(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Looking at old photos recently, I was reminded of one memorable Christmas more than forty years ago. As a young twenty-something, I had recently become engaged to ‘our’ Richard and was thus invited to spend Christmas day with his large family in Yorkshire, where they could inspect his latest ‘”live-in job”; as his mother referred to me. I was nervous about the trip because, being American – and therefore considered to be ‘foreign’ – I had already received a thorough Northern grilling from my future mother-in-law, Irene, who viewed me with great suspicion.
I say ‘invited’ to Yorkshire for Christmas; more like summoned. Irene and her sister Auntie May took it in turns each Christmas to host the big family Christmas dinner. This year it was held at Auntie May and Uncle Bernie’s big stone house on a steep hill overlooking the town.
Richard and I were greeted on the kerb-side as we parked the car by Irene – hands on hips – pointing to her watch in dramatic fashion,
“What time do you call this? I said be here at one o’clock sharp – it’s ten past! Your Auntie won’t be best pleased.”
We were ushered straight into the back dining room where the family were tightly packed on buffets and chairs around two tables which had been shoved together to make room for fourteen: Auntie and Uncle, Richard’s mum and dad, cousins, old Auntie Annie up the corner on a piano stool and her friend Doris behind the door.
“Come on in! Hello love, give your Auntie a kiss. Squeeze in lass! Ooh, you do have child-bearing hips!”
(This last comment made me blush.)
The feast finally got underway with a great clattering of knives on plate; three types of meat (well, Richard’s dad was a Master Butcher): turkey, pork with crackling and beef; crispy roast potatoes; a great heap of buttery mash; Yorkshire puddings the size of dinner plates to soak up all that delicious, thick onion gravy; sprouts which had been in the pressure cooker since dawn; an abundance of peas and carrots; golden parsnips in honey; pickles, relishes, bread sauce, apple sauce for the pork.
I had never witnessed such glorious feasting in my life; where I came from in Virginia we had turkey with rice and black eyed peas on Christmas Day.
But that wasn’t all! Auntie May and Irene cleared the decks and later wheeled in a huge oval Pyrex dish of rice pudding; crispy round the edge with a great dollop of Golden Syrup in the middle which had melted into the rice, making it all sticky and moist. My stomach was now at full stretch! I vowed to never eat again!
After the feast, the men all retired to the Best Room at the front of the house for a cigar and whisky (purely medicinal, you know), while ‘us’ women set to clearing away.
The tables had been moved beneath the large sash window and the assorted straight-backed chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room to give the ladies a place to perch with their tea and settle down to the important business of gossip. Old Auntie Annie resumed her position in the corner by the door next to Doris. Irene was balanced elegantly on the piano stool, with her back up against the piano from where she could keep an eye on the comings and goings in the room, lest she should miss out on anything vital.
Auntie May sat next to her sister on an unfeasibly tight chair, which seemed to matter little to her as she forever bobbed up and down, in and out of the kitchen ensuring everyone had a cup of tea.
Across the room sat a widowed neighbour of Auntie May’s: one Mrs Stockett, who had just popped in on the off-chance of a cuppa and gossip under the pretext of extending a Christmas greeting. A stout woman past her prime, her crumpled, dough-like face with more than the hint of a whisker was held taught as she pursed her mouth and raised her bushy eyebrows in expectation of any gleam of tittle-tattle.
I balanced one cheek on a rock-hard chair seat, wedged between the marble fire surround and large over-mantle mirror.
Once all the ladies had taken their positions they loosened their stays. Perhaps I should explain that ladies of a certain age in Yorkshire in those days still wore corsets and girdles in a vain effort to rein it all in. They sat back as far as gravity would allow; resting their Denby tea cups and saucers on their ample bosoms, which acted as a useful shelf in the absence of incidental tables. Well, Auntie May had tried to squeeze in a nest-of-tables from the Best Room but couldn’t get them past Auntie Annie and Doris without asking them to move – and poor old Auntie Annie had only just got comfortable; “what, with me water works” she mouthed to her companion.
Mrs Stockett parted her knees to get a purchase on her buffet; threw decorum to one side and cut to the chase in a deep rasp, rough-hewn from a lifetime of smoking untipped cigarettes. One of Auntie Annie’s thick stockings collapsed around her ankle as she braced herself.
“Ooh Irene, you ‘ave lost weight lass! ‘Ow ‘ave you done it luv?”
Irene had always been a large woman (“heavy bones in our family”) but had slimmed down to a very trim nine stone, which accentuated her beautiful cheek bones. Taking this as a compliment Irene sat up straight while sucking in her mouth to consider her reply; rolling her tongue around the inside of her mouth and crossing her arms.
“Well, of a mornin’ we ‘ave toast… but no butter.”
There was a moment of disbelief that hung over the hostess trolley.
“What…no butter?” chorused the ladies.
Auntie Annie’s other stocking rolled to her knee as she edged forward to hear better.
“No! No butter!”
“Ooh! ‘Ow d’ya manage? Fancy – no butter!”
Doris twiddled the row of paste pearls at her throat as she stared into middle space; grappling with the concept of life without butter. She patted Auntie Annie’s arm for comfort.
“What else d’y’ave luv?” asked Mrs Stockett; adjusting a stray bone in her stay that was digging into a rib, nearly causing her teacup to slide off her shelf.
“Don’t ya ‘ave nothin’ else?”
“No butter on yer toast?”
“And for us dinner”… (the suspense was palpable)… “we just ‘ave an apple and an orange,” continued Irene who was enjoying being centre stage.
