Saturday, 28 December 2013

A tall man and an unexpected posting...

Yes I know what I said, but electricity problems in Wales have meant that I remain stranded in the real world at least for now. Although to be honest at this time of year, ‘the between times’ as I think of them, it’s hardly reality. Anyway as I am going nowhere, literally, geographically and metaphorically, I thought I may as well get this one off my chest before I vanish into the mist of the Celtic Kingdom once more.

I’m disgruntled and despondent. Well, as I keep saying it is that time of year; and the tall man flickers at the edge of my vision as he always does around this time. The tall man. He’s been with me for years, not harming just watching. But sometimes I wonder what it is he wants. I picked him up in a Birmingham semi many years ago; such an odd place to meet such a one as he. Christmas to New Year he flickers around and then he’s gone like an uninvited guest at an unwanted Christmas party. God grant that he flickers off very soon.

The tall man; I don’t talk about him much. He belongs with the girl and the sometimes cat, and all the others that are never quite around me, but almost inside the edge of vision (Is that you John?). I don’t believe in ghosts; dead people wandering around haunting the living (IS that you John?). So I don’t know what these things can be. The product of an overactive imagination, shadows, echoes of the past, a touch of mental illness, portents, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese? Or maybe they are all just fragments of underdone Dickensian potato.

Tall man aside, this is never my best time. The frenetic lead up to Christmas, followed by the activity itself and then the deep slump into nothing, breaks my pattern - and my flow doesn’t run forwards or backwards or even side to side but remains like a puddle waiting for some ripple to break it. I’m usually an early riser, but I lie in bed until nine. I usually have some sort of purpose, but I shuffle from one thing to another without achievement. I’m usually balanced (well as balanced as someone like me can be) but I ebb and flow like a tide pulled by too many moons from each and every direction at once.

I wish that someone would throw a stone.

I could go on, but I won’t. My nightmares at this time are too flimsy and damning to recount and he's never quite the same twice. He usually wears dark colours - from black to grey to deepest blue - and a hat. Once with a feather in the brim. He spoke on one occasion (or was it twice), a voice that sounded like tolling bells and his words came true. His hand is constant though. That beckoning hand, the one I shall never follow or touch... I hope.

These unsettled 'in between time' feelings. Is it the tall man? Is it the memory of too many other Christmases? Is it something in my blood – alcohol maybe? Or could it just be that this time of year, these ‘between times’, don’t really suit my humour? I won’t put it down to the weather. That would be too easy. So who knows then, the tall man maybe? He probably does and maybe he holds the answer to everything.

I expect that the light will soon be restored, the electricity mended, the power given back. Power outages never last for ever.

Mine may take a little longer though.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Blog off...

Today there is no blog. The reason? well, now that Christmas is over I think that I need a bit of a rest from all the hustle and bustle of the blogging life. So today no blog... and it's going to last for a while.

Be seeing you.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Boxing day one year on - Pottersville...

I’m still in Bedford Falls I think, or it could be Pottersville. Another Boxing Day has arrived and, as always, it’s a day of anti-climax. One of those ‘should do’ days that’s really a ‘can’t be arsed to do’ day. I could go for a brisk walk, I could fix the gatepost, I could tidy the house. I could, I could, I should… but I can’t be arsed.

I feel a little like George Bailey wandering around Pottersville. Boxing Day never seems quite right to me. It confuses me. It’s the start of the ‘between time’, the time between Christmas and the start of the New Year; although I’m never really sure when the New Year starts - probably not until you’ve stopped saying ‘Happy New Year’ halfway through January.

Perhaps I should get out my radio controlled helicopter to while away the time like I did last year. Gaynor bought it for me the Christmas before, but I never got around to playing with it. Gaynor, being Gaynor, rewrapped it and gave me the present all over again; and this time I decided to give it a go. It flew very well, but not for long because the batteries wound down really quickly. We were about to recharge the helicopter when trouble entered the room.

I don’t know why I invited Potter for Christmas, but what a mistake it was. I hadn’t forgotten his control freak nature, but I wasn't reckoning on it either - not at Christmastime. Wrong! When he saw that the helicopter wouldn’t fly any longer, he decided that we’d not read the instructions. THAT was why it wouldn’t fly. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that?

For the record, we had read the instructions. Holly had read them aloud, twice, before we even began to fly the thing and we knew the helicopter only had 10 minutes of battery power.

Of course Potter’s an instruction freak and believes that reading them over and over will make everything right. Even so, he’s generally wrong - so very wrong and in far too many ways to recount in this humble blog post. Anyway, we all knew that reading the instructions again would not miraculously make the helicopter fly again and we said so. ‘BOOM!’ Potter was off (as he always does on these occasions, particularly mine) and another Christmas went down the tubes.

It was my own fault, I should have known better. Inviting Potter into my house is always like allowing a horrible disease into an otherwise healthy body. He’s always been the same; sitting around, spinning his little webs, thinking the whole world revolves around him and his ill-gotten money. Well, it doesn’t, he’s just Potter and in the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say he is nothing but a scurvy little spider! 

At least he didn’t get the chance again this year and he won’t be getting the chance to ruin anything around us ever again. I haven’t played with my helicopter since. I should but I don’t feel like it. That’s one of Potter’s best tricks: taking away the shine until you can’t be bothered to try again. It's all part of his controlling nature.

Anyway, not wishing to put bad words into the mouth of good old George Bailey - “Fuck him and the donkey he rode into town on.”

Bedford Falls or Pottersville… Hee-Haw!


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

0 days to go - A Christmas Day message from our sponsors…

Bedford Falls at last. It’s been a long journey and there were times when I wondered if we’d make it. Train whistles, anchor chains, and plane motors – the three most exciting sounds in the world… but at the end of the day we all return to Bedford Falls don’t we.

Look, there’s Mr Martini’s Bar, the Toll House where we dried off, the New Building and Loan (poor Uncle Billy), old Gower’s Drugs (I’ll have a chocolate sasprilila), the Bijou Theatre, the Trust and Savings Bank (damn you Potter), the Sentinel offices, the Tiptop Café, Bailey Park, and finally home - 320 Sycamore. Throw a rock and make a wish… and what’s this in my pocket? Zuzu’s petals? Yes, Zuzu’s petals!!

Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

He sure does. Wish I had a million dollars. Hot dog! Yep, we came through and here we are in Bedford Falls again. It’s been a long and interesting year, quite a journey. Thanks for travelling with me and a Merry Christmas to you all my friends. Remember: no man is a failure who has friends. Hee-Haw!

And maybe next year I'll give you the moon.
xxx

P.S. Attaboy, Clarence!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

1 sleep to go - A fairy story for Christmas Eve…

There she sat, although it wasn’t sitting really more of an uncomfortable pine branch up the arse kind of standing. We’d had her for years. Her glitter all grimy and tarnished, her net no longer white but a dusty yellowed grey. She wasn’t a pretty thing. Her wand must have got bent in the box and the star at its end had been sellotaped back in place. She looked more like a vagrant than a magical being. A poor excuse for a Christmas fairy really.

Each year she’d come out from the cardboard box; the one brought down from the loft with much muttering and swearing from the man. He’d always talk about getting a new one, or a star, or an angel. But at the end of the day we never did and the old plastic fairy would be placed at the top of the tree for yet another Christmastime with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and comments on how pretty she was, how much like my little sister. Personally I couldn’t see the resemblance. But as the years passed I began to see how easily one could be mistaken for the other.

