“Is there a doctor in the dry cleaners?”


It was watching Emergency – Ward 10 that I decided I was probably not best cut out to be a doctor.  Even in black and white, blood looked pretty gruesome. However, I’m sure the ITV series which ran for a decade between 1957-1967 inspired many people to be asked “what’s the bleeding time?”

In the 60s there was precious little TV choice; even when the third channel, BBC2, was added in 1964.  Although, as a seven-year-old, this seemed to involve watching lots of men with beards sitting around talking about the meaning of life – very late at night; in the 70s, if you couldn’t sleep and turned the TV on you’d be confronted by (probably the same) men wearing tank-tops and shirts with collars nearly touching their elbows pointing at complex charts or doing unspeakable things with pipettes.

However, in south London, with careers officers at school telling you to be a secretary if you were a girl and an armed robber or accountant depending on which type of boys’ school you attended, TV could have possibly given that much-needed career-inspiration? Perhaps All Gas and Gaiters encouraged people to join the church or a Reg Varney-induced moment would have made being a bus driver appealing, although running a motel in the Midlands wouldn’t have been attractive as you’d be forever sorting out the love life of the village idiot.

TV did inspire me and, despite having often seen the actor who played Mr Verity in Balham Sketchley’s, I have enjoyed forty-plus years working in the Home Guard.

If Bill & Ben met Pablo Escobar


Box sets are a relatively new phenomenon.

And Netflix doesn’t mean curtain twitching.

Until 1967, when BBC2 began broadcasting, the choice on your TV was threefold: BBC, ITV or OFF.   No video was connected; DVD sounded a bit like something you caught off a stranger’s toilet and satellite was what Russians had launched into space a decade earlier to spy on other countries rather than broadcast Home and Away.

In the 60s the only box you had was one to keep jewellery in – or a hamster if you were a boy. And binge watching didn’t exist unless that’s what you called viewing Coronation Street twice a week.

In the 60s there were no devices for recording, so if you missed an episode of a favourite programme, you’d be reliant at school/work the next day to be told loosely and inaccurately what Meg Richardson had been up to – without sounding too much like Benny.

I wonder what it might have been like in the 60s if box sets had been available?

Could you have watched Emergency, Ward 10 for five hours at a stretch? (that’s an awful lot of catheters).

And what if the Flowerpot Men’s garden had been set in Medellin, Colombia and Weed really was weed?

And rather than watching both series of The Crown back-to-back, the only time you actually saw the Queen was on Christmas Day – although if she’d have discovered how to make crystal meth before Prince Charles was sent to Gordonstoun, you could have merged several series into one and saved valuable viewing time.

I started watching The Wire, but gave up when I discovered it wasn’t about an electrician.


Open and shut case (but not Wednesdays)


Growing up in the 60s, Wednesday was always half-day closing on Balham High Road.

Having worked for over forty years, I realise these shopkeepers needed a break.

As a kid I thought otherwise; perhaps they lent their shops out to wanna-be Mr Benns – thousands of people swarming in from various parts of SW12 & 17 to train as a lion tamer? Or they went into a temporary four-hour hibernation – like human tortoises? Or were secretly setting up radios made from cat gut or crystal meth (or whatever it was when wireless meant some massive wooden thing which sat on your mantelpiece) in which to contact Martians or Martins as Martin was a popular name in the 60s.

There is no such thing as half-day closing these days, if anything the complete opposite, with shops open every day. Odd, as one of the Commandments is: “remember the half-day closing day and keep it holy.”

Aged ten I was not the head shopper in our household. Looking back, I wasn’t aware of any black-market cows residing in my Balham flats ready to produce milk at any time after 1.01 PM on a Wednesday.  Or a handy seamstress, ready to knock up a top should you get a last-minute dinner date invite.

Did these shopkeepers do moonlighting or voluntary work? One had clearly done nothing as he’d said on Wednesday afternoons he did voluntary work for the RNLI.  This was believable when you were ten, but having started geography lessons at secondary school and realising Balham was sixty miles from the nearest coast, he’d have had to have had particularly good hearing to have heard the rescue siren.

Just taming lions – back in ten minutes.


Having the decorators in

paper chain

Balham Woolworth’s was the only place worthy of buying Christmas decorations from when I was growing up in the sixties.

