One advantage of having divorced parents as a child was that I got two Birthdays, two Christmas days and two bedrooms – one in each of my parent’s houses.
For many separated parents it is an emotional minefield when it comes to negotiating where the children spend Christmas each year. My parent’s solution, after separating when I was five, was to alternate custody at Christmas time and to strictly adhere to it: so, if one year I was with my Dad up in Scarborough at my beloved grandparents’ house, then the next I'd be with my Mum, at home in the east Midlands.
At my Mum's, I would go to sleep to the sound of Sellotape being dispensed in the lounge as she did her last-minute wrapping, usually well into the small hours of Christmas morning with carols on in the background, a neglected cigarette gently burning to cinders in the ashtray.
If I was spending Christmas at my grandparents, I would position Santa's mince pie and his glass of sherry outside my bedroom door and then find that Gran had re-made my bed, tucking the sheets and blankets under the mattress so tightly that getting into bed was like slipping a ten-page letter into a stiff manila envelope. One year when I was eight, I woke up in Yorkshire to discover that Father Christmas had stuffed a box of Thornton’s toffees in my stocking. I somehow managed to eat the entire box before breakfast.
Another year, he delivered a cassette player almost identical to the one on the cover of What a Way to Go. Mine would go on to play various 'Now That's What I Call Music' compilations to the point where the tape became perilously thin; Belinda Carlisle's voice warbled all the more for being played within a millimetre of her shaky soprano life.
I’m sure that the most coveted Christmas gifts for children in the 1980s must now have their own exhibition space in London’s Museum of Childhood. This was the era when kids went ga-ga for Glo Worms, crazy for Cabbage Patch Dolls and parents queued around the block for Barbies. These were the days when Lego wasn’t gendered or tied-in to the latest cinematic release. But what I desired more than anything was to cook my Dad breakfast in bed consisting of jam roly-poly served on a bed of baked beans on a Bluebird A La Cart kitchen.
This kitchen unit may never have materialised, but I wasn't going to let the lack of a blue plastic hob curtail my culinary ambitions; I experimented in the cooking department of lifelong skills with mixed results. My Home Economics education seemed to be quite inconsistent: so, while I had mastered piping profiteroles by the precocious age of nine, I still didn’t know how to defrost foodstuffs. One year, I served up prawn cocktail without thinking twice about the risk of spreading bolitis; I had defrosted each prawn thoroughly and individually. In my mouth. In the spirit of finding copy in the strangest of places, I recycle this scene in What a Way to Go.
Merchandise really took off in the eighties; this Christmas Eve, when my eight year-old daughter will go to bed at my Mum’s house, she will do so cosily tucked up under my retro Rainbow Brite duvet cover. As parents to a six and eight year-old in a mid-Wales market town, where there are no advertising hoardings and where, if we watch something on commercial television, it is via catch-up services on the Internet (and the adverts are that hi-resolution and our bandwidth so squeezed, that the ads freeze every three seconds) this means that we’ve thusfar managed to insulate our kids from most of the commercial perils which seem commonplace at Christmas.
Our antidote to Disney Land is Book Land: we take both kids to the Winter Festival at Hay-on-Wye each December and look at the beautiful shop window displays. Each of our kids gets to choose a book from Booth’s. This Christmas time we have been discovering a children’s classic from the middle of the last century by BB called The Little Grey Men, but I’m also looking forward to the kids unwrapping their present of Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas.
Because as much as we can view Christmases Past through rose-tinted and snow-rimmed spectacles, it is also important to look to the Christmases Future, and to discover new twenty-first classics which both adults and children alike will cherish…
If you fancy a sneak peek of What a Way to Go ahead of publication on 7 January, Goodreads are currently running a giveaway. Visit this Goodreads page to enter and to be in with a chance of winning one of the ten copies of What a Way to Go which are up for grabs... Good luck and merry festive things!