“What? No butter?” cried Auntie Annie suddenly from the corner.
“No – she don’t ‘ave butter!” shouted Doris, despite sitting next to her friend.
“Ooh Irene! ’Ow d’ya go on luv?” asked a confused Auntie Annie.
“Well…for us tea… (now standing up and working the crowd) …we ‘ave a grilled chop with a grilled tomato.”
Irene left the grilled tomato hanging in the air as she drew in her bottom lip.
“What – you ‘ave a grilled orange?”
“NO! She ‘as a grilled CHOP!”
“No butter on your chop?”
“She don’t ‘ave butter on her chop!”
“Why don’t she ‘ave butter on ‘er toast?”
“Do ya really ‘ave grilled apples?”
“What – no butter?”
As all of this information was being processed, Auntie May bustled in with a large tray teaming with doilies; stacked high with slices of fruit cake, cream horns, custard slices, Belgium buns, rock buns and colourful French Fancies.
“All this dieting alright; it’s all them cakes in-between what do me!” laughed Auntie May as she handed out fresh plates and invited the assembled ladies to help themselves.
Raucous laughter reverberated around the Back Room.
“Ooh May, you are a caution,” laughed Mrs Stockett. She leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper,as she threw a challenge into the room:
“Eh – tha’ knows that blonde lass what lives at end o’road…”
The remark began to compute with the ladies as they searched their collective memory of all the people who had ever lived on the street.
“Well – they say she’s got a fancy man.”
“Her mother were just t’same,” chipped in Doris, whose pearls were well and truly mangled.
Lowering her voice even further, Mrs. Stockett continued:
“Aye – and ‘er sister’s in family-way with that curly haired lad from yon end o’street.” She drew deeply on her fag, blowing smoke rings above the pyramid of cakes.
“Runs in t’family,” agreed Irene, as she nibbled on the edge of a Viennese Whirl.
The swapping of information and cross-referencing of each name and misdemeanour of every neighbour through several generations kept the ladies happily engaged for a good hour until Uncle Bernie dared to stick his bald head around the door,
“Any chance of a bite to eat?”
“Come on lad – get stuck in!”
Auntie May passed round a tray of mushroom vol-au-vents hot from the oven. I hesitated only momentarily; well, there was no point trying to deny my child-bearing hips, now was there?
I couldn’t say for certain when I first became aware of the magic of Christmas, but when I did, it all seemed a bit too good to be true.
Toys, pantomimes, comic annuals and a treat called selection boxes – a seasonal novelty which offered more confection in a day than you were normally allowed to consume in a month….
Roy Wood & Wizzard weren’t wrong!
On reflection, the whole Santa concept was akin to some form of ‘cult-indoctrination’ – ‘If you believe in him you will be rewarded’.
So of course, we believed!
The big fella only popped down our lum once every twelve months but his presence was felt throughout the year, like the Sword of Damocles
“Santa won’t be receiving your letter, if you don’t go to bed”
“Your report card better be good if you’re expecting Santa to visit this year“
It was all a bit Machiavellian but we were conditioned to go along with the narrative – to believe… even in the face of logic.
At some point we learned about the Nativity and were informed that Santa was a moniker for Saint Nicholas a fourth-century do-gooder, at this point I realised that Santa and God had a lot in common – they were both omnipresent, they had lots of helpers and they had the power to punish or reward, based on your behaviour or belief system.
This holy connection further endorsed the sentiment that there was absolutely no upside in being Santa-agnostic. Ours was not to reason why, it was simply to keep schtum, play along, and reap the rewards.
Phase Two: What A Fool Believes
But then it happened.
I can’t remember how it happened or exactly what age I was when it happened (probably older than I think, perhaps 9 or 10?), but sure enough the genie escaped from the bottle and all our suspicions were confirmed – The big fella was a hoax!
We kind of saw it coming, but it was still a blow and was exacerbated by the realisation that all the adults we’d trusted in our life had been playing us like fiddles.
For some kids it triggered an existential crisis – “Is God real”? “How about the Tooth Fairy? Am I still going to get recompensed by her for all the teeth I’m about to lose due to these damn selection boxes”?
Some folks reading this will think ‘how could you be so old and not know the truth about Santa’? but we’re talking about a much simpler, more sheltered time here – social media and satellite tv hadn’t even featured on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ yet!
On the plus side, once you got over the subterfuge you soon realised that all the upsides of Christmas were still in place and were shortly going to be supplemented with exciting new additions like… the Kelvin Hall Carnival & Circus and Xmas discos.
Also, now that you were in the loop, so to speak, you couldn’t help but feel a bit more grown up, which at the time felt like progress, but perhaps ignorance IS bliss…..
Phase 3: It’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Plaza
With Santa out of the picture we faced a different kind of Christmas.
Gone were the cute letters to Santa, and the trips to his grotto… on the plus side we were introduced to the best social lubricant known to teenagers (until tequila came along!) – a miraculous white berried twig with mystical powers that gave us the confidence to snog the girl or boy we’d fancied from afar for the past 6 months but had never spoken to.
As we left school and moved into the workplace the festive season evolved into a malaise of parties, nights out, and social occasions, which for the most part was fun, although you can get too much of a good thing.
The down-side to phase-3, (hangovers apart), was that Xmas day itself changed from being the best day of the year to probably the dullest… as you found yourself stuck indoors with nowhere to go – this was lockdown 70s style, everywhere was closed on Xmas day!
