As I race towards my 45th birthday with terrifying speed it has become increasingly difficult to recall the events of my childhood. I was astonished a few years ago to discover two of my colleagues were in the same class as me in one of the four Primary Schools I attended. It was in 1976, the year I turned eight.
I vaguely remember Jenny. She lived close to the school and I often stopped at her house on the way home. What we did on these afternoons I have absolutely no idea. All I remember is walking up her driveway together. We could have spent the afternoon engaging in arson and petty larceny, for all I know. Strangely I had no memory of Gavin, even though he remembered me, including the home – made uniform I always wore. Sadly, I have little memory of Mayland’s Primary, even though I spent 18 months of my life within its confines.
Whole swathes of information and lived experience have completely vanished. I don’t remember most of my classmates, teachers, lessons or any outstanding events. All I have are patches of memory; the student teacher who gave us spiders made from pipe cleaners and boiled sweets, running under the sprinklers in our underwear on hot days, picking mulberries from the trees and stealing a beautiful pink pencil from a despised classmate when she dropped it on the floor. I felt too guilty to use the pencil but never regretted keeping it.
However, one aspect of 1976 lodged in my memory is the sweet shop across the road from our school. My two younger sisters and I would do anything to get our hands on sweets. We had our individual favorites. My list included Bates Poached Eggs (hard to find), Big Boss cigars, Fags (no, I’m not kidding), Freckles, Cobbers, Fantails, Milk Bottles, Sherbies, Licorice Allsorts, Jaffas, Choo Choo bars, Freddo Frogs, Teeth, Musk Sticks, Sherbert Fizzers, Snakes Alive, Chicos, Jelly Beans, Fruit Jubes and Black Cats. It was possible to buy a selection of each in a 20 cent bag of “mixed lollies”.
While we were aware of the existence of chocolate bars, we never bought them. Chocolate is expensive in Australia so (with the exception of the Milky Bar Kid) chocolate bars were marketed to teenagers and adults, rather than young children. I did love the Chokito Bar television advertisements, with glamorous permed girls, eyes slathered in “pot ‘o gloss” singing, “Chokito gets you going.” I badly wanted to be a “Chokito Girl” but my dedication to the corner sweet shop made me chunky in my embroidered denim shorts.
In the days before people cared about such things, a remarkable selection of cigar or cigarette themed sweets were devoured by school children all over the country. Every day I agonized over whether I should buy a white Big Boss cigar or a coffee colored one. Both had a dab of red coloring on the end and a realistic gold “cigar” label. Each had their desirable qualities. The white version was deliciously creamy with a heavenly melt in the mouth quality. Coffee colored Big Boss had a slightly meatier texture with delicate overtones of cocoa and cream. Both were 10 cents and presented excellent value for the cash strapped eight year old.
Along with Big Boss cigars we could also buy Fags and Camels. Fags were designed like a box of cigarettes. The blue box had a picture of a girl with yellow hair, and was filled with a dozen lit white “cigarettes”. They tasted similar to the white Big Boss cigars but with a pleasant minty after-taste. I didn’t buy Fags as much, they were more expensive (25c!) and I tended to shove the whole box in my mouth at once, making them too fleeting a pleasure. Camels were the most costly King of the cigarette sweets genre. From their realistic Camel pretend package to the wrapped chocolate “cigarettes” inside, Camels were the epitome of the politically incorrect sweet. I loved them.
Various methods had to be employed to ensure a steady supply of sugar treats. On the weekends, my two sisters and I collected glass soft drink bottles and took them to the local grocery store so we could get the 5 cent deposit. Any funds gained in this manner were immediately converted to sugar. This was not a fool – proof method as it meant going around the neighborhood asking for bottles, as we didn’t drink much soft drink (if any) in our house. It was difficult to get the bottles to the shop (usually in our bike baskets) and sometimes the other kids in the street got there before us. It was a cut-throat business.
The best source of money for sweets was our enviably patient mother. We didn’t have a car in 1976 so Mum sometimes needed us to go to the corner shop to pick up some missing ingredient for dinner, with the promise we could have 20 cents each for our trouble. I suppose she thought we’d do something sensible with it, like save for the holiday movies. Fat chance. On more than one occasion we came home without the parsley or whatever we had been sent to get as the stress of choosing what sweets to buy overwhelmed our addicted brains. Of course, we would have to go back again, this time without any money to spend. It was torture.
My sweet cravings followed me to high school where one of the nuns handily sold toffees every recess to raise money for charity. These toffees were the finest of the genre. Home made and poured into white patty pans, they were the perfect shade of gold and sprinkled with Hundreds and Thousands or desiccated coconut. I’d buy two, one for recess and one for lunch, even though the recess toffee would last for hours. I was a high school teacher in a previous life and let me assure you that if a kid sat in my class sucking on a toffee and occasionally taking it out of their mouth for inspection, I would go nuts. Heaven knows how I got away with it. The toffee bonanza ended abruptly after the school dentist complained about the dramatic increase in cavities. It was the sad end of a glorious era.
How did this love affair with the sweeter side of life affect my health? I admit for much of my childhood I was overweight. No kinder slant can be put on it. The daily ingestion of 1000 extra calories when I entered high school soon showed itself in my figure. One morning when I was 13, my Home Room teacher turned to me and said, “Madonna Valentine, you are getting fat. You need to go on a diet.” So I did. I lost the 7 extra kilograms and have kept it off. I get my “sugar fix” from Pepsi Max, diet jelly and fresh fruit, with just the occasional sliver of cake or a tiny square of chocolate. But I still don’t look like a “Chokito Girl”.