The choice was a pack of lick-it-yourself paper chains and, well, that was it really, unless you count baubles for Christmas trees made out of material which would decompose before Twelfth Night.

Nowadays houses are decorated with lights brighter than ones used at Colditz and festooned with various Christmas-related mammals on rooftops – Reindeer, Snowmen, Father Christmases or, if you lived near pagan arsonists, Wicker Men. These decorations are in evidence shortly after Easter or, at worst, after the clocks have gone back – thus taking full advantage of the darker nights.

In the sixties, my task was to stick the paper chain paper together.   It was probably the only colourful thing in our flat, unless you include the yellow ceiling courtesy of mum and dad’s JPS and Senior Services respectively.  Thankfully I wasn’t colour blind, so the lead up to Christmas (or Advent as Latin speakers call it) was like Joseph and his limited-coloured dream coat.  Only primary colours were used with these aforementioned paper chains.  But what you did get, and only for Christmas, was dehydration.  Even though we were only in a small flat, to create a chain going from the four corners of the lounge, took a lot of licking.  I’d have been more hydrated if I’ve polished off a packet of Jacob’s Crackers.

We did have a nice tree though, although neither parent got the timing of the flashing lights right and when anyone visited they’d be handed a card saying: “this lounge features strobe-lighting”.  The speed varied between the North Foreland Lighthouse to a club in Ayia Napa!

Wonder if Chris Rea’s set off yet?


He’s leaving (leaving)

will hay

Harlequin Records on Balham High Road would be where I’d weekly part with most of my pocket money. I’d mostly buy Motown Records, except one week when I bought something completely different, which I wrote about here  https://mikerichards.blog/2017/06/18/wheres-your-mother-gone/

It reminded me of one purchase I made in 1973 when Gladys Knight (ably supported by her Pips) sang about her man (who’d not quite made it as the superstar he’d assumed he would become) who was leaving Los Angeles and venturing back (having dreamed, pawned his hopes, sold his car (albeit old) and bought a one-way ticket), to Georgia.

My question is this: what if he’d got to Grand Central Station in LA at 11.59 PM only for the train doors having shut thirty-seconds before Midnight, as is the done thing these days on British Rail?

Gladys could have written a follow up; and needn’t have given up her world (his/her/our world)? She may have had to buy a platform ticket, but this would have saved a great expense with her train fare.  Although the returning man would have to buy another car – would Gladys inform him that buying another old car would be a false economy? Although, he’s already down as he’s got his ticket to Georgia and the LA Railways were notorious in the Seventies for not giving refunds.  He could have become the first Uber driver in LA? Whatever he did it couldn’t have been complex as he was seeking a simpler place and time.  Although this suggests Gladys believed LA and Georgia were divided by some time and space continuum.

At the end of the song Gladys says she’s “gotta” board the Midnight Train. Knowing her luck, having very recently lost her man, there’d be a massive queue at the Ticket Office with some arse trying to pay their fare using Luncheon Vouchers or a student, with five bags, asking if it would be cheaper if they travelled via Rio de Janeiro?

Her world is his, his and hers alone. Unless there are leaves on the line just outside Surbiton.


Now wash your hands


Singing “Happy Birthday” is sufficient time to clean your hands.  This should take about twenty seconds, unless your friend, to whom you’re singing happy birthday has been called, by his or her Welsh parents, Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, in which case, this will take the best part of a fortnight.   I’d heard this “Happy Birthday” theory on the radio the other day.  However, it didn’t occur to me that it’d be the song written by a couple of Louisville sisters in 1893.  So, after I’d “powdered my nose”, I stood by the office wash basin and began to sing, in the style of Stevie Wonder, “You know it doesn’t make much sense; There ought to be a law against; Anyone who takes offense; At a day in your celebration”.  Four minutes and forty-five seconds later (the length of the 1981 hit) not only were my hands certainly clean, they were also bleeding profusely with all the rubbing.  I really shouldn’t believe everything I hear on the radio.  I’ve never been the same since I heard Lord Haw Haw play “Flowers in the rain” on Radio One’s first day.  


Geneva unconvention

pink boots

Whenever I see the spurting fountain of Lake Geneva, I don’t think of many a closing scene of the “Confession of” film series; I think of Alexandra Bastedo.

