Scampi in a basketcase

People rarely serve food in baskets these days.  Is there a world shortage of baskets?  Is eating from a basket one of the ways to catch consumption?  Were there outcries from the World Scampi & Chicken Protection Society?

Every Friday night, during the ‘70s, after choir practice (this isn’t a joke), we would go to a pub on Wandsworth Common, where I would pad out half a pint of lager and lime for several hours and eat chicken or scampi and chips out of a basket.

During the evening the Salvation Army would enter and flog the customers War Cry; the more drunk were enrolled and would find themselves playing a tambourine the following Sunday.

Friday night was complete: meal in a basket; lukewarm beer and a crossword puzzle to do where most of the answers were Biblical characters.  Having sung about most of them earlier in the evening, I had a distinct advantage.

But the basket gave it its own magical flavour – like hot chocolate after you’ve gone swimming or been rescued after several weeks down a pothole.  

I would often wonder, during Sunday dinner, why the most chipped plates in the world were brought out and the food not served in a basket?  I guess gravy could have proved messy had the weaving not been as tight as it should be.

One day, they stopped serving food in baskets.  I went up to the bar and said, “Basket?”.  I was banned for a month.

Dad, what’s a tumulus?

Are we nearly there yet?  The plaintive cry I’m sure we’ve all heard (and probably said). 

With modern-day sat-navs the answer to this can be given to the precise nano-second; when you had a series of Esso road maps, a compass which was originally in the heel of your shoe and an old London A-Z, those ETA predictions became harder to determine.

We struggled whenever we drove anywhere outside of Balham High Street – our A-Z was so old it only had Watling Street and Offa’s Dyke marked on the pages – if friends or relatives lived in Roman villas we’d get there, otherwise it was very hit and miss.

Travelling abroad was trickier – the countries were physically bigger; so, it seemed, were the road maps.  

It’s tricky enough going round the Paris Périphérique, let alone trying to navigate it with a map larger than the windscreen in front of you flanked by irate Parisians.  It’s no fun playing pub cricket driving through the Loire Valley either.

I thought, having begun to study map-reading preparing for Geography O-level, that I’d could be more useful.  However, driving from Balham to Dawlish (not quite Paris to Dakar), my dad needed to know how to get to the A303; me pointing out, using my school Ordnance Survey map, slag heaps, narrow gauge railways and coppices, added several days to our journey.

Are we nearly there yet?  No, but I think we’re near an area with non-coniferous trees.  Handy for logs, but not if you want a cream tea. 

Benny and the jet wash

In 1970, a mate of mine’s family decided to leave Balham and move to the West Midlands (might as well have been Jupiter, it was so far away in my mind). 

My mate would not have been missed by the usherettes of the Balham Odeon as he was loosely related to St Vitus and couldn’t keep in his faux velvet seat for more than a minute.  During the screening of Zulu, he imagined the cinema to be Rorke’s Drift and fashioned a Zulu spear out of an empty tub carton and threatened to impale the projectionist.

After an absence of a year, we got in our family Ford Poplar and travelled the 100-miles (which took about another year with my learner driver dad) to a village just outside Leamington to visit the Balham emigrees.

We were greeted, on arrival, by my mate’s mum, who, having been brought up in Clapham, oddly now sounded like Amy Turtle – she even had an old housecoat on – I assume this would have been handed out by the estate agent upon arrival?

My mate’s mum had Italian heritage, so, if anything, I was expecting to possibly hear some female version of Mussolini, not something off the set of Crossroads.

Once we’d finished and headed home, I think elements of this change of accent worked by osmosis as my mother called me “Benny” down most of the A1.

“I love you, Miss Diane”, was my only retort to her as we ate our all-day breakfast at 10.00 pm at Newport Pagnell Service Station.

Lovely Jubilee

This week, in the UK, we are celebrating a jubilee.

This is the time when you buy a celebratory tea towel – probably overdue as your existing one still has Edward VII on it. 

