Paderborn Calling

In the ‘60s and ‘70s I lived in a block of flats in Balham which had radios built into the wall. 

My Nan, whenever she went out, would leave the radio (or wireless as she called it) on – to give the impression (mainly to potential burglars) that someone was at home.  One Yale, two Chubbs and an assortment of chains you’d not find at Fort Knox clearly not enough for peace of mind.

In my view, some background noise works as a far greater deterrent than others.

If you want to discourage burglars, then have “Mother of mine”; “There’s no one quite like grandma” or anything by Reginald Dixon on a continual loop blaring out.  These will work like the thing you put in your garden to ward off foxes. 

Playing anything by Mahler will make the burglar believe you’re about to top yourself and won’t want to engage in conversation. 

At weekends, any burglar hearing Two-Way Family Favourites will assume you have a relative based in West Germany and therefore will seek reprisals when home on leave.  Or you have Judith Chalmers held captive.

Back in the ‘60s the option was the Light, Home Service or Third Programme – so your burglar prevention could include Music while you work; Something involving Dame Isobel Barnett or 16-hours of The Ring Cycle.  It depended on how valuable your cigarette card collection was.

Nowadays you can simply say, “Alexa, play something which’ll frighten burglars

Key Balham

I was brought up in a block of flats in SW London with various relatives.

I lived one floor away from my Nan, but was trusted to go back and forth, on my own, from my flat to hers.

I was also entrusted with a key: three times.  Such was the ease with which I lost each passkey, I was finally never assigned another – three keys and you’re out. 

So, my Nan taught me how to break into the flats.

This was the same woman who’d told me she’d been a waitress at a Lyon’s Corner House, when, clearly, she must have been breaking and entering throughout the fifties. 

All I needed, she instructed, were very thin wrists (easily done as I “didn’t eat enough to keep a fly alive”); a belt (which I owned, despite my daily intake of Virol) and the knowledge of the outer workings of a doorknob.

I was taught to put my wrists and belt through the letterbox, above which was the knob; attach the belt; get some traction and – Open Sesame – I was in.

As Balham’s answer to Raffles of Arsène Lupin, I was able to get into my Nan’s flat.

With this success, literally under my belt, I thought I’d try it out next door – where my aunt lived.

I assumed she’d be counting her trillion Embassy coupons, but, unbeknownst to me, she was getting dressed.  Successfully in her flat, I revealed myself, only to find my aunt peroxiding her hair – dressed only in her industrial bra and panties.

When you’re only ten, there are some things you simply cannot unsee.

It is the sole reason I’ve never became a hairdresser.

The candy floss man can

Carrying on with my holiday theme, and before we all go back to our chimney sweeping jobs in September, I’ve been reminded of the singularly unhealthy foods we’d have all eaten on holiday.

I think, looking back, that the stall holders must have been in league with (in my experience) all south London dentists.  

I’m talking initially about ‘rock’.   

Only a struggling dentist could have thought this confection up.   A mint-flavoured sweet and 99% guaranteed to break a tooth or at least loosen a filling.  The type I would buy, if you cut it two, would have ‘root canal treatment’ running through the middle.

Also, candy floss – more addictive than crack cocaine, but slightly more sticky and certainly enough ingredients to make you even more susceptible to gingivitis.  The best bit for me was watching being made – a bit like seeing how a spider spins its web using a time-lapse camera.  Actually, I lied, the best bit was eating it and still having most of it round your face several hours later.

But the one thing we eat in the open, only during our holidays, is fish and chips.  But if you’d have known the seagulls were going to have such an absence of fear, you’d have bought two portions!

So, tooth decay, diabetes and high cholesterol – highlights from summer holidays gone by – and that’s before you’ve bought the mandatory postcards.  

Are we nearly at the pub which sells Double Diamond yet? 

Pier group pressure

I’ve been lucky and for many years I’ve holidayed abroad, the past few years, however, have been spent in this country.

It was 1968, as an eleven-year-old, when I travelled abroad for the first time, taking that famous 18th European travellers’journey from Balham to the Balearics.  

But since the last time I was in the UK for a holiday, I noticed many of the things were no longer there.

