A jumper’s not just for Christmas

A joke within my family, at Christmas, would be, who was the previous owner of your present?

My dad and I would travel from Balham to Baker Street to see his side of the family.   They never bought us new clothes.  My aunt, his half-sister (different fathers, not that she only 50% of her torso), would give my dad jumpers from her local charity shop or from her (recently dead) husband. 

Dad would have preferred the charity option, as his brother-in-law had been a foot taller, so the arms of the jumper would hang down, making dad look like a bespectacled orangutan.  Didn’t make his tree-hanging ability any greater, though.

One year dad was given a jumper, and for once, the label had not been cut out (my aunt should never have been allowed near scissors).  My dad didn’t like it much, so decided to return to the shop, from whence it had come.

These were the days when you didn’t need a receipt.  Dad handed over the jumper, hoping he’d get a refund or coloured jumper other than the yellow he was handing back (handy if there was a fancy-dress party and you had to go as a condiment).

After a while, the assistant returned to my dad saying this line had been discontinued – for seven years.  My dad had been waiting a while, but not seven-years.

Next Christmas, my dad got his own back on his sister and gave her a Ration Book.   This was 1973.

Pass the bloody parcel

I’ve had a fear of cheese for exactly 58-years now (I’m writing this on 5th April 2022, the day I turned 65).

My parents had thrown a party in our Balham flat when I was seven.  Twenty kids all in one small lounge, together with two heavy smokers and an assortment of matches and lighters scattered like cushions in a Habitat furniture display.  What could possibly go wrong?

One lad at my school at the party was very susceptible to nose-bleeds – they were so regular, if we’d been allowed watches, you could have set your time by him.  Of course, during a very competitive Postman’s knock, my mate’s nose began to bleed.  The flat turned into the set of Emergency! Ward 10 as my mother’s Bracklesham Bay tea towel quickly became a tourniquet.   Several of the guests (can you call seven-year-olds guests?) thought this was real life “doctors and nurses” and had replaced the much-promised Pass the parcel round. 

Not content with the salmon and chicken paste sandwiches, I asked my mother for a cheese sandwich.  When it arrived, I decided I didn’t want it; my mother made me eat it and my relationship with Camembert; Edam or even a Dairylea triangle ended on that fateful April 1964 afternoon.

Still, everyone got cake and an item of stationery (as one did in those days), although my mum got the rubber order wrong, thus avoiding many young pregnancies.  

Having a butcher’s

Nicknames can be a cruel thing. 

I wasn’t wonderfully grateful to Gerry or Sylvia Anderson introducing the British public to Joe 90 the moment I entered my second year at secondary school!   If only I’d had his magic glasses – I could have suddenly sworn in Russian to the boys in the playground who likened me to the string puppet!

But it was the school holidays which were the most ignominious. 

My mum would insist on dragging me the length and breadth of Balham High Street, introducing me to numerous shopkeepers as her “little Mickey Mouse”.  When you’re ten or eleven, and you’re first contemplating asserting your masculinity, you really don’t want your mum referring to you as a cartoon rodent!

As if being mistaken for her younger brother wasn’t embarrassing enough, mum was stunning; she couldn’t add up or spell but had certain assets which were seemingly very attractive to the male shopkeepers of SW12. 

We’d visit various butchers, where the staff were excellent examples of the fayre they were selling, as their arms looked like giant hams.  

Because we rarely had much money, juggling her housekeeping would involve me adding up various items of meat; this was rewarded with the question: “What shall we have this Sunday, chicken or beef?  What do you think, my little Mickey Mouse?”  My career as a butcher was instantaneously and metaphorically chopped off in its prime.  

What was advertising’s gain was a piece of scrag end’s loss.

Sling and arrow

In 1972, in the 4th year of my Tooting grammar school, we had a term learning First Aid.

A few lessons of Latin and suddenly everyone thought they could be a doctor.

Sadly, we were so badly behaved in these eight-weeks, the only thing we learned what to do was make a sling. 

Broken leg; typhus; West Nile Fever?  We’d have been quite hopeless – unless any of these conditions could have been cured using an old Cub scarf.

