A rock­ing 1950s Christ­mas

Alan John­son fondly re­mem­bers the big day, lis­ten­ing to the Everly Broth­ers on the Dansette and Billy Cot­ton on the Light Pro­gramme

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Alan John­son

North Kens­ing­ton, the district of west Lon­don where I grew up in the 1950s, was a na­tiv­ity-free zone for me. I didn’t have a na­tiv­ity play at Bev­ing­ton Pri­mary School (in now fash­ion­able Not­ting Hill) or even at the in­fant school I at­tended be­fore that.

Christ­mases were dif­fer­ent in my child­hood. For a start, it didn’t seem to last as long. In our house (or, to be more ac­cu­rate, rooms), the cake tin where we kept our an­nu­ally re-used dec­o­ra­tions didn’t emerge from stor­age un­til the mid­dle of De­cem­ber. The bright blue tin had come to us (com­plete with Dundee cake) as part of a ham­per of pro­duce from a Christ­mas club. My mother paid six­pence a week into it to spread the ex­tra cost of the fes­tive sea­son over the pre­ced­ing months.

The tin con­tained red, yel­low and green pa­per chains, a few sprigs of plas­tic holly and an elab­o­rate pa­per bell that opened out like a con­certina to form a cen­tre piece to be fixed to the mid­dle of the ceil­ing with a draw­ing pin.

The Christ­mas I re­mem­ber best is 1959 – I was nine – when I was still ben­e­fit­ing from the charis­matic in­flu­ence of Bev­ing­ton’s re­mark­able head­mas­ter, Mr Gem­mill.

There may not have been Na­tiv­ity plays but there were cer­tainly Christ­mas car­ols at my pri­mary school. We’d be­gin singing them at school assem­bly from early De­cem­ber when Miss Woofenden, our mu­sic teacher, would belt out We Three Kings and Away in a Manger on the pi­ano and we’d sing along with her, our shrill voices un­der­pinned by Mr Gem­mill’s deep bass.

By 1959, I was fully im­mersed in the pop charts and knew the words to most hit records. My sis­ter, Linda, and I learned them from a three­penny monthly mag­a­zine called Record Song Book which we used for our a cap­pella ren­di­tions of Here Comes Sum­mer by Jerry Keller or Oh! Carol by Neil Sedaka.

Our mother r hadh had bought Linda a Dansette record d player l f from thh the pro­ceeds d of a mod­est foot­ball pools win a cou­ple of years be­fore. So we now had the means to play the lat­est 45rpm sin­gles, even if we rarely had the re­sources to buy them. This wasn’t a time of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Hit sin­gles had to be saved for – though a cover ver­sion could be bought for a cou­ple of shillings less at Wool­worth, on its own Em­bassy la­bel.

At our last Bev­ing­ton morn­ing assem­bly be­fore the three-week hol­i­day, Mr Gem­mill rec­om­mended a ra­dio pro­gramme we should all lis­ten to in the week af­ter Christ­mas. It was about the so­lar sys­tem; one of Mr Gem­mill’s many gen­tle en­cour­age­ments was that we should know the names of the plan­ets in the cor­rect se­quence ac­cord­ing to dis­tance from the Sun. He had a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion with Pluto which had been dis­cov­ered com­par­a­tively re­cently. I made a men­tal note to lis­ten to the Home Ser­vice on the day the pro­gramme was on.

For we chil­dren, sit­ting cross-legged on the par­quet floor, it was hard to ap­pre­ci­ate our head­mas­ter’s rec­om­men­da­tion. We were gripped by barely con­trol­lable ex­cite­ment and didn’t care to pro­ject our thoughts for­ward to a time when Christ­mas would be over.

In the days be­fore we broke up, no school work was done. We were al­lowed to bring in favourite board games and ev­ery sec­ond of the school day was play­time, our games in­ter­spersed with Dis­ney car­toons shown in the assem­bly hall, the flick­er­ing im­ages pro­jected onto the white-painted wall.

This would be our first Christ­mas at 6 Walmer Road, where our hous­ing trust had found four rooms for us on the ground and first floor. Pro­gress­ing from three rooms in the con­demned hous­ing of Southam Street felt like a real ad­vance. My mother even man­aged to se­cure a bath from the trust, al­beit plumbed into a makeshift struc­ture in the dis­used base­ment.

A court or­der had forced our fa­ther, who’d scarpered the pre­vi­ous year, to start pay­ing main­te­nance for us. Although these pay­ments fluc­tu­ated and would soon cease al­to­gether, at Christ­mas 1959 my mother must have felt that life was get­ting bet­ter – as did we.

The newsagent op­po­site pro­vided the two an­nu­als that we had ex­pressed an in­ter­est in: School Friend for 11-year-old Linda and Ea­gle for me. And we had two new records to play on the Dansette: What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? by Emile Ford and the Check­mates and (’Til) I Kissed You by the Everly Broth­ers.

The three of us spent Christ­mas Day eat­ing the pro­duce in that year’s ham­per and lis­ten­ing to the Light Pro­gramme where The Billy Cot­ton Band Show was the high­light of the day.

I didn’t lis­ten to the ra­dio broad­cast that Mr Gem­mill had en­thused about. Still, read­ing about the ex­ploits of Dan Dare in my Ea­gle an­nual pro­vided an equally ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of the won­ders of space.

Alan as a lad: aged nine, 1959 59

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