Just as King Arthur sought the Holy Grail, as a young man starting work in London in the mid-70s, my goal was, during my lunchbreak, to find the best sausage, egg ‘n’ chips; and preferably all for under four and six (even though Imperial currency was no longer legal).
To help him on his most Holy of quests, King Arthur had people like Lancelot, Gawain and Sir Percivale (whose close friends called him Lance); I had a book of Luncheon Vouchers.
As my work took me twice a day for three months to Fleet Street, I was tempted by one establishment: Mick’s Café (if I had a café that’s what it’d be called – wouldn’t be a proper caff if it was called Mike’s Café). However, as a very innocent eighteen-year-old I was rather scared to go in– I imagined the entire printing staff of the Sun, Daily Mirror and Reveille would be gathered there devouring all the eggs and leaving only streaky bacon and black pudding to mere mortals such as I.
As I became more senior, people would take me to breakfast and the attraction of pubs serving breakfast suddenly appealed; there were several in Fleet Street and a few in Smithfield, where the meat was fresh even if the people serving it weren’t.
The only danger was that you’d come out smelling of what you’d just eaten and, as you got older and forced to have annual medicals, the word cholesterol would become part of your vocab. In the mid-seventies cholesterol sounded more like a type of frothy coffee rather than something brought on by having too many BBBs.
More tea, love?
One week back in Covent Garden, after nearly four decades away, I have discovered they’ve moved the London Transport Museum from Clapham.
As kids in the 60s we would walk the along the A24 (probably a Roman Road which linked Watling Street to Offa’s Dyke via Gaul) from my flat in Balham to the huge hangar which housed more trams than you can shake a stick at just past Clapham Common Station. We walked, as this saved on the bus fare, plus we wanted to feel like Centurions.
No one was especially interested in 19th Century Tube trains, but it made a change from going to South Ken to see a blue whale, a dodo and a couple of coelacanths.
Also, in Covent Garden, there seem to be nicer shops than when I was last here. Indeed, the office where I was is now a Gap store. When I’d worked there previously the only gap was in the window next to where I sat giving me the impression of feeling like Bert Trautmann for my eighteen months tenure in WC2.
One thing I have seen is a lot of men in black jackets carrying square-shaped brief cases – presumably they are carrying portable chess boards – there are a few who look like Bobby Fischer, although with handshakes that they’re giving out, would struggle to move any chess pieces!
Because of the theatres round here I’ve already seen various celebrities – yesterday I saw Mark Thatcher – I assume he’s in The Lion King? I guess it’s just a matter of time before I see Eliza Doolittle?
Around this time of year, when I was growing up in London in the 60s and 70s, I’d anticipate copious amounts of postcards from friends and relatives arriving showing pictures of a place within the town they were staying where they’d never visit, but locally it was iconic, and/or telling me they wished I was there (which begs the question: why wasn’t I invited in the first place?)
Cards would come from far-reaching places such as Bognor, Bournemouth, Bideford – having been brought up in Balham it seemed that my friends and relatives were incapable of travelling anywhere which didn’t begin with a “B”. (These days people will travel to Belize, Bolivia, Bogota – nice, but do they do a nice cream tea there?)
No one sends postcards anymore; instead of “wish you were here” on the back of a card featuring a beach, historical monument or a cartoon of a large-breasted woman berating her diminutive husband with an innuendo like “why can’t your sand castle be that big?” you get a text or an email which says: “arrived safely”, swiftly followed by over a hundred Instagram photos of the baggage retrieval area of some distant airport and bemoaning the fact that why is it so few people speak English in the Belgian Congo?
One of the last postcards I sent was in 1973, around this time of year, wishing that my mum and dad were here and hoping I’d done well in my O-levels. I hadn’t; the punishment being the next year with two weeks in Benidorm – also beginning with B – like Bubonica Pestis (a little-known Greek island).
There was a time when Kensington Olympia was the gateway to Devon. All you needed was a nervous driver, a Ford Cortina and a Motorail.
In the summer of 1972 I was taken, by my dad, from our home in Balham to Kensington Olympia – the Motorail terminus. I sat in the back of my uncle’s Ford Cortina as we travelled the 100-yards to board the Motorail. When we parked and my uncle had applied the handbrake I remember thinking that Devon was not all it had been set up to be and the beach smelled of exhaust fumes; there wasn’t a cream tea in sight, either. Having never been to Devon before, it looked suspiciously like West London.
