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.