Perhaps everything that’s meant to be magic has a sell-by date. Maybe magic, particularly the wished for kind, can’t last forever. The thing is with magic that it only works while it shines and, no matter how strong the spell, eventually rust will start to appear. Of course you can accept the rust as fair wear and tear and look for the shine beneath. But so many people can’t; so many people don’t even want to try.

Joy to the world.

I sometimes think about the arguments she must have seen from the top of her tree. Christmas was never a happy time at home. It would start well enough - once he’d fixed the 'blasted' Christmas tree lights - but at some point he’d lose his temper. It often happened around the opening of presents. Bits of plastic became lost, or in the excitement stood on and broken, or sometimes instructions would vanish. Losing instructions was a cardinal sin, guaranteed to trigger one of the outbursts that so often destroyed our Christmas Day.

Usually in the afternoon we’d go to Gran’s; all scrubbed up and carrying one of the toys that Father Christmas had brought us. They’d all be there – aunties and uncles and so many cousins that Gran’s parlour (seldom used at any other time) would be fit to bursting. We’d eat cake and hide under tables, play chopsticks on the piano, charades even. Women would fuss, men would play cards, and I would wait for the explosion.

It was never long in coming.

Of course it was never his fault. It never - ever - was. It was Len, or Charlie, or Bob, or Lena. A look the wrong way, a laugh taken at his (imagined) expense.

“He cheats at cards!”
“I’m not standing for that!”
“He’s a prat. He must think I’m stupid!”

And off we’d all go into the winter dark, my mum pushing the pushchair, me and the other one following whilst he strode on ten yards ahead frantic to get back to his lair to bolt the door against all the slights and injustices the world had always thrown at him.

It was never his fault. It never - ever - was.

The fairy looked on as his next round of arguments began. Sometimes I wished she’d wave her wand and make him go away or at the very least transport us back to Gran’s so that we could join in the Christmas fun with the rest of them. Instead we were sent to bed early to cry and listen to the shouting below, learning to live with the glimmer under the rust, rather than enjoy the glitter of tinsel.

I kept on hoping that it would be different next year of course. But it’s often better to keep you feet and eyes fixed firmly on the ground and only let your dreams fly to the top of the tree as a last resort. Disappointment in your parents - it’s a bitter lesson to learn, and once learnt there’s no unlearning. Sometimes I felt like taking an axe to that tree. Well, you have to take the crunchy with the smooth I suppose. But without a tree there’s nowhere to put a fairy, and without tarnish there’s nothing to polish, no shine.

It wasn’t the fairy’s fault. Like the rest of us she was powerless to change anything. Her wand was bent and her faded star kept on with sellotape. Her magic had long gone. When Christmas was over she went back to the peace, quiet, and dust of her box to sleep for another year.

And we just continued.

Monday, 23 December 2013

2 sleeps to go - Wrapping the presents...

It can’t be put off any longer, but it’s hard enough finding time to buy presents let alone wrap them. Mind you I do have a little helper, not so much an elf as a daughter. So this year I shall mainly just be writing tags.

I sometimes think of the wrapping paper of Christmas past. Well, I’m like that. The strangest things lodge in my memory. Years ago Christmas paper was so thin that it tore at the slightest tug. Often, with all the picking up and shaking, the Christmas presents were half on display by the time Christmas morning came. My gran was the worst wrapper (and I don’t mean Tupac) in the world, the presents hardly covered and sealed at all. No gift tags for her, she used to write on the paper in biro and often the tip of the pen would pierce the paper and go through to the hand-knitted jumper beneath. The designs of those papers were ghastly – horrible washed-out blue snowmen, grungy brown coaching scenes, garish emerald green holly, pink crinoline ladies… yuk.

By the time I had reached my rebellious teens I’d decided to forgo that tacky flimsy stuff in favour of brown paper, ceiling wax, and string. ‘How very traditional’ I thought at the time. In the eighties it was all shiny foils and exuberant swashes of lacy ribbon, the nineties brought gold foil boxes and present bags.

I don’t know when it happened but at some point that wafer-thin paper disappeared and Christmas wrapping paper got much thicker. The designs improved too. No more black and yellow lanterns, sickly yellow pink-flamed candles; or those bloody American cardinal birds. Christmas paper was suddenly quite nice to look at and not the eyesore I remember from my childhood. Perhaps it was the advent of the poundshops and cheap imported gift wrap, or maybe it was the paper making process itself. Either way, all at once you could wrap a present without the risk of the death of a thousand tears occurring as you wrapped.

The sticky tape didn’t improve though. If anything it got worse and thinner. I often wonder how many days I’ve wasted fruitlessly searching for the end of the roll only to give up and start another. It could be days, weeks even. My house is littered with rolls of half-used tape.

There was a time that present wrapping was a joy. I used to take such care matching the paper to the pom-pom, pondering the message that I would write on each carefully chosen gift tag, teasing bows and flourishes out of the rolls of many coloured ribbon. These days it’s become something of a chore and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat up on Christmas Eve wrapping presents until the ends of my fingers ached.

In reality all that frustration, cost and time we spend wrapping presents, just so the paper can be hastily torn off and then thrown away, is a nonsense. But then, I’m no fan of reality and a real lover of nonsense. After all, a present really isn’t a present until it’s been wrapped.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

3 sleeps to go - Perry Park, Dutch canals, and skating on thin ice...

I have a memory of skating on the frozen canals of Holland. Of course I haven’t, well not in this life, as that particular memory seems to be a few hundred years old. It’s as clear as the ice I remember skating on though. It’s as if I have lived in one of Hendrick Avercamp’s paintings. Hendrick was born in Amsterdam. He was mute and became known as ‘de Stomme van Kampen, (the mute of Kampen). He was one of the first landscape painters of the brilliant 17th-century Dutch school, specialising in painting Holland in deep winter. I seem to remember him, but how can I? He died in 1654.

Memory is such a strange thing. I remember another afternoon not so long ago - thirty years or so - when the weather was so cold that the park at the end of Derrydown Road flooded with rain and then froze overnight.

Sunday afternoon, Perry Park, the football cancelled and the pitches turned into an ice skating rink. Looking out across hundreds of yards of ice we laced up our skates and went whizzing across on one of those magical afternoons filled with sunshine, laughter and crisp clearness of every kind. The ice was thin, and crackled and cracked as our blades moved over the blue-white surface. There wasn’t any danger, the ice covered only a couple inches of water - nothing to drag us down, no icy depths to drown in below. Back and forth we went, avoiding the edges where the ice was thin and the frosted brown grass poked through.

What an afternoon. A few hours etched into my memory by cold and sunshine and a far too bright jumper – a happy day amidst happy days.

Happiness, like ice though, can so easily melt and the following day the ice had turned to slush. Never again whilst I lived on Derrydown Road did the football field freeze over. Sometimes, like Holland, I wonder if it happened at all.

After the icy afternoon’s skating life continued, but little by little the ice that was slowly creeping around my life became so thin that what lay beneath was not a few inches of water but a bottomless lake of icy coldness. No escape, nor anyone to pull me free. Of course eventually I got myself out. But it took a while and left me colder than I ever was before.

It seems that I’ve spent so much of my life skating on thin ice that I don’t go skating any more. The risks are too great, even though the rewards – the blue sky, the crispness of the air, the whooshing sound of the blades – are high. Like my memory of the Dutch canals and that idyllic afternoon spent skating in Perry Park I only skate in my dreams these days.

