It was 1961 when I first discovered my fear of polar bears.
I wasn’t travelling in the footpaths of Oates, Scott or Amundsen – attempting to reach the North Pole before tea-time – I was four years old and I was in Battersea. At this early age I’d still not fully received all my cross-tundra training and was shocked to have been accosted by a polar bear in SW11 – well within the Arctic Circle.
At five, and you’ve not yet played the back end of a pantomime horse attempting to kick-start your thespian career, you can’t comprehend that’s there’s an actual human inside the bearskin.
As well as this new-found fear, it also put me off having taxidermy as a hobby.
The ‘polar bear’ was one of many attractions at the Battersea Fun Fair. Despite the journey taking only ten-minutes from Balham Station, we only went a few times – mainly because of my recently-acquired fear of Arctic fauna; the Water Chute gave me aquaphobia; the Helter Skelter, vertigo and the Ghost Train enabled me to be a regular, if unwilling visitor at the Balham Sketchley’s.
The only place I enjoyed was the small booth (claustrophobia never a problem) in which you could produce a record onto a floppy piece of plastic. My dad and I whistled the theme tune to Supercar.
I’d have been Mike Mercury, only I had a fear of flying. Quite coincidental given, to this day, I still look like Joe 90.
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.
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
New year; new calendar. Will it have kittens on? A favourite football team? 12 pictures of Claudia Cardinale (I’m buying a calendar for a friend)? One thing is certain, mine won’t have the new moon turning up on the 15th of every month.
We never had a calendar as my Mum rarely attended school and so it never mattered what date it was as she couldn’t count further than 31. My Nan, however, in her Balham flat, had a very simple one showing the phases of the Moon. She’d have been an astronaut had she not had a fear of heights – and Martians.
More men would have had Pirelli calendars, only there was a general fear of foreign food in the ‘60s.
These days most shopping centres have pop-up stalls (seemingly all year round, thus catering for anyone who has just come out of a coma) serving every hobby and interest (unless you’re a budding astronomer). But you only really need one with several columns making sure no one forgets their gym kit so it’s academic what the pictures are. I created one one year for my household with a different Nazi each month; we’d got to October (Hermann Göring in a swimsuit) before anyone noticed.
Because I’m still working from home, I’ve erected a bird table outside my study window, a consequence of which is that my calendar for 2021 features Garden Birds. I’m looking forward to August – the index has promised “Great Tits”.
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.
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.
The last time I got a postcard the price of the stamp was 3d.
No one sends them anymore – not even the ones featuring very small men with wives with enormous, Pamela Anderson-like chests, looking at marrows or any odd-shaped vegetable mentioning its size etc.
As a kid, during the summer, I had two great aunts who, upon their arrival in Ilfracombe (might have been Pluto for all I knew, it sounded so far away from Balham), would write to me using every conceivable space on the card. There would always be a picture of the beach – not a sniff of a giant marrow 😊
It was lovely to receive, but the quid pro quo was that you had to send them back and would be forced by elder relatives – seemingly for the entire duration of the holiday – to write them.
“Wish you were here” being the obvious inclusion: but, however large you wrote it, it wasn’t covering the entire message area. So I would lie and write about the remains of a pterodactyl I’d found on Dungeness beach and wouldn’t be able to write a second card due to having been abducted by Ellen Terry (we were forced to visit her house in Kent one year). So, when I returned, having been released by the leading 19th theatre actress, some aging relatives were quite surprised.
And the weather; you’d be in the same country and the weather probably similar, but you were, because you were British, obliged to mention it. You said it was hot, but then you’d never travelled to the Sahara Desert, the Grand Canyon or Mars.
I’d send more postcards, except they cost more than 3d to post and my marrows aren’t at their best in this cold weather. �
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.