One of my earliest memories of my father is his returning home after work and producing what he called ‘magic’. That is he would pull out some sweets or bars from his pocket for me and my brothers. I suppose he called it magic because he made it appear out of thin air. Silly I guess, but as parents we do silly things to amuse our children. A range of chocolate bars, chews and sweets, might appear and it was a real treat for little boys. Times were very different from the more obvious affluence and excesses of modern life, where family or jumbo size bars and bags mean that parents have to worry about overeating. As youngsters we were thin, active and growing, so a small treat wasn’t a problem and probably more appreciated as it was seen as a special occasion. My family would not be considered poor, but money was short and birthdays and Christmas were special, maybe because toys and gifts were not something we experienced on a regular basis.
There was something magical in having a little pocket money and going to the sweet shop. I remember well the one opposite Harehills County Primary School on Roundhay Road where there is now a crossing. The corner shop was a treasure trove of delights. Jars lined the walls and counters and inside was a dizzying array of mysterious items to test and tantalise the tastebuds. I must add that I am not sure if we have lost the range of flavours, or whether it is just that my taste buds have dimmed over the years, but I feel that sweets and lollies are sweeter, but have less flavour than they used to do. Some may be on health grounds, some may be an attempt to increase demand by making the flavours so bland that they are no longer an acquired taste.
Let me give you an example. Victory V Lozenges, I loved them. I can’t say why. They had a strong almost chemical flavour that you either hated or loved. I believe it was ether, liquorice and chloroform and they were created in the middle of the 19th century, in Lancashire by Fryer and Smith MD. They were flat lozenges of a rough khaki colour and you could suck them until they became just a sliver and then disappeared. They came it tubes, but you could also buy them loose and they were great if you had a cold or sore throat, but I am not sure the ingredients were good for you. The ether and chloroform we removed in the 1960s and they were never the same and I only bought them once when they were changed and never since. I will add here that I got a similar taste from eating the Airfix model glue that stuck to my hands after building model planes or boats. The glue had a similar astringent chemical odour and taste, but if you ate too much you could feel it burn the lining of your throat as it passed into your stomach. Thinking back, I wonder how I ever survived. I also loved the smell of the tarmac they spread on the roads.
The sweet shop was an opportunity to try all manner of delights and some had specific seasons. The approach to Bonfire Night in November saw toffee lollies on sale. They were toffee or treacle toffee in a jam tart foil case with a wooden stick stuck in them. They were wonderful and provided hours of sticky licking. They also had toffee apples that sat on trays, covered in toffee and had wooden sticks stood out like rows of soldiers. The toffee was red and I never really liked them. They also used to sell them at the fairgrounds at Woodhouse Feast or Roundhay Park, along with brandy snaps.
Another unusual delight, that is probably no longer available, was liquorice root. These were kept in a jar and were the dried roots of a plant. They were a nicotine yellow and at first just tasted like an old dried stick, but as you masticated the root, it split its fibres and released the liquorice flavour. You could, and had to, chew it for a long time to release its full potential flavour, but eventually it lost all flavour and became just wooden again. This was the point when you had to spit it out. The best part of these was that you could chew off a piece and put the rest into your pocket for later use. They didn’t cost much and were excellent value. In Leeds we called liquorice Spanish. I assume it originated from there. Another option was the hard black liquorice sticks. These were shiny, brittle sticks maybe three inches long and you could also get them from the chemist’s. I think they were used as a laxative, but they were also great to suck on, if you had a passion for the liquorice flavour. Then, of course, there was the usual array of more common Spanish treats: liquorice pipes, with a few hundreds and thousands on the top of the pipe, not politically correct nowadays, Spanish shoe laces, torpedoes with a sugar candy shell and the black sticks, six inches long, round and with a flattened section at the top two inches. Finally there were Little Imps. Imps came in boxes half the size of a matchbox and were tiny bits of black shiny squares. There had a very strong flavour and were very much an acquired taste, but I loved them.
Another favourite of mine was aniseed. I loved aniseed balls. These were in one of the glass jars with a screw top and the bright red marble sized balls called to me as I would look around the shop wondering what to buy. Two ounces of aniseed balls could last two days if sucked correctly. The shopkeeper would make a show of taking down the jar, undoing the top, pouring the balls into the shiny metal scales, adding the two ounce weight to the other side of the balance, adding or removing a ball or two and then selecting a cone paper bag, pouring the balls in and then making a magical twirl of the bag top and placing the goodies on the counter. I would push over my threepence, or whatever the amount was and then would turn and leave, cradling my goodies as if they were buried treasure. Once outside I would pop in a ball and start to suck. At first the flavour was just sweet, but after a moment or two this was replaced by the distinct flavour of aniseed. One ball could last for nearly half an hour and at its centre was an actual anise seed that you could crush between your teeth. I know they still sell aniseed balls, but they have very little flavour and they don’t offer the same experience.
A seasonal little ditty.
The other long lasting treats were the gobstoppers. I never really liked these as much as aniseed balls, as they were bland and just tasted sweet, but one of the giant balls could be made to last for days. Of course you couldn’t suck them during lessons, but you just slipped them into your pockets until the next break or after school. Yes, they collected fluff and dirt from out of your pocket, but after a few minutes of sucking they became clean and pristine. The extra bits just added to the enjoyment! I once nearly choked to death as an adult after swallowing a sherbet lemon whole, so I wonder how many children died after having a gobstopper as some of them were huge. In our safety conscious times I am sure they are not allowed to be the size they were in the 1950s and 60s. I am not sure if the Heimlich Manoeuvre was about in those times, but Mr Kelly at Harehills I am sure would have saved the day.
I mentioned the liquorice pipes, but the other treat that no longer exists is sweet cigarettes. Cigarettes were not the taboo subject that they are nowadays and packets looked very similar to the real deal and the white sticks had red tips and we used to stand around mimicking smoking adults. Even better, but more expensive, were the Camel chocolate cigarettes. These were in packets that were copies of the real Camel Cigarettes and the packet was soft like the original. They were a similar size and wrapped in cigarette paper and I am not sure if we were supposed to eat the paper, but I heard it was rice paper, whatever that is, and so I ate the whole thing. Later there were chewing gum cigarettes, also wrapped in paper, and even more offensive imitation cigarettes that must have had talcum powder or something similar, as you could blow through them and a little cloud of dust came out the end. Happy days.
I intended to mention a wide range of other delights, but they will have to wait for another time. I am sure that you would have had your favourites, but I can still remember the highlight of my week was when my mother had placed a Mars Bar in the fridge and when cold she sliced it into pieces. For some reason it tasted so much better that way and it had the benefit of being a shared family experience as we all could have a piece. Small pleasures, but ones that have lasted my lifetime.
Parts 1 to 10 of the audiobook Blaze are available for free listening on the Soundclud player below. The next part will be added each week.