I guess the first work I ever did in return for payment was at the age of eight. My mum and dad had a florists in Clapham. Next to their small shop, which was more like a hut than a real building, were a set of wooden gates and when the weather wasn’t too sodden, they would open them and put a stall out – one of those old time market ones, made of wood and painted dark green, complete with wheels and a canopy. In the school holidays, I sometimes worked the stall and how grown up it made me feel selling the flowers with my trader’s cloth money belt tied around my waist. Dark blue it was, with three zipped pockets, one for copper, one for silver and one for notes.
I think I sold much more than my parents could have simply because people would come along and be charmed by my “cuteness“. I’d often hear the ladies remark to their blokes something along the lines of “ahh look, bless him, let’s buy some flowers“ or “look at him, proper little man“.
The other benefit of being cute, apart from increasing sales for my folks, was that usually they’d tip me a shilling or two on top of whatever they spent on flowers and like most kids, I was a mercenary little git and if flashing my baby blues brought a bit of extra cash for my own pocket, all to the good. Their admiring stares and pats on the head were also welcome, particularly as I had a mother who did little else but criticise me from dawn to dusk.
Luckily, I’ve always been pretty sharp at mental arithmetic and working the stall, I had to be. No decimalization then, no sir: roses two shillings a stem, marigolds one and nine, carnations one and six, bunch of daffs two and a tanner, potted geranium three bob, iris one and thru pence, small mixed bunch half a crown – large bunch five bob, six tulips one and ten. Most kids now wouldn’t have a clue, but in my day you either learned your times tables, or you got a whack with a wooden ruler over the back of your hand and calculators hadn‘t even been thought of then, let alone allowed to dull childrens’ use of their own grey matter.
The flowers seemed ridiculously expensive to me at the time, but at the age of eight, why anyone would waste two bob on a rose when you could buy a bar of Cadburys for the same price was a mystery. Adults, what were they thinking? They did get a spray of fern and a bunch of gyp thrown in for nothing, but even so, several dead plants, wrapped up in glorified chip paper, or a big chunk of chocolate, no contest surely?
Of course, I doubt a kid could do the same thing now (even if any of them could count properly). That money belt wouldn‘t stay around their waist for five minutes, not in lawless south London. Plus some busy body now would be bound to see such child labour as abuse and take them into care. Shame. I learned more working that stall than I ever did in maths class, ruler inflicted pain or not. It was work, but it was fun as well and made me feel important.
A year or two down the line, my folks took another shop on the other side of the road and opened a green grocer. I worked there as well and in no time at all, I could judge five pounds of spuds or a couple of pounds of carrots to the nearest ounce every time, more often than not getting it bang on the mark. I was also rather proud of the skilled way I could spin the brown paper bags, twisting the corners tight and securing their contents of grapes or plums with a flourish.
Sadly, no tips were forthcoming in the grocers, unlike on the flower stall, but my pocket money was always better on the days I worked – though all too soon gone on comics and sweets. My dad used to get exasperated with me. Money burns a hole in your pocket, he used to tell me sternly on discovering I was unfailingly broke an hour after being paid. He was right. It always has and explains why I’m still broke now, forty-odd years on. Never could save for rainy days and I’m afraid I always have been that fool soon parted from his money.
This was all in the mid sixties and I guess my folks were some of the first to see the opportunity of the black immigrant pound note, not only stocking their shop with the usual green grocery fare, but also yams, plantains, ochre, dried salt fish and what seemed strangest of all to our British sensibilities, pickled pig snouts and tails floating in barrels of brine.
Snouts, doesn’t really describe it, because basically, whole eyeless pig faces bobbed about in those barrels like something from a horror film, which us unworldly whiteys all found rather disconcerting. Just the same, if that’s what the local west indian people wanted and the till kept ringing, our squeamishness had to take a back seat.
