Having someone else’s cake and eating it

Today is Mothering Sunday. 

When I was a kid, this meant cake.  Not made by my mum – her two favourite things were Guinness and John Player Specials; you could scour every cook book by the Galloping Gourmet and you’d struggle to find any recipe combining both.

At my Balham church the vicar’s wife was on a par with Fanny Craddock (only without the scary make up); she would make simnel cake for people to take after the morning service.  I would always try that end-of-party-trick of asking if I could take a piece for my mum too?  I’m surprised I’ve never had to enrol in Weight Watchers.

The idea was that you were actually meant to take the cake home to your mum.  Mine would have been too engrossed with her latest Jean Plaidy novel, or still been in bed with “one of her heads”.  Throughout my formative years I was always thought my mum was some sort of hydra.

At my church I sang in the choir.  Although, I started late and was never a choir boy, therefore, I missed out on all those sixpences I could have earned singing at weddings, shillings at funerals and ten bob for an exorcism.  I did make up with this lack of earning by eating cake.  It would have been rude not to.

So, to all the mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers out there, thank you, and just a small slice, please.

Piano splinter group

I had piano lessons for two-weeks.  Sadly, this didn’t qualify me for being the next Liberace; although I am fond of a giant candelabra.

My great aunt was my teacher as she possessed a baby grand in her Balham flat.  Although her violent teaching skills were reminiscent of the role Harry Andrews played in “The Hill”.  I’ve still got splinters embedded into my hands from the smashed rulers over my knuckles.

Her husband, my great uncle, was an amateur band leader. His piano was his pride and joy and would cover the keyboard with an old copies of Melody Maker

I’d always look at this protective paper (when not being assaulted) and wondered why, in 1970, I’d never heard of anyone in the charts and wondered why, each week, Marie Lloyd’s Oh! Mr Porter was still number one?

Not knowing the paper was never changed, but anxious to keep up-to-date with popular music, I once asked for this song in my local record shop.  I was disappointed to hear it was no longer available, but did I want Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep instead?  I decided not to as this sounded more like a disease or type of birdseed than a song.

So, I was destined never to be the next Liberace; also, I’m not allowed near matches.  Plus, to me, Quavers remain a type of crisp rather than a form of musical notation.

Are you sitting uncomfortably?

Watching children’s TV in my Balham flat was a great way of establishing which career I might (or might not) follow.

Monday’s Picture Book asked children, “Do you think you can do this?”  Well, no, because it is lunchtime, I’m only four and I’m on my break; I can erect a box girder bridge after my afternoon nap.

Tuesday’s example showed Andy Pandy – a man in a clown suit, whose only friend was his Teddy.  As an only child, I could identify with this; for many years, my best friend was a glove puppet.  Living in a box didn’t appeal, though.

Living in a flowerpot with an inarticulate neighbour had even less of an attraction.  Coupled with forever being on the run from the gardener would have meant I’d have had totally frayed nerves by the time I was ten.

I always felt with Rag, Tag and Bobtail on Thursdays was a recipe for social disaster. Hedgehog, mouse and rabbit respectively – you’ve only got to be living near a cat and it’s Goodnight, Vienna (where Mary, Mungo and Midge was set).

Which left Friday – you’re running out of days for any career guidance inspiration.

Did I want to work on a farm?  Did I want to be subservient, as clearly Mr and Mrs Scrubbitt were?  Watching The Woodentops ruled out potentially being a vet, cleaner, farmhand, twin-child psychologist or spotted dog. 

It would take several years before I found my métier.   I eventually became a dragon, making soup on a remote planet.

Little bit elephant’s

As a kid, in my Balham flat, we had radios installed into the wall.  I would avidly listen to see if my request for Nelly the elephant was ever played on Stewpot’s Junior Choice.   It never was.  Nor was the ending of Götterdämmerung.

