I was ten when my parents left me in a hall I’d never visited before; with kids I’d never met; playing games of which I’d never heard.
Was this some sort of punishment? Had I been awful in a previous life? Was this Karma for not tidying my room once too often?
I stood (and wished it was a burning deck, such was my desire to be somewhere else) by the entrance of this hall near Tooting Broadway.
“Ok, Michael, have fun, we’ll see you in a few hours”.
Was this what it was like when you joined the Foreign Legion? Being in the British Legion club was clearly the first step. My parents had signed a document ensuring I’d be in Marseilles before sunset.
The other kids clearly all knew one another from their schools; Cubs/Brownie packs or the Balham & Tooting sub aqua club for under tens. I knew no one. Even my imaginary friend was away for the weekend. This was one of the few times I regretted being an only child. If I had known, I’d have bought a sibling off the Freeman’s catalogue.
The pain went on for several hours. I took part in none of the games. I spoke to no one. I hid in the toilet so many times, one of the adults asked if there was a urologist in the hall?
After four hours my parents returned. I was given a piece of cake. I did say thank you, but also told the organiser – thrusting my Victoria Sponge towards his face – “this is how revolutions begin”.
I have a step counter on my watchand am obsessed with how many steps I do each day.
I look back to when I was a kid, a time when the word “school run” was something you’d do if you bunked off, I walked everywhere (when I wasn’t running).
They suggest, like eating five pieces of fruit (pineapple chunks and Jaffa Cakes don’t count), that you attempt to walk 10,000-steps a day.
I think I’d have achieved this walking to and from my Tooting school from my Balham flat.
Sometimes I’d skip; sometimes I practiced my bowling action while humming the main theme to Patton: Lust for glory. I was a mixture of George C Scott and Richie Benaud.
Couple this walk with running around like a maniac during playtime, the 10,000-steps were invariably achieved before Double Chemistry. Road Runner meets Pipette Man.
However, all that walking and playing football in the playground during playtime, with school shoes on, gave you an appreciation of how Margot Fonteyn must have felt. At least I never had to wear a tutu.
My fitbit also monitors my sleep; what it doesn’t tell me is why I no longer dream about Claudia Cardinale every night. So, modern technology, not all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s Sunday morning, only another 9,995-steps to go.
I’m not so old that I remember writing with a goose feather, but writing implements have changed over the years.
I remember my first day at my Balham primary school; I sat at my new desk, wondering when my afternoon rest was going to start, when I had a lump of slate and chalk thrust into my hand. Was I expected to start a fire with them? Was this a type of drum? Was I to write the odds of the 3.30 at Newmarket?
Before this I’d only had crayons. My nan had a biro to do the Evening News crossword every night. I wasn’t allowed that as, the only time I’d been given one, I bit the end off and got blue ink all over my mouth. My mother assumed I was part of a royal family. Biology not one of her stronger suits.
When I was ten, we were introduced to italic pens. After ten years of mastering writing with crayons and the occasional pencil, suddenly everything had to be slanted – like I was doing my classwork from the other side of the desk.
At secondary school the desks were so old, there were still inkwells in every desk. With the advent of cartridges, the only use of the redundant inkwell was to place your mid-morning tuck-shop iced bun in. Although, if you found you suddenly had royal blue icing, the inkwells were clearly still being used.
But if your cartridge had run out, there were always the geese running amok on the rugby field.
As a kid, growing up in my Balham flat, I had central heating; Hot Wheels and 35 glove puppets. It begs the question: why on Earth did I play in puddles the moment it rained?
We had no running rivers with bridges over them (I’d have built one, but wasn’t terribly adept with Meccano), so there were no opportunities for playing Pooh Sticks.
But, when it rained, we had puddles and would reenact Pearl Harbour.
Because I wasn’t well-versed in laundry matters, I would get very dirty – and wet. Having built dams using stones; half bricks; mates’ satchels, we imagined we were fighting Admiral Tojo until I had to go in for my tea.
Thrilled with the fact I’d subverted the Japanese Navy, and knowing I wasn’t about to have Sushi for tea (this was Balham in the ‘60s), I would re-enter my flat.
The moment my mother saw my clothes, she went berserk. I immediately apologised. To which I heard the all-too-frequent refrain: “You’re always bleedin’ sorry, Michael”. Being called “Michael” meant trouble; I was no longer “my little Mickey Mouse”.
It was a quiet teatime that evening; we watched I love Lucy in total silence while eating our smoked haddock.
