I blame Neil Armstrong for me not being fluent in French.
On 16th July 1969, towards the end of my first year at my Tooting grammar school, a TV was hurriedly bundled into the classroom during a French lesson, for us to watch the Moon landing.
I welcomed any excuse to miss French and would have been happier watching an old episode of The Clangers (which inspired space travel) in preference to conjugating verbs like Avoir, être or faire la grève (a popular verb in late 1960s France).
I look back fifty-years and wonder if Neil Armstrong (whose cameo in Hello, Dolly I particularly enjoyed) regrets not taking a golf club like one of his successors? I’m not a trained astronaut, but given the choice of essential items between a six-iron and more oxygen, I’d opt for more breathable air!
Despite being a frequent flyer, I probably wouldn’t make it as an astronaut; during any hint of turbulence, I’m grabbing the stranger next to me’s arm as if I were a human tourniquet. So, going at 6,164 mph, as the Saturn 5 rocket did, wouldn’t appeal – unless Buzz Aldrin wanted his blood supply cut off.
I’ve never walked on the Moon (unlike Neil Armstrong and Sting), and I still don’t know the past participle of the verb atterrir!
Clair de Lune
It’s that time of year when private gardens are opened up to the more green-fingered public.
Having lived during the 60s and 70s in various south London flats until the age of 25, I never had a garden of my own. And living on the fourth floor, unless I’d been Red Adair, a window box would have been spectacularly dangerous. So, the decision of having some finely-cultivated begonias combined with plummeting to an early death versus life was quite a simple one to make.
But this lack of horticultural knowledge means the gardens I have owned are highly unlikely to be opened to the public – unless the RHS introduces “Best in class bindweed” at the Chelsea Flower Show.
As a teenager I did buy the I-Spy book of clematis, but, due to lack of spelling ability, was sadly disappointed. I watched Bill and Ben avidly for gardening tips.
At primary school we were given bulbs to plant; the success I had I might as well have planted one from Philips – such was the greater chance of growth!
I’d love to write into Gardeners’ Question Time and ask: “I think I have Japanese Knotweed; can the panel recommend a good ointment?”
As far as I’m concerned nettles is the bloke who played Bergerac!
If I’d been an entrepreneurial thirteen-year-old in December 1970, I should have been buying and selling candles from the bedroom of my Balham flat. If there’d been a queue, the punters could have occupied themselves in the next-door bathroom with my model of Stingray and fleet of plastic U-Boats.
During the “winter of discontent”, fuel supplies were low, and Ted Heath warned of power cuts.
(I knew it was Ted Heath speaking to the nation on the TV and not Hughie Green (who was normally on the telly) as he never said the word “sincerely”).
Each day I’d be sent to fetch a copy of the Evening Standard as they published when SW17 was going to be plunged into darkness.
Because my block of flats was quite labyrinthine, once the lights went out, the corridors became a black abyss. If you were an early teenager this was tremendously exciting, but then, when you realised you were completely lost, there was the overriding sense that you really should have eaten more carrots when younger.
These were the days before scented candles. There wasn’t the chance, during these blackouts, to have your flat suddenly smelling of Fresh Linen, Jasmin or Schnitzel with Noodles. There was one sort – the types you get in churches, only smaller; a strong relationship with the local ironmonger was key (or knowledge of someone who had moved on from stealing church roof lead).
If you’d asked anyone in December 1970 what Yankee Candle was, most people would have thought it was a film with James Cagney in.
I was never a dirty kid growing up, but the moment I discovered you got free plastic soldiers in packets of Tide, I became a mudlark overnight.
I would seek out dirt and puddles round the back of my Balham block of flats to increase the necessity of clothes washing: therefore, more soldiers.
My desire was to create my own Terracotta army (only in plastic – and slightly shorter).
Looking back, my mum could have taken in a year’s washing for the entire SW17 postal district and I’d have still come up short of the 8,000 soldiers which the aforementioned army comprises. That’s a lot of Tide. As Balham’s not in a monsoon area, we would never have had enough puddles.
Growing up in the 60s there were often things inside grocery packets – PG Tips and their cards being an obvious example – cereal packets would have toys inside too (small, blue, twisted packets of salt weren’t toys by the way), but this seems to be a thing of the past. My journeys accompanying my mum to the supermarkets on Balham High Road would always be governed by my desire to buy products with free items inside – never mind the quality, feel the gift!
Washing powder has now mainly been replaced by washing liquid – the last thing you want to be doing is fishing out a soldier covered in a viscous cleansing agent; it’d make a mess of your fort for a start!
And if I’d been challenged on my doorstep – I’d have always taken two packets of Tide.
Contents of a Tupperware box have changed over the years.
During summer holidays in the 60s and 70s I’d purchase my Red Rover ticket at Balham Underground Station and travel as far as possible, believing Ongar was not only (then) the end of the Central Line, but also that beyond that, you’d drop off the end of the Earth.