Through my mother’s guidance, I discovered I preferred Motown to Right, said Fred (the song not the group); Puff the magic dragon or A windmill in old Amsterdam (a song which encouraged rodent infestations – and that’s how plagues start – we all remember 1665, don’t we?).

Your request would invariably be linked to someone’s birthday; going to big school or thanks to  a nan for doing something.

I’ve been listening, as a Baby Boomer, to Boom Radio

Having got over the shock of listening to various DJs thinking they were long dead, the requests are very typical for our generation (forgive me if you were born after 1964, and therefore not a baby boomer). 

This week I heard someone hoping the replacement hip operation had gone well. When we listened to radio as kids, we couldn’t even spell hip, let alone know it could be replaced.  Also, you thought lumbago was a Caribbean island and sciatica was a Greek philosopher.

Still, one song rarely requested on Junior Choice was Mustn’t grumble – probably because, when you’re eight or nine, you don’t understand the concept.  However, when you’re 65…

Little sun-ray lamp of sunshine

Aside from attempting to increase my cholesterol by serving me egg ‘n’ chips every lunchtime throughout my school years, my mum was actually quite keen for me to remain healthy.

Being force-fed Virol and given a Haliborange tablet every day were staple additions to my diet.

I never realised just how powerful Haliborange tablets were until, realising I’d missed a day, once took two in one day; that was the day to have bought shares in Andrex.

However, living on the fourth floor (of eight) of our Balham block of flats, my vitamin D intake was minimal.  So, my mum invested in a sun-ray lamp. 

She had toyed with the idea of dangling me out of the window at certain times of the day when the sun came round, but could never get any rope strong enough; also she’d bunked of the lesson about knot-tying when she was a Brownie.

Instead, I had to endure several minutes, on a regular basis, in front of this powerful lamp (my mum got it cheap, as it had previously operated the North Foreland Lighthouse) wearing tiny black goggles whose string dug into my head.

So, what with the sun-ray lamp, mum drinking Rioja while preparing my egg ‘n’ chips, it was like being in Majorca in the mid-sixties.

Viva Franco – and other great summertime songs.


My father, as part of his unofficial education for me, once took me to see Stan Kenton.

We travelled from our Balham flat to see the great jazz artist.  As a ten-year-old, jazz was not something I could easily get my head round.  I was still coming to terms with the complexity of the songs Wally Whyton would sing on Ollie and Fred’s Five O’Clock Club.

Because I didn’t complain, and kept humming the tune to Peanut Vendor during my bath-time, dad organised for us to travel to Croydon to watch Gil Evans, the Canadian (also jazz) pianist.  I have never been so bored.  

I was lucky as a child and subjected to many types of popular music.  I’d have listened to more Sibelius, but my mum thought this was a type of water-borne disease and wouldn’t have it in the flat.

I was old before my time musically; by the time I was 8 I knew the lyrics to most Frank Sinatra songs.  I really did do it my way. 

Not all my relatives had this musical passion. My nan only owned one 78: Underneath the spreading chestnut tree.  That 1938 classic you will all now be doing the actions to!  Hearing it over and over again as a kid, I’m surprised I never developed a nut allergy.


Going to the hot dogs

My mother was not Fanny Craddock.

Nor was she ever going to be the modern-day equivalent of Mrs Beeton.

Her culinary skills were lacking, as was the variety of food I was given.

Saturday lunch in our Balham flat was always sausages – good alliteration, not very good nutritional value.

The sausages certainly weren’t flown in from Fortnum’s, and seemed to be made of anything rejected by the local saveloy maker.

I was forced to eat these.  Most Saturday lunchtimes, for me, became like being on the set of Spring and Port Wine – this cast me as the Susan George character.

I claimed that sausages made me tired.  My parents suggested this was impossible; I, therefore, feigned tiredness by slumping my head into the accompanying mash potato. 

