Flush with Morny

Within her Balham flat, my nan had an inside toilet. 

An outside toilet would have been, three-floors up, singularly impractical, also, her sense of balance was poor, and she constantly refused abseiling lessons.

My nan’s toilet did suggest many a mystery: did every old person’s toilet always contain a tin of pre-war talc; smelling salts (you didn’t sniff those by accident twice) and an empty bottle of 4711 eau de cologne?  I often wondered whether eau de cologne was some form of Franco-German mouth wash?

Which leads directly on to, and begs the question: who on earth came up with “toilet water”?  Not even eau de toilette lightens the thought of popping something behind your ear which smells like Harpic.  I assume the “before” toilet water is more expensive than the “after” version? 😊

Did this idea come from people escaping from revolutionary France armed only with a secret selection of toilet ducks containing toilet water? And what marketing whizz suggested calling it that?

However, it was in this “smallest” room which determined why I’d never become a plumber: within the cistern my nan explained was the ballcock, which helped the actual toilet function. 

When you’re eight and prone to giggling at comedic words, I felt my credibility would be blown as a professional plumber, should I ever have had to have uttered the words: “I think it’s your ballcock, love”.

Annuals of history

Every Christmas, during the ‘60s, I would be given, alongside two tangerines; a handful of walnuts and 2-packets of last years’ dates, the mandatory annual.

Which subject would my parents choose?  Had they been listening to me throughout the year to get a feel in what I was interested in?

As, for several years on the trot, I received the Rupert annual, they clearly hadn’t.  Unless they thought I was a secret Daily Express reader, I was always slightly disappointed.  I didn’t possess a matching pair of distasteful yellow scarf and trousers – if I had been posher, I might have had; but this was Balham in the ‘60s, so that was never happening.

I’d have liked to have got the first edition, published in 1936, featuring stories where Rupert trains with Jesse Owens and Hitler invades Nutwood, with the pretence that there were German speakers living there.

After a while of the annuals still being in pristine condition the following December, my parents changed tack.

The Coronation Street annual was never the same after 1964, as it no longer featured pictures of Martha Longhurst.

I was thrilled, in 1967, to get the Man from U.N.C.L.E. annual – I’d always wanted to be Illya Kuryakin and had, as a teenager, an interest in east European female gymnasts.

My parental procurement of my annual annual stopped in 1972.  Aged 15, you really don’t want your mates coming round to your place and seeing The Clangers annual taking pride of place on your bookcase.

There were some great soup recipes inside, though.

Burn, baby, burn; Honda inferno

It was, in the mid-Seventies, standing, in the pouring rain, next to my burned-out motorbike on Clapham High Street, as the local Fire Brigade extinguished the sparks emitting from my bike’s electrics, when I realised that I’m a salesman’s dream.

I had bought this “second-hand” bike from a dealership in Tooting some months before Clapham’s answer to Towering Inferno; and the sign saying “one previous owner – vicar’s wife” – had got my attention.  I can only assume the vicar’s wife’s husband has since been de-frocked, as the 11th Commandment stipulates: “Thou shalt not lie about the mileage”. 

But these salesmen see me coming – I think it may be the fluorescent light, invisible only to me, above my head, which says “MUG” the moment I walk into any vehicle sales room.

The eternal fear of not wanting to get my hands dirty (I’d never take a throw-in at football) would ensure my blissful and complete lack of awareness of any form of car/bike maintenance.   If you’d have asked me, aged 16, when first allowed a motorised vehicle, “What is a spark plug?” I’d have suggested he was a puppet who had a magic piano.

In trying to purchase my first moped, the salesman was so crafty, before I knew it, he’d sold me a Cortina – and I’d never even been to the Dolomites!


The Real Rasputin

I failed most of my O-levels because I listened to far too much music, although I did think it would help with my revision. 

Listening to the O’Jays’ “Love Train”, as they mentioned England; Russia; China; Africa; Egypt and Israel (too), would have been helpful had I not been meant to be revising the physical landscape of Canada.

