Friday, 24 December 2010

Let’s talk about what really matters at Christmas - the presents!

My mother used to go bonkers at Christmas: there had to be a mountain of presents under the tree come the 24th of December, or she had failed in  her duty.  Even when she was widowed and living on a small pension, she somehow managed to continue the tradition. 

This cornucopia of gifts was partly achieved by the simple expedient of rebranding necessities as gifts: it is very hard to pretend to be delighted by a stack of underpants or six cans of Coca Cola. (To be fair, there was always plenty of good stuff as well.)

I suspect her determination to give an impression of limitless plenty was partly based on having grown up in the shadow of the Depression, followed by five years in her early twenties serving in the  WAAF during the war (which can’t have done my grandmother’s dress-making business much good, what with rationing and general making do and mending), and then fourteen years in Norway, which, despite being the richest per capita country in Europe now, was dirt-poor back then (she remembered officers’ wives using the tobacco from old cigarette stubs to roll new ones – a practice whose carcinogenic implications are panic-inducing).

So, when we came to England in 1960 - which felt like a rich country to us -  it’s little surprise that she wanted to feel we all had more than enough at least one day of the year (of course, barely any of these gifts – at least until her sons were earning – were for her: it was all about us). 

As I was doing some last-minute wrapping last night (we continue the Scandinavian tradition of opening our presents round the tree on Christmas Eve) I began reflecting on which, out of this welter of gifts - leaving aside underwear and fizzy drinks - had lodged in my memory. Here goes:
The earliest memorable item was a box of six red and white-striped candy canes: made a change from standard treats such as wagon wheels, gobstoppers and tubes of sherbert with a stick of liquorice in the top – and there was something alluringly glossy and terribly American about them.

The greatest of all Christmas Eve gifts was Gorgeous Gussy von Varon Vandal, a basset hound puppy whose 
first act – much to my grandmother’s horror – was to pee copiously on our purple living room carpet before rolling onto her back to have her pink stomach scratched. She lived with us for 15 years and I still mist up whenever I see a basset hound – there aren’t words to describe what this wonderful animal meant to us. 

One year there was a blue second-hand bicycle without gears (and not much in the way of brakes) whose handle-bars could be twisted upwards to give it a slightly cooler look – although I always coveted the full-blown ape-hanger handle-bars that were beginning to appear at the time. 

Elvis’ Golden Records – which must have set my parents back a whopping thirty two shillings and sixpence. It had a gatefold sleeve and a dozen full-colour pictures of The Pelvis from the time before he blacked up his hair for the movies. Played it to death – and still own it, albeit scratched to buggery.

The Daily Mail Book of Gold Discs, 1966 – containing details of every gold disc awarded anywhere in the world until that point. (It started with Caruso’s Vesti la giubba, 1903, and ended with The Yardbirds’ For Your Love.) I have never read any other schoiarly reference work as often or as eagerly. I still have it. 

A Thames & Hudson paperback onMichaelangelo – I was fourteen at the time, and the text was beyond me, but I spent hours poring over the pictures (and eventually got round to reading it). Still on my bookshelves.

A silver Colt 45 six-shooter cap-gun where you had to extract each bullet, take off a lid with a hole in it, place the cap (torn from a roll) precisely on the bottom of the bullet, and then replace the lid, making sure the cap was visible through the hole.. (Plus a toy holster which wasn’t big enough to fit round my hips – chiz! chiz!). Sure shot a lot of Injuns with that gun.

A vast, antique Underwood typewriter so heavy it practically required a crane to lift, which produced letters so small they could only be read with a microscope, and whose hammer action was so fierce it would punch through anything lighter than cardboard, producing a finished document like a lace doily.

A box-set of the George Solti’s historic studio recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (No, I wasn’t a prodigy – I was 19 at the time, and had specifically asked for it.) I don’t claim, as Bernard Levin used to, that the opening makes me sweat with excitement, but it still raises the hair on the back of my neck.

There were plenty more memorable gifts - but I have to go and see what Santa has brought me this year!

An extremely Merry Christmas to my readers.

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