dubiously true stories and cartoons

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Day After The Night After The Day Before Christmas

Once a year in December my mother actively encouraged me to talk to a complete stranger without fear of reprimand. She would physically lift me onto this stranger’s lap without a second thought and take photographs of me gazing in awe and wonder at him in his red suit and his false, scraggly, whitish beard. She was not in the least bit worried about whether or not he was an alcoholic pervert on day release from a high security fat farm. And was that the intoxicating aroma of sweet candy on his breath or the smell of Pernod stolen from the local off-license during a daring daylight robbery? At least she would be able to identify the perpetrator if she ever had to pick him out in a police line-up. “That’s the man, officer! The one in the red suit that smells of stale piss and aniseed.” Not only that, she also encouraged this stranger to enter our house in the dead of night, compounding the situation even further by leaving alcohol out for him. After this stranger had downed the last few drops of his Pernod, it must have seemed like a red letter day for him when he discovered an unopened bottle of Remy Martin sitting seductively by the fireplace. For 364 days of the year the very thought of someone entering our house unannounced would have sent my mother tumbling into hysterical apoplexy, and she would have greeted the aforementioned burglar not with a mince pie and a bottle of Remy Martin, but with a cricket bat with three or four nails driven through its tip. But this was Christmas Eve, the one day of the year when she gladly allowed a stranger to enter our house unannounced.
Now, I may be looking at this through rose-tinted glasses, but can anyone who was a kid in the 1950s or 60s remember anything connected to Christmas being in the shops before December? It used to be that Christmas was not even mentioned until after Bonfire Night, but these days Christmas Shops throughout the country begin opening their doors for business in September. At the latest!
In the words of the late, great Marvin Gaye: What’s going on?
When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I remember the shops being closed for days over the Yuletide festivities. It was a period for families to get together and spend some quality time with each other, for better or for worse, whether they wanted it or not. It even, on the odd occasion, snowed. And nobody starved to death.
Nowadays, by the time Christmas comes around, everyone is sick and tired of it. It’s lost the magic that it once had because it goes on for SO LONG. Is this just me getting older and more cynical? I don’t think so. I used to love Christmas, especially in my 20s and 30s. It was a time for playing cheesy Yuletide songs, eating far too much that was good for me and getting stupendously drunk and falling asleep in front of the telly at around 8pm. By December 2nd I’m already tired of hearing Christmas songs because they’ve been playing in stores throughout town since the beginning of November. As far as I can tell, the majority of Christmas songs fall into one of two categories of Christmas song. These categories are:
1.     Sickeningly sentimental, or
2.     Morbidly depressing.
A Fairy Tale in New York by The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl obviously falls into neither of these categories, but any Christmas song by Cliff Richard inevitably falls into both.
I will admit that I do play some Christmas music but only on Christmas morning. After that I eat far too much that’s good for me, get stupendously drunk and fall asleep in front of the telly at around 8pm, but that’s because I’m a man and I’ve never really grown up.
Christmas in today’s consumer society seems somehow forced, thrust upon us by that most odious of sins – greed. When I was a kid I was happy to just get an Eagle or Valiant annual that cost a mere 12/6d (around 62p in today’s money). Nowadays kids want laptops, games consoles, tablets and PS4 and X-Box games that cost around forty quid each. Parents spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds on presents that are, in the most part, neither appreciated nor looked after. The not-so-wealthy strata of our society spend a whole year paying off what is essentially one day of overindulgence only to go through the whole miserable process again the following year.
I was talking to a woman in Sainsbury’s who had spent over £200 in the October half price toy sale. She was probably in her mid to late sixties and was buying presents for her entire family of kids, grandkids and great grandkids. “I’ll be glad when I get home,” she told me, “I’ve been shopping all day in Carlisle and I’ve spent over two thousand pounds on presents for Christmas.”
I was stunned. “Two thousand pounds!” I declared in amazement, “I haven’t spent that much on presents in the last ten years! And that includes birthdays!”
