Tuesday, December 18, 2012

1973: All that we've been through

From as far back as I can remember until 1981, this is how it went at Christmas:

Either one or both grannies over on Christmas Eve.

Pick Auntie Maggie up in the morning.

Mum's sister, her husband, their kids (my cousins) to us for lunch.

They go home about 3pm.

All over to theirs for the evening.

All over to theirs the following day for their traditional Boxing day drinks party.

On paper, that sounds dull as ditchwater, doesn't it? But I loved it. I still love the memory of it. We're all scattered to the four winds now, if we're still with us, and those memories get more treasured as the years go by.

So let's take 1973.

Christmas Eve was cosy. By day it's exciting festive morning kids' TV, a light lunch, an afternoon of fetching grandma while DLT plays Marshmallow World. At home, it's low lights, gran having had her hair done, baked ham, tree lights sparkling, that present pile growing, something Christmassy on the telly.

Picking up Auntie Maggie (see 1974:  Your arms around me are tender and warm) involved a trip to the neighbouring bigger town to her warden-assisted flatlet which was plonked in the middle of a quiet yet monstrously ugly council estate, where every other bedroom window had a tartan scarf hanging across it with Woody, Les or Eric emblazoned on it. And it was always bright yet cold.

Christmas day proper started with Dad having to be restrained from waking everyone up. Clearly even more excited than we were, he was like a puppy. We'd be up about 6.30, always do openings in my room and as soon as the paper was off it would be spirited into a binbag immediately. There was no question of luxuriating in festive garbage for a while, just to enjoy the moment. And this was at Dad's behest too.

It would be bacon sandwiches for breakfast, then Leslie Crowther going round the children's ward in the living room (I couldn't really watch), something festive on Radio 2 in the kitchen, perhaps Two-Way Family Favourites, as lunch was prepared. Mum was (still is) a wonderful cook, as was her mother, and the two of them would have it all sorted and on the table by one o'clock.

This timing was always an issue for some of us, because it clashed with Top Of The Pops. This was especially an annoyance for my cousins, aged 13 and 16 in 1973, though the older one would never admit to liking anything so uncool. He liked Yes and Jethro Tull, had long hair, acne and sulked because he was made to wear a suit. We watched over our shoulders. Who could forget Gary Glitter being wheeled in in a giant silver heart?

We always had to be supersmart on Christmas Day. Perhaps, now like dressing up to go to the pub, it's a tradition that's died out.

The other side of the family usually arrived about 11, co-inciding with whoever was bringing 'The Maggie', as gran non-affectionately called her. Then it was sherries all round, Cheeslets, Twiglets, but no filling up before lunchtime.

There was a lot of a laughter, often at Auntie Maggie's expense, mainly because she could be an utter misery, then lots of falling asleep with paper hats on in front of the Bond film.

That quiet time while adults slept and dusk crept in, was the time to be upstairs reviewing that year's gifts. I remember 1973 being a bumper year: Mousetrap, a brilliant magic set and Haunted House, as well as one of those Top Of The Pops LPs.

I shan't go on. You get the picture.

I'm signing off for Christmas now, so may yours be as wonderful as mine were, and hopefully will be again. Thanks for your loyal support, it's much appreciated, wherever you are and - in some cases - whoever you are.

See you on the other side.

Friday, December 14, 2012

1988: Peace of mind

I loved working in a shop. Of all the jobs I've had, I think it's right up there with the best of them.

Take the bookshop job: no real responsibility, on your feet all day, surrounded by books, everyone the same age and just using it as as stopgap until something else comes along to really start your career, a great social life, regular money (not a lot of it) and finally feeling you were living the life you imagined yourself living in London, albeit without the piles of cash and high-flying career in the City and amazing loft apartment. Mainly, it was about having fun.

And nothing can make you feel more Christmassy than working in a busy shop, a destination for gift-buyers in the heart of the West End. When I think back I recall a warm glow emanating from the shop, busy as Hell, bustling shoppers; it's Christmas time in the city. Is that Jim Reeves' Silver Bells I hear? Yes, but we're also hearing this song, and we're at the very height of Neighbours mania. Not that I ever saw it these days, though I did always be sure to catch on my day off, and I do remember seeing the wedding. Songs kind of crept up on me in those days.

So I didn't mind one bit having to work on Christmas Eve. I can't remember what day it was but I think it may have been a Saturday. I had to take my chances with trains from Waterloo, but we could squeeze in a Christmas drink beforehand. I don't think I arrived before midnight. But it was worth it.

That would be my one and only store-bought Christmas. The following year I was in a proper job. The stopgap thing was indeed just that.