I’ve never attended a street party; being brought up on the fourth floor of a Balham flat made it dangerous hanging bunting between windows. One false move and you’d be threatening the livelihood of Albert Pierrepoint. 

I’ve never erected trestle tables either, as they look like they could dismember a finger as if it were a bacon slicer. 

I haven’t got any flags except my giant FC Bayern flag – most people would find this tasteless, although we are celebrating a family who used to be called Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. 

I’m assuming every street will have an old piano pushed out onto the street?

Once you’ve established someone in your road is named Chas and/or Dave, you’ve got the makings of a party.

To get in the mood for 1952, all you need are jam sandwiches or anything which has come out of a container with the name “Shippams” emblazoned in its front. My allergy to beef paste will prevent my attendance. 

No, I shall be waiting for the dessert, which must be a Jubilee Jubbly. A dessert alliteratively fit for a Queen – and hopefully still costing 3d. 

I just hope that Brian May’s not on top of my bloody roof again. 

99 Luftballons – with sprinkles

In the early ‘70s, a 99 ice cream cost 15p.  Last weekend it cost £3.25 – and only had one flake in – so, technically it should have been called 49 and a half.

On the side of the ice cream van this weekend was a poster offering almost 99 varieties; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only choice was ‘did you want sprinkles with that?’  Now you can have a wafer; a cone; an oyster (try tapping one of those on the machine at the entrance to the Tube); tub or just put straight into your hands, because that’s where most of it is going to end up if it’s sunny, so you’re missing out the middleman in effect.

From my Balham flat in the ‘60s, I’d hear the metallic tune coming from the ice-cream van; because I was on the 4th floor of my block of flats, by the time I’d got to the ground floor, it would have taken me so long the ice-cream seller would have run of Flakes or worse, retired – the lifts weren’t terribly reliable.

Last Saturday, after I’d re-mortgaged my house to buy my 99, I gave the man my money, to which he replied “Be lucky”; I thought I’d been transported back to the ‘50s.

Mr Whippy always sounded quite innocuous, until Ambleside Avenue became famous.

Flake’s off, love.  Be lucky.

Thick as a…

I was five when I decided I’d leave my Balham flat and head for the high seas.

In the early ‘60s, on Sunday afternoons, I’d watch the ITV series Sir Francis Drake.  I was hooked (no pun intended with the sea-faring Peter Pan character).

I’d only just started school and a chance to explore exotic lands and get into fights with Spanish people, seemed an idyllic life to be had.  I was desperate to be transported back to the late 16th Century.

However, at the SW17 Naval Recruiting School, I was informed of the possible disadvantages outweighing the fact I could earn my own body weight in Doubloons.

Did I like rum?  Well, as a five-year-old, I’d have preferred Ribena; what’s my view on scurvy?  Having had both Scarlet Fever and Chicken Pox, more itching didn’t really appeal; walking the plank if punished?  Well, my singular inability to swim would prove hazardous; how was my Spanish should we have to negotiate?  I could say ‘Do you know the way to the library?’

At the end of the interview, which was tricky as I was still quite small and kept slipping off the cushion I’d been given as a booster seat during the interview, thereby not giving my ability to balance (key on board ship), I had no credibility left at all!

I was encouraged to come back in twelve years’ time, but only after I’d got a certificate from the local Duckling Club.

You say potato

Mr. Potato Head has just turned 70.

I would have hours of endless vegetable-related fun in my Balham flat as a kid. Although potatoes became quite dangerous if the plastic hat and moustache were still impaled while being roasted.

But, 70-years ago, were Mr. and Mrs. Potato (Senior) sitting down with their son asking whether he was going to be a chip; crisp or dauphinoise, only to be disappointed to hear he wanted to be a model?

Also, in 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh first brought potatoes to the UK, did he think their prime aim would be for children’s entertainment? Perhaps, when looking for El Dorado (the mythical South American city, not the BBC show), he saw someone with a head shaped like a potato with stumpy legs, sporting a small hat and moustache one would normally associate with risqué films in the 60s?

