I don't know whether you remember, but a few years ago, giant inflatables were all the rage. The trend had started on the terraces at Manchester City, where the fans had taken to wielding plastic bananas, and it soon spread across the country. On Newcastle's Gallowgate End a six-foot-high bottle of Broon Ale was de rigeur, and I remember the visiting Grimsby Town supporters being accompanied on their journey north by a giant haddock.
The fashion spread from football to the High Street, and that Christmas no stocking was complete without some unlikely blow-up item inside. Passing Fenwicks windows during the festive run-up, I entered a particularly cacophonous zone of Northumberland Street, where the usual vendors' shouts- 'Chron-igallll!' 'Sports socks now- three pair a pound!', and, of course 'last few strawberries- poond a punnet yer last few strawberries!' were joined by an unfamiliar lilting refrain. Just as I was trying to work it out, I felt a slight blow- rather a boing, really- to the side of the head. I looked round and identified my assailant, which was not difficult- it was the man in the plaid donkey jacket bouncing a lycra mallet twice his size off the skulls of unsuspecting Geordies. 'Get yer booncy hammers noo- three pund yer booncy hammers!', he urged, accompanying the first syllable of 'booncy' with a practiced, flailing strike into the crowd. A woman, caught by a particularly vicious blow, reeled three feet backwards, steadied herself against a street lamp, and snapped up three for seven quid.
I thought that the booncy hammer man of Northumberland Street had prepared me for any madness the Christmas shopping frenzy could throw at me- and I was probably right. However this Sunday in Manchester came pretty close. Walking down Market Street my senses were assailed in quick succession by a gang of Peruvians covering Dire Straits on out-of-tune pan pipes, a five-foot six feller attached by string to a forty-strong cloud of helium-filled balloons which looked ready at any moment to lift him clean off the pavement and send him floating out towards the Irish Sea, and, finally, a lone Scotsman- or at least a lone figure sporting full Highland dress complete with kilt- beating seven colours of shite out of a set of bagpipes that had clearly done something to annoy him. It was enough to put a person off their carefully-prepared Christmas shopping list, although the passing Mancunians- shuffling seventeen abreast down the thoroughfare laden down with an average of four supersize carrier bags each- seemed to be coping admirably with the distraction.
Myself, I felt in need of a break from the madding crowd, so wheeled Frankie off into a side street behind Spring Gardens Post Office, where a fashionably minamilist-looking emporium has suddenly sprung up. Going by the arresting name of Fopp, it is a music and books kind of store, like HMV, except- you know- with none of your shite. I should imagine that is in fact the Coporate slogan- 'Fopp- Like HMV, Except With None Of Your Shite' . Anyway, it was populated yesterday by fey-looking people in stern media glasses, prowling the aisles fingering slim volumes of Russian literature, while wondering whether that giant screen-print of Che Guevara would go with their Aunty Valerie's wallpaper. I immediately felt at home, and to prove I was not the kind of philistine who deserved to be bundled straight back out among the carrier-bag wielding masses, snapped up a remixed Wedding Present CD, the DVD of Billy Liar, and a collection of essays by George Orwell- all for the very bohemian price of fifteen quid. I then remembered it was Christmas and bought- well, some stuff for other people of discernment who may be reading, so I can't tell you. Suffice to say it was neither a bouncy hammer nor a punnet of last-minute strawberries.
Since I can't tell you everything I bought in Fopp, I will reveal here excusively that I also went to the Manchester European Christmas Market and bought my seven-year-old cousin- who is unlikely to be reading this as seven-year-olds don't read the internet do they, what's that, oh really?- oh well- Jamie, if you're reading you're getting a jar of pickles for Christmas, but don't telly anyone I told you, and don't go reading any of those naughty sites with the undressed ladies on, now there's a good lad.
I hope he's grateful for his pickles and all- in my day it was a tangerine in your stocking, three pairs of sports socks, and a glancing blow to the side of the head with a mallet. Kids these days, they don't know they're born, do they?