PE or not PE?

old wooden horse

In September 1968 I beheld my first wooden vaulting horse.

It lived in the gym in the labyrinth under my Tooting secondary school – where no humans dared venture and probably housed a three-headed dog – there were suspicious teeth marks on the wall-bars.

This horse, at first sight, seemed the size of a Shetland pony. However, when we were told what we had to do on it and over it, suddenly it was the size of the one I’d imagined had been plonked outside Troy.

I’d watched, admiringly, the success of the Czechoslovakian gymnast, Vera Caslavska at that year’s Olympics, as she glided over the wooden horse as if she were being operated by strings. Much as I looked like Joe 90, I had no strings attached and certainly nothing which was going to help me over the horse.  I was, having watched the eponymous 1950 film, also surprised there weren’t sprinklings of discarded soil around the wooden horse.

My turn came to vault over the horse: I ran and promptly stopped like a runner in the Grand National who doesn’t fancy Becher’s Brook.   I couldn’t do it and subsequently found out during that academic year that I could neither climb a rope nor do anything vaguely precarious on wall-bars.

This inherent danger was greater than what I’d experienced at my Balham primary school when all you had to do during PE was run around in your pants pretending to be a tree.

At secondary school we were told that all the trees had got Dutch Elm Disease and so would we if we didn’t vault over a horse.

I guess I was more Ronnie than Olga Korbut

You’re probably not allowed to wear just pants these days.

Penny for your thoughts?


With Brexit looming does this mean we’ll revert to using Imperial currency?   If so, how many Euros will you get for an old ten-bob note?

I shall look forward to shop windows displaying their clothes’ prices in guineas and going to a greengrocer where there are hand-written cards showing bananas are 1/6 for a pound 😊.

In 1971 I remember buying a set of the “new” decimal coins from a Post Office on Balham High Road.   (I’m assuming they were the real thing as the bloke running the Post Office was Polish and he could have been selling me a set of out-of-circulation Zlotys for all I knew).  They were in a Perspex box and remember thinking how any of those coins were going to fit in a gas meter which only took half-crowns!  (I bought several candles too, just in case).

If this money does return then I’m getting my half-full jar of threepenny bits (insert you own gag here) down from the loft, where it has lain dormant since the bank amnesty ended for pre-decimal coinage.   I shall also be curious to see how much a farthing gets me.

I think I may invest in some sheep too in case bartering comes back and will bird-feeding still only cost tuppence a bag?

Look, three hands!

basket on wheels

Everyone has at least one thing in their hands these days: mobile phone, takeaway coffee cup; miniature juggling kits.

Gone are the days when the only thing you’d have in your hand was the handle of a basket on wheels as you headed to the shops.

I wonder, if in many years’ time, nature will start growing a third hand on humans? If there is a re-introduction of the use of semaphore flags, having a third arm is going to be essential as there would be an inherent danger of spilling hot coffee on yourself if you were suddenly called on to send a message.

You never see a Hindu deity struggling, but this might be because Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess, didn’t live near a Starbucks.

Thermos, the Greek god of travel


In an effort to save the planet from becoming one big plastic bag, everyone nowadays seems to be carrying around a reusable cup.

This is not a new thing and is basically a modern-day thermos flask – only they’re no longer in tartan.

However, these relatively new containers are designed to carry one liquid, unlike the old thermoses, which would hold multiple liquids. They will contain only coffee, water or, if you’re currently reading any Jean-Paul Sartre, absinthe.

Thermos flasks had a different function, but with a built-in obsolescence. Thermos flasks were invariably solely used for picnics but, after several uses, regardless of the historic liquid inside, the contents would eventually taste like oxtail soup – regardless of whether it had ever contained oxtail soup or not.

In the 60s, as a young teenager, I’d often set off on an Orange Luxury coach trip from Balham High Road to a destination I would hate with picnic basket, containing a thermos and two parents.  The problem arose with the lack of cups.  As the youngest in the family, whilst orange squash was ok, drinking chicken soup from my hands was tricky.  They might have been able to do that sort of thing on Kung Fu, but I struggled at places like Hever Castle.  However, the vending machine within A&E at Pembury Hospital did do a nice Bovril.  Or was it Earl Grey tea?

The ice pole cometh

ice poles

As the hot weather persists, so the reward of a lolly after a sweltering commute becomes attractive.

Yesterday I bought a Fab.

I was, however, disappointed on two fronts: first, they don’t cost 6d anymore and nor, on the wrapper, does it feature Lady Penelope (the woman who invented the word and spelled it out every episode except the one where Alan takes Tin-Tin up the Round House – a scene subsequently deleted by censors).

For me, a lolly isn’t a lolly unless it features a Gerry & Sylvia Anderson puppet on the front.

As a kid growing up in south London in the sixties my lolly of choice was a Jubbly (I’d like to say Mivvi, but that was only available if you were posh and rich).

A Jubbly was three old pence, but each time you bought one you’d forgotten that the juice only lasted for about 5% of the devouring. 95% of the remaining time you were sucking on a pyramid of ice.  You might as well have visited a newsagent in Trondheim rather than one in Tooting!

Ice poles were better value and, if you were trained in sword swallowing, you’d appreciate 100% of the available juice.

These days there is far greater choice – especially since salted caramel was invented. The danger of these excessive options is, you open the freezer chest and, by the time you’ve scanned the contents, inspected the likely e-numbers and wondered if you really would like a Cola-flavoured Calipo, the freezer is on its way to defrosting.  If this happens you’re going to have to find another newsagent to buy your lottery ticket in.