By this point the essence of Xmas as you remembered it, had vanished. There were no surprises anymore – unless someone bought you something other than the customary soap-on-a-rope or Aramis, and the highlight of Xmas day was whatever blockbuster was being premiered on TV that year.
The ultimate phase-3 movie (and some say the ultimate Xmas movie) Die Hard!
Phase 4: Step (Back) Into Christmas
And then just as you’re getting used to the idea that Xmas is nothing more than a capitalist racket, you have kids, nephews, nieces, god-children of your own, experience Christmas through their eyes, and before you can say Peter Pan, it becomes a magical time of the year again.
From my daughters Nurse Nancy outfit to my boys first pair of football boots or Stone Cold Steve Austin, WWF action figures, the joy in their little faces on Xmas morning was priceless and of course we wanted to make Christmas a special time for them…. everything it was for us, plus more.
Like most families, we have Xmas traditions which we still try to maintain to this day – Watching It’s A Wonderful Life on Xmas eve (which IS the best Xmas movie!); Playing Phil Spector’s Xmas album on Christmas morning; and being a bit too competitive in the annual Xmas-day post-lunch quiz.
Up until last years covid-hit-Christmas the five of us had managed to spend every Xmas day together…. hopefully we’ll be able to get back on track this Christmas, Omicron permitting.
I’m guessing the 4 phases of Christmas are still relevant in some form today, although I’m pretty sure that the digital age and the new licensing laws have progressed the landscape quite a bit from our experiences in the 60s/70s.
What’s always been around however, is Christmas Songs. My favourite comes from Xmas 73, it’s not the coolest or the most meaningful lyrically, but it’s a great little Xmas pop song from someone who was at the peak of their powers.
Every time l hear it, it encapsulates the season of goodwill and takes me back to a happy place….
“So merry Christmas one and all There’s no place I’d rather be Than asking you if you’d oblige Stepping into Christmas with me“
(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Imagine our delight at receiving a festive invitation from our new next door neighbours: a working class, colourful family headed up by Bert –ex-army; his earthy wife Noreen and their two children; eleven year old Denise and six year old Albert. We were in for a surprise…
PART 2: Noreen’s Christmas ‘Do’
Noreen’s Christmas Do’s – or ‘shindigs’ as Dad called them – were special. Invited that first Christmas Day to come over in the evening for a ‘bit of a knees-up and do’, Mom donned her mink stole (one of my grandmother’s cast-off’s) over her long crushed-velvet frock and her precious gold evening shoes. “This is just what we need.” Mom enthused. “At last! – an evening of social enhancement – perhaps leading to other invitations of the season.” She was stuck in a Southern Belle time warp.
Dad didn’t think that deeply about it; he was just glad to finally have a good time after months of hardship. He spruced up his sideburns, dusted down his big lapels and splashed on the Old Spice.
Mom insisted that my brothers wear their school blazers (“Don’t you boys look smart!”) and a hastily home-made Viyella dress for me with a ruffle that made my neck itch. As we stepped out of the vestibule into the cold smog, Mom’s hopes ran high.
Bert greeted us at the door in his trademark high waisted trousers with braces and white collarless shirt with his sleeves pushed back in a pair of copper garters. Taking my mother in his arms, he Fox-Trotted her the length of the hall into the through-lounge with ram-rod back and tight grip on her waist: “Oh my Bert; you’re so light on your feet! I declare!” She was surprised at Bert’s svelte moves as he deftly dodged the phone table.
David and Dale found a corner where they sat all evening with long faces; wedged between the flashing, coloured lights of the mirrored, padded ‘bar’, several drooping low-slung paper chains and the bay window; which had been sprayed with fake snow to look “proper old”.
An artificial tree blazed forth from the opposite corner; its multi-function lights performing dazzling, fit-inducing strobing. Nobody bothered about possible epilepsy in the ’70s. The boys never took their blazers off; remaining static for most of the evening as David drummed his fingers impatiently on the window sill.
Dad loved a party and threw himself into this one. With more than his usual dash of Southern Charm, he regaled our hosts with stories of the Old South, drank pints from the Watney’s Party Seven barrel and smoked his pipe.
Noreen smoked her “posh” Sobrani cigarettes with their gold tips, knocked back snowballs crammed with cocktail cherries and laughed loudly as she cranked the music up. She was the life and soul! Mrs. Mills banged out ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and ‘Little Brown Jug‘ on the stereo as Noreen twirled Dad around the room; hoicking up her skirt and clacking the plate in her mouth with glee as she sang along.
David’s mouth dropped open as he looked on: his old man was cavorting with that old broad? At the other end of the lounge sat Denise’s Nan, swigging port and lemon like pop.
“Come on Bab – just fetch us another one,” she rasped as she stretched out her bony, arthritic hand from under her pink crocheted cardigan.
Meanwhile Mom – flushed from her Fox-Trot – was now seated at the bar with a giddy schoolgirl blush as Bert poured her a Babycham. It wasn’t exactly what she had expected but needs must when the devil drives.
Amongst the swirl of excitement and gaudiness, no-one noticed that Noreen had slipped away for a few minutes. She had waited until everyone was tanked-up before her presenting her Party Piece. The door to the through-lounge was suddenly thrown back on cue by Denise, as her mother appeared at the top of the stairs; one leg cocked over the bannister.
We all gaped wide-eyed to see Noreen in a red feather boa barely draped around her upper back fat; her hefty bosom held aloft by a white corset with stretch panels. She grinned broadly to reveal her gums in all their toothless glory. Noreen’s piece-de-resistance: the mighty Union Jack drawers which she wore over her sturdy corset.
