Fairy lights and surgical strikes

Who can see the livid tracer-fire and not think of it as our gift of Christmas illuminations to Saddam?
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The Independent Culture
"SHE CHANGES her expression/ And puts on smy-ull/ Baby Expressions," trill the children as we thread our way through the crush in Hamleys. They are singing an advertising jingle off the telly. Baby Expressions is apparently a new doll of mercurial disposition whose face successively radiates fear, loathing, suspicion, hatred, depression and wind while your children are playing with it. Despite its violent mood-swings (which, if it were a real kid, would make you suspect it of being on drugs), it's what Clementine, aged three, most wants for Christmas.

I try to explain to her that a doll is not supposed to have an emotional range; that it is a neutral template upon which to project certain role- playing emotions of one's own; that it is merely a plastic homunculus created to encourage an infant's child-rearing instincts. Clementine regards me steadily. She is obviously impressed by my confident grasp of toy psychology. Then she sticks out her quivering lower lip like an okapi and her blue eyes fill with tears.

"But it's niiiice," she cries, as stubborn as Saddam Hussein in Violet Elizabeth Bott ringlets. My otherwise charming daughter has suddenly turned into Baby Expressions (though without the smy-ull) and frankly, they deserve each other.

She's also keen on Dentist Barbie, the latest incarnation of the slender plastic dreamboat who (a tiny disclaimer on the cardboard packaging advises you) "cannot stand up unaided". We have all, I think, been out with girls like that. I'm just surprised at this new turn in her restless professional career. After being a doctor, a policewoman and an Olympic skier, she's now eschewed the more modern options of Spin Doctor Barbie (those boring Armani suits would never do) and PR Executive Barbie (too many hats, real and metaphorical) and plumped for dentistry, which gives her the chance to wear a gleaming white uniform and wield a little battery of probes and mouthwash glasses.

Dolls apart, Christmas shopping has been a learning curve of nomenclature. I have schlepped the streets like the Ancient Mariner asking strangers if they've heard of the Nerf Eagle-Eye, a gun of spectacular proportions upon which my son's festive equilibrium depends. Ignorant as a yule log when it comes to computer games, I've caught up with the Play Station empire at last and its excitable personnel - like Crash Bandicoot, a name Mervyn Peake would have been proud to invent. Until last week, the bandicoot was an insectivorous and herbivorous marsupial of the genus Perameles; its names derives, I need hardly remind you, from the Telegu word pandikokku meaning "pig-rat". Well forget that. It now has a new global identity as a hyperactive cartoon rat who rides around on motor bikes looking for jewels and blasting anyone who gets in the way.

And there's that other word. Along Regent Street, the overhead illuminations inform the children that Christmas is the season to be "Tango'd". What does it mean, Dad? It means, my dears, that the point of the festive season is apparently for its celebrants to become intoxicated with fizzy orange drinks. Can this be true? Four years ago, when the Christmas lights featured characters from Aladdin to advertise the newly-released Disney movie, I rang the Association of Oxford Street Shop-owners to ask how they'd allowed it to happen.

"But Aladdin is terribly Christmassy," the lady PR said.

"Madam," I replied coldly, "Aladdin is from The Arabian Nights, a book of Persian fairy tales translated into Arabic in AD 850. It's about as Christmassy as the Sphinx."

"Oh," she said, roguishly, "but, you know, Widow Twankey and all that."

The fact that Disney had handed over a colossal wedge of cash for letting the Genie gatecrash the crib, as it were, wasn't mentioned. And now we shake our heads about the Tango sponsorship as if it weren't the natural consequence of commercial sponsorship. In my view, we should simply congratulate whichever marketing genius was responsible for ensuring that nobody will ever utter the name "Tango" again without a grimace of distaste.

BUT AS one races around town, getting and spending, noting with amusement this gross innovation, that amusing toy, everything seems to turn into a mirror of the events in the Middle East. You don't have to be a connection- hungry poet to find awful correspondences between trivial matters here and terrible events there. Who can look at the livid tracer-fire, the after-burners of missiles and the crimson striations in the night sky over Baghdad and not think of them as our present of Christmas illuminations to the back-sliding infidel?

Look at the face of five-year-old Susan Jasin in a Baghdad hospital with her head swathed in muslin and it's clear: 'tis the season to be bandaged. After the PM's assurances about the Iraqi leader's continued demonic intentions, Saddam Hussein becomes a moustachioed Crash Bandicoot, hunting down the sacred jewels of oil and land. Listen to the US Chief of Staff's lectures about the surgical precision of cruise missiles and an image lodges in your head of a juvenile war-monger at the Pentagon, his thumbs working away at a Play Station console, sending 200 Tomahawks across a TV screen and marvelling at the realism of the destruction that ensues. Just trying to buy a Nerf Eagle-Eye gun fills your head with that endless mantra: "weapons of mass destruction". You can't, any more, tell the lady from the Oxford Street Association that the Arab world is nothing to do with Christmas when your dinner-party companions speculate whether bombing the Middle East during Ramadan would be the equivalent of their bombing us during the Queen's Speech. Even when they decided to cease the raids at the weekend, it felt as if we were just waiting for the next build- up, the next inspection-team report, the next presidential phone call. It will probably take about a year. We can do this all over again as a seasonal chore, like pulling the Christmas tree lights out of their box in the attic.

In his address to the nation on Friday, Saddam Hussein thanked the early- warning-system technologists who anticipated the first wave of US missiles, and called them "the grandchildren of Zarqaa al-Yamama", a famous Iraqi seer who could see things at a great distance. So could Nostradamus, who prophesied that Armageddon would fall at the end of the second millennium. I've never known a more unsettling time to be sending greetings cards invoking "peace on earth, goodwill to all men", when the TV is hiccupping with threats, and the rumble of B-52 bombers punctuates the Nine O'Clock News.

THE CHRISTMAS spirit does not, apparently, work overtime. Four days ago, I ordered the turkey and smoked ham from Hester's, the marvellous bespoke butcher's shop beside Vauxhall Gardens. The boss and I exchanged badinage. He reminisced about the biggest turkey that had ever passed through his hands - 69lbs, he said, and the only oven large enough to take it was the ancestral furnace at Westminster's Children Hospital. I bought some sausage meat with chestnuts. He threw in some chipolatas. We couldn't have been friendlier. It was a Pickwickian scene to gladden the heart.

"Goodbye," he said at last, "and in case I don't see you again, merry Christmas".

"But we'll see each other next week," I replied, "when I come to pick the bird up."

The butcher looked at me sadly.

"By Tuesday it'll be chaos in 'ere: 15lb turkeys all over the place. We'll all be far too growly to be nice to customers."

So, in the same tradition of curmudgeonly realism - before things get too fraught and snappish in the land of deadlines, happy Christmas to all in Readerland.