Forgotten presents

What do people buy as presents to take to a birthday party now? Particularly, boys, in times of virtual reality, what do people give? Are actual physical items bought, or are the gifts in the realm of online activity?

In my teenage years, reaching one’s eighteenth birthday was the big milestone.  Being eighteen meant that one could officially buy a drink in the pub where some of us had been drinking since the age of sixteen. It probably meant other things as well, but officially buying a pint was the most important.

But what presents did people take to an eighteenth birthday party? I cannot recall anyone taking gifts. What would we have taken? It was hard to remember what could have been taken to a birthday party. I remember being given Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, (I still have it in pristine condition) but that was as an Easter present. Could we have just turned up empty-handed at birthday parties? Was it acceptable to come without even a small token of affection for one’s host?

Birthday parties were in pub discos.  The pub provided the venue and the DJ (and sometimes even the invitations) and the person celebrating provided lots of customers for the bar. Perhaps the fact of being present at a party was a gift to the person. Being able to promise the pub a crowd of customers who would spend a lot of money at the late bar enabled the person to celebrate their birthday at no cost. But would you really have arrived and said, ‘happy birthday’ and passed them by to go to the bar?

It’s not as though the options for presents were plentiful. If gifts were bought, surely they would be remembered?  There were records, but what else? A bottle of wine in those times would have been something foreign and exotic. There were certainly bottles of Mateus Rose at student parties (a wine then considered the height of sophistication), but no-one would have considered it as a present, would they? Maybe chocolates for a girl? Maybe jewellery, if the girl commanded a particular place in the affections?

It is troubling that it is impossible to recall anything taken by anyone to any of the parties. If there was money for drinks, then some sort of gift would have been possible. Perhaps we all took gifts that we now prefer not to remember.

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What’s a geezer?

The school sports day is approaching and tutor groups discussed who from their groups would represent their house in a day of competitive athletics. A spirit of rivalry quickly emerged, no-one wanted to allow anyone to enter who did not have a serious chance of winning against the entrants from the three other houses. There are no illusions that participation is enough, it is winning that matters.

At the end of the day, walking to the school gate to supervise the safe departure of the two hundred Year 8 students, a student I knew well fell into step beside me.

“Are you entering the sports day?” I asked.

“Nah, sir. I have the body of a forty year old geezer.”

At most, he was a very slightly plump, it seemed a very odd answer.

“What’s a forty year old geezer like?”

“You know, sir. The men who sit in pubs and shout at the television when the football is on.”

“Do you know any geezers?”

“Not really, sir. My dad doesn’t drink.”

“Nor does mine,” said a boy who had appeared on the other side of me.

The concept of the forty year old geezer was new to me. “Why a forty year old?” I asked.

“Because, sir, that’s the age that geezers are.”

We reached the gate and the boys set off on their homeward walk.

“What’s a forty year old geezer like?” I asked a colleague standing at the gate.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m twenty-four.”

Another colleague responded, “I had a real crisis when I was forty. But I don’t think I was a geezer.”

Fifty years ago, when I was the age of the student, “geezer” was generally prefixed with “old.” It conjured visions of an old man in a raincoat and trilby hat walking down the street with a shopping bag in his hand. An old geezer would have been retired, he would have recounted stories of what life was like when he was young, he would have despaired of the young people he saw. A geezer would not have been just forty years old.

Consulting the Urban Dictionary, the boy’s definition of a geezer seems to reflect a wide understanding of the word. The interesting suggestion is that geezers are able to recognize each other, as if to be a geezer you must know a geezer. What is not explained by the Urban Dictionary or Wikipedia is how being a geezer moved forward twenty years.

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Doing the same things again and again

It being Wednesday, I phoned my mother at seven o’clock, went to Sainsbury’s for the weekly shopping, and then made my lunch for tomorrow. Lunch is always similar, a round of mature Cheddar and Branston Pickle sandwiches, three tomatoes, a Tunnock’s caramel wafer and an apple. Once lunch is complete, the box is put into my school bag and the bag is put into the boot of my car. I then put two Weetabix in a bowl and a Yorkshire Gold teabag into a mug for breakfast. Then I set out my clothes for tomorrow, a shirt to match the jacket and trousers, a tie to match the shirt, shoes to match the clothes. Should any of these routines be neglected, I would become discombobulated for the day.

The value I place on the repetition of daily routines always recalls John Mortimer’s 1980s novel Paradise Postponed. The novel tells the story of the rise of a working-class politician. Reading it while still in my twenties, I remember that the routineness of the life described made me smile, but its value has become clear in latter years.

