Dungeness monster

dr syn

Once a year, during the summer, in the sixties and seventies, I would leave the safety of my parents’ flat on Balham High Road and temporarily set up camp with my paternal grandparents in a rented house on the coast somewhere.
For several years, we rented a house at Greatstone, on the Kent coast; we were so close to the Dungeness nuclear power station, I’m surprised I never grew a third arm.
Money was tight and our humble abode reflected this (even the squatters had given it a bad review on Trip Advisor) and for our evening meals we were given a budget of 8/6 (42.5 new pence for my younger readers).
As we sat, waiting to order our evening dinner at a cafe in New Romney, mathematical juggling was the name of the game. (8/6 in 1970 is worth £6.24 in today’s money). Being good at darts as a 12-year-old stood me in good stead!
However, my dilemma was that I wanted sausage, egg AND chips AND cassata siciliana – the combined cost of which was ten bob – one and six over my allotted allowance.
Did I go the high cholesterol route or a lump of multi-coloured ice cream with random bits which’d stick in your teeth most of the holiday?
New Romney is famous mainly for smuggling during the 18th Century. I bet Dr Syn, the fictional anti-hero who operated around these parts, had more than eight and six to spend for his tea? I couldn’t even afford sherry trifle, let alone anything with brandy in it!



As a kid, growing up in south London in the sixties, around this time of year I often balanced the preference of being hanged, drawn and quartered with that of root canal treatment.
Our firework displays, in early November, would be held near the garages at the back of our Balham flats; the oo-ing and ah-ing would be interspersed with offerings of home-made toffee from a “responsible” adult who clearly moonlighted as the local dental nurse.
Guy Fawkes obviously never witnessed a firework display and I wonder whether he’d have been proud of his eponymous day being celebrated by people succeeding where he spectacularly failed on that fateful November evening in 1605?
Toffee was introduced into Western diets around the turn of the 19th Century, just before the time the cost of dental crowns surged.
1868 was the year of the last public execution in this country and coincided with the advent of Starbucks and Pret, thus occupying people during their lunch breaks in the absence of a hanging.
So, when you’re next in line for your convenience lunch, spare a thought for the man who inspired sparklers, bangers and Roman Candles and think: “it could be worse, the avocados might have run out, but at least I’ve not been chopped into four pieces and my penis is still intact!”
Next time you’re ordering rocket, make sure there’s no blue touch paper attached!


You can ring my bell (unless you’re selling something)

door knocker

I could never have made a career in campanology.

As a teenager I sang in a church choir which would perform two concerts a year.  As I lived in the flats next door to the church on Balham High Road, my task was to call on the 600+ flats to sell tickets.

I didn’t know, in the mid-70s, that so many different doorbell chimes existed.

The task of selling tickets to hear Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah was hard (the residents were more likely to listen to “Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep” than Chopin, “Ernie” than Elgar or “Shang a lang” than Shostakovich).

We thought we’d have more luck with people whose door chimes played a sophisticated tune, sadly they had the sound because they liked the tune in a cigar advert!

The most worrying noise was the bark of a clearly dangerous dog. Either the dog behind the door had trained at Wandsworth Prison or had three heads, and therefore guarding the gates of Hell (I was in my mid-twenties before I realised that Hell wasn’t on the fifth floor of my block of flats).

Many doors had spy-holes and the chances of the door being opened to a long-haired git in a cassock and surplice was never going to happen unless the Archbishop of Canterbury had moved county.

However, the most disturbing thing for a shockingly naive teenager, was the sound of “My ding-a-ling” playing as Mrs Robinson, the siren of the third floor, opened her door.  I could have died and gone to Heaven – bit like Elijah!

Is Chris Tavaré out yet?


In the 1970s, when foreign travel started to take off, access to information at home was limited to your daily newspaper, News at Ten or a set of reliable homing pigeons; the lack of news, once abroad, was frustrating and people would scour kiosks in Spain and France hopeful of a two-day-old Daily Telegraph sent from Blighty.

