Christmas and New Year comes and goes, each of us observing long-held customs, traditions and conventions.
“I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”
Here we are now, entertain us”
However, there are always firsts. For a generation and more, I had successfully swerved any public participation in karaoke and its various game-console offspring. Until this year’s office party - my first in the new job. I was undone by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, a colleague with a shared penchant for classic grunge, and a handful of bottled Kentish Town IPAs. I fear the air-guitar moves with full windmilling, gyrations and screwed up eyes may bring a premature end to yet another promising career-move.
The karaoke quickly became a full-throated, impassioned group sing-a-long encompassing everything from ‘American Pie’ to ‘Mr Blue Sky’ via ‘Wannabe’ and the evergreen ‘Bo Rap’. I distinctly remember one of the tutors gorgeously crooning ‘Summer Wind’ with the girls providing a back line of smooth, improvised Fifties swing moves, whilst the boys hung out stage left raggedly choreographing nothing more ambitious than clicking fingers.
My singing voice is tuneless growl at the best of times. Coupled with an inflamed larynx (bless) from a heavy cold (double bless), my unearthly howl over Nirvana’s finest moments was something even the hounds of Hades would have struggled to emulate. Later, I briefly diverted to the kitchen for a satisfying cough and retch, before rejoining the chorus line. “That’s better. Just wanted to get my phlegm up”, I said to my female co-worker, with as much honest northern charm I could muster. She’d never heard a chat-up line like it.
The lovely northern charm quota was further boosted at home when Dad and Bruv joined us for Christmas. The anticipation of the season is always the best part and having them down a day earlier than usual afforded a chance to go over to Waddesdon Manor for their Christmas Light installation. Squeezing the last drops out of the National Trust annual membership was honestly only a very small part of the motivation.
Can’t knock the gaff, though. Waddeson was completed by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1885 as a mere Summer retreat in which to entertain extravagantly and show off opulent collections of art, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and the like. The architectural inspiration is pure Loire Valley chateaux. The plonk alone, bearing complicatedly calligraphed labels and stacked deeply in the expansive cellars, is priceless before you even consider the ostentatious buildings, manicured grounds and gilt contents of this ridiculous Gothic pile.
Getting to the house required the organisational effort of a D-Day beach landing. From the drop off point to car park to the ticket booth to the shuttle bus to the mansion itself. We persuaded Dad that a wheelchair would be a good idea, so he could see more of the grounds. This was an inspired idea, until we took an unexpectedly ambitious route to the stable block. Lady Margaret’s Walk, though charmingly decorated with lanterns made by the enthusiastic hands of local primary school children, involved more of an off-road, all-terrain experience on the muddy track than we were anticipating. At one point the chair was sliding sideways towards an escarpment whilst I wrestled with the handles, gently tutting at the poor traction offered by the wheels. In the half-light Bruv came to the rescue with a sharp shove to the right.
After the light show projected onto the front of the house, we quietly returned the wheelchair to its berth by the bus stop, leaving the splayed-wheel, twisted-frame, mud-caked carriage for its next careful owner.
Christmas Eve afternoon in The George with CB-D and Jules has become a very enjoyable new Festive addition to the day’ traditional conventions (which also include Secret Santa, hot ham, cold pickles and single malt). On the other hand, when the Big Day arrived, there was no customary welcome into our house by Daughter No 2, who as long as can be remembered had always bellowed “It’s Christmas!” from the top of the stairs at 7.30am. Even as a 16-year-old last year, she had felt compelled to drag us from our beds as early as possible. But not this season. Not until 9.30am did the ‘kids’ get up. With the arrival of new traditions, so pass the old ones.
“That will come in handy” said Dad, admiring the present Mrs A had bought him and Bruv for Christmas, “…picture frame!” The frame actually held a fascinating monochrome photo of our family home since 1968, and indeed where my Bruv was born. Taken in 1935, the row of houses that contained our abode was still pristine and uncluttered, presented prior to the addition of disfiguring dormers, bays and porches. The trees opposite looked like fruit bushes compared to the size they are now; and a figure could be made out parking his bike in front of the long-closed corner shop. Anyway, good to know the frame will be useful...
And then another set of spectacular presents from Mr Fernie, who has an enviable track record in this department, it has to be said. T-shirts this year. A job lot of them requiring the construction of a 'what a difference a Dave makes' team photo. Ho. Ho.
Board games get wheeled out, as befits yet more traditions, before the torpor of over-indulgence takes hold. That Christmas night it was simple Charades followed by more complex Rapidough. My Dad can be a bit unpredictable when it comes to these creative games. His picture of a ‘telephone’ in a round of Pictionary a few years back has become legendary, so far removed was it from any instrument of communication ever invented. Once again, his Rapidough plasticine efforts did not disappoint. This was his glorious offering for ‘bikini’:
During Twixtmas (I can do marketing speak), Mrs A went to the Nutcracker with Jules, who observed my wife bursting in to tears on four confirmed occasions, with the suspicion of a good deal more unseen emotional moments. The ballet. That’s a right good night out, then.
Deeper into Twixtmas, we pitched up next door for a few drinks with an assortment of neighbours. I was chatting to a couple from up the road whom, being an active neighbourly sort of bloke, I’d never met before. In amongst the chit chat with them about the weather and house prices, they introduced their kids and remarked how tall they were growing. I launched into some Poirot-like interview, quizzing them about the possibility of tall genes within the family, parents’ siblings who were unnaturally tall and the like. I didn’t really notice Mrs A giving me a warning look. Neither did I pay any attention when she drew her finger repeatedly across her throat. I was relentless. “Funny how these things can skip generations”, I went on. My new friends smiled politely. Turns out that they adopted their children about 10 years ago… How was I supposed to know?
By the time New Year’s Eve hove in to view, we were creating a new tradition: year-end crazy golf. Yes, CB-D and Jules had spotted a great looking course on their way back from Stanmore one day and knew immediately the family who would want to join them. Daughter No 2 even pulled a sickie from work to come.
We were not alone. ‘Lost Jungle’ was humming. Many thrill-seekers were crawling over 36 holes of extreme adventure golf, crammed with jungle animals, island holes, Aztec tombs and lost shipwrecks all built on a man-made hill in suburban Hertfordshire. Once you’ve taken an easy par two on a hole behind a curtain waterfall, there really is not much left to achieve in the game.
We strolled over to Aldbury with the dog later in the day, savouring the prospect of the walk and a quiet beer before the return to work.
But people just can’t get enough in these parts. The place was packed. We discovered that there’s a tradition of music in the village on this bank holiday. The Valliant Trooper had Morris Men flayling their hankies and jangling bells in the beer garden; and over in The Greyhound, locals were turning up with guitars and violins for a session in the front bar.
We found the edge of a table in The Valliant Trooper for a bite to eat. The other corner was shared with a bloke called Alan and his wife. Alan was as chatty as his partner was silent. He had a lot to tell us. From shunting patterns in the Willesden Goods Yard to the recycling habits of his local pub near Hitchin. He had some photos of metal tomb markers taken in the village church yard that he was itching to show us. We felt it was probably time to leave.
That was a wrap.