Whooosh!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

4 sleeps to go - King Winter arrives...

As a small boy I was always fascinated by things a bit mystical. I loved the old tales - Greek Mythology, Odin and the Norse Gods, The Four Winds, Jack Frost and The Green Man. I was enthralled back then by the four seasons being embodied as beings, and the strongest of them all, King Winter, used to scare me. Mind you, I did associate him with someone else at the time. It’s been cold for a while now and you might think that we’ve already been through the first day of King Winter - but you’d be wrong.

Today is officially the first day of the chilly season - or as it is generally known amongst druids and Earth mothers, the Winter Solstice. Today we’ll see the year’s shortest day and longest night. But it isn’t all bad news - from today the days will start to get longer again as the sun moves northwards and spends more time above the horizon. Interestingly the winter solstice doesn’t always occur on December 21. Sometimes it comes on December 22, which will next happen again in 2015.

Despite the Solstice, if it feels like winter’s already begun, you are also right. The weather men consider December 1 the start of the meteorological winter and March 1 the start of the meteorological spring. That’s because December, January and February are the three coldest months of the year. Of course we are lucky to still be here. Let’s not forget that last year at this time, some people thought the world was ending (isn’t it always?) and according to the Mayan calendar the world came to an end on December 21, 2012. Did I miss something?

With King Winter here and Christmas just a few days away, it’s worth remembering that there’s no biblical justification at all for celebrating Christmas on December 25. Christmas, or Yule as it was once called, was probably derived from Jól, the Viking winter solstice festival that pre-dated Christmas. Though the fairy story may tell that the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus in the dead of winter; that’s just a Christian myth. If it did happen, not even the Bible states what time of year the event occurred. Instead, the Christian church grabbed the date in order to hijack the Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti celebrations that were celebrated on the Winter Solstice. In fact, Christmas is a movable feast and has been celebrated in the past on March 28 and May 20, along with several other dates.

So, Happy Winter Solstice. Now crown the Lord of Misrule and set the Yule log ablaze – King Winter is here!

Friday, 20 December 2013

5 sleeps to go- Christmas cake...

The internet, particularly Facebook, seems to be full of cake. If it isn’t cake then it’s kittens, sometimes even kittens and cake together. We all seem to be so preoccupied with cake that most other things pale into insignificance, particularly at this time of year as we approach the winter celebration.

Of course there are some exceedingly good cakes to be had at Christmas - mince pies (are they cake?), Dundee cake (is that just for Christmas?), those stollen things that you get from Lidl, Gingerbread houses (isn’t that biscuit?), good old traditional fruit-heavy Christmas cake, and of course the chocolate Yule log.

Quite how the Yule log changed from being a huge chunk of wood which burned for the twelve days of Christmas into a chocolate covered Swiss roll with a plastic robin sticking out of one end is beyond me. Was it Daren Brown I wonder? In a word I’d sum the whole thing up as ‘disgusting’. To be honest it looks like something that the Caganer might deliver. Yes, I’m not a fan of the Yule log. In fact when it comes to cake generally – well frankly, I don’t give a damn (so sorry Mary Berry).

When I eat a slice it’s generally okay, but it hardly fills you up does it? And as for those silly cup cake things… well, they smell of air, taste of air, look like air, and are full of air. No, give me something a little more substantial; a nice pork pie or a sausage roll – even a slice of quiche… so long as we can call it cheese and onion flan. I’m more of a pie man than a cake man and when it comes down to it - let THEM eat cake and not me.

After all, a cake isn’t just for Christmas… unlike a kitten.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

6 sleeps to go - Dali takes a Christmas dump...

There’s an old midwinter custom in Wales called Mari Lwyd. It was a pagan thing that was around long before Christmas was even invented. Mari Lwyd means ‘gray mare’ in English. The tradition involves the arrival of a horse and its posse at the door of a house or pub. They knock on the door and then they (including the horse) battle wits, exchanging challenges and insults in rhyme.

'Come out and and give us tucker
You stupid Welshie f...'

Well, I'm sure that you get the idea.

Of course we all have our little foibles and I for one have exchanged a few insults on a Christmas morning or two over the years. I don’t think I’ve ever had a tradition involving poop though.

This of course is a Spanish thing. Let’s start with Caga Tia.

In English, Caga Tia is ‘the pooping log’. All you have to do is hollow out a log and then add a face and legs. You must ‘feed’ him every day beginning on December 8th, and then on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, put him in the fireplace and beat him with sticks until he poops out small candies, fruits, nuts, salt herrings, garlic bulbs, and onions. There’s even a song for the family to sing to the poop log.

Poop log,
Poop log,
Hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
If you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
Poop log!

The other Spanish custom involving poop is Caganer. Not satisfied with a Christmas crib the Spanish depict the entire town of Bethlehem, tucking the Caganer away in some private corner far away from Mary and Joseph. Well, he needs his privacy - after all he’s taking a dump. Caganers have been around for at least a couple hundred years and these days you can even buy Caganers of celebrities and famous people – The Pope, Barrack Obama, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, The Queen, a whole host of footballers, and my favourite Salvador Dali to name just a few. You know you’ve made it big time when you have your very own Caganer.

Check this out - CAGANER

I’m not letting this one go without something from Japan. The Japanese are so crazy, copying everything we do - even our Christmas traditions. The fact that they shouldn't really be celebrating Christmas seems to escape them and in Japan those traditions have predictably been shaped by commercial interests. Companies have messed the Christmas celebration around and made it into a cross between Valentine’s and Christmas Day. Bakeries sell Christmas cakes as traditional sweetheart treats; and you might have to make a reservation to get a table at KFC. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken is Japan’s Christmas turkey and the fast food franchise has persuaded the gullible Japanese that fried chicken is traditional for the Christmas feast.

Welsh insults, pooping logs, celebrities with their pants down and KFC for dinner. Sounds like a great Christmas Day to me!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

7 sleeps to go - Away in a manger...

I can’t remember the last time we had a group of carol singers at our door. Where have they all gone? There was a time when groups of shuffle-footed boys would start mumbling carols in your porch as soon as Guy Fawkes Night and ‘Penny for the Guy’ was over.

“Clear off. I’ve only just put out my bonfire.” I used to say.

Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps I put them off. Or maybe the full grown trend for ‘Trick or Treating’ has made carol singing unfashionable - who knows? Of course it could be that in these modern times, where school assembly is more of a inspirational non-religious rally than daily worship, that carols simply aren’t sung or learnt anymore - in which case: ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.’

I bought the first self-bought present for my mum with my carol singing money. It was a blue glass dish with modern (well modern for the sixties) swirly inward curves. I saw it in the window of a shop just opposite my school and decided that she had to have it. I think it was the combination of the sapphire blue glass and the Mobius band-like curve of the rim of the dish – it seemed to go on for ever. It was expensive, a full five shillings (25p), but I planned on co-opting my sister into raising the money through a bit of carol singing.

Back then carol singing was common, and dozens of bands of children roamed the streets at night singing carols door-to-door on the build-up to Christmas. Three full nights we sang on the estate. Five shillings was sixty old pennies and at a tuppence or thruppence a time, and often not even an opened door, it was a long cold trek. I’m sure that without my sister’s almost too quiet to hear lisping of ‘Away in a Manger’ I’d never have reached my goal. But somehow we managed it and the blue bowl was duly bought and wrapped.

