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  • Writer's picturePhilip Dunn

After All, It Was Christmas

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

Some Seasonal Memories of 1967

Because Merilyn and I were getting married a couple of weeks into the New Year, my mother had made an appointment for me to meet the family’s regular Co-op insurance agent on the Friday before Christmas at my parents’ house, in Teddington. This was so that I could take out life and contents policies, which would cover the essentials of my pending new responsibilities. That morning I had travelled there by underground and overground trains from my student digs near Alexandra Palace, where the Fine Art Department of Hornsey College of Art was accommodated and, after a short walk from the railway station, I arrived at about 10.30 am, with half an hour to spare before the appointed time.

However, for reasons I cannot remember I must have had to give back my house key some time before this, my last Christmas at “home” and I was therefore surprised and disappointed that nobody was in when I rang the doorbell, particularly as it had started to snow, albeit in light swirling flurries. After all, it was Christmas.

So, I retreated directly across the road to “The Builder’s Arms”, on the corner opposite, a pub which has never ever been frequented by my parents, except to complain that occasionally it sounded like people therein were enjoying themselves. I bought myself half a pint and settled down at a table by a strategically well-placed window to wait and watch to see who would arrive first.

The dapper insurance man looked thoroughly shocked when I approached him, as he stood expectantly at the front door. After I had explained that, although my mother had made the appointment with him, I had no idea where either she or my father could possibly be, I invited him back over to the warmth of the pub and offered him a drink. He accepted and, while he repeatedly expressed dumbfounded disbelief that we had both been so let down when we had been so adamantly commanded to attend, we amicably concluded the business as intended and, after about an hour, noticed my parents at last going into the house.

We duly followed and, just for once, I wasn’t left to make my own case alone for my parents’ apparent callous behaviour towards me. This small and slightly camp insurance salesman took up the cudgels and waded in on my behalf. However, no amount of outrage about leaving their son out in the snow when he’d come home for Christmas, and for a purpose and at a time insisted on by them, was going to shame them from their indignation and pious righteousness. They were resolute in their belief that I should have guessed where they would be on such a day and at such a time. They had been in the church, of course, a few hundred yards away, helping to decorate the altar and pulpit for the forthcoming Christian celebrations and I should have gone straight there to borrow a key. Surely, I did not need to be told. After all, it was Christmas.

That afternoon I caught the bus into Kingston to finish my Christmas shopping, since I would be doing my regular Saturday job all the next day and, although it would be Christmas Eve on the Sunday, all the shops, apart from newsagents in the morning, would be closed all day. The festive atmosphere of this bustling town soon put me in a better mood and I resolved to reprise my approval seeking disposition and get into the spirit of the season by buying everybody overgenerous presents. After all, it was Christmas.

Loaded down with gifts, I couldn’t go back home without a tour of the splendid Apple

Market, surrounded as it was by medieval looking buildings that housed such retail legends as Woolworths, British Home Stores and Boots, (whose name was then still commonly followed by “The Chemist”). There were usually some magnificent bargains to be had from the stalls there, especially late in the day and, the year before, I had bought a large wooden crate of beautiful tomatoes for a shilling, but that had been late on Christmas Eve. This year I still managed to find a florist eager to divest herself of perishable stock, and I found myself unable to resist a huge bunch of flowers and several branches of holly, complete with oodles of bright red berries. After all, it was Christmas.

How I managed on the crowded bus is a mystery to me now, but I somehow got back home to the front door laden with all shapes and sizes of carrier bags, rolls of wrapping paper and armfuls of blooms and prickly foliage. When my mother answered the door, I held out the floral bouquet to her and said that it was for her. Squealing with delight that I had bought her flowers, she rushed back into the house and showed them to my father, who was sitting with his back to me, out of sight in a winged armchair in the middle of the room, watching television. He merely asked grumpily where his were and, of all the trees that are in the wood, he’d walked into mine, whereupon, from above and behind he was decked with boughs of the famously crown-bearing holly straight into his lap. Needless to say, he was the only one who didn’t join in the subsequent seasonal merriment. Which was a shame. After all, it was Christmas.

My fiancée, Merilyn, would have been working that day, as normal, as a badly paid and grossly underestimated assistant in the Display Department of the prestigious department store, Heal’s, in London’s Tottenham Court Road. We had first met almost four years before at Twickenham College of Technology Graphic Art Department where we were both students on the Foundation Course, to both our fathers’ respective consternations. When I had tried to introduce her to my parents by inviting her to one of my mother’s midweek rehashed-leftovers dinners, I was charged an extra five shillings on top of the usual half of my £3 per week student grant usually demanded for my keep, on the grounds that it was what I would pay for a weekday lunch deal in a restaurant or a slap up meal in the college’s canteen. In the meantime, the so-called Parental Contribution that was calculated to be part of my grant was withheld but still claimed as an expense on my father’s tax return.

