A Christmas Story l
People often ask me if I miss working in a record shop at Christmas and I usually say no until I remember occasions like this:
It was almost closing time on Christmas Eve when a woman arrived in a cloud of Channel and gin fumes, looked at me as if I was twins on a distant horizon and announced, “Bloody arsehole.”
I was about to say, “And a merry Christmas to you, too, madam” when she wagged a corrective finger.
“Have ye jot,” she got out as her legs grew a bit wobbly and she had to lean on the counter, “Bloody Arsehole?”
Now, I’ve extrapolated Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder from a request for “Steeefffeee Window’s Apple Busfare” and managed to direct someone who asked for “Nice Beaver” by “that poof with the teeth” towards Night Fever by the Bee Gees. But Bloody Arsehole wasn’t ringing any bells, let alone ringing up a sale. So I had another go and asked this vision, who was beginning to look as if she might hit me before she toppled over, to repeat herself one more time.
“Bludddd. Deee,” she shed, sorry, said, “Arsh hole.”
Was this a request or an accusation? I must have looked completely helpless because she helped me. She gave me a clue.
“Ye musht hiv herdoit. ‘Eee shed if anbideee’d know whit ah meant, yeeee-eeew wid.”
A faint memory came to me. I’d seen this woman someplace before. But where was it? And who was she with? Who was ‘eee who had such faith in my powers of musical deduction?
“Ahm shoor ‘eee shed ‘eee heard the coal man shingin’ it,” my challenger wheezed as I looked at the racks, praying that an inspired volunteer album cover would launch itself into my arms so that I could close up the shop and go for a dri… Well, no, maybe not. I’d already inhaled several doubles.
Bloody Arsehole. The coal man sings it. Phew. When I was still at school we used to get coal delivered to the house by a chap who whistled tunelessly the whole time and wouldn’t have been above miscalling his driver, who was always telling him to get a move on and stop his infernal whistling, although infernal wasn’t the adjective he used. But I doubted if anyone would have released a record of this duo’s various contretemps.
Then the eureka moment began to form, like the answer in a crossword puzzle. The bloke I’d seen this woman with’s face flashed before me. They’d been at a gig together somewhere. He liked saxophone players. I’d sold him some Art Pepper albums – I wished I could have sold his other half some more Art Pepper albums because we had plenty in stock. None of them, alas, was called Bloody Arsehole and although doubtless Art had invited such a greeting at some stage in his very colourful life, he hadn’t named a tune in its honour.
Bloody. Arsehole. I heard a snatch of a tune before something started dragging me slowly towards the appropriate album rack. This tune had lyrics too and a little voice inside my head began to sing them to me - and that’s how I came to complete this woman’s Christmas shopping by selling her Body & Soul by Coleman Hawkins.
A Christmas Story ll
We didn’t get much pocket money when we were young. We never went hungry or anything but there wasn’t a lot of money around at the best of times.
Then one December the TV broke down. It was unrepairable, the man said. I told my mum and dad that I’d save up all my pocket money to help buy a new one.
Mum started to cry. Dad looked distraught. “Sorry, son, we don’t have enough money to give you pocket money and Christmas presents,” he said. “So we’ll have to do without TV this Christmas.”
No TV? No Morecombe & Wise? I hated that programme but it made my dad laugh. No Coronation Street Christmas Special? It was a pile of crap as well but it made mum forget her troubles for a little while and smile at the sight of Albert Tatlock toddling down to the pub to make everyone in the Rovers Return feel miserable. “There’s always someone worse off than you,” she’d say. “Look at these poor devils, drinking up and bailin’ out before Albert starts havering on about food rationing.”
And here I was with no pocket money, thinking not so much about food rationing as fun rationing. And what about the news? How were we going to know what was happening in the world without a TV in these pre-Twitter, pre-Herald website days?
“You’ll think of something,” dad said.
So I did. Well, he did. Every night at ten o’clock he sent me out into the garden, opened the curtains and arranged the family round the window so that I could read the day’s events from the people next door’s Scotsman by the light of the lamp on a miner’s helmet he’d traded some old books for in the church jumble sale. It was, he assured me, better than the telly.
All the correspondents reporting from the trouble spots and football grounds – which sometimes amounted to the same thing – looked the same. They, well, we all wore miner’s helmets and spoke with increasingly trembly voices. Because it was bloody cold out there wearing just my dad’s jacket, shirt and tie as if I – or we – were reporting from cosy studios or sunny warzones. And as December wore on the snow made it harder to pretend I had a scoop coming direct from some desert or other.
