LITTLE JIMMY’S CHRISTMAS
Auntie Lottie suffers from deafness, senility and badly fitting false teeth. She’s a relative of Auntie Winnie, my Uncle Fred’s wife, and already a million years old when Little Jimmy is born. I only ever see her at Christmas. Except when liberally plied with gin and orange – at which time she can be induced to sing – all she ever says is, ‘Nyaga nyaga nyaga.’
‘Lottie, put your teeth in!’ says Winnie in a loud, patient voice.
Until the fatal holiday in Paignton in my late teens, when Something Happened and Winnie and Nellie stopped talking to each other, our two families always passed Christmas together. On Christmas Day Uncle Fred’s family would come to our house in Werneth, and on Boxing Day we’d go to theirs in Hathershaw. The children usually stayed overnight, and Harvey, Christine, my sister Ann and I bunked together, top to tail, in the double bed I once shared with my brother Denis. I loved those Christmases because I liked my cousins but couldn’t play with them as often as I wanted.
Once – when I was five and Nellie had her operation “down there” among the unmentionables – I spent the whole holiday at my cousins’ and it was bliss. I was given a present of some Roman soldiers made of polythene, an uncommon material in 1952. My other soldiers were made of lead alloy.
Presents comprised comic annuals such as Beano, Dandy and Film Fun, games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, cowboy outfits, footballs, boxing gloves, soldiers, toy cars and stupendous quantities of sweets and chocolate. They were cheap but plentiful and I never had a sense of being deprived of things I desired.
Electrical toys barely existed. Model cars were clockwork or friction-powered and so were trains until I was nine when Hughie bought me a Hornby electric train with a Coronation class locomotive and cream and maroon carriages. My brother Jack made me a station platform at his school woodwork class. I still remember the damp winter evening when Dad and I bought the train set in a shop near the town centre. The street was dark and rainy, but the shop window was brilliant with light and crammed with wonders.
Later I collected plastic aeroplane kits until Jimmy Hall, the Parrys and I shot them to pieces with an air gun in the back yard. That was typical of Jimmy Hall. He and I once passed a very enjoyable hour boiling centipedes and wood lice in a tin can full of pee on the waste ground behind his house among the old gas masks and discarded prams. He had the face of an angel and the aspirations of a gangster until he and David Parry were killed in a motorcycle smash at the age of seventeen.
I believed in Santa Clause. We have a photograph of Ann and me on his knee in a “grotto” somewhere on Manchester Road. Then Ann, out of spite, blew the whistle on the old geezer when I was six.
But when exactly was Christmas? I had an idea that it was synonymous with snow and one morning, when it had snowed overnight, I roused Ann and persuaded her that it was now! – yes! – today!
‘Go back to bed, you silly buggers,’ said Nellie, who was doing her chores in the kitchen.
My parents’ ideas of fine food were limited to their experience of children’s parties. So our Christmas meals with Fred, Winnie and my cousins were in this vein, with cold meats, beetroot, lettuce, trifles and tinned oranges with Carnation evaporated milk, all accompanied by white bread fingers (which we called “bunnies”) and cups of sweet tea. Certain foods have become so associated with the event – piccalilli and dates in particular – that I find it difficult to imagine eating them in any other context.
After tea we retired to the front room. Hughie, Fred and Uncle Joe Wright went through a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label scotch, though they were all beer drinkers and wouldn’t dream of touching the stuff at any other time of year. The women – Nellie, Winnie and Auntie Lottie – drank gin and orange. While they chatted the men played cards: three-card brag or pontoon for matches; and the children played with them as they grew older.
My most vivid memory is of a Boxing Day evening when I was eleven. My cousins, Ann and I watched the terrifying Quatermass and the Pit on TV and played a horseracing game, Escalado. It was one of those perfect moments that life occasionally offers.
One of Nellie’s most endearing qualities is that she’s willing – even eager – to laugh at herself. Show her a photograph in which she’s in any way comic (even unintentionally) and she’ll hoot with pleasure. ‘Eee, look at me!’ she says. ‘Would you credit it? What a silly woman I am!’
My daughter Hannah has videoed and photographed her in old age. These pictures capture a beautiful sadness and Nellie is entranced by them. ‘Oh, you must keep ’em!’ she says and kisses Hannah on the head. ‘People’ll say what a silly old grandma you have!’
When I was fifteen, my parents bought me a tape recorder so I could record French lessons from the wireless. The gift was a measure of their interest in my education.
At Christmas out it came. It was a novelty for the adults to hear their own voices; so, once they’d put themselves into the mood, they’d sing and talk to the machine and giggle and squeal.
