I was brought up with Christmas carols. I went to Midnight Mass two years ago, at Blythburgh, in the church they call the Cathedral of the Marshes that once a year has its carpark full of Porsche Cayennes and RangeRovers and Bentleys as the houses that go without lights most of the year suddenly boast a tasteful wreath on their Colefax & Fowler-tinted front doors. I even had a girlfriend called Carol once, who I met in the Christmas holidays. How much more Christmas can one person be?
For me, there has to be a journey. A physical one. Or it’s not a proper Christmas. And I have absolutely no idea why.
It’s taken me to Lyme Regis, 130 miles from where I lived, for a magical break that lasted into the new year. We very nearly died on that one, forced to climb cliffs marked “Impassable” on the Ordnance Survey map, one step up and sliding several more down on shale that came away under our feet. I’d read the tide tables wrong. It was that or drowning, but somehow the map was wrong. They weren’t impassable. Not quite. We went to Midnight Mass that year, in a tiny stone church shining like a beacon on top of the sea-cliffs, the church packed with teenagers, couples, old people, children, a huge crowd we had seen hurrying past the windows of the Volunteer as we sat inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’d never seen anything like English police acting as if they were in the Dukes of Hazard on New Years Eve.
Two police cars came into town in opposite directions, passed each other on the main street and half-pulled a bootlegger turn, sideways, blocking the road so that everyone who poured out of the pubs to hear the landlord of the Bolly play Auld Lang Syne on a saxophone in the street didn’t get run over. The few cars that wanted to drive through had to wait. Quietly, if they had any sense and didn’t want to be breathalysed. It was fabulous, real community policing with no fuss or fanfare.
Most of the other Christmas journeys weren’t quite as dramatic. Two Christmases in Spain. Last year a trip out into rural Suffolk, the year before that a trip back ‘home,’ to the West Country I never wanted to leave to see a friend I was at school with. My, those ten years have just flown past.
A trip to Leicester, when we’d been working there and left a sound recorder in a hall next to the enormous market I didn’t know even existed. I drove up the old roads, not the motorway in flat grey December weather, coming home with a bed for our big new cat, adopted in a hurry and with nothing to call his own. I think that was the best one, somehow, driving up through Towcester along A roads laid out by the Romans, back near the first Christmas time.
I’m not religious. But it’s still Christmas. And every year I dream of being in Bath Abbey for Midnight Mass, the stone angels climbing up to Heaven, floodlit to help them find their way. I won’t be there again this year.
In not even three weeks now it’s going to be Christmas. Somehow. Just as I’d bought a new scarf to replace the brilliant one I found maybe five years ago, hanging on the door of a pub where it had been for more than three months, the one a Scottish girlfriend loathed on the grounds, big, triangular, gold, red and brocade with tassels on it as it was that ‘THAT’S A WIMMIN’s SKERF!’
Somehow, the words ‘Aye, wittabootut?’ didn’t seem to calm things down at all. Rather the opposite, in fact.
I’d got my fingerless gloves out of the drawer this morning, pausing once more to regret not buying those elk-skin ones in that shop in Dam Square must have been fifteen winters back, but they were about 150 euros so there were reasons.
But more than that, the last few days I’ve been waking up thinking it’s Christmas. The first time was because I’d left the heating on and being British and of a certain age and type of person who just does and doesn’t do certain things, and I suspect, probably from not having had children, I turn the heating off about an hour before going to bed. Unless, well, you know. If I have guests who might feel the cold, as it were.
The second because I’d lit some scented candles because I’d forgotten to take the bin out after making a fish thing and it was that or set light to the house and walk away from the smell.
But the rest, I don’t know. I’ve been teaching, the last intake of students were the best and worst I’ve ever had, their behaviour got so bad that my class was actually moved so we didn’t disturb other classes and I came home that day feeling I had to either stop teaching forever and do something else or sort out what was going wrong that evening. I did the second, to the extent that for the rest of their course they worked solidly, hard, well and as near as makes no difference, in silence except when they should have been talking.
