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?

The postman only rings after playtime

In December, during the ‘60s, in my Balham primary school, there would be a temporary post box put in the playground. 

Its use was for pupils to put our Christmas cards into, It was purely for our fellow pupils – although some didn’t realise this and those with relatives in far-away countries were quite disappointed that Auntie Gladys in Brisbane would moan she’d  not received a single card for years.

The cards would be delivered; unless you had siblings at the school, you tended to get twenty-nine cards – from your fellow classmates. 

I realised, after I’d finished full-time education, that you only tended to know your actual classmates, apart from the boys’ names announced at the Monday morning assembly announcing anyone with any sporting prowess or were (yet again) on detention.

Receiving so many cards was great, the problem was was that twenty-nine also had to be written.  I got very bored signing everyone “Happy Christmas, Mick” and so mixed my signature up with people I’d seen on TV or were sporting heroes.  I’d sign many as “John Drake” or “Amos Burke”; many girls in my class would wonder who Gerd Müller was, and several boys would get excited thinking they’d got a card from Nancy Sinatra or Mandy Rice-Davies.

This Christmas I shall be confusing friends and family with my Christmas signature of “Be lucky, Pol Pot”.  Confusing as a. he’s dead and b. wasn’t terribly Christian.  You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit on his knee, let alone enter his grotto.  Be lucky, Mick.

That’s a cracker!


In 1847 Christmas crackers were invented.
As a child, in my south London flat, a disturbingly cheap cracker would sit next to my turkey dinner. As I grew older, so I realised what a massive disappointment its contents awaited me with its unveiling.
Coupled with the shock of the noise from the actual cracker (the cheaper the cracker the more likely you’d get second degree burns from the errant sparks) was a useless plastic toy.
For someone who takes pride in their hair, the thought of covering it with a flammable paper hat was abhorrent. When this occurred you hoped there’d be a temporary wig inside rather than a compass which was clueless about where magnetic north was!
Less than an hour after the last cracker had been pulled (despite the awaiting disappointment you still wanted to be pulling with an aged relative and thus claiming two-thirds) the remnants would be gathered up and thrown away, sometimes in a bin, sometimes, if your host was particularly myopic, into the cold meat and bubble for the next day!
The only evidence there’d been any crackers was the most elderly relative still wearing theirs who, when suddenly waking up, would ask which one was Morecambe and which one Wise? The answer being neither of them as neither appeared in The Great Escape.
I always knew that Christmas crackers were fundamentally wrong as you never saw the Queen delivering her message wearing one or reading, from a small piece of paper, that a mince spy is the person who hides in a bakery at Christmas.

Cards on the table


It is that time of year when Christmas card arrivals gather pace.
In my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, my mother would hang cards over hastily-erected pieces of string which, the more cards we received, the greater the chance of being garrotted!
In those days you’d buy a box of mixed cards, marginally heavier than greaseproof paper adorned with various winter and/or biblical scenes; the hierarchy of your friends and family would be determined by whether they got the (un-Christmassy) robin, a snowman in the shape of a wise man or the baby Jesus surrounded by donkeys, incense and virgins.
However, something which has crept into Santa’s postbag is the round robin letter from people you’ve not heard from since exactly a year ago!
Sadly, and this might be an only child thing, I couldn’t give a toss about the successful summer’s holiday, how (insert your own pretentious child’s name here) has integrated into the local Kindergarten or how the entire family is learning Italian – such was the triumph of the aforementioned trip to Tuscany and everyone now knows how to correctly pronounce the word Latte.
Also enclosed in the envelope is a picture of the entire family (many of whom you’d not have babysit your own kids) all dressed in the same onesie taken at Christmas last year; which begs the question: why do people dress normally for 364-days of the year only to have a total sartorial brain aberration at Christmas?
Happy Christmas, mine’s a Latte and Arriverderci, Roma.


Do you want to build a cardboard snowman?


