My Christmas Presents, 1991-99
With it being Christmas Day tomorrow, and with the two years we’ve all had, nostalgia might well be the key ingredient gracing the dinner table in people’s houses. Christmas is a time for creating memories, good or bad, and you can guarantee that whatever the weather there will be smiles, tears, arguments and people going over the top about that Nando’s gift set which will be next seen in the window of the local Blue Cross. After having a lovely memory of Christmas 1990 published in Museum Of Jerseys, it dusted off a few memories of the next few Yuletides, and so I thought I’d put all my nineties Christmases together to see if there was a thread - a Christmas ribbon, if you will. If you won’t, well, sod you - you’re the one reading when you ought to be wrapping. Enjoy! 1991 - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Action Figures
I think I grew up in the Golden Age of action figures. At the age of ten I had caught the tail-end of Star Wars merchandising, which was such a big money-spinner for Kenner that it was impossible for bigger hitters not to get involved. And so it proved: I asked for, and was very kindly bought, any combination of Transformers, MASK, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Manta Force, in addition to a parade of second-hand Action Men, knock-off He-Man things from Halfpenny Green market and also-rans like Visionaries, the knights of the magical light. Essentially, if it had a hinge or its legs held onto a torso using thick rubber bands/magic, I was the prime audience, and boy did my family have to pay. So it seems somewhat deflating when researching this piece to realise that my love affair with Bandai and Hasbro was kissed off by my longing for the action diorama promised by a miniature Kevin Costner and a huge trebuchet on wheels. It’s not entirely unexpected; I went twice to the cinema to see Prince of Thieves, made my sister knock up a bow and arrow set and went to the Cubs fancy-dress night as the East Midlands-based hero. But looking back, expecting a berobed Mike McShane to have as much imaginative power as a figurine which could turn into a revolver is bizarre. It just goes to show that with good marketing you can sell any old shit to kids, because from this remove it’s like bringing out die-cast copies of Geoffrey Palmer and Dame Judi Dench from As Time Goes By. My Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves collection was last seen being balanced on a trellis at the top of the garden, with me and my best mate Owain pinging stones at them, one of which broke a pane in next door’s greenhouse. Outdoor conflict is what Locksley would have wanted.
Around this time I became aware that money wasn’t in as plentiful supply in my family as perhaps it was in other households. That September I’d moved up to big school, having left a very small ‘estate’ primary, which brought together a large number of families who would probably be placed in the C-E social grades. Although me and my sisters wanted for nothing, the three of us are spread across six years, which meant a constant demand for bigger sizes, trip monies, more food, and a myriad of individual possessions which would mark us out as individuals. At secondary school I suddenly met kids who had Game Boys and wore Adidas trainers, whose blazers weren’t second-hand or who holidayed abroad. Our immediate neighbours were spoiled rotten, largely because of their father’s job at Winson Green and his naval pension, and this Christmas the younger received a Liverpool home shirt and a Mega Drive. I asked for, and received, Kongman and Screwball Scramble, both of which are entertaining enough in a bagatelle kind of way, but now all I can think is that I knew I’d never be able to salve my conscience if I asked Mum and Dad to blow the budget on three hundred quid’s worth of tech. For the record, Screwball Scramble was better, because it didn’t need a huge D battery, and turned out to be a popular change in the years that followed, much like MIlhouse Van Houten’s cup-and-ball.
1993 - Char-G/Boots Personal Organiser
Said next-door-neighbours had had a brilliant remote-controlled car a few Christmases ago, a dune buggy which screamed and flew off curbs without a care in the world. The one I got, a racing VW Golf, set off at a reasonable pace down the drive, fell into the road from a height of five inches and promptly never worked again, crippled by a catastrophic break in a plastic gear array. I think my Dad spent more on epoxy resins and trips to obscure model shops on the other side of Birmingham before boxing it up and putting it at the back of the loft. So I was on the lookout for a sharp replacement, and in 1993 Tomy answered my motoring prayers with the Char-G, a car about the size of a hen’s egg which you could charge using the handset you controlled it with. Crap on carpets and designed strictly for inside use, the Char-G was all kinds of fun for three minutes at a time and made my Christmas. I wasn’t conscious of it being in any way childish, which was great, because it proved the lighthearted yin to a befuddling yang, namely my yearning for an electronic personal organiser. I’d imagine I wanted one because my Dad’s job was largely based around primitive ways of flagging tasks remotely, such as with a CB radio, a pager, and on one pant-wettingly exciting occasion, a car phone. At the time he had a Psion organiser, as hefty as a brick and just as opaque, and my own organiser would be a great way of keeping abreast of where my schoolmates lived and where they might subsequently live. So one was nominated from Boots, with a handful of kilobytes to spare, and did come in handy for recalling my dog’s birthday and that if I ever find myself on Regina Drive, there’s the distinct probability of seeing where Gurpreet Kaur lived in the early nineties.
