Precious memories

Christmas past and present

As a child
Overnight a Christmas  ‘stocking’, actually a black sock, would appear on the ends of our beds. I wasn’t a ‘tip-it-all-out’ kind of child; I liked the endless little surprises as I plunged my hand inside to draw out whatever came next. Some of the gifts were wrapped, some not. New crayons, a wooden animal, some other tiny toy, sweets, chocolate money, bath cubes (remember those?)  … often chosen for their minuscule proportions rather than practicality or need. In the toe of the sock was a tangerine and a handful of nuts in their shell. Once dressed, we ran downstairs where my father would be lighting the fire in the kept-for-best front room. For two days both living rooms were heated – a treat reserved only for the most special of occasions.
Paper lanterns hung from the ceilings and there was always a real tree. Some of its decorations were Japanese, originating from my mother’s army days in Kure. Under the tree would be a pile of wrapped gifts and Dad would give them out one at a time. My mother would have wrapped up new vests, socks and other essentials that she’d have bought anyway, but they added to the excitement of the gift pile and prolonged the fun of opening them. There was always a pound note from my grandfather in Ireland. Selection boxes and annuals (Bunty, Judy, Diana and June & Schoolfriend) were my core favourites, and then one year (I’d have been perhaps 8 years old), the longed-for most memorable present –  Tressy, the 12″ teenage doll whose hair grew. It had to be wound back in using a small key inserted in the small of her back. That year my other presents included several outfits for Tressy,  best of all, an air hostess uniform. The following year I received Toots, Tressy’s little (9″) sister.
At lunch we always had crackers to pull and I was allowed a tiny liqueur glass of sweet sherry. Did I enjoy the taste? I’ve no idea but it felt very grown up.
After lunch we watched The Queen’s Speech and then I’d curl up with chocolate and one of the annuals. There was always a film on TV that we’d been longing to see – no videos or DVDs back then.
Mum was a ward sister at the hospital in nearby Bromsgrove and  for several years, on Boxing Day afternoon, we’d go to the hospital to visit some of her patients. We children always came away with another haul of chocolate and coins.

As a mum of little children

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

All through December I would read this to my children. I still have it, now well worn. One year my daughter asked if she could have some ‘visions of sugarplums’ for Christmas!



I loved the choosing, the buying and the wrapping. I loved stuffing the Christmas stockings (commercial produced and made of felt until one year I sewed my own) with items not dissimilar to those of my own childhood. A little string bag of gold and silver foil-wrapped chocolate money was always a must.
The tree was decorated with baubles from my childhood, toilet-roll angels and cut-out snowmen blobbed with glue and cotton wool, each crafted with care by little hands, and perhaps some new trinket eagerly chosen at the nursery on the annual outing to chose the best tree we could find.
The school nativity or Christmas show, new pyjamas for Christmas Eve, Christmas Carols whilst I prepared the veg…happy memories. And always, without fail, a visit to my friend at 3pm on Christmas Eve for wine and gift exchange.
How many times did I shout up the stairs to be quiet and go to sleep? I’d tell them that it had just been on the news – Father Christmas was already in the next town along!  If he arrived and they’d still been awake…then what? Of course, it never happened. 11.30pm and time for the midnight service. I never missed.
They’d wake early, open their stockings, sneak downstairs to peek under the tree. Their father would light the fire (by then we had central heating but that open fire was a part of Christmas) whilst I made crumpets, our traditional Christmas breakfast. We ate them with peanut butter. As each one learned to read so they were in charge of gift distribution. Oh those happy little faces. Nanny and Granny always came for lunch.

Christmas later
By this I mean since the children grew up. As many as thirteen, as few as three – I’ve cooked for every number in between. Only twice in 42 years have I not cooked Christmas dinner, and on both occasions, as nice as it was to be invited out, I missed it. It’s part of what I do. When ones children have in-laws and families of their own we have to relinquish our right to preside over the celebrations. Last year I saw the devastation caused in a family by a friend’s failure to understand and accept this. It was so sad for all concerned and the fracture it caused still reverberates. Of course I would love to have all my family together but I know that they have others to consider, and as the grandchildren grow, the families want to be in their own home on Christmas Day, building their own traditions. It’s only right. We see them all at some point but not necessarily for Christmas dinner, and not often all together.

