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A 1970s Arbury Christmas

No room at the inn? No room in the Cunningham Close chimney in this case.

When I wrote An Old Arbury Christmas, focusing on Christmas at the Manor Farm on Arbury Road, as celebrated by the Brett family in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that my own memories of celebrating Christmas in Cunningham Close, South Arbury, in the 1970s are also quite distant history.

It was a bit of a shock to realise that, but it is so. 

So, I thought I'd write this as a follow-up to the tales of peg rugs and Christmas Eve family gatherings, of Christmas stockings filled with nuts and an apple, and games of 'Poor Puss' after Christmas Dinner.

In the 1970s, an Arbury Christmas was a very different affair.

The first thing that marked the start of the onset of the festive season for me as a kid was the release of the 'Annuals'. These were yearly books, supplementing comics, TV series, etc, and when they arrived at Arbury Court, the 'Stopsiz' branches in North and South Arbury, the North Arbury Post Office and WH Smith's in the Lion Yard in Cambridge, I always knew the prezzies were not too far off.

I always liked to get a Look-In Annual and a Star Trek Annual and a Dr Who Annual, so the adults in the family decided who was buying me which one between them.

Nice, cheap (ish) presents which required no imagination in the buying.

Of course, Cousin Sharon wanted annuals like Top of the Pops, though she was disgusted one year by an article on Pan's People, the dancers on the show. It quite spoilt her Christmas Day. She was very jealous of Cherry and Babs in particular, and always claimed she could do miles better than them. Although she was only twelve.

A Google view of our terrace in Cunningham Close in 2008. In the early 1970s, most houses still had front gardens (less people had cars), and, as most of the houses belonged to the Council (tenants in Cambridge City had a right to buy long before 1980), the original 1950s metal framed windows (inset). Brick extensions were unheard of then as the Council would probably not have liked its tenants building such things - even if we could have afforded them.

In those days, we didn't see exterior lights on houses around the Arbury. I don't remember that trend starting until the late 1980s or so, but it was popular to buy a can of white spray and decorate your front windows with a lattice design (Victorian effect), or stencilled Santas/reindeers/bells, or 'Merry Christmas' - or all of them. The stuff was hell to get off in the New Year, and some windows bore signs of it months later, particularly in the corners.

Was Santa bringing the presents? Well, when I was about six, I went outside and took a long hard look at our chimney in Cunningham Close. It was small and unlikely to accommodate a big bearded geezer in a red suit with fur trimmings. Added to that was the fact we had a gas fire, so even if he'd got down the chimney he'd have been trapped. The scales suddenly dropped from my eyes.

I didn't tell my mother, of course. Didn't want to upset her. She loved all the whimsy.

(Of course, I never realised - as most small children do - that Father Christmas is magic and can do whatever he pleases.)

Christmas was heavily retro. Our Christmas cards were loaded with Victorian/Edwardian scenes, usually with lots of snow (although we never had any during our '70s Christmases), and it seemed celebrating those eras was a major part of the festivities - hence spraying a lattice design on your windows with that awful white stuff that was so hard to get off afterwards.

We were poor, and when it came to buying presents, Doreen, our few-doors-down neighbour, was a great help as she was an agent for a mail order catalogue. So, gifts would be bought, and payment deferred and split into small weekly amounts.

One year, in the early 1970s, a big wooden tea chest suddenly appeared in my bedroom, apparently filled with wood filings.

'I've got to get rid of that,' said Mum. 'I've told Doreen I would. I'll get your step dad to take it away.'

Well, that was clever. But not quite clever enough. Before long, I was delving into that tea chest and pulling out from under the wood filings a battery operated Dalek, a Shaker Maker, an Action Man...

All my presents, all 'cleverly' concealed, in my bedroom, under my very nose.

Of course, I got into trouble about it. 

'Andy, your nose'll never rust!' said my mother. And much more.

The crew of the star ship Enterprise were usually peril stricken. But this 1975 'Star Trek' annual, one of my presents from Christmas 1974, survives to this day. Note I had written my door number and street address but had not bothered with 'South Arbury' or 'Cambridge'. Well, everybody knows where Cunningham Close is, I reasoned. I was being lazy really. Janet, a friend of the family from Verulam Way, had written my full address out beautifully in another of my annuals that year, but I just couldn't be bothered.

We watched so much telly, as I always tell you (monotonously) when we revisit the 1970s on this blog. At Christmas, we had so many 'Christmas Specials' of sitcoms and other shows to watch, it was a wonder we kept up. Miss its first broadcast, and you'd missed it completely - until the inevitable repeat a year or two later.

In those days, VCRs were either non-existent or so expensive you never considered having such a thing. They came home to roost (quite slowly actually) in the 1980s, but the big thing in the 1970s was to have a colour telly. BBC2 had gone colour in 1967 and ITV and BBC1 in 1969.

