Annuals of history

Every Christmas, during the ‘60s, I would be given, alongside two tangerines; a handful of walnuts and 2-packets of last years’ dates, the mandatory annual.

Which subject would my parents choose?  Had they been listening to me throughout the year to get a feel in what I was interested in?

As, for several years on the trot, I received the Rupert annual, they clearly hadn’t.  Unless they thought I was a secret Daily Express reader, I was always slightly disappointed.  I didn’t possess a matching pair of distasteful yellow scarf and trousers – if I had been posher, I might have had; but this was Balham in the ‘60s, so that was never happening.

I’d have liked to have got the first edition, published in 1936, featuring stories where Rupert trains with Jesse Owens and Hitler invades Nutwood, with the pretence that there were German speakers living there.

After a while of the annuals still being in pristine condition the following December, my parents changed tack.

The Coronation Street annual was never the same after 1964, as it no longer featured pictures of Martha Longhurst.

I was thrilled, in 1967, to get the Man from U.N.C.L.E. annual – I’d always wanted to be Illya Kuryakin and had, as a teenager, an interest in east European female gymnasts.

My parental procurement of my annual annual stopped in 1972.  Aged 15, you really don’t want your mates coming round to your place and seeing The Clangers annual taking pride of place on your bookcase.

There were some great soup recipes inside, though.

Roy Wood, would you?

You could have been on Mars for several years and returned, not knowing what day it was, until you walked into a shop only to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” and know it was approaching Christmas – or, in some shops, early October.

It seems that Christmas music being played in shops is introduced ever earlier – it does beg the Band Aid question, do they know it’s Christmas?

I’m not sure, while looking for the mandatory bath salts for my mum, that I want Noddy Holder screaming at me; nor do I need to be reminded of the unnecessarily long car journey Chris Rea’s embarking on – move house, Chris!  Or, get an Uber.

Would I, as Roy Wood might suggest, wish it could be Christmas every day?  No, as I’d a. be skint and b. there isn’t a factory providing an infinite amount of bath salts that’s yet been built.

I’d happily rock around the clock with Brenda Lee, except I’ve developed plantar fasciitis – which is not the Latin for cactus.

It’s handy, if you’re looking for a row at Christmas, to know all the lyrics to the Pogues’ Christmas offering; if this is the case then “Step into Christmas” would be renamed “Step outside”.

And Dean Martin’s “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” would have been banned by the BBC in 1962.

Halfpenny for your thoughts?

Boxing Day in the ‘60s for me meant an early introduction to gambling and the chance to win my bodyweight in halfpennies.

We would travel from Balham to Wimbledon Chase (which sounded more like a horserace than an actual place) to visit a family who’d previously lived in my block of flats, but had emigrated to SW20 – could have been Borneo, it seemed that far away.

At the end of the four-mile journey south down the A24 would be the largest ever collection of bottled beer, two packs of cards and a pile of halfpennies, which to me looked like Everest (the mountain, not the double glazing).

The game we played was Newmarket; it was simple and easy for a ten-year-old (me) to play.  The games would seemingly go on long into the night (probably about 9.30!) and amidst the continual clinking of light ale bottles, you stood to have a pile in front of you, if you were lucky, adding up to nearly a shilling.  I’d never felt so rich – plus I had already been given a £1 Premium Bond at birth – surely only members of the Royal Family were better off?

The lady who lived there looked very much like Dusty Springfield (this was preferable than looking like Myra Hindley, as my Auntie Vera did), so it was no coincidence her songs were played throughout the evening. 

When the beer had run out, and the halfpennies usually in one person’s sole possession, we began the trip home – back to wonder how easy it was to mend a broken Action Man. 

Who’s got the ten of spades?

The postman only rings after playtime

In December, during the ‘60s, in my Balham primary school, there would be a temporary post box put in the playground. 

Its use was for pupils to put our Christmas cards into, It was purely for our fellow pupils – although some didn’t realise this and those with relatives in far-away countries were quite disappointed that Auntie Gladys in Brisbane would moan she’d  not received a single card for years.

The cards would be delivered; unless you had siblings at the school, you tended to get twenty-nine cards – from your fellow classmates. 