I understand Linda Lovelace was a fan of ice poles (whoever she was).


I’ll be dummy


I started commuting in 1974.

Activities within train carriages have changed somewhat over the decades.

These days everyone is in their own space, their own world, together with their headphones, which are now in all shapes, sizes and colours: they no longer just come in orange foam.

Some like to share their travelling experiences: although I realise I’m never going to be a big fan of rap (also, I’m more Alfie Bass than drum ‘n’ bass).

In 1974 I remember people bought newspapers; I got mine from a man outside Balham Station who called everyone “John” – which was why he was selling papers and not writing for them as his attention to detail was poor.

I’d like to say I’d completed the Times crossword by Stockwell, but this is the boy who struggled on most return journeys with the picture puzzle inside the Evening News.

You can’t smoke in trains anymore, plus the luggage racks aren’t made of rope, thus making Tarzan impressions harder as you can’t swing from one side of the carriage to another.

No longer do I sit on trains where there are bridge schools going on, French tuition being held outside the Buffet carriage or Pilates in First Class.

But the good news is that if you want to play Solitaire, you don’t need the entire table anymore!

People still stare at my Walkman (this isn’t a euphemism).

The eagle hasn’t landed


Living in Balham in the 60s the chances of being taken by a wild animal was unlikely.

Even when the circus came to Clapham Common, the animal security was quite tight, so you’d have had to have been very unlucky to have been trampled to death by marauding elephants running down Balham Hill.

However, in February 1965, shortly before my 7th birthday, Goldie the eagle (no avian relation to Eddie) escaped from London Zoo.  My dad worked near there, in Gloucester Place, and would go and see the errant bird during his lunchtimes.

My immediate fear of him doing this was: could an eagle carry a five-foot nine man in his beak, thus rendering me 50% of the way to becoming an orphan? And if this happened what sort of work could I do as overnight I’d become head of the household?

As a six-year-old my options were few: chimney sweep was out of the question as we lived in flats; my fear of horses (or any animal larger than a gerbil) preventing the course to becoming a jockey and although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had been written the year before, casting for the film had yet to begin.

I pondered in my mind that, because dad smoked about 40 Senior Service most days, would the eagle pass on capturing my dad as the eagles could be more partial to filtered fags or even Consulate?

My fears were abated twelve days’ later as the eagle was recaptured – dead mice being preferable to 20 Kensitas.

Security was enhanced at London Zoo shortly after that as Pipaluk never escaped.

Sofa so good


Hiding from the TV detector van was easy if you lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats. I had surmised that the van would not only have never get through the revolving doors at the entrance to my Balham flats, but also, it’d never get inside the lift as the antennae would probably snap off.

There was no warning of the van’s impending arrival – no theme tune from Jaws/Psycho/or the little known Confessions of a TV Detector Van Cleaner.

I’m sure people (whose dwellings were at street level) would hide behind their sofas, a plethora of Habitat scatter cushions or a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a TV detector van – to ward it off like an evil spirit.

This, of course, would be the antithesis of being out by leaving the radio on, thus giving the impression (especially to potential burglars) that someone was actually in.   This stems from the urban myth that burglars have a pathological fear of The Archers, the long-range shipping forecast or stumbling into a house at a time when Sing Something Simple was on.

But sometimes there are programmes on when you want to hide behind the sofa – if there are too many such programmes broadcast on the BBC, could you apply for a rebate?


un petit pas


I blame Neil Armstrong for me not being fluent in French.

On 16th July 1969, towards the end of my first year at my Tooting grammar school, a TV was hurriedly bundled into the classroom during a French lesson, for us to watch the Moon landing.

I welcomed any excuse to miss French and would have been happier watching an old episode of The Clangers (which inspired space travel) in preference to conjugating verbs like Avoir, être or faire la grève (a popular verb in late 1960s France).

I look back fifty-years and wonder if Neil Armstrong (whose cameo in Hello, Dolly I particularly enjoyed) regrets not taking a golf club like one of his successors?  I’m not a trained astronaut, but given the choice of essential items between a six-iron and more oxygen, I’d opt for more breathable air!

Despite being a frequent flyer, I probably wouldn’t make it as an astronaut; during any hint of turbulence, I’m grabbing the stranger next to me’s arm as if I were a human tourniquet. So, going at 6,164 mph, as the Saturn 5 rocket did, wouldn’t appeal – unless Buzz Aldrin wanted his blood supply cut off.

I’ve never walked on the Moon (unlike Neil Armstrong and Sting), and I still don’t know the past participle of the verb atterrir!

Yours sincerely

Clair de Lune


Much bindweed in the marsh


It’s that time of year when private gardens are opened up to the more green-fingered public.

Having lived during the 60s and 70s in various south London flats until the age of 25, I never had a garden of my own. And living on the fourth floor, unless I’d been Red Adair, a window box would have been spectacularly dangerous.  So, the decision of having some finely-cultivated begonias combined with plummeting to an early death versus life was quite a simple one to make.

But this lack of horticultural knowledge means the gardens I have owned are highly unlikely to be opened to the public – unless the RHS introduces “Best in class bindweed” at the Chelsea Flower Show.

As a teenager I did buy the I-Spy book of clematis, but, due to lack of spelling ability, was sadly disappointed.  I watched Bill and Ben avidly for gardening tips.

At primary school we were given bulbs to plant; the success I had I might as well have planted one from Philips – such was the greater chance of growth!

I’d love to write into Gardeners’ Question Time and ask: “I think I have Japanese Knotweed; can the panel recommend a good ointment?”

As far as I’m concerned nettles is the bloke who played Bergerac!