Thursday, 24 December 2015

Secret Santas

Bullets 1658 (1948)
Tiptoed upstairs expertly!
Perhaps it’s a wicked deception perpetuated down the generations that has left whole populations traumatised with the memory of how their own parents lied to them. Or it’s a marvellous story of kindliness; a shining example of the power of fantasy and imagination to bring a little magic into a cold world. But whether he’s an irresponsible con or a great white lie, we all come to realise sooner or later that Father Christmas is not real.

In a classic example of us adults inflicting our own childhood traumas onto our unsuspecting children, we go to remarkable lengths to keep the fraud alive. Egged on by commercial interests, we drag the little ones to grottoes haunted by resting actors in detachable beards, who hand out pound shop toys with jaded jollity. Unless, of course, we are lucky enough to stumble on a quality performance from an alumnus of the Ministry of Fun’s Santa School which has been offered every year since at least 2005. There’ll be no half-hearted Ho Ho Ho from this skilled technician, and he’ll have the professionalism to know that he shouldn’t ask what the little treasure wants for Christmas (because he already has their letter about that).

Even the might of the US security services has been co-opted into the fib. In 1955 a misprinted telephone number in a Sears and Roebuck Christmas ad led to children calling what they thought was a Santa hotline. In reality, they were getting through to an organisation known as the Continental Air Defense Command or CONAD which had a mission in those Cold War days to track the movements of Soviet aircraft. In a festive mood, the staff there decided to play along, and they gave their young callers what they said was updated information on Santa's progress from the North Pole to their town. As is the way with the military, CONAD morphed into a different acronym - NORAD or The North American Aerospace Defense Command - who continue to provide a Santa tracking service to this day.

But forming the bedrock of great gestures such as these in the cause of the great myth are the efforts of Fathers (and I suppose mothers) in millions of homes who leave half-eaten carrots, dregs of whisky and sometimes snowy footprints for the amazement of their credulous offspring on Christmas morning. Even when the spell is broken as teenagerhood looms, the evidence of Santa and Rudolph's visit is still left by the tree or the fireplace. It might be met with a shrug and a 'meh' by the gangly child, but they'll learn when they turn adult that this is a story you can never really let go.

Happy Christmas to all the Rabble and their offsprings

Family Corner:

Did Dad do Santa?
Did you ever catch him at it?
Did they do the extras - like the carrot with a bite out?
When did you find out the awful truth?

Friday, 11 December 2015

Wedded Bliss

Bullet 1650 (1949)
Just before the Second World War, the agony aunt at the Daily Mirror, Dorothy Dix, imagined what would happen if Adolf Hitler had married Mae West, and Mussolini had got hitched to Marlene Dietrich. The conclusion common to both was that great romantic gestures and fiery temperaments would have to yield to the daily grind if there were to be any chance of conjugal bliss. Romance and reality did not mix and she had a word of warning for the dictators – ‘after the rhetoric comes the rolling pin’.
Dix was writing at a time when her working-class readers were finding more opportunities to get a taste of the glamorous life. Cinemas and dance halls – like the 101 on New York Street in Leeds, where the nightly seven-piece were advertised as playing ‘sweet and hot’ – provided for the first time places that were both public and intimate, and where courting could be done away from the family gaze. 
Bright lights and smooth talk may have turned young heads, but Dix found her postbag full of letters from disillusioned new brides. Advising one wife of 8 months in 1939, she suggested that the husband’s offhand manner was probably due to his having a hard day at work. To make the marriage successful, the wife should learn to love him with all his faults. The worst thing she could do was leave because then she would have to support herself through work and, in a nightmarish twist, she would find that “bosses are just as irritable as husbands – so you may as well stick to the job you have undertaken”.
The war and direct encounters with American culture accelerated the development of affordable night life. But, although the war saw women occupying male positions - labouring on farms and milling machine parts for planes and bombs - without the world coming to an end, their status in relationships and marriage was slow to change.
It could be that this was more to do with centuries of immovable tradition than active male oppression. Everybody knows that couples argue, but there existed an ideal of the harmonious marriage that came about through the forbearance of each party (but mostly the wife’s, I suspect) of the other’s foibles. It is an ideal that was celebrated in the ancient ceremony of claiming the Dunmow Flitch. Any couple who could swear to the satisfaction of a jury that they had not argued in one year and a day of marriage could claim the flitch of bacon. Originally, the couple would have to make their oath while kneeling on sharp stones set at the doorway of the church. The award is still offered, but nowadays you can apply online and applications are open for 2016.
By the time this Bullet was written, a slow evolution in ideas about relationships was taking place. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the perceived ingredients of a good marriage shifted subtly. In her book The English in Love, Clare Langhamer identified a change in what people were looking for by studying thousands of ‘lonely hearts’ ads in publications such as The Matrimonial Post. While in the 1920s, advertisers wanted partners who were “steady and homely”, the 1930s saw people looking for “loyalty and affection”. By the mid-1950s, the majority were trying to find “soulmates”.
But who is the ‘winner’ here in Dad’s effort? The most obvious interpretation would be Mum, because she drew the prize that was Dad. But it could be read as Dad being the winner because he was ‘picked’ by Mum.
Unusually, all the Bullets on this scrap are written in capital letters. Some of them are marked ‘KEPT FOR OWN USE’, which implies that the others, including this one, were written with a certain Mr C R Saville of Newport in mind. Perhaps a mix of domestic bliss and upbeat ambiguity was the kind of thing that appealed to the agent.

Family Corner:

  • I know I've probably been told this before, but how did Mum and Dad meet?
  • As far as any of you were aware (being children and all) what was Dad's take on the roles of men and women?
  • As a general impression (though specifics would be helpful if you can remember any) do you recall Dad as angry, jokey, dull or any other overall characteristic?
  • Were there lots of/very few rows?
  • Were there lots of/very few signs of affection between Mum and Dad?

Any comments on this subject would be good - and remember that you can just email me if you feel anything you have to say is too personal to our family.