Fish with everything

For sixty of my sixty-four years I have eaten fish ‘n’ chips; high cholesterol precludes me from eating them every Friday these days.   The one thing that strikes me is that, certainly over my lifetime, the only thing which has changed, is the cost (nothing much for under a shilling).   The menu has stayed almost the same.

In Balham and Tooting, we went to three chip shops: The Lighthouse near Tooting Bec station (to eat our chips watching the model railway in the shop next door); the one diagonally opposite the 211 Club (to learn how to say plaice, skate and haddock in Greek) and the one in Chestnut Grove (where I’m sure they’d give discounts to West Ham fans and let them jump the queue).   In the latter there was so much memorabilia emanating for sixties Hammers glory – I remember an old match-day programme they had on the wall (next to the gherkins) which had the words and numbers TSV 1860 München.  I assumed this was the code for the toilet.

For research (and yes, I take writing these weekly ramblings seriously) I looked up the Superfish menu.  It could have been from the ‘60s.  The only notable absence was rock salmon (like smoked salmon only whiter, cheaper and covered in more batter).   This was a stalwart for us if ever we had had a rise in pocket money and a portion of chips wasn’t going to suffice.

It’s ages since I’ve been to a chip shop so I may venture down to one, wearing Greek national costume, with a Billy Bonds shirt on top and ask for six penn’orth of chips and have they got any scraps.

And then wait for the Police to arrive.  ‘Is that large or small cell, son?’

Colonel Mustard & Cress

The only nature I experienced growing up in the ‘60s living in between Wandsworth and Tooting Bec Commons, was as I wandered across them identifying (largely unsuccessfully) various flora and fauna.  (Until I started learning Latin, I thought Fauna was Flora’s brother or a type of small deer).

These days, as an adult, what you did with plants and flowers back then, has changed.  

No longer, due to social distancing, can you ascertain whether someone likes butter or not – unless you’ve a two-metre-long stick with a buttercup stuck on the end.

The moment you own a garden the thought of blowing off dandelion spores (regardless of whether you want to know the time or not) would be abhorrent – as if you haven’t got enough weeds!  Also, I’m at that age, and up in the night so frequently, picking them and thereby running the risk of wetting the bed, is largely academic!

When you’re older you tend not to throw sycamore leaves into the air and watch them descend pretending it’s a Messerschmidt 109 you’ve just shot down.

And bending down to pop open a snap dragon’s ‘mouth’ is far too onerous – although, Antirrhinum does sound like something you’d use to stop chafing.

I’d have made more daisy chains, but this was 1960s Wandsworth – not Woodstock.

This afternoon, I’ll be making mustard and cress as, over the years, I’ve collected a lot of old flannels.

Put that in your pipette and smoke it

The transition from primary to secondary school for me in 1968 was disconcerting: as if taking a different direction along Balham High Road wasn’t bad enough, no one had ever told me about biology.

We’d not studied any science at primary school, so I was ill-prepared for my first lesson at my new school.

As we walked towards the biology lab there was much sniggering from the more sexually aware boys in my form. There was much talk of seeing more body parts than you would peeking over someone’s shoulder at the barber’s staring at a two-year-old copy of Health & Efficiency.

Among us thirty boys, those in the know mentioned that the word “reproduction” was what to listen out for.

We were not disappointed.   Well, not at first.  After we were all settled, the biology master, using slides, which would have seemed archaic even at the turn-of-the-century Chinese lantern show, proceeded to show us how reproduction works – for amoebas.   The groans in the classroom, for the more mature boys, had matched what they’d hoped to have heard on the screen.

You cannot see an amoeba with the naked eye and as dissection was also on the syllabus, I was beginning to wonder how they could make knives that small?  Unless The Borrowers were lab assistants?

I learned precious little during my science lessons apart from you soon find out who the form pyromaniac is when introduced to a Bunsen Burner and that a pipette is not a small pip. 

Later that evening I was asked what I’d done at school that day? I replied I’d learned about the birds and the amoebas. I could see the relief across my mum’s face as she thought, “that’s one less conversation I don’t need to have”.

Two pints of milk of magnesia, please

Hidden away in a cupboard inside my parents’ Balham flat was a large tome entitled The Home Doctor.  Mum was a hypochondriac, so here were 400-pages of opportunities for imaginary illnesses.

However, growing up – and hiding in the cupboard – in the ‘60s, I would look at only one of the 400-pages.  Towards the end of the book there was a page with a chart detailing all the ‘child’ illnesses; their incubation period; signs and days of contagion.  If it wasn’t for the dread of seeing blood, I’d have been a leading pediatrician by the time I was 10!

