1958 -59. I was about 15 and interested in girls and pocket money - not necessarily in that order.
After my adventures around a midnight assignation with the girls from the swimming pool (described in previous blog post) you might think I’d have learnt a lesson. Sadly teenage hormones don’t deliver common sense and I guess I imagined things could only get better.
However, this growing interest in the opposite sex got me into trouble on a couple of other occasions too.
At the top of the road in Merrow where I went to school at St Peters was a girls’ school called Merrow Grange and a number of the girls travelled there on the same buses as we did. Well naturally over time little friendships or in this case an imagined friendship developed between me and this girl called Hilary who lived in Epsom.
I guess I’d imagined a shy smile or some similar signal that I thought indicated my interest was reciprocated. So one day having made a show of getting off the bus at my stop I hopped back on and went inside on the lower deck until Hilary got off a couple of stops later when I cautiously followed her to discover where she lived.
Armed with this knowledge on the following Saturday morning I rode to her house and concealed myself in a hedge opposite her house in the hope of catching a glimpse of my ‘beloved’.
However as time passed and nothing happened I grew impatient and started to whistle in the hope that she might look out and see me.
Well whether she saw me or not I never knew but what happened next was that two exceedingly large brothers looking like a couple of rugby forwards came out and headed directly for my hiding place so I can only suppose they had worked out beforehand where I was. Anyway I didn’t wait to find out but a bit like years before when the policeman was after us after the firework incident, I was on my bike and away like some sort of Olympic cyclist.
Writing this now, I’m amused to remember an occasion many years later when I had to chase off a young Romeo who’d actually clambered on to our garage roof in an attempt to make contact with my own pubescent daughter. Apparently not a lot changes does it especially when it comes to teenage hormones.
The other event, which did actually land me in trouble, and was certainly not my fault, concerned once again one of the girls from Merrow Grange.
In the fifth year and in order to economise on staff and facilities an arrangement was reached between the two schools that involved some of the girls coming down to us for sciences and some boys going up to the Grange for maths. Well, you might imagine what this did for the testosterone levels around the place.
I honestly did nothing to encourage her but it seems that a pretty girl called Mary Ford had taken a fancy to me from a distance. And she was also pointedly ignoring the attentions of a Belgian boy in my class called Jacques who was far more handsome than anyone had the right to be and certainly much better looking than me.
So, if I’d had any idea that he fancied her I would have made a point of actively discouraging her coy looks in my direction believing that I couldn’t possibly compete. However I was in complete ignorance of the jealous anger brewing in his breast or at least I was until he punched me in the face at the end of classes one Saturday morning and sent me home with a bloody nose.
It was around this time too that the need for some extra pocket money began to make itself felt if I was to keep up with better-off friends who always seemed to have not just pennies but even pounds in their pockets. And it wasn’t just for a few gob-stoppers from the tuck shop – no, cigarettes were the thing.
There was huge ‘street-cred’ in producing a packet of fags even if they were only Weights or Woodbines. Mine always were Woodbines because that’s what Dad smoked, which enabled me to pinch the odd one or two to top up my own pack.
Most of us could only ever run to buying our cigarettes in packs of five (which should never have been sold to us of course) but for those who could somehow manage to produce a pack of ten or even twenty the cool factor was off the scale. Not that ‘cool’ or ‘street-cred’ were terms I actually recall from the time. Come to think of it, I can’t really remember what we would have said when seriously impressed.
I remember Mum used to smoke a bit too; just the odd one now and again or at parties and her brand was Mills Filter Tips that came in a smart red and white pack. Well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but she was far from flattered when she discovered a packet of Mills in my school blazer.
“They’re a present Mum.” I blathered. “Oh that’s nice,” she said. “Pity someone seems to have pinched a couple.”
However, back to the fund-raising.
Unlike some of my friends I never did do the paper round or earn a few shillings helping the milkman. Mum and Dad thought that on school days we kids needed our rest in the mornings and time to do our homework at night which only left the weekends and school holidays. We did get a little pocket money but it was nowhere near enough for my developing needs, which is fortunately where the scouts came to the rescue.
Skip asked us boys if anyone wanted to earn some pocket money by cutting his grass and as I was quickest off the mark I got the job which paid me half-a-crown (12 ½ p) an hour – not a bad rate in those days at least for pocket money. However there was a spin off. One of his neighbours saw me doing his lawn and I found myself doing another couple of hours for her the same rate so I was well happy.
She lived with her brother who had a couple of BSA motor bikes and when he saw how enthralled I was with them he paid me another shilling each to polish them although in truth they never needed polishing as he always kept them immaculately. So, although it was some distance, I never grudged the Saturday bike ride to and from Epsom even if the return trip was mostly uphill and a bit of a slog.