‘Hey!’ cries Nellie. ‘Is that me? Ooo, listen to me! Don’t I sound common!’
‘Pipe down, you silly woman!’ says Hughie, but he’s laughing with everyone else.
By now the childish days are passing. In my teens I get religion and go carol singing on Christmas night. I find myself in Glodwick, near the park, on a frosty evening when the sky is clear and the stars are glittering. In Oldham it’s usually cloudy and the nights are drenched in yellow sodium light so that stars and the phases of the moon pass to no effect. But tonight, like the star that guided the Magi, Sirius appears in multicoloured brilliance. I’m stunned. I had no idea of its existence and don’t know its name.
But now I do. And it’ll be forever mine – once this night is over. But for the moment I have to return to Uncle Fred’s where the party has got slightly out of hand and everyone is more or less drunk, though very cheerful. Nellie has been singing Edelweiss from The Sound of Music – which is a Bad Sign as far as commonsense is concerned. Still she’s very biddable, and so Hughie and I take her by the arms and walk her home. It’s two in the morning as we pass along the respectable streets of the Coppice.
Nellie giggles and sings Edelweiss at the top of her voice.
Lottie is as old as the Ancient of Days, a small brown thing barely four feet tall.
LITTLE JIMMY (loudly): Merry Christmas, Auntie Lottie!
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
LITTLE JIMMY (louder still): How are you getting on?
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
WINNIE: How many times do I have to tell you? I say: how many times? PUT YOUR TEETH IN, LOTTIE!!
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
And so forth.
Lottie has a house somewhere near Pembroke Street, where Uncle Joe Wright lives with Frankenstein and Polly, his sinister cockatoo. She “takes in lodgers”, which seems an old-fashioned expression referring to something disreputable engaged in by Irish washerwomen in Queen Victoria’s time. They’re men in their sixties – sprightly by Lottie’s standards – who have red faces and wear sports jackets, twill trousers, cardigans, suede shoes and small hats made of tweed with feathers in the band. I know because one of them turns up one Boxing Day evening. The occasion goes something like this.
SCENE The sitting room at Uncle Fred’s. The men are drinking Scotch and playing cards with the children. The women are gossiping.
WINNIE: Will you have another gin and orange, Lottie?
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
WINNIE: Gin and orange? Will you have another?
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
WINNIE: I wish you’d put your teeth in. Are they sore? Your teeth – are they sore?
She pours the drink without waiting for an answer. At this point someone proposes a singsong, and the men break off their game of brag. In turn Nellie delivers a raucous rendition of ‘Edelweiss’, Hughie sings ‘Danny Boy’ in a fine baritone, and Little Jimmy is prevailed on to do his party piece, ‘Jerusalem’. Winnie turns to Lottie.
WINNIE: Are you going to sing now, Lottie? Sing? You know “Little Wooden Hut”. Go on, you know it.
And – astonishingly – Lottie sings.
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyag-I wouldn’t change my little wo-oden hu-ut fo-or yoo-hoo!
WINNIE: That’s it, Lottie!
LOTTIE: Nyaga nyaga nyaga.
WINNIE: Oh, I do wish you’d put your teeth in!
A knock comes at the front door. Winnie answers it and returns with a bleary-faced character, obviously the worse for wear.
WINNIE: It’s your lodger, Lottie! Your lodger! [to the Lodger] Will you have something?
LODGER: I wouldn’t say no to a pale ale. I’ve come to get her. [He puts his mouth to Lottie’s ear and yells at the top of his voice.] I say I’ve come to get you, Lottie!
Even so, the Lodger is in no rush to go but settles down with his pale ale and joins in the general merriment. In fact he’s so far gone that the others begin to feel sober and virtuous in contrast, as well as concerned that he goes home with Lottie before he passes out.
FRED [casually]: So how did you get here? It’s cold out. Are the buses running?
LODGER: I drove.
LODGER: T’car’s out front.
FRED: And how are you getting home?
LODGER: I’ll drive.
FRED [concerned]: Don’ t you think you’d best leave t’car and walk.
FRED: Aye – walk.
The Lodger is touched by this. He puts down his glass, leans toward Fred and pats him on the shoulder.
LODGER: Ee, Fred, you’re a grand feller – but I think I’d best drive. Ha Ha! I’m too bloody drunk to walk!
