My brothers and I have a competition every year. Whichever one of us hears this record first in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we gleefully message each other.
We post a link to the song with the triumphant words: ‘Heard it! Christmas starts today!’
I can guarantee in the minutes that follow the three of us – separated by the length and breadth of the British Isles – will be transported immediately back to our childhood days together at Lone End, our family home in Hornchurch, Essex.
‘Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence’ said King Crimson guitarist, Robert Fripp.
Amid a catalogue of Christmas records where silence might be a preferred option, Greg Lake’s 1975 seasonal classic is not one of those brain-mashing jingly-belled tracks – the variation on a 3-chord ditty, penned to include words from the Hallmark yuletide catalogue: ‘reindeer’, ‘holly’, ‘mistletoe’ (find appropriate rhyming words and Bingo!’ Hey let’s press that onto 45 rpm and that’s our pension sorted for life’! See Shakin Stevens, Slade, Jona Lewie, Wizzard, Mud, Showaddywaddy et al).
Many, many of these are festive frights (even the legendary songwriter Paul McCartney Simply havin’ a wonderful Christmas time – filled the decks – with pain and folly).
And so it came to pass…that once in a generation, perhaps spaced over 50 years, one or two Christmas songs recorded are very good indeed.
I Believe in Father Christmas is one such track. The lyrics deliberately evoke memories of those long-gone days when Christmas was a simple affair- and without tripping too far into misty-eyed utopia – the stocking at the end of the bed filled with a clementine, second-hand book, and a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – the most a pre-war child might expect as a gift on December 25th. This was a time of the year when families were together. We really did believe (and hope) that there would be snow this Christmas.
Greg Lake acknowledged that the lyrics highlighted an anti-commercialisation festive message. The melody is enriched with the inclusion of a classical instrumental riff Troika from Serge Profokiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite. It has a melancholic, classical feel but it is nevertheless hauntingly reminiscent of the 1970’s era, otherwise bereft of memorable seasonal songs but for Greg Lake – he really did sell us a dream of Christmas.
I believe in Father Christmas reached No 2 of the charts that year – kept off the top spot by Queen and the magnificent Bohemian Rhapsody – this leviathan of pop history stayed at No 1 for 9 weeks in 1975. Greg Lake generously commented that he was quite happy that one of the greatest records of all time had prevented his song from reaching No 1.
‘I’d have been pissed off if I’d been beaten by Cliff Richard’ he observed with reasonable justification.
Quite. Only a festive tipple of un-diluted anti-freeze quells the stomach-churning effect of Cliff proffering an annual dose of Mistletoe and Wine after all.
My brother Russell – when he worked at Poole Speedway for a couple of years in the early ‘80’s – knew Greg Lake quite well. Lake was a proud Dorset boy and a regular visitor to the speedway from his home, a converted mill in nearby Wimborne. Russ said he was ‘a very nice guy. Always made us feel welcome when we went to his fabulous house’.
The Lanning family Christmas was always special. Mum and Dad were the perfect hosts, our house the best of venues. Mum was prepping the festive season from the end of October. My auntie Dawn (Mum’s youngest sister) and cousin Andre’ were staple visitors from Dorset – along with our grand parents when they were still with us. It was not unusual for at least 12 of us to be having Christmas dinner, in the earlier days there was often many more. Turkey and ‘all the trimmings’ – such a British thing. Trimmings. A word surely made up for bad sit coms. Mrs Browns’ Boys springs to mind. Its very utterance makes me wince.
How Mum ever managed to prepare and cook a Christmas dinner for so many still baffles me to this day. Dad always said: ‘your mother has the constitution of an ox!’ she truly did. Mum could spend a whole day cooking, preparing food for any number of guests. She would then eat a sparrow’s portion of the meal herself but could drink enough wine to keep steady pace with a drunken sailor. In those days she was smoking too. A lot. An evening often rolled into the early hours, it was not uncommon for Mum to be falling into bed at 4 or 5 am and then up again at 8, preparing a full-on breakfast/brunch. This was commonly known in the Lanning household as a ’15-point maximum’ (an in-house speedway reference to five unbeaten rides in one meeting).
Dad – a non-smoker, albeit a brief flirtation with a packet of 10 Consulate at the 100 Club* in the mid-70’s – was often heard prowling around at daybreak –collecting the empty bottles, clanking them into bags and bins, holding a burgeoning fag-ended ashtray away from his nose, having counted the puff content from the night before. His nicotine rants were a frequent reminder of those blue-smoke-hazy rooms of yesteryear. Mum stopped smoking in her early 60’s – prompted by serious health issues and a triple heart by-pass in 2001.
Almost without exception every year Auntie Dawn arrived around 10pm on Christmas Eve – having driven straight from her last working day in Boots, Bournemouth, complete in her fancy dress (often a-straight-from-panto look sporting a long tail and painted on whiskers: naturally she was Puss in Boots). Clutching a huge box, tied in red ribbon, ah! the Panettone!
