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Another Brilliant Review for the Christmas Compendium!

I'm really pleased that people seem to like the new collection of seasonal stories 'A Christmas Cracker ' .  This latest 5 sta...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Losing my (first) footing

I have always loved New Year’s Eve.  It seems such a time of real joy, optimism and goodwill.  Admittedly, the inevitable hangover of New Year’s Day leads to feelings of depression, pessimism and downright belligerence, but it’s nice while it lasts.

My earliest, and fondest, recollections of New Year’s Eve are when we used to live in Anglesey Road, Burton upon Trent in the 1950s, not too far from the Loco Sheds.  At midnight on 31st December, all the whistles and horns of the steam and diesel locomotives would be sounded in a great cacophony of celebration.  Lying in bed, tucked up against the cold, I used to love hearing this explosion of industrial exuberance.

As the years wore on, I became less likely to be ‘tucked up in bed’ at New Year and more likely to be clutching a pint in some smoke-filled boozer (probably a reasonable description of me, then).  Most of the memories of these celebrations, and the brain cells supporting them, have vanished in a sea of youthful alcoholic excess, but some remain firmly embedded in my consciousness.

One of my most tedious New Year’s Eves ever, happened in 1984.  I found myself sitting in the lounge of our local club with three friends, playing dominoes.  As the previous New Year’s Eve had been spent with my then girlfriend in a whirl of romance, I’m sure you can appreciate why playing dominoes was not a fitting substitute.  As the evening wore on, everyone else went into the Bar to enjoy the, somewhat dubious, entertainment. When midnight arrived and the strains (and it was a strain) of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ filled the air, we four stood up, solemnly joined hands and sang, wished each other Happy New Year, sat down and resumed the game.  That was it.  I swore then never to spend another New Year like that (and to do something about the entertainment too) and I didn’t (and did), but that’s another story for another day.

I’m quite prepared to be corrected by every amateur meteorologist within a 20 mile radius, but I seem to remember that New Year’s Eve 1979 was a bitterly cold night, with ice and snow still lying on the pavements.  Myself and a whole bunch of friends embarked on a pub crawl, starting in Guild St. and heading up Station St.  I remember the Midland Hotel, the Devonshire Arms, the Roebuck and the Station Hotel, but after that it’s a little hazy!  What I do remember is walking one of the girls back home, somewhere in the region of the Town Hall.  We spent some time saying goodnight (funny how long it used to take then, wish it did now) and I eventually, and reluctantly, set off home. 

Filled with enthusiasm and alcohol, I marched up the entry, waved goodbye, strode forward…and immediately fell flat on my back.  A look of horror flashed across my companion’s face but I ‘heroically’ brushed aside her concerns and hauled myself up again.  I waited for her to go inside before starting off again.  There was a good reason for this.  I knew from bitter experience that, once I started falling down, it would keep happening.  I always have (sober or otherwise).   I seem to develop an irresistible attraction for terra firma in icy conditions.

I now had to walk from the Town Hall area to South Broadway St., a distance of about 2 miles.  To pass the time away, I counted the number of times that I hit the deck.  In all, I crashed to the ground 26 times.  I remember, with great clarity, the last occasion.  I had just turned into All Saint’s Road from Uxbridge St., just a stone’s throw from my house.  As I turned the corner, a couple across the road shouted “Happy New Year!”, I responded cheerily, waved to them and watched my feet head for the sky and my derriere for the ice and snow.  “Are you all right?” the couple asked, full of concern, “It’s ok,” I replied from my horizontal position, “I’m getting used to it now.”

I think I might adopt that as my motto.  Happy New Year to you all.



The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format for just £0.99 at Amazon UK and Amazon USA and now read the new bumper collection of stories, Crutches For Ducks  also at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com , at the special price of just £1.99 - now extended to end of January, 2012.

Friday, 24 December 2010

A Stable Upbringing

This started life as a chapter in my 2005 book, "Steady Past Your Granny's".  It has been updated following some very constructive criticism from my friends on Authonomy and The Book Shed.  I'm delighted to say that it was published in the 2010 Christmas Eve edition of the Derby Telegraph, so I thought I would share it with a wider audience.