Enjoy your carefree golden days while you can. You'll regret it if you don't.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

1987: Counting down to judgement day

It's coming up to Christmas and it's clear this job can't go on much longer.

I'd finally settled into the routine of working, though it had been a long and difficult adjustment. Two bouts of extended and largely fictional tonisilitis had satisfied my craving for time off, sitting at home watching 15-to-1 as dusk fell, followed by Grange Hill and Thames Report but the job really wasn't going anywhere and therefore neither was I.

I loathed it. I was bored to sobs. I had a desk and a phone. No surfing the internet and disguising it as work in those days. I had to get on the phone and cold call anyone vaguely agricultural and try and hard sell them advertsing space in a Middle East-aimed agribusiness magazine. Needless to say I was hopeless at it. My highlight of the week was going round to the local newsagent and buying Farmers' Weekly. It didn't occur to me why it should be on sale in a small corner shop in Bayswater, but at least it was something to do.

There were only three of us in the office (see previous entry 1987: We were watching TV), but at least we were all friendly at last, despite my dad being our immediate boss, but far away in Bahrain. They'd stopped eyeing me suspiciously and by this time the banter flowed. However there were always those back-of-the-mind concerns that I hadn't sold a thing.

The big boss came over the previous month and took us all out individually. I had to go round and meet him in White's Hotel in Lancaster Gate, his hotel of choice. He was a rich Arab but he wasn't in the least bit flashy. I recall we discussed his travels. His favourite place was New Zealand.

I was due to fly out to Bahrain for Christmas anyway, and the office was going to close on December 17th. This did not go down well with my workmates, though why anyone should complain about an office closing down for the whole of the Christmas period is anyone's guess.

People were uneasy though. We clearly weren't doing the numbers. We had a jolly Christmas lunch in Smollensky's Balloon then we said our goodbyes. Everyone wondered if we'd be here this time next year.

A couple of days later Satellite by The Hooters was playing as the taxi pulled into Heathrow in the early evening, lights twinkling all around. It's a song that will forever remind me of Christmas, and also the fact that when I arrived in Bahrain dad would break the news that the London office was to shut.

I'd never felt such unbridled joy. But there were still a few months of misery to get through first.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1981: I guess it's just what I must do

I was very pleased with my new pixie boots. Bear with me.

They'd been all the rage in the autumn of '81, a proper New Romantic look. I was into all this but while I liked the tunes I was wary of the clothes.

Just before Christmas mum came home and could see new clothes were long overdue.  So she took me shopping. Well, she didn't as such. She dumped me at the entrance to Top Man and for the first time ever I was allowed to go in and choose my own clothes. A miracle had occurred.

Previously, if I'd wanted or needed clothes she'd always come too. They were heavily vetted and obviously because I had no money of my own except for my paper round small change I was reliant on her and, despite my protestations, she always had the last word.

But I'd been away from the family for a whole term, was now over 16 and while I still didn't have any money of own, my interest in fashion had been properly sparked. Though I had flirted with the whole Mod revival thing I was never really full-fledged, much as I'd wanted to be. I had the odd thing, but never went the whole hog. Really, unless one had the freedom to choose, the money available, or rich parents willing to lavish their young with every trendy garment their heart desired, it simply wasn't an option.

But that had all changed. So I picked out a pile of clothes and then mum arrived to pay for them. A Haircut 100-inspired ski jumper, some burgundy trousers, a multi-coloured cardigan that Mike Smith would have baulked at were among the treasures I recall. The embarrassment factor was minimal, and I had a whole new wardrobe. Now I just needed the shoes.

Those Duran Duran-style pixie boots were a brave step for a teenage boy. I've seen a picture of me wearing them and I looked like Bernie Nolan as a gay Peter Pan. Not a good look, but at the time I thought it was ace.

So it was with some unsurprising curiosity that Uncle Bob, who we called in to see on the way home at his new house, eyed them.

A confirmed bachelor, and by that time over 80, he lived a life of genteel luxury, surrounded by Chinese rugs, grand pianos, works of art and fresh flowers, with diminutive and incredibly plain housekeeper Barbara hovering in the kitchen on hand with the coffee.

My granny, Uncle Bob's sister, didn't like Barbara. She didn't like it that when she stayed with them Barbara was allowed to sit and watch television of an evening rather than be banished to her box room with a Jean Plaidy. After Uncle Bob died, she didn't acknowledge her letters. She retired to a flatlet in on the edge of the New Forest. I don't know what became of her, but I always imagined she lived a life of utter isolation and crippling loneliness. I think my granny's main problem was that a) she had a moustache; and b) she was probably a lesbian, something granny was in a whirl with.

So we never did know what she made of that telltale picture of Uncle Bob's late 'friend' Steve which hung to the side of his bed.