Leslie Titmuss, the rising star describes his home life:

“I went to the village school,” he told them. “Then I got a scholarship to Hartscombe Grammar. Weekends I used to go out on my bike and help people with their gardens. I grew up to understand the value of money because it took my father five years to save up for our first second-hand Ford Prefect. Every night he finishes his tea and says to my mother, “Very tasty, dear. That was very tasty.” He always says the same thing. He falls asleep in front of the fire at exactly half past nine and at ten-thirty he wakes up with a start and says, “I’ll lock up, dear. Time for Bedfordshire!” Always the same. Every night. Just as he got up to go to work at exactly the same time every morning for forty years.

“Could any person in real life be as predictable as George Titmuss?” I thought. Surely, real life could not be so routine?

The very routineness of life, the repetition of the same things and the same words has about it a reassuring quality. Perhaps being a creature of habit is boring; alternatively, perhaps it is about being secure, about being content with life with its gentle rhythms and familiar patterns.

For centuries, people lived lives entirely governed by the rhythm of the agricultural year and no-one thought less of them for it. Perhaps the gentle, dull and inoffensive George Titmuss understood life much better than I imagined.

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The end of study and beginning of reading

English, Economics and History, the examinations for my three A Level subjects began on Monday, 4th June 1979 and ended eleven days later on Friday, 15th June 1979.

In ordinary times, such an occasion would now be marked by a rowdy party or even a group visit to a Spanish resort (I have read of groups of eighteen year olds heading to Ibiza to celebrate the end of their secondary education). In 1979, no such options were available to students of limited means living deep within rural England.

The passing of our days at Strode College in Street was marked in an altogether more subdued way. A small group of us spent the evening playing skittles and drinking ale at the King William Inn in the village of Catcott. The evening ended in an even more traditional manner than in which it had been passed, we sat on stools at a wooden table and ate a supper of crusty bread, Stilton cheese and pickled onions.

The next day, Saturday, 16th June, entirely unaware of the existence of something called “Bloomsday,” I went with my parents to the library in Bridgwater. I had gone with the deliberate intention of borrowing books that were considered to be “important.”  Perhaps I imagined that by reading I could become someone whom people considered to be “serious.” Among the books I brought home that day were James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, the latter being a nine hundred page narrative of the day of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on 16th June 1904.

Discussing the books at a friend’s house that evening, my friend’s father thought it distinctly odd.  He was emphatic in expressing his belief that it seemed very strange that any red blooded male should be reading Joyce. More than forty years later, his logic still seems unfathomable.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was read with great effort, it was very different from the adventure novels that had been my usual choice. Part of the reason for the slow progress through the pages of dense prose was that I had begun my summer job, labouring at Kelway’s Nursery, on Monday, 18th June. Starting at 7.45 am each day and working in the fields until 5 pm, I was exhausted at the end of each day.  Having had enough of Joyce, Ulysses was abandoned after forty pages and not picked up again until 2003.

There seems a clarity in those moments of trying to become a serious reader, as if I could reach out a hand and pick up one of those books.

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Disappearing green baize

“Pool and snooker table maintenance,” announced the strapline on the side of the white van. Times being what they are, it is hard to imagine that the driver is finding much work.

Snooker tables used to be commonplace. “Billiard tables,” they were called when I was young. Snooker halls, working men’s clubs, games rooms in big houses and student facilities, pubs, even youth clubs, the green baize was something approached with seriousness, and treated with care.

Snooker halls were places filled with a concentrated silence, the kiss of the white ball against a red or a colour, a puff on a cigarette, a sip from a pint of beer, an occasional word of congratulation to an opponent. Muzak and constant background television noise were still things of the future.

While played with just three balls, billiards seemed a more difficult and a more complicated game. Playing it only once, with a friend at his university’s snooker room, it seemed a game without hiding places, a game where the failings of a bad player like myself were quickly exposed.

Attending theological college in the 1980s, the snooker table was an opportunity to escape from the lessons on Greek and philosophy and Biblical literature. An evening never seemed complete without at least a frame. Later, more serious academic minds, deemed the snooker table and the adjacent table tennis table to be superfluous to the requirements of those preparing for ordination and they were removed to make way for an additional seminar room.

Pool always seemed a less formal game, although the skill demanded to be a good player seemed to be just as great. Pool tables could be fitted into a smaller space, the games could be played more quickly, the capacity for income generation was greater.

Now, all three games seem to be in decline. In the 1980s, the snooker champions were household names, now the viewing figures for the championships are a fraction of what they were. With the decline in public popularity, perhaps there has been a corresponding disappearance of many snooker tables. It is a long time since I heard of anyone playing billiards, perhaps there are still gentlemen’s clubs where the gentle art is still practised. Even pool tables seem not to have the popularity they once enjoyed, are there still places where people put piles of coins on the side of the table to reserve the next game?

With lockdown and the decline of licensed premises, the van driver may need to find other uses for his vehicle.




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