Your holiday would be ruined, not just for NOT drinking the water or failing to take your Enterovioform three-years before your trip, but if you weren’t up to speed with the Test or County Championship cricket scores.  You wanted to be that person, like the major in Fawlty Towers, who goes back to the (almost built) hotel and announces that “Hampshire won!”

But was there that same demand in this country?

I remember the man who sold newspapers and magazines outside Balham Tube station, who called everyone “John”; was he visited by people who’d wandered off the beaten track (as Balham rarely gets a mention in any Michelin guide) looking for a copy of Paris Match (seeing how the latest strikes were going), Süddeutsche Zeitung (sending off for the deck-chair-sized towel offer) or El Pais (how many Brits had drunk the water?) and if he was, did he call them Jean, Johann or Juan?

Chalky White, whom you’d could identify and win £5 if you were carrying a Daily Mirror on holiday (invariably in Shanklin), is alive and well and waiting to be spotted in Bali.   Hope he’s taken his tablets!

A Meccano bridge too far


I was never destined to become a civil engineer with the toys I was given as a kid.

In my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, there wasn’t a sniff of Meccano; although my mum was constantly hoovering up discarded pieces of an Airfix ME110 I’d scattered in a fit of pique to the four corners of my bedroom (mum was careful hoovering as she thought she might find a miniature Rudolf Hess, although may, in the sixties, have been more constructive looking for Martin Bormann!).

I only had one rectangular piece of Lego – with which I could pretend was a table, a sentry box or bench depending on which side I laid it.

So, my creative construction juices were never encouraged as a kid.   I did have a Willy Wombat glove puppet but, as anyone who’s ever watched the National Geographic TV channel will know, marsupials aren’t renowned for their construction skills (although very good at transmitting urgent messages).

So the much-needed bridge over the River Wandle was never going to materialise with me as the project manager.

I did, however, play with my Spirograph a lot, which might have been the cause of my myopia 😊


Scent from above

aramis scent





In the early 70s I discovered that Aramis wasn’t just a third of a band of musketeers, but was a brand of after shave available in Balham Boot’s and something to daubed on in the unlikely event a girl might talk to me. (I could have owned Estee Lauder and girls were unlikely to talk to me).

I was a massive fan of Aramis and Paco Rabane (having not studied 17th Century Spanish literature in any great depth meant I never thought he might have been Don Quixote’s little helper).  These were my scents of choice as a teenager.  I tried Kouros (not one of the remaining 66.6% of musketeers) but always came out in a rash – not a good look unless the girl you fancied took an inordinate interest in dermatological problems.

As my taste in after shaves became increasingly more sophisticated, I was appalled one Christmas when my paternal grandmother gave me a bottle of Avon’s Windjammer.  If I’d have wanted anything to jam my wind, I’d have bought a packet of Carter’s Little Liver Pills.

Whilst my perennial search for the perfect scent continued, I often admired the girls’ perfume selection. I was fascinated by the elegance of the packaging of YSL’s Rive Gauche – arguably one of the best right back Paris St Germain have ever had.

Whilst the shop assistants in Balham Boot’s were quite persuasive, they had nothing on Valerie Leon!

Bombes away

ban the bomb

Everywhere these days, a previously bare wall, has been covered in graffiti; usually with uninterpretable hieroglyphics people have tattooed on their upper arm for a bet assuming it’s Japanese.

I blame Banksy (the man with the spray can and mouse stencil, not the Stoke & England World Cup hero).

As a kid in the sixties I can only remember one piece of graffiti in my formative years. As you entered Wandsworth Common from the Balham end, displayed on the first wall, you saw Ban The Bomb.

When I was five, I could read, but not having lived through the second world war, assumed, having been subjected to lots of music as a child, that The Bomb were a group and this message had been daubed by fans of The Beatles; The Stones or The Swinging Blue Jeans.

