Not very hungry caterpillar

Even though I only lived feet away from my Balham primary school, my mother thought it best I attended school dinners.  I lasted one day.

I remember sitting down on a mashed potato-ingrained table and chair.

What I’d not anticipated – never having had it at home – was caterpillar – in the salad.   Lettuce, yes; tomato, yes; the odd spring onion. 

Never a caterpillar. 

We did live on the fourth floor of our flats, so I assumed, as I sat staring at said caterpillar moving slowly over a slice of beetroot, they weren’t capable of climbing up 100-feet of brickwork?

I’d never seen mashed (this was a masterpiece of overstatement) potato like it.  The original King Edward they used was more mashed.  And why was it grey?  Had they used grey butter? Lurpak had grey packaging, perhaps they’d used that?

But it was the sponge pudding which was the pièce de resistance, as we like to say in Balham.  If you wanted the quickest way to dehydrate, the sponge pudding offered this.   Adding the chocolate sauce would have had Lady Isobel Barnett not knowing which clue to give the listeners!

When asked, after I’d arrived home, what I’d had for my school dinner, I said Roast Swan, as I dreaded my mum ordering hundreds of caterpillars to make me feel like home.

I’m still waiting to fully digest the sponge pudding.

Not so glorious mud

As a kid, growing up in my Balham flat, I had central heating; Hot Wheels and 35 glove puppets.  It begs the question: why on Earth did I play in puddles the moment it rained?

We had no running rivers with bridges over them (I’d have built one, but wasn’t terribly adept with Meccano), so there were no opportunities for playing Pooh Sticks

But, when it rained, we had puddles and would reenact Pearl Harbour.

Because I wasn’t well-versed in laundry matters, I would get very dirty – and wet.  Having built dams using stones; half bricks; mates’ satchels, we imagined we were fighting Admiral Tojo until I had to go in for my tea.

Thrilled with the fact I’d subverted the Japanese Navy, and knowing I wasn’t about to have Sushi for tea (this was Balham in the ‘60s), I would re-enter my flat.

The moment my mother saw my clothes, she went berserk.  I immediately apologised.  To which I heard the all-too-frequent refrain: “You’re always bleedin’ sorry, Michael”.  Being called “Michael” meant trouble; I was no longer “my little Mickey Mouse”.

It was a quiet teatime that evening; we watched I love Lucy in total silence while eating our smoked haddock.

As I explained to Sooty and Sweep, two of my glove puppets, who were on each hand – how was I to know mud was difficult to get out of a brand new school shirt?  Was I sponsored by Dreft?  Sooty never did answer. 

Crazy horses

Through abject fear, I’ve never touched a horse. 

Playing Totopoly was the nearest I ever got to going anywhere near the likes of Arkle, Mr Ed or the Woodentops’ Dobbin. 

Living on the fourth floor of a block of flats was impractical keeping a goldfish (they don’t like the altitude), let alone having my own little pony.

You rarely saw horses running wild across Wandsworth Common as if they were on the Argentinian Pampas. 

I had one stand next to me as a kid, queuing to get into Stamford Bridge; it was hard to determine, as a nine-year-old, which was the scariest – a seemingly giant horse or the travelling Leeds fans in the late ‘60s?  

When I was in the Cubs, I once visited Tooting Police station – as a visitor not on remand – they didn’t have a badge for that (I assume a hand-woven depiction of a pair of handcuffs would have been the motif)?  Luckily for me, our Cub pack visited the day the horses were out: probably performing at Badminton (the place, not the game – horses have very poor hand/eye coordination). 

I’ve never even ridden on a seaside donkey (probably wearing the obligatory “kiss me quick” hat put me off as it’d mess up my hair).  

Unless they start filming the Lloyds Bank ads on Tooting Bec Common, I fear I will never ever touch one. At six-foot I’m unlikely to make it as a jockey – we won’t go there regarding making the weight, although, during this summer there were days when I thought I could easily be involved in the 3.30 at Newmarket.  

