There was only one true Santa, according to mum, and he didn’t live in the North Pole. Our Santa resided in Knightsbridge, more specifically, in the toy department at Harrods. In the early seventies, after dad died, we were no longer invited to the official Christmas parties that went with his work, so mum found us an alternative festive treat. A full Christmas lunch at Harrods followed by a visit to Santa. Once again the journey into Christmas went via Waterloo, and because « going up to town » was posh, big Brother and I, went in school uniform.
You always got what you wanted from the Harrod’s Santa. Yes, he had received our letters, read them carefully, and then charged his Elves to get the goods. I wanted a Batmobile, and I got one. I wanted Lego, and Santa came up trumps. The Harrod’s Santa always got it right, from the presents, down to his, thick white beard and deep hearty laugh, that seemed to resonate with genuine goodwill. For sure, I knew that Santa wasn’t real. I knew that mum was buying the presents, but this was Christmas magic for me. The final touch of magic was a trip down Oxford Streets to see the lights.
In 1974, we left 34 Norman Avenue in Twickenham and moved to Hayes near Bromley in South East London. The new house needed a lot of work, and I guess mum didn’t have the money for a full Harrods trip, so we had lunch at our local Berni Inn and then we went to see the, second division suburban Santa, who presided over the Christmas Grottiness at The Army and Navy stores in Bromley high street.
We filed in with high hopes, and we both filed out with a pencil case. This wasn’t what we had asked for. This certainly wasn’t what mum had paid for. At two quid a head, she wanted something better, and was saying as much to a spotty, Elf outside the grotto.
The Elf tried helplessly to explain to mum that the pencil case, was the standard two pound present for boys, but mum was having one of it. She wanted something better for two pounds. Mum, as mum always did on these occasions, cast doubt upon the Elf’s intellectual capacities. The pointy-hatted spotty young girl then burst into tears and Santa himself, had to be hauled from his grotto to calm things down.
Mum emerged from triumphantly from A&N clutching two boxes of Meccano, (the three pound present). We followed her under the angry and vengeful gaze of other Elves, accompanied to the loud, wailing and blubbering of the first Elf , now suffering from Post Mum Traumatic Stress.
This was the day that I received my first ever Meccano set. I hated it. Too mechanical, no room for imagination. I was a Lego child. Meccano was a gift for bright, “speccy” kids, the kind who got microscopes as presents and played board games instead of musical chairs at their parties.
I never set foot in the Bromley branch of Army and Navy again.
Mum was only five foot four. She had that marvellous but explosive quality often associated with those of a smaller stature – standing up for one’s rights, meaning, to not be walked on. When she was in full flow, mum was both impressive and embarrassing. « I’m only standing up for myself and my family, » she used to say, walking away from the scène of her « stand », often leaving staff in floods of tears and managers on the verge of apoplexy. As she lectured « down » to her victims in her poshest, clipped, Kelvinside, Big Brother and myself would shuffle around embarrassed, staring at the floor, wishing that it would just open up and swallow either us or mum. When we got older, we would just run away and hide.