Monsieur “Chopper” Guillotin

french knitting

My Nan introduced me to French Knitting whilst growing up in her Balham flat in the 60s; she did this for two reasons: one, to stop me playing outside the confines of my block of flats and two, in case they ever reintroduced capital punishment via La Guillotine on Balham High Road, she would have a ringside seat.  Because, if you see paintings of any execution during Le Terreur in late 18th Century France, you’ll see depictions, aside from the poor, cake-offering toffs about to have the severest of all haircuts, old crones with no teeth, smoking clay pipes and knitting!

If public executions were to return to the UK, my Nan wanted to be in the thick of it and I would be her vehicle – who is going to stop a ten-year old kid brandishing an old cotton reel, four nails and two-foot of something which wouldn’t even work as a draft-excluded, even for The Borrowers, moving, with his Nan, to the front?

Being introduced to handicrafts such as French Knitting (I wasn’t allowed a crochet needle as I’d have taken my eye out – apparently) in retrospect was possibly a mistake as, strangely enough, we didn’t have use for things like this at an all-boys school – the ability to create some very long piece of intertwined wool didn’t stand me in good stead on the rugby field! I was expected to conjugate Latin verbs as an eleven-year-old, not provide the entire class with matching hat and scarf!  Plus I needed to know the exact dates of Gladstone’s periods as PM – crocheted coasters were never ever needed for that!


Two half a sixpences


Occasionally, as a kid, I’d be given an extra sixpence pocket money to buy sweets; I believe the local dentist was in league with my nan and her sugar-loving sisters, who would supply the bonus money.

In the mid-60s there were more sweet shops along Balham High Road than there were traffic lights – this resulted in the whole of SW17 having high cholesterol, few teeth and an abnormally high ratio of road traffic accidents.

My sweet shop of choice was Nugent’s, run but a woman, seemingly 200-years-old (you think that as a kid and she was probably only 150).

Sixpence was almost too much to possess as this produced the dilemma of choice.

There were many items – Fruit Salads, Black Jacks, Shrimps (made from 200% sugar) – where you could get four for a penny.   With my order only 16.7% complete, there was the executive decision to make as to whether you continued to build a glucose mountain in your hand – twenty-four pretend bananas would have had me climbing the walls – or did you plump for a 3d Jubbly?

I would spend an eternity in the shop doing mental arithmetic and wishing I’d bought a copy of Calculus for Idiots with me, an abacus or a slide-rule.

I think, looking back, I probably went the 24-shrimp route as I consequently needed several fillings before I was a teenager. Sadly, you don’t get four of anything for a 1d these days – which is why you never see a rich dentist!

Spam (sadly), isn’t off, love


I rarely ate school dinners as I lived next door to my Balham primary school; plus I had an intolerance to caterpillars – which the school salads had in abundance (the dinner ladies thought it a substitute for ham) (although you rarely get that with an Ocado delivery “We’ve no ham, but we’ve substituted it with a punnet of caterpillars”).

As an only child – and subsequently a fussy eater – my weekday lunch at home was a decade of egg ‘n’ chips – I look back and wonder why I have such high cholesterol!

However, growing up in the 60s there was a regularity about what I had for my tea:

Monday Cold meat and bubble – “you can never have enough sprouts, Michael”
Tuesday Mince, made from the meat originally used on Sunday, but chewed and digested as if it had been cooked in the 17th Century
Wednesday Spam
Thursday Possibly more Spam as my mum refused to buy any recipe book other than “Cooking with spam”
Friday Cod fillets – to be enjoyed alongside watching The Champions
Saturday Sausages – made from 95% old bus tickets, so low was the nutritional value
Sunday Never happened as mum would invariably have one of her “heads”

Diets have changed over the years (mine hasn’t, although I rarely have spam twice in a week these days) and more foodstuffs have been introduced.

However, for me, avocado is still the colour of your bathroom, not something you eat on toast!

Sing something painful’

Old radio isolated on white background.

Sunday afternoons (when wireless meant something you switched on enabling you to listen to Lord Haw-Haw, rather than something you seek out in coffee shops) were epitomised in the 1958 episode of Hancock’s Half Hour radio show; it therefore begs the question, as if Sunday afternoons weren’t turgid enough: why on earth did they invent “Sing something simple”?

This was broadcast every Sunday for 42-years (more than the Krays got).

