Sue Townsend: We can be film stars, just for one day

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The Independent Culture

I grew up in a prefab with an asbestos roof and breeze-block walls. On winter mornings I would wake up, crawl from beneath my army greatcoat blankets and marvel at the frost patterns on the inside of my bedroom windows. It was so cold that, apart from the living-room where there was a coal fire, in every other room in the tiny house, our breath was visible. The cold was an icy curse that fell on us from November until April. Is it any wonder that I immediately felt at home when I read my first Russian novel?

However, Christmas Day was quite magical. When my sisters and I were allowed into the living-room on Christmas morning it was like entering Aladdin's cave. Streamers and home-made paper chains were hung from the ceiling, bunches of balloons were drawing-pinned in each corner, and a Christmas tree twinkled with glass balls and novelty ornaments. The sideboard was piled with plates of mince pies, sausage rolls, Cox's Pippins, tangerines and dates. The centrepiece was a home-made Christmas cake covered in white icing that my mother had fashioned to look like snow. On the left was an artificial slope that Santa and the reindeers appeared to be galloping down. On the right was a tiny church and towering over it a Jolly Snowman wearing a black top hat.

The coal fire would be banked high and would be throwing out a terrific heat, but best of all were the presents. Each of us three girls had our own filled pillowcase and for a glorious half-hour we would unwrap them in a frenzy of excitement. Then, as the turkey cooked in the oven and the Christmas pudding was steaming on top of the stove, I would collect up my presents and take them to my icy bedroom, put them on my bed and gloat over them. I would always be given lots of books from the Woolworths Classic book collection. It was in these editions that I first read Little Women, Kidnapped, What Katie Did, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin etc. I would start to read immediately, breaking off reluctantly to eat my Christmas dinner, which we ate wearing paper hats from the crackers that had been placed beside our plates.

As soon as dinner was eaten and the washing-up had been done and put away, I would resume reading. Sometimes I would be called to play one of the board games that had been given to one of my sisters. I was not a good games player. I was not competitive, I did not pay attention and I didn't care who won or lost, I just wanted to get back to my reading. A few hours after dinner my mother would start to prepare the Christmas tea. The table would be re-set with cold turkey, pickles, salad, cakes, trifles and fancy biscuits and we would start to eat again. Sometimes relations joined us for tea. Alcohol would be drunk and everyone would be expected to do a turn: sing a song, tell a joke, dance or recite a poem. It was the only time during my whole childhood that I refused to do as I was told. I found out then that I was not good at parties. I was the type of person who was happier sitting in a distant corner watching, rather than taking part. In other words, I was starting my apprenticeship to be a writer. I would remember the exact shade of red that my auntie's neck would turn after a few gins and how my mother's body would be transformed into the sinuous curves of a Middle Eastern maiden when she took to the floor and sang Salome.

In my position from the corner of the room, I marvelled at the transformation of my relations. These ordinary-looking people, who worked long hours in Leicester factories, now looked as handsome and beautiful as film stars. The men were in their best suits with brilliantine'd hair and shiny shoes. The women had lost the wrap around aprons and turbans they usually wore and reinvented themselves with Max Factor make-up and Twink home perms. Where had they been hiding their lovely figures and creamy skin? Why were their shapely breasts and legs hidden away for most of the year?

For my family, Christmas Day and Boxing Day was a time of enchantment when they, the working poor, enjoyed the illusion that they were rich, carefree, good-looking and could put as much coal on the fire as they bloody well wanted. Because on the 27th (unless it fell on a Sunday) they had to rise in the dark, put on their work clothes and go back to their factories making the nation's socks, underwear, boots and shoes.

'The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001', by Sue Townsend, is published by Michael Joseph