Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Help! Is it really a whole week to go? I'm not sure I can stand any more ...

Another week? Whaddya mean it's not for another week? I feel as if I've already lived through a dozen Christmases in the past few days. I've done the multi-course seasonal lunch with 17 people eating goose and remarking how much more rewarding it is than turkey. I've already had the paper hats and squeaker thingies (crackers are now apparently mandatory at any meal in December that involves children) and the seasonal jokes about Michael Hutchence and Louise Woodward. I have flirted with the furthest extremes of unconsciousness by pouring Corvoisier over any and every pudding (except creme brulee). I have shopped and, furthermore, I have dropped. I've put in the hours at Accessorize and The Pier and Body Shop and Toys "R" Us and Peter Jones and Harvey Nichols, until I can stand no more sightings of Teletubbies Custard, vanilla-flavoured ("perfect for teenagers") lip gloss, cunningly wrought metal candle-holders, plastic money purses containing goldfish in water, Marilyn Monroe Barbie dolls, TV remote control holsters shaped like snoozing pussycats, pepper grinders shaped like claret bottles, plum-pudding-and-holly-sprig earrings, and silk blouses made of something that isn't silk. (These new words you have to learn - I'd just got my tongue round "ecru". I'd come to terms with asking for "devore". But what on earth is "cupro"?)

Out in the London streets, it has been like a dream of Christmas Past. I took an hour last Saturday struggling home up the road from the local garden centre, bent double under an eight-foot Nordic Spruce like one of King Wenceslas's more put-upon gatherers of winter fu-uu-el. Last night I sat in my Executive Outhouse/Garden Shed, trying to write with frozen fingers encased in Bob Cratchit mittens, waiting for the coughing wall-heater to do its stuff, and muttering "God bless us all, every one" through rattling teeth. This morning, inching the car through the horizontal sleet, I noticed, on the left, one frozen waif with tragic dog companion, propped against the wall in a cardboard sleeping- bag, then, on the right, one of those self-consciously archaic Edwardian vans steaming by on spindly bicycle wheels, advertising (I think) a screen- printing process, while in front Tower Bridge loomed up through the relentlessly falling white stuff, and I thought, my God, I've driven straight into an Atkinson Grimshaw painting. On the bridge, the traffic grunted and sighed as it tried to circumvent an awkwardly parked Corporation of London lorry, from which two chaps in overalls had descended in order to scatter tiny amounts of sand and grit under the feet of passers-by, as though dispatched to feed some very small sparrows. You have never seen epic pathos before. You are looking at it now.

And I've done the parties. I've done the Christmas book launches (ludicrously crowded), the style magazine, nobody-gets-out-of-here-'til-4am Christmas parties (ludicrously violent). I've done the office party in the Greenwich pub, where you try to interest the new work-experience girl in a half- remembered dance step (the Frug? the Shag? the Ageing Sexual Deviant?) and are unkindly captured on Polaroid cameras by the treacherous houris of the fashion department. I'd done the kind of party which starts well - you pop along to a fashionable restaurant off Regent Street, for a longish but civilised lunch with friends and perhaps a single glass of amusing chardonnay - but ends badly, with a tray-load of vodka martinis at the Atlantic Bar and a sudden inexplicable inability to utter coherent sentences any more, because someone has clamped your mouth with polystyrene and emptied the contents of a Victorian bolster between the cracks ...

I can't take another week of this. I shall be a frozen alcoholic or a terminal curmudgeon if it goes on any longer. Is it too late to fly to the Maldives, like the heads of British water companies seem to do about this time of year?

If you were thinking of flying off to sunnier climates, there is something you should know. Judging by some punishingly exhaustive research, I can reveal a paradigm shift in the capacity of the Islamic world to enjoy itself. My colleague Simon Calder, the wand'ring minstrel of the Travel section, presses into my hand a useful supplement from Travel Weekly magazine, detailing all the sybaritic wonders on offer in the Business Class of various world airlines. Scanning this catalogue of airborne hedonism, all the offers of free champagne, free chauffeurs, free hot towels, free stationery, free amenity packs, free headphones, free hors d'oeuvres chauds, free arm-rest telephones, reading materials, use of in-flight Internet, free wool cabin wear and free oral sex from Fiona and/or Jeremy (only kidding), your eye falls naturally on the airlines servicing Islamic countries. Memories of a frighteningly sober trip to Kuwait in the mid-Eighties come flooding back.

But what is this? Airlines that used to be as dry as an Ayatollah's sense of humour have had a rethink. "Free bar service with champagne and choice of at least four wines" is reassuringly, indeed insistently, offered by Emirates Air. Over at Pakistan International, they promise "free drinks" without specifying further. At Qatar Airways, they proudly announce, "Qatar Airways is no longer a dry airline and offers a superb choice of champagnes and wines from around the world", while Royal Brunei Airlines has a sneaky compromise - they won't serve alcohol, but you can drink your duty-free stuff and "the crew will happily provide ice and mixers". Only Saudi Arabian Airlines keeps the faith, promising "a special fruit cocktail" (yum-mee), tea and coffee, but no alcohol. So now you know. Book that flight to Brunei now.

The drink issue is, I hear, taking on a sudden importance in the Arab world, because, by a disastrous lunar caprice, the beginning of this year's Ramadan is likely to fall on New Year's Eve. Nobody can be certain, since the beginning of the holy month is decided when two men verify their independent sightings of the new moon in front of a tribunal of seven religious judges. (Telescopes are frowned on as un-Islamic). Since Muslims are forbidden to drink, eat or have sex from sunrise until well after sunset during the days of Ramadan, the coincidence of dates would, some think, put a considerable damper on any East-meets-West New Year frolics. And that's why, I hear, Arab hoteliers from Cairo to Abu Dhabi are currently trying to persuade the Muslim divines that another date - ooh, say January 2 - would be far more appropriate ... But however you spend it, Merry Christmas.