Party Like It’s 1979
Some Christmases were snowy and so snowy that it felt like our little town was going to be cut off from all the main roads. We’d be snowed in and the holidays would just go on and on. Our school often closed because pipes burst and parquet floors flooded and froze over like ice rinks and ceilings fell in with the weight of snow.
Most of our teachers lived out of town, in the surrounding countryside, and they couldn’t get through. We were given extra days off, and how we loved it: skidding and sliding and skipping away down the school drive, clutching worksheets hastily distributed by the school secretary. Snow Days meant being able to work from home, using sheets printed in purple ink, turned out on the bander machine.
All the work I can remember doing consisted of a few easy sums and a lot of nature study. We did the shapes of trees and the silhouettes of woodland creatures and birds. Nature meant going out down the Burn and ploughing through drifts of snow and crashing about in the frozen undergrowth until it grew dark.
Working from home also meant some serious writing. Schoolwork mostly seemed to be about writing stories (or maybe that was just the bit I paid most attention to?) There would be prompts and opening sentences printed in smudgy, purple ink and we had to continue these tales in our own time, in the extra days of holiday at home. Sometimes I think that – now I’m entering my fiftieth year – I’m still continuously writing one of those endless stories, begun with a sentence printed in purple on a worksheet given out on an abandoned school day in 1979. I’ve just never finished the sentence and got to the other side of that blizzard.
So – the Christmas holidays always seemed to be long, long, long. We stocked up our cupboards at home with Swiss rolls and corned beef and custard and tomato soup. Mam would put in an order with the shop in the precinct for extra fruit and veg. A van would pull up and we’d have a small wooden crate to unpack. The potatoes would be cloddy and mucky, the cabbages leafy and bright, the red apples so shiny you could see your face in them. The satsumas still had green leaves attached and their scent filled the whole house. You could smell them for days after the delivery of Christmas fruit and veg, until the last one was eaten. We liked the very softest ones, whose skins peeled off in one loose piece.
A string bag of nuts would be emptied into a dish on the coffee table. The silver nutcrackers would come out of the wall unit drawer. Most nights a sheet of newspaper would be laid out and we’d take agonizing, effortful, hilarious turns cracking Brazils, walnuts and hazelnuts. Little bits of nutty shrapnel shooting everywhere.
Much of our shopping we would fetch on Friday night and Christmas was no exception. We didn’t have a car just then, but what we did have was our very own shopping trolley. Not a little pully-along trolley like old ladies had. Not just a piffling bag on wheels. No, this was an actual metal supermarket shopping trolley on four castors. Someone had nicked it from the Fine Fare superstore down town and – horrible vandals that they were – sent it rolling down the steep hill of Burn Lane into the stream at the bottom. There we had found it and fished it out, one day last summer. It had been a little project: cleaning up that shopping trolley, yanking out tatters of mouldy lichen and slimy weed. It took some doing. I even rubbed some wire wool on the bits that had rusted and soon the wheels were turning round, good as new.
Lo and Behold – our family had its very own shopping trolley. I wondered briefly if Fine Fare would give me a reward for returning it, but I doubted it. They had updated their trolleys since this one had gone AWOL. Now they had ones where you had to put coins in.
So what we did was push it all the way to the town precinct every Friday night. We would push it down Burn Lane and through the estates on the other side and then into the town centre. We’d push it through the futuristic, automated doors of Fine Fare, quite brazenly. Here we are with our very own private trolley. We’d fill it up to the very top, pay for all our stuff and not even bother with carrier bags or boxes. We left all our shopping in the trolley and simply pushed it back home again.
Looking back, it’s kind of crazy and absurd, the way we were almost proud of that trolley. At least, I was. Even in terrible, snowy weather I’d take that shopping trolley on a ride round our estate, sitting backwards and scooting it along with my feet. All the other kids went about on skateboards and bikes, and I’d be swooping about in long, backward loops in my own private shopping trolley. I’d had my own skateboard and bike, and I’d even had roller skates, but for some reason my favourite thing was that shopping trolley. Sometimes our golden retriever, Duke, could be persuaded to sit in the thing with me as I paraded about the estate. He would get over-excited, though.
The further away in time I get away from it all, I’m amazed by how chuffed we were by simple stuff like having our own trolley or running about in the snow down the Burn with Duke. In 1979 the whole of Christmas was exciting.
Mam loved to buy us presents. She liked to spoil us and overwhelm us with all these things she’d be up all night wrapping. The opening of gifts seemed to be endless. She always said it was because she and her sisters and brother had never got much at Christmas when they were kids. They were so poor back then, though my Big Nanna did her best for them. They’d get a handful of sweets, a Disney Annual, and Mam would have to share a present with her twin sister – a doll or, one year when they were teenagers – a Dansette record player that had its own carry case.