With me would be my Tupperware box full of 60s/70s foodstuffs: Spangles; Blue Riband biscuit; a meat-paste sandwich consisting more paste than meat and another Tupperware receptacle holding water with just a hint of squash (as the combination of e-numbers, the depths of the Northern Line and 80% of all Spangles eaten by Clapham North may have had a detrimental effect on mummy’s little Mickey Mouse’s tummy).
These days the Blue Riband would be replaced by something which is now 90% cashew (even though it is called “chocolate something” on the wrapper); water will be the only drink – preferably flown in from a mountain stream feeding Lake Geneva; Spangles replaced by the most exotic fruit from an island which hadn’t even been discovered in the 60s and all forms of bread would have been replaced by sushi.
In the 60s Sushi was likely to be the name of someone who worked alongside Steve Zodiac, Troy Tempest or Captain Scarlet.
These days no one is more than six-feet away from a bottle of water; the summer signs at Tube stations actively encourage you to carry one. So how come none of us living in London in the 60s and 70s died of dehydration?
Growing up I’d play outside for hours, either trying to become the next Alan Knott or Gerd Müller; but I’d never have any form of liquid near me. I’d return to my Balham flat and be given orange squash diluted by tepid (at best) water from the tap, not some chilled bottle of Perrier or Evian.
I always judged people as being posh if I was ever invited anywhere for tea and offered lemon squash. We never had fruit juice either (how I never contracted scurvy I’ll never know!) and the Du Cane Fruiters opposite my Balham flat never sold anything from outside the UK (they were advocating leaving the EU before we even joined in 1973), so the only fruit intake I had was at half-time during school football matches. Accessible water, unless you were having it flown in from the Perrier factory in the Gard departement in France, was restricted round my way to the school water fountain or the horse trough on Mitcham High Street.
These days water bottles proliferate and the substances inside manifold. But, if you’d have asked me in the mid-60s, after running around Wandsworth Common like a banshee, if I’d have liked an Elderberry Press, I’d have assumed it was the name of a local newspaper!
There are many smells from my youth growing up in the 60s & 70s, which have stuck with me and ones I fear may never smell again.
Last week I talked of applying calamine lotion on anything burning during a childhood ailment and, if you’d suffered, one smell you’d never remove from your olfactory sense.
Virol too, is a smell I’ll never encounter again, as people now know obesity is not the name of an Afrobeat band from the 70s. Virol was a malt extract (made of 200% sugar) which you were given as a kid if you were skinny; I was like a character in an LS Lowry painting and got given it by the vat load!
Excessive use of chlorine is another long-forgotten smell. Due to an altercation with a swimming instructor aged eight (I was eight, the swimming instructor wasn’t, as that would have been dangerous, unless they were half-haddock) I didn’t swim much, but, am aware chlorine in swimming baths has subsequently been watered down – although the faintest of smells bring on my hydrophobia (I don’t foam at the mouth as much these days).
Burnt milk is another (courtesy of Costa, Starbucks etc.) waft you don’t get. Before any Seattle-based coffee shop entered the UK, my nan would boil up milk for a “frothy coffee” is her saucepan. Invariably she’d forget, having gone off in pursuit of a Player’s Weight, whilst the milk, originally destined to become a frothy coffee, was fast becoming more like the top of a crème brûlée!
I can only think the need for lepidopterology is rapidly declining as, whenever you used to visit an aging relative, you were hit by the overriding smell of mothballs. Perhaps moths are now on coat-free diets?
Diphtheria is not only tricky to spell, but you never wanted to catch it as a kid; I never did, but did contract most of the other children’s diseases during the 60s.
My mum used to have a book which had a table listing all potential ailments: their symptoms, how long they lasted and the incubation period; the latter column being the one most used – you’d be innocently sent to a children’s party where your parents knew some child there had chicken pox –, you came away from the party with a balloon in the shape of a penis, a piece of cake and a highly contagious disease!
In my Balham flat I remember my dad having to get up in the night to put calamine lotion on me in front of our two-bar fire. (I assume it must have been winter, unless he was deliberately getting me to lose weight as I had a ride on the 3.30 at Newmarket the next day!)
I had measles as a baby, chicken pox at six, mumps when I was seven, German measles (it was the only German thing allowed in the flat) at eight. At nine, I contracted a mild form of Scarlet Fever. The treatment for this was to dab the inflamed parts with milk. I had an aunt who did this whilst smoking one of her 40-a-day Embassys; I was concurrently cured of Scarlet Fever whilst enduring passive smoking.
But prevention being better than cure, I was force-fed sprouts as a kid, as my mother told me this would stop me getting consumption; Black Death and Marsh Ague (winds from the River Wandle could have brought them, apparently!)
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!
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!