Don't worry, this isn't another rant about Christmas starting ahead of time. I've reconciled myself to the early decorations, the piped carols and the artificial snow by treating the whole thing as an extended festival designed to bring cheer to the dark winter days. If you look at it like this, you don't bridle when the B-list actors switch on the themed lights the moment the clocks have changed and Hallowe'en is past. It's just another way of marking the passage of the seasons.
Much harder to stomach is the way in which Christmas, perhaps uniquely in Britain, has become so central to commerce that it's the standard by which the success or failure of the whole business year is judged. This past weekend we were treated to a completely artificial construct called "black Friday", an unapologetic borrowing from the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday when Americans traditionally "hit the stores". The effect was somewhat marred by the fact that our "black Friday", intended to open the Christmas shopping rush, fell a week earlier than theirs – but what's a week of shopping between friends, especially when the Government so badly wants us to spend to keep the economy humming? That certain websites crashed provided a certain joyous vindication.
Worst of all is the drummed-up peer pressure. A recent "study" – by Clothes Show Live, if you really want to know, which is not exactly a disinterested party – said that women spend an average of 300 hours preparing for Christmas. If I was even notionally included in this survey, some women must take almost twice 300, given that my tally would come in at around 10 hours (max), to include shopping, cooking, writing cards and clearing up.
My difficulty, though, is less how my fellow women are spending their pre-Christmas hours – "researching" takes up most time, apparently – than the enormous obligation many people feel not to disappoint family, friends and especially their offspring. This is the sort of pressure that causes people to queue outside shops from before dawn in the hope of securing some toy that is this year's "must have" and, more to the point, to spend money they do not have.
It's more than four years now since the collapse of Farepak – the Christmas saving club, patronised mostly by the prudent poor, that collapsed just as the festive season began. Without the months of commercial pressure to make Christmas extra-special – or whatever this year's slogan is – there would be less harrying, less heartache, and less debt. And maybe, in the end, the economy would benefit if we were less strapped for cash in January and spread our spending more evenly around the year.
You've told us what, now tell us who
Zapping around the television channels on Sunday night, having tired of the mega-tome beside me, I found no solace in anything on offer – not The Apprentice, nor Match of the Day, nor Desperate Housewives. Sad, I know, but I alighted on BBC Parliament, to find the Commons Public Accounts Committee quizzing the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, and Ian Watmore, who heads something called the Efficiency and Reform Group, which comes with a nice Civil Service salary.
Now I used to be quite well disposed towards Sir Gus, as the man who oversaw the speedy formation of the Coalition, so saving us from a constitutional crisis on the Continental model. Mr Watmore was an unknown quantity, but his silly little fringe hairdo suggested a man of a certain stamp – an impression confirmed by the fact of his previous job as chief executive of the Football Association.
Anyway, the proceedings, on "the use of consultants", made for riveting viewing. So riveting, to my mind, that it should be replayed in full on the BBC at prime time, along with past episodes of Yes Minister, whenever the Civil Service starts whingeing about "cuts". Sir Gus's supercilious plausibility, peppered with vintage New Labour glottal stops, made me angrier and angrier, the longer it lasted, as did the pair's signal failure to produce any hard facts and figures, despite persistent prodding from the MPs – Tory, Labour and Lib Dem alike.
Government departments must now publish details of what they spend on items above £25,000 – as they did for the first time last week. But should they not also be required to disclose who signed off on it? Sir Gus and his colleagues might then develop a better grasp of precisely who is in the pay of the public purse and a better explanation of why civil servants are apparently not up to the job of "project management" which is what many of these consultants are apparently hired to do. Asked whether Civil Service recruitment policy was being changed to reflect the needs of today's government – IT, project management and the like – Sir Gus and his side-kick seemed at a particular loss. So that, I extrapolate, was a "No".
Thank God it's Thursday
Yesterday's announcement that the Royal Wedding is to be held on a Friday, and specifically the Friday before next year's May Day holiday, means there'll be a run of four non-working days. Before anyone rushes to deplore the economic cost, however, it's worth asking how much difference it will actually make. Thursdays, it seems to me, are becoming more and more what Fridays used to be: the crowds spilling out from city pubs in the late afternoon, the early rush-hour, the mass escape from London. And on Fridays, it seems increasingly, a leisurely café-culture rules. That's not all. How many times have you rung an office on a Monday to find that whoever is supposed to answer "doesn't work on Mondays"? Latest figures show the number of part-time workers at its highest since 1992, which is helping to keep the unemployment figures down. That's fine by me – or it would be, if those part-timers didn't all not-work at the same time.