As years go by we get older, and in the face of pupils who seem to have been born after Kurt Cobaine, I talk about the 70's. So, I'm getting into the "old git" category. A pice of seasonal writing about life before Kurt Cobaine, when Slade were riding high in the charts. Heart goes out to all those who grew up in the London suburbs in the 70's. Also heart felt thoughts for all those who had parents with principles but no bloody cash - posh on the outside and poverty on the inside.
THE GHOSTS OF …
Christmas used to be a true destinaition. A gaudy, magic, tinsel town. A place of glistening, snow-covered, candy dreams. It was last place on the long hard yellow brick road through the year. It was a safe and reassuring place. How many times did mum and dad say « Don’t worry. It’ll all be right come Christmas. »? So, as a kid, I was always glad to get to Christmas, because mum and dad always made sure that everything was right. Of course, as a kid, the road to Christmas wasn’t too hard. You just had to sit in the back seat, stare out the car window at the landscape, and try not to get too bored or to annoy mum , who was navigating and dad, who was driving.
Then one day you grow up, and it’s you in the driving seat. Christmas is no longer a destination, just a stop-over on life’s long road. Christmas becomes a night in a cheap hotel with broken air con and a lumpy bed. It’s a refuelling stop in motorway service station – filling up at the pump, a lukewarm ersatz coffee from a vending machine, a trip to the loo, and then a saunter round the shop for chewing gum, cigarettes, paper tissues and something to keep the kids happy.
Christmas is a name on a map, somewhere to break your journey. You’re sick of driving, but you’ve got to carry on until Christmas. Then you see the signs. Christmas is getting closer, but the last miles are the hardest. The road seems never ending. Finally though, you pull into that blob on the map you’ve been aiming for all year. No magic tinsel town, just a one horse town, that no sooner you’re in, than it’s gone. A drive- through festive blip.
Eventually, you give up caring what Christmas is like. As long as you can get a shower, a cold beer, some food and a decent night’s kip, you’re happy. Usually, Christmas is that cheap hotel, occasionally though, you might get lucky and have a five star festive stop-over. For sure, these are the Christmases you cherish.
It must be 1969 …
The trains are metallic blue, they weave slowly through the suburbs like long lazy snakes on valium. Inside the carriages are grubby grey floors and nicotine yellow paint. The upholstery smells of wet concrete, damp cloth, stale tobacco and the fluff that grows under toe nails
On a train. Jolting, lurching and screeching our way across the red brick of the south west London suburbs. This is the start of the journey into Christmas. I’m just tall enough to peer out the grimey window. Night is falling, and the train crawls along, so slowly that I can peek into peoples’ houses. Snatching a fleeting glimpse on someone’s life. The good folks of the world are lighting up and settling down for the evening., but we are going out. Up to London. Up to town. I’m five and my borther’s eight and we are dressed up to the nines – school uniform, the only outfits we possess with a shirt and tie, and like mum says – « What’s the point of you going to an expensive private school if you can’t show off the uniform ? »
The train pulls into the carvernous belly of Waterloo station. Vast, mad, bad and noisy. The screech of brakes, the staccato clunk of hundreds of train doors all slamming shut in quick succession, incomprehensible announcements on the tannoy. Commuter cacophony, and station symphony amplified by the leviathian-like building. We are inside a monster. The vaulted iron rib caged hangs high above us, and as we climb down from the train and walk down the never-ending platform, the station swallows us up. From the belly, down into the very entrails of the beast . « Hold my hand » commands mum. She gives us her lecture about strange men in macs in station toilets. I want a wee, but I’m just going to hold.
Mum is looking for a member of station staff to get us a taxi. We can’t possibly go by Tube.
« When you go to the House of Commons, you have to arrive by taxi . » she says.
She doesn’t ask the man at the ticket barrier because he’s black. « Oh, he won’t understand. » says mum dismissively.(Casual, generational racism born of Empire) Instead she addresses a slovenly-looking, white member of staff.
« Yes, that’s right … a taxi for the Palace of Westminster. » Mum mouths the orders in her « upper class » voice, that she reserves for the working class or foreigners.
We are off to the Christmas party, thrown my the members of the press gallery at the House of Commons.
« My husband is a parliamentary correspondent for Reuters, » explains mum to the taxi driver, who really didn’t want to know, but now he does, and he should feel honoured to have such « posh » people in his cab.
As a five year-old, I don’t know what « posh » is. I just know that if the party is as good as last year’s, it will be the best ever.