As I explained to Sooty and Sweep, two of my glove puppets, who were on each hand – how was I to know mud was difficult to get out of a brand new school shirt? Was I sponsored by Dreft? Sooty never did answer.
As an only child, grandchild and nephew (not that you can tell!) it was my parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles’ job to entertain me. One uncle decided he would introduce danger into playtime within my Balham flat.
There was always a pack of cards lying around when I was a kid (my mum always wanted to be a croupier, but never got further than the church whist drive); my uncle would build towers with them. My uncle was a heavy pipe smoker, so his pipe was invariably on – nothing like going to school smelling of your uncle’s finest shag (insert your own gag here).
He’d inhale and blow the smoke through the bottom of the cards. The smoke would drift up and eventually exit through the hole he’d made in the top. The first time I ever saw the election of the new Pope on TV I thought, once the decision had been made, my uncle had been in the cellars of the Vatican blowing smoke up the Papal chimney.
We would lie down on the carpet of my flat (which wasn’t shagpile, so no running gag this week) to get the best effect of the smoke rising – and it is only now, with my mental health & safety handbook going cray, that I realise how dangerous this would have been!
Highly-flammable carpet, burning tobacco embers, child who wasn’t allowed matches until he was twenty-six – what could possibly go wrong?
Either we’ve elected a new Vicar of Balham, or the Fire Brigade needs calling.
I’ve had a fear of cheese for exactly 58-years now (I’m writing this on 5th April 2022, the day I turned 65).
My parents had thrown a party in our Balham flat when I was seven. Twenty kids all in one small lounge, together with two heavy smokers and an assortment of matches and lighters scattered like cushions in a Habitat furniture display. What could possibly go wrong?
One lad at my school at the party was very susceptible to nose-bleeds – they were so regular, if we’d been allowed watches, you could have set your time by him. Of course, during a very competitive Postman’s knock, my mate’s nose began to bleed. The flat turned into the set of Emergency! Ward 10 as my mother’s Bracklesham Bay tea towel quickly became a tourniquet. Several of the guests (can you call seven-year-olds guests?) thought this was real life “doctors and nurses” and had replaced the much-promised Pass the parcel round.
Not content with the salmon and chicken paste sandwiches, I asked my mother for a cheese sandwich. When it arrived, I decided I didn’t want it; my mother made me eat it and my relationship with Camembert; Edam or even a Dairylea triangle ended on that fateful April 1964 afternoon.
Still, everyone got cake and an item of stationery (as one did in those days), although my mum got the rubber order wrong, thus avoiding many young pregnancies.
The transition from primary to secondary school for me in 1968 was disconcerting: as if taking a different direction along Balham High Road wasn’t bad enough, no one had ever told me about biology.
We’d not studied any science at primary school, so I was ill-prepared for my first lesson at my new school.
As we walked towards the biology lab there was much sniggering from the more sexually aware boys in my form. There was much talk of seeing more body parts than you would peeking over someone’s shoulder at the barber’s staring at a two-year-old copy of Health & Efficiency.
Among us thirty boys, those in the know mentioned that the word “reproduction” was what to listen out for.
We were not disappointed. Well, not at first. After we were all settled, the biology master, using slides, which would have seemed archaic even at the turn-of-the-century Chinese lantern show, proceeded to show us how reproduction works – for amoebas. The groans in the classroom, for the more mature boys, had matched what they’d hoped to have heard on the screen.
You cannot see an amoeba with the naked eye and as dissection was also on the syllabus, I was beginning to wonder how they could make knives that small? Unless The Borrowers were lab assistants?
I learned precious little during my science lessons apart from you soon find out who the form pyromaniac is when introduced to a Bunsen Burner and that a pipette is not a small pip.
Later that evening I was asked what I’d done at school that day? I replied I’d learned about the birds and the amoebas. I could see the relief across my mum’s face as she thought, “that’s one less conversation I don’t need to have”.
I’m unlikely to will wear it again (unless I receive a very belated detention) – even if tied properly it would be far too short and the bottom bit would only sit pointing to the part of my chest which meets the excessive biscuit-eating part of my body. I blame the school tuck shop.
At my Tooting grammar school this was a major part of the uniform.
In our first year we also had to wear the school cap – which, if your journey home took you past the next door comprehensive school (which housed a million pupils), there was an ever-present danger of having it knocked off, nicked or turned into a burning sacrifice – before your very eyes and satchel.
Luckily my journey home took me in the opposite direction, thus allowing me to retain my cap until the end of the year.
