As a writer and avid book reader, I’m often asked who my favourite author is, or whose work influences me the most, or what my favourite book is. All are difficult to answer as I read many genres, many authors, and many books have stayed with me throughout my life. I grew up in a household where books and reading were encouraged at an early age, indeed our mother taught us to read long before we first went to school. She read us exciting bedtime stories, fairytales told German and herself read all kinds of novels. With six of us in the family, the choice and quantity was large and books passed around as we grew older … Read on Over the Backyard Fence.
In conversation with friends recently, the subject of things we miss arose. Not so much the people we no longer have with us, but those little things that shaped our lives, taught us values and respect for others, and helped make us who we are. From things we don’t see any more to the sweet confections and food of our childhood and places visited, always remembered. It wasn’t so much the things themselves we missed, we realised as we chatted, it was those days of families being together, sharing, and making our own fun and amusement in the times before computers and mobile phones and ipods and televisions in every room. Good days. Days of innocence, of security and comfort. Days of our youth. Here are some of the items that came up:
- Roast chicken for Sunday lunch, a once-in-a-blue-moon, rare treat
- Listening to the radio together. Family Favourites, The Navy Lark, Billy Cotton Band Show whilst we ate Sunday lunch; Children’s Favourites with Uncle Mac of a Saturday morning; and those we listened to on our own, usually under the covers in bed at night: Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline
- Ice-cream soda in Rossi’s Ice Cream Parlour
- Saturday morning pictures
- Frost patterns on the inside of windows of a winter’s morning
- Bricks of ice cream wrapped up in newspaper: vanilla or raspberry ripple, Neapolitan or tutti-frutti
- Refunds on lemonade bottles
- The blue twist of salt in a packet of crisps
- Taking quart bottles to the off-licence in the pub to be filled with ale
- My mum’s beer soup
- Queues outside a phonebox
- Saturday afternoon wrestling and Sunday Night at the London Palladium on television
- Frozen orange Jubbly that needed two hands to hold
- Coffee Crisp bars, Picnic bars, Spangles, Jamboree Bags, Peanut Treets and Sherbet Dabs
- Rock cakes and Viota fairy cake mixes with red and green glacé cherries and butterfly cakes with buttercream icing
- Loose tea and the only instant coffee powdered Nescafé in a small tin or liquid Camp Coffee
- Sitting around the coal fire with the family playing cards or board games on a winter’s evening
- The Sunday drive, perhaps to Leith Hill or Virginia Waters or Epping Forest or visiting relatives for tea
- Games in the playground: British Bulldogs, Farmer’s in His Den, skipping games, rounders and French cricket or Two and Three Balls, in the air or against a wall
- The all the neighbourhood kids playing ball games together in the street, games such as Queenie Queenie or hide and seek in the front gardens, go-karts and races on roller skates, skipping games, sitting on the kerb playing five stones or jacks
- Autumnal walks in Burnham Beeches or gathering chestnuts at Box Hill
- Summer days out at the seaside, the whole family piling in to a charabanc to go Margate or Bognor, Southend or Brighton or bilberry picking at Devil’s Punch Bowl
- The Winkle Man on his bicycle calling out on a Sunday evening selling cockles and winkles and mussels and whelks
- The rag-and-bone-man
- Prawns sold by the pint
- Pop concerts held inside in auditoriums or theatres where everyone had a seat and at least six top names were on the bill
- When hot cross buns were a once a year treat and Christmas didn’t start until December.
Do you remember any of these things or have special memories of others? Have I rekindled a memory or two within you you’d like to share, perhaps? I do hope so.
It was with mixed feelings I read yesterday of the Government’s intended plan for removing all cigarette vending machines from pubs, restaurants and bars. Not because I smoke (I don’t), but for the fact the way cigarette machines have shaped and influenced my life. The article was even more poignant being Father’s Day, and I wondered what my father would have made of the whole smoking issue.
My father’s boss, Mr Weiss, a Swiss music box maker, developed the wooden mechanism inside these wall-hung machines of the 1950s and 60s and also made the outer wooden cabinets. It was Dad’s job to delivery and fit these across the whole of the UK, often away for days at a time. It was also his job sometimes to restock the machines in and around London with cigarettes and, in later years, machines dispensing stockings, chocolate, and a couple of other items as a child I didn’t understand.