Christmas shoppers today are more like survivalists, clearing all the shelves in the supermarkets in case there’s a zombie apocalypse or the imaginary planet Nibiru comes crashing unexpectedly into Earth. “Oh, my God!” they exclaim, “The shops are closed for ONE DAY! We must go out and buy enough food for at least two months. We must also buy several items that we don’t need and at least three of them must be so obscure that we’ll find at the back of the cupboard in nine months and wonder what they are and why we bought them in the first place!”
And then there’s the depressing hour-long Christmas edition of Eastenders. I mean, what is the point of watching a whole hour of miserable people being miserable on CHRISTMAS DAY! I used to buy the “legendary” Christmas issue of the Radio Times, but last year I didn’t bother, because after flicking through it in a newsagent’s I discovered that there was absolutely NOTHING I wanted to watch, except for the film of Raymond Briggs’s film Ethel & Ernest, and that was on AFTER Christmas. The programme planners who ‘planned’ last year’s Christmas schedules should all have been sacked. But, then again, they probably thought that most people work over the Christmas period, so it didn’t really matter.
And who’s to blame for that? Who’s to blame for the erosion of family time over Christmas? Well, I’m afraid to say that we are. We allowed this to happen. We allowed the major stores to convince us that we needed to shop on Boxing Day. Oh, they like to tell us that their customers wanted it and they were just filling a need, but that’s a lie and deep down we all know it. The major stores created that need because they wanted to sell more stuff and make bigger profits, they wanted to make more money out of us. And you can’t blame them for that because they’re in the business of making profit. We, the consumers, are the real culprits here. In the rampant consumerist society we live in today all we want to do is Shop! Shop! Shop!
Retail executives on high salaries across the country must have gathered their minions together one day and delivered the good news to them with all the excitement of a dog with two cocks.
Here’s what the conversation must have gone like:
“Hey, I’ve got this GREAT idea to make Christmas even MORE brilliant for all our customers!”
“Oh, tell us! Please tell us!”
“We’ll open on Boxing Day!”
“How is that a great idea?”
“We’ll be giving our customers what they want. It’s not rocket science.”
“On Boxing Day? Who wants to go shopping on Boxing Day?”
“Everyone does.”
“We don’t!”
“Well, that’s perfect, because instead of shopping you’ll be able to come into work.”
“What about the quality time we normally spend with our families on Boxing Day?”
“Your families can come shopping instead. Think of it! We’ll call it a Boxing Day Sale and we’ll get rid of all the stuff we didn’t sell before Christmas.”
“Will you be coming in?”
“Of course not. I’m an executive. I need to spend some quality time with my family on Boxing Day.”
Joy to the world!
Except, obviously, those in the retail industry who have to come into work on Boxing Day.

Can’t people wait just one more day to spend the Waterstone’s or Next or HMV gift cards they received and why would anyone need to go food shopping on Boxing Day when presumably bought enough food on Christmas Eve to feed a small army? Back in 1823, when Christmas meant something other than rampant consumerism, Clement Clarke Moore published his now famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. I think now, in 2017, it needs a little tweaking. And so, for all those poor souls who remember the innocence of Christmases past and for those unfortunate enough to be working on Boxing Day with an almighty hangover, here’s my new updated version:

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house
Not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.
The sacks for the gifts are left out with care,
In the hope that Santa Claus will soon be there.
The teenagers are nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of i-Phones dance in their heads –
They want computers and tablets and Minecraft manuals
(As kid I was just happy to get a Valiant annual).
The shops have been selling Christmas for a quarter of the year,
It’s not joy they are selling, but falling profits they fear,
And they love to hear children shouting in glee:
“I want it! I want it! I want it for me!”
And so, here I am dreaming on this dark Christmas Eve,
Waiting for the morning and the presents they’ll receive,
And they’ll wake me up early on Christmas Day
And with whingeing voices, they’ll loudly say,
“This is NOT what I wanted! I wanted this year’s design!
