A tea towel is not just for washing up

Whenever I’m doing the washing up, I’m immediately transported back to Shanklin.

My family were obsessed, regardless of the quality of the holiday, to buy a tea towel denoting the resort they had visited.  

Not for them bringing me back a bottle of wine; a straw donkey or a stick of rock – I got a tea towel. 

For me, who didn’t do a lot of washing up as a kid in our Balham flat, it was only useful if I wanted to look like a member of the PLO.  Although, I’m quite sure Yasser Arafat didn’t wear a head-dress with tourist attractions of Ventnor plastered all over it.

People would come round for dinner with my parents and would help with the washing up.  They’d spot my mum’s tea towel she’d brought back from a holiday in the Balearic Islands in 1968. 

“How was Majorca?”

“Didn’t see much of it, I had gastro-enteritis the entire fortnight”. 

Still, good to feel nauseous every time you picked up a tea towel with a map of Alcudia on it.

Visiting National Trust places were the same:  it would have been great to have received a bar of Kendal Mint Cake or some fudge, with the stately home emblazoned on the wrapper. No, I’d get a tea towel of Polesden Lacey.  

I didn’t really want a tea towel from Cliveden, either, I’d have preferred Mandy Rice-Davies to come round and help me with my biology homework. 

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I?

The pools boy

Every week I’d do the pools.  Well, I didn’t, my nan did; I was her expert adviser.

We’d sit in her Balham flat: she’d have a pen, a Player’s Weights hanging out of the side of her mouth and a selection of farthings; I’d have a copy of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly.

As Jimmy Hill used to live in our block of flat, we felt the gods were with us – assuming the gods had a pointy beard (which, in hindsight, is more like the Devil).

I’d played football for the school team; had a subscription to Shoot and several decent players in my youth were called “Mick”, so, for some reason, my nan thought I had some magical insight.  She never scooped the potential million on offer, I was more orifice than oracle.

My nan would ask if I thought St Mirren might be good for a score-draw?  I didn’t have the heart to tell that a. I didn’t even know who, what or where St Mirren was, and b. wasn’t she the patron saint of reflective glass, anyway, so unlikely to be a footballer?

We would watch Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon – having turned over from watching Kendo Nagasaki being goaded by Jackie Pallo – and listen to the intonation of the score announcer’s results and his slight delay if it was a score-draw. 

Every week we’d be praying that the same inflection would only be used on the eight games of the boxes we’d ticked. 

If that happened, we’d be millionaires, nan 😊

Dansetting the night away

I associate vinyl records with not washing.

During the early ‘70s, I would buy a record a week.  After a while, I’d collected a lot of singles – all primed to be played on my Dansette record player.  

One evening, in 1976, in my south London bedroom, my mates and I were all set to listen to If you leave me now; Combine Harvester; Dancing Queen; I love to love and When a child is born (I consider it healthy to have eclectic musical tastes) when my dad burst into the room like Kramer in Seinfeld.

He held – at arm’s length – one of my shirts.

At first, I was expecting a musical request from him – anything by Stan Kenton – but, no, his visit was more laundry-related.

I was 19 at the time and washing wasn’t a priority.  This, in front of half a dozen mates, was about to be realised.

My dad read a lot, a consequence of which was that he had an extensive vocabulary; this was matched only by his prolific knowledge of swear words.

My father shouted at a level which made the Labrador next door’s ears bleed.  He asked how, at my age, I’d not learned to wash my neck yet?  In between his effing and blinding I would apologise (“you’re always bleedin’ sorry, Michael” would punctuate every confession).  My mates thought this hysterically funny – someone’s dad swearing so profusely – I didn’t, but discovered that the “F” word could be used as verb, noun and adjective – and all in one sentence!

I’ve never not washed since that fateful evening and always carry around a damp flannel, Lifebuoy and pumice stone – just in case.

I am the Queen of Sheba

“Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs” my nan would exclaim in abject horror of something I’d done; given she lived in a one-storey Balham flat, I wondered if this was physically possible?  Was there a secret tunnel which led to the other side of the High Street?  Did she own some collapsible stairs?  Was there an emergency carpenter as a lodger?

