What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping

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I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!

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The Perils of the Shivery Bite

Advent 2 On the unintended consequences of freedom to roam

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I told a lie yesterday when I said I had only a single childhood memory of Christmas. I woke up thinking of another one.

It must have been well into December and in North East Scotland that meant it was dark and cold by the end of the school day. Nevertheless on Tuesday afternoons after school I went to swimming classes. In Aberdeen in the 1950s every school child began swimming classes as soon as they started in the Infants.

For some reason (I think it was the prevention of child drownings plus the enthusiasm of some counsellor to produce an Olympic champion) Aberdeen had set up a free swimming programme for all children and built an Olympic standard pool. It had the deepest deep end in the country and proper diving platforms. The city was very proud of this.
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I just thought all swimming pools were like that and swimming was what all children did.

Nobodies’ parents (that I knew anyway) ever took them or collected them from these classes. Mothers were far too busy cooking tea and fathers were at work. We just walked to the baths from school and then daundered home afterwards.

But first, and always after swimming, we had our “shivery bite”.

There was a chip shop conveniently opposite the baths so we always stopped for a 3d poke of chips before we made our way home. This could take quite a time, hanging around relishing the steamy aroma of the fryer, sharp with the tang of the vinegar.

This particular evening I ate all my chips before starting for home. I walked on my own, because by this time we had moved house and I was no longer on the tram route. I had to cut through the back roads to our new flat.

It wasn’t a brightly lit route lined with cheerful houses. I went down a steep narrowish wynd at the side of the baths, then along an ill lit lane of storage depots towards the rear of the main shopping street. Even I thought it was a bit spooky, but it was usually deserted and you had good sight lines if anybody should appear, so it would have been no problem taking to your heels. I often dawdled, hard as this may seem to believe.

This particular evening I was just getting towards the end of the lane when I saw a figure advancing from the distance.  I was horrified to realise it was my mother!  I was immediately struck with dread. I must be in trouble if she had come looking for me! What forgotten crime had come to light that I had committed?

It never occurred to me that she might be worried!

Nor was she!  She was furious!

As a great surprise treat she had bought tickets for the pantomime, and now it was so late we would never make it. We hadn’t got a car and public transport or Shank’s pony would never get us there in time.

I was marched home in disgrace, doubly guilty for dawdling and wasting precious money.

I was just coming up to nine years old!

I never did make it to a pantomime, but, on the plus side, I could dive and life save by the time I was ten!

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