Try as I might, I could not find a single knobbly knee, glamourous grandad or best pub singer competition to enter (I was never going try out in a beauty contest – I haven’t got the legs).

Many of the piers, in existence in the early ‘60s, had either caught fire, hit by the storm in 1987 or had sunk.

There were restrictions should have wanted to see an “end of the pier” show – many of the venues required you to bring either your own snorkel, wind-cheater or extinguisher.  And if you have a full deep-sea diver’s kit on, then it really would be a slow stroll down the promenade.

This year, the only show on offer was “The Little Mermaid”, but you had to produce a swimming certificate to gain entrance. It was worth it, as Jacques Cousteau was playing Ariel. Red Adair was the prompt.

I was quite skint but fruitlessly scoured the beaches with my Daily Mirror looking for Chalky White to claim my £5.

The weather was good, especially if you were either a duck or trying to improve your Gene Kelly impression.

Overcoming the first hurdle

I’ve been inspired with the recent Olympics.  However, I’ve never threatened to get a place on the GB Olympic team.

At our Tooting secondary school, we had a term of athletics which would eventually lead to finals day.  There was no podium as the woodwork teacher was rubbish.

I tried the shot put and discus, but struggled to pick the things up, let alone throw it halfway to Tooting Broadway Station.  Had even less luck with the javelin as I nearly created the climax of the Battle of Hastings with my poor aim.

The hurdles were tricky if you wore glasses, as you’d approach the actual hurdle and, with NHS ill-fitting glasses wobbling all over the shop, you’d see several hurdles and invariably hit the wrong one.  David Hemery I was not.

I tried to introduce a note from my Mum, but such was the ferocity of the PE master, it’d have been less painful impaling myself with one of my more errant javelins.

I could run about 100-yards (these were the days before metres were invented) – but anything more was torture; the cross-country run we’d be sent on was like me taking an urgent message to Marathon.

We had no swimming pool and boxing only occurred when the comprehensive school opposite invaded the rugby pitch separating our two schools.  Our school caps offered little protection.

I’ve had liked to have done Taekwondo but have never been any good at foreign languages.

On your marks…

The goose who cooked in the Golden Egg

With diets having changed over the past decades (back when you thought tofu was a make of Hungarian car) some London eateries no longer exist.

My dad worked in Baker Street.  When he grudgingly took part in “take your son to work” day, we would go the Golden Egg.  I’d always have the plaice and chips and, having been brought up in Balham and rarely subjected to any form of nature, always thought lemons were an eighth of their actual size.

My first job involved me going to Fleet Street twice a day for three-months.  I would frequent Mick’s Café most days, as I felt empathy with its name.  It’s probably now a Starbucks.

In the late ‘70s I worked in Paddington, where every other restaurant seemed to be a Micky’s Fish Bar.   Again, unswerving loyalty ensured most days involved some form of fried fish – accompanied by a portion of chips and increasingly higher cholesterol.

Healthier eating means these shops now sell nutrition bars, which tastes of sawdust; this is because 85% of it is made from balsa wood and is invariably made from a recycled Airfix ME109.

Balham, my hometown, had shops which suffered similar fates: the ABC turned into a branch of Abbey National – no good if you wanted an iced bun and a cup of tea, but handy if you needed a mortgage.

And all the bricks from the Lyon’s Corner Houses are being used to build the Northern Line extension.

Plaice is off, love.

Say goodnight to the folks, Micky

People don’t have catch phrases like they used to.

Growing up you’d hear “can I do you now, sir?” – after ITMA stopped, you’d only hear it if you drove, very slowly, up Balham’s Bedford Hill; former resident of my block of flats, Tommy Trinder, would say “you lucky people” – that wouldn’t be allowed these days as it’s unfair on people who are generally unlucky and you could never accuse a cleaner to “look at the muck on ‘ere” as they’d probably sue you.

I would also question some of the catch phrases of yesteryear: did Hughie Green really mean things “most sincerely”?  – as long as he got his salary from Rediffusion and didn’t get into a fight with the Muscle Man, he probably couldn’t give a monkey’s.

