Will Self: PsychoGeography #113

Ghosts of Christmas past
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Pausing by the lychgate, all streaked with green moss and filigreed o'er with frosty lichen, I can see the Verger, old Mr Tubbs, smoking his pipe on the tomb of my ancestor, his habitual perch. It seems a shame to disturb him. The grave is surmounted by an effigy of Sir John de Selfe, lying prone, the tips of his mailed toes pointing towards Electrical. Mr Tubbs leans against the Knight's soles, occupying the position of a favoured hound.

Indeed, despite his portliness there is something canine in Tubbs's face, the teeth a little too sharp, the eyes rather keen under ginger brows, a loop of drool ever twisting on his trowel-shaped chin. I know that Tubbs feels keenly the changes that have been going on in the village the past year, and rather than disturb his reverie I keep my own counsel.

The voices of the choir float out from the cracked panes of the rose window: "Ooooooonce in rooooyal Daaaavid's seeeteee..." soaring high over the snowy churchyard like the ethereal spirit of the place itself. I sigh deeply and in my exhalation are all the poisonous tensions of another year in the Great Wen. After the usual slow, rattling train journey down from Victoria, Blagden was awaiting me at Snedley Halt with the trap. The clip-clopping progress to the Hall was the same as ever, only the lamplight glissading along the freezer cabinets was different. Then there was my dear grandfather, coming down the wide steps, a tankard of mulled Stanko in his old, liver-spotted hand.

Doubtless Mr Tubbs is looking forward to a few tankards of Stanko this evening at the Hall. After evensong most of the village will come up, and the choir will join the company in the singing of rather bawdier and more cheerful songs. "D'ye Ken John Peel", "The Merry Mulligatawny" and the much-loved local roundelay "Sir Henry Slaps". There will be slices of goose kidney, satsuma and walnut cake drenched in rennet, together with as much Stanko as a body can drink. We will play at bob-a-guppy and trianstey. The Vicar - my cousin Sefton - will give his dramatic declamation "Upon the Sinking of the Lusitania". Then, in the crackling darkness of the small hours, the truckle will be brought out and the young bucks will drag my Grandfather through Customer Services and out of the automatic doors to Pollett's Copse, so that he may scrutinise the stars with his psychotheric ray-tube.

Wasn't it always thus? Christmas in the country. I may spend my working year in the teeming, anonymous city, but come Yuletide I want to be where I feel rooted in place and position; where Selfs have been squires of the manor for countless generations, and Selfs have held the local living for time out of mind. I once asked Sefton if, in examining the parish records, he had been able to determine when our family first came to Cham. "It would seem rather more likely," he told me, taking a generous pinch of snuff, "that we - a- a- a - were here initially, and that the fields and woods, then latterly the village, grew up around - choo! - us."

My Grandfather is of the same opinion. He will be 111 next year - God willing - and apart from the four years he spent in the trenches during the Great War (a violent sojourn from which he emerged unscathed, save for the inch-diameter hole that runs transversely through his skull), he has seldom travelled above 10 miles from the Hall. "I suppose you have seen many changes in the village over the past century," I said to him shortly after arriving, "not all of them for the good." It was my way of gently probing his feelings concerning the year's momentous events. "Not really," he replied, "the Cham still flows in the same course, the osier beds rattle in the southern zephyr; the carter cries out 'tongue-hooey' as he lashes his team over Meerkat Breeks. No Grandson, I see no great changes."

"Except for the new Tesco's."

"Well," he took a great swig of Stanko, "apart from the mega-market of course."

"Is it not a little discomfiting, Grandfather, having the entire village encapsulated by a humungous retail outlet? Standing here on the steps of your demesne and looking down four miles of bakery aisle towards 1,000 checkouts?"

"Perhaps," he mused, "although it could've been far worse. At least it's big enough to have been built right over the entire village, the common and the home fields. How much worse it has been for the folk in Little Grindlesham - they have to look at the fucking thing."