As I grew older and realised that CND wasn’t a shortened form of the Irish group Clannad, it dawned on me which bomb they were talking about.

Shame it didn’t read Ban The Bombe as I’ve never been a fan of circular ice cream desserts.

A toffee apple a day…

toffee apple

Toffee apples, despite purporting to being part of your five-a-day, would not be a food (unless he or she’d been struck off by the BDA and you’d not been informed) your dentist would recommend consuming.

But because toffee apples tend to only be eaten on one specific day (like dates on Boxing Day), and unless you’ve an appointment on the 31st October, this warning will never be relayed to you.

It is odd that toffee apples tend to feature only on Halloween. Whilst studying Macbeth for English Lit O-level in 1973 I cannot recall, whenever the three witches appeared, that they were doing unspeakable things with apples – they tended to stick to frogs and newts.

Apple-bobbing would feature at many of the children’s parties I attended in the south London area as a kid, although, once parents realised this was much like water-boarding, it was quickly replaced with pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey; much safer – small child, sharp object, blinded – what could possibly go wrong?

For me, the novelty of toffee apples stopped the moment the last piece of toffee was eaten. I had no interest in the actual fruit. I look back and wonder, if I’d have known how much crowns cost, should I have opted for candy floss?  No, because that’s bad for your teeth.  Hang on a minute……

Bish, bash, Bosch



The moment an Athena shop opened near me, my bedroom in my Balham flat overnight became festooned with death and destruction, mainly provided by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel.

As if Sir Kenneth Clark had lived in my flat, I had become an art expert overnight – as long as the paintings gave the impression that you’d have loved to have had a pint of whatever the artists had been drinking!

I’d spend a fortune in the Athena shops buying famous pictures replicated on postcards, posters and small blocks of wood; I’m sure my neighbours always enjoyed my random nail-hammering after a shop visit.

I was never tempted with any Picasso cartoon, though, as I was more an Andy Capp man.

Dali was hugely popular within the stores and if he’d bought his watches which he depicted in his paintings, you could see that Gerald Ratner had had a point.

Before its advent in 1964, very few people had art in their houses unless it was The Laughing Cavalier, a bowl of fruit, or a Chinese woman whose face was so green it looked like she’d eaten too much fruit.

However, one of the more popular images was something I never bought: Leonardo da Vinci’s Tennis girl scratching arse! – although the eyes do follow you round the room, a sign of a good painting!

PE or not PE?

old wooden horse

In September 1968 I beheld my first wooden vaulting horse.

It lived in the gym in the labyrinth under my Tooting secondary school – where no humans dared venture and probably housed a three-headed dog – there were suspicious teeth marks on the wall-bars.

This horse, at first sight, seemed the size of a Shetland pony. However, when we were told what we had to do on it and over it, suddenly it was the size of the one I’d imagined had been plonked outside Troy.

I’d watched, admiringly, the success of the Czechoslovakian gymnast, Vera Caslavska at that year’s Olympics, as she glided over the wooden horse as if she were being operated by strings. Much as I looked like Joe 90, I had no strings attached and certainly nothing which was going to help me over the horse.  I was, having watched the eponymous 1950 film, also surprised there weren’t sprinklings of discarded soil around the wooden horse.

My turn came to vault over the horse: I ran and promptly stopped like a runner in the Grand National who doesn’t fancy Becher’s Brook.   I couldn’t do it and subsequently found out during that academic year that I could neither climb a rope nor do anything vaguely precarious on wall-bars.

This inherent danger was greater than what I’d experienced at my Balham primary school when all you had to do during PE was run around in your pants pretending to be a tree.

At secondary school we were told that all the trees had got Dutch Elm Disease and so would we if we didn’t vault over a horse.

I guess I was more Ronnie than Olga Korbut

You’re probably not allowed to wear just pants these days.