None of the fun of the fair

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.

You’re not nicked!

I’ve never stolen anything in my life.  

As a kid, the likely reprisals from either parent, would have been more daunting than facing a multi-tattooed, hooded torturer in the Tower.

Temptation was certainly there.  The pick ‘n’ mix counter in Balham Woolworth’s was so near the front of the shop, it might as well have been on the High Road pavement! 

But, when I walked past, the Kola Cubes, Pineapple Chunks and Jelly Snakes remained intact.  I like to think they stayed this way and almost gathered dust – but this was Balham in the ‘60s.

My not stealing anything was quite the opposite to my dad; he stole ashtrays – from pubs, restaurants, stately homes.  He was a heavy smoker and there was the need (he would say in his defence) for an ashtray in every room – it was like the flat was sponsored: Watney’s Lounge; Playboy Club Kitchen and Chartwell Small Toilet. 

But the bug never caught on with me. I’d watched Papillon and the thought of spending my days on an island off the coast of French Guiana, kept me from straying. 

I also believe, had I have started a career of petty crime, I’d have panicked and gone into the wrong shop.  Instead of swiping a load of Fruit Salads from Balham Woolworth’s, I’d be down the road in Boot’s – filling my pockets with lipstick – and none of them my colour.

Lights out!!

Slotting in just nicely

These days you have to tap in for everything.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only tapping-in being done was by the Stasi.

Back then, coin-operated machines were the Sixties equivalent of our near cashless society (well, cashless except for the odd half-a-crown).  Imagine your horror during a ‘60s Christmas dinner, together with the 365-day anticipation of getting a sixpence in your slice of pudding, only to have both cheeks pierced by an Access card.  (Not very flexible now, is it?)

There was a cigarette machine on the pavement near Tooting Bec Station which, with the correct change inserted, 20 Senior Service would magically appear.  For an old Penny you could watch the trains in the model shop along from that same station – you could wave every modern-day card you carried from Visa to Kidney Donor via The Tufty Club – if you didn’t have real money, you’d see no train moving.

The launderette would pose similar problems if you’d travelled back in time with your current wallet (or phone).  You could try all you like, if you didn’t have a couple of shillings to buy a small packet of Tide, you’d very quickly become like Queen Elizabeth I and only wash once a year.  Imagine how angry the laundrette manager would become if you thought waving the hand-set of an old Bakelite at the spin dryer would make it rotate.

There still are vending machines for those who have kept a collection of florins; these are for people who haven’t cleaned their teeth; have headaches or haven’t had a vasectomy.   If you’ve still not solved the solutions of the first two, you needn’t bother with the third.

Do keep the change, waiter.

Don’t forget your gym kit!

New year; new calendar.  Will it have kittens on?  A favourite football team?  12 pictures of Claudia Cardinale (I’m buying a calendar for a friend)?  One thing is certain, mine won’t have the new moon turning up on the 15th of every month.

We never had a calendar as my Mum rarely attended school and so it never mattered what date it was as she couldn’t count further than 31.  My Nan, however, in her Balham flat, had a very simple one showing the phases of the Moon.  She’d have been an astronaut had she not had a fear of heights – and Martians.

More men would have had Pirelli calendars, only there was a general fear of foreign food in the ‘60s. 

These days most shopping centres have pop-up stalls (seemingly all year round, thus catering for anyone who has just come out of a coma) serving every hobby and interest (unless you’re a budding astronomer).  But you only really need one with several columns making sure no one forgets their gym kit so it’s academic what the pictures are.  I created one one year for my household with a different Nazi each month; we’d got to October (Hermann Göring in a swimsuit) before anyone noticed.

Because I’m still working from home, I’ve erected a bird table outside my study window, a consequence of which is that my calendar for 2021 features Garden Birds.  I’m looking forward to August – the index has promised “Great Tits”.

63 and only now going through adolescence 🙂 

End of the tier show

As we approach the end of a rather bizarre year, there are words in 2020 which meant slightly different to when I was growing up in my Balham flat in the ‘60s.  

Corona: this was the brand of cream soda and cherryade I’d buy from my school tuck shop.

Quarantine: if you travelled back from a foreign land, this is what Rover or Tiddles had to do for the best part of a decade.

Mask: unless your occupation was a surgeon, highwayman or the Lone Ranger, the only time you wore a mask was playing Blind Man’s Buff or Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Lockdown: when you’ve lost your door keys. Or someone’s escaped. 

Social distancing: what you did if you wanted to avoid certain people at your local whist drive.

Trump: a word used during a whist drive either pertaining to a suit of cards or flatulence. Or both.

Tier 1: what you give guests at a wedding

Tier 3: what you give guests at a Christening 

Tier 2: what people who really don’t need to eat more cake tuck into during a wedding

Tier 4: opening words of Ken Dodd’s signature tune

Bubble: a thing you blew, and in the process, got washing-up liquid all over your hands; now you need to douse your hands in Fairy while singing “Happy Birthday”.

R: used to be a letter, now it’s a number.

Zoom: was a lolly until 1982 when Fat Larry bought Lyon’s Maid. 

COVID: what Glamorgan is now called.

Postcards from the Devonian age

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. �

The postman only rings after playtime

In December, during the ‘60s, in my Balham primary school, there would be a temporary post box put in the playground. 

