When I was a child there was a popular brand of washing powder called OMO, which has long since vanished from our supermarket shelves (although I do believe it is still in production in some parts of the world). A common urban myth associated with this brand is that the brightly coloured box was used by adulterous housewives to signal the all-clear to their lovers. When the husband was safely away from home the treacherous wife would place the box prominently on the kitchen windowsill, and this particular brand was chosen because OMO is an acronym for Old Man Out.
Although OMO is no longer available, there is nothing like an urban myth for whiling away the time with an audience down at the pub or in the works canteen. So I still tell the story, as even those who have never heard of OMO can picture a box of washing powder. As I get older, however, and I speak of items that were commonplace in my childhood but which have now vanished, I realise more and more that younger people present are completely unable to visualise them. For example, if I were to say that my dad drove to the shop in his Vauxhall Viva for a bag of Chipmunk crisps, a Bar Six and ten Cadets tipped, the average youth of today would struggle to form any mental image whatsoever of what I had described. Nor could they be expected to, as they were never around while these brands were available. In a similar way I could not visualise my granddad jumping in his Jowett Bradford van and driving to the shop to buy a bag of tiger nuts with a white fiver.
Some of the things I do remember from my childhood, however, make me feel so old that I wonder if the registrar entered the correct date on my birth certificate. Besides the aforementioned OMO (which was, incidentally, once advertised with the slogan ‘so bright even a man will notice!’) there were other, now extinct, washing powders, Oxydol and Luvil. Then there are the classic brands that are hauled out on Internet forums up and down the land every time the subject line confectionery of yore is brought up, such as Aztec, Spangles, Football Chums and the Dainty chew.
But away from brand names I have other childhood memories of things that are no longer with us that really make me feel my age. Memories of black police cars with bells instead of sirens, ten shilling notes and, the daddy of them all, the lamp lighter.
“Surely,” I hear you say, “the lamp lighter belongs to the age of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, not that of a schoolboy in the late 1960s.” True, but where I lived then there were still a few gas powered street lights about. So every evening at dusk the lamp lighter would come down the back lane carrying a short ladder that he would prop up against the thin metal rod that protruded from the top of the lamp standard. I would watch in envy as he climbed the ladder to open one of the panes and light the gas inside. Like most of my friends at that young age, I loved climbing and was fascinated by fire – and here was a job that combined the two.
The pool of light cast by these old gas lamps was somehow cosier and more intimate than that given off by the new electric powered lights of the front street. These characterless monstrosities were much taller than the gas lamps, and they gave off a dim orange glow akin to the bars of an electric fire. To paraphrase Keith Waterhouse, there wasn’t much chance of anyone shinning up one of those to light their Woodbine.
At Halloween we would gather, lantern-handed, beneath the gas lamp to tell ghost stories and, if we were lucky, the lamp would join in by dimming or flickering for added atmosphere. This was in the days before Trick or Treat had traversed the Atlantic, so there was no knocking on doors. We simply gathered with our lanterns, made from hollowed out swedes, or bageys as we called them, not pumpkins, and roamed the streets looking for spooky occurrences.
This may seem like quite a dull way to spend an evening to the Americanized Halloweeners of today, who get up in fancy dress and set about a lucrative night of shaking down householders for money or sweets under the threat of grim retribution for non-compliance. And at the end of the shift the spoils are shared between Dracula, The Mummy and an extra from Scream, by the light of giant pumpkin jack-o-lanterns. All very different from the humble Halloween of my day, but you should never mock the past.
For nothing can stop the march of time and the day might come when you are talking in company about such contemporary brands as the Wii Fit, Come Dine With Me and Fruit Shoots, and no-one will have a clue what you are going on about.