Learning the very descriptive lyrics to Boney M’s “Rasputin” would have been constructive had I not had a series of questions about Gladstone and Disraeli during my History exam.

I knew little about trigonometry and knew even less after constantly listening to Barry Manilow’s “Bermuda Triangle”

A favourite song to listen to was Jane Birkin’s “Je t’aime” – again a waste of time as the question with the highest marks was: “Write to your pen friend in Antibes about your summer job” – had I have worked as a high-class prostitute, I’d have got full marks.   It did help a bit with biology, though.  

I feel I could have done even better with science should My Chemical Romance have been around. 

The set work for music was “Ceremony of Carols” – this, I discovered, when the results were out, was by Benjamin Britten and not, as I’d written, Neil Sedaka. 

However, I do know what a slide rule is for: it is for neatly underlining your name, date and subject of your exam.  Also, as this was the summer of ‘73 (almost another good song), you could use it to swot away flies – although this was Clapham and not Rwanda. 

You can turn your papers over now. 

Roy Wood, would you?

You could have been on Mars for several years and returned, not knowing what day it was, until you walked into a shop only to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” and know it was approaching Christmas – or, in some shops, early October.

It seems that Christmas music being played in shops is introduced ever earlier – it does beg the Band Aid question, do they know it’s Christmas?

I’m not sure, while looking for the mandatory bath salts for my mum, that I want Noddy Holder screaming at me; nor do I need to be reminded of the unnecessarily long car journey Chris Rea’s embarking on – move house, Chris!  Or, get an Uber.

Would I, as Roy Wood might suggest, wish it could be Christmas every day?  No, as I’d a. be skint and b. there isn’t a factory providing an infinite amount of bath salts that’s yet been built.

I’d happily rock around the clock with Brenda Lee, except I’ve developed plantar fasciitis – which is not the Latin for cactus.

It’s handy, if you’re looking for a row at Christmas, to know all the lyrics to the Pogues’ Christmas offering; if this is the case then “Step into Christmas” would be renamed “Step outside”.

And Dean Martin’s “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” would have been banned by the BBC in 1962.

Mere bagatelle

If you asked anyone of my generation what Minecraft was, they’d probably say it’s something decorative made out of coal you’d put on a mantelpiece.  For those without grandchildren, it is a computer game.

In the ‘60s, growing up a computer was as big as a house, and you only saw one if you lived next door to Alan Turing.

One of the things which entertained me indoors was a bagatelle board.   If you were to describe it – a wooden slab, full of nails, splinters and with ball bearings hit viciously with a wooden stick – it sounds more like a Medieval torture than a schoolboy pastime.  

A good Balham primary school mate had one and, because neither of us had school dinners (both had allergies to caterpillars – which were prevalent within the salads), we’d play most lunchtimes.  I think we both secretly hoped we’d have an international bagatelle scout come and watch us.  This was unlikely, as my mate always kept his bedroom door shut – plus, we’d been warned at a very early age to look out for bagatelle scouts.

We also had a shove halfpenny board but, after decimalisation in February 1971, frantically stowed it away in case the Inland Revenue came to our flat looking for illegal currency.

Penny up the wall anyone?

Two pints of lager and…

Although introduced into the UK in 1957, flavoured crisps only became popular a decade later.

I remember when, to paraphrase Henry Ford, “you can have any flavour you like as long as it’s ready salted”. 

Unscrewing the tiny blue bag of salt was often painful if you’d a paper cut you weren’t aware of and suddenly had what felt like a cat o’ nine tails over your hand.

Golden Wonder introduced smokey bacon, which was quickly rivalled by Smith’s gammon flavoured crisps.  When I first saw this, I assumed that, rather than a small bag of salt inside, there’d be a slice of pineapple or a fried egg instead.

