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