I didn’t have to spend the entire time in the Ford Cortina – my only companion, after my uncle had got out of the now stationary car, was the model dog in the back of the car. Not much conversation, although it did seem to agree with everything I said; it certainly nodded a lot!
I realised, after what had seemed an eternity, that Dawlish was the end destination. Luckily the house where I stayed backed onto the railway line, so it felt, for the entire fortnight, that I was still on the Motorail.
I rarely went on holiday with my dad; but he would visit for the odd day. He made a special effort this holiday to come to Devon as he’d heard Dawlish were playing a Chelsea XI in a pre-season friendly. I subsequently realised my dad was more interested in Marvin Hinton than me. More Marvellous Marvin than Marvellous Micky.
The Motorail no longer runs, probably because Ford Cortinas are no longer that popular. As are nodding dogs.
Lionel Messi has probably never played Subbuteo before as, roughly translated from its original Argentinian, means, I’ve been substituted.
With World Cup fever still gripping (like the last Ice Age) memories of playing Subbuteo in the bedroom of my fourth-floor Balham flat in the 60s and 70s, still puzzles me: Why did the little men break so easily? If the pitches in England were as unironed as the Subbuteo playing field felt were you’d never play a single game. And why was it so hard to get the Red Star Belgrade away kit in any toy shop on Balham High Street? Was the loathing of Marshal Tito so bad in SW17 in the late 60s?
I learned to iron attempting to flatten out my Subbuteo pitch, although a consequence of this is that I can now only iron shirts made out of green felt – and having given up modelling for canned and frozen vegetables, this is now a rarity.
Many Subbuteo games for me were ruined before they even started – I had a mouse who would eat more Subbuteo goal-nets than he did sunflower seeds; my knees, as a kid, clearly had a mind of their own and were obviously anti-football as they would, with unerring accuracy, invariably break several players before kick-off and there was always that inherent looming fear of getting carpet burns on my index finger (which was needed to play the violin badly).
Rather than having penalties in World Cup games, I’d like to see an introduction of thirty-minutes of Subbuteo with the winner being the person with the most intact figurines remaining at the end of that half an hour. Or, if it were held in my Balham flat, the fewer mouse turds on the pitch was the deciding factor.
I always fancied being Big Chief I-Spy as I collected several of the pocket-sized books he began publishing from his office in Bouverie Street, throughout the 50s and 60s.
Because I rarely travelled outside the SW17 postcode as a child, books like I-Spy On The Farm; I-Spy At The Zoo and I-Spy Country Crafts remained largely empty. Although I did once make my own entry of 100 points for spotting a Woolly Mammoth on an imaginary farm.
I nearly completed I-Spy In The Street – spotting a Belisha Beacon; a Zebra Crossing and, if you took your A6 book out at night and walked up Bedford Hill in Balham, you’d get fifty points for spying “a lady of the night”.
The most marks you could get in I-Spy On The Train was ticking off a severed head which’d been poked too far out of a window you used to be able to pull down.
In 2011 new editions were launched to bring the series more up-to-date: I-Spy On A Car Journey In France being one. Within this the top points were: seeing the suspension go on a car carrying far too much cheap, Beaujolais; a French policeman nicking the car in front just because it had GB stickers on and General de Gaulle saying “Non!” (all a bit academic after Brexit).
The idea was actually first thought of in the seventeenth century with I-Spy At The Public Execution, where you were encouraged to look out for a basket (extra points if it contained a head); an axe and a woman with no teeth, knitting and swearing at the same time.
Keep ‘em peeled, as Big Chief I-Spy would say *
*With apologies to Shaw Taylor
I don’t think I could have ever have been a train driver as the hat would have messed up my hair (being daubed in soot wasn’t a major attraction either, even for a ten -year-old boy who loathed washing!); however, until it was withdrawn in 1972, watching the Brighton Bellle through the railings on Wandsworth Common – the only thing which ever stopped our games of football there – was a fleeting glimpse of railway magic, where you contemplated becoming one.
Although, running toward the track invariably resulted in our opposition team scoring a goal whilst our entire defence were peering through the rail-side railings wondering if any of us would ever become Casey Jones (the late 50s Californian TV train driver, not the burger shop)?
If you played against the bigger boys on Wandsworth Common there was the inherent danger that your jumper-cum-goalpost might be nicked. So, a few, fleeting moments of pre-Dr Beeching joy, frequently ended in pain (and a subsequent slight chill).
But Wandsworth Common has changed since the time the Brighton Belle would make its daily visit. As a kid, kicking a football or sending down a leg break, instead of fancy wine bars and Michelin Star restaurants, the poshest shop on Bellevue Road was Budgen’s. No doubt the current residents there pronounce every consonant too; whereas in my day, the only thing we had in common with the French was in inability to pronounce the letter H at the start of words!