We were allowed to leave school ahead of next door to avoid any cap conflagration. I still think 4.10 is time to go home. This happened several times when I first started work and would often walk out of late afternoon business meetings saying I had physics homework to do.
Long trousers (once you’d ignored the chaffing) was a bonus during the winter months; but the tie was the most important adornment to your uniform. It seemed the larger the knot, the greater your standing within the class. These days people wear lapel badges denoting their company; nationality; membership of the Bazooka Club. In 1968 Tooting the tie was the lapel badge and a big knot said: “I have pubic hair”.
I’ve worked from home for nearly a year now and haven’t had to wear a tie, I may put my old school one on, get an iced bun and pretend I’m in the school tuck shop. And wonder if pubic hair turns grey and falls out?
Bit like being in the Scrubs, you are now allowed to leave your house once a day for exercise.
Because of the closure of gyms nationally, and therefore the need to find a replacement to my cancelled Zumba classes, I am taking advantage of this allowance from the correctly-advised government-induced curfew.
A few days in and I’m witnessing things near my house I’d driven past previously (probably quite badly as Lewis Hamilton I’m not) but can now stop and think and wonder which aspect of flora and fauna I’m looking at.
However, the disadvantage of having been brought up in urban south London, means my limited knowledge of nature is confined to the ability of being able to identify different dog turds. We did have trees, but they would either be goalpost one, goalpost two or a very thick cricket wicket. No one ever returned home saying “Mother, dearest, my friends and I managed to scale the entire height of a Canadian Redwood earlier.” (Also, because this was Tooting Bec Common and not a park in Vancouver)
Having escaped, like the TV programme to, suburbia, the nature-identification needs are far greater. Aside from identifying a dead mouse (it could have been a vole or a shrew, I’m assuming here) I’m struggling with my lack of knowledge.
Because of this ignorance I’m thinking of taking a series of educational books with me on my daily hike: The Observer Book of Birds; the Observer Book of Trees; the Observer Book of Dead Rodents.
Carrying the contents of a small mobile library could also act as a replacement for the free weights I use at the gym. I could strengthen my biceps courtesy of a book with several pages devoted to pictures of deceased gerbils.
I’m going out early in the morning for my walk. I’m at that age when I wake up early and have invariably done the ironing by half four. Walking around you notice many things about peoples’ houses: the porch lights which come on when you walk past (handy if you’re an aspiring burglar – which I could be as I suit black); as the houses get bigger, so the car number plates become more personalised (my car’s number plate is MDZ, which would work if my surname was Zither) and whose nets need cleaning.
Today, during my hour-long traipse, I passed four people, two running, two walking like me (the two walking probably having a copy of I-Spy in Suburbia tucked inside their newly-bought kagools. The normal British response would be to ignore any passer-by, but these are different times and I’m wondering what the correct protocol might be? Should I have said anything or even doffed my cap (or in today’s case, my Bayern Munich bobble hat)?
As this process continues then I’m sure we’ll all be talking – albeit shouting across various roads to each other, keeping a safe distance, obviously, “Did you see that dead mouse on Banstead Road?” “That was no mouse, that was an aardvark!”
This in turn will prompt me to return home and order the Observer Book of Ant-Eaters.
Time to wash my nets.
A supply teacher at my Balham school in 1968 proved I was never going to make it as an aeronautical engineer.
Instead of doing maths, history (always the bloody Tudors) or geography (the field trips were always to the field adjoining our school – so not much of a trip) – we were taught origami. The supply teacher was from India, so closer to China than Balham, so he had credibility with us ten-year-olds.
While my efforts to fly paper-airplanes were similar to watching grainy and speedy footage of man’s earliest “flight” I did become very adept at other things which involved the intricate folding of paper.
Although I should have been learning important dates in history, capital cities of the world and times tables past 12, because of the supply teacher, paper folding became my new obsession.
The making of water bombs resulted in the entire class up before the headmaster as we’d doused the dinner ladies during morning playtime; the thing I was best at was creating chatterboxes.
However, this talent was not one I should have taken with me to an all-boys secondary school.
My schoolmates, amazed at the proficiency of my origami, became slightly confused (the more sexually advanced kids in the first-year, slightly angry) when, after much swift action between both thumbs and forefingers – and vigorous counting at pace – they read, “kiss a boy” or “I love you”. These had worked as a pre-cursor to mixed junior school kiss chases, but rather made me a target during inter-house rugby matches.
There were many who wanted to tell me my fortune – many without the aid of a carefully folded sheet of A4 paper.