Legion’s disease

I was ten when my parents left me in a hall I’d never visited before; with kids I’d never met; playing games of which I’d never heard.

Was this some sort of punishment?  Had I been awful in a previous life?  Was this Karma for not tidying my room once too often?

I stood (and wished it was a burning deck, such was my desire to be somewhere else) by the entrance of this hall near Tooting Broadway. 

“Ok, Michael, have fun, we’ll see you in a few hours”.  

Was this what it was like when you joined the Foreign Legion?  Being in the British Legion club was clearly the first step.   My parents had signed a document ensuring I’d be in Marseilles before sunset.

The other kids clearly all knew one another from their schools; Cubs/Brownie packs or the Balham & Tooting sub aqua club for under tens.   I knew no one.  Even my imaginary friend was away for the weekend.  This was one of the few times I regretted being an only child.  If I had known, I’d have bought a sibling off the Freeman’s catalogue.

The pain went on for several hours.  I took part in none of the games.  I spoke to no one.  I hid in the toilet so many times, one of the adults asked if there was a urologist in the hall?

After four hours my parents returned.  I was given a piece of cake.  I did say thank you, but also told the organiser – thrusting my Victoria Sponge towards his face – “this is how revolutions begin”.

Tiger, tiger – hiding in my grass

It is “No Mow” May.

This is blindingly obvious if you step outside your house and are confronted with what appears to be Epping Forest; no one has mown the communal streets seemingly since the last Ice Age.

I never had “No Mow” Any Time Period growing up in my fourth-floor Balham flat.  Mowing wasn’t easy, four floors up.  We were so far up, off the ground, it was more fly-past then Flymo.

I’m wondering, when they eventually get round to cutting the Serengeti-type grass outside my house, what they’ll find?  Butterflies; bees; beetles?  Most certainly.  However, it has grown so high I wouldn’t be surprised to see hordes of wildebeest; the lost city of Atlantis or The Borrowers living there.

In the ‘60s, I’d wander over Wandsworth Common with my Observer Book of Birds.  During this time, it seemed south-west London only attracted pigeons and sparrows.  I was twenty-eight before I saw my first robin – unless you count Burt Ward.

My father, having been brought up in Marylebone (famed for its birds of paradise), got very bored trying to bird-watch with me, so we used the book as a goalpost. 

From trying to be Peter Scott, I hastily had to become Peter Bonetti.  Equally handy trying to spot cats.  And talking of cats, outside my house, I could have a family of Siberian Tigers living in the undergrowth.  This would explain why Siegfried and Roy have moved in next door.

Eva Brown

In the kitchen of our Balham flat in the ‘60s, my mother had eight brown jars containing all manner of exotic foodstuffs: ginger; cloves; nutmeg; cinnamon; marjoram; mint; parsley and thyme. 

Because of my utter loathing of boiled fish in parsley sauce, I’d hide the jar marked “parsley”.  I couldn’t watch any episode of The Herbs without the fear of coming out in a rash.

What puzzled me, as a kid growing up, was why the contents of these jars were never used? 

My diet was very formulaic; I had the same thing most days; most weeks.  But cannot remember my Saturday evening smoked haddock being supplemented with a sprinkling of nutmeg; Sunday’s roasts rarely featured ginger instead of Yorkshires – and whose cloves were actually in that jar?  The Borrowers? (At this point I’d not learned how to spell “clothes” properly).

Brown was a popular colour in our flat:  Brown three-piece suite; brown carpet – with both parents being heavy smokers, it tended to hide the burn marks (and an unruly Flake packet); brown coffee pot; brown cups and saucers; dark brown sideboard and stereo.  The only brown not there was Eva Braun.

My dad had a brown suit.  He could hide his head in his jacket and my mum wouldn’t spot him sitting on the sofa for hours.  

So, when sometimes says to you, “brown is the new black”, send them off for a colour blindness check.

Pomp and circumstance in Balham

Listening to “Zadok the Priest” last week during the coronation, reminded me of one of the many times I’d sung it.

To celebrate various Royal happenings during the 70s, our Balham church twice put on pageants.