The taxi drops us at Westminster. Mum makes a great play of showing our embossed House of Commons invitations to the policeman at the entrance. He « salutes » mum. He calls her »Ma’am ». Mum likes this and with an air of superiority, she glides into the Palace of Westminster, head held high, a cross between Royalty and Miss Jean Brodie
The party is great. There are bags of sweets , Coke, crisps, a massive Christmas tea, a magic show and finally, the moment that every kid has bee waiting for, when the huge double doors to the Common’s Chamber are flung open and we get to run amok. A riotous assembly of kids, screaming and whooping for joy, in that most serious and historical of places where the complex affairs of state are discussed, where the laws of the land are made, where the lives of millions are regulated and legislated. The weight of history, the fate of nations, the dramas that have been played out in the Mother of Parliaments and we are playing tag round the table where the Mace and Despatch Boxes normally sit, we loll round on the green baize benches like we have been lolling there all our lives. The final honour (or insult), we get to sit in the Speaker’s chair. This is the best bit of the whole party. Finally we are rounded up and led back to the members’ bar to await Santa, who promptly arrives and gives each kid a Cadbury’s selection Box.
The Press Gallery party was always the Friday nearest to Christmas. It was just as much for the journalists as the kids. It was their end of term party too. When it was all over, we would trundle home in the same grotty train that had hauled us up to London hours earlier. This was the moment where Christmas really began. The Commons wasn’t sitting and we knew that dad would be home for a whole week.
Dad had worked for Reuters since 1953. He had started on the Africa desk. Over the years, he had risen through the echelons and made it into the press gallery at Westminster.
« Reuters Parliamentary correspondent. » Sexy sounding job, with a meagre salary, as mum later confirmed. Dad had to do quite a bit of freelance work on the side, to make ends meet. I found out years later that he wrote scripts for boys’ comic books. Dad was the official
« voice » of « Dogfight Dickson » - World War One fighter Ace.
Dad’s offbeat literary activity would explain one of the more curious items I found when clearing out mum’s flat after she died. A book from the House of Commons Library –
« THE WAR IN THE AIR VOLUME V » BY H A JONES - FROM THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE WAR. « BASED ON OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS FROM IMPERIAL COMMITTEE OF DEFENCE. »
Published in 1935, before “The Great War” became the First World War, because the Second hadn’t happened yet. I daresay dad had borrowed the book for reference purposes, and just never gave it back.
My father would have been 22 on the eve of Word War Two. He was born on Thursday 13th December 1917, barely a month after the mud and blood of Passchendale. « Thursday’s child had far to go, » says the poem. I don’t think that dad had much of a start in life. From the beginning it could only get better. His mum and dad (my grandparents) owned a cycle shop at 26, High Street Petersfield. Dad was a bit of an « accident », born a clear ten years after his elder brothers. Two parents running a shop, dad virtually dragged himself up. He didn’t seem to have much of a childhood, hence his efforts, especially at Christmas time, to give my brother and I all the trappings of a real childhood that he had never had.
Christmas Eve was always the pantomime at the Richmond theatre, down by the Green. Christmas morning we all traipsed down to the Presbyterian Church on Richmond Green. This was where all family « rites of passage » happened. Mum and dad got married here, my brother and I were christened here, and dad’s funeral service was held here. The Church is now luxury flats.
After Church, it was home for lunch and an afternoon of present opening round our real tinsel tree. Stacks of presents for big Brother and me. Sure, dad always tried to give is the Christmas that he had never had
Christmas was about the only time that we ever properly saw dad. Come the New Year he’d be back on the jumbled up life of parliamentary correspondent. Leaving home at lunchtime to be up at Westminster for the 3pm start to the day’s business. The Common’s day would finish around 10pm, and dad would come home around 11pm, sometimes it could be later.
The official end to Christmas was the first Saturday of January. Big brother and I would be dropped off at the Reuter’s Christmas party – always held in a draughty Church hall on the sinister grey fringes of the City. Mum and dad would « do the sales » at Gammages – which had the distinction of being the only department store in the Square Mile. The Reuter’s party wasn’t as good as the Press Gallery affair. We got a film show, a magician and our tea was a paper bag containing a fish paste sandwich and a slice of hard Christmas cake.
Mum always hated Christmas. Even when dad was still alive. It was never really a « season to be jolly and « decking the halls » was just one of a long list of duties and obligations, that included cooking, present buying and card writing. Mum looked at Christmas as a form of festive slavery. As the season of goodwill loomed large, mum lost much of hers.
