Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sanity Clause Is Coming To Town

Yo Ho Ho and all that . . preferably with a bottle of Rum . . 

Och bugger, that's the wrong salutation isn't it. 

Ho Ho Ho then . . come and sit on Santa's knee and let's see what presents you would like .

But then that does have Savillian connotations these days doesn't it . . how desperately unsavoury, and what a world, where innocence is under threat at every turn and the sad gamut of life can be heart-rendingly awful. Ever feel like you are fiddling whilst Rome burns? I'm not being funny, but civilized society has become deeply uncivilized . . we don't even have the morals of so-called primitive man . . . So maybe I'll stick with Yo Ho Ho after all, at least the Cap'n and Mog had things right before they sailed off. Now pass me that bottle of Woods he sent me and I'll be all right . . .

There that's better, and before I start, I have to apologise in advance for the relentless use of bold italics and emphasised colour . . sorry . . you're not in the same room or even on the same continent, so I can't gesticulate at you!
You know I feel sorry for kids today - they've got the world on a plate and yet they have no idea of how lucky they are. The pressures of keeping up with the Jones' or should I say, one's peer-group have shat all over the naive innocence of just being allowed to grow up at your own speed
I find that deeply sad actually - it's a process which started in the late 1970's and then ushered on by Maggie T (Thatcher . . gads, there, I've said it) our society became such a greedy one that it has now become a behemoth of avarice and want, bulldozering everything in its path. Including childhood.
When I was young, yes you wanted things at Christmas (that was only natural) and yes you could be quietly disappointed if said goodies weren't quite up to scratch, however I don't remember the sheer out and out relentless commercialism and desperation to get the latest thing there is today. 
Of course it was there
I'd be stupid if I said otherwise, it's just that in our panicked, peer-based fervour to give our children everything, we've missed the reason for the season (Stryper fans take note .  . Stryper lyric quoted in Blog!) and so, by default, have they to an extent. 
And whether you have a religious feeling about it, or are (more like me) of a pagan bent whereby it is a Christianisation of a basic humanistic Winter festival, Christmas isn't just about presents. 
It's about remembering.
So on this rather salubrious note, let me wind back the clock (there, can you hear it?) to a time when you really did get an orange in your stocking and the clatter of hooves on the roof wasn't just another sheep jumping over from a nearby hillside . . it was the harbinger of joy and delight, rosy faces and twinkling eyes, breathless anticipation and above all else (if you were lucky) the pulsing, beating heart of familial love.
There . . the machine seems to have stopped around 1965 . . . can you smell the paraffin heater yet?

'Scuse me, the condensaton from my heater is fogging up my screen . . 
Hold on . . .
Sqeak, squeak, squeak . . . 
There, that's better . . 
Och bugger, now that wick needs trimming 'cos it's smoking badly and the fumes are something rotten . . .
Now where did I put my trimmer?
Remember paraffin heaters? I do - you knew Christmas was coming because your Dad went down the local garage and bought a couple of gallons of Esso Blue and brought the Aladdin out of the shed.
What? You had Central Heating? Are you posh or something?
Our old Council house had one open fire in the living room (though this was replaced at the start of the 70's by a three bar electric fire - rather like the one below)

Not For Outdoor Use!
Wot is it with people on eBay?
The above is a universal 1970's electric fire/unit - common the land over.

And that was it. Incredible, but true. 
The house was a good solid one, built in the late 50's, however one does wonder who thought you could heat a house with just the one fire. 
I suppose the thinking was that by the end of the '60's we'd have gone all space-age and homes would be heated by their own nuclear reactor . . but until then . . coal and paraffin and electric would have to suffice.

Societies Expectations Circa 1963
Yes I know it is the cast of Lost In Space, however it was generally believed that by the end of the '60's,
everyone would look like this

Consequently, outwith the warmth of our living room, elsewhere in the house was bleedin' BALTIC. And that's from the soft South of England too . . so wrapping up warm indoors and paraffin heaters were the way to go. Why paraffin in our house? It was cheaper than electric.
Anyway, the smog and fug and sometimes nauseous fumes did impart an air of anticipation . . or maybe that was just lack of oxygen. Who knows?
Whatever it was, that's that crap out of the way so, . . let's break out the mince pies, a flagon of Harvey's Bristol Cream and start unwrapping the goodies
You've not got any this year because you've been a bad boy/girl? 
Well that's all right . . you can share some of mine (if you can stand it) so come and join me under my special-space-age-just-imported-from-the-States Aluminium Christmas Tree.