I realised, after I’d finished full-time education, that you only tended to know your actual classmates, apart from the boys’ names announced at the Monday morning assembly announcing anyone with any sporting prowess or were (yet again) on detention.

Receiving so many cards was great, the problem was was that twenty-nine also had to be written.  I got very bored signing everyone “Happy Christmas, Mick” and so mixed my signature up with people I’d seen on TV or were sporting heroes.  I’d sign many as “John Drake” or “Amos Burke”; many girls in my class would wonder who Gerd Müller was, and several boys would get excited thinking they’d got a card from Nancy Sinatra or Mandy Rice-Davies.

This Christmas I shall be confusing friends and family with my Christmas signature of “Be lucky, Pol Pot”.  Confusing as a. he’s dead and b. wasn’t terribly Christian.  You certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit on his knee, let alone enter his grotto.  Be lucky, Mick.

That’s a cracker!

crackers

In 1847 Christmas crackers were invented.
As a child, in my south London flat, a disturbingly cheap cracker would sit next to my turkey dinner. As I grew older, so I realised what a massive disappointment its contents awaited me with its unveiling.
Coupled with the shock of the noise from the actual cracker (the cheaper the cracker the more likely you’d get second degree burns from the errant sparks) was a useless plastic toy.
For someone who takes pride in their hair, the thought of covering it with a flammable paper hat was abhorrent. When this occurred you hoped there’d be a temporary wig inside rather than a compass which was clueless about where magnetic north was!
Less than an hour after the last cracker had been pulled (despite the awaiting disappointment you still wanted to be pulling with an aged relative and thus claiming two-thirds) the remnants would be gathered up and thrown away, sometimes in a bin, sometimes, if your host was particularly myopic, into the cold meat and bubble for the next day!
The only evidence there’d been any crackers was the most elderly relative still wearing theirs who, when suddenly waking up, would ask which one was Morecambe and which one Wise? The answer being neither of them as neither appeared in The Great Escape.
I always knew that Christmas crackers were fundamentally wrong as you never saw the Queen delivering her message wearing one or reading, from a small piece of paper, that a mince spy is the person who hides in a bakery at Christmas.

Cards on the table

robin

It is that time of year when Christmas card arrivals gather pace.
In my Balham flat, growing up in the 60s, my mother would hang cards over hastily-erected pieces of string which, the more cards we received, the greater the chance of being garrotted!
In those days you’d buy a box of mixed cards, marginally heavier than greaseproof paper adorned with various winter and/or biblical scenes; the hierarchy of your friends and family would be determined by whether they got the (un-Christmassy) robin, a snowman in the shape of a wise man or the baby Jesus surrounded by donkeys, incense and virgins.
However, something which has crept into Santa’s postbag is the round robin letter from people you’ve not heard from since exactly a year ago!
Sadly, and this might be an only child thing, I couldn’t give a toss about the successful summer’s holiday, how (insert your own pretentious child’s name here) has integrated into the local Kindergarten or how the entire family is learning Italian – such was the triumph of the aforementioned trip to Tuscany and everyone now knows how to correctly pronounce the word Latte.
Also enclosed in the envelope is a picture of the entire family (many of whom you’d not have babysit your own kids) all dressed in the same onesie taken at Christmas last year; which begs the question: why do people dress normally for 364-days of the year only to have a total sartorial brain aberration at Christmas?
Happy Christmas, mine’s a Latte and Arriverderci, Roma.

 

Do you want to build a cardboard snowman?

advent

When did Advent calendars become the monsters they have?
Gone are the days when you’d have a flimsy piece of cardboard, as near as you could get to being homemade, adorning your mantelpiece.
In my Balham flat, in the sixties, the moment December arrived I’d erect mine (Advent calendar) and wait, with childlike anticipation, until the 24th (the night before Christmas when I’d also be hurriedly, and badly wrapping, my mum’s Bronnley bath salts).
However, my brain must have been like a goldfish as, when the 24th came, the only number with a double door, behind which was always the same: the baby Jesus lying in a manger. You’d be lulled into a false sense of security all month as you’d open one each day to reveal a picture of a snow-covered post-box, a robin, an old fish (if you’d got your calendar free from that month’s Trout and Salmon magazine) – items vaguely relevant to Christmas and then, bang! The baby Jesus again.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of the baby Jesus being there – certainly in preference to a dead trout. However, these days the windows are no longer pictures of sugar cane sweets, holly or an immolating Christmas pudding, but actual gifts.
They are now as big as houses and many theme-based.
The Wise Men weren’t in Frozen, but if you were to look at any Advent calendar today you might be fooled into thinking that Elsa, Anna and Olaf were the bearers of gifts.
In 4 BC you’d have not been able to take Myrrh or Frankincense back to the Bethlehem branch of John Lewis!