Mrs Mills gave way to The Stripper as Noreen began to gyrate; shimmying in her feathers while trying to keep her leg hooked over the rail as the music belted out the raunchy, jazz-influenced, suggestive trombone slides: Da da daa, da da d a daa. Her leg slipped and she slid down the bannister, shaking what she’d got (and she’d got a lot). Da da da daa…
With an almighty heave she swung her leg over the rail, shouting “Merry Christmas Bab!” as she landed bottom-up on the shag pile door mat.
“Dadgummit!” exclaimed Dad. “What a hell-of-a-shindig!”
Picture, if you can, the scene in the through-lounge at this point: Mom, slightly tipsy on her second Babycham, tried to conceal Dale’s eyes from the stripper in the hallway by holding her mink stole outstretched. Dad, eyes on stalks and tight as a drum, had sweat dripping from his sideburns as the heat from the two bars on the gas fire and his high blood pressure took a hold.
He swayed forth to try and help Noreen to her feet (ever the Southern Gent) but missed and grabbed the edge of the running buffet table, pulling the doilies and pyramid of sausage rolls to the ground.
Nan still had her hand out for a Port and Lemon; while Bert, to his credit, glided over to his ribald wife and took her hand to help her up from the floor, where she lay snorting and laughing.
David couldn’t conceal his disdain and embarrassment at the whole sordid affair and tapped his foot violently on his chair rung like Thumper. His contempt for our hostess, the tacky decorations and lusty shenanigans was thinly disguised. He sat, arms crossed tightly over his chest, open-mouthed, rolling his eyes skyward: some people. Dale just wanted to try a Port and Lemon. Young Albert threw up from too many sausage rolls and chocolates from the tree.
“Don’t yow show me up,” nudged his mum, “and mind them bits of of sick on me carpet or I’ll give yow somethink to cry about!”
As for me, I had never witnessed such glorious, glamorous Artistry in all my life and decided at that moment to go on the stage.
Albert retreated to his bedroom where he spent the rest of the evening minding his bits.
(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – December 2021)
Long before Millennials were a ‘thing’, there were the Baby Boomers of the post-war era. They inherited the earth and also began to plunder it with their gas guzzling cars, kitchen appliances, coal-fired furnaces and food glut.
American families had never had it so good during the 1950s but by the late 1960s the times they-were-a-changing with Vietnam and Flower Power. This was the cue for my parents to take the plunge and flip our all-American life on its head.
Leaving Virginia behind in August 1970, Mom and Dad plucked our family– that’s me, aged ten and my two older teenaged brothers David and Dale – from our comfortable, carefree life on a college campus in America’s Deep South and set us down in a cul-de-sac just west of Dudley, West Midlands. In the midst of their mid-life crisis they searched for Culture and old fashioned sensibilities which they felt were fast disappearing back home.
It’s a long story but suffice to say that this, our first Christmas in our 1930s semi, was a forlorn affair for we were homesick for our Virginia home, our family and friends and we were in the grip of severe culture shock.
Part 1: Carol Singers
My Appalachian American childhood Christmas and New Year celebrations are so deeply embedded in my psyche that I continue to observe them with all the excitement of a child. Every ritual remains intact: choosing a real tree, hanging stockings, my mother’s eggnog recipe, setting out the nativity scene, playing carols on the piano and cracking walnuts.
The smell of cinnamon, cloves and pine instantly transports me back to our 1960s Virginia home; to the excitement and anticipation of the season in all its wonder. My parents’ annual New Year’s Eve party promised untold glamour and a late bedtime for me as the men ‘looked sharp’ and the ladies wore their cocktail dresses.
Dad cranked up the stereogram and got the party started while my mother glided elegantly through the evening with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Swathed in red taffeta, tulle petticoats and gold shoes trailing a waft of Chanel Number 5 in her wake; Mom knew how to work the room and turn every head.
Our introduction to the British Season of Goodwill happened a few days after we moved into the cul-de-sac in Birmingham one fateful Christmas back in 1970. Mom and Dad were out with my eldest brother David, getting their cultural fix at a concert of Handel’s Messiah at the town hall, leaving me home alone with Dale. We both had the flu and I was nursing a weeping boil on my leg. I must have looked very forlorn in my dressing gown, ankle socks and my long hair full of static from the nylon carpet. There was a knock at the front door but Dale refused to leave the warmth of the gas fire.
“Go on Andrea – go and see who it is.”
“You go see who it is.”
“I can’t – I’ve got the flu.”
“So do I have flu – and a boil!”
“I’ll tell Mom that you wouldn’t co-operate.”
“You’re older than me – you go see.”
“I’m sick!” Reluctantly, I sauntered down the hall and answered the front door.
As I stood in the vestibule (note: not a porch with a rocking chair but a cold, tiled lobby), I peered over the privet into the dark driveway where I heard a small chorus mutter:
“We wish yow a Merry Christmas” through thin, strained, embarrassed vocal chords.
I gawped at three or four lads in bomber jackets and ill-fitting trousers with outstretched hands. There was an impasse of maybe a minute or so – it seemed longer – until one of the boys spoke up:
“Um… we’re carol singers.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“But – we’re carol singers.”
The boys just stood there, so I closed the door and went into the back room to get my brother.
“Daaaale – there’re carol singers at the door and they won’t go away!” I wailed.
