MONDAY: My First Christmas Away From Home

BY IAN STOUT

Copyright is held by the author.

FIVE MONTHS after my 19th birthday I purchased a one way ticket to England and set sail with $200 in my pocket on the Empress of Britain from Montreal, bound for Liverpool. It was my first trip away from home and I left with a feeling of adventure in my heart, and the belief I was about to conquer the world.

From Liverpool I hitched-hiked down to Chester, then on to London, and spent a couple days at the Regency Palace Hotel just off Piccadilly Circus. Being late October the city was beginning to don its Christmas attire and an upbeat air prevailed. By my third day in town I had found a job at a place called the Newington Salvage Yard, in Leytonstone, a working man’s area in the east end of London, and within hours had a place to live as well.

My new “digs” as Londoners called it, were at 49 Granleigh Road near my new workplace. The tiny room at the top of the stairs was barely large enough for a single bed but my landlords, May and Albert Boone, two East Enders straight out of a Coronation Street episode, asked for little and treated me well. Theirs was a Council House and they rented out several rooms for very little to raise extra on the side. They were decent people who had lived through a dreadful war only 15 years before and one evening Albert showed me where a small magnesium firebomb had come through their roof and ceiling to rest on their dining room floor. He was quite proud of the way his wife had grabbed a tea cozy from a teapot on the table, quickly wrapped it around the burning bomb and pitched it out the back door to lay harmless, sputtering and hissing with a hot white flame on the back grass. She then returned to the table and finished her evening meal while the bombing raid on her city continued. East Londoners were a sturdy group of people.

That winter I worked at the salvage yard cutting up cars with an acetylene torch in rain or shine, slogging through mud up to my ankles while turning autos into material for steel mills. It was tough and dirty but paid enough for my room and a few extras.

By early December all of London was festooned with Christmas decorations. Selfridges and Harrods competed with each other to see who could present the best window displays and the city went out of its way with street lights and decorations. London was a great place to be for the holiday season.

Christmas time had always been special in my family so I decided to surprise all with a phone call home from London to wish them a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Besides, I was a bit lonely and missed them.

I started by finding out a call to Canada from London in 1960 was expensive and had to be done from a phone booth on the street. One had to feed coins into the phone for the call to go through, so for weeks I saved and hoarded them to ensure I had enough half crowns, shillings and six pence pieces to make the call.

Finally the big day arrived. Instead of running downstairs to check a stocking and look for gifts there might be under the tree, I got dressed to head out in the cold rain to make my call. I knew my mom and dad and brothers and sisters would be around the table at about 4 p.m. in Ontario so my call would have to be between nine and ten am. Gathering my collection of coins in a small cloth bag provided by my landlady I plodded out to a phone booth on the Leyton High Road.

Carefully, I dialed the operator who politely asked what I wanted and when I told her, she inquired about my appointed call time. It never occurred to me I would need to arrange a specific call time so of course I hadn’t. She said the Trans Atlantic cables could only handle a limited number of call at a time and I could not call Canada on a busy day like Christmas without making a reservation several weeks in advance, and since all slots were booked, I could not make the call.

I was heartbroken. I stood for several long moments in the phone booth with my stacks of coins carefully arrayed in neat piles wondering what to do. Finally, deciding there was nothing I could do, I gathered up my bag of money, pushed the phone booth door open and slowly made my way out onto the quiet streets of Leytonstone.

The silent walk in the cold drizzle back to my tiny room allowed me to decide that in the future, a little more research would better prepare me for unforeseen difficulties such as the one I had just encountered. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

2 comments

  1. Peter Leach

    Bravo Ian,
    In my mind’s eye, I could see the bright lights on the lamp outside Selfridges. And the growing excitement in the air. Your description the long walk home in the Londons cold drizzle made me feel damp and cold.

  2. Michael Joll

    Your reminiscence stirred memories of my own, five years later, a temporary Christmas worker in Selfridges on Oxford Street. What a time that was! What a blast! But, tell me, why did British phone boxes of that era all smell alike?

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