These days, most homes will have sophisticated First Aid kits.  With the contents, you could carry out minor operations – although you’d have to keep your work surfaces clean – and clear.

Growing up in the ‘60s, if your ailment wasn’t treatable with Germolene, Friar’s Balsam or three miles of lint, you’d be put on the cart the moment it entered your street. 

If you broke a limb playing sport at school, the deranged PE master would tell you you’ve got another one.  The school First Aid kit consisted of a sponge; a bucket filled with water from the River Wandle and a junior hacksaw from the metalwork classroom should anyone have gangrene before the master put them on the 155 bus home.

To paraphrase Robert Duvall, “I love the smell of calamine lotion in the morning.”

Keeping abreast of things

Like me, my dad was in advertising.

His speciality was industrial advertising; most of his clients’ ads appeared in magazines like What’s New in Hydrocarbon Processing – he would read it for its gardening tips.

He would often bring these magazines home – they often had riveting articles about heating, ventilating and riveting promoted on the front covers.

So, when I found a copy of Playboy in a dark cupboard in our Balham flat, I was very confused.

Had my dad won a bra advertising account? Was this research? Was one of the “contributors” going to feature in one of my dad’s ads?

I’d never before seen an ad which featured a naked woman holding up a tunnel support. 

My next question was why this magazine was in the cupboard and not lying on our coffee table alongside the Radio Times or Woman’s Own? Or my Beano?

Because, as a ten-year-old, I wanted to follow my dad into advertising, I thought I’d do my own research.

I was researching away when my mum found me in the darkened cupboard.

“You really shouldn’t be looking at magazines featuring ladies’ bare breasts, Michael.”

“Bare breasts, mother,” I replied, “I’d not noticed; I was reading the very well-written in-depth articles.”

She took the magazine away, probably to be used as a rolling pin later that evening on my dad, muttering, “no bleedin’ wonder you’re always having to go to the opticians!”

Cutting the mustard

I think my maternal nan had lodgers; I think they were The Borrowers.

Every Sunday I’d walk, with my parents, down one flight of stairs in our Balham flats, to lunch at my nan’s.

Everything was laid out on the table, the roast was brought in, then the condiments: salt, pepper and, and this is where my suspicions were alerted, a very small bowl, full of mustard, plus an even smaller, exceptionally tiny, tiny spoon!

All through lunch I’d be looking around looking at cracks in the skirting board for any evidence of stunted human life. 

I assumed The Borrowers didn’t have Sunday lunch.  Was this part of the rental agreement with my nan – you can live here, but we want your spoons every Sunday?  Did the size of the spoon affect the taste of the mustard?  Did The Borrowers insist, as part of this bartering system, on it being Colman’s own brand and not some muck from Dijon?

My nan had an old crimplene house coat she’d wear permanently.  It had two pockets: one would store the sprouts I’d not eaten, having deflected my parents’ attention before whipping them off my plate; the other might have The Borrowers’ bedroom?

My paternal nan also had tiny spoons.  Whenever I’d make the journey to Marylebone to see her, dessert was always served with a tiny spoon with “LCC” on it.  Perhaps another side of The Borrowers family lived there – a family of kleptomaniacs who stole from local council offices?

A tea towel is not just for washing up

Whenever I’m doing the washing up, I’m immediately transported back to Shanklin.

My family were obsessed, regardless of the quality of the holiday, to buy a tea towel denoting the resort they had visited.  

Not for them bringing me back a bottle of wine; a straw donkey or a stick of rock – I got a tea towel. 

For me, who didn’t do a lot of washing up as a kid in our Balham flat, it was only useful if I wanted to look like a member of the PLO.  Although, I’m quite sure Yasser Arafat didn’t wear a head-dress with tourist attractions of Ventnor plastered all over it.

People would come round for dinner with my parents and would help with the washing up.  They’d spot my mum’s tea towel she’d brought back from a holiday in the Balearic Islands in 1968. 

“How was Majorca?”

“Didn’t see much of it, I had gastro-enteritis the entire fortnight”. 

Still, good to feel nauseous every time you picked up a tea towel with a map of Alcudia on it.