“Well – just shut the door on ‘em.”
“I have but they won’t go away!”
I was homesick and tearful. After much pleading, Dale opened the vestibule door on the boys.
“Well, what d’ya want?”
“We’re carol singers.”
“Yea – what about ‘em?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have any of that.”
Dale firmly shut the front door. Mom had always reminded us that it was too vulgar to discuss money. And besides, we really didn’t have any.
Late that Christmas Eve afternoon, Dale and I watched ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’ on the old black and white TV. Perched side-by-side in a rare moment of unity, I leaned against his shoulder. As Judy Garland sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ I caught Dale wiping away silent tears. I did the same. Neither of us spoke – just content to be there for each other in our shared grief.
Have ourselves a merry little Christmas? Let our hearts be light? We wanted our troubles to be out of sight.
Pauline Allan: Bridgetown, Western Australia, April 2021
Nana O’Rourke was a formidable wee woman.
Tiny, tenacious and terrifying. Mother of Joe, Jean, Charlie, Sheila, my dad Vincent and Francis.
A seamstress by trade, the house was adorned with evidence of her skills on the old treadle Singer sewing machine.
The 3 piece suite in the lounge with it’s floral printed covers and covers over the covers to protect the covers, particularly the arm rests and the backs of the furniture where there were antimacassars to guard against the mens Brylcreem.
The area around the “big” light switch on the papered wall also had it’s protection, some sort of industrial heavy duty plastic to ward off sticky fingers.
There were display cabinets for the good china and glasses and ornaments adorned the open fireplace, ivory elephant bookends among them.
The convex porthole mirror with brass trim made the whole room look twice as big as it was.
I was only 6 and a half when Nana died but my grandfather Michael and family gathered for Christmas dinner every year, a tradition that was carried on into the early 1970’s by my equally formidable Aunt Jean.
Everyone has an Aunt Jean. My Aunt Jean was a spinster who looked after Papa, bachelor Uncle Charlie and Uncle Francis, a priest, when he came to visit.
“No one ever dances in this house” she would say…..Hardly surprising.
She would pounce on my dad, leading in a waltz whenever we dropped in.
But she was an incredible cook, baker and more than ably took on the challenge of catering for the Christmas collective.
Nana’s décor in the living room had hardly changed.
The open fire may have been replaced by an even less efficient two bar electric one, complete with false coal.
There was the mirror and a sunburst clock but everything else remained the same, with that familiar aroma of freshly baked bread, jam, cakes and “infusing” tea.
With no formal dining room in the house, the living room was the venue for the sumptuous Christmas banquet.
Trestle tables, card tables and picnic tables were quickly disguised with Nana’s embroidered cloths and napkins and somehow miraculously places were set for 20.
From the small kitchen with it’s original Formica cabinet and clothes pulley came platters of turkey with stuffing, glazed ham dotted with cloves, Ruskoline crumbed potato croquettes, roast potatoes and gravy with brussel sprouts, none of which could be served without Sharwoods Green Mango Chutney.
Home made trifle and cakes to finish. The flies’ graveyard (a currant slice) and buttercream sponge were my favourites. Warninks Advocaat and Harveys Bristol Cream sherry for the adults and non alcoholic ginger wine for us teenagers. This was made weeks in advance by members of the family who had dutifully bought the essence from the local Co-Op turning it into a sweet concoction with sugar and water. Potcheen without the punch!
After our meal we retired to uncle Uncle Charlie’s bedroom waiting to do our turn. Sounds pretty ominous I admit but it was a completely innocent get-together where everyone had to perform. That also sounds rather risqué!
What followed was a well kent tradition, where various musical renditions were performed by family members.
Uncle Charlie’s room was chosen because that was where the piano was. Uncle Francis ( Father Frank or uncle Father Frank when I was young then uncle Father Frank-in-law from John’s speech at our wedding reception) played Fur Elise and accompanied anyone who wanted to play Chopsticks, he was also the reel to reel tape recorder operator.
Uncle Charlie sang The Ink Spots Whispering Grass (later made famous by the dynamic Don Estelle & Windsor Davies) and uncle John, aunt Shelia’s husband recited his version of De Profundis. “Out of the Depths – of my bronchial tubes” … and so it went on.
Mum had a beautiful singing voice which could have lent itself to any of the classics but she was never comfortable in front of the critcal family audience. Instead she chose to sing “Halfway Up A Wall”.
As I was Minstrelling one night,
Upon a castle drear
Halfway up a wall, a plaque I saw
“Duke Frederick was born here”
I’ve travelled far, I’ve travelled wide
But never can recall
That I have heard about a Duke
Born halfway up a wall
Tra la la la la la
Tra la la fiddle dee
Halfway up a wall.
And of course everyone joined in with the last Halfway up a wall.
As the Advocatt flowed, so did the confidence of others.
Cousin Barbara took centre carpet and before we had time to rush into the kitchen to help Aunt Jean with the washing up, were surrounded by a cacophony of cringeworthy crescendos. Matchmaker, Matchmaker make me a match. Find me a fi……Too late, she was off.
We managed to gather up precious crystal glasses from the floor as Cousin Barbara spun like a tipsy Whirling Dervish, changing key with every line. Would she sing Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof as well? I hope not.
To our great relief Aunt Jean announced coffee was being served back in the living room and we all made a swift exit.
Christmas is a far simpler affair these days. Most of the assembled are sadly no longer with us, cousins are spread to all corners of the globe and a “turn” is more likely to be a Netflix, YouTube or Spotify selection.