When did Advent calendars become the monsters they have?
Gone are the days when you’d have a flimsy piece of cardboard, as near as you could get to being homemade, adorning your mantelpiece.
In my Balham flat, in the sixties, the moment December arrived I’d erect mine (Advent calendar) and wait, with childlike anticipation, until the 24th (the night before Christmas when I’d also be hurriedly, and badly wrapping, my mum’s Bronnley bath salts).
However, my brain must have been like a goldfish as, when the 24th came, the only number with a double door, behind which was always the same: the baby Jesus lying in a manger. You’d be lulled into a false sense of security all month as you’d open one each day to reveal a picture of a snow-covered post-box, a robin, an old fish (if you’d got your calendar free from that month’s Trout and Salmon magazine) – items vaguely relevant to Christmas and then, bang! The baby Jesus again.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of the baby Jesus being there – certainly in preference to a dead trout. However, these days the windows are no longer pictures of sugar cane sweets, holly or an immolating Christmas pudding, but actual gifts.
They are now as big as houses and many theme-based.
The Wise Men weren’t in Frozen, but if you were to look at any Advent calendar today you might be fooled into thinking that Elsa, Anna and Olaf were the bearers of gifts.
In 4 BC you’d have not been able to take Myrrh or Frankincense back to the Bethlehem branch of John Lewis!

Sponge, anyone?

tommy baldwin

Growing up in the 60s, Balham Woolworth’s was the place we’d get our Christmas tree each year.

They weren’t as easy to nick as the contents on the Pick ‘n’ Mix on the counter, so temptingly near the entrance, so we bought ours.  This was also the place where we’d also purchase our decorations: which, because they were so fragile, by the time we’d get them back to our flat, and with an attrition rate of around 67%, we’d leave a trail of shattered glass/plastic in our wake along Balham High Road.

The biggest argument, however, was what to put on the top of the tree. As a small child we’d have a fairy/angel and then a star as I got older.  Upon entering teenage years there was a perennial internal family fight as to what perched at the top of the tree.

We all had varying hobbies and interests: my mum wanted a packet of JPS, my dad, despite being a massive Chelsea fan, wanted a picture of Vanessa Redgrave and I wanted a model of Gerd Müller.   We compromised, and for several years the pride of place atop our tree was a model of Tommy Baldwin wearing a Germany shirt made from old cigarette packets.

Blob on the landscape


blobby bow tie

The record which topped the charts during my first Christmas, in 1957, was Harry Belafonte singing Mary’s Boy Child which is When a child is born played backwards.  It wasn’t until 1967 with The Scaffold’s Lily the Pink, that the Christmas songs became novelty songs – you’ll never hear the choir of King’s College Cambridge singing Ernie during any of their Nine Lessons & Carols services.

1956 had Johnnie Ray singing Just a walkin’ in the rain – if he’d had released that during Christmas 1962 he’d have had to have changed the words to Just a walkin’ in the snow as Britain witnessed its worst winter since the Black Death.

Is it, that at Christmas, peoples’ music tastes change so dramatically that they are bound to buy the worst record that week?

Why would you buy Long-haired lover from Liverpool (1972) sung by someone who’d rarely travelled outside of Utah?  In my view the 1980 hit There’s no one quite like Grandma is correct – my maternal grandmother had no teeth, stockings which were never fully pulled up properly and the most vituperative person ever.  And Mr Blobby (1993) – if Mr Blobby’d been one of the three wise men, then fair enough, he deserves a Christmas No. 1; but he wasn’t unless there were actually four wise men carrying gold, frankincense, myrrh and a yellow, spotted bow-tie.

Bring back Johnny Ray singing Just a walkin’ in the disturbingly mild for the time of year.