1994 - Sega Master System
‘94 was a year of change for me. I entered my teens, and right on cue it engendered all kinds of social awkwardness. Up until then I was happy to be a little brother, because that’s what I was, and only about three people in my whole school year had started puberty. Indeed, up until the end of the summer 1994 was brilliant, because there was a stunning World Cup to be watched and emulated. Just as the six weeks’ holiday was beginning my Dad took possession of his favourite toy in years: a JVC camcorder, which fit snugly in the palm and had the added bonus of sporting the USA ‘94 logo. Thus began a decade’s worth of Christmases all filmed from the same vantage point, and I would have been silent throughout most of them, as I was beginning to feel self-conscious about EVERYTHING. Not so during the World Cup, when I was keen to write and star in a spoof advert based on one Adidas had been trailing heavily. This was the first year I asked for Lynx deodorant and hair gel, as I’d started tinkering with my look in an attempt to look more interesting and yes, more attractive (or to be precise, less ugly). I’d asked for a console, and Dad found one in the Bargain Pages: an old skool Master System, which we went to buy somewhere near the Manor Hospital from a bloke who had a mullet. So this Christmas was spent largely in my bedroom, playing Alex KIdd in Miracle World while wearing a fleeced checked shirt and demolishing a gargantuan slab of Dairy Milk, wondering why I was miserable for no reason. But at least I had style, eh? 1995 - They Think It’s All Over/Fist of Fun/Bottom Live 2
Despite the previous year being home to a lot of negatives, it was also the first year that I’d started getting into comedy, searching for my own individual sense of humour. It was, in hindsight, an incredibly formative time, because not only did it inform my writing but also my personality. I don’t trust people who cannot find any humour in a situation, and though comedy is subjective, it seems to me that it’s the strongest social glue there is. In the mid-nineties one of the best things you could give me as a present was a blank tape (well, that or a Sunday Sport, which a mate did give me on my birthday and which I enjoyed as much I did any Memorex), since with the use of the long play function, I could record up to eight hours of sitcoms and stand-up and mad one-off specials. I had one tape which had the first episode of Father Ted, two editions of The World of Lee Evans, most of series two of Bottom and Wake Up with Libby and Jonathan. Nothing seemed to escape my attention and even now, I feel it was as gilded an age for me as it must have been for those reacting to the first run of TW3 or Monty Python. Even though very few of the things I adored have stood up to repeat viewing, they were mine, and that recipe is always going to turn up something palatable. My most memorable presents from the year I was fourteen were ultra-sweary versions of the things I loved, desperate to open a smaller, hidden, forbidden door. I had a role in the school’s version of Snow White, where I played a dwarf called Badsmell, and I put together a costume of shorts and braces and a beanie and my sister’s knee-length Doc Martens, and I bought the house down with a Rik Mayall line which everyone recognised, and it was bloody brilliant, even if I ripped it off. After all, if you steal from genius, the least you can do is get it right.
