Friday, 27 May 2016

Old Skool Vibes : Children of the Eighties

My earliest memory of life is being held aloft aged three by my father to peer through a round cabin-hole hospital window at my mewling newborn sister, delicate as a baby starling, freshly laid that morning by my mum.

Having been the sole previous tenant of her womb, I was a tad miffed from the outset that I was about to be gazumped by this scrawny purple-hued imposter for her affections.  Already, my beloved mother was otherwise engaged with this new kid on the block, hence the clashing brown pinafore and pea-green jumper ensemble that my dad had hastily slung on me that morning. It was the Seventies, but still...

A year later came my first experience of school. In some cases, ignorance is bliss. This is one of them. Can you imagine the horror if, at the tender age of four, we had any concept of time and were able to grasp the fact that we'd be spending fourteen long years at school, being choked alternately by rules, neckties and the sneering school bully?

At that age when everything is huge and new and terrifying, a day can seem like a lifetime. When a friend's child started school last year, she asked her whether she'd enjoyed her first day. "It was okaaaay," came the uncertain reply, "but I don't think I'll be going back, thanks."

The first stand-out memory of primary school for me came when I was five years old. Another child asked me how many exercise books I had in my bag and as I answered "two" I held up 2 fingers completely innocently, having no idea what the V sign I was inadvertently making meant. That snot-nosed kid began shouting loudly to "Miss" that I was swearing, and before I had a chance to protest my innocence Mrs Coles, the teacher, flew across the classroom, grabbed me off the chair by my wrist and held me up as she used the wooden ruler in her other hand to smack the backs of my skinny bare legs.
I cried hot tears of indignation, exasperated and confused at the injustice of the situation. The punishment was meant to teach me not to swear. Since I hadn't been swearing and didn't even know the meaning of the word, it taught me something else instead: Life isn't fair. Which arguably is a much more important lesson anyway. So thanks Mrs Coles. Thanks a f@cking bunch.

Like most kids, my favourite part of the school day was playtime, when we'd charge out onto the tarmac to let off some steam, tearing about the schoolyard playing games such as runouts or British bulldog. The boys would be panting like overheated pitbulls, tongues lolling, hair plastered to sweaty foreheads, whilst the girls sat sedately on the concrete steps plaiting each other's hair, playing hopscotch or elastic, turning the occasional spontaneous cartwheel or handstand. To the untrained eye, we'd often appear to be engrossed in a serious game of poker, huddling round in tight circles each clutching a spread of cards and studying them closely, eyebrows knotted in concentration...although on closer inspection by the dinner lady we were just exchanging our Garbage Pail Kids collectables.

On the many rainy days, we'd have to stay inside for 'wet play' which sounds sexier than it was: steamed up classroom windows and the aroma of soggy dog, as bemused teachers attempted to keep the hyperactive children under control whilst visibly annoyed that they'd been kept away from chugging black coffee and chain-smoking in the safe haven of the staffroom.

Occasionally a few of us kids would be plucked from class of an afternoon to clean the staffroom, granting us the dubious privilege of seeing this inner sanctum close-up: overflowing ashtrays, lipstick-stained coffee mugs stuck to a stack of magazines, washing-up piled high. At the time we were honoured to be selected; now I realise it was free labour, we were exploited skivvies. Hardly a sweatshop in Bangladesh, but a liberty nonetheless.

When the school bell rang we'd line up and slink reluctantly back to lessons: attempting to solve mind-boggling maths problems copied from the blackboard, reciting our times tables parrot-fashion, reading aloud from English classics, clumsily crafting Viking longboats from balsa wood for our history project. We knew we were in for a treat if the big brown TV on stilts got wheeled out.

I also looked forward to the periodic visits from the nit-lady, finding the experience a pampering moment of relaxation as she raked through my scalp. It really appealed to my inner baboon. It was like a complimentary spa treatment. You pay top dollar these days for a half-decent Indian head massage.

There would be regular classroom disruptions from the rowdy crowd who would be flicking ink from their fountain pens, stabbing each other with compasses or covering their hands in Copydex glue for the simple pleasure  of peeling it off again. They would be sent individually to repent their sins 'under the clock' outside the headmistresses office, or made to stand on their chairs as punishment.

I only remember being sent there once, having done my Oscar-worthy Baron Greenback impression (the toady villian from Dangermouse) a little louder than intended. I never have been able to whisper. I had to write one hundred lines:  "I must be quiet in class." I wrote each line in the voice of Baron Greenback in my head, just to have the last (croaky) word.