NOTES ON “LITTLE JIMMY’S CHRISTMAS”
Uncle Joe Williams has died. The news broke a half hour ago in a call from my cousin Margaret. It happened between the writing of the essay and the writing of these notes. He was alive when I wrote about him in Gents and Gypsies, but now he isn’t. I mention it not in the specific context of the present essay but the broader one of the process of writing an autobiography. It illustrates compellingly that it’s a dynamic activity, always incomplete and liable to be influenced by events. In other words what you’re reading is as live as its subject matter.
I liked Uncle Joe for his swash-buckling dash and I’m glad that I wrote about him, the last of Shiny Jim’s children. I’ll go to his funeral if I can, and afterwards I may write some more.
My Christmas is one of the essay titles beloved of teachers, and it was this thought that gave me the idea to write about my own Christmases. It seems a straight forward subject and fairly self-contained, and – unless your Christmases are particularly fraught – I’d recommend it as a beginner’s topic. I have in mind several other titles for the same purpose and I’ll mention them as I come to them.
By now you should be familiar with my general approach, particularly my use of a motif or anecdote to act as a frame for the whole essay: in this case my memories of Auntie Lottie and the time when her lodger turned up at a Boxing Day party. Now that the trick has been explained it may seem a little formulaic from a technical standpoint, but you’ll recall why I devised it: namely against a background of each essay being, potentially, a stand-alone piece. In other places such as Fabulous Freddie Teaches Poetry and Parlez Vous Williams? I ring the technical changes so you can consider if there’s anything in them of use, and, in fact, there’s an example in the present essay, which is explained below.
In this essay I’ve used a lot of “direct” speech, i.e. I claim to set down the exact words spoken, emphasised by laying out the text in part like the dialogue of a play. All the passages in quotation marks are direct speech.
The alternative to direct speech is “indirect” or “reported” speech. Typically indirect speech is introduced by expressions such as: Nellie said that we should go back to bed (an example adapted from a direct speech in the actual text). The word “that” is a common clue to indirect speech. What follows delivers the sense of what’s said, but not necessarily the actual words used or the voice of the speaker. I’ve largely avoided it.
The general opinion of writers – which I share – is that direct speech is more vivid than indirect speech and more interesting for the reader, who can hear (and see!) the person speaking. Think over Nellie’s speeches and how much they contribute to your image of what she’s like.
Nevertheless, it should be obvious – and I freely admit – that I can’t remember every single word that was said forty and more years ago. In fact, as you’ve probably guessed, many of the scenes in my essays (not merely dialogue) are reconstructions: a re-imagining of events of which I remember only essential elements with real clarity. The clothes worn by Auntie Lottie’s lodger on the night of the party are typical of those worn by the sort of men who rented a room with her. But were they worn by this lodger – or indeed by any actual lodger? I can’t truthfully say.
So, you may be thinking, this autobiography isn’t an accurate account, and from a certain perspective you’re right. However, you ought to consider the alternatives and what they do for whatever truth it is that you’re trying to convey. Direct speech – reconstructed in the manner I’ve explained – is flagrantly untruthful if it claims strict accuracy. Indirect speech, by making a lesser claim, is in this respect more truthful – though in fact it still takes quite a feat of memory to recall the sense of each exchange in a long conversation, so that a report even in indirect speech may still be inaccurate.
The problem with indirect speech is that, by refusing to commit to the exact words used in a conversation, it loses the voice of the speaker – think of Nellie again and her verbal tics. Yet there is a speaker and he or she has a distinctive voice, which is necessary for a complete and truthful account.
In short there are pitfalls in both approaches. Direct speech departs from the truth by making a spurious claim to accuracy. Indirect speech departs from the truth by omitting material parts of the scene. And a similar point can be made in respect of matters of description. Auntie Lottie’s lodger wore clothes, and one can either ignore them and omit that part of the scene, or hazard a description that won’t be correct in detail but will convey a sense of what he was like.
Clearly I’ve got no problem with using direct speech. It’s anchored in a very lively feeling for how Nellie and my other relatives speak, and I want the reader to hear it because it’s such a powerful contributor to any understanding.
On the other hand, setting out dialogue in a play format – for example in describing the visit of the lodger – is quite another matter. It’s simply a technical device that appeals to me and which I’ve used in writing novels precisely because it’s unusual in a narrative and I like to liven up the text. Lots of very good writers wouldn’t use the technique in the present context (or at all) and I offer it simply as something for you to study without making a recommendation one way or the other as to whether you should try it. I draw attention to it only to emphasize that I don’t have a set formula for writing (not even my framing device): only a number of suggestions that you may be able to make work for you. The play format, like the photograph and scrapbook approaches mentioned elsewhere, is just another method of dealing with parts of your material.