Monday, 6 December 2010

Can you tell what it is yet? Wasps and Daleks…

I’d forgotten that it could happen but last Thursday, for the fist time since Kings Close and childhood, ice formed on the inside of my bedroom window. It used to be a regular winter event when I was a child, there was no central heating back then in the time when spaghetti only came in cans and Saturday night television was usually worth watching.

Yes, I remember Saturday evenings in front of the telly eating tinned spaghetti on toast for tea and watching programmes that didn’t require me to vote for some wannabe pop star or ‘B’ list celebrity. All I had to do was watch the show and be entertained.

I’m not entirely sure what a makes ‘B’ list celebrity, but back then the presenters of those Saturday evening entertainment shows (and they were proper shows) weren’t known as celebrities; stars maybe, or TV personalities, definitely entertainers - but not celebrities. They were too nice to be celebrities, almost friends.

It seemed all you needed was a guitar, a reasonably good singing voice (preferably accented, any accent would do – Irish, Australian, South African), a beard, the ability to whistle, nice knitwear (cardigans or sweaters, preferably Aran) a rocking chair, a wobble board, maybe a paintbrush or two - and you were on your way to stardom.

Now that ‘X factor’, ‘I’m a celebrity’, and ‘Strictly’ are all coming to an end or ended for yet another season (hurrah), how fondly I remember those ‘celebrities’ of yesteryear who shared our living room on freezing cold, spaghetti slurping, Saturday evenings. They achieved what our open-coal fire never seemed able to quite manage, warming the room with songs and stories as they put on a show - and what shows they were. Not that I have anything against today’s programmes, they’re fine in their own way, but there was something so comforting about watching Val Doonican rocking away in his rocking chair murmuring about eternal butterflies of love, or Ralph splashing about with a pot of black paint or didgeridooing a sunrise, and Roger… well, Roger just whistled a bit really.

Rolf Harris, Roger Whittaker, Val Doonican - the entertainers who filled our telly screens with a mixture of song, sentiment, humour, variety (can you tell what it is yet?) and whistling. It seemed so much more entertaining than the cutting comments, crocodile crying to wring a few more votes from the audience, and even the pretend petty squabbles between the even more pretend judges aren't as entertaining as Rolf singing about the Court of King Caractacus.

My Uncle Charlie was an entertainer. He loved to sing and play piano, he was a genius on the harmonica, whistled like a bird, and when Rolf introduced the world to the Stylophone he very quickly mastered it, he could even play two at once – in harmony.

Charlie used to carry a Stylophone with him everywhere he went and halfway through his cup of tea he’d take it out and begin playing the theme music to Dr Who. It was magical, like having a thousand wasps and a Dalek inside a kitchen size matchbox - all buzzing away in tune, trying to get out.

‘The Blue Danube’, ‘Moon River’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Dambusters’, Charlie could play them all and would, as he walked along the high street to Holland’s the Newsagents to sort the morning papers. Sometimes I’d hear him pass our house; six-thirty in the morning, frosted breath hanging in the air like white smoke. I’d peep from behind my bedroom curtains, scrape away the crystal patterned ice with my blue-fingered hand, and watch him perform to the moon, or a stray dog, or the first of the early birds - up to catch worms and peck the tops off the frozen milk bottles. It didn’t matter to Charlie though. Any audience was better than no audience. Not that he needed one really, Charlie played for his own pleasure.

There goes our Charlie.’ I’d think.

He’s on my mind a lot at this time of year. I often walk into a room to find him on his own practicing his harmonica, or perfecting some complex staccato jig on one or another of his Stylophones. I remember him at the family Christmas party up at my Gran’s. Charlie would play Paddy McGinty’s Goat, or Jake the Peg (he’d dress up leg and all for that one), or ‘Durham Town’ (which he whistled much better than Roger Whittaker ever did), or ‘The Theme to Doctor Who’.

Charlie’s entertainment was a part of our Christmas day, like Uncle Len’s cheating at cards, or Uncle Ian drinking too much (all of the) Whisky. He never made it to stardom, but he was an entertainer; much better than most of the hopefuls on ‘Britain’s got Talent’. I’d have voted for Charlie. He knew how to put on a show. He had the 'X' factor.

Crystal patterned ice on the inside of my bedroom window - I’m Jake the Peg – Wasps and Daleks… Can you tell what it is yet?

Me neither, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway.


  1. Thanks AKH, I enjoyed that walk down memory lane. We always had visits from Jack Frost when I was a child, no central heating and cold lino floors. But the patterns JF left behind were magical.

    I loved Sat night TV back then, Val and Rolf, Morecombe and Wise, The Generation Game.

  2. Philip Morgan commented on Facebook:

    Philip wrote "What an evocative piece. We had a coal fire and no central heating well as the ice but no uncle Charlie."

  3. And the run up to all that great Saturday evening TV? Saturday afternoon wrestling. Me and my brother; 2 years my senior; would often wrestle after watching the likes of Jackie Pallow, Kendo Nagesaki et al. My brother Neville was bigger than me. Everyone was. The times he had me in a Boston Crab or full and half Nelson. Submit was the safe word in those days and I said it a lot. Great post Mr Height! Thanks

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  5. You sir are a timelord!

    You took us all back.

    For me and my brother it was tinned chicken soup round at my grandparents, sat cross-legged on a bright orange rug by the coal fire. On the TV was the wrestling, the Generation Game, Val and Rolf, but also The Goodies.
    Or my Grandad would play us his latest James Last album and we'd listen to the strange orchestral versions of recent chart-toppers.

    Lovely writing - as fascinating as a frost pattern. I wish I'd known Charlie.

    Amy K

  6. Thanks Amy - he was a special man.

    And you did that perfecting your comment again!


  7. Rick Dowling posted on Facebook.

    "Well, well Mr H; carrying on disgracefully I hope. Haven't seen frosted glass for ages."

  8. Jamie Morden commented Facebook:

    Jamie wrote "Love it...great piece. As an owner of a Stylophone, your description of "It was magical, like having a thousand wasps and a Dalek inside a kitchen size matchbox" is bang on the money. I can remember back to old TV, when the only Remote Control was me, because I was the youngest "Jay, turn it over" with the old Ferguson telly that had 'push in' buttons and made a very loud click...even worse when we got a Video...I was the 'Tracking' monitor! Love your writing :-)"

  9. Catherine Halls-Jukes commented on Facebook:

    Catherine wrote "Brings back too many thoughts as normal, bought Nae a Stylophone last year, she loved it at the time but hasn't used it for about 6 months, may be time to replace the batteries and start again. Real saturday nights...bring them back I say......."

  10. Al Spence e-mailed:

    My sentiments entirely, give me Roger, Rolph and Val any time.
    TV is not as good now as in those lovely young, happy curious and exiting days of
    our only too short youthdom.


  11. Tricia Kitt commented on Facebook:

    Tricia wrote "I had an Uncle Charlie - also frozen bedroom windows - we used to grab our clothes and run down to the gas fire in the dining room to dress. My mother's house is now so hot I have to strip down to my vest!"