As an eight or nine year old I was always making clubs. They were usually based on my passions of the moment – for example Spy Club was started after longing to be James Bond after seeing Diamonds are Forever, Space Club began in homage to Thunderbird 3’s celestial rescues and Airport Club took off after a birthday treat spent plane spotting from the top of the multi-storey at Heathrow. Membership for all clubs consisted of me and my best friend Alex.
Foolishly, we let my sister join one of our clubs – the Junior Police 5 Society (Newbury branch), but she got bored and told Mum, when I’d made it perfectly clear that all of our clubs were top secret and that to ‘tell’ would be in breach of society regulations. To be fair, she had a point. Our having been inspired by the Junior Police 5 show on TV, branch members were expected to walk around the town on a Saturday morning copying down car registration numbers in purpose-made booklets. Pages of them were gleaned in just a few hours. These were held for the next week’s show, where viewers were asked to ‘keep ‘em peeled’ and a small number of registrations of vehicles suspected of use in recent criminal activity were screened. We compared these to our hundreds of carefully collected numbers and were very disheartened to find no matches. I think Junior Police 5 Society (Newbury branch) was disbanded after 2 weeks as we lost interest in what we came to recognise was a futile activity. My sister was never again invited to be a member of any of our clubs, a standing that suited us both. Alex and I decided to operate a strict ‘no girl’ policy from then on – well, this was the 1970’s and things were like that then.
But my main motivation behind that club and indeed all of our associations was to make the relevant Identity cards and passports in my bedroom, always with hand-drawn mug shots of the holder together with additional pages for visas, distinguishing marks and hopelessly optimistic eight-digit membership numbers. I loved the administration of creating rule books and licences to kill, my prized set of Platignum felt-tips, blunt-ended paper scissors and a Paddington Bear ruler being invaluable in their construction. One Christmas, my favourite present was not the Raleigh Chipper bike, or the Evel Knievel toy, but a little Bambi stapler which now meant I could secure the pages of our club particulars together. I enthused over their creation and largely because of this, clubs pretty much always lapsed after only a week or so, to give me the opportunity of producing brand new sets of documents for brand new clubs on a regular basis. But looking back, by far the most memorable club was the Zoo Club.
Alex and I devised this latest society having watched Survival or some other nature-based programme. It inspired us to save animals from captivity and return them to freedom to take their chances with predators and evolution as nature had intended. After the show, Alex went home to his animal encyclopaedia whilst I ran for the stationery drawer.
We reconvened outside Gallagher’s Pet Shop in the town a few hours later, both excitedly clutching our pocket money. I dished out the relevant ID cards and rule books and in we went. Our mission was to purchase as many of the unfortunate beasts captivated within as we could, and let them fly/swim/crawl away to seek happiness and their true destinies.
This was a very brave thing to do as I was completely terrified of the husband and wife who owned the pet shop. I’m not which one scared me the most. Mrs Gallagher was short and so fat that she waddled when she walked, and could only wear what looked to me like an elasticated wrap-around curtain. The bottom of her legs seemed to spill over the top of her shoes and always had angry red raw patches on the hairy white skin. I was so scared of her legs, but whenever you were in the shop you just had to look at them, even though you begged yourself not to on the walk in, knowing that it would put you off eating for several hours if you did. Mr Gallagher was almost as short, but at least kept his legs properly covered. He had nasty Brillo-pad hair, a Desperate Dan beard and worst of all, one of his eyes didn’t look at you when he looked at you. Yes, I think it was probably his eyes that were the most frightening things in the shop. Well, his right eye. I know when I went in with my Mum to buy gerbil food say, I always stood on her left, so that when he looked at me, the deviant eye would point at Mum, but then when he looked at her, the evil eye gazed at some apparently imaginary person on her right in its blind yet all-seeing way, rather than at me. I figured that he had a swivelled chameleon-style vision and could see everyone in his shop from his low position seated behind the counter. I had so many nightmares about being locked in that shop being chased by his diabolical eye carried on her hiddeous legs. I did not dare warn Alex (whose parents didn’t allow him to have pets which left him a pet shop virgin) as I might have scared us both in the telling.
Inside, and both having involuntarily stared at Mrs Gallagher’s rancid milk bottle legs as she tip-toed to rack cans of Kennomeat, we studied the cages of birds and tanks of fish. We also studied the prices which were considerably higher than the small collection of low-denomination coins in the pockets of our short trousers. Undismayed, we felt at one with David Attenborough who had surely faced difficulties of his own, albeit not pecuniary ones, and they had not stopped him saving gnus in the Savannah. All the time I kept an eye, if you’ll pardon the pun, on the whereabouts of the pet shop man.
We scanned the price board hanging behind the till. It was clear that to liberate a puppy, tortoise or guinea pig would require monies well out of our financial league – but wait – at the bottom of the list was ‘Swoop – 17p’. Taking this as the pet-name for a discounted aging parrot say, or a budgie suffering from beak-rot, Alex pointed to the board, and I could sense him shudder as he clocked the pet shop man’s divergent look. Mr Gallagher duly turned to open a glass-fronted cabinet behind his counter and handed the rather stupefied Alex a box of birdseed bearing the legend ‘Swoop’ and a picture of a robin in flight on the front. Now equally scared of the man as I was, Alex grabbed the box, threw his coins on the counter and ran out of the shop before his embarrassment and fear could catch up with him.
That left me on my own with the beady stare of the potentially malevolent pet shop owners. Trying to hide my fear I bravely took Mr Gallagher to one of the many tanks that adorned the far wall, all containing a variety of fish of every size and colour. I was not a great fish expert at the time, not knowing my guppy from my orfe, but the names and prices on Dymo’d adhesive strips on the side of the tanks suggested there was only one variety I could afford: in a big tank containing a number of different fish, one of the strips advertised ‘Eliocharis acicularis – 8p’. I excitedly asked for two, hoping they would be the pretty turquoise ones with the red stripes. He rolled up his sleeve, reached into the water and whilst the fish hurriedly swum up the other end of the tank, he extracted two pieces of weed from the bottom, placed them, dripping, into a clear plastic bag into which he secured a breath-worth of air with a knot. I was both disappointed and horrified and felt that if it was possible for an eye to laugh, his was doing so now. I felt compelled by my age and timidity to complete the purchase and thrust two precious ten new pence coins into his outstretched hand and escaped as quickly as I could. If I could have afforded it, I would have gladly foregone my 4 new pence change to have got out of there a few seconds quicker.
Zoo Club? Pah! Having spent all our money and squirmed more than any of the snakes still housed in the pet shop, we had successfully liberated a packet of birdseed and 2 pieces of weed. The terrorist arm of the Animal Rights Movement had nothing on us.
On the walk home the seed was scattered in the park and the weed thrown into the pond for the ducks to eat. The membership cards were almost certainly thrown away too, but ideas for next club and its associated documentation were already under discussion.