These were the days before Calpol, Sudafed or Imodium (which sounds like a Roman god). 

The ‘60s alternatives had been invented in the Middle Ages.  Two teaspoonfuls of Kaolin & Morphine (forerunners to Bonnie & Clyde) would be enough to make you stay away from any toilet for several months.  The precursor to Calpol was gripe water (which tasted like Ouzo – of which we had a lot of in our flat as both parents were fans of the film Zorba the Greek) – and contained alcohol to allow little Johnny to sleep.

If you had a cold – there was no Lemsip – you needed a bowl; a towel; access to boiling water and a few drops of Friar’s Balsam – it wouldn’t stop your cold, but it’d make sure you stopped moaning about it.

Another horror was Milk of Magnesia – like drinking chalk – and that’s meant to settle your stomach?

Of course, back then, the most used anesthetic was cocaine. My dentist was in Clapham and fear that, should I want some now, rather than going to the grand old house where I went, you probably have to wait outside Clapham Common Station and wait for Stephen Ward to turn up.

You’re not nicked!

I’ve never stolen anything in my life.  

As a kid, the likely reprisals from either parent, would have been more daunting than facing a multi-tattooed, hooded torturer in the Tower.

Temptation was certainly there.  The pick ‘n’ mix counter in Balham Woolworth’s was so near the front of the shop, it might as well have been on the High Road pavement! 

But, when I walked past, the Kola Cubes, Pineapple Chunks and Jelly Snakes remained intact.  I like to think they stayed this way and almost gathered dust – but this was Balham in the ‘60s.

My not stealing anything was quite the opposite to my dad; he stole ashtrays – from pubs, restaurants, stately homes.  He was a heavy smoker and there was the need (he would say in his defence) for an ashtray in every room – it was like the flat was sponsored: Watney’s Lounge; Playboy Club Kitchen and Chartwell Small Toilet. 

But the bug never caught on with me. I’d watched Papillon and the thought of spending my days on an island off the coast of French Guiana, kept me from straying. 

I also believe, had I have started a career of petty crime, I’d have panicked and gone into the wrong shop.  Instead of swiping a load of Fruit Salads from Balham Woolworth’s, I’d be down the road in Boot’s – filling my pockets with lipstick – and none of them my colour.

Lights out!!

Fondue fondle

I always knew, in the ‘60s, when they were popular, when my parents were having a fondue party.  I’d smell molten cheese wafting down the hall of our Balham flat and Edith Piaf songs, played on a continuous loop, echoing around my bedroom, from which I’d been banned from leaving until daylight.

Fondue was not, as my mum thought, French – it’s Swiss.  However, my mum owned an old atlas, so playing French music was close enough for her.  She didn’t have the proper kit and made do with an old saucepan and a Primus stove.  To her Zürich was something you cleaned the toilet with.

It was hard to sleep during these fondue evenings as, the drunker the guests became, the louder the singing of “Je regrette rein” would be.  My mum would come in with ‘ear plugs’ – which turned out to be Dairylea segments. 

Not that I’d have known it at the time, but I think the fondue evenings were a front for wife-swapping.  We lived on the 4th floor of our flats, so branches of pampas grass outside the flat wasn’t practical. 

I can remember helping clear up the morning after one such party and finding a Ford Cortina key fob at the bottom of the saucepan-cum-fondue bowl.  I assumed the owner must have walked home, although there was often a strange man in our flat watching TV holding a tin of Dulux whenever my dad was at work.  He didn’t like it when I said, ‘it’s not going to paint itself, is it?’ ����t��q`�u

A knotty problem

I still have my school tie.

I’m unlikely to will wear it again (unless I receive a very belated detention) – even if tied properly it would be far too short and the bottom bit would only sit pointing to the part of my chest which meets the excessive biscuit-eating part of my body.  I blame the school tuck shop.

At my Tooting grammar school this was a major part of the uniform.

In our first year we also had to wear the school cap – which, if your journey home took you past the next door comprehensive school (which housed a million pupils), there was an ever-present danger of having it knocked off, nicked or turned into a burning sacrifice – before your very eyes and satchel.  

Luckily my journey home took me in the opposite direction, thus allowing me to retain my cap until the end of the year.

We were allowed to leave school ahead of next door to avoid any cap conflagration. I still think 4.10 is time to go home.  This happened several times when I first started work and would often walk out of late afternoon business meetings saying I had physics homework to do.

