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.
There was a spectacular difference between physical exercise in primary schools to that in secondary ones.
And what a surprise I got during my first PE lesson at my Tooting grammar school. It wasn’t so much pretending to be a tree (something I’d done successfully the previous seven years), this was trying to jump over objects which looked the size of a fully-grown oak!
Previously, I’d dressed only in vest, pants and ill-fitting plimsolls, prancing gaily around my Balham primary school hall, listening to a BBC employee who sounded like she’d a whole orchard of plums in her mouth.
At secondary school it was not called “Music and Movement”, although there was certainly movement (mainly avoiding the PE master’s eyes), but no music, although any funeral march or anything towards the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
Music and Movement was very innocent; I still have days when I wish I could suddenly become a horse chestnut (usually during endless Zoom calls).
When we didn’t have the radio, we’d have a kind, elderly teacher who’d play the piano (she probably tinkled on her church organ at weekends, like Violet Carson, only without a hair-net) as opposed to secondary school when our master, who, should you have tracked his genealogy back to the late 15th Century, you’d have gone directly to Tomas de Torquemada.
The only good thing at secondary school was you didn’t have, chasing you throughout the lesson, was a girl who wanted to become a golden retriever when she grew up. Especially if you being a tree was slightly too realistic.
As an only child I would often have to amuse myself with whatever toy raw materials I had around me. I was obsessed, as a ten-year-old, with golf and would spend hours at night in the bedroom of my Balham flat putting a golf ball into a lone empty yogurt pot (pointless having two yoghurt pots as I had no one to call).
One year I was given the Arnold Palmer Pro Shot Golf game and, as golf courses tend to close during the hours of darkness, at night I’d set this up; utilising the six available clubs, two bunkers and four out-of-bounds fences, I’d try and complete eighteen holes.
My golfing ability, due to playing too much Pro Shot Golf, never improved, so I’d never win the Morden Pitch ‘n’ Putt Open let alone the US one.
I never completed eighteen holes as invariably I’d get my finger stuck in the levering device which enabled mini-Arnold Palmer to swing. I would then walk the walk of shame into my parents’ lounge, implement still attached to my finger, and ask for some butter to remove it. As I walked back to my bedroom, I’d hear them talk:
“All he does at night is play with himself.”
“He’ll probably go blind.”
As I walked back, I thought: ‘I’ve got my finger stuck, it’s not taken my bloody eye out!’
In my final year at my Balham primary school, apart from the playtime bell ringing, the favourite part of my time there was when the teacher announced: ‘It’s time to work on your topic’.
A ‘topic’ was a project which lasted several terms and had nothing to do with hazelnut-covered chocolate.
In 1967 there were thirty of us in the class (I was one of the few not called ‘Susan’) and our topic was to write about a county. There had been thirty-six English counties, so the chances of getting Rutland (and consequently no work) was high.
I got Middlesex. I wanted Kent as I was, even as a ten-year-old, a massive fan of the County Cricket Club and obsessive about cricket generally – which became horribly obvious as my topic progressed.
Two years earlier Middlesex had officially stopped being a county. Surely better than getting Rutland? No, new county boundaries meant for nothing in SW17 (not part of Westmoreland).
I could have written about Harrow School; Chiswick House or the 15th Century font in West Drayton; I chose solely to write about Middlesex cricket.
My topic could have included facts about Hampton Court and its inhabitants and history; I chose to write about the inhabitants of Lord’s (not even in Middlesex).
Leading up to my Eleven-plus, rather than plumping for Thomas Cromwell, I wrote (at length) about Fred Titmus. I even referred to the English Test cricketer probably being a better offspinner than Katherine of Aragon.
So, not so much divorced; beheaded; died; divorced; beheaded; survived, more stumped; run out; caught; stumped; run out; hit the ball twice.
In the 60s you didn’t have to go to the edge of Mount Vesuvius to see lava, if you’d saved up enough Green Shield stamps you could get some in a lamp; if you had faulty wiring, there was that ever-present danger the eruption of AD79 would be re-enacted in your flat.
But, if globules resembling something out of the Quatermass Experiment wasn’t for you, then a fibre-optic lamp was the thing to adorn your bedroom in the (in my case) highly unlikely event that a girl might visit.
In the 70s, in my Balham flat, I would turn my light on in the hope that it would act as a homing device to any unsuspecting girl in our flats (preferably one who liked cricket, Thunderbirds and Sven Hassel novels).
However, the only danger (there was no danger of anyone visiting) was that the fibre-optic lamp, though wonderfully pretty when lit up, would moult more than the hairiest German Shepherd dog.
This was not advertised on the packaging and you only found out – given the room was in virtual darkness – when you trod on one. Think pieces of Lego, only with a skin-piercing syringe attached.
I was clearly never going to make it as a Hippie, my mother had installed fire alarms in my room, so joss sticks were out of the question and the only flares I’d see would be my mother firing one out of our flat window signalling my dad had gone to work.
In 1968, immediately after the publication of Chariot of the Gods by Erich von Däniken, I would gaze, expectantly out of the bedroom window of my Balham flat, anticipating the imminent arrival of aliens – and by this I don’t mean people from South-East London 😊
I would trawl over Tooting Bec Common, desperate for signs of a spaceship runway from 50,000 BC – perhaps on the Tooting Bec running track, or pondering whether the Lido was in fact a giant (or tiny) fountain built by Martians?
Von Däniken suggested many Biblical events were carried out by alien races. I once saw a ladder with Jacob written on the side and believed this was a prophesy of Von Däniken, only to discover that this Jacob was in fact a painter and decorator from Clapham.