What is the appeal of this seriously quite unappetizing Italian-origin sweet bread? It flatters to deceive with promise of exotic candied fruit, but in fact it is…well… just dry. Very dry. Nothing like a traditional brandy-infused Christmas pud – a decidedly poor imitation. Rumour has it that underdeveloped countries have recommissioned the voluminous amount of panettone discarded the world over every January 2nd and constructed very reasonable small dwellings from its unedifying mix. Its cupola shape inspiring many a budding Grand Designs apprentice.
Another Auntie Dawn special was the perennial Herb Albert Tijuana brass Christmas favourites audio cassette.
‘You must listen to Silent Night. It’s such a lovely version!’she beseeched every year, whilst met with all of us chorusing; ‘oh no! It’s that wretched tijuana brass tape again!’
Dad, who for his part embraced his inner Grinch – to be fair only at the tired and tedious ‘norms’ over the festive period, had only just allowed us to play our Christmas records. They were forbidden until December 20th, so the Brenda Lee Rockin; around the Christmas Tree’ album only really enjoyed a 2-week season every year. We were accustomed to Dad’s annual grumble about the ‘amateur drinkers’ in London creating their own version of Dancing on Ice – the Vomit Express on the Central Line and the vol au vent and sausage-on-a-stick (naturally a la carte) – spewed onto the platform at Tottenham Court Road for at least a week before December 25th.
He avoided the work Christmas party, moaned about the drawers in his desk being glued by spilled red wine when he returned to work on January 2nd, and saved his very special seasonal whinge for ‘Jobby Matthews’ (aka Johnny Mathis singing Mary’s Boy Child). ‘He can’t sing’ – as soon as the opening line A Ray of Hope – Dad would be heard groaning ‘he just warbles and he’s always off-key!’
My brother Russell, the champion of the mixed metaphor, refused to drive into Romford for last-minute gifts; ‘I’m not going’ he would boldly assert, ‘it will be like the Hound of the Baskervilles driving there today’… it took us quite a while to unpick Russ’s ingenious use of the old English simile: for many years I was convinced we were surrounded by people who were ‘as stupid as a baby’s bottom…’
Firmly ensconced by dusk on Christmas Eve, shops closed, the Threshers van – its chassis-busting delivery of booze delivered safely, the running buffet finding its way onto Christmassy red and green decorated plates, a holly embossed seasonal tablecloth unfolded for the forthcoming festivities and the family were all together. As soon as the Disney Holiday Special had finished and Huey, Dewey and Louie duck had all received a brightly coloured Christmas scarf from their Uncle Donald – the television was switched off – on Mum’s instruction.
We only ever turned the television on for the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, but never for the Queen’s annual address. I can honestly say in 61 years I have never watched a Christmas Day message from the monarch.
After dinner cue Russell to introduce us to all the games he had bought in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He had studiously read the instructions, so was able to explain the rules (an attempt to head off the inevitable squabbles ‘that can’t be right’. ‘No you’re wrong. That’s not how you play!’ ‘I don’t like this game. It’s rubbish. Let’s play Trivial Pursuit!’
As we got older the arguments were less feisty and board games managed to stay intact for longer than in the early years. The Lannings possess a fierce competitive spirit. Monopoly was banned by Mum in 1974 when we all ganged up and refused to sell Dad Coventry Street and Leicester Square. We always knew when Dad was in a major sulk. The old 78 jazz records suddenly appeared from a dusty cupboard somewhere – it was a blessing when the new stereo was purchased – only 45 and 33rpm were introduced as turntable speeds.
Monopoly is such an ugly game. Its very name, its objective. It is the essence of capitalism – acquisition of land and property – its rules allow and encourage bullying, oppression and the ‘winner takes all’ mindset. Little wonder I have always loathed it. It is the antithesis of socialism – a parlour game devised for The Conservative Party at play…
We still reminisce over memorable game moments: the year when Pictionary was all the rage. Dad was preening (he believed the fact that he could ‘draw a bit’ would work well, given the egg-timer involved the team being able to decipher the image in lightning quick speed. Dad drew a perfect outline of south America (given the country category), his frustration apparent pointing his pencil crossly and imploring his team (my brothers included) to shout out the correct answer.
Timed-out, he huffed and puffed clearly frustrated with his ‘useless’ team. Russ tried to explain that the art of the game was to highlight an obvious reference to the subject – to give the team a good chance of identifying the drawing straight away. Impatiently Dad jabbed at a pencil line – a squiggle etched across his perfect outline of South America.
‘So? What is that?’ asked Russ, quizzically. ‘For god’s sake, don’t you know? That’s the bloody Panama Canal!’ was Dad’s tetchy reply.