She was my first crush.

Sadly, for me, when she first appeared in front of me (albeit through a small black & white screen playing Sharron Macready in “The Champions”) she was already 22, I was barely 11.

I loathe to use the word rousing in a public forum, but there was something about her which made me instantly regretting having started at my all-boys grammar school in Tooting two weeks prior, coupled with being a member of an all-male choir.  When was I ever going to meet someone like Sharron Macready?  I learned, after a few weeks at Bec School, that this kind of person wasn’t going to be teaching geography (let alone biology – I would have to make do with learning about the reproduction system of amoebas, rather than getting sex education in an after-school class from Alexandra Bastedo).

I would watch “The Champions” avidly, every Wednesday evening during 1968 and 1969 with my nan in her south London flat whilst we ate Bird’s Eye’s Cod Fillet and chips (as only nans can make chips). I often wondered what it would have been like having Alexandra Bastedo bringing my cod and chips?  If she smoked copious amounts of Player’s Weights and had no teeth – quite similar!

This new-found affinity with girls had clearly kicked in. I procured, and stuck across most of my bedroom wall, a gigantic poster of Nancy Sinatra wearing pink, thigh-length boots (in which I assumed she’d walked).

I look back and feel I could have got lucky with Alexandra Bastedo as she’d dated Omar Sharif. Sharif was famed for his Bridge-playing ability – I was rather good at Beat Your Neighbour.   No brainer, Alexandra.

“The Champions” ran for thirty episodes and was used in several other countries. In France, it was called Les Champions – which was, coincidentally, the name of the bloke who ran Nemesis, the organisation for whom Sharron Macready was employed as a spy-cum-doctor.

Next week: Why I tried to learn Italian in case Claudia Cardinale ever moved to Balham!

Flatulence will get you everywhere


Did people fart less in the 70s?

Because of the changes at Waterloo Station throughout the summer I have had to experiment and vary (in case I’m followed) my journeys home.

This week I travelled from Victoria, via my home town of Balham, en route to Suburbia.  I was lucky as I was the only person in a carriage of four banks of four seats. That was until a late-boarding passenger got in my compartment and proceeded to sit next to me?  Did I have some invisible sign above my head saying “This man is lonely, sit next to him”?  But this was the second time that week where this had happened to me – empty carriage, then suddenly I have a new friend.  Had I been horrible in a previous life and this was some form of commuting karma on the 18.50?

My all-too-close neighbour began to entertain himself with that evening’s Standard.  Chewed pencil in hand, he duly went about completing the Sudoku. I’ve never seen anyone complete one so quickly; but then, I’ve never seen anyone using  the number 24 in one of the squares before.  Sudoku done, on to the crossword; and cryptic one at that!  I thought this man would struggle with “Hot beverage (3) “T” something “A”” let alone dig deep into his knowledge of Greek mythology to seek out possible answers.  However, I was wrong as the man next to me wrote HAEMOGLOBIN as one of the answers.  A considerable feat on two counts: one, it’s not the easiest word to spell and two, it’s not easy to get an eleven-letter word into seven-letter spaces!  He had completed the crossword (before we’d even got to Wandsworth Common) by using the word haemoglobin as every answer.  I assume he’d just learned the word?

However, it was just outside Balham when the flatulence began. Was this due to excitement of the speed in completing the Standard puzzle page?  Too many bubbles in his second can of Stella? Or bad diet?

I began commuting in 1974, the same year McDonalds opened their first restaurant in the UK. Before then, when I’d frequently visited my paternal grandmother in her council flat in St John’s Wood, the only food people would have on the train would be housed in Tupperware boxes (Tupperware was introduced into the UK in 1946 when the containers were used more for somewhere to put your ration book rather than actual food).

Before the influx of fast food, the only times you’d hear “take away” would be at primary school and if you’re nan had been collected by people in white coats as she’s thought she was Joan of Arc again (one of the many dangers of owning a three-bar fire). Nowadays, food available (especially at train stations) is manifold.  People will eat couscous (not remembering these were the people fighting in Kenya during the 60s); Sushi was the girl at school with a lisp and Vegan was one of the main characters in The Sweeney.