To earn extra pocket money, my elder siblings and I would sit around the kitchen table with a pile of coins in the centre. It was our job to slit the cellophane wrappers with a razor blade and slide in the correct change, each of us having a different brand to fill. Weights. Senior Service. Capstan. Players No.6. Whatever money was left over at the end was divided between us. (If ever you were shortchanged in a packet years ago, please forgive us, it was never intentional!)
I believe Mr Weiss’s firm was the only one in the country at the time making these, if not he was certainly one of the biggest suppliers for his machines were in every pub, club, bar, restaurant and hotel in the country and regularly supplied television and film studios. As kids, we could often be heard to shout out: “There’s one of Dad’s machines” whilst watching Emergency Ward Ten, Z Cars, even Crossroads, and many, many British films.
Another customer was the The Golden Egg restaurant chain. One in particular regularly invited us as a family to have Sunday lunch there. It was, as I recall, either on, or very near to, Hammersmith Roundabout. We always had chicken and chips followed by little paper dishes of jelly with tinned cream. We were often the only ones there; having Sunday lunch out was not common practice then for most people.
Dad always bought his van home; a little grey Austin A40, Bedford dormabiles, a white Thames, later white or blue Transits. As a consequence throughout the 1950s and 60s, we were fortunate to have a means of transport always at our disposal. Not many families at that time owned a car. In the road where we lived, we were the first to have one, albeit a van, and the first to have television but we were by no means wealthy. Both my parents always had to work, my mother at one point holding down two daytime jobs and sewing at home as a third. But I do believe as children we were privileged in many respects, all thanks to the cigarette vending machine.
For special occasions, Mr Weiss would let Dad use his car for the weekend. I remember a green and cream Austin Cambridge, very plush, with green leather seats and a walnut dashboard, but most times we went off in the van. Back then, the engines of the larger vans were always housed between the driver and passenger seat. In each, Dad rigged up a padded, wooden seat to go over this; where I sat. On long journeys it got very hot but I always had a good view. My brother and sisters sat in the back on old armchairs or settees or old car seats Dad put in. Seatbelts were unheard of! The Thames van had red rear seats running along the sides, and red and white gingham curtains at the windows which he pulled closed when on delivery.
During the school holidays we would often go with Dad on his delivery runs. He’d take us the “scenic” way, showing us pretty villages and unusual places, castles and churches, Stonehenge and many, many other places of historic interest and seaside towns up and down the country most children during that era never had the opportunity of visiting. We once came to Bristol, enjoying sandwiches beneath the Suspension Bridge, never, ever imagining I would end up living there. We visited a ferret farm near Lowestoft, to Newcastle where an aunt and cousin lived, then on to Gretna Green, across Shap Fell, travelling up the M1 the second day it opened, a private zoo with leopards and chimpanzees. We never went on summer holiday as such, but spent days away at beautiful Cornish or Dorset villages on the coast whilst Dad went on to make his delivery. We’d stay in a caravan or more often at a friendly B&B or farm.
Sunday afternoons during the summer we would often go to Devil’s Bunch Bowl in Surrey to gather bilberries for Mum to make into jam. In autumn, we would go to Box Hill to gather the sweet chestnuts for roasting back home on a shovel over the coal fire. Happy days climbing up Leith Hill or exploring places called Sunday Street or the Silent Pool, or visiting relatives in Hemel Hempstead, Watford or Ewell. We’d regularly go for days out to Margate, Southend, Brighton or West Wittering.
Dad never had to pay for petrol and when later, my mother got her first car, a red and white Triumph Herald, Mr Weiss insisted on paying for her petrol too. He was such a kindly man, to us kids more of an uncle than our Dad’s boss. When Dad went to collect his wages, he often took me with him to Mr Weiss’s home or to the factory across London in Leightonstone. Mr Weiss always gave me half-a-crown as pocket money. This was always appreciated and never, ever expected.
So for these things alone: the memories of family trips, places we visited, the fun, being able to see and enjoy the countryside, for the clothes we wore, food we ate, toys we played with, the humble cigarette machine paid. I mourn its passing.