We are sitting down to Christmas dinner, 1971, the now nuclear family of two parents and two children (my sister would not enter the scene for another three years) plus my maternal grandfather and the sweet, innocent soul he married in his early sixties. For the duration of my early childhood, I had three grandmothers.
I am three and a half, my brother nearly two. While I concentrate hard on the eating to be done, he is much more fascinated by the camera. My grandfather seems to have got used to its presence, overcoming the discomfort you could see that he felt at my christening in film 10. My parents have had the camera for about three years, and have gone some little way to mastering the art of interior lighting for Super 8 film, though even then, half of this reel seems to be illuminated merely by fairy- and candlelight.
The main course is on the table. Chocolates, candied fruit, and Christmas crackers await our pleasure. Glasses are raised in a toast, ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’ I too have a little cut-glass of something, I’m not quite sure what. Lemon cordial, perhaps. Surely not wine, though my reaction to its contents suggests that it might be. (This was after the incident when aged two I drank whisky from a tumbler that my father had carelessly left on the bedroom floor, provoking a case of early onset delirium tremens, or at least a delirium in which I saw pink elephants dancing on my mother’s shoulders.) I imagine the afternoon passed in something of a haze for me, after the wired buzz of the alcohol or lemon cordial wore off.
The tree is heartbreakingly spindly and ethereal compared to the thick, fat brushes of the fir we have this year. Somehow it manages to seem both austere and gaudy at one and the same time, with its baubles and strands of silver, lantern lights, golden tinsel, concertina tinfoil, and a dimly shining star at its crown.
My father mugs silent-film-style at the camera, raises a belated glass. The shades of his golfing jumpers have taken a turn for the worse, into garishly primary colours. The smart, short back and sides of the sixties have turned into something more relaxed, more ineffably seventies. He could take to the park with Peter Osgood of Chelsea, sporting that look. See you in the bar after, Ossie.
And look what I got for Christmas and am modelling outdoors at the driving range – a cowboy outfit. And what an outfit! I’m not sure even Gram Parsons would have dared go this much further past the embroidered, rhinestone-heavy suits that Nudie Cohn made for him. Red chaps with blue batwings, a decorative blue and black waistcoat and a ten-gallon hat, and of course the obligatory holster and gun without which no suburban cowboy boy of the seventies would be seen dead. Somewhat more colourful too than what I imagine Wyatt Earp wore for the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Watch me swagger down the mean streets of not Tombstone, but Cobham, laying waste to all the good-for-nothings I find there. Curiously my brother is dressed not as a native American, but a twenties-era New York City cop, or possibly a turn of the century British bobby. Note the giant golf balls on tees in the background. Perfect cover for the sheriff looking to take down a few outlaws.
The reel cuts to another day, most likely Boxing Day, with the extended family gathered at my paternal grandmother’s house. My cousins and I encircle the table, on which there is an as yet untouched Christmas cake and a big bowl of jelly. The aunts and uncles look on as we eat our cold turkey, picking their food from an extensive spread set out on a side table. The eldest cousin is wearing a tie. We are still bound by a formality which the course of my life will slowly break. If we could live through those early Christmases again, how much would we feel has changed, in comparison with now? I guess in many respects, a lot. The excessive materiality of Christmas, certainly. The technology which surrounds us, obviously. But in others, perhaps nothing much at all. Families gather, a majority still eat turkey (though perhaps not the heavily iced fruitcake), the year turns and the endlessly magical Christmases of childhood are before you know it past and gone, except in memory and the frames of an old reel of Super 8 film.