But perhaps locked down in a small flat in the outskirts of Glasgow, two cats and a budgie are being entertained with a selection of show tunes by a 70+ spinster.
When I was a kid, I loved going to the Carnival at the Kelvin Hall at Xmas, there was just something magical about it – it was a full out attack on the senses.
First there was the noise – chart hits being pumped out from every ride, plus the accompanying sirens, bells and whistles and of course the whoops and screams from the punters.
Then there were the smells – everything from the sweet smell of freshly spun candy floss to the not so sweet, throat-gagging, odour of elephant dung from the neighbouring circus.
And finally, the lights – bright, flashing, colourful, a bit like Vegas, it could have been any time of the day in there, you’d never know.
It was an alternative universe we visited once or twice a year and it never disappointed.
You could spend hours there just soaking it all up but normally it only took 60-90 minutes to spend whatever money you had. Frittering away your last few pennies in the penny-falls machine in the vain hope of extending your stay. Inevitably walking away on the brink of a big pay-out with an avalanche of two pence’s hanging over the edge!
Then there were the rides.
We all had our favourites and our strategies to make the most of them.
For me the Waltzers were always number one but only if the ‘Waltzer guys’ supplemented the experience by manually spinning the contraption around. This however was a fete exclusively reserved for the girls they were looking to impress.
It was quite a dance, watching them weave their way effortlessly around the heavy duty machinery, snake like, waltzer to waltzer whilst eyeing up the talent.
We may have been young and daft but we spotted this pretty quickly and employed a tactic where we would split up into pairs before joining the two most eligible girls we could find that had space in their Waltzer. We’d done our research and we knew with some certainty, that this particular Waltzer was going to get hurled around the West End of Glasgow something rotten.
The girls were normally a couple of years older and were oblivious to us and our rouse, totally swept up as they were in the attention of the Waltzer Guys and the fact that this chariot of metal was about to spin off its axis into the Clyde.
It was a tactic that served us well and I would still recommend it to any young pups out there looking to maximise their Waltzer experience.
Another top ride was the Rotor, a concept based on centrifugal force pressing you against the cylinder wall of the ride, as the floor below disappears.
Rotating at dizzying speeds, you were literally stuck to the wall like an insect to flypaper until the giant food blender came to a stop and the floor re-emerged.
Being Glasgow of course, there were plenty of gallus punters who didn’t respect the laws of Newtonian Mechanics, so you had guys doing hand stands against the wall, people trying to consume fizzy drinks and worst of all, numpties jumping on the ride after scoffing a baked potato or such like.
The result was nearly always the same and I can confirm that a combination of centrifugal force and vomit is not pleasant for anyone involved.
Think Problem Child 2 for any of you that have seen it!
Everyone had their favourites – the ghost train, the dodgems, the rib-tickler, the fast motorbikes, the cyclone, the umbrellas and the chairoplanes but apart from the odd scramble for a specific dodgem that you had convinced yourself was 50mph faster than the rest, I don’t seem to remember ever having to wait long to get on a ride. Certainly none of this 30-minute waiting time malarkey that you see now.
Then there were the salon games you were encouraged to play, the challenges that always looked so easy to win, with the big unattainable prizes stacked behind them as an incentive.
Throw a small hoop over an ever so slightly larger plinth and win a diamond ring, throw rock-hard table-tennis balls into a jam jar and if by some miracle you manage to get them to stay in and they don’t bounce out again, win a Rolex, knock the superglued coconuts off their shy with a foam ball and win a holiday to Vegas! …..(okay I’m taking it too far now!)
In all my years I never saw any of our crowd win anything other than a goldfish in a plastic bag and that was by hooking a few plastic yellow ducks out of a puddle of water, an attraction normally reserved for 5-year-olds.
I can also confirm that taking Goldie the goldfish onto the rotor wasn’t the best idea.
Then there was the penny arcade with its plethora of slot machines, that split into two types. None of them rewarding….
Ones where you could win cash prizes (like the fruit machines or penny-falls) but never did.
Or ones like the big crane thingy with the giant claw, where you could win prizes like watches and jewellery. However, the only thing I ever saw this badly constructed piece of Meccano collect in it’s giant tentacle was cheap key-rings.
In saying that we never went out with the intention of coming back with anything substantial, and we knew that any money won was just going to be ploughed straight back into the place anyway.
Every ride pumped out music at maximum volume and the better the song the more enjoyable the ride, the song that reminds me most of the Kelvin Hall is Shaft by Isaac Hayes, a perfect soundtrack for the time.
‘Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?’ Shaft! ‘Right on’
My grandparents lived in Partick so I used to go to the Carnival regularly as a youngster, however, my peak Kelvin Hall years were when I was around 13/14, young enough for it still to be a big adventure but old enough to go on my own with my pals.
For all the excitement I do remember trying to keep my wits about me, wary of a different crowd and wary of the speed and velocity I was being flung around this palace of fun – but it was always invigorating.
At 13 you tend not to over-think things, you just live in the moment and enjoy it, so it was tragic to learn that there was an accident on Boxing day in 1978 when two people unfortunately lost their lives on a ride called the Concorde Flyer, due to a machine malfunction.
I remember going to the circus a couple of times as well, but that was usually a trip with the Cubs and the only reason for going was the 30 minutes you’d get to go on the rides afterwards.
I’d left the Kelvin Hall behind by 1974 and had moved onto the big-boy rides at Blackpool’s pleasure beach – namely The Grand National and The Big Dipper.