The little enclave was rank with the heavy odour of animals and old straw.  Dimly they could see a donkey and a couple of oxen but there was the sense of others in the darkness, pressing closer.  In the centre of the picture the tired mother, agitated father and sleeping infant were lit by a glow that could not easily be attributed to the single candle, guttering in the draught.

They approached closer and one of their number (as always happens) found himself thrust forward, the other two peering over his shoulder and breathing heavily with the excitement of it all.  There was a stirring in the manger, the infant screwed its face and contorted its body in preparation for a good cry, then thought better of it and resumed a peaceful sleep.  The activity dislodged a swaddling band, the three edged closer.

They looked carefully.  They looked at each other in wonderment.  They shook their heads.  Eventually, one spoke.

“It’s a girl!”  The lead spectator cried.

“Leave it out,” the father said a little too quickly, “it’s just cold, that’s all.”

“It is nippy.”  Another member of the party agreed.

“You are joking, I take it?”  The lead spectator snapped.  “I’m a wise man.  Everyone agreed?” He glowered at the assembly until a muffled assent was obtained.  “And I’m telling you, that’s a girl.”  He drew himself up to his full height, the crown grated against one of the roof beams and a shower of dust and dead spiders fell gently around his face, utterly destroying the effect he was trying to achieve by glaring at the sweating father.

“Look, it’s brass monkeys out there, innit?”  The father hastily rearranged the swaddling bands.  “You know how it is.  And he’s only little to start with.” 

“Just what are you trying to pull, eh?”  The lead wise man was face to face now with the father.  “We’ve travelled miles for this.  On flaming camels!  Have you any idea what that’s like?”

“Been a few miles on the donkey,” the father mumbled, “mind you, it’s the missus’s really.  I’ve put me name down for a mule but I’m not holding me breath.” 

“Well, let me tell you, my good man, imagine having your innards removed with a corkscrew, by a drunk, in the middle of a storm at sea, and you’re getting there.  Not to mention what it does for your important little places” he sighed heavily, “‘Except at least I’ve got some important little places to worry about.  Which brings me back to the point at issue.  It’s a girl!”

The father shot a sideways glance at the mother.  She turned away quickly.  He placed his arm as best he could around the towering shoulders of the lead king and manoeuvred him to one side.

“Look, keep your voice down can’t you, you’re upsetting the wife.”

“It is a girl, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s a girl, just don’t go shouting the odds like that, eh?”

“Well, what the…what are you going to do about it?”

“Look, I’m doing my best, right?  The wife’s in a terrible state, she blames herself.  I’ve been trying to get hold of an angel all night but can you get one when you want one?  Oh dear me, no.  All out with the heavenly host singing fit to burst aren’t they?  Plus, I’ve tried to get through to upstairs.”  He raised his eyes toward the dirt encrusted ceiling, “they’re playing hell up there.” He added confidentially.

“I’m not surprised!”  The lead king affirmed, “this isn’t what we were expecting.”

“No, squire, you don’t get my drift, I mean they’re playing Hell up there.  Some kind of celebratory cup match.  Can’t get a bit of sense out of them.”  He sighed.  “Cos, this is what comes of leaving it to angels, if you ask me.  Do you know who they went and told about all this first, eh? Eh?  Bloody shepherds, that’s all.”

“Shepherds?  I thought we were the first to know.”

“No, not by a long chalk mate.  We’ve only just got the place fit to walk in again.  You know what shepherds are like, straight off the fields and in here without a ‘by your leave’, sheep sh*t all over the place, you’ve never seen nothing like it.  Been all the same if we’d had a proper hotel room, which we could have had I might mention.”  He glared at the mother again.

“Oh, I understood….”  The king began.

“Oh, I know what you understood‘No room at the inn’ and all that cobblers.  You don’t think I’d traipse all the way over here, with me missus expecting any minute, and not have a room booked do you?  Got it all sorted hadn’t I.  Nice room with views of the star, en suite garderobe, gaps under the doors for air conditioning, just the ticket.  Only, when we fetches up here and the gaffer comes out to take our luggage, the wife only pipes up ‘Oh, we’d be as comfortable in the stable.’ And here we are.  Fine way to bring a kid into the world, I must say.  She’s got some very funny ideas since she was filled with the Holy Spirit – and don’t get me started on that, I haven’t begun to figure that one out.”

