Halfpenny for your thoughts?

Boxing Day in the ‘60s for me meant an early introduction to gambling and the chance to win my bodyweight in halfpennies.

We would travel from Balham to Wimbledon Chase (which sounded more like a horserace than an actual place) to visit a family who’d previously lived in my block of flats, but had emigrated to SW20 – could have been Borneo, it seemed that far away.

At the end of the four-mile journey south down the A24 would be the largest ever collection of bottled beer, two packs of cards and a pile of halfpennies, which to me looked like Everest (the mountain, not the double glazing).

The game we played was Newmarket; it was simple and easy for a ten-year-old (me) to play.  The games would seemingly go on long into the night (probably about 9.30!) and amidst the continual clinking of light ale bottles, you stood to have a pile in front of you, if you were lucky, adding up to nearly a shilling.  I’d never felt so rich – plus I had already been given a £1 Premium Bond at birth – surely only members of the Royal Family were better off?

The lady who lived there looked very much like Dusty Springfield (this was preferable than looking like Myra Hindley, as my Auntie Vera did), so it was no coincidence her songs were played throughout the evening. 

When the beer had run out, and the halfpennies usually in one person’s sole possession, we began the trip home – back to wonder how easy it was to mend a broken Action Man. 

Who’s got the ten of spades?

Postcards from the Devonian age

The last time I got a postcard the price of the stamp was 3d.

No one sends them anymore – not even the ones featuring very small men with wives with enormous, Pamela Anderson-like chests, looking at marrows or any odd-shaped vegetable mentioning its size etc.

As a kid, during the summer, I had two great aunts who, upon their arrival in Ilfracombe (might have been Pluto for all I knew, it sounded so far away from Balham), would write to me using every conceivable space on the card.  There would always be a picture of the beach – not a sniff of a giant marrow 😊

It was lovely to receive, but the quid pro quo was that you had to send them back and would be forced by elder relatives – seemingly for the entire duration of the holiday – to write them.

“Wish you were here” being the obvious inclusion: but, however large you wrote it, it wasn’t covering the entire message area.   So I would lie and write about the remains of a pterodactyl I’d found on Dungeness beach and wouldn’t be able to write a second card due to having been abducted by Ellen Terry (we were forced to visit her house in Kent one year).  So, when I returned, having been released by the leading 19th theatre actress, some aging relatives were quite surprised.

And the weather; you’d be in the same country and the weather probably similar, but you were, because you were British, obliged to mention it.  You said it was hot, but then you’d never travelled to the Sahara Desert, the Grand Canyon or Mars.

I’d send more postcards, except they cost more than 3d to post and my marrows aren’t at their best in this cold weather. �

The postman only rings after playtime

In December, during the ‘60s, in my Balham primary school, there would be a temporary post box put in the playground. 

Its use was for pupils to put our Christmas cards into, It was purely for our fellow pupils – although some didn’t realise this and those with relatives in far-away countries were quite disappointed that Auntie Gladys in Brisbane would moan she’d  not received a single card for years.

The cards would be delivered; unless you had siblings at the school, you tended to get twenty-nine cards – from your fellow classmates. 

I realised, after I’d finished full-time education, that you only tended to know your actual classmates, apart from the boys’ names announced at the Monday morning assembly announcing anyone with any sporting prowess or were (yet again) on detention.

Receiving so many cards was great, the problem was was that twenty-nine also had to be written.  I got very bored signing everyone “Happy Christmas, Mick” and so mixed my signature up with people I’d seen on TV or were sporting heroes.  I’d sign many as “John Drake” or “Amos Burke”; many girls in my class would wonder who Gerd Müller was, and several boys would get excited thinking they’d got a card from Nancy Sinatra or Mandy Rice-Davies.

This Christmas I shall be confusing friends and family with my Christmas signature of “Be lucky, Pol Pot”.  Confusing as a. he’s dead and b. wasn’t terribly Christian.  You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit on his knee, let alone enter his grotto.  Be lucky, Mick.

Not so floppy Flopsy

Before discovering Radio Luxembourg, I was more than capable, as an only child, of entertaining myself at bedtime in my Balham flat.

As soon as it was lights out in HMP Mick, the wall of my bedroom would become a giant control panel, which would transport me to wherever I wanted to go – I rarely thought past Morden, though.

I’d pretend, where there was actually Flopsy Bunny wallpaper (neither parent were regular decorators), there were buttons to push, enabling me, in my ten-year-old brain, to travel, out of SW17, into a parallel universe (Morden).