'Is that Uncle Bob's boyfriend?' my brother asked loudly, as he was showing us around this new house. Pinched by dad he shut up as we nervously shuffled out to see the smoked mirror bathroom tiles and new bidet.

Uncle Bob was clearly gay, though this was never confirmed, and though mum and dad alluded to it was rarely spoken about. My granny was devoted to him but she never, ever mentioned anything remotely approaching the thorny subject of his sexuality. She would go for fun weekends with him and Steve when he lived in Brighton in the Forties and Fifties at which Steve would drag up and do a few numbers. They all went for family holidays when my dad was a lad and had a high old time. But even then I don't think the conversation got around to anything that might be considered a bit unsuitable in polite company.

She might have known they were perhaps more than friends, but she honestly had no idea about what homosexuality actually entailed until my other granny explained it to her, which only arose because they watched The Naked Civil Servant while babysitting us one evening and she wanted to know why John Hurt was asked to bend over by the sergeant major. 

He was a kind sort, jolly, quite amusing, a huge Call My Bluff fan and very fond of my dad and vice versa, and when he died in 1989 he left my brother and I a little bit of money which we were able to buy our flat with. And we had the pick of his wonderful, tasteful home furnishings. 

The pixie boots were swiftly ditched after Christmas, but the same can't be said of Uncle Bob's homewares. His Swedish fondue set, though practically a collector's item, is still in use today, and though the Chinese rug did have an unfortunate moth infestation and smelt of his dog Prince (sidebar: he always had a dog, either a black or a golden labrador. The golden ones were always called Prince, the black ones always called after the dog in The Dambusters. Thankfully no black dogs were seen in my lifetime), it's beautiful quality.

We thank him almost daily for the useful things we got - everything from a long-handled brass boothorn to a miniature viking cruet set. I tell you, he had it all. And a lot of it.

Sometimes when I glance at something I wonder what the story is behind it. Where did it come from? A lot of stuff was from Sweden as he worked for years for a Swedish company in the City. But what of his personal life? What would his life have been like in the Twenties, in the war or when he was in business in the Fifties? Was it like The Hour? I doubt his Sixties swung. He would have been 60 in 1960, I think Steve was dead and he was living in Worthing with housekeeper number one Miss Browning, who I met just once. She was the jolliest of jolly hockey sticks and was approved of by my granny as 'she knew her place'. And may not have been a lesbian.

I guess we'll never know how it was for him. 

So whenever I hear Don't You Want Me, the number one of the time, I remember that day for all these reasons. I bought Dare in town that day too. Dare: quite appropriate really.

Monday, December 3, 2012

1991: A miracle has happend tonight*

Once upon a time, the office Christmas party was the highlight of my working year. Now it's way down the list as probably the lowest of lowlights, somewhere after announcing news of redundancies or going to focus groups.

But back in 1993, before my work took a far more exciting and glamourous turn, where functions and dos are so prolific as to be turned down more often than accepted, the work Xmas party was the zenith of fun.

They were usually well done. This particular year we found ourselves in a bar with a view of the ice rink in the (then) swanky Bishopsgate development near Liverpool Street. There would be food and a raffle and of course dancing, and back then once i got on the dancefloor I didn't get off. I wasn't one of those swinging their sweaty shirt around their head come 9.45, or dirty dancing with Jean from accounts, but I did go for it.

This year though, the festivities would be rudely interrupted by something I hadn't banked on at all, the result of which, though not the worst thing in the world, still makes me cringe even now.

Things had started off well. We all got drunk and took to the floor as the first song of the evening, Michael Jackson's Black Or White, took hold. Suddenly this rather difficult girl from marketing who had - at least, as rumour had it - escaped an arranged marriage, dragged me up to the DJ booth and before I knew it we were on the microphone singing Summer Nights together over the actual record, like a mixed race Arthur Mullard and Hilda Baker.

Of course, this was pre-karaoke, so there were no words. It was all from memory, and I didn't really know the words. But as I looked out onto the dancefloor and the whole company was formation dancing and doing the backing vocals to this universally loved and ingrained hit from their youth, and I realised it didn't really matter. In fact, I thought it was rather fun.

So how do you follow that? By staying on the microphone solo, and asking to do It's Not Unusual. With the Tom Jones moves. 

I tanked almost immediately. I only knew the first few lines and trying to sing over a record on a microphone and fluffing my words saw the room turn their back on me and more or less exit the dancefloor. Someone put another record on, quick! The magic had died.

At least I won a beauty voucher in the raffle. And the next day everyone still liked me.

Note to self: Never, ever do that again. Until karaoke is properly invented of course.

*I finally realised I was a twat