By this time Dad had become the assistant manager of the grocer’s shop called Baldwin’s in Ashtead village and during school holidays he arranged for me to work there with him. It was a traditional grocer’s shop offering personal counter service, as supermarkets had not yet arrived in our part of the world although it wasn’t to be long before they did.
Baldwin’s Bros is just on the right by the white sports car.
My father and the two or three other assistants who worked there moved around so fast fetching items from shelves out in the shop or passing and re-passing each other behind the counter that they were almost a blur.
Items stacked up in front of them until at last the customer said, “I think that’s it for today thank you.” And then began the wondrous adding up process.
Now you need first to think about the level of mental arithmetic that our schools turn out today and then remember that this was prior to decimalisation when prices were in pounds, shillings, pence and even halfpennies, (farthings were gone by this time – if not forgotten).
I used to watch transfixed as Dad and the others added up these stacks of groceries faster than I could think and certainly faster than a good typist could have punched them into a calculator.
Once behind the scenes at the shop it was like entering another world a million miles away from the orderly presentation of the public area.
Stacks of boxes were piled along the walls containing all manner of goods from cans of Australian peaches to Fray Bentos corned beef from Argentina. Huge cases of Kelloggs corn flakes vied for space with sacks of rice, Demerara sugar and sultanas. The smell was exotic rising to knockout level when someone had to open a fresh sack of coffee beans from Brazil or sticky dried apricots.
This was to be my domain. My principal job on most days was to weigh and bag these wonderful bulk commodities into 8oz; 1lb or 2lb paper bags and then get them out onto the shelves.
Beyond this stock room there was a tiny staff room with a sink beside the back door that led to the rear yard and staff toilet, a small shelf with a gas ring and kettle for brewing tea.
There was also an ancient sofa that had seen much better days with frayed maroon moquette cushions resting on springs that could be seriously life threatening of you didn’t sit down carefully. Here the staff took their breaks, and on occasions I even had to set up my scales for lack of space elsewhere.
At the back of the shop there was a long narrow yard some 100 feet in length surfaced with the sort of stone setts used for stable yards, which it almost certainly had once been, for along the length of one side was a row of six or seven brick sheds with corrugated roofs some of which still had stable-doors. These were the main storage areas for the shop, each dedicated to its own particular purpose.
My favourite was the cheese store. Whole cheeses were stacked here in their waxed muslin skin waiting to be undressed and cut. The largest were the English Cheddars; so weighty that even Dad could scarcely lift them. Then there were the Caerphillys, red Leicesters, Wensleydales, the tall and seriously smelly Stiltons, red skinned Edams and the flat Dutch Goudas.
Dad taught me how to skin the cheeses and how to use a cheese wire to cut them into wedges for counter display.
Other stores housed cereals, canned fruit and vegetables, biscuits from Huntley and Palmer, Peek Frean and McVitie & Price that came in large metal boxes from which they could be weighed out on demand.
Then there was a soft drink store where crates of Corona lemonade, ginger beer, Tizer and soda siphons were kept. In those days bottles were returnable and another of my jobs was to sort through the crates of empties to ensure they were in their correct crates or risk the wrath of the drayman when he called to find he had to sort out a mixture of Tizer and Corona bottles.
There were two other stores. At the far end of the yard was the huge walk-in refrigerator that I hated and not just because of the claustrophobia it engendered. In order to retrieve a case of butter or lard from the stack along the back wall you had to duck and dive between whole sides of bacon hanging from overhead hooks while attempting to avoid the odd pool of blood on the floor only to be startled out of your wits by the fridge unit kicking in loudly overhead.
I remember one day I was struggling with one of the huge Cheddars when Dad went striding briskly past towards one of the other stores. He must have crept up on me because I hadn’t heard his footsteps returning when his voice from the door said, “How’s it going son?” I looked up only to be hit squarely in the face by a well-aimed squirt from a soda siphon.
“Sorry.” he said laughing, “Couldn’t resist it.” Even when busy he had a sense of humour.
Dad and his colleagues taught me how to bone out a side of bacon and cut and tie it correctly into joints. I also learnt how to use the bacon slicer. Some will remember the machines before they were electrified that required you to turn the operating handle with one hand while taking the slices off the huge rotating blade with the other. A bit like that game of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time; it’s not as easy as it looks.