During her years as a primary school teacher, mum started slaving away at Christmas just after the autumn half term, with rehearsals for the Christmas carol concert and the school nativity play.
Transforming a bunch of nose-picking, bum scratching, inaudible kids, into stars in their parents’ eyes. Casting was always a nightmare. Every parent wanted their kid to be « Jesus Mary and Joseph », and mum would often let fly a few expletives in the same vein, as she tried to dish out appropriate parts to all the kids. So, sometimes you got a Nativity play with four shepherds, six Kings and two Virgin Marys, but that didn’t seem to matter much. You could twist the truth as much as you wanted, as long as no child ended up as the hind legs of a donkey.
As for carol concerts, mum would end up dividing every carol into as many lines as their were children in the class. Every child got a solo and all parents were duly appreciative, their appreciation reflected in the quality of end of term presents given to my mum. End of term presents were very important, because they were recycled as Christmas gifts for friends and neighbours.
Mum’s worst school nightmare was decorating the classroom. In early 70’s Britain, where kids still had stories about GOLLIWOGS and
« evaluations » consisted of reciting your two times table by heart, the making of Christmas decorations took precedence over maths and reading.
The creative process began somewhere in September. No matter what the kids had made, it all had to be shoved up just after Bonfire night, so during the last week of the summer holidays, mum would be trawling through art and craft books to find easy but original decoration ideas.
Oh how I wish we had had the Internet back in the early seventies. Nowadays, you just click and download a « resource pack for teachers ». Back in the dim dark days, when Slade were lauding the charms of the festive season, against a backdrop of recession, oil crisis, power cuts and Miners’ strikes, teachers had to go to public libraries and find the few rare books available, and if you couldn’t get a reference work, you were condemned to paper chains. Too simple by far. There was a fierce festive decoration rivalry amongst members of staff. The Christmas commandment – « By your decor shall ye be judged. » Classrooms had to look like department store Santa’s grottos.
In our house, every September and October weekend was dedicated to the art of Christmas. Come Sunday afternoon, mum would be at her wits ‘ end preparing her art classes.
« SNIP SNIP SNIP » - the clicking of scissors as mum kneeled on the lounge floor in a sea of crepe paper, cotton wool, wallpaper samples and silver foil. Here and there and everywhere, cast across the room, the failed efforts of mum’s ingenuity as she tried to adapt the decorative book theory to the reality of a class of cack-handed six year-olds.
« Look ! It’s a snowflake » enthused mum as she unfolded a sheet of paper and held it aloft to reveal a set of holes. As quick as snow in the Sahara, the ersatz paper snowflake collapsed in on itself and « melted » due to lack of any supporting molecular structure. Another flake for the bin. Undaunted, mum snipped snapped and hacked away again to produce a line of blobs – a chain of Santas. We all looked fairly unimpressed, but mum wasn’t put off. She coloured the blobs in with red felt pen, scattered some glitter on them and hey presto – Christmas balls
Come the end of the school term, mum had been living Christmas for nearly two months and he was sick of the whole thing. After school though it was time to get the family Christmas organised.
Dad died from a massive stroke on December 8th 1970. He was 53.. Suddenly, Mum found herself cast in the role of Father Christmas. Mum in her grief made Christmas 1970 a stupendous affair. Keeping alive the magic of the season for her two young sons
Mountains of presents and two pantomimes – one at the Richmond theatre and the other – « Babes in the Wood » on Boxing Day, at the London Palladium – where mum had booked us a box.. This is still my « reference » as to what a real British family Christmas should be, even if we weren’t a full family anymore.
There was only one true Santa, according to mum, and he didn’t live in the North Pole. Our Santa resided in Knightsbridge, more specifically, in the toy department at Harrods. In the early seventies, after dad died, we were no longer invited to the official Christmas parties that went with his work, so mum found us an alternative festive treat. A full Christmas lunch at Harrods followed by a visit to Santa. Once again the journey into Christmas went via Waterloo, and because « going up to town » was posh, big Brother and I, went in school uniform.
You always got what you wanted from the Harrod’s Santa. Yes, he had received our letters, read them carefully, and then charged his Elves to get the goods. I wanted a Batmobile, and I got one. I wanted Lego, and Santa came up trumps. The Harrod’s Santa always got it right, from the presents, down to his, thick white beard and deep hearty laugh, that seemed to resonate with genuine goodwill. For sure, I knew that Santa wasn’t real. I knew that mum was buying the presents, but this was Christmas magic for me. The final touch of magic was a trip down Oxford Streets to see the lights.
