Hello, my darlings!

I was lucky as a kid as my Dad would frequently take me “up West” to the pictures and the theatre.

Soon after it was released in 1966, Dad took me to see “The Professionals”

There were mixed emotions for me throughout during the film: the highlight being when Claudia Cardinale appears – washing topless.  This then followed with the feeling of mortification, as I realised my dad was sitting next to me!  I didn’t know, as my Nan used to say, whether to laugh, cry, pooh (not her actual word) or have breakfast.

On the Tube back Dad asked which part of the film I liked best?  This was probably a trick question; I suddenly became the Northern Line’s answer to Barry Norman and suggested that they could have given Lee Marvin more song numbers?

But this world of nudity had peaked far too quickly for me as Dad and I then travelled to see Charlie Drake in panto – not exactly “Oh! Calcutta!”; we then saw “Ice Station Zebra” – no women allowed on board the submarine, let alone any having a wash and finally a walk up Balham Hill to the Odeon to watch “Patton” – I was more likely to see Rommel naked in that film then any Hollywood star.

Growing up I watched TV with my Nan.  As TV programmes got riskier, there was the ever-increasing chance of seeing some nudity; any desire was soon quashed as my Nan would shout at the TV, in a style of a more common version of Mary Whitehouse, “get some bleedin’ clothes on, love”.

Slings, and the occasional arrow

I was around five, and sitting in my Balham flat, when I had to take a career decision: would I become a sailor or an outlaw?

Weekend afternoon TV in the early ‘60s had two excellent TV shows: Sir Francis Drake and The Adventures of Robin Hood

I would sit, transfixed and inspired, in front of the telly wondering whether a life on the seas would be preferable to a life constantly trying to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham?

My complete inability to swim and possession of a toy bow and arrow made the decision easier.

I would prowl around the block of flats where I grew up knowing that King John could possibly own one of the maisonettes – I can now assume he never left Runnymede.

I’d have struggled on the Golden Hind.   They never had Kwells in the late 16th century; I’m not a massive fan of scurvy and, although I also speak German, I’d struggle in a port-side gift shop as we circumnavigated the globe if they didn’t speak either of those two languages.

So, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor would be my metier.  However, this was Balham in the early ‘60s – a town not renowned for its billionaires – a place where Elon Musk was thought of as a type of perfume.

So, the new Magna Carta would have to wait to be written, decreeing that no robber baron could live in SW17 and Iceland would remain undiscovered.  In the late 16th century, it was still called Bejam anyway.

Land ahoy!

Noddy’s offside

One thing I miss, whenever I’m eating boiled eggs, is the Noddy eggcup I had, together with its accompanying blue hat with a bell on to keep the eggs warm.

A kitchen table is probably much changed from mine in my ‘60s Balham flat.

Gone is the Formica (which looked suspiciously like an old piece of lino) used as a table-cloth and I bet kitchen tables these days don’t tend to have mangles built in underneath (because you’re always thinking about wringing out a damp vest when you’re tucking into your muesli).

Do people still have novelty cruet sets?  My Nan’s was so old, she had representations of William & Mary on her salt and pepper pots.  Those were the days when the sell-by date simply said: ‘the end of Pitt the Elder’s government’.

The thing which confused me as a kid was when mustard was prepared.  It was put into so small a dish and served with so small a spoon I thought The Borrowers were doing the catering.

If you’re a football enthusiast, it was important to have a fully stocked kitchen table.  Especially if you were to re-enact a spectacular goal you’d seen (or indeed scored for your Cub pack on Tooting Bec Common) you needed as much condiment action going on on your kitchen table as was possible.  You cannot explain the offside rule without the use of a jar of marmalade, a pile of salt and a couple of kippers.

Pass the toast, please, Jeeves.

Hello, Matey

Because, these days, you can buy soap which exfoliates, you see fewer pumice stones lying around bathrooms.

The bathroom in my Nan’s Balham flat had one; she was the relative charged with washing off all the grime I’d accumulated during various playtimes.   She’d say my neck looked like the Black Hole of Calcutta.  From this I assumed she’d been a missionary in India – in actual fact she had been a waitress in a central London Lyon’s Corner House.  She did watch a lot of documentaries, though.

No longer do we have to cobble together old bits of soap or have receptacles stopping soap turning from being a solid.  Perhaps this was how liquid soap was discovered?  Someone who’d lain in the bath for so long, the soap had turned to mush.  Archimedes perhaps?  Eureka does sound like the name of a soap – I’d have bought that in the ‘60s over Lux, Camay or Imperial Leather with its built-in stand.  Wright’s Coal Tar Soap was only necessary if you had miners as lodgers. 

The only time our bathroom accessories changed was just after Christmas after we’d have accumulated enough Bronnley’s bath salts to build miniature Pyramids. 

Rather than Mr Matey, Mum would put Fairy Liquid in my bath.  It did the job, and my hands were as soft as my face 😊

Although most bath times I didn’t care what was in it, all I wanted to do was sink the Bismarck.  This is not a euphemism, and nor is it the make of a German soap.

“And don’t forget to wash behind your ears, either!!” – could never have imagined Karl Dönitz saying that. /

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.

Encyclopedia Britannica rules the waves

Back in the day, when google was something you wrote when you’d spelled goggle incorrectly, if you’d needed access to any information, you relied on an encyclopedia.

As a young teenager I travelled from Balham to Purley (might as well have been Pluto, it seemed so far away) to collect a set of ten 1928 Chamber’s encyclopedias from my dad’s boss. I still have them – there is so much dust on them, it looks like Miss Haversham could be my cleaner.

There are, however, many wonderful colour plates inside and, being nearly 100-years old, some interesting entries: Benito Mussolini: up and coming Italian politician; Dodo: flightless bird, in danger if humans ever visit Mauritius. It is also a great place to discover what countries used to be called, showing why you can never find a holiday brochure for German South-West Africa at your travel agent’s.

But there probably many encyclopedias in peoples’ houses: perhaps acting as doorstops or being used to create a set of steps if you’ve mislaid the ladder which gets you into the loft?

And what happened to door-to-door sellers of the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Are they now trying to path over peoples’ drives with old books?  I used to feel sorry for the salesman and bought the first once, thus making me capable of only knowing about things if they began with an A or a B.  Perhaps they gravitated towards double-glazing salesmen?  All 32 editions of the Britannica would certainly cut out a draught.

Next time any of my children/grandchildren ask me anything, I’m getting all ten volumes down, placing them on the floor and telling them the internet’s down.

None of the fun of the fair

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.