And then it stopped. No more students this term. No more commute. And no teachers, books, Alice Cooper or evening walks around a crisply cold Christmas Fair in the reflected glow of floodlit a Norman tower solidly brooding the centuries into millennia.
It makes me think of Christmas holidays years ago, at school and just after, when everyone I knew drove out in a cavalcade of cars and motorcycles people pretend are classics now to a pub that’s become someone’s house, deep in the fields, to sit under gas space heaters in sub-zero temperatures, marvelling at each other’s new coats and stories and boots and leg warmers and jeans and the certain knowledge that as Chris Rea put it, in so many ways, like the time a girl said no, don’t open this gate down a lane you think is a shortcut, just no. A lane that turned out to lead to an unfenced quarry late one night; past here there was no place to go.
And everything, as Ben said.
I wake up every morning right now, thinking it’s then. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe it’s because people are showing some interest unexpectedly in Not Your Heart Away again. Maybe it’s because I’m writing again, properly, doing the thing I should always have done.
I don’t know. But I like this feeling, these ever-circling years on the wing.
Traditionally, as you sink into the bottom of a large glass and wonder why it is that with eight boxes of books still unpacked since the move fifty-one weeks ago, two boxes of DVDs ditto, internet access and three large boxes of CDs, a saxophone, two guitars, a harmonica, a penny whistle, a laptop and an un-numberable er, number of notebooks, you’re still arsing around on Facebook marvelling at the state of other people’s lives, the more rubbish the better so you can feel good about yours, (Your car won’t start again? You got a job selling advertising space? You live in Bradford? I am soooooooo sorry…LOLS) it’s time to look back to other times and other Christmases. And not to look at the ones that are all about “we just got back from our 14th power break to Iceland in time to collect the new convertible.” If anyone apart from me actually says power break anymore. Pass me my Ray-Bans, would you? Mega.
Well I think it is anyway. It was alright for Charles Dickins, so I can’t see what YOUR problem is with it, exactly. It’s this anger management thing, isn’t it? I’ve been told about that before. I was JOKING! Jeez….
Anyway. Probably my most memorable Christmas was in Lyme Regis. We’d gone down there for ten days or so. It was one of those times when the more you remember it, the more you remember about it. The epic walk that only stopped when the abandoned railway line we were following headed off over a derelict viaduct and we eventually decided that we wouldn’t follow it. It wasn’t a very health & safety conscious trip though. That was the day after or maybe before we got cut off by the tide through reading the Tide Tables in the fossil shop and not having a phone with us had the option of climbing the cliffs that were marked “unscalable” on the map.
Well, they aren’t. Some of the time was spent sliding twenty feet back down towards the waves, surfing the scree, some of it was spent in a lunar landscape that very few people have ever seen and more was spent hacking through the bramble patch at the top of the cliffs once we’d got to the top, but we here both are separately all this time later, telling the story. Some of it was seriously ‘maybe-we-aren’t-going-to-get-out-of-this frightening, but come on, we’re English so we can’t talk about it and anyway there was nothing much around in the way of choices aside from drowning. It does focus the attention. Buck-up and bang on, what?
We’d thought a friend was coming down to join us but he didn’t. We stayed in a flat in a two hundred year old building belonging to another friend where odd things happened. I couldn’t get the Mercedes I’d had for six months down the narrow alley to the flat. What I thought was a shotgun in an usual case that was going to be my Christmas present turned out to be a vintage Martin saxophone, so old it was marked Low Tone because back then they hadn’t invented the word ‘Tenor.’
The second day after I’d opened it I couldn’t find the clamp that holds the reed on. We turned the flat upside down looking for it, packed, unpacked, but it wasn’t there anymore. We had a trip to the nearest town to buy a new one but none of the Bridport shops had one. When we got back it was sitting in exactly the centre of the bedroom floor, in plain view, on its own. I spent twenty minutes in silence watching someone make a phone call, which I wouldn’t normally do, except that she was naked and shining from her bath. I remember that still.