Then when our own kids were old enough we went to Disneyland and Universal’s Island of Adventure in Orlando and of course pretended it was for the kids benefit.
The rides and the entertainment in Florida are on a different level of course – The Hulk Coaster, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, etc but for all the razzmatazz I’m still not sure anything compares with the Waltzer at the Kelvin Hall on a cold December night with two bonnie lassies onboard and an amorous Waltzer guy – geien it laldy!
(Post by Colin ‘Jackie’ Jackson, of Glasgow – February 2021)
‘Physical Education,’ it was called, back in the day. Football; hockey; netball; cross-country running, gym work; and to a lesser extent in my time, rugby. It was an eagerly awaited break from the mind-crushing monotony of Mr Methven’s Physics class. (I’m still bitter he chucked myself and Tony Everett out of his Higher class – can you tell? Presumably that was to ensure his teaching reflected a better pass rate.)
‘Physical Education,’ in the month of December, however, was none of the above. Not because the ground was dangerously frozen – old Mr Graham, a.k.a. ‘Boot,” would have us out playing in the winter snow, while I might add, he slurped his coffee in the store room. No. Some sadist considered it would be more character building, and stand us all in good future stead, to teach us the dark art of country dancing.
In the weeks leading up to ‘The Dance,’ boys and girls of each class in their Year, would be told to line up opposite each other in one of the gyms, backs to the wall-bars, and await the dreaded instruction: “Gentlemen – take your partners for the Saint Bernard’s Waltz.”
This is 1971 for goodness sake. The year of T.Rex, Rod Stewart and Atomic Rooster. And we have to dance to a … what’s it called?
Usually, two classes were amalgamated and twenty, sweaty-palmed lads would look up and down the line, watching to see who’d make the first move. Of course, there was always that one kid who was officially ‘going out’ with one of the girls stood across the games hall. His move towards the other side would instantly be mirrored by his ‘burd,’ (it’s ok – you could say these things back in the day) and the two would meet in the centre circle of the basketball court.
The pressure is now on.
Decision time. Move quickly before somebody else asks the girl you fancy. Or – actually, do you even ask her at all? What if she says “no thanks.” Or words to that effect. But she might be happy to ‘St Bernard’s Waltz’ with you. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? That would surely mean she likes you, wouldn’t it? Look – she’s whispering and giggling with her friends. Go on. Don’t be such a chicken.
But the fear of rejection is debilitating.
Aaaaargh! Too damn slow! She accepted that offer far too quickly. And she’s smiling. She must fancy ….
Very quickly, your options dwindle and everyone else starts pairing up – reluctantly or otherwise. So you make your move. The approach does not impress, however, as your path deviates when a pal overtakes you for the hand of your intended. Sheepishly, you are forced to ask your now third choice. Fully expecting a sharp rebuke, you ask the question.
Boot and Mrs McLeod (Horsey) who obviously frequented the world of Jane Austen, had dictated the correct manner of asking a young lady to dance is to politely say: “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” But, partly because you’re a rebel and nobody tells you what to do, though mainly because your nervous brain has gone to mush, you grudgingly mumble the words: “You wanna dance?”
Realising by now that it’s a straight choice between the short-arse stood in front of her; the weird introvert, or the kid with a plague of plooks and halitosis – the short arse wins. You – ok, I – have a partner.
Boot would then crank up the dansette and drop the needle on track one, side one of Jimmy Shand and His Band, Greatest Hits (Volume 1) and quickly retreat to the arms of Horsey. A short demonstration was followed by carnage and mayhem, the like of which had never been seen on the hockey or football pitches.
Of course, the rumours would fly for the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas Dance as to who fancied who – all based upon the rather random selection process of the practice sessions.
Then came the big night. The night when all the skills learned from Boot and Horsey would be displayed. Or not.
See, back then, there was no plush limousine; no pre-dance celebration meal; no hired photographers. Nope. Instead, groups of lads would rush out their homes an hour or so before the scheduled start time, meet up at the pre-determined ‘secret’ rendezvous point (for us, it was ‘The Woods,’ for others, ‘Hungry Hill’) and unearth the illicit booze that had somehow been procured earlier.
The tipple of choice for my group was El Dorado and Lanliq fortified wine and a couple cans of Carlsberg Special Brew or Newcastle Brown Ale.
Timing now became critical, and being so young and inexperienced, it was pretty much down to trial and error … error frequently winning out.
The challenge was to get to the festively adorned Assembly Hall and, standing up straight whilst holding your breath, hand over your ticket to the poor teacher who would much rather have been spending the evening with a good book. Those pupils who still had to perfect the art of timing and sported puke stains down the front of their paisley-patterned kipper ties, were instantly rejected, being sent to the ‘sick room’ to await collection by their affronted parents.
Once in, you could relax. But not too much. It was best to keep moving. Dancing. Any period of inactivity would invariably induce a deep sleep on the spartan chairs that lined the Hall. Game over. Sick room and a phone call to your parents coupled by an instant grounding over Christmas would be the resultant consequence.
So, dance you did. And it wasn’t too bad, as it happened. And even if it was Dutch courage, you did ask the girl you fancied to dance. And maybe she was happy that you did.
Everyone was happy. Even the kid with the plague of plooks and halitosis.
(Post by Paul Fitzpatrick, of London – February 2021)
I’m straying outside my ‘70s comfort zone here to Primary school in the sixties to recall two traumatic but interlinked episodes that for some reason have stayed with me for life.
