Once, when I was very small, I remember Father Christmas flying past our house in Trecynon, Aberdare. Later on, my big brother attempted to convince me that the sleigh and reindeer had been mounted on the back of an open-backed truck, but I know what I saw, there was no truck, just Santa Claus waving at all the children as he flew by! No memory remains more powerfully lodged in my mind than this one which has helped to build the magic of Christmas ever since. Of course, in Wales in the late fifties, Christmas celebrations revolved around our chapel life, singing carols, the Christmas party in the vestry with jelly and sandwiches and lemonade pop, with games and prizes to follow. But it wasn’t all laughs! Christmas came at that time of year when us kids were forced against our will to wear hand-knitted itchy balaclavas, and worse, mittens attached along each arm and secured beneath our coats by elastic strips with enough durability to power a mediaeval siege engine.
Christmas was a time when the air itself was infused with exotic smells, chocolate and cinammon and the citrusy smell of tangerines. I remember assisting my Dad on Christmas Eve, charged with the important task of taking our turkey to the local bakehouse, then excitedly returning after dark to collect it once it was cooked and being allowed to pick and eat a steaming morsel of meat from its wing. Everything seemed to add to the excitement and magic of Christmas. Television consisted for us of just the one BBC channel, and I recall how they used to show each year a stop-frame animation about how Rudolph the Reindeer saved Christmas - a sort of animated bio-pic for mesmerised children.
There were of course our family traditions, like unpacking and re-hanging the brightly coloured paper decorations which concertinaed across our living room, which had undoubtedly been bought at Woolworths along with our small artificial tree. The tree was gaudily decked out with tinsel and coloured lights, which invariably proved to be a trial for my Dad; I think the bulbs themselves must have belonged to a powerful trade-union because if one blew they all went out and it was merry hell to find the culprit! A few years back I took that threadbare old tree to the tip when my mother, unable to look after herself any longer, went into sheltered accommodation and the task of dismantling our family home fell to me - it was a time of many emotional highs and lows, causing me to relive a host of sad and happy memories, the merry-go-round of this bitter/sweet experience we call life.
There were always amazing presents, I remember, and best of all one early Christmas was a doctor’s kit furnished with precision medical instuments made out of chunky plastic, probably bought from stalls in Aberdare market or the aforementioned Woolworths: there was a thing for peering into ears with, a lamp for the forehead to inspect a patient’s tonsils, a hammer to test reflexes, a stethoscope, some plasters and bandages, and a card that identified me, Martin Johnson, as a trained medical practitioner. Mam, driven to be imaginative and practical because of a shortage of money, had arranged the kit in a white metal lunch box with a red cross attached to the lid to delineate purpose made with sticking plaster and red ink! But I almost forgot, there was also a blue plastic clock for checking a patient’s pulse - after I’d outgrown my doctor’s kit this clock became a Christmas decoration and still hangs on our tree to this day.
But the very best thing of all that I remember about Christmas, and I don’t know if this is a Welsh Valleys thing, or something initiated by my Dad, I’ve certainly not come across it anywhere else - about half of the content of our Christmas stockings as children were booby prizes (Father Christmas had a very funny sense of humour we were told!) - people tend to look at me like I’m daft when I mention it! In our stockings eagerly left at the bottom of our beds and filled by Father Christmas as we slept were to be found all manner of things which we opened with glee. The bounty had been stuffed down into an old rugby sock, all carefully wrapped in newspaper with little cryptic messages attached, there were chocolate coins, toy soldiers, tangerines wrapped in silver paper, nuts, toy cars, plastic magnifying glasses, gob-stoppers and usually a practical joke like a blood stained bandage that you could slip over your finger that had a large nail protruding from either side. Dad’s booby prizes were generally introduced with a label like “You’ll definitely love this!” or “Very useful item” - these could be anything from a candlestick off our mantlepiece to a carrot or potato. Father Christmas undoubtedly adored all the children in the world but he definitely enjoyed teasing them too! When I reflect on all those past Christmasses it is this memory of our Christmas stockings that fills me with warmth and brings a little moisture to the eye. It was the attention to detail of my folks, and that unfakeable sense of being held and embraced within the family fold.
In a few days time, I shall relive many of these feelings again by observing the joy Christmas brings to my wonderful little granddaughters. Yet, despite it being a family occasion, we are reminded that Christmas is a time for wishing peace and goodwill to all mankind, so as we settle down to a feast amongst our families, please spare a thought for those who are less fortunate. We share a planet with thousands of other species and we so often tend to take it all for granted, but it isn’t money or power that makes Christmas special, it is simply love made manifest. Be kind to each other and have a lovely Christmas.
I was asked recently if I’d like to write six hundred words for one of our local newspapers about my new title Wilhelm & Laszlo and its precursor Niedermayer & Hart. These two form the first two instalments in what will eventually become a trilogy (no overall title yet!). The link to the The Times of Tunbridge Wells article, if anyone would like to read it, is at the bottom of this blog piece.
When I first published Niedermayer & Hart, although I had always visualised it as the first part in a trilogy with a fully complete and rounded story arc, I brought it out as a standalone piece. This was primarily because, as a newcomer to the writing game then, I didn’t want to commit to something I knew would take up many more months of work before first receiving some feedback from readers/reviewers etc. - I thought I’d dip a toe into the pond before committing myself to full body immersion. Once, however, Wilhelm & Laszlo was ready to publish, we (‘we’ being the production team at Odd Dog Press, wife and editor-in-chief Judith Johnson, son and cover designer, artist Tom Johnson) felt both the book covers needed to be more informative about content - the original front cover of N&H gave very little away, and unless you flipped over to read the blurb (not possible on Kindle) and saw the bloody fingerprint depicted on the name-card there, a prospective reader might have thought they were about to begin a work of historical fiction, or gothic romance perhaps?
So these were the main motivators behind the new-look for Niedermayer & Hart. Firstly, to guide and inform the reader more accurately about content, and secondly to create a ‘brand’ look and feel that might be applied just as effectively to the first two books, as well as to the planned final part of the trilogy. We had numerous discussions over many months of possible themes, at first thinking to portray an inanimate object like the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey (as depicted on the first edition of N & H) on each cover. Over time however, the concept changed and it was agreed we should try and hint at something contained within the books themselves, and that this was probably best achieved through its cast of characters.
The amount of art work involved in creating both covers was enormous. Tom is a very busy man and he generously gave what little spare time he had to the project, never once stinting on or suggesting corner-cutting if more work was required. I am a proud and grateful father. There were times when we found ourselves wandering down a few blind-alleyways before we could finally agree as a production team that everything was exactly how we wished it to be. The books (8.5”x 5.5”) required Tom to complete five intricately detailed much larger pieces of art work (see photograph) in oils on paper, which he scanned into a computer before sizing, ordering and arranging them with text etc.
The printed books are simply a delight to behold (okay, I’ll admit to a little bias here!). And although reviews are slow to appear as yet - an eternal problem for independent authors - feedback I’m hearing via email/twitter etc. from readers is very positive on the content front too. So, phew!
I loved the old N & H cover and I simply adore the new artwork for the trilogy. I hope you agree.
Niedermayer & Hart and Wilhelm & Laszlo are both available through Amazon as ebooks and in printed versions.
Click this link to see more of Tom Johnson’s artwork.
Click link to read the article described above from The Times of Tunbridge Wells.
M J Johnson
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