Its use was for pupils to put our Christmas cards into, It was purely for our fellow pupils – although some didn’t realise this and those with relatives in far-away countries were quite disappointed that Auntie Gladys in Brisbane would moan she’d  not received a single card for years.

The cards would be delivered; unless you had siblings at the school, you tended to get twenty-nine cards – from your fellow classmates. 

I realised, after I’d finished full-time education, that you only tended to know your actual classmates, apart from the boys’ names announced at the Monday morning assembly announcing anyone with any sporting prowess or were (yet again) on detention.

Receiving so many cards was great, the problem was was that twenty-nine also had to be written.  I got very bored signing everyone “Happy Christmas, Mick” and so mixed my signature up with people I’d seen on TV or were sporting heroes.  I’d sign many as “John Drake” or “Amos Burke”; many girls in my class would wonder who Gerd Müller was, and several boys would get excited thinking they’d got a card from Nancy Sinatra or Mandy Rice-Davies.

This Christmas I shall be confusing friends and family with my Christmas signature of “Be lucky, Pol Pot”.  Confusing as a. he’s dead and b. wasn’t terribly Christian.  You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit on his knee, let alone enter his grotto.  Be lucky, Mick.

Not so floppy Flopsy

Before discovering Radio Luxembourg, I was more than capable, as an only child, of entertaining myself at bedtime in my Balham flat.

As soon as it was lights out in HMP Mick, the wall of my bedroom would become a giant control panel, which would transport me to wherever I wanted to go – I rarely thought past Morden, though.

I’d pretend, where there was actually Flopsy Bunny wallpaper (neither parent were regular decorators), there were buttons to push, enabling me, in my ten-year-old brain, to travel, out of SW17, into a parallel universe (Morden).

During the day this same wall had been a goal into which I would head one of my dad’s nicked squash balls.   By night I was Neil Armstrong, by day I’d be Gerd Müller.

To re-enact some of Müller’s many goals, I’d throw myself across my bed, oblivious to the fact there was invariably either a violin bow or pair of glasses lying there.

I gave the violin up as soon as I could; but, as I got older and found the spaceship wall less and less appealing, so my need for stronger and stronger glasses became increasingly necessary and visits to the opticians seemed almost weekly.  I couldn’t work out the correlation.  Seems my Nan had been right all along 😊

To infinity and beyond (well, the southern end of the Northern Line).

Lightweight and bitter

I’ve not drunk alcohol since 1976; I blame David Vine.

Before then, albeit for one legal year, I’d have the odd half in pubs near where I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s Balham.  I wasn’t cut out for drinking, but I’d tag along.  On Friday nights, when the Salvation Army sellers of War Cry would come into The Hope on Wandsworth Common, I’d be one of the few in our group capable of finishing the picture crossword in their weekly newspaper.

On 5th April 1976 (my 19th birthday) I went with my mates to the Surrey Tavern.  We’d play pool there and put millions of pounds into the juke box to listen to Save your kisses for me; Fernando and Music by John Miles.  These were the top 3 singles on my birthday.  You really got your money’s worth with Music as it went on for about a week.

As I was singing along “Music was my first love” etc. etc., my mates thought it’d be hysterically funny to empty that month’s Smirnoff factory output into my half a pint of lager and lime. 

Later that evening, when the world was spinning faster than anything they’d ever had at Battersea Funfair, I decided alcohol wasn’t for me.

The next month I went on holiday to Austria with my dad.  He tempted me with what he called ‘innocuous’ light ale.  What I didn’t realise, despite him being very well-read, was that this was one big word he didn’t fully know the meaning off.   The words from the Tony Newley hit, ‘Stop the world I want to get off’ rang round my head again.

Travelling on a coach around Innsbruck the next day, I’ve never felt so ill; I still can’t listen to the theme tune to Ski Sunday without feeling nauseous!

Not so little fishy

During the early ‘60s I associated the Dick van Dyke Show with smoked haddock. 

Every Saturday evening, as the activities of everybody’s favourite Cockney would be played out on our TV screens, my mum would serve up smoked haddock.  Having flirted with the fishmongers in Balham Market to get their finest fish, I still, to this day, cannot stomach the taste and whenever you go to a restaurant (remember those?) the fish of the day is invariably haddock.  There clearly is no God – which is more than can be said of the omnipresent haddock.

The opposite effect on me is with roast beef: my brain conjures up images of Ted Moult.  He’d by on the radio (wireless for older listeners) every Sunday (he’d alternate with Jimmy Clitheroe on the Brain’s Trust) and there is still this association.  Whenever I’d see an Everest Double Glazing ad on the telly, I’d start salivating – I do that now, but that may be an age thing.

However, I do blame Lucille Ball for my allergy to prawns.   My mum’s divi must have come in one week as she decided to buy prawns instead of the haddock.  Fine by me.  Shortly after another slapstick episode of US situation comedy I decided that I didn’t love Lucy that much and her show should have been sponsored by Kaolin & Morphine.

But the worst taste and smell for me: boiled fish in parsley sauce.  My nan would make it and was the worse smell ever and am reminded of it whenever I read Dante’s Inferno; the recipe had come from the tenth circle of Hell – so awful, it wasn’t even in the book.