Nineties work ethic kills the Christmas spirit

Seasonal shutdown becomes rare luxury as essential services and charity volunteers face extra pressure. A day for frolicking in rain and rescuing a ro ttweiler

The tradition of Britain grinding to a halt for Christmas is dead as more people each year spend the festive season working rather than playing, according to the Institute of Directors.

Gordon Leak, a spokesman for the institute, said in the past decade there had been a sharp increase in the number of people giving up family celebrations for a day's work.

There was a four percentage point rise in companies operating over the Christmas and new year period from 1991 to 1993. "The idea of shutting down for the whole Christmas period is going, if it hasn't gone already,'' he said. "More people are self-employed now so they have to work when work is there, when money is to be made.''

Yesterday, from horse paddocks in rural England to the most windswept of British islands, people clocked on.

Ben Pollock, an amateur jockey, rose before dawn to offer seasonal greetings to the horses at his stables in Ludlow, Shropshire, and to put them through their paces in preparation for two major race meetings today. Christmas falls in the busiest time of the steeplechase season and Mr Pollock only had a few hours off to grab lunch with his family before heading back out to the stables.

"It was odd putting the TV on in the morning and seeing everyone celebrating Christmas when you know you've got to slog out in to the cold and the fog. I didn't have any Christmas presents either,'' he said.

"We were out on the gallops by 8am. We gave the horses what we call a good blow-out to clear their pipes. Luckily I'm not riding tomorrow so I can have a bit of a blow-out myself.''

Also heading for a well-earned break after his shift was Alwyn Meacham, a patrolman with the AA's south-west region. "I'm going home to have a shower and go and see my kids and then I'm going to go and get smashed,'' he said.

Yesterday's mild weather meant his Christmas Day was quiet. "Usually it's a bit busy first thing on Christmas morning and then it dies away, but this year the traffic has been all over the place,'' he said.

"The weather is a relief. We got stuffed on Christmas Eve because it was so cold. We had 1,000 calls in the region and at one point there were 111 people waiting just in the Bristol area.''

Also in the south- west, a doctor greeted the first light of Christmas Day with a yawn. After 50 hours on his feet at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, Martyn West, an anaesthetic registrar, struggled to raise some Christmas cheer.

"We're going out for a drink but by this afternoon I think I'm going to be fit for nothing but sleep,'' he said.

"We had both theatres going constantly since Friday morning. I managed to grab a few hours sleep, but as soon as I was optimistic enough to think things would go quiet they started speeding up again.

"When you leave in the morning you realise what an escape it is. Now I know exactly how convicts feel when they leave prison.''

Things were not quite so strenuous for Myles the Magician, who gave a 40-minute show at a hotel in Warwickshire for an eight-year-old called Samantha.

"I introduced them to my friend called RP, which stands for rabbit puppet. He's meant to blow up this balloon but he never manages it because he eats too much. It always goes down well, especially on Christmas Day. I love working on Christmas because everybody goes out determined to enjoy themselves, even if they have to sit next to their mother-in-law. You can't lose.''

But by far the darkest Christmas was had by Mike Toogood, the senior watch officer with Shetland coastguard. His day began at 8am, an hour before sunrise and by 3pm darkness had fallen again.

Braving a force eight gale, he and his two colleagues monitored the seas around the islands, some of the most treacherous in the world.

"Our main fear today is the Russian Klondikers. There are 60 of them out there, just sitting there in this weather,'' he said.

"The seas have been moderate to rough but there hasn't been much traffic, although we've had a call from a oil tanker that's coming in in the next few days, so we'll be watching that one carefully, especially if these winds get much worse.

"But this is nothing compared to my first winter up here when we had hurricane-force gales. We recorded a wind speed of 188mph at the lighthouse at Muckle Flugga on the very northern tip of Shetland. One car in the car park moved three feet overnight."

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