Welcome to Olde Sheephouse's Grotto a place of warmth, fake beards, too much food and chintzy decorations. 
Grabbed your free mince pie and sherry? 
Away we go!
You know, as I've said, rather than concern ourselves with how many iPads we'll get this year, it seems rather appropriate to remember times long gone - after all isn't Christmas for adults just a hankering after that feeling you used to have when you were young and toys and wondrous things appeared magically at the foot of your bed or under the tree?
I dearly loved Christmas as a child, getting tremendously excited around the end of October and keeping on going into the New Year. The whole pantheon of anticipation and release concentrated into one single morning. It wasn't just great, it was awe-inspiring! 
My Mum and Dad seemed to anticipate my wishes (I don't ever remember writing lists) and yet I never seemed to want for gifts and funnily they sort of influenced me too.
Good presents can be like that, taking you off on a new path you hadn't even thought about. So coming up is a list of some early key presents. They're (nearly) all good and you might have got them too, so what can I say.
Number One for a young Sheephouse was my annual Rupert Annual (with the paint-it-yourself picture inside too!). 
The Rupert stories were nicely involved little things with all sorts of amazing things happening - they sparked my early imagination. It was a magical world of wonder . . try finding that with a "Despicable Me" Annual . . . .

It all seems rather 'Jolly Hockey Sticks' doesn't it, but at the height of the 'Swinging Sixties' these delights were still being produced for children of all ages.
These are seriously collectable these days, especially if yer Mum didn't allow you to do the magic pictures.

Next up was courtesy of my sister and her husband Raymond Frederick Seaford. 
My sister was a formative figure to me and allied to this Ray was an amazing bloke  - a talented cartoonist and writer; they (of everyone) probably had the greatest influence on my early life, opening the doors of creativity wide and helping my natural curiosity about things. "Phil The Poet" is what they called me . . imagine being called that at the age of nine. 
Anyway, one year they got me some gloriously amazing luminous modelling clay which was so strong it required barely any light to work - it was from America too, a place I thought was the greatest, purely because it gave us things like this clay and monsters and comics and Bazooka Joe. Goodness I loved that clay!

Luminous Modelling Clay meant you could make things like this . . . if you were any good.
In the end we ended up making a glow-in-the-dark monster finger
which ended up sitting under my bed becoming a glow-in-the-dark-HAIRY monster finger.
it did glow for a few years though with little exposure to light.

But as I grew, the world came in on me . . my Homo Sapien instincts surfaced and there was only one thing for it . 

Back in the days when it was still PC to be seen to be macho and desperate to wage war on all-comers, the Americans came up with dolls . . FOR BOYS! They were called GI Joe in the States, but over here Action Man. 
They still make them, but the modern versions are, to put it bluntly, shite. I had one of the British originals, receiving it around the Christmas of 1968/69. The height of Vietnam really. They were robust toys built to take all the whacking and smacking a small boy could throw at it . . they were't invulnerable though . . limbs were especially suspect to damage (see comments below).
Strangely, considering my pacifistic ways, war played a big part in my life back then . . I even wanted to join the army. Of course I was young and stupid and didn't realise the bravery and stupidity of waging a war against an enemy you couldn't see, let alone defeat. But my fascination with all things military reined unabated until I saw the black and white film 'All Quiet On The Western Front' . . . after that, nothing was the same again.

I truly loved my Action Man
I had one of these and a later 'fuzzy hair' one.
This (same as my original) was broken by a local bully who threw him in the air and watched his hand
snap off as he hit the concrete.
Notice I don't say 'it' - yep, me and Action Man - almost inseperable.
As I got older another key trait of adulthood appeared - avarice. 
Yeah, I know, it hits kids at all ages, some younger than others, but when you are truly young, you seem to be happy with whatever you get (they're presents after all!), however as you get older that want becomes more defined and Christmas becomes a time of anticipation of all the stuff you might get and a weird and desperate longing for all the stuff you know you won't get in a million years.
I'll always remember a friend of mine getting a Johnny Seven machine gun/rocket launcher - it was an incredible thing and really looked the part - I was as jealous as hell. Really jealous. 
They were very expensive though and knowing Mum and Dad's finances (and stretching my memory) I am pretty sure I got something like Meccano instead of what I truly desired.
I was knocked a bit flat by that, because Meccano is weird stuff - I tried and tried to build things with it; even my father (a proper engineer) didn't get on with it. I think the best we got to was making a Gantry Crane . . 
It took hours and hours but we got there, though I think he found it as hard as me, simply because it wasn't what he was used to (all fuel pumps, lathes, micrometers and precision). 
He'd far rather have been off in a quiet corner with a James Michener and a roll-up Old Holborn. I'd rather have been off launching rockets and grenades at an unseen enemy!

