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A Christmas Tale…

Well it’s Christmas Eve and even the most curmudgeonly of us are likely to have succumbed to the subtle charms of Santa by now.

 

The manic last minute shopping done, the fridge bulging , the drinks flowing freely,  and the same old crap on TV. I hope you are all cwched up with your family and friends, because that’s really what Christmas is all about. To appreciate what and  who are closest and dearest to you.

 

Christmas is for kids. It is they who get the joy and magic of it, and us adults who get the hell on earth hassle of creating that magic for them.

 

So here is a little tale from my childhood, in a Land long gone and far removed from the one we stare down the twin barrels of today. Pull up an mince pie, pour yourself something libacious, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, and let me entertain you…

 

 

I was born in Caerphilly, a little market town over the mountain from Cardiff that is famous for two things…  Its cheese (mild crumbly tasty) and the second biggest Castle in Britain, in  a big Edwardian house called Brynhyfred (Winter Hill. Most Welsh houses had names rather than numbers back then…). It’s 1959 and I’m seven. Dad is a master butcher, mum is, well a mum, St John’s volunteer , WI, the sort of thing middle class mums did back then, and we have had my Welsh speaking gramp living with us since gran died a few years before.

 

It’s a few weeks before Christmas, and my mum is taking me shopping in Cardiff, but before that we are going to visit  my Uncle Charlie (my dad’s brother) and Aunty Marie-Rose, the exotic French girl who turned up in Caerphilly with her sister in 1940, aged 15, just before the Germans invaded France.

 

So mum and I set off down Mountain Road to the train station. Well it’s 1959 folks and the trains are still steam ones. Now I never went in for all the Romance of Steam stuff that my trainspotting peers seemed to love . Magnificent machines yes, but it was the SMELL of them I got off on! Oh there is nothing like the aroma of a steam train pulling out of a station chuff chuff chuffing that splendid plume of righteous smoke and steam right up your nose. Especially if you’re on the bridge above, heavenly!

 

Now I’m sure there a nice bits of Newport, but I have always found it to be the Armpit Of Wales, perhaps because I only ever got to see the grotty bits.

 

My aunt and uncle had a shop in Commercial St. They, and my three cousins lived above. The place smelled of cats pee and disintegrating  Lino. You could see the gunmetal grey mad Meccano  structure of the Transporter Bridge off in the distance in the docks, a crumbling Evangelical church across the road, and permanent  air of drab desperation about it, oh and it always seemed to be drizzling. Ah, but not today! Today the sun came out with a vengeance!

 

Well my Uncle and Aunties shop was a bit of everything really. They did Fags, papers & magazines, fancy goods and greetings cards, all of no interest whatsoever to a  7 year old, but they had a Toy Dept too!

 

So mum is upstairs having a cup of tea and I’m up to my usual no good, rummaging around in places where I shouldn’t be behind the counters, when I find myself in the storeroom. And there it is, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen!

 

It’s about 4 foot high , set on a plinth base painted like a mountain, with a slidey  dungeon door and a path up the sides to a portcullis entrance at the top, then it went up in tiers from there with turrets and chambers and… well everything I could possibly dream of.

 

I should mention that I am a Castle freak. It’s in the blood. Well if you grew up in a town with the second biggest castle in Britain to use as your, and your mates ,personal playground you would be too (we used to sneak in to play Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. The keepers could never stop us, we were too small and too quick, and knew all the easy ways in past the ticket office, besides they hadn’t put the moats back yet) I had also just been taken to Castell Coch  (a fairy-tale castle that the Marquis of Bute had built over the ruins of an original one, to use as a weekend party hangout. It was amazing, google it up, it still is, if ever you’ve seen a version of the Prisoner of Zenda, then Castell Coch is probably the setting). Normandy conical towers etc unlike any British castles. I was in love with the place, couldn’t stop drawing it over and over.

 

Well the visitation in the storeroom was all my dreams come true, and I wanted it, and I wanted it… NOW!

 

But my mum said I couldn’t have it, too expensive (we had not built the credit bubble yet back then you see. We saved up for stuff and bought for cash. It was called delayed gratification, and no Never Never yet. Oh the horror!).

 

I gnashed and I wailed, but to no avail, and believe me when I gnashed and wailed, there were but three options… Kill me… Kill yourself… or give in. My mum is built of sterner stuff though, worked for The Secret Service in the War (she did honest!) so no deal.

 

But aunty Marie-Rose was more malleable. She slipped me this rubber Tomahawk they obviously couldn’t sell, as a consolation.

 

It had a nice heft to it and didn’t break things when you hit them with it, and I was warming to it, memories of the magic castle fading a bit. Well I started  whooping and dancing and  swiping  away, and then we had to leave to go to Cardiff, shopping. Bugger!