When our other friends came down for New Year and the street was shut by the police for more saxophone action and we ended up face down in a pile of rubber balls, that was another good bit too.
But of all of that, Christmas Eve was the best. We’d spent most of the evening in The Volunteer after trying out a drink or two in the pub at the bottom of the hill where they took the bodies from the famous shipwreck, where the landlords little dog wouldn’t let one of the bodies alone, licking the dead man’s face until he lived again. That was around the corner from the hotel I’d stayed in when I needed to get some time on my own and came down to Lyme, staying in a room that no hotel could offer now, with a shared bathroom at the end of the corridor and a single bed, much the same as it must have been when American officers were billeted there prior to D-Day in 1944.
At about half past eleven the first few came past the door. By quarter to there were more. By five to there were so many people streaming in their winter coats and some distinctly out of them down the hill that we asked the barman what was going on. Church. Midnight carol service.
So we went. It was like something out of a Jimmy Stewart film. There were the kind of old people you’d expect to see in church. There were the traditional Christmas drunks. But there was everybody else as well. Giggles of girls in their teens with vodka-vacant eyes. Guys who looked like they’d been up welding cars till late. Every kind and age of person you can imagine, smart and scruffy, sober and drunk, old and young, all crammed into this tiny stone church on top of the hill, singing the songs that somehow we really all knew.
I don’t do church. Not even if it’s called St Michael the Archangel, which gives it a bit of clout in the world of angels and other made-up stories, I’d imagine. Promised Land, anyone? Or have you just had one?
I had to go to church when I was a child and I stopped as soon as I could. I don’t believe in the Queen as the head of my faith, because I don’t really have one and I can’t see what she’s got to do with it anyway, coming from a family that even changed its name to suit their circumstances. The girls pushing thirty now who were only going back to their childhood beds by way of half an hour in Daryl’s Renault first probably didn’t have much of a faith either. Except we were all there while the wind howled outside, safe together in the light, singing songs about cold and starvation and death and poverty. And nobody said they could have got all that at home. Not even me.
I took a trip back through time this Christmas. In those strange days between Christmas itself and the New Year, when nothing is as it should be, when it’s too late to do much about this year and too early to do much about the next I drove to Poole to see an old friend, then up to Warminster to see an even older friend, one whose voice I used as Liz in Not Your Heart Away. I took two of her children to Bath. They wanted to do some shopping and I wanted to see yet another friend in the city. They were about the age Ben and Claire and Liz were in the book.
Along the way I turned off the A36 in Rode and took the old route I’d driven a hundred times and more, the same way Claire and Ben drove in the book to find The Red Lion. It’s fiction. I should have known. And I should have known better. It’s not just that the past is another country and they do things differently there. Whoever wrote that didn’t say ‘and they build executive homes in the car park of the Red Lion and ponce-up what was a brilliant pub into someone’s Disney fantasy of a baronial hall to live in.’
But things are never exactly as they seem. It all reminded me of a Christmas tradition we have or had in my family. I don’t know if anyone else still keeps it. I couldn’t, this year. Our tradition goes that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals talk. The year before I was born my mother and father stayed on my aunt’s farm and nearing midnight went into their stable to see if it was true, that the animals really did speak.
Last Christmas I went to church close to midnight but this is a dying village. The church was closed. As I got near the dark and silent building I remembered that Midnight Mass had been brought forward to six pm, a more convenient time for the old people who make up most of the village and all of the congregation. As I walked home along the empty road I remembered my family’s story. I got a torch and went to the tree where my chickens roosted then and shone it on the big young cockerel. I heard the church clock strike and as the light caught him the cockerel stirred and put his head back.
And is it true? Do the animals speak, remembering a stable in a story?
What sort of question is that? Of course it’s true. Nobody ever said they have to speak with a human voice.