Either way, it leads me to things people said years ago and are rarely heard these days.

She clearly had tremendous powers as, if I pulled a face, she would tell me if the wind changed, I’d stay like that; I was never going to run the risk of having my tongue permanently on show the moment the levels of the Beaufort scale rose.

She was obviously unaware of the abolition of slavery, as she’d often asked what my last slave had died of? 

My nan clearly never did history at school as the retort to any of my many lies – “Yes, and I’m the Queen of Sheba” – was clearly inaccurate.  My nan was old and had no teeth, but she was neither 3,000; Arabic (she was from Clapham) nor royalty!

Cat’s got your tongue?  Well, of course not, as we don’t possess any pets.

Given that time travel doesn’t exist it would be hard, unless you’re Superman or Dr Who, to knock someone into the middle of next week.

Unless you’ve a 120-year-old greengrocer, you’re unlikely to hear “much obliged”, “thanking you” or “that’ll be tuppence, three farthings, love”.


Bang, Bang

There are clearly more small motorbikes on the road than there were fifty-years ago.  Without buying a back copy of Motorcycle News from 1972 to prove it, I just know.

Many of these motorbike owners gather outside various food establishments, like something out of The Birds, waiting for their order to take something in a polystyrene box to someone very hungry.  Or very lazy.  Or both.   You half expect Tippi Hendren to tentatively come out of the local KFC, only to be cajoled by waiting bike riders randomly shouting out items of fast food.

These riders are mounting the 2022 equivalent of the Honda 50 (a bike many of us probably had to enable us to pass the bike test or appear in a very poor sequel to Quadrophenia).

Fifty-years ago these riders weren’t leaving McDonalds or Burger King, together with their produce, they were learning ‘The Knowledge’.   As a kid, when I got my first moped, I’d pretend I was doing it too – memorizing every Balham street in case my plans of going into advertising failed.  I imagined being able to talk loudly to people behind me about “if Mrs. Thatcher were alive, we’d have never got into this mess”.

Nowadays, if you randomly stopped a bike rider, they’d not be able to tell you the quickest route to Charing Cross Station, but they would be able to hand over a bucket of Bang Bang Chicken and chips.

You batter beware

Before Red Bull was invented, I had a great aunt who would send me on my way to work fueled by toast – with the entire contents of the local Tate & Lyle factory sprinkled on top of it.  I think she was in league with the local dentist.

I look back to my family’s answers to Fanny Craddock with horror and think of the things they got me to eat. 

My nan would cook for me each morning – as my mum often had one of her “heads”. She wasn’t content with frying eggs, bacon and sausage, her next thoughts would be: why not soak up the fat with a slice of bread? Because making toast involved a giant fork, a one-bar fire and a weeks’ wait; I could understand her reticence.

On Sundays, my nan would cook giant Yorkshire puddings so my dad could have some cold, with jam on, the next day – was Angel Delight a banned substance in early ‘60s SW17?

So, before my family were sponsored by Statins (surprise, surprise), the thing I remember being adored, like some demi-god, was dripping. The thing sounds like a medieval torture. The evidence would sit in some old cup (the more chipped, the better) – these days it would have a hazard sign on it; there certainly wasn’t a sell-by date to be seen!

I’m still surprised I wasn’t, as a youngster, offered it – with sugar liberally dusted over it, obviously!

Another crisp sandwich, vicar?

A not a very alive fishy, on a little dishy

When you left a school fete, which I did during many a summer from my Balham and Tooting schools, the very least you’d want to leave with was a goldfish.  Or a coconut – although, in most of the fetes I attended, the coconuts tended to live longer.

You’d take your prize-winning goldfish home, in its plastic bag, only to establish that your flat was a flat and not an aquarium and thus, not set up for any form of aquatic creature.

You would leg it to the local pet shop – where, when you mentioned your plight, discovered that the overnight increase in the cost of fish tanks had far out-paced the rate of inflation for the past two decades!

In addition to the tank (you had the water, which, if you hadn’t, the pet shop owner would have willingly sold you some with a price similar to that of petrol in the early ‘70s); you’d be flogged daphnia and hydra (which were neither great aunts you’d long forgotten, nor a US detective team).  But, the pet shop salesman wouldn’t have done his or her job if he’d not sold you a pretend deep-sea diver.