In 1974, we left 34 Norman Avenue in Twickenham and moved to Hayes near Bromley in South East London. The new house needed a lot of work, and I guess mum didn’t have the money for a full Harrods trip, so we had lunch at our local Berni Inn and then we went to see the, second division suburban Santa, who presided over the Christmas Grottiness at The Army and Navy stores in Bromley high street.
We filed in with high hopes, and we both filed out with a pencil case. This wasn’t what we had asked for. This certainly wasn’t what mum had paid for. At two quid a head, she wanted something better, and was saying as much to a spotty, Elf outside the grotto.
The Elf tried helplessly to explain to mum that the pencil case, was the standard two pound present for boys, but mum was having one of it. She wanted something better for two pounds. Mum, as mum always did on these occasions, cast doubt upon the Elf’s intellectual capacities. The pointy-hatted spotty young girl then burst into tears and Santa himself, had to be hauled from his grotto to calm things down.
Mum emerged from triumphantly from A&N clutching two boxes of Meccano, (the three pound present). We followed her under the angry and vengeful gaze of other Elves, accompanied to the loud, wailing and blubbering of the first Elf , now suffering from Post Mum Traumatic Stress.
This was the day that I received my first ever Meccano set. I hated it. Too mechanical, no room for imagination. I was a Lego child. Meccano was a gift for bright, “speccy” kids, the kind who got microscopes as presents and played board games instead of musical chairs at their parties.
I never set foot in the Bromley branch of Army and Navy again.
Mum was only five foot four. She had that marvellous but explosive quality often associated with those of a smaller stature – standing up for one’s rights, meaning, to not be walked on. When she was in full flow, mum was both impressive and embarrassing. « I’m only standing up for myself and my family, » she used to say, walking away from the scène of her « stand », often leaving staff in floods of tears and managers on the verge of apoplexy. As she lectured « down » to her victims in her poshest, clipped, Kelvinside, Big Brother and myself would shuffle around embarrassed, staring at the floor, wishing that it would just open up and swallow either us or mum. When we got older, we would just run away and hide.
1973 – 1980
Years of festive blur. We’ve moved from Twickenham to Bromley. We still have our old tree. Christmas Eve is an « Entertainment » at the Fairfield halls in Croydon. Over successive years we have seen Roy Castle, Lesley Crowther, Rolf Harris, Little and Large, the Krankies and the Nolan Sisters. Big Bruv’s claim to fame – he has been on stage at the Fairfield Halls to take part in Roy Castle’s Pogo Stick challenge. He’s won a handful of sweets and a signed photo of « record breaking Roy ».
What Happened to Christmas?
It flickered a while and fizzled out like a fairy light on he blink.
In 1981, we stopped our Christmas entertainments – big bruv and me were getting just a little too old for festive fun at the Fairfield Halls. Then in 1983, mum started her downward spiral into deep depression that took her about the next ten years to get out of. She stopped “making the effort” and started harking back to December 1970, when we lost Dad. “Christmas doesn’t mean anything anymore” mum used to say in the run up to the festive season. “I sometimes wonder if it ever meant anything at all,” she would add in floods, as Big Bruv and I followed her round the house one Boxing Day, putting back up all the decorations that mum was busy taking down. “I only ever made the effort so you two would be disappointed” she wailed, before collapsing into her armchair, with the floods of tears turning into an ocean that drowned mum out.
Waves of tears, waves of depression – a big black tsunami, that overwhelmed her. I was sixteen. My brother was nineteen. I didn’t know how to cope with mum’s depression, and my brother didn’t want to. The next Christmas, he was off to foreign parts to join, the first in a long line of dysfunctional, screwed up foreign girlfriends and mum and I stayed home, stuffing ourselves senseless in front of the telly.
Christmas Eve 2010.
Felt strange not sending mum her regular Christmas card and parcel. Here we are, at home in France, all decorated and ready to pop out to Mass. I’m not much of a churchgoer, and I’m not catholic, but I like going to mass on Christmas Eve – It gives a meaningful and spiritual edge to the festive season, and, on leaving church, I feel “cleansed.”
Rang mum’s cousin, Jean, in Dundee this afternoon. Mum’s ashes arrived and Jean has put mum’s casket under the tree, so the “wee dear” can enjoy her last Christmas.