Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Christmas memories come rolling back

On a forum elsewhere in the great ether, someone posted a thread about the 10 things at Christmas that take you straight back to your childhood.

In the last couple of years or so, I’ve been pushing at the door to the attic of memory to see what I can find from a past that is, in general, often really rather blurry.

Now in my own version of Proust, I’ve been specifically trying to dredge up food-related memories, and predictably, this set the cogs grinding away once more.

So here is a little selection of seasonal memories – some food related and others not – to perhaps whet your appetite and get your own memories going too.

❅ The arrival of the special double issue of theRadio Times was always something to be met with delight. Even in the days of just three channels, it heralded a lengthy and detailed study as I searched to find films that I loved and those that I'd never seen from Hollywood's golden era.

Just before Christmas itself, my mother and I would sit down and work through it more thoroughly, with a pen and paper to note down the things that the entire family would sit and watch together – because television was the centrepiece of family activity.

And after, like picking the final scraps of meat from the carcass, I’d raid it one final time, snipping out pictures and film details for a scrapbook.

❅ Turkey. I don't miss the big roast – but I do miss the sandwiches on Christmas night, when the far tastier dark meat would be packed between sliced white bread, seasoned well, and served with one of my mother's now cold stuffing balls on the side.

Most of these memories come from our time in Mossley – Christmas before then is rather vague, and even later Christmasses have only occasional concrete memories.

One of those was many years later, when my parents lived in Nottingham. It was one of the last years that the whole immediate family came together – after that, I finally found a little bit of courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be joining them and would spend the holiday with The Other Half.

On this occasion, my mother was ill after Boxing Day and I suddenly had responsibility for feeding the family – and more to the point, for stripping the final meat from the turkey carcass, something I’d never done anything like before.

I haven’t a clue what I cooked. Perhaps that was a sort of revenge on my mother for never having bothered teach us anything in the kitchen beyond a few prep chores.

I also have vague memories of eating pheasant at Christmas in Mossley – when we'd be invited to a festive dinner by one of my father's parishoners: an elderly spinster who was, frankly, bonkers and, like more than one or two other female members of his congregations down the decades, saw her lay role in the church and her relationship with the minister as a very important part of her life.

You've seen those films where women fixate on the local priest? Well, I always had the sense that it was not far off with my father.

Memory is an odd thing. I do remember a moment from a Christmas a year or so earlier, in Reading, when we were all sat around watching telly. My father’s mother was with us.

Predictably, she was bored and didn’t want to watch whatever was on – so suddenly decided to start an entirely random conversation directed at my mother, asking her, entirely out of the blue: “Do you like tinned salmon?” before my father snapped at her to be quiet.

I suppose all of this is also why I could, quite frankly, live without a TV. Did many other families base so much of their family life around the box in the corner? Was it a particularly British thing? It seemed to have an almost sacred quality: my parents decided what we were watching – and so we all sat around and watched.

It may not have been the case, but I don’t remember there being a choice about whether to sit down and watch or not. There’s a bitter quality to the knowledge that I lost a lot of my youth just sitting there, watching things, without the bottle or the opportunity to go and do something else instead.

New Year’s Eve would be dominated by whatever end-of-year celebration was on, before my father would go outside with a piece of coal, ready to enter at the stroke of midnight.

❅ Carols. This is something I still associate particularly with school. Fairfield High School for Girls had been founded, in part, by the Moravian church, and was linked to the Moravian settlement next door. Each year, we’d have our school carol service in the church there, with Christingles, a traditional symbol of this Bohemian denomination.

Later, at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, the annual carol service would be held in the Priory. There’s been a church on the site from around 630AD, but the current one dates from a little later, with massive reconstruction work carried out in the early 15th century.

But such an environment always adds to the drama of an occasion – and our carol services benefitted too.

As a member of the school choirs at both schools, we'd have to sing the descant to carols – those for Hark the Herald and Come All Ye Faithful are still totally rooted in my mind.