The days of carol singing children seem to be long gone and I’ve no idea where that blue bowl is today; probably discarded as junk long ago like so much else. It’d be nice to hear the sound of faltering children’s voices outside my front door this year, but I doubt that it will happen. What a pity, it was best the sound of Christmas.

How I miss it.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

8 sleeps to go... A letter to Father Christmas...

Have you written to Santa yet?

Every year she’d write a letter and we’d watch it fly up the chimney carried by the heat of the fire. One time it fell back down and I found it in the hearth the next morning, slightly singed but still intact. Lucky that it didn’t start a fire I guess. The writing of letters to Santa didn’t last long, a few years at most. By the time you learn to write it’s almost time to stop believing. Such a pity we can’t go on believing forever.

I remember writing my own letters to Santa. They weren’t very demanding; I wasn’t a very demanding kind of boy. Mainly it was a few toys – a train set, some Mecano, that sort of thing, things that any boy would want. Anything other than the boring socks my father’s mother bought me each year. These days I’m happy to get socks but back then… well, what could be more uninteresting to a six year old boy?

The first year that I could write, I wrote to Santa asking him to bring me a play garage. The one with the winding handle so that you could move toy cars from one floor to the next, the one with the ‘real’ petrol pumps outside and a forecourt. It even had a car showroom with opening doors so that you could get the cars in and out. It was made from wood and paper covered, which would scuff at the edges with use until it started to peel away. I could hardly wait to get my garage. It was just the place to keep my Corgi and Dinky cars.

As I disappointingly remember I didn’t get my garage that year. Instead Father Christmas delivered a dark-grey metal Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder. Very nice for some (my father), but not much fun for a barely five year old boy. You could hardly store you toy cars in a tape recorder and it didn’t even have a winding handle. After an hour of talking to myself, then playing it back I was bored. I wasn’t allowed to touch the buttons, so it wasn’t much fun at all. It was then that I thought of paint.

What fun I hade taping paper to the spinning spool mechanism then dropping paint onto it. It swirled everywhere, on and off the paper; it covered the recorder, me, our old green settee. What fun I had being an early Damien Hirst as I watched my action paintings take shape before my eyes. Of course when my father caught me he wasn’t best pleased and flew into one of his rages.

After a good slapping ‘my’ tape recorder was taken away; after all, I wasn’t ‘grown up’ enough to be trusted with it.

I almost didn’t write to Father Christmas the following year. But - worried that he would forget me - asked for my Shell garage again and this time I got it. There’s a moral in here somewhere but I’m not quite sure what it is. Perhaps it’s that being naughty always pays off in the long run or maybe it’s that some others, even your family, will always put their own needs and desires before your own and they are really not to be trusted.

By the time I was nine I’d given up writing to Father Christmas.

Monday, 16 December 2013

9 sleeps to go - It's virtually Christmas...

It’s virtually Christmas and I mean that quite literally. Things have moved on in the world of present buying, it seems that Father Christmas may soon be on the ‘at risk’ list. No Christmas card for him maybe; just his cards.

Every year my wife would buy me the latest Stephen King. She’d go to the bookshop, wrap it up, place it carefully under the tree and it would sit there waiting patiently for Christmas morning to arrive. I always knew what it was long before I opened it. Well a book looks like a book and feels like a book doesn’t it?

Perhaps not these days.

A couple of years ago I moved from paper to Kindle. It’s great. I can have any book when I want it, sometimes for a fraction of the cost I’d have paid for paper, and it’s so easy and portable.  This year my wife asked if there was a book I wanted for Christmas. Well, obviously there was; there’s always a book that I want, so she said that she’d get it and I said that there was no need. I’d download it to my Kindle on Christmas morning – simples!

“So what do I wrap?” She asked.

Good question. The best that I could come up with was that she downloaded it for me and then… well, then nothing really.

Yes, all this interwebbing has made Christmas almost a present free zone. No more records or CD’s, no more books or vouchers. It's all downloads, online gift vouchers, presents ordered online and delivered to your door pre-wrapped and gift tagged… I begin to wonder what’s next. Of course the upside is the convenience - and we must be saving hundreds of forests in wrapping paper. But somehow losing the anticipation of opening that parcel under the tree is just that – a loss.

With 3D printers on the up I really do wonder what is next - print your own virtual socks maybe?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

10 sleeps to go - The 'Autumn and Winter' catalogue...

It seemed that I spent half of the year waiting for the ‘Autumn and Winter’ catalogue to arrive and the other half looking through it. Everyone had one; my mum, my gran, my aunties and my mum’s friends – which meant that they were all agents and on commission. No, not 007 or Napoleon Solo and ‘commission’ was 10% of sales to be spent on catalogue goods and nothing to do with class ‘B’ drugs.

Of course the great thing about the ‘Autumn and Winter’ was that at the very back were the toys. In summer the back was tools and garden implements; but coming up to Christmas it was all train sets, Scalectrix, rockets and dolls. Beyond that were the hampers and then the index – but I never ventured that far.

From October onward I spent my time gazing at the toys in the catalogue. My letter to Father Christmas not only detailed what I wanted, but the page number, item number, and just how much it would cost over twenty weeks of easy repayments. It was heaven and a precursor of online shopping, without the online bit as it all was made to happen by order form and snail mail in pre-paid envelopes.

Everything was available in the catalogue; from suits to suites, televisions to Tupperware, shoes to shavers. But for me it was always the toys, the anticipation of Christmas and the back of the thick, hard to lift, full-colour book, which held me spellbound. At least it was... until one day I noticed all those pretty ladies in corsets and nightwear.

But I’ll save that for another post.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

11 sleeps to go - Christmas Cliff...

What’s your favourite?

Yes, the good old Christmas song. I’m not talking carols here, I really am talking songs – although you have to wonder if that term applies to most of them don’t you.

There are only a handful of Christmas songs that I love to hear every year – The Pogues, Slade, Bing, Chris Rea, Wizard – and then I can only bear them once or twice. The rest are like fingernails on a chalk board. Believe this or not but Erasure have released a whole Christmas album this year including a revved-up camp cover of Gaudete. I don’t know what that says about Christmas or Erasure these days but whatever you do... DON'T LISTEN TO IT, it's evil.

But then back to Saint Sir Christmas Cliff.

Bosses of Costa Coffee have banned Sir Cliff Richard’s 1988 Christmas song ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ from their shops after it topped a survey of the most despised festive tracks. Well done to them I say, sanity at last. Sir Cliff and his sugar-coated, quasi-religious, tinsel and fake snow view of Christmas really gets on my tangerine pip. I wish he’d take off his bloody scarf and either stuff it in his mouth and shut up, or get on and hang himself with it. Our Father Who Art in Heaven to the tune of Auld Langs Syne… I bloody ask you.

Mind you, I do have a few things in common with Cliff. I have a red scarf, I also dyed my hair mid-brown for a while, and we both make our own wine. I make mine in an eight gallon drum in the cellar and Cliff... well, Cliff has his own vineyard in the Algarve.

By the way Shakin, Stevens’ 1982 hit Blue Christmas came runner up to Sir Cliff. Outrageous really. Cliff should at least have headed at least the top five of the Top 10 on the Christmas coffee shop banned list.

Unfortunately, it seems like it’s almost God’s law now that Cliff Richard has to release another Christmas song every year. Away In A sodding Manger, 21st Century Christmas, Christmas Is Quiet, Saviours’ bloody Day, Christmas Song, Ding Dong Merrily On High, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and of course the abomination that is Mistletoe and Wine…

Children singing Christian rhyme. With logs on the fire and gifts on the tree, a time to rejoice in the good that we see…

And the worst thing is we all know the bloody words and will never be able to forget them! Not even Alzheimer’s will do that.  We’ll all be singing along as we dribble and eat our soup, wearing the Christmas cracker hats that the care staff have jauntily arranged on our heads for the photo.