So, Mam liked to buy us lots of things and see us enthralled and amazed. Christmas Day would begin with the lights out and the door closed on the living room, and we’d assemble outside in the hall while she counted down. Then she would open the door and quickly put the lights on and then we would see in a flash: Santa had been! The room was filled – completely filled – with brightly-coloured wrapping paper. There would be presents on every chair and every surface in the whole room. There’d be sacks and sacks of them.
One year in particular she had a craze on getting stationary. It seemed like she had bought up everything you could ever need to fill a desk and a home office and to supply a writing career. I was awash with pens and books and pencils and sharpeners and pen holders and bulldogs clips and elastic bands and felt tip pens and Tipp-ex. Every year I’d start a new Page-a-Day Diary from Boots and the first few entries were always lists of all the goodies I’d been given and all the TV shows we had watched together. Very little in the way of reflection and few of the glimpses of everyday life I’d love to read all these years later. Just endless lists of stuff.
We watched a lot of telly together. We would sit on the settee with a continental quilt over our laps because it could get quite chilly. We’d have snacks at the ready – Aeros, Lion Bars, Topics and Glees. Monster Munch and Space Raiders. We’d have frothy milky coffee brewed up by the new percolator that was one of the fancy new purchases of recent times. It was almost as good an innovation as the Toastie maker, the products of which were the best treat during late night TV viewing. Cheese and onion toasties – blistering hot and delicious. You’d scald your insides with melted cheese and then go to bed and have horrible nightmares.
We’d work our way through long nights of viewing, circling our choices in the Radio Times and the TV Times Christmas issues, cross-referencing and squabbling in the days before Betamax. Every quiz show, every sit-com and every serial drama. The big movie on Saturday night. The old black and white films in the afternoons. Strong female leads and sentimental songs. Most vintage films I encounter nowadays trigger a memory of having watched them before, with my mam, long ago on a snowy holiday afternoon.
The tree would have been up for a month by the time Christmas came. Artificial and silver, glass baubles and a fairy that had been bought the year I was born. In 1979 it was ten and the gauzy lace was turning yellowish and her glitter was dropping off. Yards of tinsel were swagged on every wall, displaying all our Christmas cards. Black tape turned our windows into Victorian leaded panes and we’d sprayed them liberally with this sticky fake snow out of a can. That snow smelled wonderful to me. It’s a smell as essentially festive as those oranges in the crate, or the pine fresh scent of the cleaning stuff Mam used in the bathroom and on all the floors. She set to work cleaning every corner of our house, because we had to be shipshape and sparkling for when Santa came.
In my living memory we’d always lived in council houses – blocky and square with no chimneys or fireplaces. From very early on I’d fretted over the question of just how Santa would get in. I remember going to aunties’ houses and both Big and Little Nanna’s and being told: ‘Oh, look! Santa’s come early to this house!’ and watching dumbstruck – the week before Christmas – as boxes and parcels were produced and handed over to Mam. So, Santa went out more than just the one night in the year? So he did an extra shift, especially for aunties and grandparents? My mind ticked over the logic of all this.
Only very recently I’ve had a memory come back to me, of glimpsing a mysterious heap on top of Mam’s wardrobe well before the Christmas holidays. It was only partially covered by a striped sheet. It had slipped, revealing a tell-tale corner of Christmas paper. That, I think, was the very moment I started having serious doubts about the literal truth of Santa and his so-called marathon dash around the world, visiting good boys and good girls. (Also, I knew some very bad children. Real stinkers. And they seemed to get presents, just the same as everyone else, so where was the fairness in that?)
Once, when I was very little – about four years old – I finished unwrapping gifts and said, ‘Is that it?’ And Mam was upset and furious. She dragged me across the road to the home of the family from Glasgow. They were known for being very poor on our street. Her idea was to show me how little their little boy was being given, in order to teach me a lesson I’d never forget. We said hello and were invited in and there wasn’t very much Christmassy going on.
We stayed a moment but before we left the mother presented me with a hastily-wrapped gift. It was in a scrap of crumpled paper, not even taped together. When we went back home I was delighted. It was a Ladybird Book of Dinosaurs. Mam took it off me and found the scrawled dedication on the title page: ‘To Michael from Mammy and Daddy for Christmas 1973.’
The little lad over the road had only just been given that book and they’d felt obliged to hand it over to their unexpected guests. I think I was ashamed and upset, just the same was Mam was. Also, I knew that I really wanted to keep that dinosaur book.
We couldn’t take it back. Mam said it would make everything worse if we returned and tried to give it back. We would be flinging it back in their faces. After that, there was always a sensation of horrible shame attached to that book for me. Any glimpse of a dinosaur in a book can revive that sickening guilt, even now.