Christmas 2016
It was different. There were just three of us for Christmas dinner – husband, self and my brother. It was the first time that at least one of my children had not been present. It felt strange- our quietest Christmas. But we had all been together, every one of us, just three days earlier, for my daughter’s wedding on 22nd December and it was wonderful.

With my daughter – 22nd December 2016


Christmas 2017
This year we will be six for lunch on the day. Eldest son’s family and the two of us. Daughter will be in New York and younger son and family are staying at home.  We’ll pop round to see them in the morning and the girls will excitedly show us their spoils.

Nothing stays the same. Sometimes it’s a good thing, other times it makes one wistful. I still listen to Christmas carols whilst I prep the veg on Christmas Eve and I still visit my friend at 3pm for wine and to exchange gifts, but oh how I miss filling the stockings and listening at bedroom doors wondering whether little ones are asleep.

And how I miss, so very much, those joyful little faces when they shout out, “He’s been!”


“Happy Birthday to You”

My grandson is a year old today. We visited this morning and weren’t surprised that it was his older brother (27 months) who opened the cards and presents. After birthday cuddles we left the family to their planned day out. I looked after the boys yesterday so I’d had my time with them – today was for Mummy, Daddy and their babies.

It was only later in the day that I realised that another birthday is imminent. Tomorrow Radio 1 celebrates its 50th birthday. Fifty years since I tuned into my little transistor radio every morning before school and listened to Tony Blackburn. It became the soundtrack to my high school years. I’d just started at the local grammar school and everyone was talking about Radio 1. I was so glad that my aunt had given me that little radio for my birthday a month earlier.

That very first song, Flowers in the Rain became a favourite but I didn’t buy it since I had no record player and, unlike many of my friends, my parents didn’t own a radiogram. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about – this was a sideboard-style piece of furniture which housed a record player and had storage for 7″ singles and 12″ LPs (Long player).   But by the time Dusty Springfield released Son of a Preacher Man in 1968 or 69 (I Googled it but there seems to be some confusion), I had my own record player and it became my first single. Soon after I bought my first LP, The Moody Blues Days of Future Past. Funny the things that stick in one’s mind.

It was 1972 before I went to my first pop concert.  I felt as a teenager that my parents were very hard on me but looking back, I am amazed at how much freedom they gave me.  My best friend Margaret had a sister who was five years older and so long as she was accompanying us, I was allowed to go to places that I’d never have experienced if it wasn’t for her. She and her boyfriend took us to see the band Deep Purple and I was hooked on live bands from that moment. Over the next couple of years we saw The Rolling Stones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Procol Harum, Family (and even spoke to the lead singer in the bar of Birmingham Town Hall – and did we live on the glory of that encounter!!).

I bumped into Margaret’s sister at a wedding a few months ago and told her that my teenage years wouldn’t have been half so much fun if it hadn’t been for her kindness and tolerance in taking responsibility for two much younger girls (for five years is a lot at that age). What’s more, she loaned us fashionable clothes, plucked our eyebrows, and helped us with our hair and make-up. No wonder I so wanted a big sister of my own!  Anyhow we reminisced about the parties and concerts we’d gone to and then ….we talked about our grandchildren! How quickly those decades have sped by.

I loved live music and later in the 70s saw Roxy Music several times, many more bands thoughout the 80s and 90s, and more recently  Elton John, Tina Turner and Neil Diamond but I think my concert days are now over as I developed a dislike for big crowds nowadays. I still listen to music a lot though and rarely drive without either Smooth Radio, Classic FM or a CD playing. No more Radio 1 though because I’ve turned into my parents – ‘What a row’ I think!


My life in cars

A Triumph Spitfire and me ~ c1974


“A computer!” shouted my five and six year old sons when asked to guess what our surprise was. “It’s something we’ll all love,” I’d told them.  Their friend had a computer and they desperately wanted one too. (It was early in 1986 and very few families owned one). Their disappointment on being told that the surprise was actually a baby brother or sister was crushing. “But we really want a computer,” said the eldest.  I knew exactly how they felt – I’d be seven when I too was told to expect a surprise that evening. When my father arrived home from work driving our first ever family car (a dark green Austin A30, registration PAB 86), I sobbed because I’d wanted a rabbit.