Bentalls, Kingston-upon-Thames (I did not take this photograph)

Anyway, I don’t remember whether Merilyn and I met up that evening or even the next, but I am doing my best here not to invent or exaggerate anything. However, I do remember arriving at my Saturday job in the Record Department on the top floor of Bentalls in Kingston the next day, the day before Christmas Eve, exactly three weeks from the day I was due to get married. The store itself always had a spectacular Christmas display and, although I can’t remember the theme for that particular year, I do remember that one year they had a colossal and pristine white cut-out paper sculpture of the Peter Pan story, that cascaded from the ceiling of the fourth floor, between all the double flights of escalators and down to the ground floor, complete with a huge suspended galleon with all the characters flying around it.

Bentalls Interior (I did not take this one, either)

I felt very fortunate to have such an enjoyable job to which I knew I was well suited. I had been tested recently, when I had been caught chatting to a colleague just before the store opened one morning, and I had been asked by the manageress what record was seventh, (or was it 17th?), in that week’s charts. I was able to answer immediately: it was, of course, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Harper’s Bizarre, which was a cover of the song by Simon and Garfunkel from their Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album of the year before. Yet, when I had been asked a couple of years before at my interview for a job in the store whether I knew anything about records, I imagined being in a dingy room down in the basement, where I would be filing old invoices and order forms. When I had looked flummoxed by the ambiguity of the question, the interviewer had asked me whether I had heard of the Beatles. I hadn’t been able to believe my luck and now I was being asked to load that day’s delivery of albums onto the shelves underneath the counters, only to discover that the vast majority of them were “Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles, which had been released on my birthday the previous May.

Packed tightly, our stock of this one title occupied over a metre of shelf space and, although selling all these seemed an overoptimistic prospect, by the end of business that day almost all had gone. It seemed that every single purchase included a copy of this album and I even remember discussing with a customer which was the better recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, as per the most recent recommendation by “Gramaphone” magazine, only for him to add, “Oh, and a Sergeant Pepper” to his selection as an afterthought. After all, it was Christmas.

I suppose the whole department would now make a curious museum exhibit. The long, enclosed rectangle of the counter that we stood within had a central worktop, around which we could circulate and upon which the cash tills and the record decks were arrayed on both sides. The latter had styluses that tracked at a state-of-the-art 2gms and allowed for records to be played to prospective customers in the dozen or more listening booths that lined three sides of the room, equidistant from the counter. When a record was selected from the indexed racks of covers around the outside of the counter, a copy of that record would be found from the shelves on the inside and underneath by a member of staff, who would remove it from its inner sleeve, (or from its cover and inner sleeve, if we had more than one copy), touching only the very edge of the disc and the label, (getting finger prints on the recorded surface on pain of severe chastisement). It would then be turned over and the customer invited to inspect it and confirm that it was in pristine condition, before it was replaced into its sleeve and cover or placed carefully on one of the decks. This was only allowed to be done by lining up by eye the deck’s central post through the hole in the centre of the record and at a distance, so that the disc was correctly positioned without further adjustment. This avoided the tell-tale “pencil” lines on the label that gave lie to the customer later returning that disc for a refund and claiming they had never played it. Since most customers did not have styluses that tracked as lightly as ours, customers returning a record were often astounded that, by holding the disc at an angle to the light, we could tell them how far into it the record had been played on their inferior equipment. If they disputed this, the manageress would invariably confirm exactly her staff’s judgement as to which tracks had been played and which had not.

Occasionally, we would be invaded by packs of loud and unruly youths, who would occupy one or two of the booths and demand that they be entertained with their choice of music for the afternoon. We could call security, but they would usually arrive in their own time, sometimes even the following day and sometimes with the German Shepherd puppy they were trying to train, wagging its tail and eager to join in the fun. These nuisance kids never had any intentions of buying anything and playing a selection of classical music or even opera at them had little effect. But we did find that we had one sure-fire gang-busting weapon in our arsenal. It was naffness incarnate, it was “The Sound of Music” and the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews rarely got beyond “The hills are alive...!” before the disc could be put back in its sleeve, ready for next time or for a customer with questionable taste or an aged mother.