Can you imagine the uproar in our modern ‘healthy and safety’ world if a fourteen year old was handed a foot long razor sharp butchers knife and allowed to do such things. Not that I escaped entirely unscathed. I did get a cut one day when I foolishly went to stop a knife from falling off the bench. “Won’t do that again will you.” said Dad as he bandaged my finger.
By the time I was about fifteen or so I started to look for holiday jobs that were actually ‘on the cards’ so to speak as I needed to earn a bit more than Dad could pay me out of petty cash and I went to work for a firm of nurserymen and landscape gardeners. My word what a contrast! Some Ashtead readers might remember Marsden Nurseries.
Initially I was put to work with a landscape gang as a labourer, which involved more heavy work than I knew existed. One day I’d be wheeling barrows of soil, stone, or fresh mixed concrete around until I thought my arms would drop off. Then it would be humping railway sleepers or bags of John Innes from A to B only to take them back again when old Harry decided he wanted them somewhere else.
Old Harry was one of four full-timers in our gang of six. Two of us were holiday workers. I can’t now recall the names of all the others but there was Wally the foreman, two other regulars and Harry. He had pretty well been there, done it all in the landscaping business and whilst he certainly did know the job he was mainly distinguished by the strength and obscenity of his language.
However he taught us youngsters a lot about the job, always ribbing us in a reasonably light-hearted way with his favourite expression “What sort of f**king mess do you call that?”
You know what it’s like when you are fifteen or sixteen going on twenty-five and think you know a few things. Well I certainly discovered pretty rapidly that I didn’t know that much at all; although in retrospect there could have been gentler ways of finding out.
I worked with the gang for three or four weeks that first summer, ate like a horse and almost overnight my body changed from that of a boy to a man. I became so fit that in no time it seemed I was almost throwing around the bags of John Innes that I could scarcely lift off the ground at the beginning.
It was a strange time really now I think back on it. It was as though I were several different people. At one level I wanted life to go on in its simple homely way with Mum, Dad and Angela but then there were times when I just deliberately went out to be a complete pain and enjoyed the annoyance it caused them. Curious then that in the next moment I was in the shop working alongside Dad and loving it.
I was very interested in girls but didn’t know what to do about it. Other friends at home and at school seemed to be so much more confident in that department and now even though I had some money I couldn’t seem to push through my shyness. It was all simple adolescent angst of course but you don’t see it that way at the time.
Around this time too fashion started to become important. Looking back it seems so ridiculous but there was a trend for brightly coloured fluorescent socks that my parents flatly refused to buy or allow me to wear but as I now had some of my own money that was no problem.
I remember I bought this bright lime green pair that I kept in my school bag and used to change into on the bus to school and strut around in all day at school like a dog with two tails. It was forbidden being a non-uniform item and we were forever in lunch-time detention but I think after a while the staff decided that it was easier to ignore the socks and naturally without any attention the fad died out in no time.
This was the back end of the 1950’s when Teddy Boys and their drain-pipe trousers had pretty much been and gone except that I hadn’t had my share. To feel part of it all I desperately wanted tapered trousers that once again Mum and Dad refused to countenance.
However, I was determined to have them but even my new earnings weren’t enough for new tapered trousers so I decided to take in a pair I already had.
One day home alone I got out Mum’s sewing machine and turning the trousers inside out stitched a wedge of material down the inside of each leg with the result that the trousers were more like a pair of tights than drain-pipes. They were uncomfortable too as I’d left the wedge of material in place so undaunted I grabbed the scissors and lopped it off so at least they fitted more comfortably.
So there I was in my new Teddy Boy pants like some kind of bizarre Max Wall look-alike. However, with no-one around to see them I needed to get out so I hopped on my bike and pedalled off to Epsom where I wandered around feeling really the ‘bee’s knees’ and probably looking like nothing on earth. After a while, not having met anyone I knew to show off to I decided to head home and the long climb to the top of Epsom Hill.
Just before the top I felt something give around the crotch of my pants and as I crested the hill and started to pick up speed there was a loud ripping noise as all the stitching gave way and the trouser legs flew out behind me like a pair of sails.
I think I might have died of embarrassment if I’d been spotted by anyone I knew but fortunately even as I turned in to Bramley Way there was no-one about and I managed to get indoors with my dignity if not exactly intact at least partially so.
It was an everlasting mystery in our house how a pair of trousers can simply disappear or at least it was until many years later when I eventually admitted to my parents what I’d done, by which time it was just another one of Brian’s hair-brained stunts to laugh about.
Although like most kids I undoubtedly took them for granted I was blessed to have wonderful parents whose patience and tolerance was really above and beyond, even if it wore a bit thin at times.
Mum and Dad on a holiday we had in Anglesey around this time. I owe them so much.
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