Goddamn you Cliff Richard. Not only have you spoilt Christmas past and Christmas present with you horrible festive ditties, but you’ve gone and spoiled my Christmas yet to come as well!

Friday, 13 December 2013

12 sleeps to go - Rudolph the red-nosed Reindinner...

So guess what I’m having for dinner this evening. Here’s a little clue: Santa’s sleigh is pulled by them.

Yes, I know but Reindeer is delicious so why are you looking at me like that? It’s not like I’m eating the real Rudolph, or even Dasher, Prancer, or the rest of Santa’s crew. It’s just meat, like lamb and cow and pig. So unless you are a vegetarian hear me out; this is no time for anthropomorphic sentimentality red nose or no red nose.

Reindeer meat is delicious. It has a wonderful taste, a bit like a richer version of venison, and it’s tender, very lean, full of vitamin E and omega-3. So it ticks the ‘good for you’ list. The meat is very, very dark, almost dark brown and Reindeers have been a part of Northern Europe’s diet for hundreds of years. Reindeer is widely eaten in Norway, in the same way that we eat venison. Reindeer’s are sustainable, free-range, and healthy – just the sort of thing that the doctor would order, if only it was on the menu.

Of course the Sami people of Northern Norway eat, wear, sleep on and even breathe Reindeer. Around 15% of the Sami population are involved in the husbandry of this semi-wild creature. They  roam freely all the way up to the Arctic Circle and the Sami people shepherd them from their winter breeding grounds to the spring grazing pastures on the coast - and then back again.

Traditionally the Sami are very long-lived, so if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me.

I bought my Reindeer meat frozen from Lidl. Well done to them I say, although the press have pilloried them for selling it.

Anyway…

 Daube of Reindeer.

Ingredients (serves 4)
600g reindeer meat, cut into cubes
150g sliced bacon
1 chopped carrot
2 sticks of chopped celery
1 chopped onion
2 finely chopped cloves garlic
400ml beef stock
½ bottle red wine
200g sliced button mushrooms
3 juniper berries (if you can get them) lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
2tbsp plain flour

And if you fancy dumplings: 
200g self-raising flour
105g butter
2tbsp chopped thyme
A little water

- Fry the bacon in a little olive oil in a casserole pan
- Add carrots, celery, onion, and garlic and cook gently until soft
- Remove vegetables from the pan and set to one
- Coat reindeer meat with seasoned flour
- Brown the reindeer meat on a high heat in batches
- Place the vegetables back into the pan, and add the wine, stock, mushrooms, bay leaf and juniper berries (if you found some) and simmer
- Meanwhile, make the dumplings
- Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blitz until it looks like fine breadcrumbs
- Add a little water gradually, until you have a firm - but not wet - dough.
- Roll the dough into golf ball-sized balls and place them on the top of the stew

- Cover and cook on a very low heat for 3 hours or until the meat is really tender

I wonder if it's one of Santa's favourites?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

13 sleeps to go - Humbug...

Each year at around this time I begin to think about A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Some years I read the book. Other years I watch the film. Sometimes I do both. Of course, when I say the film I’m not talking Muppets or musical or CGI, I’m talking about the REAL film starring Alec Guinness.

I must have been about six when I first saw this example of British film making at its very best and I’ve never been able to forget the marvellous, frightening, heart-warming imagery. It essence it sums up Christmas better than any film I’ve ever seen. But then how could it fail, given that A Christmas Carol in many ways defined Christmas as we know it today?

Dickens really did move on what was basically a Christian religious festival without any wassail and plum pudding and made it a jolly good time. In fact I think that Dickens has more to do with the Christmas that most of us celebrate than Jesus ever did.

As for the poor: ‘Are there no prisons?’ And as for Christmas: ‘Bah, humbug!’ (Not really.)

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

14 sleeps to go - Christmas cheer...

Christmas Day is about the only time of year that I feel I can legitimately drink before breakfast. There’s nothing like a glass of bubbles first thing the get that special day started. Of course orange juice is available, but it never gets opened. I sip my champagne whilst opening my presents which is usually done for elevenish and then it’s time for a nice glass of sherry. This is a Christmas tradition (I think) and about the only time I ever drink the rich, pungent liquid. I prefer my sherry dry; but when I was a boy I remember tasting the sweet, sickly stuff I found in the drinks cupboard under the stairs and vowing never to touch the demon booze again.

I failed in my vow.

By around one I’m ready for a beer or two. So it’s off to the local for a couple of pints of bitter. If I’m in Wales I’ll probably sample a couple of the guest bitters at ‘The Cliffs’. If I’m at home I may even pop over to that other well known watering hole ‘The Fridge’; it’s pretty handy being in the kitchen and everything. Beer is a necessity at this time in order to prepare for the wilting boredom that is the Queen’s speech.

At half-past four it’s time for my pre-dinner Jaggers and Taggers in order to set my appetite on edge for whatever sumptuous feast we have eventually decided upon. As yet the actual ingredients of our dinner still hang in the balance. But hopefully by the day we’ll have reached a decision and we’ll have something to eat along with the Chablis with the fish (or Heinz soup if we can’t decide soon), Merlot with the meat (or sausages), Port with the cheese (or quavers), and Brandy with the coffee (or Brandy with the Brandy).

After Christmas dinner I usually take a break from the booze - usually about twenty minutes. Then it’s time for my early evening Mojito. Well, the lime is so refreshing. I might follow this with a Moscow Mule or a Manhattan Transfer Yes, Christmas night is cocktail night. One year we ran out of ice, but fortunately it was very cold so I reached out of the back door and snapped off a few icicles. That did the trick.

At some point during all this revelry it’s time to think about getting some shuteye. I sometimes consider making myself a nice steaming cup of hot chocolate, But I soon dismiss that as a very silly idea and instead pour myself a Jack Daniels nightcap. I usually end Christmas by watching the flames in the fireplace until I feel ready to make the long climb up the stairs to bed.

I awake Boxing Day morning on the sofa.

Champers anyone?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

15 sleeps to go - Snow...

They say it’s going to snow. Yes, it won't be long before we’ll all be there with snow. Mind you, they always say that. Each year we are all set for the coldest winter on record. Each year we are warned that the snow will start falling bringing with it chaos to the roads, the closure of schools, and a lovely picturesque view from out of our windows just as long as we stay indoors. But then what is Christmas with no snow? No white Christmas with no snow.

Snow.

There’s something magical in waking up to find a deep, crisp, even blanket of white outside your front door and along the road. What fun it is to be the first to leave footprints, throw a snowball, or go down to the meadow and build a man that’s made of snow. I long to clear a path and lift a spade of snow and see a great big man entirely made of snow. I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow.

Snow.

Fortunately, around here the local council are in tune with the whole snowy experience and make no attempt to clear it away. Often our road is covered in snow and slippery as ice (which it is) for days after the snow has fallen. I just love that skiddy, skatey, feeling as you edge cautiously along trying to avoid sliding into the parked cars which litter each side of the road and those glistening houses that seem to be built of snow

Snow.

Yes, snow is great until it turns to slush.

Snow.

