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None of the fun of the fair

It was 1961 when I first discovered my fear of polar bears.

I wasn’t travelling in the footpaths of Oates, Scott or Amundsen – attempting to reach the North Pole before tea-time – I was four years old and I was in Battersea.  At this early age I’d still not fully received all my cross-tundra training and was shocked to have been accosted by a polar bear in SW11 – well within the Arctic Circle.

At five, and you’ve not yet played the back end of a pantomime horse attempting to kick-start your thespian career, you can’t comprehend that’s there’s an actual human inside the bearskin.

As well as this new-found fear, it also put me off having taxidermy as a hobby.

The ‘polar bear’ was one of many attractions at the Battersea Fun Fair.  Despite the journey taking only ten-minutes from Balham Station, we only went a few times – mainly because of my recently-acquired fear of Arctic fauna; the Water Chute gave me aquaphobia; the Helter Skelter, vertigo and the Ghost Train enabled me to be a regular, if unwilling visitor at the Balham Sketchley’s.

The only place I enjoyed was the small booth (claustrophobia never a problem) in which you could produce a record onto a floppy piece of plastic.  My dad and I whistled the theme tune to Supercar

I’d have been Mike Mercury, only I had a fear of flying.  Quite coincidental given, to this day, I still look like Joe 90.

You’re not nicked!

I’ve never stolen anything in my life.  

As a kid, the likely reprisals from either parent, would have been more daunting than facing a multi-tattooed, hooded torturer in the Tower.

Temptation was certainly there.  The pick ‘n’ mix counter in Balham Woolworth’s was so near the front of the shop, it might as well have been on the High Road pavement! 

But, when I walked past, the Kola Cubes, Pineapple Chunks and Jelly Snakes remained intact.  I like to think they stayed this way and almost gathered dust – but this was Balham in the ‘60s.

My not stealing anything was quite the opposite to my dad; he stole ashtrays – from pubs, restaurants, stately homes.  He was a heavy smoker and there was the need (he would say in his defence) for an ashtray in every room – it was like the flat was sponsored: Watney’s Lounge; Playboy Club Kitchen and Chartwell Small Toilet. 

But the bug never caught on with me. I’d watched Papillon and the thought of spending my days on an island off the coast of French Guiana, kept me from straying. 

I also believe, had I have started a career of petty crime, I’d have panicked and gone into the wrong shop.  Instead of swiping a load of Fruit Salads from Balham Woolworth’s, I’d be down the road in Boot’s – filling my pockets with lipstick – and none of them my colour.

Lights out!!

Fondue fondle

I always knew, in the ‘60s, when they were popular, when my parents were having a fondue party.  I’d smell molten cheese wafting down the hall of our Balham flat and Edith Piaf songs, played on a continuous loop, echoing around my bedroom, from which I’d been banned from leaving until daylight.

Fondue was not, as my mum thought, French – it’s Swiss.  However, my mum owned an old atlas, so playing French music was close enough for her.  She didn’t have the proper kit and made do with an old saucepan and a Primus stove.  To her Zürich was something you cleaned the toilet with.

It was hard to sleep during these fondue evenings as, the drunker the guests became, the louder the singing of “Je regrette rein” would be.  My mum would come in with ‘ear plugs’ – which turned out to be Dairylea segments. 

Not that I’d have known it at the time, but I think the fondue evenings were a front for wife-swapping.  We lived on the 4th floor of our flats, so branches of pampas grass outside the flat wasn’t practical. 

I can remember helping clear up the morning after one such party and finding a Ford Cortina key fob at the bottom of the saucepan-cum-fondue bowl.  I assumed the owner must have walked home, although there was often a strange man in our flat watching TV holding a tin of Dulux whenever my dad was at work.  He didn’t like it when I said, ‘it’s not going to paint itself, is it?’ ����t��q`�u

A knotty problem

I still have my school tie.

I’m unlikely to will wear it again (unless I receive a very belated detention) – even if tied properly it would be far too short and the bottom bit would only sit pointing to the part of my chest which meets the excessive biscuit-eating part of my body.  I blame the school tuck shop.

At my Tooting grammar school this was a major part of the uniform.

In our first year we also had to wear the school cap – which, if your journey home took you past the next door comprehensive school (which housed a million pupils), there was an ever-present danger of having it knocked off, nicked or turned into a burning sacrifice – before your very eyes and satchel.  