Growing up, when you had the introduction of ‘celebrity’ chefs, you’d never see Fanny Craddock sticking some comedy ears on a potato she was about to show us how to cook.  Perhaps, Johnny did this behind her back?  If so, you’d have thought it would have had a monocle like his?

Ballet High

It was November 1973 when I decided never to wear women’s clothing again. 

At the tender age of sixteen, I was asked to appear in a sketch my Balham amateur dramatics society were producing.  I’d been overlooked for many large parts, so this was my chance for glory. 

The sketch was entitled: ‘We’re the only girls left in the ballet’.  It was a three-handed sketch.   The other two were six inches taller than me, a generation older and had beards.  I didn’t start shaving until I was around 35, so could not compete in the facial growth stakes.

Aside from performing in the church hall, we would travel with our revues; these were invariably held in local mental homes (that’s showbiz!).  The downside to this was that the audience rarely laughed at what we thought were the right places.  We could have performed King Lear and they’d have probably complained that was too funny.

Meanwhile, with my first venture (that I’m admitting here) looming, I had to be helped into a tutu.  If Margot Fonteyn had ever visited SW17, she’d have had kittens. 

The dress cut into my crotch (almost acting as a vasectomy); I’ve still never taken to blocks of wood in the ends of my shoes and a mixture of muslin, gauze and nylon brings me out in a rash.

So, if ever you go to the ballet to watch Romeo and Juliet, if my stage career had taken off, I could have played the latter – although I’m not good with heights, so they’d have had to have cut the balcony scene.

Auf Wiedersehen, petting

It was 1972 when I first learned that heavy petting had nothing to do with animals.

Attending my school swimming gala at Clapham Manor Baths, on display, as a warning I now know, was a sign: “No Heavy Petting”.

My pets, prior to 1972, had been a mouse and a West Highland terrier; animals not renowned for their excessive weight.

As I looked at the sign I thought about animals I knew to be both heavy and aquatic; I began worrying that an alligator or Great White shark might suddenly appear during the 100-yard butterfly relay race.

Before this visit, to me the word “petting” meant a tiny zoo with goats, guinea pigs and gerbils (most small animals beginning with “G” basically).

Might very fat guinea pigs feature as floats for the participants who could not swim, perhaps?

My next worry was the potential disease one might get if a load of rodents were in the pool? Getting a verruca would have been the least of my worries.

After the swimming gala, whenever I was asked if I was interested in any heavy petting, my response was that I have a fear of water, and even greater fear of crocodiles.

A consequence of which was I attended my first date wearing water wings.

Stone me!

I wouldn’t have made a good caveman.

I remember in one of my first history lessons, at my Balham primary school, seeing pictures of cavemen.   I lived in a centrally heated flat, so that gaping hole at the entrance to the cave would have simply prompted cold after cold for me.  Remember, they didn’t have Lemsip in Stone Age times.

Before Tesco started in the Neander Valley, food was mostly obtained by slaying woolly mammoths.  (Imagine the Green Shield stamps you’d have got with one of those?)

Once slayed, you’d soon get tired of variations on the same meal day after day: Roast mammoth; cold mammoth; cold mammoth sandwiches; mammoth curry.  The job to have would have been spear-maker or owner of the local flint factory, such was the ever-present need to ward off hunger.

I can only assume no one ever got told off for drawing on the walls.  Everyone was very capable, it seems, of drawing bison, but precious little else.  The day after fire was invented, the health & safety officer was appointed.

If you were the local outfitter you’d have asked if the mammoth suit was to be three-piece or not?  And did you want the design to be houndstooth or sabretooth?

Of course, you didn’t need a coat in the summer months.  It was warm 2.6 million years ago; this was when outdoor badminton was invented and Health & Efficiency first published.

Roast coelacanth anyone?