Decades

Decades

As a child I'd go to Miss Alton's corner shop on Denison Street, Beeston. Not quite the choice range, but it didn't matter.

All you wanted was 3d – if you had it – then home to scoff the bag at teatime, in front of the flickering black and white images of the Lone Ranger on Saturday's 405 lines BBC-TV transmission

Greedy? Well, kids can be.

But then sweets were something of a universal currency, a bit like cigarettes for servicemen.

The point is that we don't forget the tastes of the time, captured by author Jon Stroud in his new book, The Suckers Guide*

And suckers we all were.

Yo-Yo biscuits, Milky Ways and Kit-Kats from the long-since closed Co-Op at the top of Park Road North in Chilwell, and more rarefied, expensive sweets, Tobler rolls or Spartan chocolates if a well-off aunt turned up laden with such delights.

Author Jon doesn't hold back in his enthusiasm for what remains, still, mind.

Of Anglo Bubbly gum he writes: "Once removed from its brightly-coloured wrapper and popped in the mouth, the small pink medallion soon became wonderfully soft, succulent and full of flavour."

The reason it was pink is curious. Bubblegum, like so many popular sweets, has a long history.

It was dreamed up by a man called Frank Fleer in 1906, but there was no other colouring for the gum in those days.

Pink it was and has remained so.

Aniseed balls Jon regards as highly evocative of childhood. "Truly a thing of beauty," he says, "which leaves your whole mouth a satisfying shade of purple."

Similarly long-lived was the Army and Navy, a candy-coated inky black cough sweet, a mix of aniseed and liquorice, apparently developed at the insistence of the War Office in World War I to keep officers' voices clear.

Cough sweets, though, aren't to everyone's taste. Nottingham's own Barnips, made to a 100-year-old recipe in Radford, are truly something. Fisherman's Friends and Victory V Lozenges – the latter actually contain small amounts of the anaesthetic ether – are another matter.

True success stories in the world of sweet manufacture are not new, as Jon points out in his hugely entertaining book.

Take barley sugar, for example.

"A true, old-time confection," he points out. The humble barley sugar has roots that can be traced back as far as the 17th Century, when it was produced by boiling down refined cane sugar and barley water.

"Lauded by Mrs Beeton and incredibly simple to make, tons of the stuff had been brewed in grandmother's kitchen ever since," he writes

Few popular sweets have passed unnoticed to the author, or untested by him for that matter. Bonbons he lyrically describes as: "The most satisfying confection to consume. It's sugary coating primes the tongue and encourages you to roll its spherical form about the mouth until all that remains is the toffee centre.

"The option now, to either suck or chew, is entirely down to choice. I prefer to continue sucking as this reduces the unintentional dislodging of a dental filling."

It's a good word of warning.

My late mother and a pal went to an ice hockey game at the old Nottingham ice arena back in the early 1960s.

Mum, that day, had acquired a small set of dentures – just a few teeth on the top plate. She and her chum bought a bag of Clarnet's Caramels to watch the game, but within minutes mother was totally glued up by them, unable to talk.

Truly ancient in origin are sugar mice, as made by Boynes. Again it's an old company, dating back to 1919, but the concept dates back to Roman times and reached a peak of popularity in the Tudor age.

Nowadays, the mice are still sweet and sugary, but not as hard as they once were.

More than a million, with their string tails, are produced every year and have been immortalised by author J.K Rowling, making an appearance in the film of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The Boynes' cousin, the chocolate mouse, Jon describes as "yet another staple of the ten-penny bag of sweets, alongside the Cola Bottle, the Black Jack and Fruit Salad."

Chupa Chup lollies are surely evocative of childhood, even if, apparently, we never pronounce it correctly.

We should say 'choo-pah choops.' Such is the individualistic world of sweets, but this one even more so given their wrapping – look at one next time you buy it; for your children of course. The red and yellow covering, highly distinctive, was actually the work of surrealist artist Salvador Dali who designed it in 1969.

