Out of "Christmas Stuff" I unwind several years' worth of twinkly tinsel, most of it matted with sticky-tape and Blu-tack. With any luck there will be some left-over cards, wrapping paper, ribbon and tags. I pounce with glee on the Christmas CDs: collections of bleeting medieval lyrics sung by uptight counter-tenors, or German carols played on glockenspiels. These will get pretty heavy rotation on the CD player over the next couple of weeks. Last year's cards are there too, so I can always bulk up the annually dwindling display. "When a man marries, dies or turns Hindoo / His friends hear no more of him", as the poet says, which seems to account for most of my acquaintances.
Now the tinsel is draped around the TV set, the glockmeisters are bashing out "Silent Night" and fairy dust glistens everywhere. It's time to retrieve the Christmas books. I usually re-read A Christmas Carol; this year it's going to be supplemented by the updated version in James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Holiday Stories, which features, among other innovations, Marley's Post-Life Representative. Much of last Christmas was spent in a rather macabre little guest house with no other residents, which was perfect for ghost stories - not strictly festive fare, but appropriate for this disjointed time when the year's door swings open, creaking horribly. Or I can blub helplessly once more over The Children of Green Knowe, in which Mrs Oldknow contrives to give Tolly a real partridge in a pear-tree for his Christmas present.
And it's time for the annual visit to the pantomime. No, not Jim Davidson as Jack the Giant Killer at the Tooting Alhambra, but home-grown fare at the local pub theatre or underfunded arts centre. About five years ago all ye traditional tales involved the poll tax; Robin Hood is usually black and much given to rapping his defiance of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and there's often a sub-plot in which Ali Baba has to get his name on the electoral register in order to stop the 40 thieves taking over the local council.
We send the soberest person in to the box-office to burble "15 for the panto, please." The ticket sellers smell a rat when they realise not one of said punters is actually a child, but by that time we are half-way up the stairs with 15 pints of beer. We must be the panto circuit's worse nightmare. The actors can barely get their lines out for the avalanche of hisses, catcalls, bawdy jokes and cries of "Behind you!" Small children cry, the suave baddy looks furious, and the more enterprising Dames plan revenge.
One winter night we all staggered off for Babes in Greenwich Park, or whatever it was that year. The entire audience consisted of what looked like the pupils of Deptford Special School on one side, and us on the other. Two minutes of non-stop barracking and the kids soon got the message. No one could call them slow on the uptake. They hooted, they clapped, they banged their feet, they dribbled slightly. Undaunted, the Dame turned to one vocally-challenged child with a kindly: "And what's your name?". "Ugh og-gog-og," gargled the boy. "Ugh og-gog-og?" repeated the Dame incredulously, and the kids cheered and tumbled from their benches with unquenchable glee.
The cast rose magnificently to this challenge, but malevolence glittered in their eyes. Retribution came when the Dame, seeking a volunteer to help her mix a cake, asked if it was anyone's birthday. One of our number is unlucky enough to have his birthday right in the middle of panto season, which invariably singles him out for special humiliation. He was understandably reluctant to raise his hand, but we began to chant "Phil! Phil! Phil!" while prodding and pointing at him. The Dame advanced menacingly: "Oh, I think it's got to be Phil, don't you?" Let us be charitable and say it was stage-fright which prevented Phil from anticipating the raw egg trick.
But the very best bit about the panto is going back down to the bar later and waiting for the cast to emerge, shaking from their ordeal. The Principal Boy normally disappears with the pianist after a swift G&T, and the Dame's bizarre sexual power dwindles out of costume - he looks like any other balding beanpole with an I-love-Mum tattoo. Best of all, the jolly japester who's spent the last two hours dressed as a camel or a clown sits all on his own in the corner trying to fight back the tears. Christmas - it's a tough time for us all.Reuse content