I can’t give advice on Christmas gifts. I once gave my sister a rape alarm. In mitigation the alarm was attached to a stopwatch, she was well into jogging at the time. The alarm was a secondary feature, but for some reason that was the bit she dwelt on.
I also once got a rubbish present, a metal detector. In fairness to my parents I had asked for a metal detector. I grew up close to a Roman road and it was near here that one of my neighbours excavated a coin that year. Knowing what I know about myself now I was entirely motivated by greed and the tantalising thought of uncovering some treasure. But at the time I persuaded myself it was an interest in local history that had fired me.
As soon as I unwrapped the metal detector I was suspicious. It was smaller than any that I had seen on the television. There were no giant headphones included with it. I assumed that these were essential. It was also assembled with bright orange fittings and big bulbous handles that made it look like a Fisher Price toy, a sort of My First Metal Detector.
Once I whirred it into action a fundamental flaw was revealed. The metal detector could detect metal, but only metal that you could see. I placed a two pence piece under the rug in the sitting room as a test. But the carpet was obviously impenetrable to the detector’s feeble glare. This may have proved an impediment when looking for antique hoards buried under centuries of earth.
In its defence the detector was brilliant at finding doorknobs. If you were ever approaching a door and weren’t exactly sure where the doorknob was, then you’d simply move the detector slowly around the frame of the door until a buzzing sound could be heard – and there, you’ve found the knob and could pass through the door safely.
In desperation I headed to an antiquarian shop in Cambridge which specialized in peddling spurious historical items to the many tourists in the city. I bought some fake Roman coins. I went back to the Roman road and scattered the coins by the pathway. And then “detected” them.
Perversely of all the brilliant presents that my mum and dad bought me over the years, the BMXs and the table football tables, the metal detector is the one that has given me the most sustained pleasure, simply through the amusing memory of how crap it was. It’s the best and worst Christmas present I ever got – put that in your Christmas gift guide.
The metal detector itself was shoved into a cobwebbed crack next to the tumble-dryer, left to fester in an open grave. Maybe one day in the far-off future it will be discovered by inquisitive archaeologists. Perhaps they will ponder what its use was. Definitely not metal-detecting.
I was born on Christmas Eve. I basically share a birthday with Jesus. As a child I was resentful of Jesus because most people cared more about his birthday than mine. The entire village would gather at the church to celebrate his birthday. Some of them would tell anecdotes about his birth, about how he was born in a stable and got some slightly quirky gifts. No-one wanted to talk about my birth. I was born in a bed in a hospital.
People would sing jolly songs about Jesus and his mum and his mum’s womb. And then local children would fetch tiny effigies of Jesus and his mum and her birthing partners, some of whom were actual cows, and place them carefully together at the front of the church. No-one thought to create a tiny effigy of me.
Afterwards the village would decant to a nearby home where someone would be throwing a party in honour of Jesus’ birthday. Often it would be my own family. On those days, in the heady punchy fug of mulled wine fumes, my mum would make her frantic preparations. She was aware that a neighbourly hoard was about to descend on her and judge her on her interior design choices and her honey-glazed cocktail sausages. Sausages which were glazed because it was Jesus’ birthday.
At the end of these festivities at last Jesus would step aside and the party would sing Happy Birthday to me. There are lots of lovely things that can happen to someone on their birthday, having Happy Birthday sung to them is not one of them. It’s awkward. It raises questions. I’ve never known what expression to wear during it. I’ve never established where to look when there’s no cake to focus on. After Happy Birthday the party would end and everyone would go home. But the celebrations would continue into the next day. Which was Jesus’ birthday.
When people discover now that I was born on Christmas Eve they wince, understanding the tribulations that come with sharing a birthday with a big birthday-hog like Jesus. But the truth is that for all the sense of being sidelined or feeling like the occasional victim of a joint birthday-Christmas present swindle, a Christmas Eve birthday has always been a special day.
I have never been at school on my birthday. I have never been at work on my birthday. I have never had to commute or carry out mundane errands. I have always been surrounded by people who have some kind of affection for me. In the rambunctious days of my late teens and early twenties, Christmas Eve became less about Jesus and more about meeting up with old friends and getting shitfaced.
So if you are a Christmas baby or the parent of a Christmas baby (that doesn’t include you Mary and God/Joseph), then perhaps dwell less on the unfortunate consequences of a festive birthdate and more on the unique potential of it. And at least no-one is going to sing about your mum’s womb.