We are lucky in London that we have greater choice than we did in the 60s and 70s, when you had on one hand, top-end (unattainable) restaurants and hotels and at the other, cafes, where you came out smelling of what you’d just eaten and with nothing in between.

I’m going to write to British Rail asking them for a selection of new signs on their carriages: “NO FARTING”, “NO LOW HAEMOGLOBIN” OR EVEN “NO ONE ELSE”

More tea, Vicar?


Luxembourg Calling


Until I was thirteen, I thought music was probably best heard under a thick blanket.

Armed with transistor radio, torch, blanket to muffle the sound of the transistor radio and ears which would make a pipistrelle bat jealous to listen out for potentially vituperative parents, in the evenings I would listen to Radio Luxembourg. I also had a pencil and paper to list the midweek Top 20. Unlike the BBC, who had their Top 20 inside Pick of the Pops, Radio Luxembourg’s offering was midweek.  My bed had so much stationery in it, it resembled a branch of WH Smith.

Because we lacked money, and to earn a few bob more, my father had a twice-weekly evening pools round around the back streets between Tooting High Street and St Benedict’s Hospital. My mum would drive him in our Austin A40 to his destination and follow him round (like kerb-crawling except my dad didn’t have the opportunity to stick his head in the car to ask “inside or out”).  I would sit in the back, listening to my radio.  These were days before car radios (which kept car radio theft down to a minimum); I would sit, one hand on the radio almost glued to my ear and the other on a pencil to write down the chart as it was unveiled.

Eventually we’d head home with my dad having been to one too many houses with people hiding behind their respective sofas. The chart, at this point, would only be about mid-way, so my sheet, with the numbers 10 to 1 remained blank.

By the time my strict parents had sent me to bed (ostensibly to sleep) the top five were yet to be revealed. Once the light was turned off, my listening post was hastily erected; important items were produced from under my pillow (this must have confused the Tooth Fairy).  My writing kit and torch came into their own as I rapidly wrote down (probably not grammatically correct) songs like, “signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours”.

My interest in music coincided with my rapid eyesight decline (I have since learned my myopia was, due to another hobby discovered as a teenager, not helped, either!). I don’t think this was aided by some of the 70s bands having ridiculously long names – why couldn’t groups be called Lulu or Dana?  Why choose Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich?  If I’d have wanted to witness such names I’d have watched episodes of Trumpton.

“Where’s your mother gone?”


Each week I would receive five shillings pocket money from my Nan and five shillings from my great aunt. I got nothing from either parent as they suggested any additional income would put me in a different tax bracket.  At 13, in 1970, I thought a tax bracket was something which held up book shelves.

I would, soon after pocketing my ten bob, be quickly relieved of it by the man behind the record counter in Hurley’s, a small department store on Balham High Road.

There were several listening booths within the record department; you could listen, in relative private (and without anyone shouting out “turn that bleedin’ noise down, Michael”), and no one would ever know you were a closet Clodagh Rodgers fan.

75% of my pocket money would go on buying a single record. (There’s not much you can buy for seven and six these days, mainly because pre-decimalisation currency in no longer legal tender).

Despite the unendearing fiscal lessons taught by my mother, I would occasionally buy her records she’d ask for. She was a massive Motown fan and I remember buying the Detroit Spinners’ “It’s a shame” and Freda Payne’s “Band of gold”.

One week my mother went rogue.

She’d taken a liking the Scottish group, Middle Of The Road. In June 1971, when seven and six had become thirty-seven and a half pence, I went to the record counter at Hurley’s. I approached the assistant and innocently inquired after the number one hit of this aptly-named middle of the road pop combo.  I had long hair at the time and believe the assistant anticipated me asking for something by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Humble pie.  His assumptive world (and mine) was about to come crashing down:

“Have you got Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep?” I asked

“No,” replied the assistant, choking on the absinthe he’d had hidden in his Thermos flask, “I’ve been like this since the accident.”

Middle Of The Road went on to have two others hits: Soley, Soley and Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum; following on from Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep, I naturally assumed either the lyricists were very unimaginative or had dreadful stammers.

Embarrassed after the Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep incident, I took my custom to Harlequin Records, also on Balham High Road.  It was there, buying singles, that I learned to spell badly courtesy of Noddy Holder.