Is there something odd about the way we ply children with Santa Claus? We don't put half so much energy into encouraging a belief, say, in God. As it happens, English Christianity resonates more widely than its ticket sales might suggest (a bit like English cricket). Only a handful of ageing worshippers turn up to shiver in the Norman churches that pepper our countryside, but the sentimental attraction remains sturdy, as Cliff Richard's Millennium sing-song, an astute piece of niche marketing, demonstrates.
But as God declines, nothing seems to challenge the ubiquity of Father Christmas. Most young children see him dozens of times in December - in shopping malls, at parties, in toyshops, in books and on television. Last week I went to Harrods to see the famous grotto, and encountered a queue - eager children, glum parents, and staff handing out lollipops - stretching way back into the clothing department, all the way to a sign saying "Two and half hours".
That's a big investment in such a kitsch fake, but it is one that many seem prepared for. One person I chatted to had been twice. Their boy was so thrilled the first time that he insisted on returning, so they went through the whole nightmare one more indulgent time. "What's your name, then?" Santa asked when they finally made it. And the boy replied: "I told you that last week. Now where's my present?"
Father Christmas is a charming idea. A chubby deity who bestows gifts on children - what could be nicer? But he is also a whopping hoax, and we shouldn't tell children lies, should we? All the books agree on that. They will only despise us later, when they realise that we've been fooling them, exploiting their credulity for our own amusement. So I stiffened when my six-year-old, as we gave up on the queue, put the killer question: was Santa Claus real?
Reader, I deceived him. "I don't know," I stammered. "No one knows." It was the most blatant cop-out, and I felt simultaneously ashamed and relieved. He seemed relieved too, and told me that Father Christmas had certainly existed once, he'd learned about him at school. He was called Saint Niklaus, but people started saying it really really fast, so he turned into Santa Claus. I was glad he was relieved, but felt even more ashamed for lying.
It takes a sustained effort on a very broad front - families, schools, the entertainment industry - to sustain a lie as big as this. If similar energy and intelligence were devoted to some good cause, who knows what could be achieved. But I'm a fat one to talk. I was simply glad I hadn't been asked if I believed. What could I have said? If I didn't, then where the heck did all those presents come from? And why in God's name had I been badgering the poor boy to write a letter to Santa Claus (to practise his handwriting, of course)?
Oh dear. We're all in it together, I suppose, and I for one am in too deep already. A couple of years ago we put out a glass of wine and a mince pie for Santa (and a carrot for the reindeer). And late at night, for dramatic verisimilitude, I drank the wine and took a bite out of the pie. Early next morning there was our aghast son, saying "Look! Father Christmas didn't like the mince pie." Did we explain that it was only a stunt? No we did not. And did we stop him last year, when he wrote a card to tell Santa that we would be in France for Christmas, so please note the temporary change of address? No we did not.
It feels like innocent fun. But all that is left for us now, as responsible, considerate parents, is to choose the exact time to fracture a small boy's faith in magic and ourselves. I've flicked through the manuals, and they don't say a word about the best time to make children howl in dismay. Maybe it would make a nice birthday present - I don't know.
Belgium never gets a very favourable press in Britain, and famous Belges are not exactly ten a penny. But when England play their crunch Euro 2000 football match against Germany at Charleroi next summer, we will probably be reminded by the commentators that the Battle of Waterloo was fought to defend nearby Brussels (and that, on that occasion, the Prussians - bless them - came swooping in to save the day).
Otherwise, there are very few Belgian allusions for the sportswriters to cling to. Perhaps they can make a fuss about Jacques Brel, whose music forms the basis of a terrific new theatrical cabaret at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Anonymous Society is a show made up of of 19 Brel songs, performed with dash and avant-garde brio by a group of mainly Belgian singers and dancers. It isn't exactly a sell-out - we Britons are scarcely renowned for our fondness for Brussels-based culture - but it is hot stuff, simultaneously sexy and nihilistic, at once plaintive and caustic.
Jacques Brel has his admirers here (Julian Barnes is a vociferous fan), but he is not exactly a household name. So what if he was the Edith Piaf of Belgium - that doesn't exactly cut much ice in these parts. When William Hague thinks of Brussels, he probably does not think of savage ditties sung by a sad-eyed chain-smoker; but that only goes to show how shrill and narrow is the conversation that we have about Europe in this country.
The theatre was nearly empty, which was a shame, as the performers had rehearsed an exuberant curtain call. They had also worked hard on the programme notes. After a list of the career credits of a delicious Belgian chanteuse called Micheline van Hautem, we were told that she was once "prominently noticed by Madonna" at a movie premiere. Prominently noticed - whoah!
Brel himself died young, at the age of 49. His music is eclectic and full of drama, a mixture of burlesque and lyric poetry. Early on, one of the (translated) lyrics runs:
"If I became the thing I fear
A seaside singer on the pier."
Luckily, Brel had the nerve to flirt dangerously with this humiliating image.
So, when the musical minds at the television stations begin the search for themes for next summer's football show, perhaps they will turn to Brel. One of those grand, operatic chansons would work well. If I close my eyes I can almost hear him murmuring "Ne me quitte pas" over slow-motion footage of David Beckham sinking to his knees in disbelief as the penalty against Germany slides past the post, pursued no doubt by photographers in a small white car.
When I switched on my computer the other day, there, flashing in front of me, was an advert for some new voice-recognition software. "Just say it," said the automated voice, "and send it." All you have to do is strap on the headphones, spend an hour or so acclimatising the software to your voice, and then you can dictate messages into the computer instead of writing them.
Voice-recognition technology has been looming on the horizon for some years now, but this was my first glimpse of it as a commercial, mass-market product. And I was sad, because I have long cherished the hope that recent technological developments - fax, e-mail, Internet chat rooms and so on - were going to give rise to a literary renaissance by reintroducing us to the old-fashioned but addictive habits of reading and writing. Throw away those phones, I said to myself. Welcome back the written word.
Now that dream lies in tatters. Typing is tedious (until you can type), so these dictation programmes are classic labour-saving devices, and as such are bound to catch on. The spoken word, in the end, is mightier than the pen. There'll probably be a few cancer scares about the effects of wearing headphones for long periods, but these will no doubt be countered by the decline of the brutal ache in the wrists caused by overtyping.
But perhaps, to look on the bright side, a renewed emphasis on oral culture won't turn out too badly. A few years ago, in Argentina, a publisher started rattling off the phone numbers of people he was suggesting I call. When I congratulated him on his amazing memory, he shrugged. "Oh," he said, "we've all got good heads for numbers. In the military years we threw away our address books. If you were ever stopped by the police it was the first thing they'd look for. And then all your friends would be in trouble too. So we learned to memorise everything."
Perhaps we too, in the voice-recognition age now dawning, will come to develop tougher memories, and will start telling each other Homeric, pre- literate epics. I must admit that it doesn't seem too likely a prospect.
But it is at least as plausible as Father Christmas, I suppose.Reuse content