As a parent, you are RUBBISH! I wish you’d resign!”
But suddenly I was woken from my cynical reverie –
I looked out of the window and what did I see,
But Santa Claus and his sleigh land with a bump on my lawn
And he called out to his reindeer, who all looked tired and forlorn:
"Whoa, Dasher! Whoa, Dancer! Whoa Prancer and Vixen!
Whoa, Comet! Whoa, Cupid! Whoa, Donner and Blitzen!”
The landing was graceless and decidedly tricky
And Rudolph was absent, he’d stayed home on a sickie.
Santa climbed off his sleigh and pulled down a large sack
And huffing and puffing he slung it onto his back.
He tottered down the path, he cursed and he swore
Until he reached the front step and knocked on the door.
“You should come down the chimney,” I declared, “this is cheating.”
“Don’t be daft,” he replied, “you’ve got central bloody heating.
As you can see I’m a bit out of shape and rather rotund
And these presents for your kids don’t half weigh a ton.
Now, let me into your house and pour me a drink.
I’ll have a very large whisky with no ice, I think.
I’ve been round all the houses, but your house I somehow missed,
So, I apologise in advance, because I’m feeling quite pissed.
I’ve eaten Christmas cakes laced with brandy and whisky
That made me feel tired, not randy or frisky.
I’ve drunk bourbon and vodka and gin with some tonic,
It’s a wonder I’ve not turned into a raging alcoholic.
And with all these electronics the kids want today,
The sheer weight of them all is making my back give way.
Why can’t they be like you were, there was nothing finer
Than presents made of plastic from Taiwan or China.
You got what you were given. You either liked it or lumped it.
I never heard you complain when your presents were shit.”
He downed his whisky in one and then emptied the sack
Before arching his spine and rubbing his back.
“Thank Christ, that’s all over,” he said with relief,
“Now I’ll be off back to the Pole for some sprouts and roast beef.”
He picked up his sack and stepped out into the night.
He climbed onto his sleigh and I turned out the light.
And then laying his finger aside of his nose,
He gave me a nod, and into the air the sleigh rose.
And then I woke up after my alcohol induced relaxation
I must have been dreaming, it’s the only explanation.
But then out in the night I heard his faraway voice wail:
“If I’ve missed anything, you can buy it in the Boxing Day sale!”

Bah! Humbug! And a Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, November 16, 2017


I am a geek, and proud of it. I always have been and I always will be.
          Let me explain:
I returned home to Blackpool on leave in the spring of 1971 after six months apprenticeship training at RAF Hereford. It was my second home leave, the first being at Christmas and New Year, where I spent two weeks catching up with old school friends. When I left home to return to RAF Hereford everything seemed normal, nothing seemed amiss or out of the ordinary. I was surprised then, after ringing the doorbell on that bright April afternoon, to be greeted by a man with a mynah bird perched on his arm standing on the threshold of the house that I’d lived in with my mother and brother and baby sister before I signed on the dotted line and promised my undying loyalty to Queen and Country. My mother was divorced and, although I thought it odd that the man should answer the door with a mynah bird perched on his arm, I naturally assumed that he was a new boyfriend that she hadn’t told me about. I wrong. I stood on the doorstep in my No. 1 uniform, staring at the mynah bird, my kit bag slung over my shoulder, with a confused and stupid look on my face.
“Errm,” I said, “Is my mum there?”
“I don’t think so, son,” he replied.
“Is she out?”
“No, son, I live here by myself.”
And, of course, his mynah bird.
“But my mum used to live here.”
“Oh, you must mean Margaret. No, son, she moved about two months ago.”
“Where to?”
“No idea,” he said, closing the door on me. I stood on the doorstep for a few moments before I turned around and walked down the path toward the gate. As I reached the gate I heard a squawk and a high-pitched “Bugger off!” I assumed it was the mynah bird, unless the man inside was a ventriloquist.
