Sunday, 2 September 2007


It’s Saturday morning, which means I have to shoot off to the school Christmas bazaar: how better to give something back to the school than to exchange all your unwanted rubbish in that relaxed period in the run-up to Christmas when no one has anything very pressing to do? This is good, because in addition to my two daughters I have my two teenage nephews to entertain.

Business is slow, though it is not long before the takings start rocketing, as a result of the children’s ingenious sales technique of buying everything themselves with my money.

Certainly by the time we have hung around for hours and assiduously avoided the blandishments of a marauding Santa, the little scamps are loaded down with more than enough 91-piece jigsaws and single-mother packs of Happy Families to start practising getting bored ahead of the official gift disenchantment date of 27th December, and at only a fraction of the cost. Why, I hardly have enough money left to try my luck at the ‘Bring a Bottle’ tombola, with its array of beers, wines, Advocaat, east European turnip liqueurs and (as it turns out, when my ticket finally comes up trumps) Radox Herbal Bath, with its essential aromatic ingredients, none of them, sadly, being alcohol.

‘It could have been worse,’ says another parent, as we head for the cars.

‘You could have won the Blue Nun.’

That afternoon, we decide to go shopping . . . in the city centre . . . . all five of us.

I can’t believe we have decided to wait until five minutes before Christmas to go off and spend all my money in search of a handy organiser for the cutlery drawer for my mother, which will apparently halve the time it takes to find a teaspoon, or double the time it takes to put the washing-up away, depending on whether you’re the sort of person who thinks a glass is half-full or half-empty – a term which incidently always reminds me of my auntie Doreen in Barnsley. “Glass half-full, glass half-empty? Pass it over here, I’ll drink the bloody thing.”

And then on the bus, my elder nephew makes the slightly alarming announcement that there might be time to visit SegaWorld in The Corn Exchange and use up the virtual-ride vouchers he won in the Leeds Metro phone-in as a chance result of knowing what the capital of France was, though only on condition, I stipulate, that the children bring to a speedy conclusion their vigorous public debate over a) who was the last person to vomit on public transport and b) what happened to the bag of sick afterwards. By the time we surface at the Town Hall we are straight into the shopping scene from Ben Hur and are fully horde-acclimatised, though I am a firm advocate of tides of humanity being where they belong – i.e. on page 1,875 of the Old Testament – and not on the stretch of pavement separating us from the entrance to Primark.

In that oxymoron – “Christmas Hell” which is Marks and Spencer food hall, I notice a hand dip into my basket and remove a pack of mince-pies. “Well?” the culprit challenged. “There aren’t any left on the shelves.” It occurs to me at this point that “Mary’s Boy Child” has been on a continuous loop in the background. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Harry Belafonte is a lovely man and is probably on the verge of a UK comeback tour but enough already.

“But it’s Christmas” the vacuous sales assistant beams. Her name badge proclaims her as PAGAN (Happy to Help) which seems oddly appropriate.

“No, Pagan it isn’t Christmas: it’s Advent.” The smile doesn’t flicker but the eyes show real fear. A result!

At last we emerge at SegaWorld clutching our free vouchers, and although the whims of my younger daughter could be met simply by staying on the escalator, it’s a blow to find that, due to circumstances beyond the passing interest of whoever owns this place, an astonishing four out of the five virtual rides are out of action, with the remaining one in the incapable hands of someone with all the communication skills of a person who spent his childhood locked in a cupboard.

Understandably, this ride is very popular and we spend the rest of the week queuing for it, which then means having to leg it back down the Headrow, assisted by the younger nephew with the slightly irritating habit of elbowing his way to the front and then causing a pile-up by stopping to complete an important move on his handheld entertainment facility. We miss the bus by the skin of our teeth. Excellent.

It’s already getting dark. But we’ve barely got back home when the children take a sudden interest in my driving them back into Leeds to see a mystery celebrity turn the Christmas lights on. Off we go again, and 15 minutes later we are in town, following the unmistakable noise of people pretending to enjoy themselves. And sure enough we find ourselves in front of a big stage being expected to clap along to Shakin’ Stevens and Bob the Builder, while a troupe of alarmingly energetic dancers in Santa Claus hats audition to an imagined throng of TV talent scouts. Still, it’s all part of the fun, and the DJs are soon tossing fantastic prizes into the crowd to get us into the festive spirit of untamed consumer frenzy. We miss the Aire FM baseball hats, but my elder daughter does surface from the brawling mass clutching a fragment of a family ticket to the Vue cinema.

‘DO YOU WANNA DO THE YMCA?’ the DJ is shouting.

‘Er . . . do you want to do the YMCA?’ I ask my nephews.

No way,’ mutters the eldest. ‘It’s a gay song.’ He clamps his arms firmly to his sides, as if any sudden movement might transform him into a priapic leather-trousered construction worker sporting a large moustache. I offer him a short lecture in low hissing tones on how a civilised society is judged by its celebration of sexual diversity, though obviously an ability to run the railways comes into it, too.

“Anyway,” I say, “listen to the words. It’s not about being gay, it’s about young men having a good meal, and doing whatever they feel.”

At last it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for as the DJ asks us to give a big Leeds welcome to: a Geri Halliwell lookalike! Geri gives us a few songs and could easily pass for the real thing, from a distance, with the light behind her, if you didn’t have your hearing aid turned up. Eventually she switches the lights on. Mmm. It’s not exactly Las Vegas. On the upside, at least we didn’t get stuck behind the family who decided what riotous fun it would be to wear red flashing antlers on their heads for the duration of the event.

And the real meaning of Christmas in all this? Well, the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special repeat, Christmas Day, 8.15, BBC1, of course.