“I don’t think I’ve ever been so disgusted in all my life” said one mother. “We would have had more fun in a frozen puddle,” said another. “This was definitely no Wonderland. It felt like an opportunity to rip off parents who had hoped to have a magical day out with their children,” wrote a third. It was comments like these which forced the Winter Wonderland event in Milton Keynes to close at the weekend, having been open for only two days. The organisers quickly shut down the event’s own Facebook page, but a new group set up by disgruntled attendees wishing to share their stories has since accumulated over 2,000 members. So, clearly there was at least one enjoyable thing about a visit “Winter Blunderland” - the chance to whinge about it afterwards.
It is pantomime season, so you can assume these “disgusted” and “disappointed” parents might be hamming it up a little, but even so the strength of feeling is obvious and slightly baffling. What were they expecting? It doesn’t often snow in December in Britain. It drizzles. So any event advertising a ‘Winter Wonderland’ south of the Scottish borders is bound to be something of an aesthetic disappointment. Grotty grottos, with their seedy santas, their cheap-o decorations, and - if you’re lucky - an alsatian disguised as a reindeer, have in recent years become as much a British Christmas tradition as mince pies and the Queen’s Speech. For every temporary Christmas theme park so dreadful that it makes newspaper headlines, there must be hundreds of others which are just averagely disappointing.
This tradition reached it’s apex/nadir in December 2008 at the now notorious Lapland New Forest, which featured a muddy field in the place of the promised snow, a Santa who smoked cigs on the job and - my favourite - a “tunnel of light”, which consisted of some fairy lights hanging off a tree. After the complaints started rolling in, organiser Henry Mears pleaded his case to the BBC: “We don’t believe we ripped anyone off. What is not here that we haven’t advertised?” That cunning use of the double negative was only temporarily successful in placating angry parents. In 2011 Mears and his brother Victor were convicted at Bristol Crown Court of eight charges of misleading customers. The judge said they had “delivered misery by way of disappointment to thousands of people”.
I know the feeling. One of my most vivid childhood memories involves my dad taking me on a ghost train ride at a local winter fun fair when I was about seven. As the car moved at a creaky pace through the darkness, anticipation mounted. Nothing happened. Then still nothing happened. Then nothing happened again, until eventually a man in jeans, t-shirt and one of those plastic monster masks you can buy for 50p in a newsagents jumped out and sprayed us with a small amount of water from a house plant spritzer. That was it. But then again, I never forgot it.
And when you think about it, that’s what Christmas is all about, really, isn’t it? Not the pagan midwinter festival, not the birth of little baby Jesus, but teaching kids that most important survival skill for life in the UK - how to bear disappointment.
Most of our most treasured festive traditions are best understood as an exercise in courting and then mercilessly extending the disappointment of small children. How else to explain the nice dinner marred by brussels sprouts, the relentless hype for at least six weeks previous (a sure-fire way to ensure that the day itself will disappoint), the lie about Santa which never ends well, and the beautifully wrapped present which turns out to be...another satsuma.
But children are here learning valuable life lessons. The ones who really require our sufferance are those poor parents who, despite being old enough to know better, still annually fork out a fortune in pursuit of the fantasy family Christmas. A recent survey of Christmas shopping habits by a deliveries website found that parents feel compelled to buy an average of 15 presents per child - 15! - and spend around £887 on making the day special - regardless of whether they can actually afford it or not.
Why bother? A little bit of seasonal disappointment for children of all ages is not only healthy, it’s an inevitable part of Christmas. And what better place is there to make your peace with that fact than in a muddy car park - sorry, Winter Wonderland - in Milton Keynes.
Professional boozers, please share your secret
It won’t be much comfort to the A&E staff dealing with drunken revelers this coming weekend, but in one respect at least, British drinkers must have reformed. In a radio discussion yesterday morning to mark the death of fellow actor Peter O’Toole, Sir Michael Gambon, who appeared with O’Toole in the National Theatre’s first production of Hamlet , brushed aside suggestions that O’Toole’s legendary boozing might have held back his career. After all, it wasn’t just actors who regularly turned up to work half-cut in those days – everybody did.
There is a similar collective nostalgia in journalism for a time when heavy drinking and professional competency apparently went hand in hand. In the good old days, or so I’m often told, you could roll off to the pub for 11am, roll back to your desk for 3ish, churn out two Pulitzer prize-winning features in an hour or so and be back on the bar stool for 6pm. That is, assuming you could see your typewriter through the fug of cigarette smoke. I’ve heard many variations on this basic boast, but one thing I’ve never heard is an explanation of how such a thing might be physically possible. Regularly producing quality work while bladdered? Shurley shome mishtake?
Why should MPs know who this lot are?
Lawrence of Arabia, starring the late Peter O’Toole, is the favourite film of our Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron’s favourite band is Mumford and Sons and his favourite TV chef is Nigella Lawson. We know all this because rarely a day goes by without our PM passing comment on some celebrity matter too trivial to make the contents page of Heat magazine. Shouldn’t he have something better to do?
In this context – and no other – I’m comforted by the continued existence of the Tory MP for Mid Sussex Nicholas Soames, whose redoubled efforts at stuffiness go some way to compensate. Not only has Soames reportedly spearheaded the decision to reject a request from One Direction to film their new pop video in Big Ben (quite right too), but according to a Westminster source quoted in the Mirror he’s also “so old-fashioned that he’s probably barely heard of The Beatles – let alone One Direction”.