I was subjected to many of these episodes via the built-in radio in my Balham flat, which was constantly stuck on the Light programme.

It would begin at 6.30 every Sunday evening, a time when you already have a dread of: a. it’s nearly time to go to bed; b. I’m about to be force-fed Bournvita to enable aforementioned sleep; c. have I done my Latin prep?; d. I don’t do Latin, but have I drawn a cat which was the weekend homework? and e. are these songs being played at Guantanamo Bay?

Earlier in the day, leading up to the very worst of British broadcasting, we’d listened to people stationed in RAF Oberammergau (or somewhere like that) requesting anything by Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, swiftly followed by former pygmy, Jimmy Clitheroe annoying “Our Susan” (who sounded, inexplicably, nothing like Jimmy). Top of the Pops was good if, like me, you liked to list things, but you were simply being lured into a false sense of security before you heard the refrain of “sing something simple, as cares go by” – well, they clearly didn’t care and why were the songs simple?  I’d have liked to have heard “Sing something complex”, “Sing something by Stockhausen” or “Sing something so quiet only bats can hear”.

These days you have the Internet for Sunday afternoon entertainment and the ability to watch The Cliff Adams singers on YouTube.


Chocolate is not just for Easter


Living on the fourth floor of a block of flats meant Easter egg hunts were precarious to say the least.   My mother was good at hiding them, but I never felt confident with her scaffolding-erecting skills outside the lounge window.

In the 60s I’d get Easter eggs from benevolent relatives. They’d be from Cadbury’s and would contain (inside) a small packet of chocolate buttons – as if you’d not had enough chocolate with the actual egg!

Nowadays you can spend hundreds of pounds in Hotel Chocolat (who can’t even spell chocolate) or from Lindt (which, when I was growing up, was something you’d put on a wound).

Creme (what is it with the inability to spell correctly in the confectionary industry?) Eggs were introduced in the UK in 1963, the same year there was a rise in anti-emetic drugs.

I believe there is something in Easter eggs which make them even more addictive than normal chocolate. It clearly isn’t just the sugar.  Perhaps there is crack cocaine inside?  I’d be very unhappy if I were to get an Easter egg where a Curly Wurly had been replaced by some Class A drugs.

Although it might explain the ads with Terry Scott in in the 70s.

Happy Easter!

Freudian slippers

Sigmund Freud

It beats holiday snaps, pictures of other people’s children and any unnatural bruising – people telling you about their dreams!

Do people assume you’re perpetually carrying around a copy of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams with you?  Ready to pronounce what giant snakes represent, being drowned by someone you don’t like at work or why Pamela Anderson featuring heavily actually means?

Whilst Freud led us to believe what these dreams possibly mean, they are not real life and didn’t happen – it’s like believing Coronation Street is real and wondering why, after Martha Longhurst got killed when the viaduct collapsed, it wasn’t splashed all over the front page of the next day’s Sun.

Anyone saying: “I had this weird dream last night” should immediately be told “never mind that, here are many pictures of my goldfish, may I saw my arm off with a spoon or I’m about to go and watch some paint dry, perhaps tell me there?”

Some people will often say they don’t dream; you do dream, you just don’t remember (thank the Lord) all of them.

However, if you do want to properly dream a dream everyone will want to hear about around the water fountain, a cocktail of Camembert, brown ale and Skittles, all consumed before midnight, should do the trick.

Although, funnily enough, last night, I did dream about Pamela Anderson. Again.

Go to Jail


Easter holidays have kicked in and with it the need to entertain kids/grandkids/aged aunts.

Do the kids of today play board games like Monopoly (slightly out-dated as you can’t get a packet of crisps for £400 in Mayfair, let alone build a hotel there)?  Or Totopoly (before Ray Winston demanded you gamble responsibly and where Old Kent Road was replaced by Arkle) Or Go – the international travel game (a typical game now takes several years due to the USSR now being fifteen different countries, Yugoslavia is spilt (no pun intended) and Czechoslovakia’s never been the same after Jim Prideaux was brought back)?

Today there is X-Box (like Pandora’s box only containing more of the world’s ills); Minecraft (a 1957 hit for Frank Sinatra) and anything by Nintendo (easily my favourite 70s wrestler).

Kids of today probably believe rolling a dice might dislocate their wrists; the thought of taking on the persona of an old boot for a couple of hours would seem abhorrent if they’ve never had anything second-hand and playing with pretend paper money is something they’d expect to see on Antiques Roadshow as surely everything is contactless?