Luckily my journey home took me in the opposite direction, thus allowing me to retain my cap until the end of the year.

We were allowed to leave school ahead of next door to avoid any cap conflagration. I still think 4.10 is time to go home.  This happened several times when I first started work and would often walk out of late afternoon business meetings saying I had physics homework to do.

Long trousers (once you’d ignored the chaffing) was a bonus during the winter months; but the tie was the most important adornment to your uniform.  It seemed the larger the knot, the greater your standing within the class.  These days people wear lapel badges denoting their company; nationality; membership of the Bazooka Club.  In 1968 Tooting the tie was the lapel badge and a big knot said: “I have pubic hair”.

I’ve worked from home for nearly a year now and haven’t had to wear a tie, I may put my old school one on, get an iced bun and pretend I’m in the school tuck shop.  And wonder if pubic hair turns grey and falls out?   

Slotting in just nicely

These days you have to tap in for everything.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only tapping-in being done was by the Stasi.

Back then, coin-operated machines were the Sixties equivalent of our near cashless society (well, cashless except for the odd half-a-crown).  Imagine your horror during a ‘60s Christmas dinner, together with the 365-day anticipation of getting a sixpence in your slice of pudding, only to have both cheeks pierced by an Access card.  (Not very flexible now, is it?)

There was a cigarette machine on the pavement near Tooting Bec Station which, with the correct change inserted, 20 Senior Service would magically appear.  For an old Penny you could watch the trains in the model shop along from that same station – you could wave every modern-day card you carried from Visa to Kidney Donor via The Tufty Club – if you didn’t have real money, you’d see no train moving.

The launderette would pose similar problems if you’d travelled back in time with your current wallet (or phone).  You could try all you like, if you didn’t have a couple of shillings to buy a small packet of Tide, you’d very quickly become like Queen Elizabeth I and only wash once a year.  Imagine how angry the laundrette manager would become if you thought waving the hand-set of an old Bakelite at the spin dryer would make it rotate.

There still are vending machines for those who have kept a collection of florins; these are for people who haven’t cleaned their teeth; have headaches or haven’t had a vasectomy.   If you’ve still not solved the solutions of the first two, you needn’t bother with the third.

Do keep the change, waiter.

Having a wobble

Blancmange – the literal translation meaning “only eat if you’ve absolutely nothing in your cupboard” – was a curious dessert I rarely had (I may have been given it as a punishment, but am clearly too scarred to remember).

Growing up in the sixties, desserts (or puddings as we tended to call them in SW17) offered little choice and would normally consist of tinned fruit (my mum told me she wasn’t travelling to Jamaica just to get me a banana) and the top of the milk.  If either parent came into some money there was the occasional investment into a block of raspberry ripple.  But blancmange rarely featured – I was clearly protected by St Ivel, the patron Saint of milk-based desserts.

It was 1967 when Angel Delight was introduced to the UK – thus striking the death knell for blancmange.  Even though you had to whisk the living daylights out of it (and still had remnants of the powder on the bottom of your bowl the end), it was a sensation at my ten-year birthday that year.  It helped everyone forget the party entertainer who could only make penises out of balloons, rather than swans the other ten-year-olds at the party had requested.

The only good thing about blancmange was the receptacles they were constructed in.  We had one shaped like a rabbit – you could see where Elmer Fudd got his bunny hatred from.

Don’t forget your gym kit!

New year; new calendar.  Will it have kittens on?  A favourite football team?  12 pictures of Claudia Cardinale (I’m buying a calendar for a friend)?  One thing is certain, mine won’t have the new moon turning up on the 15th of every month.

We never had a calendar as my Mum rarely attended school and so it never mattered what date it was as she couldn’t count further than 31.  My Nan, however, in her Balham flat, had a very simple one showing the phases of the Moon.  She’d have been an astronaut had she not had a fear of heights – and Martians.

More men would have had Pirelli calendars, only there was a general fear of foreign food in the ‘60s. 

These days most shopping centres have pop-up stalls (seemingly all year round, thus catering for anyone who has just come out of a coma) serving every hobby and interest (unless you’re a budding astronomer).  But you only really need one with several columns making sure no one forgets their gym kit so it’s academic what the pictures are.  I created one one year for my household with a different Nazi each month; we’d got to October (Hermann Göring in a swimsuit) before anyone noticed.

