I took a day off work to paint the kitchen, not very Christmassy. We had to have a new roof put on it earlier in the year and the bare plaster has been accusing me for months. It didn’t go smoothly but then what ever does? The ceiling needed two coats and the walls three, couldn’t quite obliterate the wretched green. It was like when the teenage Adrian Mole tries to paint his childhood bedroom wallpaper black but the bells on Noddy’s hat just keep peeping through and he has to eventually colour them in with a felt tip pen. Bloody awkward painting, too. All nooks and crannies and precarious ladder-balancing for the velux alcoves. I also made the mistake of having Radio 2 on while I worked and now have the Christmas pop hits lodged in my head. Most Decembers it’s Paul McCartney’s (Simply Having) A Wonderful Christmas Time and Elton John’s Step into Christmas that alternate as the killer earworms but this year it seems to be Shakin’ Stevens I can’t shake off.
When I’d finally finished the third coat I staggered to the sofa, arms aching from unfamiliar painting motions, insides aching from my winter cough and Shakey pummelling my brainbox, Children plaaayin’, havin’ fun’… ‘Tis the season, love and understaaaandin’, Merry Christmas, Everyone. That dance he did on Top of the Pops while wearing that jumper is the uncoolest thing that has ever been done by anyone ever.
In the Dabbler’s Christmas Compendium a few years ago Frank Key shockingly revealed that John Lennon’s Merry Xmas (War is Over) is stuck in his head all year round. I offer Frank my sympathies for this unspeakable affliction; and also my apologies for mentioning the song again and doubtless triggering another chorus.
Not that I’ve got anything against the old Christmas pop hits. The Slade and Wizzard ones in particular are peerless blasts of gaudy entertainment. In fact I love nearly all the staples. What I can’t stand is the Michael Buble/Rod Stewart ‘Great American Songbook’ approach to the festive record (jazzy hotel bar versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas etc). The sleigh bell effects are too obviously symbolic of cash registers and the attempt to inject cod ‘classiness’ into Chrimbo misses the point. Christmas isn’t classy, it’s camp and naff, and that camp naffness must be embraced. This particularly applies to Christmas trees – nothing worse than a tree that’s been ‘tastefully’ decorated in one or two colours. Chuck it all on there, I say. Brit Jnr helped this year and insisted on putting every decoration on her favourite branch, leaving the tree quite bare except for one corner groaning under the weight of baubles and spray-painted pine cones. I had to come back later and rearrange to achieve the desired ‘tinselly Jackson Pollock’ effect.
It seems that Christmas becomes magical again when your children are in the period between inability to understand and inability to believe. Brit Jnr has seen Father Christmas four times already this year. However, three of those Father Christmases were pretend. She saw the real one at The Stripy Owl, a new, Hogwartian toyshop on Church Road. Upstairs was a small waiting room with puzzles and sundry diversions, plus a wardrobe. An elf, jingling, opened the wardrobe door. We entered it, Narnia-style. Inside was a snuggery containing a festive tree, a writing desk, a fireplace and Santa. He asked pertinent Christmas-related questions of Brit Junior which she answered truthfully and confidentially. They then performed a Christmas dance together and said (he jollily, fortissimo; she solemnly, pianissimo), “Three cheers for Christmas. Hip hip hooray. Hip hip hooray. Hip hip hooray.”
Anyone going to watch The Hobbit then? Stretching that fine children’s novel into three blockbustin’ movies looks like absurd studio greed, though I’ve read a couple of positive reviews.
I dearly loved The Hobbit as a boy (and Lord of the Rings as an adolescent) and can still name the dwarves and recite much of that onomatopoeic showstopper “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!” The greatness of The Hobbit is that, like Wind in the Willows and indeed, Harry Potter, it creates an extremely cosy world which readers yearn to dwell in forever. The cosiness of the backdrop makes the passages of danger and excitement all the more dangerous and exciting, but it is the world, not the story, that calls us back for endless rereadings. Incidentally, we live in a golden age for children’s books. Not only do we have all the old stuff, but there is tons of wonderful new stuff too. I particularly recommend I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and I Really Want to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donno if you need to buy late Christmas gifts for children with a black sense of humour (which is all of them).
The same issue of The Spectator led by Fraser Nelson’s mighty Best Year Ever editorial contains this article about the rubbishness of Christmas telly by Brian Sewell, which ends on a magnificent note:
….I would like a reminiscent channel devoted to straight plays first televised it matters not how long ago, for some of us would be content with Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga or Trollope’s Pallisers, or even runs of Acorn Antiques and Hyacinth Bucket; and there must be something of the grandees of the past fit for resurrection, something by Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski or even Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation (much though I disagree with it) I would willingly watch once a quinquennium.
Terrific reading, but twaddle, since Sewell omits to recognise that we live in an age of unprecedented telly channel and On Demand choice and, given the existence of BBC Four and Sky Arts, there is no possible way you can make a quality-declinism argument about television. What we might have lost is the whole-family, One Nation light entertainment of the Morecambe and Wise variety (though Miranda comes very close).
Behold the Gothic perpendicularity of Bath Abbey, its arpents of light and air! Far beneath the fan vaulting swarms a horde of tots in festive costume; Brit Junior is a donkey. We are there with friends for a Saturday afternoon event which is officially entitled Family Carol Service, but which should be called Bedlam in Bethlehem, or A Nativity Nightmare. The format is simple and insane. Standing before a giant screen projecting his own image, the Revd Prebendary Edward Mason, Rector, tells the familiar story of the nativity. As each character or archetype is introduced, the congregational children in the appropriate dress are invited to come forward to the ‘stage’ (the crossing, raised, betwixt transepts). Thus we have not only a host of angels before us but also hosts of sword-waving Kings and unruly shepherds; plus a bewildering menagerie of stable animals: donkeys, sheep, oxen and of course a traditional Christmas tiger. Between these mad processions we sing relevant carols, led by the boys’ choir (themselves in random fancy dress and conducted by Herod, whom we are invited to boo, Panto-style).
There is one extraordinary theatrical highlight. During ‘Little Donkey’ gasps of delight spread from the rear of the Abbey; for what should come plodding stageward but… a real donkey! It is a beautiful, huggable donkey and just as it passes our pew – O miracle of miracles! – it defecates prodigiously and malodorously in the aisle. A lady with a bucket, primed for just this eventuality, lunges forward a moment too late and can only catch the second wave. Shrieking with involuntary laughter, she dances over the steaming dungpile and calls for her assistant, who has a yardbrush and dustpan. It is, by some distance, the funniest thing the children have ever seen. Boys in front of us are literally rolling in the aisle. Some tots look in danger of exploding with happiness. Dads guffawing, babies wailing, everyone jabbering away in the pews; it is a medieval atmosphere. I can’t sing in tune, so normally don’t sing at all but holding Brit Junior aloft I bellow out O Come All Ye Faithful with the best of them as she improvises her own lyric; and do you know I’ve not felt more Christmassy nor so near to Sanctity in decades.