Because it was so busy that Saturday, the system that we used for sending large banknotes for safekeeping, getting change and authorising customer account purchases etc. was given a lot more work to do than normal. At the back and underneath the counter were the boxed ends of two tubes, which were part of a Heath Robinson type of contraption, with one tube for sending and the other for receiving. Items to be sent were placed in cylinders and were sucked into one of the tubes and returned cylinders blown from the other. They were whisked to and fro across the ceiling in transparent pipes seen in tandem all over the shop. In every department, if one looked up, these cylinders could be seen being pumped at a healthy rate through these arteries and veins, the lifeblood of the store. And, at its heart, the dark place that I imagined when I was first asked whether I knew anything about records.

Anyway, after the busiest and most memorable and enjoyable day I experienced in that job, I cannot now remember what I did that evening. No doubt I met up with Merilyn somewhere, possibly at my parents’ house, but can only repeat that I am determined that this should be a factual account, even if I am instilling the narrative with a dark humour that I didn’t feel at the time. So, I am not about to start making things up that I am not sure about or embellishing events to make a better story. I am quite sure though that, the next day, I must have gone to the Sunday morning service at the church that I had been sent to for the previous fifteen years or so, which was long before my mother saw the light, followed later by my father, when he vaguely saw it too or, at least claimed he did. It was obvious that Sunday School and, later, church had started out to have been just a ploy to get us kids, my younger brother, Richard, and I, out of the house so that my parents could stay in bed all morning for reasons best not dwelt upon.

I had long ago given up the pretence to myself that any of these pious, and often contradictory, valedictions and frankly unbelievable stories held anything for me, except maybe an indistinct outline of a practical pacifist moral code, even if it was in conflict with the attitudes expressed in the Old Testament. Neither did I go there just because it was Christmas Eve or to admire the greenery, that my parents had helped weave into the chicken wire that was cladding the carved stone pulpit, while I had been waiting for them, nor the large pagan Christmas tree by the altar. No, but I had to go there to appease both the conventions of the time, and the miserably devout who dwelt nearby.

Firstly, I had to put in a semblance of belief in order to respectably marry my intended in the church and, secondly, to be able to live in the flat above the church hall, which was next to the church and in the same building as the rectory. Although we would be allowed to live there together as man and wife immediately after the ceremony, under one of the terms of the lease, dancing was prohibited on the premises. When, five or six years before, my only social outlet had been the small group of friends that we dared to call a youth club, who met in the basement of this building for two hours on a Friday evening, the Church Warden, Mr Lardner, (George to his few elders and betters), would keep watch at the window and complain to the Rector if he saw one of the girls tapping her feet next to my beloved Dansette record player. That, he would insist apoplectically, could be construed as dancing. One of Satan’s most successful and yet harmless temptations, if you ask me. God should have taken it on board earlier, it could have tipped the balance.

That afternoon, after lunch, I set about wrapping all the presents I had bought, in the beautifully shiny metallic silver paper, the like of which I had never seen before, but which I had purchased in Kingston two days before. I certainly knew how to wrap a good parcel by then, as Merilyn had taught me how she was expected to create immaculate parcels for displays at Heal’s. I didn’t go as far as using only double-sided adhesive tape in order to seal the packages invisibly, and I couldn’t find any ribbon with which to emulate her exquisite bows. In fact, I couldn’t even find any labels that were worthy of my still youthful but already artistic approbation. I was fairly well distraught then to find that my attempts to write in ballpoint pen on the ultra-smooth surface of my wonderful wrapping paper proved unsuccessful. However, I did end up with a magnificent pile of professional looking and perfectly wrapped but otherwise unadorned and unlabelled Christmas presents. I wasn’t overly worried by this, as I intended to hand out my gifts personally the following day and Merilyn and I had decided to exchange presents between us on Boxing Day, when we would be permitted to be together all day. I cannot now remember any of the actual items that these parcels contained, except that, among other things, I had bought Merilyn a pretty, and surprisingly virginal, white cotton broderie anglaise nightie, which would be the nearest thing to a trousseau she was likely to be given. It was the first time I had ever bought any female clothing, let alone anything as intimate as lingerie, however innocent in design and, naturally, I was looking forward to this very private exchange of presents in a couple of days’ time.

I had been invited to dinner that evening at Merilyn’s parents’ bungalow in Ashford, in Middlesex but requiring a two-bus journey, the second of which was the infrequent and unreliable No.90 via Sunbury Cross. However, I must have got there on time, as I do remember that all of us, including my future sister-in-law, Rosemary, her husband, Peter, who I think had their two very young children with them, ate together at the kitchen table. After all, it was Christmas.

