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
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