Tough choice: the Magic Pound Note Machine or the pea-shooter and a quarter of parrygarrick?
Saturday in the old St John’s market always presented a dilemma.
The toy stall was the big attraction, but to get there you had to pass the sweets and for kids whose taste buds had been stunted by years of rationing, that wasn’t easy.
It was 10 years after the war ended before a stick of rhubarb and a couple of shakes of sugar, or a condensed milk sandwich stopped being a treat.
For us, the big birthday party climax wasn’t the cake and candles, but a Mars bar shaved paper thin and distributed one piece per salivating child.
We nibbled it like ambrosia. If you were careful you could make the chocolate edge on your slice last a full five minutes before you reached the squidgy stuff.
Then the sweets came back.
And the best on offer were those in the market: humbugs, wine gums, jelly babies, acid drops tart enough to strip your tongue, caramels made with so much honey you couldn’t eat more than three without being sick, gobstoppers the size of ping-pong balls.
We got hooked on those.
One bag was never enough.
It was some years before we knew why and by then they had disappeared. The aniseed-flavoured boiled sweets (real name paregoric) were a concoction of camphor and benzoic acid. They used something similar – with just a dash of alcohol and opium – as an early painkiller.
Tooth decay was never an issue. We had withdrawal symptoms.
It took real determination to get to the toy stall and even more to decide how best to spend what was left of your pocket money.
Painting books that coloured themselves, water-squirting rings, paper kites, wind-up racing cars, Archie Andrews ventriloquist dummies, Muffin the Mule string puppets: the treasures of Ben Gunn’s cave paled by comparison.
Then there were comics. There was a huge crate of second-hand stuff: Film Fun, Knock-Out, Champion and just occasionally, Classics Illustrated, American imports with a different smell that retold in pictures stories like King of the Khyber Rifles and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You could read Don Quixote, Les Miserables and Ivanhoe on the bus home and still have time for a game of French cricket before you were called in to listen to Dan Dare.
The pea-shooter? Shaped like a trumpet mouthpiece and made of gleaming tin, it was as cool as a Colt 45 and in the right hands almost as lethal.
Peas got stuck in the barrel so, in season, we used hawthorn berries, smaller and the colour of blood. Even better, with a mouthful of rice you could transform that Colt into a Gatling Gun. They didn’t know what hit ‘em. But it stung like billy-o.
An expedition to the market never disappointed.
Well, actually it did. Once
That Magic Pound Note Machine was a dud. It promised an ever-lasting source of pocket money, but the small print revealed that you had to load a real pound note into a complicated system of rollers before you could work the trick.
Magic? It was some years before they conjured up the Trade Descriptions Act.