After dinner, when the children had been put to bed, it was decided that we adults would play a game of Monopoly together. When I explained that I would have little time to play such a long game, as I had to catch the last bus of the limited Sunday service, I was persuaded to stay the night, if I didn’t mind sleeping on a camp bed in the kitchen of this tiny house. And when I said that I would then have difficulty getting home in the morning, as there would be no buses at all on Christmas Day, my future father-in-law told me not to worry as he could give me a lift in his car. It was Christmas, after all.

So, I phoned my parents to tell them not to expect me home until the morning, as I was staying the night. I was then assured that if I were to have any difficulty getting home in the morning, one of them could easily drive over and give me a lift back. It was Christmas, after all.

Then we all decanted to the lounge but in the cramped space there simply wasn’t enough room for six chairs around the coffee table and so it was decided that I should sit on a small three-legged wooden milking stool, squeezed in next to the coke-burning stove that heated the whole house. Not only was the stool very low and uncomfortably hard but the heat from the stove was ferocious at close range. When the Monopoly boxed set was produced, Merilyn’s father, Arthur, proclaimed that the rules of the game were that players had to throw a double with the dice before they could each make their first move around the board. There was a mild-mannered dispute about this interpretation of the rules and the instruction booklet that came with the set was consulted. Despite this clearly stating that the player to throw the highest score would start the game, with everybody else then following in turn, whatever score they threw, Arthur decided that he preferred his own version of the rules and, as he was head of the household, he got his own way. He also had no trouble with promptly producing the required double with the dice whereupon, having landed on a property, he announced that he was going to try a strategy for this game, in which he would purchase everything he could but would not sell anything nor trade anything with any other player.

And so, the scene was set and Arthur was of course banker and controlled the dice, collecting them and the cup, and passing them each time to the next player. Gradually, one by one the other players threw their doubles and moved their tokens accordingly, bought their properties and paid their dues, collected their £200 for passing “Go” and redeemed their “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. However, I didn’t seem to be quite so lucky and, as the evening progressed and the hours went by, I could do nothing but bide my time until it was, at last, my turn again to throw the dice in the vain hope of them falling as the elusive double I sought. It was not only frustrating, watching the other five players steadily acquiring all the otherwise unoccupied properties, it was also extremely uncomfortable. I was cramped and aching from squatting on such a low, hard stool, my right side was turning red and painful from the incessant heat from sitting so close to the almost white-hot coke fire and perspiration was clearly visible in patches all over my shirt.

It wasn’t as if any of the other players seemed to be having much fun either, because Arthur had set the tone about trading with each other, which meant that the other four retaliated by playing him at his own game, resulting in almost no houses, let alone hotels, being placed on their properties, as very few groups of properties were owned by any one player. Meanwhile, all I could do was wriggle about to ease my discomfort and await my turn to repeat, over and over again, my lack of success at being able even to start joining the fray.

Eventually, however, when all but a few of the properties were in the possession of one player or another and the game was stagnating through a total lack of co-operation and creativity, I threw a double three. My sudden joy was only short-lived, however, when I counted six places and landed on “The Angel, Islington”, which was owned, of course, by that idiosyncratic economic thinker but, alas, failed property developer, Arthur Gregory. He gleefully took my money which would magically help stave off his imminent insolvency until he made it round past “Go” again. But, of course, he refused my offer to secure his financial future beyond the next couple of throws of the dice by buying this rather downmarket property from him. He was adamantly sticking to his original game plan.

Inevitably now, every time I threw the dice, I had to pay out for landing on a space in somebody else’s ownership and all of them saw me as a way to ease their previous cashflow problems with nothing traded in return. While they bickered amongst themselves about their self-imposed austerity, I was the cash cow that was reviving their fortunes and they saw no reason not to bleed me dry. Suffice it to say that I didn’t collect many £200 handouts for passing “Go” before I was on the brink of bankruptcy, with nothing whatsoever to my name on the board. As I counted out my last few pounds into grasping hands, I did a high-pitched impersonation of the Peter Sellars character, “Bluebottle” from the Goon Show and said, “You’re all dirty rotten swine!” in a voice that would have had Prince Charles, a royal Goon impressionist par excellence, eating his heart out.