No Contest.
Johnny Seven One Man Army vs. Meccano Set #10
I know who won.

Mum and Dad knew best though and steered me away from such things, encouraging my love of drawing, and feeding my artistic desires.
These pretensions (they were . . I wasn't that good, but it came naturally) were encouraged and I was made to feel that I could express myself no matter what and that dear friends is a present worth more than Gold. 
Of course, bless 'em, they couldn't foresee that that self-expression would result in me still sporting long, straggly hair in my fifties or writing shite for all the world to see. 
Nor did they foresee that my self-expression resulted in me doing daft things throughout life, like drifting into a line of work with zilch prospects (and sticking at it!) or lopping off chunks of my hair after watching The Jam on Top Of The Pops! Egads. Quite mad.
Ah, being yourself . . there's nothing quite like it.
Anyway, below are two wonderful artistic presents I received in Christmas' of Yore.

Guaranteed for Hours and Hours
Still made today, this is a great toy and
it never ceases to amaze me what people can do with them.
I struggled.

Although it took forever to pin it out, the Spirograph
delighted generations of children. 

And me.

Another Godsend came in the Christmas 1971 - a refurbished Dansette from my brother!
This was a marvel to me - my own record player that could play modern records! I did actually also own an old His Master's Voice wind-up Gramaphone - strictly 78rpm though, so my childhood listening mixed in loads of old 78's. I think the most modern one I owned was 'Rock Around The Clock'!
Apparently this Dansette was also a sneaky test on my brother's behalf to see whether I could handle vinyl and hifi properly. 
He actually had me trained in the fine art of cartridge alignment and tone-arm balancing by the time I was 12. 
It is something I still give thanks for.

Original Colour Dansette.
However mine was sprayed with gold car paint and totally
refurbished by my big brother . . this also involved disassembling
the deck and sorting out some dodgy wiring.
He did a sterling job and it served me well until I took over
my Mum and Dad's Stereogram!

Not Designed For Outdoor Use!
Whilst not quite ours, this Ferguson Stereogram from the '60's will suffice.
Space-Age families couldn't be bothered with teenage Dansettes, so something more akin to living room furniture was required when you fancied a quick boogie.
Our stereogram featured a Garrard Deck, Hacker Amplifier and Radio and Jensen speakers. it was an expensive unit, and eventually had a 1/4 inch jack socket added and became my first guitar amplifier.

Well, as time moved on and as I grew older my love of drawing and listening to music gave way to a hunger and I became desperate to make music instead.
My initial requests for a saxophone (too expensive) got diluted down to a drum kit (too noisy and too expensive) and got diluted further. I received a Ukelele (Bluebird brand . . truly terrible) but it didn't put me off and I kept asking, so in the Christmas of 1974 I got my first guitar (and 10 lessons). 
And I went to every lesson too, even though I was being taught 'Michael Rowed The Boat' when all I really wanted to play was the rip-roaring Mick Ralphs solo from the end of 'Ready For Love' on Mott's Dudes album. 
I persisted though, toiling away in the fields of fingerboards and plectrums and in time I became very proficient as a guitarist. I'm not lauding myself here, that's what obsession does to you. But in the end it was a flawed obsession, because I found myself crippled by nerves and consequently performances were off and it felt pointless to take my chops any further . . 
A sad end to an inspired present. 

"Merry Christmas Son . .  It's a  . ."
"Yes Dad? Gibson? Fender? Epiphone?"
"No son . . it's a Dulcet."

As my teenage years progressed I got to really ask for what I would like at Christmas rather than just getting assorted random gifts, and one of those things was records.
Yeah,  you know, vinyl, the 12" black stuff housed in cardboard with a hole in the middle.
The trendy stuff.
I didn't have a whole lot of spare money from my milk-round, so records were heaven-sent. 
I still like getting records for Christmas (though they're CDs) because even though they're presents and though you might have made a list of what you want, you might well take a chance on your choices (just because) and end up with an album you totally love.
Anyway, in 1975 I received something I was desperate for (from my sister) and a couple of random items from my brother.

The Good, The Good And The Weird.
Mott are always good - Wildlife was a hole in my collection which my Sister filled.
Ommadawn is one of those albums - I didn't know I liked Mike Oldfield till I heard it.
Zinc Alloy is an Orange Air Freshener/Rubber Torch in the glove compartment** album -
you hate the initial smell, but have to keep sniffing it.