Still, at least I got a round of applause at the end of the programme and it made me think about my grandad telling us how they made their own entertainment in the old days.
So every year to this day I make my own entertainment at Christmas time. It’s called the Advert Calendar, because you open a door every day in December to reveal – och, you’ve beat me to it – an advertisement for something you really need to buy or go and see this Christmas. You've maybe seen it already on my home page. If not, it's here:
And you don’t need to part with your pocket money to see it.
A Christmas Story lll
A man has just been at my door talking about the miracle of Christmas. “But what is the miracle of Christmas?” he asked in that tone of gentle earnestness with which Late Call presenters warn of impending humour.
“Is it, as a primary school teacher friend was informed in a recent class discussion, about a baby being born during a poll tax demonstration?”
I laughed. Well, it seemed the seasonal thing to do. Then I put him straight. No, in these over-commercialised times the miracle of Christmas is how more shop assistants don’t get carted off to the laughing factory during the last-minute stampede or, worse, the return of unwanted gifts Olympics that is Boxing Day.
It’s more than flesh and blood and hangovers can stand – being back in the front line after only one day to recover from the strain of ensuring, often with only marginal help from they who must be satisfied, that no stocking goes unfilled.
Everyone has their favourite “I realise you’re just about to close but I know exactly what I want and it is Christmas Eve after all” story. Here’s mine.
An office party casualty appears in a book shop and says in a 70% proof voice, “I want a book for my nephew.” To which the assistant, true to end of hard day form, replies, of course, “Sounds like a good swap.” No she doesn’t. She’s an assistant; she assists. She asks what the book is called and is told, with utter if slightly slurred conviction, “Roger the Dinosaur.”
There follows a good 20 minutes of rummaging around the sections from Children’s to Natural History and determined brain storming involving the entire staff and their waiting partners/parents/taxi drivers. Finally, Eureka! – and the office party casualty departs with a gift-wrapped copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
Yes, producing the goods sometimes requires inspired detective work. But as a failed applicant to CID (that’s Counter Intelligence Diplomacy), let me make a public announcement. After my experiences as a temporary sales boy in a music emporium last Christmas, I’m finished with the public.
Guitars finished me. Jews harps being returned with dental repair bills I could handle. The one thousandth demand for a tutor book for the kazoo still made me chuckle. And the inevitable requests to see our big organs were greeted by the staff choir, teeth gleaming like keyboards, chanting: “Certainly, would you prefer them grand – or upright?”
But it was guitars that did it – not 10 guitars, two were enough. The first hint of trouble came when everything went dark. I looked up to see a man towering above me (and I’m not exactly wee). He was wearing a dog collar but that didn’t stop him breaking several Commandments or staging an inquisition that suggested some confusion between Yuletide and Easter.
Yes, I remembered his son buying a guitar on Christmas Eve. And yes, I watched him tie it to his moped with string, despite the offer of free delivery in the shop’s jalopy immediately after closing time.
Glowering, the pillar of society emptied the contents of a carrier bag onto the counter. What did I call this, then?
I said I called it poking his finger in my right nostril and I also called it very annoying.
“Not that,” he roared. He poked his finger at the wood pile on the counter instead. Obviously the guitar had been in a jam session with a road roller. “What do you call this?”
“Kindling,” I affirmed.
Could I repair it?
Could he turn Hirondelle into wine?
Well, couldn’t I return it to the manufacturer and say it had been damaged in transit, he beseeched me. So much for the bearing false witness Commandment.
I apologised and said no. At this the pillar of society turned into a tower of babble, exclaiming “****! *******! and, verily, ********!” He left with a loud invocation of the Lord’s wrath. At this point, the shop proprietor’s father, who has never recovered from watching Are You Being Served? misheard. “The cheese is priced? What does he mean?” asked out very own Young Mr Grace. “We don’t sell cheese.”
Then a woman comes in and asks to see someone in authority. I volunteer myself – a move I shall shortly regret. The woman wants a refund on a guitar she bought for her son because “it’s useless.” I unwrap the instrument from its carry case, slip it into tune and for my own benefit as much as anything else, strum a soothing ballad.
I venture with some trepidation that, perhaps – you know, it’s just possible – that the, er, fault might lie elsewhere.
“No, it’s the guitar,” she insists. “My son couldn’t get a single tune out of it. And we were all so disappointed – because he’s brilliant on his tennis racket.”
I rest my case.
From The Glasgow Herald, December 21, 1991