The Goon Show, whose stars included Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, had originally been a popular anarchic and surreal radio programme, series of which were broadcast between 1951 and 1960. However, there had been various television adaptions throughout the ‘60s and catchphrases from the show, like the one above, persisted in the public consciousness for many years thereafter. Since this particular one was often concluded with such ridiculous exclamations as “You deaded me!” and because I knew that my future father-in-law was a fan of the programme, I assumed it would be taken in the good humour in which it had been intended. However, when Merilyn and I met up on Boxing Day, she told me that her father claimed to have taken offence at this well-known quotation that we both knew to be an innocuous cliché, especially when spoken in a jokey voice. He had announced that, as a direct result of this personal insult, he was refusing to attend our wedding on the 13th January. I was therefore put under pressure from my own parents to write him a letter begging for forgiveness. He did not have the courtesy to reply to my subsequent effort, but he did turn up to the wedding.

Anyway, in the early hours of Christmas morning, the game was abandoned and Rosemary and Pete waved us all cheery goodbyes, as they squeezed into their mini with their sleeping children and headed off in the direction of their home in Hampshire. The kitchen table was pushed out of the way, the family’s rather unlovable Alsatian dog was removed to the master bedroom, and I slept on the camp bed put down in their place.

The next morning, after a rather perfunctory breakfast, Arthur advised me to take the bus home. When I questioned whether there was such a thing as a Christmas Day bus service, I was assured that there was a normal Sunday service from the end of the road. At the time, I sensed no animosity towards me, just insouciant indifference. I therefore reverted to plan B and asked to use the phone to call my parents. When I told them that I was being expected to catch the bus home but that I doubted that such a service existed, I was again assured that of course it did and that they would see me when I got home. Not only was I sceptical about this idea but I was also somewhat miffed that, having both promised to get me there, neither set of parents was prepared to drive to or from my home, less than 20 minutes away. After all, it was Christmas.

As you can imagine, I was more than a little disconsolate as I left the house at about 9am, walked around the corner and stood by the bus stop, looking up the long and straight, almost empty Kingston Road towards Staines, from whence I knew with almost certainty that no bus would come. The alternative would have been to have started walking the 7½ miles or so, which would have taken about 2 hours, even if I did manage a reasonable pace. However, I would be looking over my shoulder the whole way and, depending on how far I was from one bus stop to the next, I would continually be alternating between hope that a bus was coming and fear that one would pass me while I was halfway in between.

I had been standing there for only a couple of minutes, staring into the distance, fervently trying to wish a distant flash of red into existence, when Santa Claus appeared. After all, it was Christmas.

He wasn’t as he is usually depicted but, suddenly, out of nowhere, this old but sleek, black sporty saloon car pulled up beside me. He rolled down the passenger window and, in the guise of a clean-shaven, dark-haired young man only a few years older than me, he expressed his incredulity that I should be waiting for a bus. After all, it was Christmas.

The next thing I remember: I was being dropped off at the foot of Kingston Bridge, barely a mile from home. It was Christmas, after all.

So, I went down the dip and under the railway bridge by Hampton Wick Station; then left and right, down Fairfax Road past the old Harlequin’s practice ground; left and then right into Bolton Gardens; dog’s leg left then right into Field Lane; and home. I walked and half ran. After all, it was Christmas.

At just after 9.30am, I arrived exhilarated and in triumph over adversity at the front door, and rang the doorbell. As my mother opened the door in greeting, I was already wishing her Merry Christmas. After all, it was Christmas.

She opened the door wide, stood right in front of me and, before I could cross the threshold, between her fingers and thumbs, she held up by the shoulders, right up against her body, the very virginal but pretty, white cotton broderie Anglaise nightie that I had bought, had wrapped, and was hoping to give to my beautiful bride-to-be. After all, it was Christmas.

I didn’t know what to answer her “Really, Philip, you shouldn’t have!” After all, it was Christmas.

There seemed little reason to resist saying that I hadn’t, and that I couldn’t believe that they couldn’t wait for me to get back home before tearing open all the presents I’d left. After all, it was Christmas.

She replied that they’d had no way of knowing how long it would take me to get home on the bus. After all, it was Christmas

She said that I’d left the presents unlabelled and so they had pulled the parcels apart and distributed them amongst themselves depending on the contents. After all, it was Christmas.

And, besides, your brother said it would be alright.

And, after all, it was Christmas.

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1 Comment

Mar 01, 2020

Thank you for a window into a small part of your younger years Philip. It must have taken you quite some time to put that all down in the written form. We've an insight into what often unfair or downright mean treatment you had to put up within your strict rule driven family. Thankfully you turned out OK in the end! (joke)

Pleased to note you've never lost your sense of humour. :-)

Best wishes.

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