I’m envious of people who witnessed the steam train days as the nearest I ever got to seeing Mallard was feeding one on Wandsworth Common ponds.
Unless I’d suddenly acquired a shocking sense of direction, after being given a new bike, living on the 4th floor of a block of flats, may have been life threatening.
However, I never owned a bike (new, old or jet-propelled in case of emergencies). My parents clearly realised that turning right from our lounge would have led me to become more lemming than Lance.
Because of my devotion to Twix, Lycra is not my clothing of choice. Although, men of my age in their droves are switching to cycling from playing golf. However, I’m better off holding a putter rather than looking like I’d had one shoved down my Lycra shorts (especially in cold weather).
In the 60s, growing up in south London, few people had bikes, going everywhere by “Shank’s Pony”; which I realised, later on in life, didn’t mean they owned horses.
I did have a bright blue scooter and was allowed to propel myself (supervised) around Wandsworth and Tooting Bec Commons. This may be why I have one quadricep bigger than the other as I never mastered changing legs. (I became very proficient at accelerating past The Priory on Tooting Bec Common as that was very menacing).
There were no cycle lanes back then – no need as there were fewer cars. The only markings on the roads were hop-scotch grids – and the occasional chalk outline of a man on Balham High Road – I assume this was some prehistoric cave painting, like the Cerne Abbas Giant – he’d have certainly looked good in Lycra.
I always wanted a Chopper – but that’s perhaps a question for my gynaecologist?
As a kid I never took much interest in coelacanths (or any other higher form of maths for the matter); in the 60s travelling to the museums in South Kensington, I would give the exhibit of one (ostensibly extinct) caught by fishermen off the coast of Africa in the 30s a swerve.
Even though the Natural History Museum had several floors, I was only interested in seeing the blue whale, the diplodocus (even though I’d been vaccinated against that as a child) and the dodo. There was over 99% I never saw: rare insects from Patagonia didn’t grab me (probably no bad thing as I may have gone down with mild diplodocus).
The Science Museum was the same – all those fascinating things to see and touch, but all I wanted to do was a press a button and watch a door open automatically.
But there was always the gift shop and the mark of a good museum can be judged by the selection of Kendal Mint Cake available within. You could also buy a badge which your mum could sew onto your Tesco Home ‘n’ Wear anorak. I had one from Ventnor (not bought at the Science Museum, although that would have been just as confusing as some of the exhibits).
I vaguely remember lots of stationery on offer: pens, pencils, rubbers (not the sort offered at the barber’s) and in the Science Museum a card which had ion filings, which, using a magnet, you could design facial and head hair designs (I can only asssume Vidal Sassoon was a regular visitor there?)
Once I inadvertently stumbled into the (now defunct) Geolocial Museum – wasn’t keen on the Kendal Mint Cake there – tasted too much like rock – less Brighton, but rather those gathered at Alum Bay.
And as Rupert Brooke would have said: “Is there coelacanth still for tea?”
There was a time when you could travel from Balham (if you lived there) to (almost) the outer limits of the Universe (as long as a London Transport bus went there) for only ten bob.
A Red Rover was a frequent purchase for me and my mates in the late 60s, early 70s; a time when we were young teenagers and had irresponsible parents who’d cast us onto the streets, armed only with ten shillings, a Tupperware cup full of Coke and or milk (depending on how nauseous you wanted to get), a Penguin and a selection of (one) sandwiches made with the pride of the Shippam’s factory. Travelling from Balham, most of our packed lunches had been consumed by Clapham North.
I had a paternal aunt and two cousins who lived in North Harrow (which, when looking at the bus map at Balham Underground Station, might have been outside the Universe, let alone at its furthest boundary). I decided we should take a selection of ostensibly twenty buses and go and visit my dad’s remote family. It seemingly took several weeks but, having successfully arrived, starving by this point as we’d mistimed our food intake (which is why none of us joined the Commandoes), we discovered they were out. No mobile phones those days to say: “Hi, Auntie Betty, we’re coming to visit”, not even a couple of old yoghurt pots to communicate our impending arrival. So, skint, hungry and tired we ventured back to south London with my friends assuming this extended family didn’t exist.
I go nowhere these days without the aforementioned yoghurt pots (in case of emergencies) and always have a ten-shilling note hidden inside the secret heel of my shoe – the one next to the beaver footprint.