Long trousers (once you’d ignored the chaffing) was a bonus during the winter months; but the tie was the most important adornment to your uniform.  It seemed the larger the knot, the greater your standing within the class.  These days people wear lapel badges denoting their company; nationality; membership of the Bazooka Club.  In 1968 Tooting the tie was the lapel badge and a big knot said: “I have pubic hair”.

I’ve worked from home for nearly a year now and haven’t had to wear a tie, I may put my old school one on, get an iced bun and pretend I’m in the school tuck shop.  And wonder if pubic hair turns grey and falls out?   

Slotting in just nicely

These days you have to tap in for everything.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only tapping-in being done was by the Stasi.

Back then, coin-operated machines were the Sixties equivalent of our near cashless society (well, cashless except for the odd half-a-crown).  Imagine your horror during a ‘60s Christmas dinner, together with the 365-day anticipation of getting a sixpence in your slice of pudding, only to have both cheeks pierced by an Access card.  (Not very flexible now, is it?)

There was a cigarette machine on the pavement near Tooting Bec Station which, with the correct change inserted, 20 Senior Service would magically appear.  For an old Penny you could watch the trains in the model shop along from that same station – you could wave every modern-day card you carried from Visa to Kidney Donor via The Tufty Club – if you didn’t have real money, you’d see no train moving.

The launderette would pose similar problems if you’d travelled back in time with your current wallet (or phone).  You could try all you like, if you didn’t have a couple of shillings to buy a small packet of Tide, you’d very quickly become like Queen Elizabeth I and only wash once a year.  Imagine how angry the laundrette manager would become if you thought waving the hand-set of an old Bakelite at the spin dryer would make it rotate.

There still are vending machines for those who have kept a collection of florins; these are for people who haven’t cleaned their teeth; have headaches or haven’t had a vasectomy.   If you’ve still not solved the solutions of the first two, you needn’t bother with the third.

Do keep the change, waiter.

A little bit elephant’s

Bank Holiday TV viewing, when I was a kid growing up in south London in the ‘60s, invariably involved a circus.

As a ten-year-old, keen to get some career ideas, the circus was no help at all.

One year, I visited the traveling circus on Clapham Common.  This was like an appointment with a school career officer.

If you had a head for heights; owned a whip and a small stool; liked sharing a Mini with heavily made-up men (and tonnes of fire hydrant foam) or, to paraphrase Robert Duvall, loved the smell of elephant dung in the morning, then there were potential jobs for you.

These ticked none of employment prospect boxes for me.

This was confirmed when I’d watch the circus on TV (and you’d only watch that because there were only two channels and no one could be arsed to get up and physically change the channel as they’d over-eaten the cold turkey and bubble, OD’d on dates or had alcoholic poisoning through consuming too many chocolate liqueurs).

I remember watching Billy Smart’s Circus.  I thought to myself that he couldn’t have been that smart as one of his main tasks was collecting elephant pooh – why else would he need a top hat?

Also, the smell of sawdust reminded me when someone had been sick in class and the long-suffering school caretaker would come in and scatter sawdust onto the problem in question as if it were some form of fairy dust with magical powers to ensure the smell disappeared. 

This New Year Bank Holiday I won’t be watching the circus and I’ll be keeping any fruit buns to myself. 

Halfpenny for your thoughts?

Boxing Day in the ‘60s for me meant an early introduction to gambling and the chance to win my bodyweight in halfpennies.

We would travel from Balham to Wimbledon Chase (which sounded more like a horserace than an actual place) to visit a family who’d previously lived in my block of flats, but had emigrated to SW20 – could have been Borneo, it seemed that far away.

At the end of the four-mile journey south down the A24 would be the largest ever collection of bottled beer, two packs of cards and a pile of halfpennies, which to me looked like Everest (the mountain, not the double glazing).

The game we played was Newmarket; it was simple and easy for a ten-year-old (me) to play.  The games would seemingly go on long into the night (probably about 9.30!) and amidst the continual clinking of light ale bottles, you stood to have a pile in front of you, if you were lucky, adding up to nearly a shilling.  I’d never felt so rich – plus I had already been given a £1 Premium Bond at birth – surely only members of the Royal Family were better off?

The lady who lived there looked very much like Dusty Springfield (this was preferable than looking like Myra Hindley, as my Auntie Vera did), so it was no coincidence her songs were played throughout the evening. 

When the beer had run out, and the halfpennies usually in one person’s sole possession, we began the trip home – back to wonder how easy it was to mend a broken Action Man. 

Who’s got the ten of spades?