So, in the words of Sammy Cahn: ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’

Monday, 9 December 2013

16 sleeps to go... Putting up the decorations…

It’s late, far too late to be trying to write this, but if I don’t I’ll feel that an opportunity has been lost. Quite what that opportunity is I have no idea. Most of the time it feels like I’m talking to myself, which I’ve actually started to do.

It’s late. Did I mention that?

Yes, you did.
I did, didn’t I? Sorry.
No need to apologise.
Ten  minutes that’s all. Ten minutes and then we can both go to sleep. Okay?
Okay.

We put the decorations up yesterday. It used to be something I really looked forward to; but these days the aches and pains, the bending and stretching, make it something of a trial. Gone are the days I’d hike deep into the forest collecting holly and ivy, transforming them into natural garlands to string across the room. These days I’m happy to settle for plastic and silk, my ‘au natural’ days far behind me.

It’s not simply the physical pain either. It seems that as I get older the decoration of halls and the titillation of fir trees seems somehow less important. It isn’t so much getting older as growing away from the child I once was. I fight against it though, and thus far the child has won. But I feel him slipping back, losing himself in the forest we once both explored.

So the trees are all decorated, the banister garlanded, paper-chains (courtesy of Holly) hang from our ceilings, a multitude of twinkling lights abound. This year the opportunity has been taken once more. Christmas has arrived and all that remains are the outside lights.

Ah, the outside lights, I’d forgotten them. Tomorrow or the next day, I need to sleep.

Goodnight.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

17 sleeps to go - The magpie thief...

Most certainly everything that glitters is not gold. How well I have learnt that lesson over the years. But like the magpie that stole the Christmas tinsel I have to say that I’m attracted to the shine of the cheap and tawdry. Call me a fool if you wish, but I’m a fool looking for gold where no gold could ever exist.

The Christmas tinsel always held a fascination for me. Of course the tinsel back then was not the lush and extravagant stuff it is today. I have memories of silver tinsel so sharp it could slice your finger and other stuff that seemed to fall apart as soon as you picked it up leaving behind only a silver string and hundreds of flutters of tinfoil on the lino. 

Of course this was the sixties and there wasn’t much shine in the world. Trees would be draped in as much tinsel as could be afforded as using the tree lights could be dangerous. The bulbs were huge and became very hot after a while. They always reminded me of multi-coloured pointed gnomes hats. Mind you, some of the tinsel we used was probably from the 50’s when tinsel was made from lead foil which probably partly explains my difficulties thinking sensibly.

Anyway, that Christmas magpie.

One Christmas Eve I ‘borrowed’ a piece of tinsel from the tree and took it out to the garden to play at being a shooting star. It was a sunny day and the light caught the tinsel as I flew up and down the back garden path making whooshing noises and ducking and diving. One minute the tinsel was streaming above my head like a meteorite’s tail behind me and the next, with a yank, it was gone. I looked up to see my precious tinsel streamer disappearing into a tree held tightly in the beak of a magpie.

I watched as the bird examined its treasure whilst sitting on a branch. Then it picked it up in its beak once more and off it flew like a black and white comet with it’s gleaming, glittering, silver tail flowing out behind it.

I never saw that tinsel again. As for the magpie, well there were almost as many of them back then as there are today. The image of that bird has stuck in my mind all these years and I can’t look at a piece of tinsel without going back to that day and remembering the magpie thief.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

18 Sleeps to go - Top of the Pops Christmas special...

There was a period in my life when Top of the Pops was essential viewing. Back then there were no VCRs or Sky Plus to sort the men from the boys - or even the Jackson Five from the Osmonds – and if you wanted to keep in conversation at school the next day then ‘It’s Thursday, it’s 7pm, and it’s Top of the Pops’ was a must. Particularly to a young man wishing to talk pop to the girls at the Wenman School disco that evening and hopefully getting a snog around the back of the Youth Club.

I used to daydream as I watched the shuffling packs of over-made-up, blank-eyed girls from Smethwick or Aylesbury swaying to the music in their tank-tops and wedges, their tendril-like feathered hair wafting in an air heavy with dry ice and the great smell of Brut. All of this – music, dancing (of a sort), sex (of a sort), and stack-heeled shoes - whilst that whacky Dave Lee Travis or the beautifully combed-over Diddy David looked on being really, really bonkers-mad.

I used to watch the screen ogling Pan’s People and learning all the latest dance trends. How well I remember the time I first learnt the Kate Bush mystical fluttering-fingered, windmill-arm dance; a skill I still reveal on the dance floor to this day. The studio audience seemed only to have two moves: the side-to-side hop from one foot to the other (Bay City Rollers, Mud, Slade and that Gary Glitter person with the very startled face); and the other one which involved waving their hands from side to side, even when they were sitting down (Osmonds, Smokey, Peters and Lee and more one-hit-wonder female ballad singers than you could shake your leg at.)

Looking back I wonder why I anticipated Thursday evenings with such deep joy and elation. "Why do you watch this rubbish?" Mr Angry would ask. Good question, but I managed to ignore him as I sat glued watching Lieutenant Pigeon perform that not-quite-fully instrumental and mighty number one, Mouldy Old Dough.

On Christmas and Boxing Day my routine revolved around the Top of the Pops Christmas Special and my meals were eaten accordingly. I sulkily insisted that the telly was on as we morosely munched our way through the turkey and sprouts, sometimes hastily devouring it on a tray on my lap so as not to miss the pop-picking action. Roy Wood and Wizard, Sir Cliff, Boney ‘M’, David Cassidy, the ever annoying Paul McCartney and his Mull of f’Kintyre, all performed as a Christmas soundtrack to the Christmas pudding and pulling of crackers. Of course my father hated it and would lose his temper. But seeing as I was forced to endure the Queen’s Speech at three I felt it a very fair trade.

Of course TOTP has been gone a while now. But I hear (or fear) that his year it makes a Christmas return with a Top Of The Pops Christmas Special featuring mysterious names such as John Newman, One Republic, Ellie Goulding, Tom Odell, Jessie J, Moko, Rizzle Kicks, Rudimental, James Blunt, Sam Smith, and The Saturdays. Even more wowtastic, twenty years since first topping the charts Boyzone will return to the Top Of The Pops stage and the hour-long festive feast of pop will culminate in the countdown to this year’s all-important Christmas No.1.

Will I be eating my Christmas dinner on a tray so as not to miss it? Well, in the words of David Jacobs of Juke Box Jury fame: “I think that I might give that a miss then.”

Friday, 6 December 2013

19 sleeps to go - Intermission...

A little over 2,000 years a man like Nelson Mandela might have been proclaimed as a Messiah and gone on to give rise to a new religion. As it is, he was just a man, but a very good man and one that we can all learn from. The world really is a poorer place for his passing just as it was when another teacher and freedom fighter passed over 2,000 years ago.

I no more believe that Jesus was the actual son of God than I do that Nelson Mandela is the second coming. But there is no doubt that Jesus was a man of wisdom who fought for the oppressed and suffered as a result of it.

If I have one wish for Nelson Mandela and his memory, it’s that he remains a man and does not become a legend or a doctrine. I also hope that he doesn’t have a book of fairy stories built around his life in order for religious and political organisations to benefit from his work and sacrifice so that they might build a controlling, greedy empire around his life, legend and memory.

I don’t think either man would have wanted that.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

20 sleeps to go - Bing Crosby...

All I have to do is here Bing Crosby and I think Roman Catholic Priests, not quite a rat packer, David Bowie, The Little Drummer Boy, Holiday Inn and of course White Christmas.