Not gone fishin’

Even with Jack Hargreaves’ weekly invitation to do something “Out of town” I was never going to become the world’s greatest fisherman.  The fear of maggots (I’m sure there’s a long word ending in “phobia” for that) being the reason.

I had several ponds nearby on Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting Bec Commons where I could have pursued an angling hobby. 

I had a mate who invited me to go fishing.   This sounded good and so, armed with a bucket and net I’d bought a decade earlier with “Bognor” emblazoned all over them, I called round.

We entered his kitchen; he went to the fridge, opened the door and pulled out a tub.  Would we be taking some raspberry ripple with us, or some haddock paste sandwiches to eat as we sat on the banks of Wandsworth Common ponds looking for stingrays?  No, these contained maggots. 

I thought of the culinary errors which could occur having a tub of maggots in among foodstuffs: the tub containing mince could remain in the fridge as the errant tub was used to create a shepherd’s pie; mistaking it for Neapolitan meant the addition of hundreds and thousands would create utter chaos in the bowl.  Plus, going round to a mate’s house, their mums never asked “have you a maggot allergy?”

I assume, if you do this far out to sea, where the fish are much larger, the conversation is going to be: “I think we’re going to need a bigger maggot!”

“Bitte, hat Kent gewonnen?”

You no longer have to dust off a 100-year-old encyclopedia to find out anything: the answer will be on your phone.

As a bloke, sports results are key. These are readily available now, but, even before CEEFAX, how did we establish what was going on in the world of sport? Or, if you were intellectual, the world?

Even harder, what if you were abroad? Because Le Monde; Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Buenos Aires Herald were certainly not reporting on how Kent’s cricket team were getting on during the summer.

I remember, before wireless meant something other than the thing you listened to The Goons on, being abroad, listening to a short-wave radio and getting ever deeper into the Normandy countryside, I’d try desperately to listen to the Test Match before the reception went; the local radio station took over and you suddenly went from John Arlott to Edith Piaf before you could say baguette.

But it was the quest for a three-day old Daily Telegraph which was the high point of many holidays for me.  Apart from the dress code of Brits abroad – long shorts, socks, sandals, hat made out of a hankie – we’d spot one another, in quiet anticipation, milling about inside a French newsagent for the out-of-date papers to arrive.  And I’d pay a bloody fortune just to see how many runs Colin Cowdrey had made.

But these French newsagents could be devious, and I remember buying a paper which was so old it had turned yellow; the headline proclaimed: “Mafeking relieved”.  Never mind that, I thought, have Kent won and my secret hope – was it still raining in Balham?

He always calls me donkey

I started work in September 1974 and became a regular newspaper purchaser off the man at Balham Station who called everyone “John”. 

The thing you miss most about going to work are the lengthy school holidays.

Suddenly, you go from having had the only person of authority as your PE teacher, to having everyone as your boss.

If you’re the lowest in terms of seniority, you cannot tell anyone what you did on your school holidays – something you would have written about on your first day back at school after you’d covered your new text books with unwanted, normally distasteful, wallpaper..

You have no one to tell the only words of Spanish you learned on holiday were “I think my brake pads need replacing” (when actually you were trying to ask where the nearest chemist was); no one to tell about the third-degree burns you suffered because your mum had mis-read the “how to make your own sun cream” recipe; no one to tell of the singular lack of food served in a basket.

On my first day of work in September 1974, I stood on Balham Station, wearing my maroon suit with matching tie (this was 1974!), the only one peeling and holding a straw, almost life-sized, donkey tucked underneath my arm; I wasn’t to know I wouldn’t have a desk, let alone one to put a straw donkey on.

Burn, baby, burn – chemistry lab inferno

The smells are different between primary and secondary school.  You go from rotting plimsolls (and the feet therein) to various acids waiting to be turned into stink bombs, freeze the head boy or tools for encouraging pyromania.

You weren’t allowed matches at primary school, let alone Bunsen Burners you’d try and emulate a North Sea oil rig fire with.  The only way I’d have started a fire in my Balham primary school would have been by hitting my Glockenspiel too quickly.

