It’s a British tradition to write nostalgic essays on Christmases past. I blame Dylan Thomas and A Child’s Christmas in Wales which was anthologised in the English textbooks we all had at school. Yesterday’s Daily Mail had Max Hastings waxing lyrical on Harrods toy department and driving down to their country cottage. We moved in different social circles.
My happiest childhood memories were all secondhand. First there was a toy fort when I was about eight. It sat on a hill and had a drawbridge over a painted river, and a dungeon with bars, and another dungeon without bars. An oubliette, in fact where medieval prisoners were thrown to die … “Thou shalt not kill” meant that responsibility was avoided by simply locking prisoners up, and forgetting them. It was hand-made, because it was home-made. In fact my dad’s carpenter friend had made it for his son who was five years older than me. When it came time to dispose of it, my dad took it and repainted and repaired it and I got it on Christmas day. My little pals could have guessed my future interest in historical accuracy. I would never allow them to mix cowboys and Indians with knights in armour and modern soldiers.
Then another secondhand joy was my first adult bike. My dad worked for John Bull tyres as a sales representative (they were taken over by Dunlop) and as well as garages, he visited cycle shops. I have always liked Johnny Cash’s One Piece At A Time, because that was my bike. I assume that my bike was assembled one piece at a time by an astute distribution of free samples and perhaps the odd couple of tyres, swapped for parts from various shops. Other kids were proud of the gold lettering Raleigh on their bikes. I was proud of my dull red frame with no lettering. I had Sturmey-Archer three speed gears. The seat was Raleigh, and the handlebars were Rudge. The chain-ring was the decorative Humber model. The tyres and brake rubbers were John Bull. Parents have ulterior motives. Only the next September did I realize that I was literally “on my bike” for the three mile hilly ride to grammar school. Five years of that (before I got a secondhand Vespa scooter) gave me a loathing of bikes and the feeling of arriving somewhere hot, sweaty and sticky. Of course our local council officers installed a shower wing to encourage staff to cycle to work and save energy … not counting the cost of heating hot water for all those showers.
The third one woke me the Christmas when I was thirteen. A radio! It had been placed outside my bedroom door and switched on. You lifted up the lid to reveal a speaker. It was portable, well, portable if you had a very long electric lead or four large and expensive D batteries. But you could carry it like a small grey suitcase. And yes, it was secondhand. That was my gateway to Radio Luxembourg at night on Fabulous 208. The BBC banned advertising and severely restricted needle-time, preferring some ageing session guys in the studio doing cover versions to playing records. So Luxembourg brought us rock, mainly in label-sponsored programmes. The favourite was Oriole’s 15 minute spot, because their Oriole-American label was our introduction to Tamla-Motown. We had to endure Billy Graham between songs sometimes, as well as Horace Batchelor selling his method for winning on the football pools from Keynsham, near Bristol. That’s K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M as he repeated. I still say that aloud when I see signs to the place. Then there was Honey Hit Parade sponsored by Honey magazine for teenage girls. It was introduced by Kent Walton, a DJ with a pseudo-Canadian accent. Kent went on to become a sports announcer, specialising in professional wrestling. He was also the producer of Virgin Witch (aka Lesbian Twins) in 1972.
So I’m off to finish wrapping presents. My kids and grandkids have never had a secondhand present. I can’t think I ever felt unhappy with mine.