That eight line song paints a picture of Christmas holiday nostalgia American style and takes me back to Christmas spent in front of the TV watching Bing’s Christmas Special. I was amazed when Bowie joined him on the show, even more amazed that they’d only rehearsed once and for only ten minutes!

Of course Bing IS White Christmas. It was written by Irving Berlin, originally about a New Yorker stranded in California at Christmas time. Bing recorded it for the movie Holiday Inn in 1942 in just 18 minutes and starred in the movie with Fred Astaire. The song went on to win the Best Song Academy Award of 1942 and has become THE Christmas song.

Bing performed the song again in White Christmas, his 1954 film co-starring Danny Kaye. Fred Astaire was asked to take the Danny Kaye part but turned it down saying that he’d already done that movie once! In that film my favourite song is Snow - I just love the whole train journey scenes. Chooo Chooo!

Historically White Christmas is the biggest selling Christmas song of all time and even the biggest selling song of ALL time, going back and forth with Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’. And then Diana was killed and Elton John released his tribute to her ‘Candle In The Wind’ and that put paid to that.

Keep dreaming folks.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

21 sleeps to go - Going crackers...

Every year we buy them, every year we complain about how crappy they are. Why do we do it? Just what is it about Christmas crackers that makes us waste our money on them? It can’t be the toy. Even the posher crackers still contain something that, whilst delightful when we find it – a mini torch, a set of Lilliputian screwdrivers, a twisted wire Chinese puzzle – are doomed to end up at the back of a drawer along with all those other cracker toys from years gone by. Open any drawer in my house and somewhere you will find a minute plastic toy car or a tiny spinning top.

If not the toys then, could it be the hats? Who doesn’t love wearing a garish paper crown as they nibble their way through their unwanted Christmas pudding? A cracker paper hat turns us all into Kings and Queens. Apparently the hats represent the fools crown worn by the Lord of Misrule, a Twelfth Night custom of appointing the village idiot to get the party swinging with all manner of jolly jape.

Of course it could be the jokes. The secret of a good Christmas cracker joke is that isn’t meant to be funny – it needs to be groan-inducing and the bigger the groan, the better the joke. You know the type of thing I mean.

What school subject are snakes best at? – Hisstory… Groan!
What do you call a crazy golfer? - A crack put… Groaan!
What do vampires sing on New Year's Eve? - Auld Fang Syne… Groaaan!
What's the fastest thing in water? - A motor pike… Groaaaan!
What do you call a blind dinosaur? - A doyouthinkhesawus… Groaaaaan!

I could go on but I won’t. Well, perhaps just one more seeing as you are twisting my arm.

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Wenceslas.
Wenceslas who?
Wenceslas train home?

Groaaaaaaaaaaan!

Maybe it’s the snapper? That thing that makes the cracker go snap occasionally as they often don’t work. Just why do we feel so disappointed when our cracker doesn’t snap, and why do we crawl around under the table trying to find that plastic whistle, tearing our hat so that we have to sellotape it in the process?

Ultimately I think it’s the combination of pointless competition, misguided anticipation, and childlike harmless fun that makes Christmas crackers such a hit. We love the snap, the intrigue of the pointless toy, the groan of that really bad joke, the gaudy paper wrapper, even the flimsy paper hat that we all now makes us look ridiculous even when they do fit.

Crackers are a piece of silliness, a small slice of the idiot misrule, laughter and festivity from our past. Forget wise men and the baby Jesus, maybe that’s what Christmas should really be about.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

22 sleeps to go - Father Christmas aka...

Poor old Father Christmas, he has to be suffering from some sort of identity crisis. He wanders the world for a single day and everywhere he goes he has a different name. He really must wonder just who he is and what he’s here for? Just like the rest of us really - well, me at least. Who is Father Christmas, and just how did he become a mince-pie-eating chimney slider?

The real Father Christmas was originally part of the old English Midwinter festival, dressed in green he didn’t come down chimneys or bring presents, he just wandered from house to house bringing good cheer and reminding people that spring was just around that proverbial corner. He was known as ‘Sir Christmas’, ‘Old Father Christmas’ or ‘Old Winter. It was the Victorians that made him dress in red on Christmas cards, it wasn’t even his colour.

Santa Claus was a Dutch American thing; trust them to clog up the issue. When the Dutch settlers founded New York they brought along the story of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch name for St Nicholas, a fourth century, red robed, Turkish bishop who cared for the poor and children. The story goes that one day he climbed on to a rooftop to drop a purse of gold down the chimney of a father unable to afford the wedding dowries of his three daughters and it landed in a stocking drying by the fire. Hence the chimney and stocking thing.

In Iceland they have Jólasveinarnir (the Yule Lads). Their number has varied throughout the ages, but currently there are considered to be around thirteen. Then there’s Le Père Fouettard; a sinister figure dressed in black who accompanies Santa dealing out the whip to any children who have behaved badly. In Spain and Puerto Rico, where there’s no Father Christmas, the gift-givers are the Three Kings: Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar. To trump that, Jesus turns up in Mexico and Costa Rica dishing out the Christmas goodies.

Talking of Jesus, Kris Kringle, from the German Christkindl or Christkindlein, means Christ Child. Disturbed by the fact that the figure of Saint Nicholas was beginning to overshadow Jesus, reformer Martin Luther invented Christkindl, spreading the story that the Christ Child leaves secret presents for children, along with a dwarf-like being, known as Belsnickle. How cosy, Jesus and a dwarf entering your room on Christmas Eve night.

‘Pere Noel’ in France and Belgium, ‘Papai Noel’ in Brazil, ‘Old Man Christmas’ in Chile, ‘Christmas old man’ in China (trust them), ‘Kerstman’ in The Netherlands, ‘Babbo Natale’ in Italy, ‘Hoteiosho’ (a god) in Japan, ‘Julenissen’ the Christmas gnome in Norway, ‘Swiety Mikolaj’ (Sweaty Mike) in Poland, ‘Grandfather Frost’ in Russia, ‘Jultomten’ a Christmas brownie in Sweden, ‘Bellsnickle’ in old America, ‘Black Peter’ in Morocco, ‘Gwiazdor’ (which means star man from the North Star) in Northern Poland, ‘Chimney John’ in Wales, ‘Jouluppukki’ in Finland (which translates as Yule Goat - an ugly creature that frightened children), and plain old ‘Father Christmas’ to the rest of us.

Confused? No wonder the poor bugger needs to smoke.


Monday, 2 December 2013

23 sleeps to go - The smell of tangerines...

Life should smell of tangerines, not cabbage. I'll leave that train of thought there, but I think you know what I mean.

Tangerines really are the smell of Christmas alongside pine needles from the tree and roasting turkey. It’s hard to peel a tangerine and not be taken on a journey to Christmas’s past. Christmas morning stockings, the orange waxy fruit tucked away in the bottom, more orange than orange and vibrant. I loved the way the skin peeled so easily (unlike an orange) and the squirt of juicy tangerine spray which always managed to find your eye. The citrus oil smell clung to your fingers and stayed all day - a bit like an unwelcome relative.

More orange than orange. Yes, tangerine.

The name tangerine comes from Tangier in Morocco, the port from which the first tangerines were shipped to Europe in 1841. I remember the exotic looking boxes in the shops and for some reason think of Spanish ladies with fans. They’d come individually wrapped in waxed paper inside the bleached wooden crate and sometimes you’d find a brittle green leaf inside.