 

So we get to Cardiff (Caerphilly Newport and Cardiff  are not far apart, 10 miles or so) and my mum goes and gets a pint of cockles for my Gramps tea, in the covered market, then on to Howells Department store for some stuffed olives, smoked ham and salmon, and a look round.

 

Howells was like the Harrods of Wales. It had stuff you would see nowhere else in the Principality, its food hall had real pasta, not spaghetti in tins labelled Heinz. And it just so happened they had a Mannequin Parade that was just starting.

 

Well a mannequin parade is what we now call a fashion show. This one featured Swimsuits. Mother calculated that we had about three quarters of an hour before the train back to Caerphilly, so we were ushered into the only seats left in the front row next to the Catwalk.

 

Ok, now give me a few years, er… like five, and I’m going to be riveted by this wondrous display of curvaceous flesh encased in fine and scanty fabrics, but hey! I’m seven and bored fuckin rigid !

 

All I want to do is go home and play cowboys and indians with my new tomahawk with my friends next door.

 

Next thing my mother knows is that I have jumped up onto the Catwalk brandishing my rubber Tomahawk and shouted at the model shimmering towards me… HALT!

Well she was a mite startled to say the least! She turned on her heels and tried to go back the way she’d come, but she wasn’t fast enough for me, I caught up with her and thwacked her a resounding one across the arse with the tomahawk, while loudly and proudly proclaiming to the audience….

 

Lovely Bum Mummy!

 

The ensuing gale of laughter was something else apparently .

 

My mother, by now purple faced, yanked me off the catwalk and marched me in a headlock the full length of the room. The Commissioner (they still had them in those days) in full livery, was wiping his eyes and glasses on his handkerchief, as we came past, said to my mum…

 

Thank you Madam, do come again soon, and especially bring your son, that was the best day I have had here in 30 years.

 

Now this story cuts to Christmas Eve of the same year. It involves… Snow (lots) Family (Good) a power cut, a birth, and a magic castle, and probably a trite homily to finish. So if you don’t all respond in the way I hope you will to this episode, Santa gets it ok? And I won’t tell you the rest of the story tomorrow… UP to You Winking smile

 

Happy Christmas to all our readers, commenters and of course, co-conspirators

 

Love RAB

14 Comments

  1. GW says:

    Merry Christmas RAB. Am looking forward to the rest of the story. I don’t remember any good ones from my childhood like that, but I’ve got about five to tell on my son. He was a very good kid, but, like a 1 year old Labrador Retriever, an unguided missile and an engine of destruction. But since none have to do with Christmas, I shall await the conclusion of your tale of battery and mayhem tomorrow.

  2. Schrodinger's Dog says:

    RAB,

    A nice, evocative story. Thanks.

    As a student I lived in Cardiff in the early 80s and really liked the place. I remember Howells and got to Caerphilly a few times; Newport, too, but I don’t remember it being as grim as you describe it.

    Have a Happy Christmas.

    SD.

  3. Westerlyman says:

    I really hate cliff hangers. I want my gratification now. How do you want us to respond? What do we do to hear the rest of the story? I shall have to take the dog for a long walk now just to take my mind off the suspense of it all.

  4. Philip Evans says:

    ‘all cwched up’.

    I wonder how many of your readers have just had their first encounter with that phrase, but I hope they can guess what it means.

    I remember getting the train into Newport when it was A DAY OUT.

    I once knocked over a large pyramid of tins of baked beans in the David Greig shop, must have been near your aunt and uncle’s shop, while swinging a plastic fishing rod, aged about 5, energetic and innocent. My parents were a lot more embarrassed about it than I was.

    Now I’m not so fond of Newport, except for the old, traditional Newport rugby matches at Rodney Parade.
    Like many of my generation I can’t get excited about regional rugby and I have no idea how the Dragons are doing in their tournament.
    Sadly, I know exactly how well Newport are doing in the Premiership.

    Will read the next instalment of your tale with interest.

  5. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    Mate, I had no idea, we were born about five miles apart, I lived in The Heath in Cardiff in my formative years.

  6. RAB says:

    Curiouser and curiouser Single Acts, for Heath is exactly where we’re headed in a few hours. In 1960 we moved from Caerphilly to Heath. Dad packed in being a butcher and bought Heath Park Stores. When my parents retired they closed the shop and turned it into the front room. I sit there sometimes and boggle that we made a good living out of a space so small. My 88 year old mum still lives there of course.

    We were the hub of the community as there were no other shops close, apart from St Isan Road and the Crossroads down by the lake. We used to get them all in there. We used to get the classic Welsh rugby team of Barry John vintage coming in for sweets and cans of Coke, on their way to train over at the Training College in Heath Park. And George Thomas and Mam for their weekly order.