Fish have a memory span of four-seconds, but why a deep-sea diver?  Make them feel at home?  No, because they are freshwater fish, and few make it to the depths of the Mariana Trench.

If I were to get a goldfish now, I’d have a replica of the Mary Rose; a book to improve memory loss and a statue of Johnny Weissmüller to stop the fish from slacking.

Flush with Morny

Within her Balham flat, my nan had an inside toilet. 

An outside toilet would have been, three-floors up, singularly impractical, also, her sense of balance was poor, and she constantly refused abseiling lessons.

My nan’s toilet did suggest many a mystery: did every old person’s toilet always contain a tin of pre-war talc; smelling salts (you didn’t sniff those by accident twice) and an empty bottle of 4711 eau de cologne?  I often wondered whether eau de cologne was some form of Franco-German mouth wash?

Which leads directly on to, and begs the question: who on earth came up with “toilet water”?  Not even eau de toilette lightens the thought of popping something behind your ear which smells like Harpic.  I assume the “before” toilet water is more expensive than the “after” version? 😊

Did this idea come from people escaping from revolutionary France armed only with a secret selection of toilet ducks containing toilet water? And what marketing whizz suggested calling it that?

However, it was in this “smallest” room which determined why I’d never become a plumber: within the cistern my nan explained was the ballcock, which helped the actual toilet function. 

When you’re eight and prone to giggling at comedic words, I felt my credibility would be blown as a professional plumber, should I ever have had to have uttered the words: “I think it’s your ballcock, love”.

Annuals of history

Every Christmas, during the ‘60s, I would be given, alongside two tangerines; a handful of walnuts and 2-packets of last years’ dates, the mandatory annual.

Which subject would my parents choose?  Had they been listening to me throughout the year to get a feel in what I was interested in?

As, for several years on the trot, I received the Rupert annual, they clearly hadn’t.  Unless they thought I was a secret Daily Express reader, I was always slightly disappointed.  I didn’t possess a matching pair of distasteful yellow scarf and trousers – if I had been posher, I might have had; but this was Balham in the ‘60s, so that was never happening.

I’d have liked to have got the first edition, published in 1936, featuring stories where Rupert trains with Jesse Owens and Hitler invades Nutwood, with the pretence that there were German speakers living there.

After a while of the annuals still being in pristine condition the following December, my parents changed tack.

The Coronation Street annual was never the same after 1964, as it no longer featured pictures of Martha Longhurst.

I was thrilled, in 1967, to get the Man from U.N.C.L.E. annual – I’d always wanted to be Illya Kuryakin and had, as a teenager, an interest in east European female gymnasts.

My parental procurement of my annual annual stopped in 1972.  Aged 15, you really don’t want your mates coming round to your place and seeing The Clangers annual taking pride of place on your bookcase.

There were some great soup recipes inside, though.

Burn, baby, burn; Honda inferno

It was, in the mid-Seventies, standing, in the pouring rain, next to my burned-out motorbike on Clapham High Street, as the local Fire Brigade extinguished the sparks emitting from my bike’s electrics, when I realised that I’m a salesman’s dream.

I had bought this “second-hand” bike from a dealership in Tooting some months before Clapham’s answer to Towering Inferno; and the sign saying “one previous owner – vicar’s wife” – had got my attention.  I can only assume the vicar’s wife’s husband has since been de-frocked, as the 11th Commandment stipulates: “Thou shalt not lie about the mileage”. 

But these salesmen see me coming – I think it may be the fluorescent light, invisible only to me, above my head, which says “MUG” the moment I walk into any vehicle sales room.

The eternal fear of not wanting to get my hands dirty (I’d never take a throw-in at football) would ensure my blissful and complete lack of awareness of any form of car/bike maintenance.   If you’d have asked me, aged 16, when first allowed a motorised vehicle, “What is a spark plug?” I’d have suggested he was a puppet who had a magic piano.

In trying to purchase my first moped, the salesman was so crafty, before I knew it, he’d sold me a Cortina – and I’d never even been to the Dolomites!