These days it seems that Tangerines have all but disappeared from the shops and I get blank looks in supermarkets when I ask for them. They are there though, but in disguise and it all comes down to fashion and names. Tangerine is the old name for Mandarin, which is an all encompassing term for the citrus fruits of several trees. The name started to be dropped in the swinging ‘60s, in favour of its more exotic-sounding alternative, although of the two I find Tangerine more exotic. When I say the word ‘tangerine’, letting my tongue and teeth feast on its luscious juiciness, I see a moustachioed turban-wearing Turk, wielding a long, curved scimitar. Amidst all these orangey fruits just where the Satsuma fits in I’ve no idea… and as for the Clementine - well ding dong.

Back in boyhood I’d sometimes make tangerine candles from the tangerine skin. I don’t remember who showed me how to do this, but it was probably my Uncle Charlie. First I’d cut around the tangerine’s circumference so that once I’d removed the succulent segments I was left with two empty halves. It wasn’t an easy job and I often had to start over several times as I needed to make sure that the inner pity centre of the fruit was attached as this became the wick. Once I had two halves and a decent wick I’d cut a star in the no-wick half to let the heat out and pour a little olive oil (bought from the chemist back then), not too much, into the other. I’d trim the wick so that it was about a eighth of an inch (a few millimetres) above the oil, then light it and ‘hey presto’, the smell of Christmastime in a tiny blue flame.

I might make some this year. The smell might give me a tangerine dream.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

24 sleeps to go - Elf

Today is the first day of December. Yes, scary isn’t it. Over December I’m going to pick out a few Christmassy things to write about. Today it’s the turn of Elf the movie. Now I have to say that I’m not as big a fan as a certain someone I know who has it word perfect, but it did make me smile even though it is a teensy bit American syrupy for my tastes.

Elf (2003) is based on the book written and illustrated by Buddy Hobbs. It was released in the US on November 7, 2003, and grossed over $220,400,000 worldwide. So even though it isn’t my kind of film it seems to be everybody else’s.

The story, such as it is, is about one of Santa’s elves who finds out he’s really human and goes off to New York to find his biological father, spreading far too much Christmas cheer in a cynical world as he goes along his merry elf way.

Ho–ho–ho.

Of course as everyone knows, Jim Carrey was originally supposed to play the lead role of Buddy the elf. But for one reason or another didn’t make it. Will Ferrell who took the role ate so much candy while filming that he suffered from headaches and lack of sleep during the film’s production. Perhaps it was that made him turn down $29 million to do a sequel.

Oh well, as Buddy would say: “Sounds like somebody needs to sing a Christmas carol.”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen anyone?

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The big race…


Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and ask: “How did you win that race?” You know the race I’m talking about. That first race, the one that really is a matter of life and… well, not death really, let’s call it ‘not being’. Yes, that first race we all experience but none of us can remember - the sperm race.

In the words of the mighty Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life; “Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.” Now that’s a laugh, and of course it’s meant to be; billions of sperms get wasted over the course of a man’s lifetime. To be exact, if he gives rise to the average 2.6 children, then around 524,000,001,997.4 of them are simply a waste of a cell.

Yes, the average male will produce roughly 525 billion (that's BILLION) sperm cells over his lifetime and lose at least one billion of them per month – whoops! A healthy adult man can release between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells in a single whoops.

Imagine it, a billion sperms cells all lined up for the big race… on your marks. Get set. Go… and they’re off!

The odds of being the first past the winning post are incredible. Sometimes I wonder just who I beat to get there? I imagine million upon million of alternate ‘me’ all lined up and ready to go. Some of them would be blonde, others dark, redheads, mousey. Some taller, others shorter, all shapes and sizes and over fifty percent of them would be girls potentially. In fact they’d have all sorts of potentials; scientists, murderers, priests, plumbers, artists, professional footballers, hookers, actors, thieves, drug addicts, maybe even the odd world domination dictator or two.

Of course there would be the defectives as well. But the strong would outweigh the weak. Even so, I find it really hard to believe that I was the strongest contender. Somewhere in there could have been a David Beckham - which would have pleased my father - or another sperm (probably a girl) who wouldn’t have argued back - which would have delighted both of them. Unluckily for them though, it was me that pushed my way forward and, probably through luck plus a bit of cheating, came out on top to win the gold medal of life instead of nonexistence.

Whoops indeed.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Is it a bird? Is it a flying cow? No it’s…

I thought I was weird and could come up with a weird tale, but browsing the web this morning I bumped into this picture of a horse.

“If I were a man… If I were free to tell her of my real feelings, for a girl like that, I’d even give up all my super-powers!”

Okay… I knew immediately that this was Comet the Super-Horse. How did I know? Well once, many, many light years away I read comic books morning, noon and night spending all of my pocket money on them. I must have read thousands of the things, I devoured them, every last CAPITALISED WORD!!! The stories were at best outlandish and often complete nonsense. But what fun they were. These days I wonder if the writers weren’t high on some drug given to them by a being from the Fifth Dimension, or Aliens sent to confuse us earthlings, or maybe they were just plain silly. Whatever the reason, some of those stories were way too wacky and none more so than the tale of Comet the Super-Horse.

Super Horse didn’t come from Krypton like Krypto (Superman’s Super-Dog) and Beppo ( his Super-Monkey) who was a test animal of Jor-El's (Superman’s father) and ended up on Earth. Super-Horse wasn’t even like Streaky (Supergirl’s Super-Cat) who gained his powers from a radioactive experimental antidote to Kryptonite that Supergirl was working on. I’d always assumed that Comet the Super-Horse was a horse from Krypton that belonged to Supergirl before she made her escape and the planet exploded. But that wasn’t the case at all. Just how wrong can you be?

I did some digging and what turned up was even weirder than most of comic book stories I’d read. It may have been written in the psychedelic sixties but is that any excuse for unnatural relationships?

It turns out that Comet is not from Krypton at all. He first appeared in Action Comics #292 in 1962. Supergirl had been hit by Kryptonite rays and was falling to Earth. Out of nowhere came a white horse with superpowers that saved her life. Now bear with me please. Comet was originally a centaur named Biron who was in love with Circe the sorceress from Greek mythology. When he saved her life, she agreed to repay him with a wish. His wish was to become human. Which she did, but she gave him the wrong potion (actually it was switched by a baddie) and instead of a man, he was turned completely into a horse. (Are you with it so far?) There was no antidote to the potion so, as a kind of consolation prize, Circe bestowed super-strength, telepathy and immortality to Biron the horse.

So far all pretty believable, at least to a seven year old boy, but then Superman receives a summons for help from Prince Endor of Zerox. The prince needed a flying horse for some reason so Supergirl and Comet made the trip. Zerox was a planet of sorcerers (as so many planets are) and by way of thanks Prince Endor granted Comet a wish. Now luckily magic had changed since Biron was first turned into a horse, and Prince Endor could now reverse the spell.

Quick more drugs! Comet would not have super-powers and would turn into a human on Earth when a comet passed through the solar system. Upon returning to Earth, a comet just happened to enter the solar system and Comet became human. Comet gave himself the name “Bronco Bill2 and soon bumped into Supergirl in his manly form. And this is when she… well, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. But suffice it to say that kissing and hay was involved. In a later story old BB (aka Coment the Super-Horse, aka Biron the centaur) had a bit of a fling with none other than Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Of course neither of them ever knew that he was a horse - or at least if they did they never let on.

And that’s the tale of Comet the Super-Horse. Sorry I just had to share it with someone.