As I mentioned in my previous post, the wrapping paper from our Christmas gifts was always saved and recycled: carefully smoothed, folded and put away in the big “Xmas” box in the attic, along with the decorations. The following year we would use old paper from the box before buying any new. Sometime in the late 1970s – my late teens – I was looking for something to wrap my dog-loving cousin Helen’s gift in, and chose this cute doggy paper. I noticed that it was quite old, as it bore an affectionate inscription from my parents to my much younger self (which can still just about be made out, crossed through in black felt tip pen). So I wrote jokingly on the label “please take care of this paper, it’s been in the family for years” – and unwittingly started a new family tradition. The following year, my gift from Helen arrived wrapped in the very same, slightly tattier paper, and we sent it backwards and forwards between us for many Christmases after that. Helen recently found it and returned it to me one last time, wrapped around a birthday gift, for permanent safekeeping in the Usmeum. By this stage, however, this object had been put to an alternative use and become more than just wrapping paper.
Helen, being one year my senior, is the closest of my cousins to me in age, and despite the fact that her branch of the family still lived in Glasgow, I had a closer relationship with Helen than with my other cousins who all lived in and around London. We were regular penpals throughout childhood and our families visited each other at least once a year; we both remember sitting out on the front garden wall in Barnes and telling each other scary ghost stories in the moonlight. We carried on writing to each other well into adulthood, the way people did before email etc. made us all too lazy. We shared a daft sense of humour which eventually became manifest not just in the text of our letters, but in the media, too.
In 1980 I was working in a branch of W.H.Smith and used to write letters in my lunch hour. One day I noticed the end of a till roll thrown in the bin and, thinking it a shame to waste the paper, wrote a letter to Helen on it. She gamely wrote back using the reverse of the roll, and a competition was launched. With each letter we would try to outdo each other with the bizarre objects on which we we wrote them. Paper plates, pieces of cloth, jigsaw puzzles, cassette tapes with recorded messages all turned up in the post. I “won” in the end: Helen decided she couldn’t top the letter written on a pint glass that I sent her from university.
And here is one of my letters, written to her in January 1985 on the back of the “family heirloom” wrapping paper that she had presumably sent my Christmas present in:
It’s great to read of my exploits 28 years ago, aged 23. The letter is addressed to “Vyv’ and signed “Neil” in reference to our respective alter egos in the Young Ones. I report having been to see some of my folk heroes, Fairport Convention and Christy Moore, at my local music pub, the Half Moon in Putney (still going strong today, in fact this year I have seen some of the same acts there I used to see back then: John Otway, Hank Wangford, Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band). At the Fairport gig I was thrilled to bump into our mutual hero Billy Connolly. I can still remember both of these gigs vividly! I recount various adventures on New Year’s Eve in London, including myself and a friend blagging our way into a posh Strand hotel to use their toilets at 1am. I doubt that would be allowed today.
At the end of the letter, I wonder “if we can keep this paper going long enough” to get into the Guinness Book of Records, and conclude, “Judging by the state of it, probably not, especially as I’ve written all over it.” But at least, to my surprise, it has lasted long enough to make it into the Usmeum of Ordiments! And it proves that this modern craze for “upcycling” old stuff into new things (such as Oxfam’s range of writing paper made from old giftwrap)isn’t so new after all: I was doing it in 1985.
Helen and I are still good friends, we don’t write so often these days but there are always birthday and Christmas cards and the odd (sometimes very odd) surprise present. Today is Helen’s birthday, so this post is dedicated to her. Happy birthday, cousin – I hope you got the package I sent you…!