No smoke without playing cards

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.

Pass the bloody parcel

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.  

Put that in your pipette and smoke it

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”.

A knotty problem

I still have my school tie.

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?   

Vole steam ahead


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.

Into the fold


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.


Part A


I never got a party-bag when I left any party I attended as a kid. In the 60s you’d get a piece of cake for your mum and an item of stationery: pencils for the girls, the boys would get rubbers (you can’t be too careful – even at eight!).

Neither did I go to a party where they had a child’s entertainer; you made your own entertainment: musical chairs (always won by people interested in Feng Shui), pass the parcel (where you got your first paper cut and the chance to get another pencil) and postman’s knock (which was a marginally more accurate introduction to sex education than learning about the reproduction system of amoebas at school).

Party bag ingredients these days is a serious and highly competitive business: personalised cup cakes are popular (just in case you’ve not eaten enough cake at the arty) and Slime.

If you’re of a certain age (61) think Playdoh, only more malleable. In the sixties the only slime you saw was if you were watching The Quatermass Experiment or your nan hadn’t probably cleaned out her larder during an unseasonably hot summer!

Growing up in the sixties there was no slime given out at the end of parties, just your parents explaining to the returning parents why Keith had had a nose bleed, how Stephen had fractured his ankle on a removable chair and that Josie was sick into the parcel being passed. We never played blind man’s buff – it was too dangerous as we lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats with dodgy windows!

Titch and clackers


One of the most dangerous things in a London school playground in the 60s and 70s wasn’t the chance of getting cholera from the school fountain, it was clackers.

How did this get past any research group and actually make it into production?: “You get two, heavy when moving at 100 mph, plastic balls and bang them together”.  The noise was one thing, the potential wrist breaking a mildly bigger problem.

But these “toys” life didn’t last long within playgrounds, although during its reign of terror made the Eton Wall Game look like a cream tea with an elderly aunt.   They were soon banned; not by schools directly, the local hospitals were running out of supplies of plaster of paris.

During these times clackers were not the only life-threatening injury one could get in a playground: a hoop and a stick could, if out of control, crash into ankles and if not treated in time could easily turn to gangrene;  I was a connoisseur of cards inside bubble gum packets and here a paper cut courtesy of Alan Tracy coming out of the Roundhouse was always lurking when flicking said card up against the playground wall; conkers was always potentially dangerous if your opponent had a violent allergy to acetic acid.

I’ve not been in a primary school playground since 1968 but I’m assuming hop scotch is now played on an app; one potato, two potato is deemed offensive in case any participant in the playground’s relatives lived during the 1845 Irish famine and marbles are things you tend to lose now rather than play.

Three and in, anyone?

Beat Your Classmates Out Of Doors

penelope plod

Whilst at my Tooting grammar school I honed my skills as a card shark. Well, played a lot of rummy.

During a wet playtime this would be our classroom-bound pastime. No money was ever exchanged, although we could have played for tuck-shop-bought doughnuts, although this would have made the desks incredibly sticky; I’d struggled with secondary school education enough without having jam smeared over pictures of Gladstone and Disraeli in my history text book.

When I changed schools in June 1972 to go to Emanuel, rummy was not the card game of choice during wet playtimes. Because it was a posher school, some of my new classmates played bridge.

Before embarking on my fifteen-month sojourn at the Clapham minor public school, the only card games I’d ever played, aside from rummy, were Beat Your Neighbours and Newmarket. (Although I’d only played Newmarket on Boxing Days with family friends.  We’d play for halfpennies – how none of us ended up attending Gamblers Anonymous sessions I’ll never know!)

During these wet playtimes I’d look nervously on, but very quickly arrived at the belief that bridge was like rummy, only with more cards, the word “trump” was used a lot – a word I’d only heard my Nan speak, but this was a euphemism rather than something of an advantage – and there seemed to be a lot of inactivity for one quarter of the players.

I was eventually allowed to play. I say play as I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being the “dummy”.  If I’d have known this would have happened I’d have done some research before like buying the 1972 Titch and Quackers Annual.

It was the posher kids in my class who played bridge. I assume their parents ran bridge evenings which, given we were all living in suburbia, probably led to swingers’ nights; although you wouldn’t have wanted to be the dummy there unless you actively wanted your eyesight to worsen.

I rapidly realised that bridge was not for me and decided to extricate myself from this elite group. With the cards dealt for another rubber (bridge seemed to full of comedy words) and me being, yet again, the dummy, I watched, and as soon as the second card was placed on the jam-free desk, I shouted “SNAP!!”   The look I received could have been a real-life representation of an HM Bateman cartoon.  I grabbed my suit jacket (of course they didn’t have blazers!) and went outside to contract hypothermia.

I never played cards since, the withdrawal as legal currency of halfpenny bits simply accelerated that.

I found it strange that no one in my class at Bec or Emanuel wanted to play Happy Families. I always fancied Penelope Plod, the policeman’s daughter.

Rubbers are off, love

Sign of the Ford Zodiac


There should be playtime in the workplace. Fifteen mental minutes when you can run around before going back to your office, sweating like a pig before creating more content for your last primary school year county project; never has so much rubbish been written about Middlesex as there was by me in my south London primary school in the late sixties.

Within my school most boys wanted to play professional football or cricket (we weren’t allowed in the girls’ playground, which was no bad thing as this was where the threat of kiss chase lurked and, as a ten/eleven-year-old boy, all girls were considered soppy). (My mother had warned me that using other peoples’ toilet seats would induce VD; for me, kiss chase was simply the start of a slippery slope towards a life of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases.  My mother’s Chinese lantern presentations on the subject make me wonder how I ever talked to girls, let alone realise that kiss chase may well have been better fun than three-and-in).

In the confines of the boys’ playground, we’d emulate Peter Osgood or Colin Cowdrey – some of the boys who weren’t very sporty played cover drives like Peter Osgood and chested balls down and volleyed them like Colin Cowdrey. This was our desire, except for one boy in our class.  He wanted to be a Ford Zodiac.

Whilst we would hope, while we were running around, that possibly there’d be scouts from Chelsea or Fulham or Tooting & Mitcham if you were slightly more realistic; this one lad was hoping to have someone spot him from the Dagenham Motor Works. We all wanted to be footballers, he wanted to be a faux-wood dash board, leatherette steering wheel or alternator.   We were trying to make the ball swerve off the outside of our foot like Pele, our mutual classmate would run around, changing an imaginary gear like Marcel Marceau.

I never got to play for Chelsea, but then, fifty years later, I’ve never had to replace my clutch, although I think I’ve started to leak brake fluid!