Middle-class Britons consider it totally naff to have anything made out of wire and tinsel that could be sensibly packed away and re-used from year to year, and outrageously Bohemian to have some elegant twig-like abstraction that might even constitute awork of art. The only socially acceptable Christmas tree is a desiccated fire-hazard in a pot, with needles shedding everywhere, a spindly legacy of 19th-century German sentimentality purchased at absurd expense.
A national obsession with trees, perhaps explicable as a survival of some primitive tree-worship, is to blame. For the Christmas tree is but the most prominent aspect of our dendromania, and that in turn is part of a broader malaise, our obsession with afantasy of country life, a never-never "heritage" pastoral.
Many defenders of the rural idyll would blench at the thought of crossing London's Hampstead Heath without the trusty companionship of a Sony Walkman. The most recent incomers to village life, those horny-handed sons of toil who set forth in their Volvosfor diurnal labour in the thickets of central London, are invariably the noisiest preservationists. And the Englishman's eternal dream is to retire and keep a little thatched pub somewhere in the country ... if only ... if only he wins the lottery
We are dealing with a powerful myth here. Shakespeare made this all culturally acceptable: our national bard mercilessly lyricises the delights of the wild wood - although he himself took off for the bright lights as fast as he could. But his rhapsodies - the Forest of Arden, the enchanted wood of A Midsummer Night's Dream - have conferred a poetic mantle on arboreal obscenities.
Screeds of subsequent third-rate English poetry take the form of woolly minded pantheistic hymns to willow or poplar, oak or elm. It is an article of faith in this country that trees are sacred. I was recently getting lost, yet again, in a leafy Victorian suburb, when I realised exactly what it is that makes it impossible to tell one road from another in those benighted districts. It is the dank spinneys in the front gardens, making all the streets look the same and providing prime cover for muggers andrapists.
Trees and housing do not mix: the foliage does nothing but obscure the architecture and destroy the spirit of the city, in spite of all those dinky little architect's views with neat little shrubs dotting the concrete. The roots break up foundations, th e branches get overgrown and cast a dark pall into the rooms. Mossy growths and dirty lichens disfigure and damage brickwork, rotting leaves underfoot give forth odours of decay.
Whenever artists want to emphasise desolation and tedium, they show a line of trees stretching out to infinity. Thus it was that those dusty French roads lined with poplars became artistic shorthand for infinite tedium. And the most dismal pictures in the world are those dark little Dutch landscapes that portray long vistas of damp foliage lining foggy canals. Thank God for Dutch elm disease! Yet the cries are all around us: "Plant a tree!" "Save the rainforest!" "Woodman, spare that tree!" Sometimes itseems there is a busybody lurking behind every bush, a rampant preservationist aloft in every branch.
There is nothing nastier-looking than a rotten yew, but you can be sure that if some poor vicar wants to tidy up the churchyard by cutting it down, there'll be a parish-pump busybody ready to make a fuss. "Save our historic tree!" will be the battle-cry.What nonsense! The works of man are historic: the works of nature cannot possibly be so.
But chop down a tree at your peril! People who are otherwise law-abiding, educated and paid-up members of society will be quite prepared to ignore the democratic process, to defy the representatives of law and order, in order to save some blighted specimen from being lumberjacked. Worse still, tree maniacs are prepared to prevent development, to stop the building of desperately-needed housing, in order to keep an aged oak or gnarled chestnut propped up and endangering the local populace. You will
see mature adults organising petitions, swotting up on their rights, briefing journalists, getting on local radio - all the middle-class protest tricks. The tree-saving tendency is part of the wider picture of Nimby environmentalism, the distinctive badge of those with time and money to waste.
This arboreal sentimentality won't die out with the older generation, for even the young are bursting with ligneous lunacy. "Save the rainforests" is the modern version of the Children's Crusade. Isn't it better to feed people than to keep a jungle in existence? It's all very well for the affluent children of the Western professional classes to scream about preserving the cosmic atmosphere: seen from the poverty-stricken cities of Latin America, the view of the forest is very different.
In France, the chestnut-woods of the Cevennes were becoming depopulated when they were revived by an influx of young people in the Sixties. Many members of the radical generation, pessimistic and disillusioned about politics, turned from the cities to the forests, where as "new peasants" they could make a living by tending and harvesting chestnuts. The tree became for them a symbol of ecology and freedom. In Britain, though, this modern form of tree-worship is really a symbol of political irresponsibility. Jumping on the local-protest, ecology bandwagon is one way in which the middle-classes can evade the real social problems that are staring them in the face every day.
The truth is that trees don't suffer and trees don't matter. What is a tree? Wood. Just wood. I can't say that loudly enough. A tree is a lump of wood and nothing more!