Working that old-fashioned till with its many keys was another skill. When you have to ring up one pound, seven shillings and nine pence ha’penny, you start to run out of fingers. Those old clunkers were the origin of the word “KaChing”, because that is exactly the noise they made just before the drawer flew out – like Arkwright in a scene from Open All Hours, often catching the unwary a sharp blow to the mid or nether regions depending on how tall one was.
The old greengrocer shop is gone now, demolished to be replaced by a modern, soul-less, featureless, square block of smoked glass. Had to happen, though, the old place was falling to bits when we had it and forty years on it must have been held together with sticky tape and prayers.
Oddly, the little shack on the other side of the road is still there. No idea what’s still holding that place up. To call it ramshakle would be an understatement. I walk past it occasionally and the memories come flooding back, like when you smell fresh bread or cut grass and are transported once more to childhood when those aromas first hit your young senses.
The old green flower stall has somehow survived as well and now other people set it up on the corner in front of Clapham North tube station. One day I may go and talk to them and fill them in on a little of its history. I wonder who had it before we did. It was past its prime when we got it and has to be a century old at the very least. They built things to last in those days. No MDF and plastic fittings then, ready to fall apart at the first breath of wind or drop of rain.
Most of the old shops are gone from the street now. Taskers, the sweet shop on the corner, has been turned into a flat. The two Tasker children were my little friends and many a happy afternoon was spent upstairs eating toast, drinking old-fashioned Tizer (before they withdrew it from sale due to its alleged cocaine content) and squealing at episodes of Doctor Who and the Daleks with William Hartnell.
The old café is gone, once owned and run by Les, a man so tight we used to joke he would show the bread the margarine, but not actually allow the two to meet. I used to go there with my dad most days. He always had a crusty cheese roll, which he would sqaush to make it easier to bite into and a mug of tea strong enough to stand the spoon up in. My favourite was egg and tomato in one of those soft torpedo-shaped rolls, washed down with coke. I remember one day asking for a Seven Up instead and being really disappointed to find it was just a type of lemonade and wishing I’d stuck with my dimpled bottle of Coke instead.
The pet shop went many years ago, once run by a man my dad described as “the Jew boy”. This was pre PC days, of course, and the terms used would curl your hair if you heard them now. Probably get you arrested and fined, in fact.
There was also a Polish guy who ran the local cobblers and key cutting shop, ever known as Polack, a mute everyone called dummy, all Welsh guys were designated Taffy, all Scotsmen were Jock, all Irish men Paddy, and black people were invariably described as darkies by just about everyone. I know how appalling that may sound now, but in general, it was just how people talked back then and I don’t actually remember there being any particular malice in it. Not for the most part, anyway, though I admit black people were viewed with considerable suspicion.
Before you condemn, however, you have to bear in mind, like my parents, these were people who had struggled through two world wars and only a relatively few years earlier, had been fighting tooth and nail to stop invaders taking over their country. Then they were suddenly expected to reverse the mindset instilled into them over many years and welcome with open arms people so different to anything they had ever known, it was akin to an invasion of aliens from outer space. Naturally enough, in my opinion, they were often wary at best.
The regularly trotted out complaint that people were brought over to do the jobs the English didn’t want or thought they were too good for (a distortion which persists to this day), didn’t much help to smooth relations. The truth of it was that the generation of young men who would have been driving buses, laying roads, or working as porters in the hospitals throughout the 1950s, had been decimated fighting Hitler. They brought in foreign labour because the labour we would have had were laying dead in fields across Europe and the world.
Anyway, the streets I spent so many good hours in, playing and laughing with my gang of mates, are very different now. When I pass by, however, I don’t see it how it is, but how it was. Taskers sweetshop is still there, selling colourful drinks from an early version of soda stream and charging a penny deposit on the bottle. The chip shop still serves up a free portion of fish batter with each fourpenny bag of vinegar-soaked chips. My dad is still in the backyard of the florists, sleeves rolled up and working hard as he always did. As for me and my little friends, I’m sure we’re still around somewhere, no doubt playing run outs or doctors and nurses and giggling fit to bust.