Ernie Wise opened the Argos store in my hometown of Cwmbran. I think it was around 1981 although I’m not completely sure. What I am completely sure of, however, is that I was there. It was a Saturday morning and like most Saturday’s I was in town with my Nan and Banp as it was pocket money day and I often spent the weekends with them. The part of Cwmbran Town Centre that hosted the Argos shop was new. A large area, all sloping up to a huge Woolworths store, had brought new life to the shopping centre. The area had been under construction for a year or more. One by one the empty units had been leased to various retailers and the Argos store was one of the last to open. It was a sunny morning and I remember standing there, holding my Bamp’s hand, while Ernie Wise gave a little speech before cutting the blue ribbon to a round of applause.
I would have preferred to have seen Eric Morecambe of course – he was the funny one. I think if it had been him cutting the ribbon, he may have performed a prat fall and included other bits of comic business, but Ernie was a genial, unassuming chap and I gazed at him with my ten-year-old eyes, enjoying the fact that I was looking at a celebrity, in the flesh, for only the second time in my life. The first time was when Nicholas Parsons, presenter of Sale Of The Century, hosted a fashion show at Woolworths some months previously. But I’m not ready to talk about that yet.
Argos, of course, brought a new method of shopping to the masses. The public area of the store was relatively small, just a few tables and stools. On the tables were Argos catalogues. You would flick through the pages, choose what you wanted, write the code down on the pre=printed order forms that would be stacked neatly on the tables, and then take the slip of paper to the counter. They would ask you for money corresponding to the cost of the item (this was the worst bit) and then in five or ten minutes, sometimes longer, your order would roll down a little conveyor belt and would be given to you by a smiling, large-breasted, staff member. And that was just the men. But the Winter Argos catalogue became essential in our household – as traditional as our Christmas Day dinner. I would spend many happy hours pouring over its pages, scrutinising each picture, reading and re-reading the descriptions. It was like being on holiday, but inside a book. One of the first things my ten-year-old mind being preoccupied with were binoculars.
Yes. Binoculars. I’m not sure why. I guess I just wanted to make everything in life a bit bigger. It certainly wasn’t to spy through my neighbors windows. Of course not. At least, not for significant periods of time. And receive them I did, for my birthday in May 1982. I would sit on the windowsill in my bedroom, using the binoculars to look up and down the street. Often I would end up zooming in on the little red brick wall opposite me. I could see the cement between the bricks in details, all the little pock marks and dirt and grime. Binoculars were just amazing!
In October 1982 when the Winter catalogue mysteriously appeared in our house, I claimed it for many days. I was completely mesmerised, enraptured, bewildered and captivated by these new ‘electronic’ games that were appearing. My toy cupboard, that was full of board games such as Buckaroo, Mousetrap, Operation and Snakes & Ladders was suddenly looking very dated indeed. Electronic games and game consoles were starting to appear. I knew that there was never a chance of my owning a console. Most were close to a hundred pounds, some of them well over that, and I knew my mother, dogged with mental health problems and often having seizures due to her epilepsy, could never work, although she seemed to be doing alright for our family of three (my sister begrudgingly included). We never went hungry or cold. But I just knew that anything luxurious – like a game console – was out of the question. But it didn’t stop me looking at the pages, over and over and over again.
At the time, there was a toy shop in Cwmbran called Shorts. It was magical to me and all other ten-year-olds that lived in Cwmbran in 1981. It was a fairly large shop. Walking through the entrance, the first third of the shop, way before you came to the payment desk, was full of bicycles. There was a red carpet between the door and the cash desk and walking down it was a bit like that procession scene at the end of Star Wars, except that instant of rebel fighters either side of you, cheering you on, there were bicycles.
Cheering you on.
Once you reached the cash desk, usually manned by an elderly chap with glasses and white whiskers, the path split to the left and right and each path led to an aisle where on either side were shelves, ten foot high (at least, they seemed ten foot to my four foot self) and stacked with toys. There was a glass cabinet there which had all of these consoles on display – the Philips G7000, the Intellivision,the Aquarius, the Atari 2600 – all of them switched on and hooked up to their own television which would be playing a demo of one of the many games. I could stand there for ages. I did stand there for ages. I was hypnotised by all the colours and moving shapes on the screen. But as I say, they were way too expensive. I wondered if I could choose something a little less expensive for Christmas. What about a small tabletop arcade game? Like Astro Wars?
So my Christmas wish list of 1982 – which I handed to my mother and grandparents instead of Santa, as they assured me they would ‘forward it on’, looked something like this.
CHRISTMAS PRESENT WISH LIST 1982
- The Topper annual.
- The Beezer annual
- The Whizzer & Chips annual
- The Buster annual
- The Beano annual
- The Dandy annual
- The Whoopee annual
- The Cor! annual
- A selection box.
- An Intellivision games consoles but if it’s too expensive then Astro Wars.
Lists were always up to 10 of course. It’s just what boys do. Whatever the subject matter of the list, it has to go up to 10, else bad things might happen and the universe may crack.
School broke up sometime in early December, thank goodness. Since September I had started comprehensive school, which happened to be Llantarnam in Cwmbran. The school closed down in the summer of 2015 but since the 1950s it had been one of the biggest and best comprehensive schools in Cwmbran and I have many fond memories of my five years there. But in 1982, during my first few months, I was petrified by the hugeness of it. It was the sort of place which didn’t need binoculars as it was big enough already. So I was glad when the Christmas holidays commenced and I could while away the days at home, reading comics and keeping a careful eye on my mum in case she had another nervous breakdown.
On Christmas Day my sister and I rushed downstairs and tore open all our presents. I had my beloved comic annuals of course, and also Astro Wars! Gifted to me by my wonderful Nan & Bamp, who arrived shortly after and took the three of us to their house for Christmas dinner and a day of warmth and love. Or at least, they would have given me warmth and love if they had been able to tear me away from Astro Wars. For many months afterwards I would enjoy sitting in the dining room, with the lights off, my face illuminated by the blue, green and red of the LCD screen as I battled aliens and docked rockets using the little plastic control stick. My Nan & Bamp were never critical of my obsession. They would pass through the dining room to the kitchen and pause, a smile on their faces, as they watched me, completely engrossed in my game. I can still see them looking upon me with love. As adults we all miss that unconditional love that we once had. Love we never seemed to have to work at.
My Mum, Nan and Bamp have all since passed away, but these memories, as all my memories of them, I cherish.