Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 7th January 2019

WHEN it comes to the worst Christmas gifts, I have got a cupboard full of real turkeys, and no, not the edible kind.

There’s the lockable money box which came locked, minus its key. There’s the miniature table football game for which I have no suitably sized table. There’s the puzzle that, three years on, I still haven’t managed to solve. Then there’s the twee country cottage picture I’m never likely to display. And I could go on … and on.

Guilty as charged, I did manage to dispose of about a dozen unwanted presents to a charity jumble sale collector. Goodness knows, that poor soul probably still has them, unsold even at giveaway prices on her stall. Unlike me, too honest to try and offload them to a fellow jumbler. Like Eberneezer Scrooge, I sometimes have Christmas nightmares based on my meanness in shifting unloved items on to fellow human beings.

A Which Connect survey, one of those fripperies the newspapers fill up space with at this time of year, asked 1,373 of its members “what was the worst gift you’ve ever received as a Christmas present?” Here’s just a small selection of the top answers: a bum bag, a book about drainpipes, a doormat, knitting book, iron, bathroom scales, stuffed mouse, out-of-date chocolates, socks and washing-up gloves.

This year I definitely came out on the plus side of gift receiving. Someone must have been listening when I droned on about non-league football grounds I’d visited, the fact that much as I dislike Jeremy Clarkson I have to admit his Sunday Times columns make me laugh, and for all the self-loathing I feel after gorging myself with them in the midst of my diet, I have a thing about chocolate oranges.

Thus the 25th brought Jeremy’s book of collected ST columns, a new non-league handbook (illustrated with grounds that still look like they used to do in 1920), and a substantial quantity of little round packages that, by rights, ought to come with the dentist’s business card attached.

Which’s list of worst gifts took me back to my childhood and an aunt who was a delightful and kindly old woman, but very religious. My father’s side of the family were staunch Primitive Methodists. Indeed my grandfather, long deceased before I was born, was a noted hell fire and damnation preacher.

He was totally blind from birth, and it has always baffled me how he was able to recite long tracts from the Bible when he set up his stall on village greens and in market places to terrify the pants off the sinful locals. He must have been a great orator because we Brewsters have a whole council housing estate — Brewster’s Close — named after us in his native town.

My aunt clearly felt, as a youngster, I needed some of the family’s spiritual guidance for, every Christmas for eight years, a familiar parcel appeared — a Bible. Whether you are religious or not, a Bible on the bookshelf is an essential reference book. But eight of them?

It was my father, never quite a reconstructed new man, who took the prize for the worst Christmas present I’ve ever heard of. Present-buying was always a last minute rush, but one year he excelled himself by delivering my mother’s gift in the shape of a rolling pin.

My mother was a great baker. She would have walked the Great British Bake-Off had there been telly in those days. But that said, my father’s choice of present was ill-judged to say the least. From memory she hit him with it and he was confined to the garden shed while we sat down to our turkey dinners.

Even by the standard of bum bags and books about the history of drainpipes, it was surely the world’s worst Christmas present. Unless, as Esther Rantzen was wont to remark after yet another curiosity had been aired on TV’s That’s Life, you know different.

SIXTY YEARS AND COUNTING

AT the risk of a spot of self-indulgence, 2019 is going to be a year of personal anniversaries occasioned more by great age than significant achievement.

For a start it will be 60 years since I made my first contributions in print, penning weekly cricket notes under the pseudonym of Mid Wicket. Ironic that I never got a word printed in the school magazine, but I was writing for local papers from an early age.

In those days Lake District news was reported by a great character, Charlie Bone, who not only wrote about local activities but was very much a part of them. He belonged to a group consisting largely of business people who called themselves the Crimson Ramblers and spent Wednesday half-day closing of their shops by nipping out up Borrowdale to climb Shepherd’s Crag or Napes Needle on Great Gable and jocularly recording their adventures in an annual magazine.

My parents knew Charlie, and I recall being at their house one day when he came rushing in and began battering an old typewriter, stuffed with paper and carbons. I was probably nine or 10 at the time, but I looked at Charlie as he played the Remington like some possessed orchestra pianist and determined there and then “this is for me”. Thus was sparked a long career in journalism.

But 1959 was significant for another reason — my first visit to Carlisle United’s Brunton Park ground. United won 3-1 against Stockport County and I was hopelessly hooked for life. We did a quick calculation the other day. I reckon I’ve seen more than 3,000 games, first team, reserves and youths. I have given more than 350,000 minutes of my life to Carlisle United, for better and often, as with many a marriage, for worse. I once totted up the cost of supporting the team home and away and reckoned I could just about have bought two houses.

I may not have made much money or achieved greatness, but in both career and my football team I can say with some justification and pleasure that I followed my heart.

STORY TIME

SMALL children, for some inexplicable reason, like repetitive and familiar stories for bedtime reading purposes. When mine were young it was always Chicken Licken, a tale as dreary and repetitive as it’s possible to find. Once I found myself being prodded by my youngest. I had put myself to sleep half way through the story. The kids? Still wide awake.

Nowadays it’s the adults who can’t get to sleep, left restless by work and money problems, posting on Facebook or kept awake by the ever-present blue light coming off their phones. As many as one in 10 of us take regular medication to help us drop off. Sleeping pills are costing the NHS £50 million a year. Counting sheep? Insomniacs have lost theirs.

Now celebrities including Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley have joined an organisation called Calm which does sleep stories for grown-ups. The site boasts up to six million listens a month and rising. The founders, two Brits, cottoned on to the concept when they were working in Silicon Valley and since 2016, when they added the first “Sleep Story” to their meditation app, they claim it’s like finding the holy grail in the age of insomnia.

Cricket Explained, narrated by Henry Blofeld, is apparently one of the most popular stories, although I can’t imagine why. Stories are meant to take listeners back to a simpler mental state, just like when they were children. My own remedy for a sleepless night never fails. I begin counting all the Carlisle United players, first team and reserves, since 1959. Funny, I never get beyond 1962.

We can’t all be Carlisle fans, snoring away in blissful reverie. I wonder if “Sleep Stories” have discovered Chicken Licken yet?

BAGS OF SUCCESS

THE 5p plastic bag charge in the major supermarkets has been an unqualified success, cutting use by 85 per cent since it was introduced in 2015. The average annual bag use per person plummeted from 140 to 19 last year.

Even I’m trying my best to reuse bags and rarely these days do I forget to take one with me when I go shopping. The woman on the till even complimented me one time. “You’re being a good boy today,” she said.

The plastic bag charge is to be doubled to 10p and extended to all retailers in England under plans laid out by the Government. An eight-week consultation is being launched. I know what I would do to get the message across to the remaining backsliders.

Never mind 10p, I’d make it a quid a bag. That would make them take plastic waste seriously. And maybe then we could get on to the thorny issue of unnecessary packaging in those same supermarkets.