The destruction of Sodom was probably not done by people from outer space but executed by a group of pyromaniacs from neighbouring Gomorrah.
Such was the success of the first book, it spawned many others – invariably with Gods in the title. It all got a bit hard to believe when Confessions of an Ancient God and Carry on Corn Circling were released.
I’m writing this from a condominium in Roswell; the neighbours are lovely but do keep churning up the local park making it look like the East-West runway at Heathrow Airport, saying they’ve relatives visiting.
In the bedroom of my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, I’d always have a night-light on. I’d have one on now, but at 63 I’m 99% certain the Bogeyman doesn’t exist. I would, with the light’s reflection, enact shadow dramas onto my bedroom wall.
My dramas would involve a rabbit’s ears, Dennis the Menace and a pre-historic bird with a beak which could open and close.
In my teenage years I travelled one night with my mum to Hampton Court to watch a son et lumière (with Balham’s café society being like Paris in the 70s, it was the natural thing to do).
The drama employed actors whose silhouette were the only thing you’d see; they depicted some violent scene from the life of Henry VIII.
After this, I decided my career lay in film direction, using only silhouette. I felt I could create anything – except The Invisible Man.
Returning, excited, to my bedroom that night, I hurried to bed early, turned on my Flopsy Bunny night-light and felt like Balham’s answer to Sergio Leone.
In my bedroom, in total darkness save for a forty-watt bulb, I thought Shakespeare would be the best place to start. I’d started to study him at school and felt my wall would do him justice. It was at this point when I realised that there are no rabbits, birds or Dennis the Menaces in any Shakespeare play – except the opening scene of Macbeth when all three are ingredients in the witches’ cauldron.
But, as we say in Balham, je regrette rein (looks like rain)
And now there is avocado milk to go with the trillions of other dairy products you can get.
Growing up in the sixties we had three types: red, silver and, if you’d come into a few bob, gold-top; avocado was the colour of your bathroom.
Can you imagine the chaos in the sixties at school milk time with thirty different alternatives? Hancock advocated, during the Blood Donor episode, to: “Drinka Pinta Milka day” – poor spelling, but strong message. Mrs Thatcher clearly not a Hancock fan.
My first departure from straight milk was when my mum once bought a tin of Nesquik. It did involve a lot of stirring; if you drank a lot of it, one arm would become much larger than the other.
Such was the desire to have a more varied dairy diet, I once asked for the popular sixties dessert: Raspberry Ripple. At the time it was quite expensive, and we didn’t have much money, so my mum created it serving a block of vanilla ice cream you’d normally have in a wafer, covered with Ribena.
And I wondered why she never made it as a Michelin Star chef?
Humphrey is currently in HMP Wandsworth serving time for armed robbery.
After leaving the Communist Party in 1961, I joined the Tufty Club – I felt Stalin was no longer in a position to help me cross Balham High Road safely.
I was four and my membership provided me with a badge and a Tufty Club handkerchief – this also acted as a tourniquet in case you didn’t properly observe your Kerb Drill.
Imagine my horror when, in 1975, a TV advert saw Tufty replaced by a six-foot-seven body builder called the Green Cross Man. How could this be real and taken seriously? Surely no one was that tall – not even Tufty’s road-crossing weasel buddy. The giant’s premise was ‘stop, look, listen, think’ – you can now add ‘hope (‘it’s not a Prius’)’ onto the end of that.
Because I lived next to my primary school, I never needed the use of a lollypop man or woman. I did see them at a distance, though, and assumed that a). you had to be over 100; b). hated kids and c). probably have been very proficient with a Kendo fighting stick in a previous occupation. They would stop speeding traffic on the A24 with one step into the road with their ‘lollypop’ as if being on the set of ‘Enter the Dragon’ – this was in itself quite dangerous, and we often nearly witnessed ‘Enter the Cortina’ – lollypop first.
Tufty Fluffytail was first created in 1953, he will now be 67 and is probably now a grumpy old lollypop squirrel somewhere or living in your loft. Wherever he is, he’ll be moaning the music’s too loud.
Mind the roads.
On January 22nd 1966, These boots were made for walking entered the charts; to celebrate this fact, I erected a life-size poster of Nancy Sinatra, sporting (there is no other word) a pair of pink boots, across my bedroom wall.
This was, in my nine-year-old opinion, arguably the most artistic thing hanging in SW17 that year; next year Nancy was usurped by a picture of Julie Andrews confronting the Gestapo.
A nine-year-old interested in thigh-length boots, I hear you say? Not what you’re thinking. At nine I was still recovering from seeing Action Man naked (my parents had taken the cheaper option and not ordered any uniform) and was quite content playing with my Hot Wheels (this is not a euphemism) to worry about leather-clad women. No, the real reason is that I wanted to work in a shoe-shop. Clark’s in Tooting High Street had a pneumatic money carrier, which, as a nine-year-old, I assumed launched you into space. The woman who worked in there also looked a bit like John Glenn, so my assumption seemed valid. Although, given the sandals my mum forced me to wear, defying gravity was going to be tricky, there were more holes than shoe. There was also this secret desire to be able to say (without being smacked) “Uranus”, should anyone ask me where I was heading.
As I got older, nude Action Men and Hot Wheels took a back seat and thigh-length boots came to the fore. As did increasingly more frequent trips to the opticians.
I never worked in the shoe-shop, but, ironically, throughout my career in advertising, I have talked a load of old cobblers.