less than they do the English.

Pots, pans and sprinkling of rosemary

Growing up in my Balham flat I didn’t exactly share rooms with Fanny and/or Johnny Craddock.  While my Mum had many kitchen utensils, she rarely used about 98% of them.

She had a percolator, but this percolated so infrequently, rather than have a sprinkling of chocolate, you were more likely to receive a smattering of dust on your freshly-brewed coffee.

My mother never baked, so the Kenwood Chef might as well have been in Kenwood rather than Balham, although it did make a rather good door stop – unless you were allergic to meringue which would sometimes form on the doorknob.

The things which did get the most use, if only by me using them to explain the offside rule to a very disinterested mother, but rather than adding some literal spice to our food, was the collection of brown (everything was brown in kitchens in the ‘60s) pottery herb and spice containers.

Such was the lack of use we, were more likely to get attacked by Parsley the Lion, weed on by Dill the Dog or assaulted by Bayleaf the Gardener than see any of them in the ingredients at mealtimes.

Mum’s piece de resistance was her egg ‘n’ chips; luckily she never added bergamot!

If you’d have asked her what she liked best about coriander, she’d have said Ena Sharples; Henry VIII was her favourite turmeric and she thought holy Basil was a local priest.

Chive anyone?

“Exterminate!”

On 21st December 1963, the Daleks first appeared on UK TV.

Such was their popularity (anyone who owned a sink plunger wanted to be one when they grew up), the Radio Times ran a competition asking kids to draw and name their own Dalek.  I can’t remember the prize – probably a promised trip in the TARDIS – the thing which influenced Honey, I shrunk the kids!

Dalek drawn, my dad (who worked in advertising so, by default, creative) suggested “Ironside” (I spent years thinking Raymond Burr was inside the chief, black Dalek).

I didn’t win first prize, but did receive a cardboard kit, so you could create your own model Dalek.  As I wasn’t allowed scissors until my early ‘20s, the Dalek remained unconstructed.

I did continue interacting with various TV programmes and collected a copious amount of silver foil for Blue Peter – much to my relatives’ chagrin.  I’d nick the foil protecting their cigarettes inside the packets, whip the tops off milk bottles and steal sixpences and florins to melt down with my Amateur Alchemist kit.   My dad smoked so much, he could have created a life-sized guide dog from the insides of one week’s fag packets!

My last creative submission was for my school magazine in 1968: I drew a spider.  So terrifying, it has subsequently been removed from all back copies due to protests from the Tooting Tarantula Protection League – the people who believe arachnophobia is a fear of medieval torture.

Das Experiment

Nearly 200-years ago, Victor Frankenstein was in his German laboratory creating life; fifty-years ago, I was in the kitchen of my Nan’s Balham flat hoping to create something more powerful than Anthrax.

I never owned a “My First Chemistry Set”, so my science knowledge was purely self-taught.

I would be allowed to use anything spare in my Nan’s kitchen, as I created my “experiment”.  Having been given an old milk bottle and after I’d half-filled it with water, I’d add some Bird’s Custard and some pre-Boer war curry powder, and then venture next door to the secret supply of 19th Century medicines, hidden behind my Nan’s cistern.

After several spoonsful of sulphur, there was Andrew’s Liver Salts to be included – gave my concoction some added fizz as my Nan tended to not have much Moët lying around; Timothy White’s Lavatory Cleanser – safety first was always a priority, and a sprinkling of Instant Robin Starch – give it a bit of body – not unlike Victor Frankenstein.

However, the piece de resistance was Senakot – as if the other combined ingredients weren’t going to make you regular enough!

Once my experiment was complete, I needed a willing patient.  My great Aunt lived next door and, because she smoked forty Embassy before she’d had breakfast, had precious little sense of smell.  She was a good sport and pretended to drink some of it; my punishment was to count her Embassy tokens later that week.

With 99.9% of my efforts still intact, we would sell it, in Balham Market, as a deterrent for foxes; something to ward off vampires or a carpet cleaner if you didn’t like your existing carpet.