"Nobody is quite sure when the lollipop was first invented," says Jon. The term could date back to Dickensian London, but the idea pre-dates that by far.

"It has been shown that both the ancient Egyptians and Chinese produced sticky confections served on sticks."

Spanish-made Chupa-Chops have an almost health-food value, incidentally. Containing no sugar, each one amounts to only 33 calories.

Now floral gums. My childhood favourites but not as easy to get hold of nowadays as they were from the post-war corner shops.

Unusually, the name derives from the fact they are flower flavoured, like Parma Violets of Cachous.

Jon's not keen on Squirrel's Floral Gums or any other for that matter. On this point I would beg to differ.

Much of The Sucker's Guide is devoted to sweets that don't contain chocolate, therefore omitting reference to some of the older brands, such as Fry's Chocolate Creams, Crunchie bars, and the big-selling Mars Bars and Kit-Kats.

But they all have a long history.

So, too, Paynes Poppets in their handy boxes, which have been around since 1937.

There are a variety of centres, including toffee, mint, raisin and orange.

Wine gums and jelly babies sum up the world of sweets, though you can also thrown in Pontefract cakes, a rare, dark delicacy, and liquorice allsorts.

Jon warns: "Burgundy, champagne, claret, port and sherry are the only words that appear on proper wine gums," so discernment is necessary when investing in a box of this confectionery, dreamed up by Maynard's in 1909.

Jelly babies came along slightly later, in 1919, though they owe their origins to an Austrian sweet-maker right back in 1864, when the little sweets were known, by the Dickensian trademark name of 'unclaimed babies'.

Their history was chequered, like much of the British food industry, by the restriction of raw ingredients imposed as a result of the German U-boat blockade of World War II.

Production ceased and was not resumed until 1953.

Their popularity was untouched, though. Bassett's make one billion of the little red, yellow, black, green and orange figures a year.

Pontefract cakes really are old, their origins dating back to 1614, when Pontefract, the Yorkshire town, was the centre of the English liquorice-growing industry.

At first it was a medicinal sweet, aimed at relieving stomach ache and coughs.

"In 1760," writes Jon, "an entrepreneurial apothecary, George Dunhill, did a simple but amazing thing. He added sugar, and the Pontefract cake, as we know it, was born. It remains, as Jon described it, " a classic of British confectionery."

The Sherbet Fountain, however, is flawed, but in a striking way. Try sucking the sherbet up through the liquorice that it comes with and the latter is inevitably clogged up.

Do it the other way – as most people – using the liquorice as a dip-stick, and it works. "Almost perfect in a uniquely British way," Jon notes.

Finally, in this tour de force of sweet land, the liquorice allsort, born of Bertie Bassett who dates from January 1, 1929, making him 81 and 16 days older than Popeye .

The story is strange by any standards.

Charlie Thompson was a clumsy salesman working for the company, who had gone to a wholesaler with packets of different liquorice confections.

No one wanted to buy and to add to Charlie's misery he dropped the boxes all over the place, mixing the contents up. Trying to clear the mess, the wholesaler stopped him, telling him that the mix was the selling point. That was what they wanted.

The allsort came into its own and has remained a sweet-tooth favourite ever since.

Jon, who lives in the Cotsworlds told me: "What do I miss the most? It's got to be the Spangle – in particular the packets of Old English Spangles which contained a mix of humbugs, butterscotch and liquorice. Whether Spangles were really that good I'm just not sure – perhaps my memories are influenced by the rose-tinted sweet jar of nostalgia – but I'd dearly love to have the opportunity to put my recollections to the test and once again lacerate the tip of my tongue on the razor-like centre that would appear once you had sucked your way through the middle of its bi-concave form."

Such are sweet memories

The Suckers Guide: A Journey into the Soft Centre of the Sweet Shop by Jon Stroud is published by Summersdale.

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