At lunchtime we'd flip open Smurf or Transformers lunchboxes and tuck into squishy warm sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil or clingfilm; starchy white bread with a generous stroke of jam or marmite oozing out, hastily slapped together by frantic frazzled mums.

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My favourite was cheese and pickle, a packet of Space Invaders or pickled onion Monster Munch and a Kit Kat or Club biscuit if I was lucky. Occasionally we'd have spam slices with a pig's face on it in varying shades of pink from Safeway, as a treat. It was like 50 shades of pig. The face went all the way through the meat roll, like a stick of rock - presumably there to inform parents which unidentifiable animal this processed rubbish came from.

Fruit was greeted with disdain and tossed in the bin without a second thought, despite endless lessons about the pitiful plight of starving children in Africa. These moral issues were wasted on us; at our age we had no concept of another county, let alone continent.

Come hometime, we'd rush out of the schoolgates, eager to get home for kids' TV: Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, Grange Hill, Thundercats,  The Moomins, Top Cat, Rentaghost, Scooby Doo. Any warnings that we'd "end up with square eyes" fell on deaf ears.

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When we got bored of staring goggle-eyed at the box, my sister Karen and I would batter each other for a while to pass the time, until one of us invariably got hurt (or pretended to) and we were sent to our rooms, where we'd amuse ourselves amongst a mountain of careworn My Little Ponies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Care Bears and Sindy dolls, some with missing limbs, all in various states of undress. Then Dad brought home a BBC computer one day complete with a huge boxy monitor. It was a game-changer, quite literally, and henceforth the toys were discarded and we instead spent countless silent hours playing Chuckie Egg, Space Invaders, Blagger, et al.

The temporary silence would be broken by one of the kids from down the street ringing the doorbell to see if we could "come out to play" and we'd scamper out until dusk with our Rayleigh Grifters,  cycling unsteadily round to the corner shop to stuff our cheeks hamster-style with penny sweets: palma violets, hubba bubbas and flying saucers crammed into a little white paper bag, cola bottles so sugary they made us wince, our milk teeth melting as we shovelled sherbet dip-dabs into our mouths on swizzle sticks.

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Biting the pastel-coloured candies strung on elastic necklaces, blowing Chupa Chups whistles and making Kinder egg toys, we loved the dual-function sweets the best. You could play with it and then eat it. Genius. We'd spend a good portion of our pound note pocket money on this sugary goodness, the remainder being saved for the odd splurge at Nuxley's, the toy shop on Welling High Street, and then a few years later on records at Woolies, my first vinyl purchases being Whitney's "I wanna dance with somebody", and "A different corner" by George Michael, when he was still straight.

Last thing at night, just as she was switching off the light, we'd casually remind mum that we had something of great importance happening at school tomorrow which required a Blue Peter-standard home-made costume, and she'd let out a pained wail and half-heartedly set about cobbling together a suitable outfit fashioned from various household objects, some loo rolls and an old pair of tights.

I got ushered to a fancy dress party inside an old cardboard box once, string holding it up like a pair of braces, skinny legs dangling out the bottom, brightly coloured squares hastily coloured in felt-tips on the sides. I was a Rubik's Cube, apparently.

I wasn't a particularly sporty child, but being built like a beanpole had it's advantages; scissor-kicking the high-jump was a breeze, I practically stepped over the pole that came up to the other kids' chests, whilst long jump sent me sailing to the far end of the sand pit with ease. My lanky stride was double that of the other girls in my year, so when it came to the track events on sport's day I was like a rat up a drainpipe.

Birthday parties, to which we'd be formally summoned by way of hand-written invitation with a tear-off RSVP slip, were a seemingly weekly occurance and were often held at various neon-lit fast-food joints. Wimpy was a cut above in terms of class, they even gave you cutlery to eat your burger and chips, and a plate. A china plate! This was impressive stuff, practically Michelin standard to a bunch of nine-year-olds, so we dressed up for the occasion in our finest C&A ski pants or tiered ra-ra skirts with batwing sweaters from Tammy Girl, accessorizing with brightly-coloured plastic jewellery, ankle socks and a slick of rollerball cherry lipgloss.

Everything was going swimmingly. Or so we thought. Then something terrible started to happen. Puberty. Suddenly we weren't swimming, but drowning. In a sea of our own hormonal soup. Like the famous transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London: hairs started sprouting at an alarming rate, inconveniently and publicly, our faces contorting in angst as these shocking changes took place before our eyes.

Soon, we were behaving increasingly erratically, howling at the moon...and then the transformation was complete.

It was 1989.

We were teenagers.

Things were about to get VERY complicated....

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