It was a lesson about not growing up to be a spoiled little bastard.
The next year I remember sitting on my new sledge and opening a Dr Who Paint-by-Numbers kit and Mam was saying that she was sorry I didn’t have so many presents this year. I remember telling her that I thought I had loads, and I was so happy with those I had. I remember really being sincere and feeling sad because I couldn’t make her believe me. She always wanted us to get more; to be happier than we were. She wanted us to be impossibly happy, and it was hard to be that.
I think I always knew that it was Mam who was the one marshalling her resources, putting money by each week, pinching the pennies. For all my trying to work out the logic and truth of Santa’s magic, I knew it was always down to my mam.
In Aycliffe we did, however, have a kind of Santa. He appeared each Christmas Eve after it got dark, and he made an appearance on every single street in town. He was the Council Van Santa and his lorry was an old dust cart; his elves were all dust men. There was a wooden house on the back of his van, all strung with fairy lights. The Council Santa’s itinerary was the same each year, evolving gradually as the town expanded with new estates. The list of ETA’s was printed in the Newton News and his van would roll around promptly from street to street. We’d hear his handbell ringing from some distance away and we’d dash excitedly to put shoes and coats and scarves on.
Outside we would cluster round and wait for the Council Santa to come round the corner and into our cul-de-sac and throw sweets at us. The Council Santa was fat and reasonably jolly and when he talked his local accent gave away the fact that he came from round here. He chucked boiled sweets over the sides of his van and we caught them. People held up new babies for him to hold, and everyone talked to him like he was the real Santa, asking him questions about the busy night he had ahead of him.
Older kids would chuck snowballs at his little house, trying to knock his fairy lights out. We all loved the Council Santa, though, even the older ones – the Goths and the hard girls and the bad lads and the older brothers and sisters who moaned about coming to stand in the cold. They would still gather with everyone from our street. It was the only time in the whole year – unless there was a fire – that you’d see the inhabitants of the street all out together, saying hello and Season’s Greetings to each other.
I liked that slight formality of everyone saying Happy Christmas to each other, because I was something of an old-fashioned little kid. I liked it when adults spoke to me properly and expected me to speak sensibly back. I never really liked the way that kids carried on. To me, it was the kids that spoiled school. Apart from other kids, I thought school was great. Especially at Christmas, when it was mostly making stuff out of tissue paper, glitter and glue. And putting on school concerts where we did Ibsen’s Peer Gynt as an improvised dance piece, dressed as trolls.
And now, nearly forty years later, I’m sitting in a café and I’ve filled twenty-two pages of my current journal with this stuff, without even thinking. I’m looking back at a time when I’d fill twenty-two pages of an exercise book brought home from school at the end of term. We were always allowed to take home our unfinished books and most kids chucked them over the hedge or into the Burn on the day we broke up. But I went home and filled up all the pages just for fun. Weird kid, I know. My favourite Christmas thing involved filling up pages and pages…
I wish I’d kept them all. I wish I could see what I’d noted down. But I do remember quite a lot of detail from that time, and that’s just as good. I can remember all the details that made up the best of our Christmases.
I remember that Christmas only began properly once we had all our groceries and deliveries. We’d been to Fine Fare with our shopping trolley, and filled the fridge and the cupboards and fruit bowls. We’d trudged home from the last day of school and no one needed to leave the house again until Christmas was over and the sales in Darlington had begun.
It was Mam who ceremonially began Christmas each year. On Christmas Eve she’d put a certain record on that tall, stacked hi-fi unit with the smoked glass cabinet. From that futuristic stereo system would come the squeaky voices of two pigs singing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ It wasn’t really Christmas until we’d all sung along with Pinky and Perky.
Then we could have a glass of ginger wine – the sweet, hot, non-alcoholic sort that my Big Nanna brewed up and bottled and brought to us when she visited with her best friend, Deaf Olive. Mam had the recipe now – it was black currant jelly dissolving in boiling water, bagfuls of sugar and a bottle of spicy ginger essence. It steamed aromatically in a giant mixing bowl and it was so hot you had to water it like whisky.
Tomato soup for tea and then Disney Time and a visit from the Council Santa. Back indoors for the big film, maybe, but you could never concentrate for excitement. It was the one night of the year an early bedtime seemed preferable. I would sit up in bed reading last year’s annuals by torchlight. The Beano, Cheeky, Whizzer and Chips. Very nearly sick with minty chocolates, satsumas and ginger wine.
It was all about egging time on and wanting time to go faster and faster and for all the hours and the days to go flashing past. That seems the craziest and most marvelous thing of all when I look back now: that there was ever a time when I wished time away.
But I did. Faster and faster. Bring Christmas faster.
I was a long way off trying to master the knack of making happy times slower. I was still far from hoping that the happy times might stay.