    Santa says you’ve all been good this year, so the rest of the story will follow shortly.

  7. Tim Newman says:

    …that is famous for two things…

    And the Royal Mint, no?

    And I remeber Howells in Cardiff when we used to go each August to by the new school uniforms (I got lumbered with my older brothers’ old clobber). Do you remember Alders, the other department store opposite the castle and along a bit?

    I remember Castle Coch well, we used to look out for it when we went to the grandparents’ place in Sidmouth from Pembroke…2 adults, 4 kids, stuffed into a VW Beetle for 7 hours. Nowadays anyone with 2 kids or more buys a Land Cruiser or people carrier. And Pembroke castle was awfully nice too, but you kind of take it for granted when your a kid. When we had visitors and they first saw it, they’d go “Wow, look at that!” “Look at what?” we’d ask. “Oh that. That’s just the castle.”

  8. RAB says:

    Yes, castles are no suprise to us Welshmen, are they Tim? Every town has one.

    Living in Bristol as we now do, it’s hot air balloons that get my visitors excited, but not us residents, as they fly all the year round here, weather permitting.

  9. RAB says:

    PS I thought the Mint was in Llantrisant? Not that close really.

    We were still using tree bark and leaves for money when I was a kid mind. :-)

  10. NickM says:

    RAB,
    I recently visited Conwy Castle and was most impressed. Almost as good as the castles of Northumberland! You can’t beat Bamburgh if you ask me. The setting more than anything. Anyways it said it cost GBP16,000 at the time. That’s about 40 million in modern money. That in terms of defense buys 2/3 of a Typhoon jet. We have come a long way – backwards. I think the RN has 19 active frigates and destroyers and we wonder why the Argies are making noises… Let’s cut them a deal I say! They can have Carlos Tevez back with both feet intact and let’s say quits. I think Roberto Mancini was mild to the spoiled little git on a 1/4 of a million a week but couldn’t be arsed to get off the bench in a European Cup game! There would have been screaming from the dressing room due to a hobbling not seen since the glory days of the Confederacy. His missus apparently didn’t want to move from Buenos Aires because obviously Manchester and the North West of England is some hell-hole. You ought to see the mansions just up the road from me or go to Alderley which is so posh her Maj feels like a prole.

    BTW best of luck to Phil the Greek! I heard this morn he’d been visited by his children in hospital. God help him because if there was anything that could make shake of the bonds of surly Earth and indeed this mortal coil it would be looking from a hospital bed and seeing th Earl of Wessex with some posies bought from the Shell Select shop! Perhaps his hour-glass has run-out for he has insulted every nation on Earth and that was what he was put on this planet for. A true national treasure and to be fair one of the very few royals with any intellect whatsoever. Let’s hope not. 90 not out (yet). He deserves his century at least. I mean he’s an irascible old fuck but excellent for it.

  11. Lynne says:

    Looking forward to RAB Reminisces Part 2. Imagining you swatting a model on the nether cheeks with your tomahawk actually put a smile on this Christmasphobe’s face.

    All the best, everyone. :D

  12. Tim Newman says:

    Yes, castles are no suprise to us Welshmen, are they Tim? Every town has one.

    Henry VII was born in ours to an, erm, 13 year old. If you saw the chicks in Pembroke, you’d perhaps understand why his old man liked ‘em young.

    PS I thought the Mint was in Llantrisant? Not that close really.

    To us West Walians, all around that area is the same to us, described thusly (in a thick Welsh accent): It’s rough as fuck ’round there, mun! We were quite scared of the valleys. We also thought the North Welsh were wankers, reject Scousers.

  13. RAB says:

    ah North Walians Tim. Their accent always sounds like they are breathing in rather than out when they talk (there at least half a dozen distinctly different Welsh accents by the way folks).

    My gramp Dan born in Hermon, Welsh speaking terribly religious in his cups, would often describe North Walians as Narrow and anti fun.

    Tim, look out for a sitcom that seems to have been shown only on BBC Wales (but there might be videos of it) called High Hopes. It is the most amazing example of real Welsh humour that the rest of Britain have never seen before.

    I liked Gavin and Stacy not so much for the plots but to hear real Welsh accents on tv for the first time. A Cardiff one for instance. A Cardiff accent can strip paint, and Nessa’s “Alllrighttt what’s accurin? is spot on.

    High Hopes also features that funky old lady who lives next to Bryn in Barry in G&S. Well worth tracking down.

  14. Bod says:

    Ahhh, North Wales, where the men are men – and the sheep are worried, look you.

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