“So our long and arduous journey has been wasted.”  The king looked despondent, his two companions were busy making ‘goo goo goo’ noises at the infant.

“Oh no, squire.”  The father spotted the glittering caskets each was carrying, “I’d stick around for a day or two.  They’re bound to sort it, ain’t they?  Mind you…” he considered for a moment, “you’re a man of the world ain’t you, an educated sort if you get my drift?”

“I am a wise man, yes.  I’ve got a certificate somewhere.”  He rummaged through his robes.

“Course you are, that’s what I’m saying, innit?  Only, I could use a bit of advice.  Come and have a look here, will you?”

The father led the way into the gloom of the rear of the stable.

“Runs in the wife’s family apparently.  You’d think they’d check up on these things but, oh no, it’s all sing hallelujah, bash the tambourine and hang the consequences.  Now then,” he took a deep breath, reached into another manger and pulled back a crude blanket.  “What do you reckon we should do about this?”

“Oh my God!”  The king stared at the father, open-mouthed.  “Twins?”

“Twins.”  The father confirmed.

THE END (probably)


© Philip and Hilary Whiteland, 2010


The new, bumper collection of stories "Crutches For Ducks" is now available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Monday, 13 December 2010

Crackers at Christmas

I originally wrote this whilst I was on what is alliteratively known as a ‘Turkey and Tinsel’ break.  This was not intentional.  We booked this weekend as a base for visiting some friends, only to find that Christmas had broken out all around us.  Apparently, this type of break starts at the beginning of November and continues up to and including the real thing.  This format can be a bit disconcerting.  Friday, for instance, was designated as Christmas Eve, Saturday was Christmas Day and, in a fit of time compression that would delight British Industry, Sunday is New Year’s Eve.  This rather conveniently disposes of the seasonal festivities in one fell swoop but I should think the staff will be about at screaming pitch come the festive season proper.

All of this made me think of Christmas Past, when things were nowhere near as well organised.  An example of this was when we kept The New Talbot Hotel in Anglesey Road in the mid-1960s.  We had been invited to Christmas Dinner at my aunt and uncle’s.  Dad insisted on providing the turkey for this feast, which was something of a concern because Dad disliked doing anything in a conventional manner.  If he bought anything, it was always through ‘someone who knows someone’ who could get it cheaper, bigger or faster (or all three).  This sort of arrangement tended to lead to considerable uncertainty, which was not conducive to the peace of mind of my aunt and uncle, who were great ones for doing things properly.  Thus the scene was set for potential disaster.

As the days before Christmas gradually diminished, my aunt made repeated requests to know what size of bird to expect, but was always fobbed off by Dad (who probably didn’t know the answer himself).  Christmas Eve arrived and, as good as his word, Dad delivered a fresh turkey, albeit rather late in the day.  However, in a fit of generosity (probably brought on by the fact that Christmas Eve was Dad’s birthday, which he did like to celebrate) he had bought something that resembled a small ostrich.  My aunt had a relatively small kitchen and there really wasn’t enough room in there for her and this bird.  The problem was compounded on Christmas Morning, when, having prepared this avian monster for the oven (a not inconsiderable feat) it became apparent that it would not fit into the oven.  Only savage butchery reduced the beast to portions that could realistically be prised in.  Even then, the sheer size of the fowl led to the generation of so much fat that the kitchen looked like the morning after a riot in a chip shop.  The whole thing took much longer to cook than normal and the eventual result, despite my aunt’s acknowledged culinary skills, was not up to her high standards.  She was left quivering on the edge of either murdering my Dad or having a nervous breakdown, whichever was the easier.  Typically, Dad couldn’t see what all the fuss was about and was somewhat miffed not to be the hero of the hour.

Another occasion when things didn’t go particularly well was Christmas, 1973.  This was my first Christmas with a girlfriend in evidence (I was something of a late starter).  We were not spending Christmas Day together, so she had given me a present to open on the day.  I was a bit wary of opening this at home as Mum didn’t exactly approve of my girlfriend.  Come the day and, after diplomatically opening the presents from my parents and my sister, I eagerly set about unwrapping my girlfriend’s gift. 