Major’s Christmas list last year had five items on it, which had been whittled down from a long-list of nominations comprising every single toy advertised on television over the previous three months. We approached Major’s presents like we would a roulette table, preferring to spread out our outlay over a number of different options, hedging our bets as opposed to spending hundreds of pounds on for instance a massive cuddly white elephant which might remain unloved and unused like, er, a massive white elephant.
And so it was that Major’s fickleness came to pass. The singing Olaf, the camp snowman from Frozen spent his early career wedged under the driver’s seat of the car, the piteous drawl of ‘In Summer’ becoming less and less audible. The Shaun the Sheep snakes and ladders is yet to be played, but its dice and counters have migrated to all parts of the house.
I felt very strongly that at least one gift was going to hit its target. I’d spotted a promotional video for a gigantic clownfish balloon online and it looked absolutely amazing. In effect it was a miniature airship, a small motor attached to the underside powered its tail which in turn propelled the fish forward. And in this way the movement of the balloon eerily replicated an actual clownfish. As I say, absolutely amazing.
The balloon arrived necessarily deflated and it wasn’t until the first weekend of the New Year that I drove to the nearest florist to purchase £6 worth of their finest helium to fill it. It was a very blustery day. A ribbon was tied through a loop on the belly. I wrapped this tightly around my fist to secure and then basically embraced the balloon out of the shop and onto the road outside. The fish seemed quite capricious in nature and it did enter my mind that it might take me off into the skies over South London like a crap Mary Poppins.
Before that happened the ribbon snapped. The balloon immediately absconded over a hedge. By the time I’d run around the hedge I was in a park and the clownfish was nowhere to be seen, already up in the atmosphere, up where the air is clear. Perhaps it had gone to find Nemo. That didn’t stop me careering all over that park, slipping across the wet grass, becoming increasingly frantic. Any passer-by who might have seen me might have thought I’d lost a child and not a balloon.
Major was delightful. He understood. I hugged him tightly, putting my head on his shoulder which must have been quite uncomfortable because I have a really big head. So we replaced the fish at once. I went back to the florist two weekends ago but this time I took Major with me, mainly for an extra pair of hands but also to give him the opportunity to see the balloon in all its turgid glory in case it decided to fly off in search of his brother or Nemo. I parked illegally in front of the shop and very briefly left Major in there while the florist brought the fish to the entrance. I gave a balloon priority over my son. I straddled the rear of the fish, essentially riding it to the car and successfully bundling it inside and home.
Then it got difficult. To achieve the optimum cruising height the balloon needed to be extraordinarily finely calibrated. Any extraneous weight and the fish would remain permanently grounded. As such each sticky pad that was provided to attach the working parts was suitably small, which rendered the whole operation of assembling this mini-dirigible exasperatingly difficult. Of course the balloon was hugely uncooperative being that it just wanted to hang out on the ceiling. It was a bit like a dressing a child, albeit a strangely rotund child in outer space.
With the help of his mum and her friend who helped out physically suppressing the balloon, finally the clownfish was done. Except that it needed further calibrating because at that stage it was pointing upwards, again obsessing over the ceiling. The fish was balanced out by loading putty into a niche at the front of the motor. It took a while to find the putty as Major had borrowed it to make Morph. I have no idea where he got Morph from; I thought Morph had died with Tony Hart.
And finally it was done. We loaded up the batteries into the motor and the joypad. The next ten minutes were some of the most exhilarating of my life, piloting that fish on its journey up and down the landing while the Major skipped with glee after it. In truth I wasn’t ready to hand over controls to him, but I did figure it was technically his toy after all.
It was then that the botched job I made of putting the clownfish together became obvious. Dorsal and pectoral fins began floating, falling to the floor. The tape had not been applied properly. Soon the motor itself came loose and inevitably the fish looked to the ceiling again, flouncing up to sulk for a week by the door to the spare room.
And then the following weekend I went to the local garden centre and bought some silver duct tape, which at least had the advantage of looking vaguely like clownfish scales. We began to re-assemble the balloon but it was soon clear that the tape was too bulky. Regrettably we had to take the decision to partially dismember the fish but eventually, five weeks after Christmas, it was operational again. It was now that Major chose to reveal to us that he found the fish weird and didn’t want to play with it.
And then on the Monday, I received a WhatsApp from my wife:
It seemed she had opened the French doors to the garden to let the Major out to jump on his trampoline and the clownfish had spotted his chance to nurture its migratory instincts. By the time I got home from work he had extricated himself from the tree and disappeared, perhaps to re-unite with his long-lost brother. Or Nemo. I’d like to say it was fun while it lasted but that is only true for ten stolen minutes. All I am left with is a roll of silver duct tape to do some dad shit with and two useless joypads. No idea what’s joyous about them.