Sponge, anyone?

tommy baldwin

Growing up in the 60s, Balham Woolworth’s was the place we’d get our Christmas tree each year.

They weren’t as easy to nick as the contents on the Pick ‘n’ Mix on the counter, so temptingly near the entrance, so we bought ours.  This was also the place where we’d also purchase our decorations: which, because they were so fragile, by the time we’d get them back to our flat, and with an attrition rate of around 67%, we’d leave a trail of shattered glass/plastic in our wake along Balham High Road.

The biggest argument, however, was what to put on the top of the tree. As a small child we’d have a fairy/angel and then a star as I got older.  Upon entering teenage years there was a perennial internal family fight as to what perched at the top of the tree.

We all had varying hobbies and interests: my mum wanted a packet of JPS, my dad, despite being a massive Chelsea fan, wanted a picture of Vanessa Redgrave and I wanted a model of Gerd Müller.   We compromised, and for several years the pride of place atop our tree was a model of Tommy Baldwin wearing a Germany shirt made from old cigarette packets.

Blob on the landscape

 

blobby bow tie

The record which topped the charts during my first Christmas, in 1957, was Harry Belafonte singing Mary’s Boy Child which is When a child is born played backwards.  It wasn’t until 1967 with The Scaffold’s Lily the Pink, that the Christmas songs became novelty songs – you’ll never hear the choir of King’s College Cambridge singing Ernie during any of their Nine Lessons & Carols services.

1956 had Johnnie Ray singing Just a walkin’ in the rain – if he’d had released that during Christmas 1962 he’d have had to have changed the words to Just a walkin’ in the snow as Britain witnessed its worst winter since the Black Death.

Is it, that at Christmas, peoples’ music tastes change so dramatically that they are bound to buy the worst record that week?

Why would you buy Long-haired lover from Liverpool (1972) sung by someone who’d rarely travelled outside of Utah?  In my view the 1980 hit There’s no one quite like Grandma is correct – my maternal grandmother had no teeth, stockings which were never fully pulled up properly and the most vituperative person ever.  And Mr Blobby (1993) – if Mr Blobby’d been one of the three wise men, then fair enough, he deserves a Christmas No. 1; but he wasn’t unless there were actually four wise men carrying gold, frankincense, myrrh and a yellow, spotted bow-tie.

Bring back Johnny Ray singing Just a walkin’ in the disturbingly mild for the time of year.

Vinter Vonderland

snowball

“Holidays are coming” says the Coca Cola-fuelled TV ad six times, as the British public awaits the now famous ads for Christmas.   Growing up in south London in the sixties there was never that anticipation of exciting TV ads – mainly because there was only one commercial TV station and the only thing anticipated was how much Cinzano Leonard Rossiter might spill over Joan Collins or the shock of the inarticulate Lorraine Chase talking about Luton Airport.  (Says he who bunked off elocution lessons when 10).

However, there was one which I remember vividly and was in that box of things (like dates) that you only devoured at Christmas; that was promoting Advocaat (particularly the brand made by Warninks – pronounced with a “V” as if you were playing a German in Hogan’s Heroes).  Suddenly a snowball wasn’t something you remembered making in 1963, or a leading character in Animal Farm, here was something your parents gave you in an effort to put you off drinking alcohol at Christmas – and subsequent decades.  It’s like if custard was alcoholic!

My favourite Christmas ad from times gone by still remains the one marketing various forms of fragrances for Morny’s talc – although rather than the line: “Morny – the natural choice for Christmas”, I’d have preferred: “Because everyone suffers from chafing sometime”. Probably why I never made it in a creative department of any ad agencies in which I worked.  To which I say “Bols”.