I remember the first moment I entered my Tooting secondary school chemistry lab, with its associated smells.  Was I going to fall off the stool?  Would I get to wear the long white coat (I assumed the physics teacher had just come from umpiring a school cricket match)? Was I going to end up being part of the Quatermass Experiment?

During one physics lesson we learned about propulsion from fireworks to manned spacecraft.  I remember thinking to myself: “Well, it’s not rocket science, is it?”  Which, of course, it was, and one of the many reasons I failed all my science exams.  Or wasn’t the first man on the Moon.

Squirreling away

When you saw your careers officer at school, you were never encouraged to become a squirrel.

I wanted to be a squirrel as, on TV, growing up in the ‘60s, they had the best jobs; were massively popular and hugely responsible.

I’d have liked to have been Tufty.  He had many friends: one was called Willy Weasel (which wouldn’t be allowed on TV these days, and actually sounds like some kind of STD).  Tufty’s full name was Tufty Fluffytail.  I think, if ever I consider a role as a drag queen, this would be my stage name.

Slightly more adventurous, and without the nagging mum, was Secret Squirrel.  He had a coat which housed many weapons to fight crime. Although, because I have bad eyesight, I’d probably would have been better as his sidekick, Morocco Mole.

I can only assume, as I was told that a career in advertising is what I should seriously consider, that the lack of O-levels I achieved in 1973, meant that being a squirrel was never on the cards.

It was, however, while revising for my O-Levels in my Balham flat (Squirrel was an O-level option you could take back then), I discovered squirrels only lived for about five years.   Advertising it is, then! Atom Ant would have to find another crime-fighting partner.

What’s on the other side?

Shall we watch the Test Card; comment on the Open University’s lecturer’s sartorial elegance or The Likely Lads?

This would echo round my Balham flat in the ‘60s because, invariably, each night, this was the choice of viewing.  Having seen Martha Longhurst’s death by viaduct, I was always too traumatized to watch anything on ITV.

But nowadays we are spoiled for choice; but you still hear the perennial utterance of “there’s nothing on TV tonight”.

In the ‘60s, there were no remotes, so getting up and down to change the channel was part of an evening aerobics class.  The other challenge was making sure the aerial was correctly positioned. 

As part of my parents’ child labour activities, I’d often have to stand behind the TV with the aerial held high in the air so they could watch Compact clearly.   For years I thought it was a radio series.

Because the screen was so grainy, you couldn’t see the strings attached to many of the puppets.  I was always amazed that Andy Pandy could jump into his box like a Harrier Jump Jet.  The sound wasn’t brilliant either.  I’m sure, if there were modern day Flowerpot Men, Bill and Ben would sound quite articulate.

I’m still not used to a remote and often try and change channels with my glasses case.

No smoke without playing cards

As an only child, grandchild and nephew (not that you can tell!) it was my parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles’ job to entertain me. One uncle decided he would introduce danger into playtime within my Balham flat.

There was always a pack of cards lying around when I was a kid (my mum always wanted to be a croupier, but never got further than the church whist drive); my uncle would build towers with them. My uncle was a heavy pipe smoker, so his pipe was invariably on – nothing like going to school smelling of your uncle’s finest shag (insert your own gag here).

He’d inhale and blow the smoke through the bottom of the cards. The smoke would drift up and eventually exit through the hole he’d made in the top. The first time I ever saw the election of the new Pope on TV I thought, once the decision had been made, my uncle had been in the cellars of the Vatican blowing smoke up the Papal chimney.

We would lie down on the carpet of my flat (which wasn’t shagpile, so no running gag this week) to get the best effect of the smoke rising – and it is only now, with my mental health & safety handbook going cray, that I realise how dangerous this would have been!

Highly-flammable carpet, burning tobacco embers, child who wasn’t allowed matches until he was twenty-six – what could possibly go wrong?

Either we’ve elected a new Vicar of Balham, or the Fire Brigade needs calling.