So, we come to the first proper console I ever owned or, if you’re picky, part-owned. The deal was that it was a present between me, my Dad and my sister Claire, but I think we all knew what the deal was going to be. I recall exactly the beats of the purchase: the big Currys in Wednesbury, one late evening, hugely agitated while the cashier bought the box through with Crash Bandicoot, Adidas Power Soccer International '97 and Tekken II balanced on it. For the best part of three years gaming had revolved around home computing, trading floppy discs between me and my mate Owain, who had inspired my raid on my Post Office savings when he received an Amiga 600. While the Amiga was brilliant, it didn’t have polygon graphics or a joypad which could cause arthritis. You had to change discs and hope they weren’t corrupt. In short, having an Amiga in 1997 was like blagging your way into the pub and asking for a Mackesons, while everyone was clutching alcopops. In truth, I liked the idea of owning a PlayStation that Christmas more than I liked the reality, because of my limited game selection and having to hook it up to my Granddad's portable. That sounds ungrateful, and is, but I’ve never been a gamer with a laser-like focus, and soon secretly pined for the hundreds of games I’d amassed for my discoloured Amiga. That lasted for another few months, when we found somebody who could chip the console, and new games became as easy to come by as I needed them to be. That was the death knell for any second thoughts I was having about my Commodore. If you think I chucked an old faithful for a dolly bird, I can report the PlayStation gave gallant service all throughout my university years, until a second-hand PS2 came calling and I dropped the first version as quickly as I locked my disk boxes in 1997. 1998 - The Rolling Stones' The London Years/On The Road/Guitar tablature books
1998 was the year I became an adult. Not because I turned 18, because that wouldn’t happen until the following year, but primarily because everything I’d been assimilating between then and now started to come to the boil. Granted, these were not always complicated things: retro football shirts; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; The Prodigy; Bret Easton Ellis. But (and I don’t know if everybody has a rite of passage like this) it felt as if the space I had to play in had rapidly expanded and I had nothing but time to fill it. The only markers in my life were nights out on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the rest was just sitting back absorbing stuff with my newly questing antennae. Everything was on the same level, no matter what it was, as long as I discovered it alone, so The Jam were as important as Anthony Burgess, who was as vital as Edvard Munch, who carried the same cultural heft as Martin Scorsese. A few years later I would read about David Storey, who twinned his years studying art at the Slade with regular trips back to Yorkshire to play rugby league, and while I would never claim that I was hiding some intellectual light beneath an unruly bushel, this was the first year I truly felt that I had more than one suit in the wardrobe, as it were. You may have noticed that none of these entries include a transformative item of clothing, and that’s quite accurate; I was, and continue to be, utterly lost to the world of fashion, reasoning that it has nothing whatever to teach me. This is why, a few months before I literally turned eighteen, the pile of money I was given to fill my stocking went on books, CDs and guitar tablature books for the £25 stinker I’d got hold of from my sister’s boyfriend. Being an object of desire was one thing, but that was only as important as desiring stuff that told me about my future self, which clothes would never manage but Kerouac and Mick Jagger and The Bends could do in spades.
My first Christmas back at home after my initial term at university definitely felt like a watershed. For a start off, there were two cats which now shared house space, giving rise to the untested theory that one teenager can be easily replaced with a brace of felines. I don’t really have much memory of a big present, and it probably would have been gauche to request one, since I’d already spent most of my loan on nights out and more CDs and posters and whatever spare change I had on the telephone to a girl at Keele who wasn’t interested. I’d gone to visit her and met the bloke she was seeing while hoping I'd drift away, but even at Christmas it was still somewhat up in the air: I got her Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as she was doing a module on the Spanish Civil War, and she bought me To Kill A Mockingbird and put an inscription on the front inside cover; not a declaration but a quote from the forthcoming Manics single 'The Masses Against the Classes'. So I spent Christmas 1999 on my childhood bed, reading Harper Lee and listening to The Clash and Air, wondering whether or not to spend 12p on a text message. Obviously the Millennium was on the horizon, and ultimately I would spend it a hundred yards from the front door I’d spent the previous 18 years behind, in the local. Later on, my sister revealed she’d been offered tickets to the Manics’ special New Year Concert at the MIllennium Stadium but turned them down out of deference to the family moment. In a way that’s totally fitting, because a boy who asks for Kongman and a Master System isn’t the kind of boy who leaves his family at the Millennium to spend it in Cardiff with strangers. It was a crap gig anyway - I got it on video for Christmas 2000, watched it once and haven’t seen it since. But then, that’s another decade entirely. Chris Stanley