… In my debut novel’s first chapter, our narrator, Phillip, is sitting beside his beloved grandmother – to whom he refers as ‘grom’ – on a bus as they make their way home from work. In reference to the city’s Christmas lights, grom initiates the conversation:
* * * * * *
– ‘’Lights are nice,’ said my grom. ‘’Best in England, Sheffield’s lights. They come from Blackpool to see these.’
‘It’s October turned.’
Which changed everything and implied I was being my usual humbug. I didn’t dislike Christmas, just the four-month build-up, even at my green age. The faintest jingle of Wizard’s I Wish It Could Be… Everyday played like a repellent. I’d reach the shop doorway and spin on a heel, denying myself the window-display shirt I’d studied for the last two months… –
* * * * *
Now, plug aside, I mention this scene because, written in a past tense, it could imply that Phillip’s feelings toward Christmas have since changed. He is, when all’s said and done, looking back to the late ’70s. But if we’re to believe, as people do, that Phillip, in this, my first novel, is in fact me, to whatever degree, then I can tell you here and now that, while my feelings were his at his age, they haven’t since changed.
I’ve heard said that you never get over real grief, of a loss, for example, but learn to live with it.
I believe the same can be said for any negative sentiment so ingrained in our psyches, something with which we have lived our entire lives but shared no affinity, like, for me, say, Christmas… in September.
– I should point out that when my little girl stated last Christmas day, straight from the heart, that, “Christmas day is my favourite day of the whole year”, it made the day as special for me; it became my day of the year, too, unchallenged.
One of those to-capture-and-place-it-in-a-jar moments…
Well, you may be happy to know that I was fortuitously reminded of that magical moment more recently, mid-August, to be exact, by our local pub:
“Come in, eat, drink and be merry, but don’t forget the mistletoe!” – or something like that, with perhaps less punctuation.
Five months, then, between now and… then.
‘But what about our ever-growing, fangy Halloween f(r)iend from across the pond?’ you may well argue. ‘Where’s she come into the equation?’
Fair point. Ripping the stuffing out of Guy Fawkes, a centuries old British tradition, can hardly be scoffed at. To allay your fears, Lady Halloween was brought into the equation in July, by our very same local, if with stingier publicity – we wouldn’t want her getting her teeth into Santa’s neck, now, would we. And I’m sure my American friends and readers would agree.
Anyhow, that’s what this post’s about: Are we, the British, so consumed by consumerism that we no longer know how and when to enjoy ourselves?
To go one further, did we, in effect, ever know how and when to enjoy ourselves? For surely consumerism means much the same thing in, say, continental Europe?
Is, then, our angst due to something more tangible, like maybe our northern, dull climate (come on, you do – as in ‘one does’ – actually feel wind and rain)? Is it this which renders us fidgety, forcing us to keep stretching our necks over the horizon, to be sure Santa and Easter Bunny are still in good health?
For those of you lucky enough to have seen the musical version of the film Scrooge – A Christmas Carol – staring the great Albert Finney as old Ebenezer, you may remember the scene early on in which he’s mocked and derided in song by a group of carol singers. It happens to be one of my little girl’s favourite films; were it up to her, she’d watch it any time of year, but instead only sings the above song any time of year, as with a tic. And I, as with a tic, tell her to stop each time… until the month of December, when we sing it in chorus, wholeheartedly.
The song is otherwise banned because I refuse to concentrate on the future. Surely it’s enough to know it’s there, just over that horizon, while there’s also a here and now; the great will be great if you let it come in its own good time – it may interest you to know that I never use the expression ‘I’m looking forward to…’ It doesn’t mean I’m never happy, on the contrary; for I believe real happiness comes by way of spontaneity.
The secret is simply recognising it when it does.
Incidentally, how many of you hated to see the ‘back to school’ posters plastered everywhere at the beginning of your six-week holidays? Maybe that’s where it began for me.
‘But surely consumerism is consumerism the world over!’ you could argue. Although, to begin with, most continental kids don’t wear school uniforms… Having once lived in France for many a year, I feel qualified to argue for the case being more British than continental.
The British may not know how to enjoy themselves. There, I said it.
My first year in France was via the University of Sheffield, taking me to my beloved Nancy for a year, in the early ’90s.
It was an eventful year: my father died in November, I was divorced, I directed Alan Ayckbourn’s A Bedroom Farce for the university’s English Theatre Department … but I don’t recall anything relating to Christmas. Until I came back to England for the holiday, that is, to be with my poor old mum, by which time each and everyone appeared to be fed up with the idea and were looking to the summer holidays for relief. Christmas eve-eve.
But it wasn’t until living in Aix-en-Provence, about four years later, that I learned the reason why. Or that was when my suspicions were confirmed:
Christmas in France happens at Christmas.
In Aix-en-Provence, even the city’s decorations went up in December: nothing too fussy, less being more, you might say. And those winter market scents, and those sounds and… well, it all reminded me very much of my little girl’s favourite film and that same Camden Town market scene… Poor Tiny Tim. Looks just like my little girl, too.
‘It’s all well and good you sitting there with your nose in the air like some keyboard warrior,’ I hear you bark, ‘but I bet it’s different in Northern France!’
After Aix-en-Provence, I upped sticks and went to live in Northern France: La Madeleine, next to Lille. Same but generally colder.
From out of nowhere, the birth of a season coincided with the birth of a month – one beginning with ‘D’ but that’s the last clue you’re getting. Markets and fairs, cheers and mulled wine, smelling soap smiles, à la Marseillaise; season’s greetings, verbally or by card, wished and expressed to one and all, right up until the church bells’ flight to Rome, to bring back chocolate for the children; meaning Easter, of course.
After all, we talk about the season of goodwill. Wherefore should everything end with that last warm bite of British turkey?
Don’t get me wrong, France is changing for the worst – one of the reasons being social media – but, for the time-being, she’s holding out admirably. A two-hour family meal-time exists for most: television may not match the quality of Auntie Wogan – God help us – but either way, family still takes precedence, and so it should.
Quality time. Moderated with care and intelligence.
Where did it all go so wrong, then, for us Brits? Were the seeds planted at the likes of Azincourt, Crécy and Poitiers? Or not so long ago? Trafalgar, Waterloo; the Empire, the Americas, India, Australia?
‘The trouble with the French is, while we eat to live, they live to eat!’
An easy misunderstanding to make, I guess.
“Tell the Major, he has nothing to fear from this Général Marquis de Montcalm in the first place, therefore scant need of a colonial militia in the second, because the French do not have the nature for war; they’d rather eat and make love with their faces than fight,” scoffs Michael Mann’s General Webb during the Battle of/for the Americas.
Well I have news for you, General Webb: So would I.
Or did it all begin with a 20th century, post-war consumer society? After all, Dickensian characters, as stated, knew how to enjoy themselves… apart from one.
Whatever the case, as with my ingrained aversion forever tapping away at my psyche, maybe the Christmas-in-September thing is now just too ingrained in the British psyche, as with the British idea of happiness in general – and I too can get itchy feet on Sundays; ‘What time’s PC World open until today?’
All I know is that living in France taught me to enjoy life in a way that wasn’t possible in Britain. In a family kind of way, ironically. And France taught me to enjoy Christmas once more. My little girl’s arrival was the icing on the Christmas cake.
Go on, once December is here, I dare you to leave up your decorations until the end of February! Grasp what will be then, the now!
Your literary, soulful friend