But just as the boys got used to the idea of a new sibling (and even rather liked their little sister once she arrived – at least until she became mobile and wrecked their games) , so I began to enjoy the excitement  of ‘going for a spin’ on a Sunday afternoon. The Model Village at Bourton-on-the-water, feeding the swans on the River Severn in Worcester … Evesham, Broadway, Burford -the list of interesting places was endless and they usually had a decent ice-cream shop! Petrol must have been cheap in those days because it was very much later that I remember my Dad saying that if the cost reached a pound, he’d give up driving.

I can’t say exactly when it was that the A30 gave way to a turquoise A40 but I do have clear recall, aged around ten or eleven, of the night we slept in the A40. Until then we had holidayed with my grandparents in Gloucestershire and always spend a few of the days visiting Weston-Super-Mare which was less than an hour’s drive away. Quite what possessed my mother to book a holiday in St. Ives in Cornwall, a journey close to 260 miles away, I have no idea. It was ‘the main holiday fortnight’ and I doubt very much that in those days the A38 ‘Holiday Route’ offered dual carriageways or bypasses. With our parents in the front, my brother and I were squashed into the rear seats alongside our mother’s sister, Aunty B, and various bags which couldn’t be accommodated in the boot or on the borrowed roof-rack. It was not a comfortable trip. As darkness fell we pulled off the road and were told to sleep; it wasn’t a comfortable night either.

After that came more Austins – first a pale blue 1100, and later still a sludgy green (described, not inaccurately, by my younger brother as cat-muck green) 1300. In 1975 the first brand new car appeared outside the house. Yet another Austin – this time it was the latest design – the Austin Allegro. This was the car that took me to my wedding the following year. Eschewing tradition, I chose to have my dad drive me. (I think I’ve mentioned previously my green wedding dress and matching nail polish – I was anything but conventional!)

The Allegro was the one and only brand new car my father ever drove.  There was to have been another and this time a change from the Austin; a VW Golf had been ordered and on 4th August 1981 he was due to pick it up after work at 5.30pm. Shortly after 5pm my lovely Dad suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 49 years old.

At 18 I had passed my driving test (in a mini which was what pretty much every one learned to drive in back then). My soon-to-be husband and I shared a purple Mk. III Triumph Spitfire and, though hopelessly impractical once my first son arrived in 1979,  we held onto it and bought a six year old mini estate for me. With the back seats down the bulky Silver Cross pram fitted in a treat, complete with baby. It was a few years before baby seats became the norm.   After Dad died and Mum had been persuaded to keep the new VW, I was given the Allegro and drove it until 1984. After that came a bright yellow Ford Capri, a turquoise Capri (which I absolutely loved but it was the most unreliable car in the history of motoring), a white Mini Metro and then a blue one but by then I had three growing children who regularly complained of being squashed so in 1991 I bought a bright red Ford Escort which due to changing home circumstances I kept for nine years.

My next car was  another red escort (I have no idea why I chose the same) followed a year later by what I had longed for – my ‘dream car’. A colleague had a sporty Escort Cabriolet Ghia. It was dark green with a black canvas roof. A throwaway comment one morning, “If you ever want to sell that, I’d love it,” resulted in me buying it from her Just weeks later. It was fast, reliable and with the flick of a switch the roof  retracted. I loved the look of it  but the dream, whilst not quite turning into a nightmare, soon died. It was an incredibly heavy car and the steering lock was awful. We live in a cul-de-sac and when I turn my present car around I can do so in one or two turns. The cabriolet necessitated a minimum four point turn. Parking it in the town centre’s multi-storey car parks was a complete pain and after a summer of knotty hair (headscarves and I have never gone together), I gave up and bought the car that still remains my favourite one ever – a bright red Ford Mondeo. It was a joy to drive. But then I got a promotion at work and with it a company car – a VW Passat at first and very nice it was, but the sale of the Mondeo was a reluctant one. Over the next few years I drove many, many miles in a Toyota Avensis and then a very sporty VW Golf (both black).

And then I didn’t want to drive all those miles any more. The offer of voluntary redundancy came up and I volunteered. In late 2011 I bought the car I still have now – a silvery- blue Vauxhall Astra. I like driving it but quite recently I had to get three new tyres fitted. Though the cost was not as high as the recent £700 repair to my husband’s car, my purchase, alongside ever- increasing insurance premiums, has once again raised the question of ‘going down to one car’. It is something we have talked about periodically.