Visiting National Trust places were the same:  it would have been great to have received a bar of Kendal Mint Cake or some fudge, with the stately home emblazoned on the wrapper. No, I’d get a tea towel of Polesden Lacey.  

I didn’t really want a tea towel from Cliveden, either, I’d have preferred Mandy Rice-Davies to come round and help me with my biology homework. 

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I?

Dansetting the night away

I associate vinyl records with not washing.

During the early ‘70s, I would buy a record a week.  After a while, I’d collected a lot of singles – all primed to be played on my Dansette record player.  

One evening, in 1976, in my south London bedroom, my mates and I were all set to listen to If you leave me now; Combine Harvester; Dancing Queen; I love to love and When a child is born (I consider it healthy to have eclectic musical tastes) when my dad burst into the room like Kramer in Seinfeld.

He held – at arm’s length – one of my shirts.

At first, I was expecting a musical request from him – anything by Stan Kenton – but, no, his visit was more laundry-related.

I was 19 at the time and washing wasn’t a priority.  This, in front of half a dozen mates, was about to be realised.

My dad read a lot, a consequence of which was that he had an extensive vocabulary; this was matched only by his prolific knowledge of swear words.

My father shouted at a level which made the Labrador next door’s ears bleed.  He asked how, at my age, I’d not learned to wash my neck yet?  In between his effing and blinding I would apologise (“you’re always bleedin’ sorry, Michael” would punctuate every confession).  My mates thought this hysterically funny – someone’s dad swearing so profusely – I didn’t, but discovered that the “F” word could be used as verb, noun and adjective – and all in one sentence!

I’ve never not washed since that fateful evening and always carry around a damp flannel, Lifebuoy and pumice stone – just in case.

I am the Queen of Sheba

“Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs” my nan would exclaim in abject horror of something I’d done; given she lived in a one-storey Balham flat, I wondered if this was physically possible?  Was there a secret tunnel which led to the other side of the High Street?  Did she own some collapsible stairs?  Was there an emergency carpenter as a lodger?

Either way, it leads me to things people said years ago and are rarely heard these days.

She clearly had tremendous powers as, if I pulled a face, she would tell me if the wind changed, I’d stay like that; I was never going to run the risk of having my tongue permanently on show the moment the levels of the Beaufort scale rose.

She was obviously unaware of the abolition of slavery, as she’d often asked what my last slave had died of? 

My nan clearly never did history at school as the retort to any of my many lies – “Yes, and I’m the Queen of Sheba” – was clearly inaccurate.  My nan was old and had no teeth, but she was neither 3,000; Arabic (she was from Clapham) nor royalty!

Cat’s got your tongue?  Well, of course not, as we don’t possess any pets.

Given that time travel doesn’t exist it would be hard, unless you’re Superman or Dr Who, to knock someone into the middle of next week.

Unless you’ve a 120-year-old greengrocer, you’re unlikely to hear “much obliged”, “thanking you” or “that’ll be tuppence, three farthings, love”.


Bang, Bang

There are clearly more small motorbikes on the road than there were fifty-years ago.  Without buying a back copy of Motorcycle News from 1972 to prove it, I just know.

Many of these motorbike owners gather outside various food establishments, like something out of The Birds, waiting for their order to take something in a polystyrene box to someone very hungry.  Or very lazy.  Or both.   You half expect Tippi Hendren to tentatively come out of the local KFC, only to be cajoled by waiting bike riders randomly shouting out items of fast food.

These riders are mounting the 2022 equivalent of the Honda 50 (a bike many of us probably had to enable us to pass the bike test or appear in a very poor sequel to Quadrophenia).

Fifty-years ago these riders weren’t leaving McDonalds or Burger King, together with their produce, they were learning ‘The Knowledge’.   As a kid, when I got my first moped, I’d pretend I was doing it too – memorizing every Balham street in case my plans of going into advertising failed.  I imagined being able to talk loudly to people behind me about “if Mrs. Thatcher were alive, we’d have never got into this mess”.

Nowadays, if you randomly stopped a bike rider, they’d not be able to tell you the quickest route to Charing Cross Station, but they would be able to hand over a bucket of Bang Bang Chicken and chips.