My mum had sent me half a dozen letters prior to my return home on leave and not once had she mentioned that she was moving house. I was sixteen years old and I tried not to cry as I desperately attempted to recall my grandparents address. They had also moved. After selling their three bedroom house they had moved to a ground floor flat in North Shore. They had had the foresight to tell me where they had moved to and after a few panicky moments the address came to me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Grandma asked. She looked surprised to see me.
            “Mum’s never mentioned that she’d moved in any of her letters to me. I didn’t know anywhere else to go.”
            “Oh, the daft bugger,” Grandma said, “She’d forget her head if it were loose.”
            She told me that mum had moved to Mereside, which was on the other side of Blackpool, and after two buses and a short walk I finally arrived at the house.
            After ringing the bell two or three times, mum opened the door and looked me up and down. “You found us, then,” was all she said, before ushering me into her new home.
            Mum showed me to my bedroom which had a sign on the door that read: SUSAN’S ROOM. “I’ll go and put the kettle on,” she said, and went downstairs. After dropping my kit bag on the floor I started to scan the room for the things that were precious to me, but after an extensive search I found they weren’t there.
            I went downstairs and into the kitchen, where mum was pouring me a cup of coffee. “Where’s my comics, mum?” I asked.
            “What? Oh, those things. I gave them to a jumble sale. They were just cluttering up the place. And besides, I thought you’d grown out of them, you being in the RAF and all.”
            Now I’m not talking about a small pile of dog-eared Beano and Dandy comics here. I’m talking about a huge collection of pristine Marvel and DC comics that I had bought with the hard earned money from my paper round and the time I’d spent as a pan scrubber and trainee commis chef in the Stuart Hotel. I’m talking about early to late 1960s DC and Marvel comics. I’m talking about the No. 1 of The Amazing Spider-Man! Not only that, mum had also given away my complete sets of Topps bubble gum cards that I had feverously swapped with my mates in the school playground: Batman, The American Civil War, The Outer Limits and Mars Attacks! The loss of my Mars Attacks! cards was the most devastating of these sets as I had managed to collect them all two days before they were banned and withdrawn from all the shops following complaints from parents associations concerning their lurid and violent content.
            The bitterest blow of all though was the loss of my comics. I’ve managed to replace some of them but because of their ephemeral nature they began to soar in price. The Amazing Spider-Man No. 1, which cost me mere pennies when I first bought it with my pocket money is now worth an estimated one and a quarter million pounds!
            Of course, I wasn’t aware at the time that the comics I had in my collection would one day fetch unbelievably high prices. What hurt me the most was that I loved them. They were mine.
I’ve been a fan of American comics since 1961. I was seven years old when I held my first Batman comic in my grubby little mitts. British comics at the time offered nothing remotely comparable because every page within the shiny covers of their American counterparts was in full colour and the panels of fast-moving action and dynamic storylines were brilliantly drawn and executed. My first comics were DC’s Superman, Batman and Detective Comics, but after them came Marvel’s Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, The Uncanny X-Men, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos and The Silver Surfer. But Batman was, and always has been, my first love.
I have never grown out of them.
            I have all those lost comics in digital form now and although I get great pleasure from reading them, it’s not the same. There’s something wonderful about holding one of those early comics in your hands, touching those shiny colourful covers, feeling the pulp paper pages inside, bringing them up to your nose and breathing in the 1960s American optimism.
            I dread to think what my girlfriend must have thought when she entered my flat over two years ago now and was confronted with, what can only be described as, a shrine to Batman.
            I know quite a few men (and women) of my age who are still into comics. We are a select band of brothers (and sisters) who live in GeekLand and speak fluent geek whenever we meet. One of my friends, who has a vast collection of DC comics, was in a serious relationship and he and his partner were on the verge of moving in together when she politely said: “You know you’ll have to get rid of all your comics when we move in together.”
            “Well,” he replied, “it looks like we won’t be moving in together, then.”
            We’re a strange bunch.