Because I’m still working from home, I’ve erected a bird table outside my study window, a consequence of which is that my calendar for 2021 features Garden Birds.  I’m looking forward to August – the index has promised “Great Tits”.

63 and only now going through adolescence 🙂 

Yes, we do have some bananas

This year, 2021, will be the year for injections – my question is, will the syringe be as big as it seemed when I was a six-year-old in my Tooting doctor’s surgery awaiting my booster jab?  And will I get a Mr Bump sticker saying: “I’ve been a good boy at the doctor’s”?

I remember my doctor’s in the early ‘60s and the abiding smell of ether – I was always surprised none of the staff were comatose by mid-afternoon.  

And there was, if you were only six, nothing to read – unless you wanted to learn forms of needlework, in which case you were lucky as there were always decades-old copies of Woman’s Weekly (famed for its knitting) strewn across a table which would have been deemed too old for Going for a Song.  The magazines were so old in one there was a pattern on how to crochet a gasmask.

I’d often be taken to the doctor’s as my mum was a hypochondriac and clearly fancied the doctor; this attraction was mutual.  My mum would have a paper cut and the doctor would gladly do a house-call.

The best thing I remember about visits to the doctor’s was banana-flavoured Penicillin.  I had a connection with Alexander Fleming having been born in St Mary’s, Paddington, where he’d discovered how to make antibiotic from an old Hovis – I’d have my own plaque erected there if it wasn’t for him. 

Such was my love for this medicine I’d make up illnesses just to get some – mum wasn’t to know typhoid wasn’t that rampant in SW17 in the sixties.

So, is there a doctor in the house?  No, because he’s round my mum’s flat.

And cough.

A little bit elephant’s

Bank Holiday TV viewing, when I was a kid growing up in south London in the ‘60s, invariably involved a circus.

As a ten-year-old, keen to get some career ideas, the circus was no help at all.

One year, I visited the traveling circus on Clapham Common.  This was like an appointment with a school career officer.

If you had a head for heights; owned a whip and a small stool; liked sharing a Mini with heavily made-up men (and tonnes of fire hydrant foam) or, to paraphrase Robert Duvall, loved the smell of elephant dung in the morning, then there were potential jobs for you.

These ticked none of employment prospect boxes for me.

This was confirmed when I’d watch the circus on TV (and you’d only watch that because there were only two channels and no one could be arsed to get up and physically change the channel as they’d over-eaten the cold turkey and bubble, OD’d on dates or had alcoholic poisoning through consuming too many chocolate liqueurs).

I remember watching Billy Smart’s Circus.  I thought to myself that he couldn’t have been that smart as one of his main tasks was collecting elephant pooh – why else would he need a top hat?

Also, the smell of sawdust reminded me when someone had been sick in class and the long-suffering school caretaker would come in and scatter sawdust onto the problem in question as if it were some form of fairy dust with magical powers to ensure the smell disappeared. 

This New Year Bank Holiday I won’t be watching the circus and I’ll be keeping any fruit buns to myself. 

End of the tier show

As we approach the end of a rather bizarre year, there are words in 2020 which meant slightly different to when I was growing up in my Balham flat in the ‘60s.  

Corona: this was the brand of cream soda and cherryade I’d buy from my school tuck shop.

Quarantine: if you travelled back from a foreign land, this is what Rover or Tiddles had to do for the best part of a decade.

Mask: unless your occupation was a surgeon, highwayman or the Lone Ranger, the only time you wore a mask was playing Blind Man’s Buff or Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Lockdown: when you’ve lost your door keys. Or someone’s escaped. 

Social distancing: what you did if you wanted to avoid certain people at your local whist drive.

Trump: a word used during a whist drive either pertaining to a suit of cards or flatulence. Or both.

Tier 1: what you give guests at a wedding

Tier 3: what you give guests at a Christening 

Tier 2: what people who really don’t need to eat more cake tuck into during a wedding

Tier 4: opening words of Ken Dodd’s signature tune

Bubble: a thing you blew, and in the process, got washing-up liquid all over your hands; now you need to douse your hands in Fairy while singing “Happy Birthday”.

R: used to be a letter, now it’s a number.

Zoom: was a lolly until 1982 when Fat Larry bought Lyon’s Maid. 

COVID: what Glamorgan is now called.