Vinter Vonderland


“Holidays are coming” says the Coca Cola-fuelled TV ad six times, as the British public awaits the now famous ads for Christmas.   Growing up in south London in the sixties there was never that anticipation of exciting TV ads – mainly because there was only one commercial TV station and the only thing anticipated was how much Cinzano Leonard Rossiter might spill over Joan Collins or the shock of the inarticulate Lorraine Chase talking about Luton Airport.  (Says he who bunked off elocution lessons when 10).

However, there was one which I remember vividly and was in that box of things (like dates) that you only devoured at Christmas; that was promoting Advocaat (particularly the brand made by Warninks – pronounced with a “V” as if you were playing a German in Hogan’s Heroes).  Suddenly a snowball wasn’t something you remembered making in 1963, or a leading character in Animal Farm, here was something your parents gave you in an effort to put you off drinking alcohol at Christmas – and subsequent decades.  It’s like if custard was alcoholic!

My favourite Christmas ad from times gone by still remains the one marketing various forms of fragrances for Morny’s talc – although rather than the line: “Morny – the natural choice for Christmas”, I’d have preferred: “Because everyone suffers from chafing sometime”. Probably why I never made it in a creative department of any ad agencies in which I worked.  To which I say “Bols”.

Blind dates


My fear of heights precluded me ever becoming the Milk Tray man.  As Christmas approaches, thoughts turn to what we can possibly buy which will heighten our bad cholesterol count as we contemplate the annual purchase of a box of dates.

1968 saw the first Milk Tray man ad on TV and ran, with several actors, into the mid-2000s.  I was 11 in 1968 and watched as the man leapt from building to building, through numerous avalanches, combating three-headed dogs along the way to delivering his milk chocolate selection box.

If I’d been better at PE at school, I would have quite fancied that – black is my favourite clothes colour; in my mind, I was halfway there. The SAS-type training being the other half, was an aspect which needed work! I couldn’t vault over a horse during PE, so there was no way I’d be seen on UK TV screens across the land with my important package (my own personal important package being my main concern whilst attempting to leap over a wooden horse in my Tooting school gym).

“And all because the lady loves Milk Tray” – really?  Even “Perfect Praline” which isn’t perfect as so few people know what praline is?  I’m surprised this hasn’t been discontinued as it is the only one which remains in the box after the decorations are put away, the cards taken down and box of dates stored back in the loft.

Milk Tray has been around since 1916; coincidentally the sell-by date on my box of dates.

A verruca is not just for Christmas


In the seventies, I sang in a church choir in Balham (anything to get a place in Heaven). At this time of year we would visit the now extinct St James’s Hospital (I accept no blame for my singing being the catalyst for its closure).

I never had fond memories of the hospital; I was in constant fear of having to remove my clothing as we walked and sang (who said men can’t multi-task?) between wards. This fear stemmed from having to go to St James’s to have a verruca examined, only to be asked to take off all my clothes.  It was mid-Winter and I’ve never looked my best naked when there’s a chill in the air.

We would sing for an hour and then rewarded with mince pies in the hospital refectory; although, it was reward enough (as a teenager) sharing a table with loads of nurses to whom I’d have willingly demonstrated my verruca in true St James’s investigatory style. However, a teenage lad with mince pie crumbs round their mouth and all over their Christmas jumper was unarguably unattractive.

After the hospital we’d convene to The Hope on Wandsworth Common (mince pies can be very dehydrating). A consequence of this visit ensured that during Midnight Mass at least one choir member, at the beginning of each verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”, popped out to the topically holly-infested outside toilets of St Mary’s Primary school.

These were the days before pub closing times were extended, so the church was packed (with a third of the congregation wondering why the band wasn’t terribly upbeat and why were too many songs about donkeys on the juke box?). Although they were soon topped up with a Communion wine sharpener – certainly the ones who didn’t fall down the (particularly if you’ve had a few ) steep chancel steps.

This year I’ve asked Santa for a nurse’s outfit. Knowing my luck, it’ll be delivered by someone who was once in Emergency Ward 10 as they’ll be 100!

Happy Christmas, mine’s a verruca.