It was a jumper.  It was a very colourful jumper.  In fact, it looked how I imagine a migraine might feel.  Better still, it was figure hugging.  This would have been fine, had I possessed a figure worth hugging.  Unfortunately, my physique over the years has transformed from painfully emaciated to borderline obese without ever passing through any of the more appealing stages in between.  At this time, I was in the former category.  To complete the effect, the sleeves were too short for my arms, leaving 6 inches or so of thin wrist and forearm fetchingly peeping out.  Mum and my sister fell about laughing when I tried it on, leaving me cringing with embarrassment but absolutely adamant that I loved it.

On Boxing Day, sporting my new jumper under my favourite PVC imitation leather jacket (the 1970s were not a good time for fashion) I met my girlfriend.  When I took my jacket off, she too fell about laughing.  It wasn’t a long-lasting relationship.

Merry Christmas everyone – may your turkey always fit your oven.


The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.  This story features in the new bumper collection now released as a Kindle edition - "Crutches for Ducks"

Thursday, 2 December 2010

You'd Better Not Pout

When did you stop believing in Santa Claus? 

If you find this question difficult (largely because you were still hanging on to your belief with grim determination) then please stop reading at this point.  For the rest of us, I’m willing to bet that this particular moment is ingrained in your memory.

When you consider the elaborate belief systems with which we indoctrinate our children, only for them to discover with each passing year that these firmly held beliefs are groundless, it must say something about the human spirit that we are prepared to believe in anything, ever again!  In evidence, I submit The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and, last but most definitely not least, Father Christmas. 

My own particular crisis of faith, with regard to Santa anyway, happened when I was 10 years old on a Saturday night, just before Christmas, 1964. 

At the time, we kept a pub (the idea had been that the pub would keep us, but it didn’t quite work out that way).  The pub was of an old-fashioned design, in which the living room and kitchen were tucked away behind the serving area whilst all the other living accommodation (bedrooms and bathroom) were upstairs.  In order to get from the living room to the bedrooms, it was necessary to cross The Passage.  The Passage was really a corridor to allow access to the Public Bar and Smoke Room but also contained some tables and seating, and our solitary fruit machine.  Access across The Passage to the bedrooms was fairly straightforward in the week, when only a small group of hardy customers would be huddled by the serving hatch or by the fruit machine.  At weekends, however, The Passage would be crowded with revellers in assorted degrees of intoxication.

The pub was equipped with a woefully inadequate coal-fired boiler that just about managed to heat the public rooms but left the bedrooms as something of an arctic wasteland.  Mum therefore insisted that I change for bed in front of the fire in the living room, to avoid frostbite or hypothermia.  Unfortunately, this meant crossing The Passage to get to the stairs, now attired in pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers.  During the week, with a little careful timing, I usually managed this largely unnoticed.  On a Saturday night however, and particularly at the weekend before Christmas, the only way across was to force my way through the smoke-wreathed throng.  This was always acutely embarrassing, and a journey I tried to complete as quickly as possible.  On this occasion, however, my rapid transit was thwarted by my youngest uncle suddenly appearing from the crowd at the bottom of the stairs and grabbing my arm.

“I just wanted you to know that I’ve left your present with your Mum for Christmas Day.  Thought I ought to tell you because, of course, you don’t believe in Santa Claus any more do you?”  He laughed and winked knowingly.

I muttered my thanks and swallowed hard.  In that moment, I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but right up to then I had believed with the sort of dogged fervour that only children can muster.  Of course, my compatriots at school had, over the years, come to the conclusion that Santa Claus did not exist but I had hung on to my faith, largely because the alternative didn’t seem too inviting and I was keen to keep the magic of Christmas in one form or another.  Now, in one sentence, it was gone.

I still miss Santa.  Christmas without him has never been the same.  But I suppose if anyone is responsible for that curious bonhomie that arises at some point on Christmas Eve and has disappeared without trace by Boxing Day, maybe we should thank the vestige of Father Christmas, and be grateful.  In the words of the late, lamented Santa, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!”


You can find this story, along with a host of others, in the new bumper collection of stories Crutches For Ducks at Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com, available until Christmas Day at the ridiculously low price of just £1.99!