Trivial Pursuit was a firm favourite. My cousin Andre’ once furious that no-one believed him when a history question asked how Lawrence of Arabia had met his death. ‘On the Blandford Road’ he yelled to much laughter from us all. Of course, he was correct – the soldier celebrated for his support of the Arab Revolt in World War One – did in fact die in a freak motorcycle accident back home in his native Dorset in 1935 – not a duel with a bad-tempered camel, as us fanciful lot might have imagined.
The entertainment category – for the pink ‘cheese’ always drove us mad. We thought it would be a good category for us: in fact, as Russ frequently complained: ‘every flamin’ answer is Jimi Hendrix!’ and none of us ever seemed to get the answer right. There were far too many questions focused on Woodstock and the flower power era of the late 1960’s for our liking.
For about 10 years – from 1976 and into the early ‘80’s – our family might well have wished it could be Christmas every day. Mum and Dad were at their vivacious best, the family was old enough to enjoy the fun and laughter.
We are a family that have never taken each other too seriously – hence the constant teasing, the jokes, and pranks. All of us together in one room – I’m not sure whether to best describe as carnival or carnage! We pit against other for the witty line, the pun, the funny tale to tell.
It is the writer, the storyteller in all of us I suspect. The gene genie at work…
None surpassed Dad as the champion raconteur, though Russ has inherited his innate ability to re-live and relate a comical situation. Philip, our younger brother pitches in – he was very often the butt of our jokes, being the baby of the family, and he is famed for his exaggerated sense of injustice (meted out by his older siblings of course). Etched into the family annals are his memorable ‘victim statements’ of his youth: ‘I’m going to starve myself after breakfast’ and ‘when you think about it Mum, ‘Alyson & Russell have ruined my life’ (a wail from a 4-year-old whose torment was compounded when we nicked the last pancake off his plate).
The ‘80’s was a great decade for all of us in so many ways. Julie (Russell’s future wife) joined the family in 1985, it was a baptism of fire for the poor girl, still in her teens at the time, she soon became aware that the intensity of a Lanning gathering was a fight or flight situation.
Julie is famed for reading out the answers in 20 Questions one year. ‘You missed sock-rates’ she said referring to the famous Brazilian footballer, captain of the renowned 1982 World Cup team – aka Socrates.
And then of course there was the pilgrimage to Upton Park on Boxing Day. The seasonal date with our beloved West Ham United – almost invariably we were aware of the seasonal jape: ‘the Hammers will be down with the decorations on January 6th’. There were not many spectacular home wins to recall over the years, but I’m certain, Arsenal nearly always ‘got a result’ as Dad would grizzle, it set a temporarily unhappy tone for the turkey curry later that evening.
By the time the ‘90’s arrived a new era had dawned…we had children of our own and whilst that brought another dimension to the celebrations, it did change the dynamic of our very own exclusive family festivities – the attention was obviously focused onto the new members of the clan.
As the years have passed one of the most significant changes to the great social fabric of family life has been the introduction of the mobile phone.
Once upon a yesteryear we all sat round the table, uninterrupted by the insolence of an outsider – a presence – but not the kind we were accustomed to, wrapped in red and gold paper. The unwelcome guest at the table starts with an anonymous bleep, and what follows is a gradual loss of human interaction when eyes shift away onto a seemingly mesmerising mini screen.
We once engaged in all kinds of discourse, a serious debate, a funny joke, the general hubbub of frivolity – we were inclusive and involved with each other. When the mobile phone arrived, it formed a wedge – there came to pass another life – a party to which we were not invited. Our friends, our family are distracted, distanced. We are all guilty of mobile phone addiction. In common language I’m told it’s known as FOMO – fear of missing out.
Metaphorically we leave the room. This small piece of apparatus, now fused into human hands has evolved into an alien force, one of which has cast a shadow over what was once an unshakeable bond of exclusivity.
It is the quisling in our midst, a perfidious interloper and it has changed us all. Even games are not the same: the fun of seeking to remember the name of a film, a ‘who was that who starred in…?’ Those mysteries, the boisterous yelling, the ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish response to both difficult and often easy questions. The quick recall, the fumbling for the right name or place, or whatever the puzzling conundrum – all lost when the internet joined us at the table. We have all become complicit creatures snared in the worldwide web.
That life of yesterday…the romance of rosy-spec recollection.
It’s now five years since we lost Mum and Dad and Christmas time is always especially poignant. They are no longer with us but oh my! How I remember those wonderful years. The home they created for us, the love, their warmth and generosity of spirit. They were very special parents.
As Greg Lake reminded us:
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter’s light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
To quote A.A. Milne: ‘We didn’t realise we were making memories; we just knew we were having fun’. Yes indeed.
*The 100 Club is a music venue located at 100 Oxford Street, London, England, where it has been hosting live music since 24 October 1942.