Party Piece


By Jill Lowry

I was wondering around Rye Market this morning, noticing the Christmas items for sale, and it set me thinking of Christmases past. As a child and teenager in the fifties, I lived with my young war-widowed Mother in Croydon. Various other members of the family lived locally and after the excitement of Christmas stockings and a special dinner of roast chicken or even rabbit it became a tradition for everyone to gather at my Mum’s flat.She would make sandwiches and her famous trifle, and the Uncles would bring a crate of beer and perhaps a bottle of V.P. Ruby wine for the ladies.

Everyone had eaten a good meal and were fairly mellow after a visit to the pub and a few convivial toasts. Certain Uncles could be persuaded to do a card trick or so, and I was expected to do a ‘party piece’. I loathed doing this and grew more embarrassed as I entered my teens. When I was quite small the ‘party piece’ was to dance ‘The Dying Swan’ a la Pavlova and stagger about at the end trying to die gracefully. I had block toed shoes, which ruined my young feet and a home made tutu with a black bullet-hole drawn on the chest.

The wind-up gramophone played beautiful cello music and all the doting family would clap my efforts as I lay panting heavily on the floor pretending to be dead. As I grew old my offering was a piano piece on our ancient up-right. I can remember playing a few simple classic preludes and my favourite ‘Harry Lime Theme’. We had a few records and there was a bit of dancing and bopping about in the small room. Sometimes an Uncle would be found snoring loudly on one of the beds, sleeping off the good Christmas Fare. We did have nuts and dates, oranges and crackers, but there was not the highly commercial hoo-ha that there is now. Some of the oranges came wrapped in tissue paper, which was prized as toilet paper in preference to horrid Izal or Bronco.

We had a battered old artificial tree which I dressed with delight, handling all the well loved decorations that came out of their box once a year to be greeted like old friends. Wrapping paper was saved from one year to the next. The tree had clip-on holders for real little candles, which were lit on Christmas Day. What a fire hazard they were, but I thought it was all magical. Of course we had no television, so the highlight of our party were the games. Everyone played, adults enjoying the fun as much as the youngsters.

Party Piece Picture

These were some favourites we played. You might know them. Squeak Piggy, Squeak, which allowed a bit of sitting on laps, a few cuddles and crafty gropes, Nelsons Eye which involved a blindfold and sticking your unsuspecting finger into a tomato or orange, which was supposed to be Nelsons bad eye and felt horrific, giving rise to screams amongst the girls. Consequences was another and everyone needed pencils and paper. The dafter the things you wrote the better it was, and no-one minded about spelling. Everyone wrote one line, folded the paper and passed it on, not knowing what the others would write. Of course it was all disconnected, but often turned out to be funny when it was read out. We rolled about laughing, but I doubt the youngsters of today would be amused. They prefer to play the latest electronic game or glue themselves to the T.V. We played Charades and had a good selection of dressing up clothes in an old suitcase.

My favourite game was ‘Sardines’. Mum’s flat was quite rambling and there was plenty of places to hide. Off went the lights and one by one we would be sent out to find and join the person hiding. I remember standing behind the floor length curtain in the big bedroom, with a row of giggling people all holding their breath, while the footsteps of the searcher came slowly nearer to our hiding place. It was high excitement and once a young Aunt, huddled behind the huge dolls house let out a shriek of fear, as sinister footsteps approached and she promptly wet herself! The tension had proved just too much for her! She never did live that down. Once Uncle Fred had us all searching for ages and we never discovered his hiding place. It is my theory now that he dived off to the pub for a swift pint and wasn’t in the flat at all, but it kept us busy for hours.

Party Piece Picture We all enjoyed a sing song and had many family favourites which you may or may not know. Here are some to nudge your memory. ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’, ‘The Sailor with the Navy-blue Eyes’, ‘My Brother Sylvest had a row of forty medals on his chest, big chest’. ‘Felix Kept on Walking’, ‘My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean’ and many others. There were special family songs, which may not be familiar to you, such as ‘When Father Joined the Territorials’, ‘Is the Same House in the Same Street with the same old pictures on the wall’, ‘Come, come, come Remember You’re a Plumb’, ‘Never Let Your Braces Dangle – Poor old

Sport, he got caught, pulled right through the mangle etc. What fantastic fun those Christmases were. There wasn’t much money, but with a bit of ingenuity, home made presents, a real fire, a few nuts and oranges the magical atmosphere was created, It’s true kids today don’t know what they are missing!

A few weeks ago whilst sorting through a drawer I came across a shopping list for the 1940s. It was written on the back of an old envelope. Think of this when you are doing your big Christmas shop!

Milk 2.71/2d. Loaf 41/2d. Fish 6d. Spam 71/2d. Beans 6d. Meat 1s0d. Potatoes 41/2d. Peas 6d. Bacon 7d. Total 7s. 1d.

I’ll wish you all the best for this festive season. Spare a thought for all those who are in trouble and don’t feel like celebrating. I’ll raise my glass to you all as my family gather round for a good get together. May your God, whoever he is, go with you and may 2002 bring peace and happiness to the World.

“Rye’s Own” December 2001

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