When you left a school fete, which I did during many a summer from my Balham and Tooting schools, the very least you’d want to leave with was a goldfish. Or a coconut – although, in most of the fetes I attended, the coconuts tended to live longer.
You’d take your prize-winning goldfish home, in its plastic bag, only to establish that your flat was a flat and not an aquarium and thus, not set up for any form of aquatic creature.
You would leg it to the local pet shop – where, when you mentioned your plight, discovered that the overnight increase in the cost of fish tanks had far out-paced the rate of inflation for the past two decades!
In addition to the tank (you had the water, which, if you hadn’t, the pet shop owner would have willingly sold you some with a price similar to that of petrol in the early ‘70s); you’d be flogged daphnia and hydra (which were neither great aunts you’d long forgotten, nor a US detective team). But, the pet shop salesman wouldn’t have done his or her job if he’d not sold you a pretend deep-sea diver.
Fish have a memory span of four-seconds, but why a deep-sea diver? Make them feel at home? No, because they are freshwater fish, and few make it to the depths of the Mariana Trench.
If I were to get a goldfish now, I’d have a replica of the Mary Rose; a book to improve memory loss and a statue of Johnny Weissmüller to stop the fish from slacking.
Carrying on with my holiday theme, and before we all go back to our chimney sweeping jobs in September, I’ve been reminded of the singularly unhealthy foods we’d have all eaten on holiday.
I think, looking back, that the stall holders must have been in league with (in my experience) all south London dentists.
I’m talking initially about ‘rock’.
Only a struggling dentist could have thought this confection up. A mint-flavoured sweet and 99% guaranteed to break a tooth or at least loosen a filling. The type I would buy, if you cut it two, would have ‘root canal treatment’ running through the middle.
Also, candy floss – more addictive than crack cocaine, but slightly more sticky and certainly enough ingredients to make you even more susceptible to gingivitis. The best bit for me was watching being made – a bit like seeing how a spider spins its web using a time-lapse camera. Actually, I lied, the best bit was eating it and still having most of it round your face several hours later.
But the one thing we eat in the open, only during our holidays, is fish and chips. But if you’d have known the seagulls were going to have such an absence of fear, you’d have bought two portions!
So, tooth decay, diabetes and high cholesterol – highlights from summer holidays gone by – and that’s before you’ve bought the mandatory postcards.
Are we nearly at the pub which sells Double Diamond yet?
I’ve had a few people tell me my fortune, one was while I was legging it out of Balham Woolworth’s when I was a kid.
However, I have sought more professional routes: when I was seventeen, an industrial psychologist told me I should seek a career in hotel & catering. As I assumed all hotels were on the coast, I feared it would bring back an attack of the ague (and other diseases prevalent in the 17th Century) plus I can’t cook; my guests would soon become disillusioned with nothing to eat but toast (my piece de la resistance) and an array of broken biscuits on one of my home-made doilies.
As a kid I often bought fortune fishes to tell me my destiny. While they didn’t show me which career path to take, they did tell me whether I’d be jealous; indifferent; in love; fickle; false; tired or passionate. As a nine-year-old I’d had to look up half the words, so tired it was, regardless of the position of the fish.
Most fortune fishes are made in Taiwan – it took me three sets to realise this and became even more tired translating the instructions from its original from Cantonese.
I tried it with real fish once (I’d lost my Mandarin/English phrase book) – after a while it remained motionless (it was dead rather than tired, as the explanatory chart said) – it curled up more than the fortune fishes.
These days, if I want my fortune told, I go to the Derby and buy as much lucky heather as I can until I hear what I want to hear: “in the future you’ll be less tired”.
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.
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. �
It’s that time of year when normally we’d be attending our local village/school/church/diabolist commune fairs.
Sadly, none of us, this year, will be winning anything you wouldn’t dream of buying on a Tom-bola stall.
Discarded bottles, costing no more than 67p, from day trips to Calais in the late ‘80s, will still be remaining in the loft for another year.
I’m reminded of the only success at my Balham school fair.
Having previously won goldfish with shorter lifespans than the average housefly, one year I won a goldfish – it lived for eighteen years.
If it hadn’t had such a dreadful memory it would have been old enough to drive – remembering stopping distances would have proved a problem as it was constantly smashing into the side of its bowl.
During these eighteen years I tried to make its life as pleasant as possible: added a plastic diver for company; green foliage modelled on Tooting Bec Common (I assume it had been caught in one of the ponds, so this was a glimpse of “home”) and a signed copy of Moby Dick.
When it died, I wanted to give it a decent burial. They weren’t too keen at the South London Crematorium (my suggestion of playing “For those in peril on the sea” as the curtain closed, being the nail in the coffin) so I packed him into his own coffin – a tin of daphnia – and threw him in the Wandle.
So, next time you’re watching Tooting & Mitcham, and you hear splashing from the nearby river, please remember Flipper.