Because I could sing and act I was involved in both.

Having won the RE prize when I was ten, I believed I was a shoe-in for any major acting part (in fairness, this should have been given to Neil Pearson, a Tooting resident when we were all growing up – and marginally better actor).

We regularly inflamed the vicar’s anger by messing about during rehearsals.   This wasn’t helped by one line in a sketch where the vicar’s daughter had to deliver a line: “Peter, pass me your crutch”.  When you’re a teenager, and you hear the word “crutch”, it’s similar to hearing the word “sausages” when you’re six.  Sadly, for the vicar, we were all still mentally about six.

We sang many choral pieces in the two pageants – all of them related to royalty. But, for me, the best thing to come out of it was through a fellow chorister from Jamaica.  During the rehearsals and singing “may the King live forever”; “amen, amen, amen” and “alleluia” more times than you can shake a stick at, my West Indian mate taught us the entire lyrics to “The Israelites”.

If the vicar had known he’d have torn up our shirt and taken away our trousers, as the great Desmond Dekkar suggested.

Wall to wall entertainment

Music was very important to me growing up.  The bedroom wall in my Balham flat was bedecked with singers cut out from Fab 208.  The life-sized picture of Clodagh Rogers did dominate the wall; this didn’t leave much room for Melanie, Aretha Franklin or Nancy Sinatra (nothing wrong with having eclectic musical tastes).

I’d inherited some records from my grandparents: the 1939 classic “Underneath the spreading chestnut tree”; “Caruso’s greatest hits” and a full set of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.  Therefore, the desire to have my own music was paramount.

I bought a cassette player.  I also bought several C60 tapes to record on.  I declined to buy a reel-to-reel tape as I believed this would make my bedroom look like the IBM building. 

I’d plant my microphone in front of the TV during Top of the Pops – sadly I’d not only record the song, but I’d also record my mother asking “what’s this bleedin’ row?” .  DJs on the radio would interrupt the songs by talking over the start and finish of songs.  At night, I’d try and record the Radio Luxembourg top 20 underneath my candlewick.  My mother would enter my room (without knocking) and say “I hope you’re not doing what I think you might be doing?”  I was ten and my eyesight was bad enough.

Eventually, as I got older, and with more pocket money, I could buy actual records.  I’d buy the Top of the Pops and Hot Hits albums.  My mother knew why.

Bugger Bournemouth

In 1963, when I was six, I visited Bournemouth.  I vowed never to visit again.  The trip from my Balham flat to the Dorset coast was a succession of disillusionment.

There’s nothing wrong with Bournemouth per se, but my multiple bad experiences there left me very biased against it – however Alan Whicker may have praised it in future programmes.

This was the first holiday I can remember. I stayed with my paternal grandmother in a rented flat by the beach.  My grandmother had a food allergy – insomuch as she was a dreadful cook.

On my first visit to the seaside I was stung by a bee.  This was very painful; the only way my parents would calm me down was promising me a part in the next series of Emergency – Ward 10.

In the sea there was a boy of similar age.  I asked him if he knew Keith Ranger (a boy in my class)?  I was amazed and hugely disappointed that he didn’t.  Even his parents explaining that this random child went to school in Leeds still made the fact incomprehensible.  It was only, several years later, when I purchased my first Red Rover, I realised that the morning commute from Leeds to Balham may have been tricky.  Especially if you missed the connection at Nottingham Bus Garage.

During my “holiday” my maternal great grandmother died.  I was told she had gone to join the angels.  I was about twenty when I realised, not having seen her for a while, that “The Angels” were not a pop group who were on the road a lot.

I’ve got some lovely plums

There was no scanning of items in the Du Cane Fruitier, the greengrocers opposite where I was brought up on Balham High Road in the ‘60s.

What there was was a giant, dirt-covered cash register where, if your bill came to anything involving a halfpenny, you’d need several hands to press the keys down to display the amount.

There was no “bag for life”.  You had a string bag, a bag you’d bought years ago during a holiday in Ventnor or a basket on wheels. 