I’d still be able to sing them today if it wasn’t that my voice has dropped over the years from a mezzo to nearer an alt: my wonderful music teacher, Noel McKee, who trained and then conducted us in those LGGS services, said I had an excellent, almost Russian middle register. I’ve never been entirely sure what that means, but it sounds good.

❅ After scouring the Radio Times there was always telly itself. From the utter boredom of the Queen’s speech, to the peerless pleasure of Morecambe & Wise. I still find the repeats hilarious – Eric was a comic genius. All he had to do was wiggle his glasses around.

The afternoon film once included the TV premiere of Oliver! – and it was love at first viewing.

Back at school, I went without lunch for a couple of weeks to save the money and buy a copy of the score, then sat down at the piano and taught myself to play using that score.

Many years later, when I was regularly penning theatre reviews, I used to write about the National Youth Theatre – indeed, I was the only hack who bothered, until Ed Wilson, the artistic director, scheduled Blitz! one year.

That had been one of composer Lionel Bart’s other shows – and suddenly, the media pack, realising that the man himself wasn’t actually dead, decided it was time to pay attention to the NYT.

Bart wasn’t doing an interviews – he might have been alive, but he was frail. But the following year, when the company revived Maggie May, Ed invited me along to the season launch, with a specific promise that he’d introduce me and that I should tell Bart the story of how I used Oliver! to learn the piano.

After that, Ed told me, I’d have him eating out of my hand and could do – informally – the interview he wasn’t going to give to anyone else. I stood there, almost gawping as he told me about going to the Maggie May after-premiere party with Judy Garland on his arm.

Remember I said I loved the golden age of Hollywood? Here I was, almost touching it.

It was Lionel Bart’s last interview.

Late on a Christmas night, there’d be a classic B&W film on BBC2. My introduction to Humphrey Bogart came in just such a fashion. I was considered old enough to stay up so late and it was The Big Sleep – still one of my favourite movies and, indeed, the subsequent inspiration for some of my O level art course work.

❅ Boredom. We’d get our presents (some of which we knew about, if we’d had the opportunity to sneak into my parents’ bedroom in the weeks preceding the day itself, and take a look on top of the wardrobe) and then have to leave them to go to church.

And then there’d be the wait for my father to actually remember he had a family – and a dinner – to come home to after he'd taken his second service of the day.

To be honest, I don’t know to what degree this actually happened every single year – but it certainly did happen some of the time, and I remember it clearly, not least for the tension of the wait, knowing that there'd be some level of row waiting when he eventually turned up.

❅ Decking the halls always reminds me of doing just that with my mother. It would often be as late as Christmas Eve and there’d be a film on.

I specifically remember Meet Me In Saint Louis being on one year while we were pegging cards to a thread before hanging it – a Judy Garland moment, note – and my father rolling in from somewhere and looking long and hard at the telly, before announcing: “It’s the Wizard of Oz”, to be met by considerable amusement.

It wasn’t bad for him really – after all, he’d clocked that it was Garland and then managed to remember the title of a film she really had appeared in.

❅ Finally, the booze. May parents would have a bottle of something like Blue Nun for Christmas dinner. My sister and I would have Woodpecker cider.

As a Cornish lad, brought up on scrumpy, my father considered it pop - and therefore entirely acceptable for his when we sat down to such a special lunch.

It was my tipple of choice for some years. At some point, my parents decided that, as a teenager, I needed a social life. So they sent me to the fortnightly disco for members’ children at the Conservative Club around the corner.

It was good fun, actually. I’d get enough money for a bottle of the aforementioned brew – but rapidly learned to change that situation by issuing staring-out challenges to random young males, with further cider as the prize.

I was rather good at it – but I don’t know what that says about me and my approach to the opposite sex. And indeed, I’m not sure I’m ready to explore that particular memory any further just yet!

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