Gervase Phinn on happiness and childhood memories of Christmas

Gervase Phinn uses memories and anecdotes to look at happiness in his new book.
Gervase Phinn uses memories and anecdotes to look at happiness in his new book.
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Happy Days is a light-hearted and moving exploration of happiness by the writer and former teacher Gervase Phinn. This is an extract from his new book.

Happy Days is a personal collection of anecdotes, reminiscences, observations and opinions on the theme of happiness.

An illustration from his new book. (www.christinejopling.com)

An illustration from his new book. (www.christinejopling.com)

At a time when the newspapers and the television focus relentlessly on tragedies, disasters, terrorist atrocities and distressing events, perhaps this book is timely.

We need to be reminded that there is still a great deal of happiness in the world; there are still amusing, good-hearted and compassionate people who brighten our lives; there are still times when we delight in the things around us.

In compiling this anthology I have described some of the occasions that make or have made me happy, and also included the thoughts and feelings of others.

Many of the contributions from family friends and readers of my books had me smiling and not a few had me laughing out loud.

There are so many occasions when one is filled with a feeling of great elation: the birth of a child, a christening or wedding, a childhood holiday, a celebratory birthday or a cosy family Christmas... these are the magical memories that stay with us all our lives.

Sometimes it is the small things in life that make us happy: seeing a rainbow, sitting with family members and going through old photographs, meeting a friend you haven’t seen for years, receiving a compliment or a word of thanks, seeing a wood full of snowdrops, listening to a piece of music, watching a play, a tender kiss.

One very happy memory of mine was visiting my Grandma Mullarkey. I looked forward to those visits because she took a particular interest in my reading and writing.

I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when I came to the decision that I wanted to be a writer, but certainly on those occasions when I sat with my grandmother listening to her stories and anecdotes, her reminiscences and commentaries, the seed was sown.

I will leave you with her favourite Irish blessing:

May flowers always line your path, and sunshine light your day.

May songbirds serenade you, every step along the way.

May a rainbow run beside you in a sky that’s always blue,

And happiness fill your heart each day your whole life through.

Like most children, when I was young I loved Christmas more than any other occasion in the year.

It was so much more to me than just the presents and the delicious food. Christmas was one of the happiest, most magical of times.

I loved the visits into Rotherham just before the festive season when the shop windows were ablaze with colour and stacked with Christmas goods, when coloured lights stretched along the high street to brighten up the otherwise dark and solid industrial Yorkshire town, when carol singers sang and the Salvation Army band played carols in All Saints’ Square, with the great medieval sandstone church towering above.

It was a time of year when people would seem friendlier somehow. Christmas was even more special when a light dusting of snow covered pavements and rooftops, making the dark town seem so much cleaner and brighter.

I loved it when the air became so icy it burnt your cheeks and your exhaled breath came in great clouds.

At home we would make decorations (hoops of coloured cardboard fastened together to form a chain) to drape across the room, get the old imitation Christmas tree from the loft and erect it in the front room to be decorated with coloured balls, little wooden figures and tinsel.

The crib with the small plaster nativity figures was given pride of place on the mantelpiece and the crucifix on the wall was taken down until the New Year.

Christmas morning I would wake up to see the bulging pillow case at the bottom of the bed.

There would be a couple of tangerines and a string bag of assorted nuts, chocolate coins encased in gold and silver tinfoil, a box of rose-scented Turkish delights covered in powdery icing sugar, a Cadbury’s selection box, a tin of McGowan’s toffees, glistening dates in a strangely shaped wooden box with three camels against an orange sky on the front.

There would always be a Beano or Dandy annual and one special present. One year it was a rectangular tin of watercolour paints and two camel-hair brushes, another year a collection of lead soldiers and a grey-painted plywood fort made by my father.

At eleven I received roller skates and at fifteen an Olivetti portable typewriter in a pale blue case. And there was always a book, which I added to my precious collection, my own little library, and I have them still.

The excitement and anticipation of Christmas never, ever waned for me when I was young – and never does to this day.

One Christmas (I must have been about fifteen at the time), my mother bought me a dark brown corduroy jacket from W Muntus, Outfitters, of Rotherham.

It was a horribly thick, heavy garment with wide lapels, velvety ribs and a string of brass buttons on the cuffs. It was the sort of jacket old men wore.

I hated it at first sight and told my mother so. She had a pale, hurt look on her face, as if she couldn’t believe what she had heard.

I had wanted a tight-fitting suit like the ones the Beatles wore and a black turtleneck jumper and I had been given this shapeless, old-fashioned jacket the colour of dog dirt.

I wouldn’t even try it on. There was no way I was going be seen wearing this monstrosity and I stomped off 
upstairs.

I emerged when Christmas dinner was on the table but sat in simmering silence and picked at the turkey.

I felt everyone in the family was against me for being so ungrateful. No one spoke to me, which made it even worse.

My father took me aside later in the day and told me how disappointed he was in me, how I had upset my mother, and how I should apologise and accept the coat with good grace.

But I wouldn’t and sat for the rest of the day in the front room, silent and morose, and listening as the rest of the family enjoyed themselves next door. Of course, sulking is the last refuge of the powerless and gets you nowhere, but I stubbornly stayed in the front room and was ignored. It was a long and dispiriting Christmas Day.

I never did apologise, and the coat, which I guess was returned to the shop, was not mentioned again. Needless to say I never got the suit like the one the Beatles wore or the black turtleneck jumper...

Happy Days, published by Dalesman (www.dalesman.co.uk), is out now, priced £7.99.

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