I was at that age when I didn’t wash that frequently and the following Tuesday our school teacher asked ‘how long had our family been eating Smash? ‘ There were moments during Saturday lunchtimes when I wished the Smash Martians would come and take me to another universe.

The irony nowadays is that sausage and mash is a natural go-to comfort food.  Now, the only dilemma is choosing which one, as there are slightly more than just pork: wild boar; wild mushroom; wild man of Borneo.  It makes me tired just thinking about it.

Taping over the cracks

I’ve slung out my old Betamax machine.   I realise Antiques Roadshow is never coming to a town near me.  Arthur Negus clearly allergic to suburbia

I don’t need it now as I have “catch up TV”; “download series link” and various programmes 1-hour later.

As a kid, VHS was something your mum told you’d catch off other people’s toilet seats.  Betamax was the ointment you’d use to get rid of it.

With the Radio Times you planned in advance what your viewing would be. As an adolescent I knew Alexandra Bastedo was on Friday evenings; Andy Pandy was Tuesday – I can’t remember which day Sunday Night at the London Palladium was on.

You had to watch things live.  If I missed any episode of The Persuaders I’d have to wait until playtime at my Balham school before catching up.  The quality of the retelling made it obvious none of my mates would ever become screenplay writers.  However, you could miss a decade of Crossroads, and still get up to speed with plot before the first ad break.

And then came video tapes – almost the size of your lounge – and with a slit for inserting the tape which could be as vicious as a piranha.

But the ever present danger was taping over something precious.

I once recorded the 1989 FA Cup Final over The Sound of Music.  Instead of the Nazis turning up, suddenly you had Ian Rush marauding into the Everton penalty area.  “I am sixteen” was suddenly replaced with “You’ll never walk alone”.  The remote buttons were never allowed in my hand again.

Counting the pennies

This week I tried to pay for something using my Kidney Donor Card.  Another restaurant I won’t be allowed back in.

Years ago “tap in” would have been something your plumber mentioned and “contactless” was when you were removed from someone’s Christmas Card list. 

This system of payment is a far cry from having a plastic-covered National Savings paying-in book.   I miss waiting in the queue of my Balham sub-Post Office and furtively looking at the magazines I’d never have the courage to buy.  I always thought both health and efficiency were very laudable attributes to have.

And the wait was invariably to pay in ten bob, a present from a generous aunt or the results of a money laundering scam during bob-a-job week.

My first experience of “money” was the pretend coins my dad would get from the Co-Op.  Because he bought Senior Service by the vat-load, he’d get plenty of these to save up for his divi.

I’d play with these coins, sharing them among my 38 hand puppets, telling them about Communism and the redistribution of wealth.   Sooty always knew what I was talking about; Willie Wombat less so.

I found my old paying-in book in the loft the other day.  I have £3 17s 6d.   Not even enough for another hand puppet. 

Wonder how much credit I have on my library card?

In at the deep end

I always wanted Jacques Cousteau to visit Balham Baths.

I watched his documentaries with interest and knew there must be something of aquatic attraction lurking in the chlorine of SW17?

I wanted him to transport Calypso all the way from the south of France to the mysterious depths of the deep end of my local swimming baths.

What would Jacques (and Phillippe) expect to find at the bottom of the baths?  A discarded pair of pyjamas?  A coelacanth?  An unreliable set of water-wings?

At secondary school we had to travel a million miles to Latchmere Baths.  It always worried me that the next door building was the Battersea Coroner’s Court.  This didn’t encourage you to want to be the next Johnny Weissmüller; they might as well have named it “The Dr Crippen Swimming Baths”.

Until I discovered that telling the teacher you had a verruca would get you out of swimming, I had visions of my trunks laying on a ceramic slab with giant Victorian lights looking down and the only thing on the wall being a 1969 Mark Spitz calendar.

I’d have made my own version of the TV series and named it “The Undersea World of Mike Richards”, except we were too poor to own a float and I was always worried I’d develop webbed feet.

Joyeuses vacances