I don’t recall Christmas in the ‘60s being as commercial as it is now, but the toy brands still found a way to ‘get to us’ even though there was only one commercial TV station back then.
Also, I don’t remember seeing adverts for toys in the UK comics of the day (although I may be wrong there) in the same way that the American comics advertised lots of cool stuff to buy on their inside covers.
Anyway, the object of my desire in 1966 was a Johnny Seven (O.M.A) One Man Army Gun. It was the Rolls Royce of toy guns with count them Seven different actions, as follows…
Armour Piercing Shell
It was the coolest thing in my universe at the time and to ensure its safe delivery I was happy to forsake quantity for quality and made a list of only one item for Santa that year.
It was all I could think about and I couldn’t wait to wake up on Xmas morning and take delivery of this plastic weapon of mass destruction.
I actually don’t think I slept that Xmas eve, giddy with anticipation about the lashings of street cred that were about to come my way.
Imagine my distress and utter shock then, when I discovered upon ripping the Xmas wrapping off the box like a demented Tasmanian Devil, that no Johnny Seven Gun lay await, but instead, something called a ‘Gun That Shoots Around the Corner’
How could Santa have got it so wrong? Was he mocking me? Did he want me to be a laughingstock? Had I been such a bad boy that year???
My Mum, upon seeing the crushed look on my face tried to rally me round. “What a lovely gift from Santa”, “Ooh it can shoot round corners, that’s good”,
“I bet no one else has a gun like that!” blah, blah, blah.
She obviously didn’t get it. In the urban warzone, shooting around corners wasn’t a thing, whilst Grenade Launchers, Tommy Guns and Anti-Bunker Missiles definitely were.
Of course, I look back now and realise that my poor parents probably visited every toy shop and department store in Glasgow in search of this best-selling toy and were only trying their best with the back-up option.
To them it was just another novelty gun and to be fair shooting around a corner may be lame, but it is pretty novel.
They say you don’t know a man till you walk in his shoes and having been under similar pressure to buy my own kids the bestselling and rarely available ‘toys of the year’ I now understand the strain they were under and I forgive them.
I don’t remember any drama in 1967 but by 1968 I was a bit more worldly wise. I now knew all about the big Santa swindle and had decided to focus my attentions on my Mum for future Christmas gifts.
My Dad was a busy man, plus he’d had a pretty tough upbringing, so he was from the “you’ll get what you’re given and be happy with it” school of presents, so no point in wasting my efforts there.
I was Ten in 1968 and had just started getting into football so I desperately wanted a football kit for Christmas.
Strangely, and this may shock some people who know me, but I was quite happy to get either a Celtic strip or a Rangers strip in 1968.
The reason for this was that my biggest football influence at the time was my Grandpa, my Mum’s Dad.
He was a big football fan and Celtic were his team. He regaled me with stories about legendary Celtic, Scotland and Old Firm games/teams/players, and of course in 1968 the Lisbon Lions, were still at their peak.
On the flip side 80% of my friends were Rangers fans, my Dad’s family were all Rangers fans, and the blue half of Glasgow had a pretty good team at the time as well.
So, the honest truth is, that at the time I liked both teams and didn’t feel any pressure to choose one over another – cute, but strange, I know!
So, I started the charm offensive early on my Mum that year to get a head start, but unfortunately my Dad was wary of a 10-year-old strutting about in a Celtic or Rangers jersey and vetoed the idea.
I countered with something I thought was perfectly reasonable, “how about a Scotland kit?” This was met pretty positively so I was content that by Xmas day I’d be the proud owner of my first football kit and I’d soon be out playing with my mates in the street or the park looking and performing like Denis Law
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice but it did in my house.
Two years to the day of Johnny Seven-Gate, came Scotland-Gate.
Once again, I ripped off the Xmas wrapping in eager anticipation and once again I was left aghast. There was no dark blue jersey with a big red lion emblem but instead a plain light blue long sleeved t-shirt.
I was incredulous or maybe more accurately I was as sick as a parrot.
My football knowledge was pretty good for a 10-year-old and I knew straight away I’d been duped. When I asked my Mum what team it was, she said “it’s some English team”, and also added that “I’d really suit the colour”.
In reality it was a t-shirt from DH Hoey’s, the well-known Glasgow school outfitter who to be fair did sell football kits, but this wasn’t one of them.
Joining my mates in their Rangers, Celtic, Scotland and Partick Thistle kits, I fielded the inevitable question, “what kit is that Paul?”
“Manchester City” I replied using my knowledge of the English first division.
This seemed to placate them till an older lad turned up and blew my cover by spotting that my top was plain, whereas the City jersey had white collars and cuffs.
Let the mockery begin….
Now I realise in the grand scheme of things that I had a lot to be thankful for and that getting any present was a blessing, but I’d really had enough of the humiliation by this point.
Looking back, we tell ourselves that it’s cool to be a bit different, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I wanted to be the kid in the Scotland kit with the Johnny Seven Gun not the outcast in the sky-blue t-shirt with a wonky gun.
I never did get a Rangers, Celtic or Scotland kit and my last attempt was in 1969 when for my Christmas I got a plain bright orange t-shirt instead of the conciliatory Dundee United kit I’d asked for.
I finally realised I was flogging a dead horse when my Mum once again uttered the immortal words “Oh, you’ll look lovely in that colour son” with obvious reference to my sallow skin courtesy of our Italian forefathers.
What she didn’t realise however, was that thanks to her and Dad, most of the time my face was bright red.