Very soon the world’s food ingredients would be found inside one solitary crisp packet:

I could be inside my Balham flat and allow Chipitos to culinarily transport me to Mexico; Monster Munch to Transylvania and anything containing prawn cocktail to a sophisticated restaurant in the West End.  Well, this was the seventies 😊

But having prawn cocktail and steak & onion crisps was almost like having a proper meal; I’m surprised they’ve never introduced Black Forest Gateau flavour to literally cater for all three courses.

But, for me, the worst thing was Tudor Crisps’ pickled onion flavour.  They’d blow your head off – ironically, something not uncommon in Tudor times.

Knock me down with a feather…

It’s 100-years since the first public telephone kiosk was introduced in the UK.

If any of the original booths had one of those sheets on the wall stating when they were last cleaned, they’d probably say “1922”.

In my Balham block of flats, we had the use of two public phone booths; I have nothing but bad memories of them.

The phones were just outside the dairy which operated within our flats. I remember once, summoning up the courage to ring a girl, walking up and down for nearly an hour besides the two phones, going, via the dairy and unnecessarily buying a pint of milk, carton of yoghurt and three rashers of bacon, only to be told she thought my friend Trevor was funnier.

There were also phone booths in Balham High Road.

I would often go in them hoping to find some odd coins previous callers had forgotten to collect; I’d also look up my number in the L-R directory (and to find Trevor’s number to get some better gags) and, as a teenager, wondering why so many women had left their business cards – most of them promoting French lessons – futile for me as I was learning Latin. Plus, they all seemed to be called Delores – which was quite exotic for 1970s SW17.

Once, when looking for coins, the phone actually rang. I answered and was asked if I worked for MI5, I replied that I didn’t and wasn’t a fan of pre-pack furniture.

And, as Trevor’s girlfriend said, don’t ring us…

Horsing around

I knew I was destined never to become a professional actor when, after my first audition for the local Am Dram society, I was offered the part of the front end of a pantomime horse. On reflection, I realise that this wasn’t (actually) starting at the very bottom.

The disadvantages of this are that you have no lines (just the odd whinny and comedic shake of your mane); there’s no chance of being spotted by talent scouts and it’s tricky signing autographs as hooves aren’t renowned for gripping writing implements.

I was determined to make the most of it and introduced method acting into my theatrical learning.

I’d spend a lot of time watching episodes of Mr Ed, eating hay and trotting, like Arkle, up and down Balham High Road; I’d have popped into the local Sainsbury’s, but they had a no horse allowed policy. Ironic, really, given that Princess Anne had actually opened the store – and if any member of the Royal family is half-horse, half-princess, it’s her.

Due to work commitments, allergy to stage make-up and metaphorically being sent to the acting glue factory, my “career” was short-lived.

If I hadn’t given this up, we would never have witnessed the greatest acting talent to come out of Tooting, Neil Pearson, treading the boards. There was only room for one thespian in SW17 in the mid-seventies.

Windmills of my mind

Half-term activities are different now to what they were like in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was at school. 

Growing up, I’d often be seen running up and down Balham High Road with my hoop and a stick.

But the activity which has stood the test of time is Crazy Golf.  During school holidays mere mortals and their children and grandchildren mentally turn into Tiger Woods – without the lack of driving skills or sex addiction, one would hope.

As a young teenager I honed my golf skills at Morden Pitch ‘n’ Putt and have played regularly since.

However long you’ve been playing, these skills become academic on a crazy golf circuit. 

Even if the putter they give you (and skanky old ball) had a grip and was the right size, your putting ability (and any innate golfing talent you may possess) goes out the window.  However, if people know you play, there is added pressure.  But why should this be?  At my course, south of south London, the opening hole is 551-yards – you need more than an antique putter to get you close if you’re to get the required par five.  Plus, the ball would probably disintegrate before you’ve even got close to the green.

The other fundamental difference between crazy golf and my local golf course?  There’s no massive clown’s mouth ready to gobble up your Pro V1 golf ball; there is no giant windmill in the middle of the fairway and although you can hear the A217, there is the complete absence of dinosaurs roaring.