Christmas is but a memory now. Well, it is for me at any rate. If it weren’t for the fact that, in my hall-way, there’s a 5ft artificial tree begging to be put back in the garage, I’d be forgiven for thinking that we hadn’t had a Christmas at all. To tell you the truth, it was the first time in three years that I’d even bothered to assemble the Christmas tree, and of course it was whilst taking the thing down again that I found one of the reasons I’d discontinued with the festive tradition in the first place; a dog had peed up the base of it. In my lounge, if you please. Thank goodness for hard flooring.
I say ‘a dog’; I don’t want to radiate the illusion that my home is open to all passing waifs & strays, more that with two dogs of my own and at least four more having been round to see us with their respective owners, it could have been any of them. I soaked the bottom of the tree in a solution of Dettol and went off in search of a mop.
It does make me wonder why we bother with it all though. What a load of fuss, expense, not to mention drama, and it’s all over in a day. Why? Why do we do it? Ask anyone how their Christmas was and I can tell you what they’ll say: ‘Quiet’. When it comes to Christmas, ‘quiet’ is the stock answer for us Brits. It’s as much part of our culture as a cup of tea. Or fish & chips.
That sort of thing.
As in, “Hello! How was your Christmas?” ... “Oh, you know, quiet...would you like a cup of tea?”.
Truth is though, my Christmas really was quiet. It always is. Not that I’m complaining of course –quiet is good- I just think that other people seem to have much more fun at that time of year. Tim went to work on Christmas day as he always does. I stayed home and cleaned the flat. It was my treat to myself; for weeks and weeks people had been booking extra cleaning slots and touting me out to their extended family so that the homes would be perfect in preparation for the big day. Christmas day was my turn.
Once the cleaning was done, I showered & changed, and got the dogs ready for a walk. My friend and her husband were due to arrive at any moment, having been convinced by me that it would be such a lovely change for them if they came to my house on Christmas day and cooked for us... Against all the odds, she thought it was a wonderful suggestion. Result.
I can honestly say it was the best Christmas I’d had in years. The food was to die for and the company even more so. I've never spent Christmas day with friends before.
Actually, I think I went off Christmas after my grandmother passed away in early 1995. I loved Christmases with her, and she wanted for very little. A box of Meltis Newberry Fruits and a VHS cassette featuring a medley of clips from Crossroads or Emmerdale farm and she was good. Nanny always entered into the Christmas spirit too; my memory of our last Christmas together was of endless rounds of “I spy”, and her wearing a set of cartoon reindeer antlers for the duration. Which reminds me of something else...
It all started in the October of 2005. I’d bought a copy of a well-known magazine as I was going to see the dentist. There’s always a long wait in the dentist, and I use this opportunity to sit in the waiting room and do some reading. Whilst there is a plentiful supply of newspapers and magazines, it’s not really the sort of thing I can relate to. My dentist’s magazines have adverts for investment opportunities, adverts for hand-crafted, bespoke, solid-wood kitchens, and details on where to find your nearest Aga showroom. It’s just not me. In contrast, my magazines have adverts for companies that will lend you lots of money, no matter how dire your circumstances, adverts featuring old ladies strapped into electric stair-lifts, and endless adverts from home shopping catalogue companies, all promising a superb ‘free gift’ when you place an order. I thought gifts were supposed to be free anyway?
I recall reading the usual tripe that these magazines thrive on, right from the double-spread ‘true life’ stories, through to the Problem Pages. Nothing had grabbed my attention as such, until I read one of the reader’s letters. It was only a small piece, just a few lines and a ruddy great picture of the woman who'd written it. I can honestly say that I have never, ever, seen such drivel in print.
She’d written in to say that after work on a Thursday she dashes out to buy this magazine, and then does the ‘comps’ (I presume ‘competitions’) as ‘quick’ as possible. Shouldn’t that be as ‘quickly as possible’? Anyway, ‘quick’ or ‘quickly’, she went on to say that her personal best was 30 minutes.
“Could anyone beat this?” she asked. My eyes wandered to the bottom of the page. “We pay £20 for all letters published,” it said, “£25 if you include a photo. Letter of the week wins £50”.
“£25!” I thought, “and just for writing THAT! Talk about money for old rope”.
The magazine hung around my house for a week or two, and for some reason I was always drawn to that one stupid letter. Eventually I decided enough was enough. “Could anyone beat this?” she’d asked, and I didn’t see why someone shouldn’t write back and say, “Well actually, yes”.
I thought about it for a few days, and by the end of the week decided to ask my dad for a photograph of his mother (my nanny) Connie. Coming from a family who are not overly into taking photos, I had to make do with the only photograph my dad could find. And It was taken on Christmas day 1994 –our last Christmas with nanny- and featured her sitting on my parent’s sofa. As was always the case when she visited, she had a couple of cushions stuffed behind her head in order that she might watch television more comfortably, with the red and green elasticated reindeer antlers in situ.
Back home I switched on my computer, and set my fingers tapping across the keyboard. And here’s what I wrote:
“In issue 40, reader XXXXXX wrote to tell us that she loves doing the comps in XXXX, and does them as quick as possible. She asked if any one could beat her personal best of half-an-hour. Well, I’d like to tell you about my grandma, Connie, who unfortunately has now passed away.
For as long as we can remember she would collect her pension and buy her magazines (or ‘books’ as she called them!) on a Friday morning. Her favourite magazine was always XXXX, and once she had got home she would sit and do all the ‘comps’. 20 minutes later she was putting her coat back on and heading for the post box. We used to call her the Zola Budd of the competitions! We’ll never know just how she managed it.
I enclose a picture of Connie, which you are welcome to print”.
All in all it took me about five minutes. I printed it off, slipped it into an envelope along with the photo, and posted it to the magazine.
My mom, of course, was not very pleased with what I had done. Not that I sent a photo of my nanny to a national magazine, but because the whole thing had been a tissue of lies. True, it was dishonest, to a point, but then I didn’t think for a minute that it would ever make it into the letters page. And anyway, they have a choice, it’s not like I was shoplifting or anything.
Well, that was October, and after a week or two I still hadn’t heard. I came to the conclusion that my letter just wasn’t good enough, or that they’d had an influx of people claiming they knew someone who could beat Mrs X’s personal best. In fact I then forgot all about it. That was until three months later, when I received a letter by special delivery. I opened it, and I read it again and again, the words “PAYMENT FOR ‘LETTER OF THE WEEK’, 19TH JAN 2006” hitting me between the eyes like a sledgehammer. I turned it over and found a cheque. A cheque for £50. I couldn’t catch my breath. £50. For five minutes work. Never.
Now, I was ever much good at maths, but I work that out to £600 per hour, pro-rata. Gosh, nice work if you can get it. But it certainly proves one thing, these magazines WILL print any old trash. Honestly, you wouldn’t read about it. But then again, you just have.