** Try it - you might like it!

I could go on and on actually, but these are key memories. And this being FB I have left the most strangely prescient and possibly thought provoking till last. 
In the Christmas of 1976, my Aunty Dolly and Uncle Tom gave me a present which I wish I still had. It was a 'new fangled' Polaroid camera. I've tried researching the model, but to be honest, there are bloody millions of them. The things I do remember were that it shot square photographs in Black and White, and I couldn't afford film for it as I had a guitar to save up for.
Here's an advert - not sure if it was this model, but it will suffice.

It was a chunky big thing, with a manual shutter and a zone focusing lens and exposure adjustment knob. 
At the time I was like 'Great . . now where's the big packs of sweets', but I did actually use it and even saved up for a second pack of film (around £3.50 in 1976/77 if I remember rightly . . roughly the equivalent of £21 in 2013/14 money!). The packs made 10 photographs.
After the initial surge of making a whole 10 prints, I bought the second pack and then (typically me) put the camera away and forgot about it for a couple of years. 
Come 1979 (a terrible year for me and the worst Christmas ever because of my Father's death) I took it out again and the photographs below got made. Incredible to think that they are still in (almost) pretty decent nick despite having not been stored properly (actually at one point they were loose on my Mum's loft floor!) or even 'archivally' processed. It probably says a lot for the structural integrity of those old Polaroid films - pretty amazing really apart from the smell of chemicals you got when you peeled them apart!
I might actually try re-washing them and re-fixing them . . better check out whether it is possible first though.
Anyway, I think they show me growing up, and not just in the obvious physical changes of my fisog. It hadn't really struck me before but now it is totally apparent - I can see the weight of adulthood firmly placed on my shoulders and can indeed remember each and every one of them being made and the underlying pain and sorrow I hid so well. 
Who'd have thunk it. The power of a simple snap eh? 
Try doing that with an iPhone. 
Follow the timeline and see if you agree with me.

Warts N' All - Spring '79
This was taken around the time of my Dad's diagnosis with cancer, and has fared the worst of them all.
Unfortunately, the scanner has imparted the greeny-brown tint, however the print stains are as is...

Titter Ye Not - Winter 1979 
That's me in our kitchen, just home from school, 

and the first Winter Mum and I spent on our own after Dad's death.
OK, these days that haircut has an unfortunate name involving a certain species of fish,
but in those days it was just a haircut.
My Mum took this.

That's Me - Spring 1980
A Blueprint For Self.

The sun was shining, possible new vistas were opening - I was headed to Art College.
Though I no longer wear a denim waistcoat or Michelin tee, when I look at this I can see my 'self' now.
It is hard to believe it was over 30 years ago.

I know, I know . . they're just three random photographs of a person, and maybe it isn't that obvious to you, but it is to me - one year, and I grew up. 
My demeanour seems to go from pessimistic to optimistic, or am I just over-analysing things? I don't think so, and I've said it before so I'll say it again, that's the power of a 'snap'. Something so seemingly trite and inconsequential, in time, becomes powerful documentary evidence.

Me now. 2013
I'm the one in white.
The other chap is my esteemable brother-in-law, Roy.

And that's it folks. 
Sorry to end on a more sombre note, but Christmas shouldn't just be a time of How much can I get? to me it is a time of remembrance. 
Rather like that old pagan festival, it is a time to give thanks to your ancestors and to appreciate the fact that you are still alive halfway through the worst time of year.
And especially for me it is a time to remember all the great times I had as a child and how kind my parents were in their generosity. Even though it probably cost them more than they could properly afford, it cost them nothing in love, and that folks is what it is all about. 
They pulled out all the stops at Christmas, and I can honestly say that no one ever left our house without feeling they'd been made to feel not just at home, but genuinely and warmly welcome.
Oh and full
Did I mention full?
Cheers! Christmas 1972.
I distinctly remember this being taken - that's an old Kodak Instamatic/Sylvania Flash cube in use.
Behind the camera, my Dad.
Left to Right: Mum, my Brother, Me, my Sister.
The picture doesn't do justice to the groaning levels of food on that table.
Merry Christmas!

And so dear readers whether ye be humanoid, robotic, or just little bits of software pinging around at a loose end, have a wonderful festive season yourselves.
I'll see you in the New Year.
God Bless and thanks for reading.
Now go and get those mince-pie crusts crimped with your Grannie's false teeth . . .