My husband retired on the same day that I received confirmation of my voluntary redundancy request. We had both driven company cars for years and at the time neither one of use felt ready to relinquish our ‘un-shared’ car status so we each bought our own. We agreed to reconsider in three years time. Nearly six years on, a decision is very overdue.  We each have our own interests and whilst we do enjoy doing things together, we also do a lot of things apart. Much of what we do as individuals requires transport and the public variety simply doesn’t offer the flexibility required. I’ve had my own car and the independence that goes with it for over forty years. I really hate the idea of relying on someone else not needing the car when I might want to use it. However, the irrefutable fact is that, for a large percentage of the time, one or other of the cars is sitting outside the house, unused. Both cars are getting older and with that comes the prospect of more frequent repair bills. Both are depreciating in value but if we sold them now it would give us a half reasonable amount to put towards another one. But this is where we stumble – another ONE.

We talked about it again the other evening and to came to a (wholly unsatisfactory) decision:  we’ll think about it in a month or two!  Which is exactly the decision we came to last time and the time before that….and the time before that…..








The Button Box


Who has a button box nowadays? I haven’t asked but I’ll bet my daughter or daughters-in-law don’t.  I have one but it’s small in comparison to the one my grandmother owned. So far as I’m aware she wasn’t a great one for sewing. Neither was my mother but she too had a considerable stock of buttons. One of my earliest memories is playing with the contents of my grandmother’s button box. I’d sort them into colours and sizes, count them, make patterns in the table and generally stay happily occupied for what seemed like ages.

Lynne Knight’s book The Button Box: The Story of Women in the 20th Century Told Through the Clothes They Wore begins by describing the delights of her own grandmother’s button box.  The book is on my list to order from the library. She writes:

           ‘I used to love the rattle and whoosh of my grandma’s buttons as they scattered from their Quality Street tin’……. [they] reached back into the past with metal-shanked beauties from the nineteenth century and came forward into my childhood with the pale blue waterlily buttons….’

The thing about button boxes is, at least in my experience,  that the contents are rarely used. Rather they are collected ‘just in case’ or because ‘they’re too good to throw out’ when the clothing to which they were once attached is discarded.

My grandmother’s button box was an old biscuit tin, my mother’s a bamboo lidded basket with handles brought back from Japan, and mine is part of a set from Dunelm… it serves the purpose but doesn’t do much in the excitement stakes!


It’s not often that I investigate the contents of my own button box but I was looking at some old school photos of my children recently. I was reminded of my daughter who, aged about seven, asked if she could have a ‘proper’ school cardigan instead of the hand knitted variety that she had been wearing up until then. My knitting days were all but over.


The triangular green button was cut from the last school cardigan I made. It was a basket-weave design – the uniform called for a green cardigan but with no stipulation as to the design so, with a love of the non-conventional, I put my own spin on it forgetting that children just want to be the same as their peers! I remember being so thrilled when I found some little peach coloured rabbit buttons for her baby cardigans. There were white rabbits and yellow ducks too but I’ve no idea what happened to them. Flower shapes were a favourite too but although I must have done, I can’t remember using the pink hearts. Babies don’t wear much in the way of hand-knits now, do they?

I’ve lots of metal button salvaged from the 1980s shoulder-padded ‘power’ suits that I loved wearing. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever use these buttons again. I don’t really sew any more apart from the odd replacement shirt button so I suppose the contents of my button box will remain just that.





Introducing Oscar


This is Oscar. He is 25 years old and lives at the side of the garden shed, or sometimes on the steps which lead up from the patio.  Oscar was recently  treated to his annual coat of paint as I like to ensure that he stays looking nice and well cared for.  I’m not generally given to filling my garden with concrete animals but Oscar is a very special exception.
We used to live just a few doors away from the local shop and I had just started allowing my then six year old daughter to walk there by herself. Desperate to be as grown up as her elder brothers, this was one small freedom that could be allowed. I would stand  at the garden gate and watch until she returned.
One day she was adamant that Daddy, rather than Mummy, should watch for her because she was going to buy ‘a secret’. Realising that this might well have something to do with my forthcoming birthday, I understood her insistence.
Minutes later she returned from the shop in tears.
“Whatever’s happened,” we both asked.
“I’m only telling daddy,” she sobbed.
Shortly after the two of them returned to the shop together and I was told that all would become clear later.
It transpired that on an earlier visit to the shop daughter had seen the rabbit and, on her return, asked her father if she could have 55p ‘to buy mummy a lovely birthday surprise’. The ensuing tears were her reaction to being told in the shop that she hadn’t got enough money. The rabbit was £5.50. Needless to say Daddy felt under pressure to pay up.
So that’s the story of Oscar. Since he is exceptionally heavy there is no way she could have lifted him let alone carried him back by herself even if he had cost only 55p.