Colour tellies were expensive, even to rent, and we never had one until the early 1980s.

I remember being in the Arbury Court Post Office not long before Christmas one year, around 1973. We saw a woman my mother knew who told her: 'We're getting a colour [it was always just 'a colour'] before Christmas. We'll be able to see the Queen in colour this year!'

Well, we weren't royalists, my family thought the royals were useless and 'lived off the fat of the land,' so my mother wouldn't have wanted the Queen's Speech in full colour, frog green or anything else. But, the news of our friend getting 'a colour' made it hard for Mum to hide a jealous scowl. I, aged about nine, watched her face with interest as the scowl fought a fake smile, and she tried to make her gritted-out 'Oh, that's nice!' sound convincing.

Grown ups were fascinating.

The Arbury December 1979 calendar, from the 'VOICE of ARBURY' newsletter. Plenty going on, with carol singing around Arbury, a family social, a carol concert, an adult (16+) disco and an adult (18+) New Year's Eve dance at Arbury Community Centre, a Christmas dance at King's Hedges School, the Arbury Orchestra performing at St Luke's Church, and a bring and buy sale, a pensioners' carol concert and a Christmas family service and nativity play at the Good Shepherd Church. And if you fancied nipping over to St George's Church in East Chesterton, there was a 'Rock Nativity'. Not sure what one of those is.

And so, Christmas Eve would dawn. There was always a kind of magical feeling that arrived during Christmas Eve - a feeling of being in a special time outside of the ordinary. I began to look out for this feeling when I was a little boy. It crept in out of nowhere and marked the start of Christmas. 

In 1976, when I was eleven, it didn't arrive. It was all very nice, but there was no magic suddenly arriving and transforming the day.

As I grow older, the magic has fadded, I wrote pretentiously in my diary. 'Fadded'? What a berk. No computers and spell checkers then, of course.

When I spoke to Mum about the 'fadded' magic, she said, 'You're growing up!'

I've had some marvellous Christmases since, but 1975 really was the end of the 'childhood magic' era.

The Manor School always used to throw a Christmas party for local elderly people, and I knew several who attended each year and enjoyed it.

Mum always liked a 'traditional' Christmas Eve, baking mince pies and sausage rolls. This was how our ancestors had lived, we thought, and I was surprised to find out years later that the 'Olde' Arbury Bretts at Manor Farm had actually enjoyed a special family gathering and supper on Christmas Eve.

Mum always used to nip into Mr Dean's shop in Carlton Way to buy herself a box of dates before Christmas. Me and my little sisters found them revolting, so she was safe to wolf down the whole box.

One of the major complaints of the day around the Arbury, and I'm sure elsewhere, was that 'Christmas was too commercialised.' Still, when faced with a Daktari land rover, complete with Clarence the cross-eyed lion, a talking Dalek and an Evel Knievel stunt rider on Christmas morning, I couldn't agree.

This was Christmas! Give me me presents! Ta, very much!

Actually, my Evel Knievel wasn't really an Evel Knievel - it was a cheaper version, unnamed. But I called him 'Evel' anyway.

We'd eat all day. We'd play with our presents. We'd watch the Christmas Top of the Pops and the Big Film. We always had a big Corona fizzy drinks delivery - so plenty of pop to swig. There were mince pies, sausage rolls, cheese footballs, nuts, peanuts and choccies and a huge Christmas dinner (none of us really liked turkey, it always seemed dry, but we had it anyway because it was traditional) - loads of goodies. Food was never so plentiful during the year and we scoffed far too much - sometimes succumbing to 'jippy tum' when we got to bed. 

Still, never mind. Christmas comes but once a year.

I remember a woman we knew who was quite a favourite of mine. She didn't live in Cunningham Close, but we had a network of friends and family across North and South Arbury and East and West Chesterton and she was a quite outstanding Arbury personality. She was very forthright, always offending people, she said exactly what she thought. To pander to vanities or insecurities was completely alien to her. Some would say she was insensitive, but I preferred that to listening to the conversations of some of my Mum's friends, who tended to be two-faced at times.

'Oh here comes Karen!' they'd say, 'mutton dressed up as lamb. Just look at her!' And then, as Karen drew nearer, 'Hi, Karen! You're looking well! I love that skirt!'

As a kid, my ears were always flapping, and, as mentioned earlier, grown-ups were fascinating.

The forthright woman always told people straight to their faces what she thought of them, and, although I got the rough edge of her tongue myself at times, I really liked her.

Not long before Christmas one year, I was at her house and she'd been wrapping presents. I looked through them, seeing the names of her husband, kids, other family members.

And one carefully wrapped gift bearing the name of her dog.

She saw what I was looking at, and grumped: 'Well, I can't leave him out, can I?!'

After that, I liked her even more.

A little bit of Christmas magic...

Read about an early 1900s Arbury Christmas here:


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