During the day this same wall had been a goal into which I would head one of my dad’s nicked squash balls.   By night I was Neil Armstrong, by day I’d be Gerd Müller.

To re-enact some of Müller’s many goals, I’d throw myself across my bed, oblivious to the fact there was invariably either a violin bow or pair of glasses lying there.

I gave the violin up as soon as I could; but, as I got older and found the spaceship wall less and less appealing, so my need for stronger and stronger glasses became increasingly necessary and visits to the opticians seemed almost weekly.  I couldn’t work out the correlation.  Seems my Nan had been right all along 😊

To infinity and beyond (well, the southern end of the Northern Line).

Lightweight and bitter

I’ve not drunk alcohol since 1976; I blame David Vine.

Before then, albeit for one legal year, I’d have the odd half in pubs near where I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s Balham.  I wasn’t cut out for drinking, but I’d tag along.  On Friday nights, when the Salvation Army sellers of War Cry would come into The Hope on Wandsworth Common, I’d be one of the few in our group capable of finishing the picture crossword in their weekly newspaper.

On 5th April 1976 (my 19th birthday) I went with my mates to the Surrey Tavern.  We’d play pool there and put millions of pounds into the juke box to listen to Save your kisses for me; Fernando and Music by John Miles.  These were the top 3 singles on my birthday.  You really got your money’s worth with Music as it went on for about a week.

As I was singing along “Music was my first love” etc. etc., my mates thought it’d be hysterically funny to empty that month’s Smirnoff factory output into my half a pint of lager and lime. 

Later that evening, when the world was spinning faster than anything they’d ever had at Battersea Funfair, I decided alcohol wasn’t for me.

The next month I went on holiday to Austria with my dad.  He tempted me with what he called ‘innocuous’ light ale.  What I didn’t realise, despite him being very well-read, was that this was one big word he didn’t fully know the meaning off.   The words from the Tony Newley hit, ‘Stop the world I want to get off’ rang round my head again.

Travelling on a coach around Innsbruck the next day, I’ve never felt so ill; I still can’t listen to the theme tune to Ski Sunday without feeling nauseous!

Not so little fishy

During the early ‘60s I associated the Dick van Dyke Show with smoked haddock. 

Every Saturday evening, as the activities of everybody’s favourite Cockney would be played out on our TV screens, my mum would serve up smoked haddock.  Having flirted with the fishmongers in Balham Market to get their finest fish, I still, to this day, cannot stomach the taste and whenever you go to a restaurant (remember those?) the fish of the day is invariably haddock.  There clearly is no God – which is more than can be said of the omnipresent haddock.

The opposite effect on me is with roast beef: my brain conjures up images of Ted Moult.  He’d by on the radio (wireless for older listeners) every Sunday (he’d alternate with Jimmy Clitheroe on the Brain’s Trust) and there is still this association.  Whenever I’d see an Everest Double Glazing ad on the telly, I’d start salivating – I do that now, but that may be an age thing.

However, I do blame Lucille Ball for my allergy to prawns.   My mum’s divi must have come in one week as she decided to buy prawns instead of the haddock.  Fine by me.  Shortly after another slapstick episode of US situation comedy I decided that I didn’t love Lucy that much and her show should have been sponsored by Kaolin & Morphine.

But the worst taste and smell for me: boiled fish in parsley sauce.  My nan would make it and was the worse smell ever and am reminded of it whenever I read Dante’s Inferno; the recipe had come from the tenth circle of Hell – so awful, it wasn’t even in the book.

Seven deadly syns

Whenever I go on holiday I like to read about the place I’m visiting: Jamaica Inn in Cornwall; Mayor of Casterbridge in Dorset; the Clangers annual if ever I make it to the Moon.

As a teenager I’d spend many summer holidays on the Kent coast; my reading there was the Dr Syn novels. Dr Syn was a clergyman by day and head of a Romney Marsh smuggling gang at night.

The 7 novels were written between 1915-1944 and two films came out of the writing. I only saw part of the 1963 adaption.  I was so traumatised by Dr Syn, terrifyingly dressed as a scarecrow, my mum had to take me out of the Balham Odeon, probably before the usherette called the local health visitor or hit me with a Kia Ora to shut me up.

