There was always something special about the house where my Grandparents lived. On a wooded hill to the west of London, in winter the back bedroom window looked out over the whole of the city right the way from Heathrow to Canary Wharf and if you looked close enough you could see the fins of the aircraft winding their way between the hangars, the motorway signs of the M25, and maybe I’m just imagining it, but the lights of Piccadilly Circus. Actually, I’m probably just imagining that last one.
The front windows looked out over dense woodland. Dense, creepy woodland which in my imagination went on and on and housed bears, wolves, ghosts, and extended all the way to the Arctic. I was a pretty imaginative kid. The woods actually ended after a couple of miles with a golf course. But it’s always fun to paint such vivid pictures.
The thing about my Grandparent’s house was that bits had been added on the back over the years, so that what once had been a two up, two down cottage was now a two up, six down jumble of rooms one built on the back of another, so that it was always an adventure as a kid making your way from the front living room to the toilet, passing through five different doors and feeling as if one were getting further and further away from planet earth.
But it was a house where I always felt happy and comfortable, because it seemed like the sort of place where nothing bad could ever happen. There was a jumble of outbuildings at the bottom of the garden, one of which was Grandad’s magical workshop which had lathes and drills and drawers and a workbench and blueprints and I imagined him pottering away like the mad inventor that he probably was, and how I would later become a similar mad inventor, except with words. Perhaps.
The best day of the year was Christmas Eve. We would go to visit my Grandparents and the dark woods would kind of hold a romance within them, and the lights of London would twinkle like stars, and halfway through the evening, Gran would go to the kitchen and come back with sausage rolls baked in the oven, severed on her famous ‘silver salver’, and to be, this felt the most festive time of the year. And we’d chat, and Grandad would get merry on his whiskey, and my sister and I would sit on the floor and have cola, and it seemed such the most perfect night of the year.
It’s probably my Grandad that I most resemble. We both wear the same kinds of glasses and I found a photo of him the other day where he was wearing clothing remarkably similar to that which I wear on stage. Grandad was a mild, quietly-spoken man who would make a room crack up with just a soft-spoken phrase or one-liner. He was kind of a mix of Ronnie Barker and George Burns, and I miss him every day even though he passed away in 1995.
‘Have you been waiting long?’, I remember my gran once asking.
‘No, not at all’, he’d replied. ‘I watched the sun go down, and I watched the Moon come up’.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I’ll be off to my mother’s in Brixham. And tomorrow night, she will bake some sausage rolls and we’ll be using that same silver salver. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up with every year.
The following poem is taken from my book Woodview, the first third of which is about life growing up in that house on the hill in the woods.
Christmas Eve on Knowle Hill
In this room sing the memories of moments,
of spiced pies and flames a flicker,
frost sipped from removed overcoats which
smell of cross city trains, junctions,
winding B roads to this wooded hill
and a cottage barricaded against forest intensity.
Glimmer stars glimpsed between bare branches,
curtains drawn. The city lights undulating
on waves of cold, curtains drawn.
Ramshackle architecture, bits added on, the
kitchen with the oven through labyrinths of dark
passageways, rooms locked against the winter,
A spindly tree with multicoloured lights
and baubles on the picture tail, tinsel
twisting as heat rises from the gas fire.
A draught under the living room door.
Can you smell the sweetness of the city?
I hum this festive murmur of jovial
whisky warmth, sausage rolls, a silver salver,
seasonal serviettes and a quiet magic in the
woodland mysterious, this love we have
for moments and memories past.