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!

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!

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

…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!

Weather or not

rain hat

If my surname was Fish then I think I’d probably be somewhat the wiser; although, given its current misbehaviour, as far as weather prediction is concerned, I might as well be Captain Haddock.

Growing up in London in the 60s & 70s it was cold in 1962/63 and hot in 1976, you also knew the next day would be the same; not these days. Is it because we all used too much Harmony hairspray or Brut anti-perspirant during this period?

Clothing, to cope with the changes in temperature, is different too. In the 60s we had duffel coats, a plastic rain hat and a mac with a belt you could tighten so much it was like wearing a Victorian corset (I never had a rain hat as a kid as I wasn’t allowed plastic near my mouth).

Today you can have multi-layer coats – usually made by unpronounceable named Teutonic companies – the harder the maker’s name is to articulate the warmer it’ll keep you.

To cope with the unseasonable heat, we are now seeing more public water dispensers. I don’t quite know when bottled water was invented, but certainly wasn’t evident in Balham in the 60s, unless you include the two water fountains in my school playground – who can’t forget the “refreshing” feeling, after a successful and energetic game of three-and-in, of the dribble of luke-warm water emanating from the playground fountain?

If it’s windy – eat less cabbage.

Passport to Puerto Banus


Summer holidays in the 60s did not start at Palma, Penzance nor at Puerto Banus; they began at Petty France.

A trip to London as an 11-year-old in 1968 to get a passport was exciting as we passed New Scotland Yard, where I hoped to steal a glimpse of Shaw Taylor, Stratford Johns or Officer Dibble.

The need for passports was to enable my parents and I to travel to Majorca; I couldn’t find Majorca in the London A-Z, so assumed it must be abroad.  As we waited in the interminable queue, and my parents practised their pigeon Majorcan, I wondered if there was a Significant France, which had more counters and fewer queues?

What passports don’t take into account is fashion – nor differing hair lengths through the ages.  You keep your passport for a decade and, sometime into the eighties, there was a part of people’s passports which was forever Les McKeown.

They do say, if you look like your passport photo you’re too ill to travel.  But neither can you smile; if you wear glasses you must be photographed without them. Because of retina recognition at Passport Control; if you wear glasses (as I do) you must remove them.  I now grope my way officially back into the UK like Mr Magoo!

These days passports can be renewed online.  However, there is the inherent danger of also visiting Amazon, Ocado or eBay. A consequence of which is you may receive a used passport the next day for £1, a substitute passport as they’d run out of the original or you’ve sold yourself to a man who’s coming round later to collect you!



No plaice like home

golden egg_2

In the late 60s, years before “take your child to work day” was introduced, my Dad would occasionally take me to his advertising agency office in Gloucester Place. It was like Mad Men only set just off Baker Street rather than Madison Avenue.

I never spent a single minute in my Dad’s actual office but was relegated to the bowels of his building and put in front of a drawing pad which was bigger than me and more writing implements than the annual output of the Cumberland Pencil Company. I was in stationery heaven!

The other men in this subterranean office would have paperclip battles with one another and several people would come in and swear badly; if you’re only ten, this is hysterically funny. If they’d had a swear box in this office, they’d have been spending half the year on a cruise!

Both my parents were vituperative; these people made them look (and sound) like Mother Teresa.

Paperclips wars, more pencils you could shake a pencil-shaped stick at and gratuitous swearing – a career in advertising clearly beckoned.

At lunch Dad would take me to The Golden Egg restaurant in Baker Street.  I was a fussy eater and would only ever eat plaice and chips there.  My diet never really extended and still, for me, the mark of a good restaurant is one where the food is served with a wedge of lemon.

I miss the giant pad – I could have been the next van Gogh – only with more ears!