Dr Syn was ultimately hanged in the final book, but in the current times he’d have escaped that fate as he’d not been able to carry anything out if he was working from home.  You cannot offload stolen barrels of French rum from a boat via a Zoom call.

I’d have made a dreadful smuggler: fear of water (worse than that of hanging); don’t like rum (even in a bar of Old Jamaica) and don’t look good in a scarecrow outfit.

Also, at my age, I’m quite susceptible to marsh ague.  Rum Baba anyone?

Stage fright

In the late ‘70s I joined an Am Dram group (still have shirts with stage make-up on).  We’d mostly perform in a Balham school hall, where there was more a smell of rotting plimsolls than greasepaint.

Having started with one line, I worked my way up to be given larger parts.  This impressed some of the younger girls in the group.  Well, one in particular.

We’d just performed a revue at the old Tooting Bec (Mental) Hospital.  Tough gig as many of the audience couldn’t clap as they still had their straitjackets on.

During the revue I’d sung, danced (albeit in a ballerina costume) and acted.

It was at this time when I’d started my career in advertising and earlier that day had bought the book, “Teach yourself advertising”; still haven’t finished it nearly fifty years on.

The show finished, and Tooting’s answer to Nurse Ratched had returned her cares to their rooms, we left the hospital to return to our respective homes.

As we approached Hurley’s on Balham High Road there were just two of us left.  Me and a girl in our troupe.  As we got to her house I was invited in for coffee, except it wasn’t for coffee it was for “coffee”.

With a fear of girls even now, being alone with a girl filled me with dread, especially after the door had been locked, the pet Alsatian, Himmler, tied up, no obvious sign of a percolator and the announcement of “mum’s out for the evening” I went into blind panic.

I stood up, announced that I had bought a new book and needed to read it before the morning and left, coffee-less.

Oddly I have three children, but back then, you could get all sorts of things off the Freeman’s catalogue. 

Wheelie TV bin

There was no better feeling of euphoria inside my Balham classroom during the ‘60s than when the school TV was wheeled in.

As schoolkid you couldn’t have given a monkey’s that you were about to witness the funeral of a great statesman, the launch of an ocean-going liner or the exploration of other parts of the universe.

Neither Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II (the boat, not the monarch) nor Neil Armstrong could take away that feeling of ‘soon, we’ll not be working.’  Only double playtime, or an inset day, had that ability of relief from the monotony of learning about the Stone Age; the four times table or the tricks of the baby Jesus in later life.

It would be the school caretaker who would wheel the machine into the classroom (there were no IT assistants in the ‘60s – the only IT we knew about those days was the creature from The Addams Family).   The TV was housed in a wooden box (the size of which wouldn’t have looked out of place outside Troy) and placed in the centre of the room, in front of the blackboard, thus hiding any trick way of remembering that four times four is sixteen.

And so, plugged in, warmed up (this took the best part of a week), we then sat watching corteges, yachts and automobiles (OK, Moon buggies).

At the end of it there was a sense of anti-climax as many of us had never heard of Churchill, unlikely to go on a cruise or fly to the Moon, we’d resume our daily tasks. I don’t think we missed much schooling as I know my four times table (up to 12), know how to slay a mammoth and know that the adult baby Jesus wouldn’t have needed flint to have started a fire.

78 trombones

I’m at that age when I’m starting to mishear and mispronounce things.  I blame events in 1978 and ageing relatives. 

During that year, every Tuesday I’d go to Karachi.  At least that’s what my Great Aunt told anyone even remotely interested in my whereabouts in the grocer’s housed in our Balham flats.  I wasn’t an employee of the Pakistan International Airways; every week, I’d go to St George’s Hospital in Tooting to learn karate (a kind of medical paradox).  Only 5,000 miles out (perhaps the Proclaimers did this trip and inspired their hit song?)

That year also saw the release of The Motors’ song “Airport.” I was still living with my dad (my mother having successfully constructed a tunnel four years earlier) and we’d always have the radio on. “Have they just sung ‘eff off’?”asked my dad. “No,” I replied, “airport”. He went off muttering something about Frank Sinatra being more articulate.

Later that year, while getting ready for work, doing up our respective Van Heusen shirts and arguing about the Old Spice being stolen again, we heard on the news that one of the members of the band Chicago had died.  The Newsreader went on to inform the listeners that, “one of their biggest hits was, ‘If you leave me now’”“Effing appropriate” said my dad (well, that was the gist of what he said).  And he wondered why he failed the audition to appear on “Fifteen to one”!