Oh Biba, how I loved you

Biba-logo 2

It was late in 1974. My then boyfriend was to attend a course in London and wondered if I’d like to go along for the ride.  Since I had only ever been to London on a school trip I jumped at the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. Quite early in the day I found myself on Kensington High Street and came across the iconic Biba department store. That was it, I got no further. The spectacular blend of modern, Art Nouveau and Art Deco with a nod to Pre-Raphaelite and shades of the Moroccan souk for good measure, drew me in.  The Hollywood-style surroundings, the like of which I had only ever seen in films, were awesome, lavish, unique; I could go on …and on. It was love at first sight and there I stayed for the rest of the day.

Biba B

The brainchild of Polish born fashion designer Barbara Hulaniki, Biba had already been in existence for some years when the old Derry & Toms seven storey  department store on Kensington High Street became available and, in September 1973, Biba moved in.

‘No-one could fail to be stunned by the sheer scope of the enterprise’ reported the Evening Standard at the time. ‘You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped inside a dream machine.’

‘Like stepping in of the cold reality of the street into fairyland’ said The New Yorker.

Biba 3

Reputed to attract hundreds of thousands of customers a week, the newly located store offered a bewildering choice of clothing, shoes, makeup, house ware, toys, and even groceries which were displayed on the likes of massive baked bean and sardine tins (the latter complete with enormous key), much of the food packaging sporting  the store’s logo. Biba was intended as more than a shop – it was sold as a lifestyle. The true Biba devotee even used its branded washing powder. As Alistair Best in Design Magazine said at the time. ‘shopping is almost a fringe activity’.


Everything was larger than life from the over-sized hat stands used to display all manner of fripperies to the magnificently proportioned black and gold mirrored make up counters artfully displaying thousands of tiny pots and palettes. A giant record player, enormous Snoopy doghouse, huge toadstools in the cafe which also boasted a castle and moat, all added to the feeling of being part of a film set. The fantasy was even more evident as I ventured onto the fifth floor and peeped into the Rainbow Room. Reconstructed as a 1930s palm-court style restaurant, resplendent with mirrored walls, it had a lasting impact and remains steadfastly a style of decor for which I have great affection. Having discovered the sixth floor tea rooms and roof gardens  (rather less intimidating for an unaccompanied teenager) I remember sitting for a while with refreshment, but I have no idea what I chose. I think it was here that I discovered the delight of people watching, something I still enjoy greatly.

Back on the ground floor I could hardly wait to spend my hard-earned Saturday shop girl wages on those tiny pots of make up and perfumed oils in their distinctive Deco-style glass bottles. They lived on my dressing table long after the contents had been used.

biba perfume pots

I vowed there and then to return with enough money to buy some of the Biba fashions and, most importantly, a pair of the amazing suede boots. I went home and I began to save. I worked extra hours all through the school holidays and watched  my savings grow. Some time late in 1975 I returned to London, so full of excitement, you cannot imagine.  I was seventeen when I first encountered Biba, impressionable, headstrong and determined to develop a style distinct from that of many of my peers. I wanted that ‘Biba lifestyle’. The disappointment was crushing – Biba had closed.  It’s demise is well documented in the book The Biba Experience but in a nutshell, a combination of financial reasons and board disagreements sounded the death-knell and despite attempts to re-launch, it was over.

Biba, in it’s glorious final form, was so short lived and I feel privileged to have experienced it, to have been there at the right time. The brand name was eventually bought by House of Frazer in 2009 and is still trading though Ms.  Hulaniki criticises it for not reflecting the original style of Biba.

Quotes and background information taken from The Biba Experience Alwyn Turner