Columbo episodes may have been shorter had he not had “just one more thing”; Hawaii Five-O showed Steve McGarrett’s ability to delegate all the unnecessary admin to Danno; Dick Emery showed, as Gloria, that he/she had a split personality; Harold Steptoe introduced us to the importance of hygiene (albeit in a kitchen sink); Bruce Forsyth to palindromes and Jack Regan to the correct dress sense if being arrested.

Perhaps I just don’t watch enough TV these days, but there just don’t seem to be as many – or as memorable.  Am I bovvered? 

Good night, John-Boy.

Lady Lucky Peg

I’ve had a few people tell me my fortune, one was while I was legging it out of Balham Woolworth’s when I was a kid.

However, I have sought more professional routes: when I was seventeen, an industrial psychologist told me I should seek a career in hotel & catering.  As I assumed all hotels were on the coast, I feared it would bring back an attack of the ague (and other diseases prevalent in the 17th Century) plus I can’t cook; my guests would soon become disillusioned with nothing to eat but toast (my piece de la resistance) and an array of broken biscuits on one of my home-made doilies.

As a kid I often bought fortune fishes to tell me my destiny.  While they didn’t show me which career path to take, they did tell me whether I’d be jealous; indifferent; in love; fickle; false; tired or passionate.  As a nine-year-old I’d had to look up half the words, so tired it was, regardless of the position of the fish.

Most fortune fishes are made in Taiwan – it took me three sets to realise this and became even more tired translating the instructions from its original from Cantonese.

I tried it with real fish once (I’d lost my Mandarin/English phrase book) – after a while it remained motionless (it was dead rather than tired, as the explanatory chart said) – it curled up more than the fortune fishes.

These days, if I want my fortune told, I go to the Derby and buy as much lucky heather as I can until I hear what I want to hear: “in the future you’ll be less tired”.

Colin the Caterpillar pet

Living in a fourth-floor flat was impractical for keeping most pets.

Goldfish were always an option.  I would regularly win one at our Balham school fete. However, the quality was so poor, the fish would invariably have visited that great fish-tank in the sky, before I’d even got out of the lift on the fourth-floor.  A fete worth than death 😊.

Because there were large communal gardens in our flats, I would seek out potential pets with the hope of developing a deep bond.

I would often find caterpillars (the bonding lasted between 7 – 14 days due to the evolution the caterpillar goes through). 

The (un)natural habitat of the caterpillar is, of course, a matchbox (always many around the house due to my dad being sponsored by Senior Service).  Obviously, it needed feeding so, a variety of cabbage leaves were stuffed into the box (saved me having to eat my greens).  Friend for life (well, a fortnight, tops).

However, caterpillars grow into moths – which I discovered after opening its matchbox once and seeing it make a beeline for my mum’s coats!

I would have to mark the matchbox with a label “Mr Caterpillar” or my mum would take hours trying to light the stove with it. Aufwiedersehen, pet!

Threepenny bitcoin

I’ve never owned Bitcoin.  I’ve played bit parts in local Am Drams; was an avid subscriber to Titbits (I bought it for its gardening tips) and, as a kid, collected threepenny bits, but have not succumbed to the latest fad of crypto currencies (itself sounding like something Superman would be allergic to).

I’ve only just mastered decimal currency, so the last thing I’m going to do is invest in something in the ether (a thing which used to pervade every doctor’s surgery).

However, growing up (when Elon Musk was a fragrance and not an entrepreneur) I would devise ways, from the confines of my Balham flat in the ‘60s, of how I could pay for things without using actual money; ten bob notes were like gold dust back then (although, if they’d been made of gold dust, they’d have been worth a lot more than ten bob).

I would collect all manner of things, hoping I’d invented a new currency: what might the Esso 1970 World Cup star coin of Peter Bonetti be worth down the local newsagent?  Could I buy the latest copy of the Beano with a Kidney Donor Card? If I pressed enough silver-tops off milk bottles together, could I create a sixpence?

Might there have been an opportunity for barter?  The complete set of Thunderbirds bubble gum cards in exchange for a flock of sheep?  This was never going to happen as I was never given the Freedom of Balham, thus allowing me to walk my sheep over Wandsworth Common.

If I got given some Bitcoin, I’d try and buy the card of Thunderbird 3 going through the Roundhouse (I lied about the set being complete).