Rather than you packing the fruit and veg, they’d be poured into your bag.  If you were lucky they’d be wrapped in a paper bag, so flimsy, it would have disintegrated by the time you’d transferred your purchase into your vegetable rack.  The greengrocer was determined to get you as earth-covered as he was;  I think they were on commission from Lux, Camay or the local pumice stone makers.

I loved the signs in the greengrocers, especially as I was very short-sighted as a kid.  I couldn’t miss the six-inch high white sign displaying 1/6 in some gothic script.

My mum would invariably do the shopping in hot pants.  Looking back, the greengrocers must have thought I was a bit of a hinderance, especially as my mum would insist I was her little brother.

To be fair, she never went to look at the special cauliflowers they kept out the back.

Those were the daze

The moment my Bullworker arrived in at Balham flat in the late ‘60s, was the moment I believed I could win Opportunity Knocks.

Every Friday I’d watch the programme and get inspired by the weekly winners. 

Given I was only 11 in 1968, I could hardly go on and sing a song about nostalgia as Mary Hopkins did.  (She was very good in the ITV show where she played a ghost detective).

I’d have sung Mother of mine, except there were so many things my mum did which were either a secret or couldn’t be mentioned before the nine-o’clock watershed; plus I haven’t got the legs to wear a kilt.

Science was not a strength of mine at school; even learning very elementary physics, I could not understand how the “Clapometer” worked.  I assumed there were a team of hamsters working it from behind?  The louder the claps, the more the hamsters ran on their wheels?

I look back and think about the Muscle Man, Tony Holland, and the fact he might have had more credibility if he’d had another winner’s name – Bobby Crush. 

Still, we did learn that someone saying “and I mean that most sincerely, folks” probably didn’t.

Vote, vote, vote.

I am abseiling

Easter egg hunts were always precarious when you lived in a fourth-floor flat.

I knew the 1967 Easter in my Balham flat was going to have a hint of danger when, instead of getting an egg full of Chocolate Buttons, I was given a book entitled “Successful Abseiling”; a set of grappling irons and Sherpa Tensing’s autograph.

My parents could have put the Easter eggs in the communal gardens, except my mother believed there were killer coelacanths in the ponds.  There were garages round the back of the flats, but there was the ever-present danger of being run over by a Ford Consul as you bent down to gather up a hidden egg.

For me, my mother had put fifty-odd eggs, dangling on bits of string, outside my bedroom window.  It looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, only Nebuchadnezzar never lived in south London.

The demand for the sugar rush chocolate gives you made me eager to climb down the face of the flats.  Having attached the guide rope to my very sturdy Dancette record player, I was ready to descend. 

The window open; my Dusty Springfield LPs safely removed from the record player and with me about to leap to claim my eggs, I heard a knock on my bedroom door; my Nan had arrived with an egg filled with Smarties

So, can someone tell Sir Edmund Hillary I’m not coming out to play, please.

Happy Easter.

None of the fun of the fair

I never went to a fair while growing up ‘60s and ‘70s.  

If I wanted to see bearded ladies, there were plenty of nonagenarians living in my Balham block of flats whose LadyShaves had clearly run out of battery before rationing was introduced. 

I wouldn’t have trusted myself on any shooting range.  I was more Mother Kelly than Ned. 

Already having 36 glove puppets in my bedroom precluded the need of the addition of a four-foot high teddy.  

I would feel nauseous just looking at various rides, so going on any – even an innocuous-looking giant tea cup – was never going to happen.

If I wanted to look odd in a mirror, I’d simply eat more cake.  

On Clapham Common there was often a fair with its accompanying circus. 

The smell of sawdust brought back memories of what the school caretaker would bring into a class when a school dinner hadn’t agreed with a fellow class member. So, the likelihood of me entering the Big Top was remote.  

I remember being at the top of the Monument  aged 11 and realising I’d never be an acrobat.  

I think local dentists were in league with the fair organisers as I don’t recall candy floss and toffee-apples ever being recommended foodstuffs by the British Dental Association. 

I could never have been a lion-tamer, either;  I’ve watched Mr Benn and it’s not as easy as he made it look!

Send in the clowns.  Actually, please don’t.