They are unlikely to know what a billiard room is, let alone knowing what a candlestick might be used for – and (literally), Heaven forbid the local vicar’s a murderer!

We might have to wait a long time before we see Grand Theft Top Hat

Tubs, tubs, tubs

usherette bag

In 1970, me and three others were in the Granada Tooting, a cinema built in 1931 to accommodate 4,000 people.   I was watching Tora, Tora, Tora, a film about the attack on Pearl Harbour.  The cinema was therefore 0.1% full.

With me there were my dad, a friend of my dad’s and the usherette. There was a fifth, but he didn’t count, as he was the projectionist – he had to be there; the usherette didn’t – tubs were quite expensive and it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realised I didn’t have an allergic reaction to raspberry ripple as my dad had suggested when I was younger.

The Granada Tooting closed, as a cinema, in 1973. With dwindling cinema goers and over-priced wafers, they had committed their own economic and cinematic Kamikaze.

Also, there was no atmosphere, unlike when I went to see Jaws at the Ruby, Clapham Junction (another cinema also sadly playing in the great picture house foyer in the sky).

It had been raining heavily during this 1975 winter’s evening as I trudged across Wandsworth Common to get to the cinema; I was glad of the protection once inside the Ruby. Sadly, the Ruby had seen better times and, due to the excessive rain, had sprung a leak in its roof.  A consequence of this is was, as I watched the film, it felt as if I was on the boat with Messrs Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw, as I became increasingly wet.

It was like being there except they weren’t holding a Kia Ora on the boat and nor did they develop trench-foot a week later!

Plus the passive-aggressive usherettes in the Ruby were scarier than any Great White Shark!

…and Charley’s your aunt


I was often confused as a kid as both parents and grandparents would tell me things which, with the small knowledge I’ve gathered over sixty-plus years, were either horribly inaccurate or a total lie.

If ever I made a face (which tended to happen if my nan was cooking boiled fish in parsley sauce – a concoction which should be considered as an alternative to anthrax in biological warfare) she would say “if the wind changes, you’ll stay like that”.  The UK is situated in the path of a polar front jet stream – winds are frequent, facial disfigurements for me fortuitously weren’t.

My mum would use the word bleedin’ so much, growing up I realised that an urgent learning of the rudiments of First Aid was going to be a must.  Luckily, however, it seemed there was nothing inside our flat which was haemophiliac.

Bob’s your uncle was recited many times.  I never met Bob – even with much genealogical research.  My mum would “entertain” many people – several had the epithet “uncle” – in our flat, but none featured on my home-made family tree chart, even fewer called Bob!

And as for fairies being at the bottom of my garden: living in a fourth-floor flat, unless you can get apparitions amongst your begonias in your window boxes, there was never going to be a Fatima-like vision which I was perpetually promised.

And the word wireless these days doesn’t necessarily have to involve Lord Haw-Haw.

Dressing down day

purple suit

I’m unsure when dress down days were introduced.  If you’re a bloke, it was a hard thing to convert to.  Simply talking off a tie (which you’d worn for several working decades prior) isn’t really dress down.

Despite working in the City, I never wore a bowler hat (the intricate folding of the accompanying umbrella failed me miserably) but I did wear a suit and tie for years.

My first suit was purple (it was 1974!) – a strange choice given my only eye ailment is myopia rather than colour-blindness! Deep Purple were a fashionable group at the time, but the eponymous name didn’t translate well into work clothes.  Many fellow travellers thought I must be a bishop in mufti.

During the early days of dress down you got an insight as to what people looked like at weekends. Posh people would wear cords, the colour of which, made my purple look surprisingly normal.  Posh people also wear shoes (loafers which have seen better days, but that’s how the rich get rich) with no socks – a sure-fire way of contracting pneumonia!

Before ties were deemed unnecessary in the workplace there was competition within workers as to who had the best tie. This contest became null and void when workers from the suburbs would visit with their ties adorned with Homer Simpson, Taz of Tasmania or any Thunderbird pilot!

Virgil Tracy always beats anything from Hermes.

The term “smart casual” has entered our vocabulary. However, initially this was misinterpreted as I remember one day arriving at work and a fellow worker had dressed in army combats.  He looked like he was more likely about to invade Angola rather than help out with some filing!