This piece was written just before Christmas 2011.
Come December, most people – even those who are mostly disposed to be crabby and curmudgeonly – find bubbling up within them a fancy for fairy lights that’s lain dormant throughout the preceding eleven months. And if I ran a shop that sold fairy lights, which I don’t, I’d take this into account, and make sure I was fully stocked with illuminating baubles till 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve; because surely we can’t be the only people who, on going up to the loft to retrieve the old set, suddenly remembered that they moved house last January and that the loft they were thinking of is, unlike them, still in Vauxhall?
But B&Q clearly thinks that any fairy lights left unsold on 24th December will go off, like a rashly defrosted turkey, and couldn’t possibly be put into storage till next year, despite rumours already starting to circulate that there will be another Christmas in roughly twelve months’ time. Thus, their vast warehouse out on the Peninsula had been thoroughly scavenged by light-seeking hordes a good fortnight before the last window in our advent calendar was slated to open, and over in the Old Kent Road branch there was nary a glimmer, not even a glimmer that pulsed in seven different modes including “random”. Argos in Lewisham would’ve sold us a set mounted on a frame in the shape of a nodding reindeer, but if we’d wanted that sort of thing in our house then frankly we would’ve moved to Lewisham. Kidbrooke Homebase had long sold out, and Wickes on Blackheath Road appeared to be taking a deeply rationalist approach to Christmas that Richard Dawkins would have found worthy of almost biblical awe: in Wickes there were no fairy lights, and never had been.
Finally, a desperate on-line search of south-east London uncovered a set in Homebase in Penge. None of the other five nearest branches had them, but Penge had one box. So we clicked “Reserve and Collect”, and I saddled up my bike.
At this point, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a soft-spoken man from Penge Homebase, apologising profusely in what I think was a Dundee accent. Apparently, it was all a lie: the on-line database hadn’t updated overnight, and the promised box, just like Father Christmas or the London New Year’s Day Parade*, did not, in fact, exist. While I was still coming to terms with what this meant – did we have a deadly rival, a stop-at-nothing fiend who was, even now, scouring south-east London for tree ornaments, having already uncovered Penge as an unexpected source of light? – the Affable Young Pict (as I now incorrectly, ahistorically, and somewhat offensively thought of him) offered to ring around other Homebase branches south of the Thames, and get back to me.
By this stage I was badly in need of a cup of coffee and a sit down, so I told him that that would be brilliant, apologised profusely for Culloden, and let him get to work. Half an hour later, he rang back to say that a set had been detected in Croydon. Even more impressively, he’d apparently refused to get off the line till someone in Croydon had walked to the shelves, physically ascertained that the lights were actually there, and then removed them – again physically – to a place of safe keeping.
The lights were ours, he said, for a price. Specifically, £12.99, as they had a 50% deal on all Christmas items.
I could’ve wept. In fact, I think I did.
Convinced by now that our Arch Nemesis was engaged on a similar quest, we obviously didn’t want to take chances; so, as soon as I’d finished telling the AYP that I’d always had a fondness for Irn Bru, a soft spot for Brechin City, and an almost painful lust for Alex Salmond, we dashed round assembling hats, gloves and Thermos flasks, ready for a trip cross-country to Croydon.
And, while you’re waiting for us to get ready, perhaps you’d like to dwell on the fact that these events are taking place on the Sunday a week before Christmas. Not Christmas Eve, but a whole week before. And, although I’m not a betting man, I’d happily have an each-way accumulator spread (look, I told you I wasn’t a betting man…) on the demand for fairy lights tending to peak in December, and tending to drop off pretty much to zero in those months that don’t start with the letters D-E-C-E-M-B-E. Christmas, to put it bluntly, is somewhat seasonal. So why do the managers of DIY shops all, to a man or woman, insist on behaving like a Grinch with no business acumen?
I’d never been to Croydon Homebase, so wasn’t entirely sure where it was, but past experience told me to head to Purley Way. Matalan, Screwfix, Sports Direct – they’re all out there, in vast great windowless sheds beside the A23. Purley Way, not to beat around the bush, is where IKEA is; and IKEA don’t do town centres.
For those of us without cars, trips to IKEA are always a bit of an adventure. When we were living in Vauxhall, we tried them all: Neasden (aka Wembley), Edmonton (aka Tottenham), Croydon (aka… Croydon). Neasden was on the Jubilee Line, but getting back to the station meant walking through the basement of a multi-storey car park, across a field, answering three riddles posed by a troll that lived under the North Circular, and fording the River Brent – not easy, if you also need to keep a flat-pack Billy, Ebba or Nyberg above your head. Edmonton was actually just a single bus ride away, once you’d walked fifteen minutes to the bus stop and realised that the mystical Angel Road Superstores at which the 341 poetically claimed to terminate was just IKEA and Wickes, but the journey took forever and meant lugging your Grönkvist, Svartman or Tord Grip upstairs on a double-decker.
Croydon, though, in the days before the Tramlink, was the worst of the lot: I remember once struggling down Purley Way in the rain with a pine-effect bookcase, our sights set on distant Waddon station, when salvation suddenly appeared in the wheeled shape of an abandoned Sainsbury’s trolley wedged in the roadside mud like, well, like an abandoned Sainsbury’s trolley. But, once the Tramlink was open, with the platforms at Ampere Way nestling at the foot of those blue-and-yellow-ringed chimneys, Croydon became the IKEA of choice, and remains so, even though we’re now in Greenwich.
You still have to actually get there, of course. And here I’m going to let you into a little secret, and tell you of a route from central Greenwich to Croydon IKEA that doesn’t involve going into Zone 1 or (on the return leg) clambering up and down footbridges and subways. Do you have piece of paper? Good, then write this down. DLR to Lewisham. Train from Lewisham to Elmers End. Tram from Elmers End to George Street. Tram from George Street to Ampere Way. Cunning, huh? The only catch is that (a) trains on the Hayes branch only run via Lewisham every 30 minutes and (b) trains on the Hayes branch only run via Lewisham every 60 minutes if SouthEastern decides to cancel one for no apparent reason and despite the fact it’s raining.
So, while you’re waiting for us to take a train from Lewisham to London Bridge, just to catch one back from London Bridge in the opposite direction, why not entertain yourself by trying to work out which of the items I listed earlier are actual pieces of IKEA furniture, which are characters from Wallander, and which was formerly assistant to England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson?
But anyway. We got to Homebase in the end, got our lights, refused to pay extra to insure them for three years despite the fact that, as the assistant told us, you can’t replace the bulbs these days, because they’re LED, and then decided to celebrate by nipping across the road to IKEA itself and buying a 2×2 Träby for behind the sofa and having Sunday lunch in the restaurant – something of a regular family treat in these parts, we discovered, as we wheeled our trays of gravadlax and Christmas Pudding cheesecake between toddler-strewn tables heaving with meatballs, cream sauce, and lingonberry jam.
* come on, have you ever seen it???