Seasonal advice to the snow-bound: move to the city

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The Independent Online
I CAN bear Easter. I don't mind the occasional bank holiday. But Christmas and New Year combined? There's no getting away from the fact that we're talking columnists' hell here. Where are those familiar faces, Wallace Arnold and Neal Ascherson? You won't find a trace of them in today's paper, not so much as a ghostly smile. Even my colleague Alan Watkins has sensibly decamped to another century.

This is no accident, believe me. What happens between Christmas Eve and 2 January when everyone finally goes back to work? The weather, that's what. Either it's unseasonably warm and the front pages are taken up with pictures of people in summer clothes frolicking on a beach, or there's what we in the trade call the Big Freeze. This year it's Ice Hell north of Watford and you try getting a witty paragraph out of that when you're sitting in West London, warm as toast in a centrally heated house and a mere sprinkling of frost visible on your garden.

Someone suggested I could offer useful tips to country-dwellers, drawn from the years I spent in an English village periodically cut off by snow. Nourishing soups that can be boiled up from turkey bones and old socks over a log fire while you wait for the privatised electricity company to restore power lines, that sort of thing. But I'm not keen on soups, other than the baked Tuscan sort which requires hours of preparation and fresh ingredients, and the best advice I can offer to anyone who's snowed up is short and brutal. Move to a city.

THE weather always comes with a sub-plot and this year, as you may have noticed, it's dogs: Dempsey coming home for Christmas and a terrier called Rosie being rescued by a tracker dog from a drainage pipe. I've never been fond of dogs since my first pet, a black mongrel, bounded on to a misty playing-field in Slough one Christmas morning many years ago and never returned. I could pretend that this experience taught me an early lesson about love, loss, and the way we never really own other living creatures, but what I deduced from it was something quite different: get a cat.

It's no good expecting canine anecdotes or apercus from this column, nor indeed observations about where or with whom various members of the Royal Family spent Christmas. I don't care what Diana did or what the Queen said in her Christmas message, although I used to spend the holiday with people who looked forward to it with apparently breathless anticipation. "What do you think the Queen will talk about this year?" they asked each other over lunch, hurrying to finish in time for the broadcast.

"Peace" I'd suggest crossly. "Reconciliation. The same things she talked about last year." We columnists are an unsentimental lot, as you would have discovered if you'd been a fly on the wall at our AGM two weeks ago when the end-of-year rota was drawn up. Everyone who worked through the holiday last year demanded the week off, leaving the rest to squabble over those desperate standbys: hilarious things my family said over Christmas dinner, how we laughed/cried when my sister's Rottweiler ate her daughter's rabbit, why so many couples separate at Christmas (cue speculation on the Charles/ Camilla/Diana situation).

THERE was particularly fierce competition, I'm told, over the rights to predictions for 1996 and that old favourite, which need hardly interrupt the holiday if you've got a word processor, a reprise of my most amusing yarns from 1995. This presents me with a tremendous problem. First, my predictions are almost certainly wrong (John Major's government falls in May to be replaced by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition committed to electoral reform; Queen abdicates in June and is replaced by Helena Kennedy QC as Britain's first elected president. Michael Howard is sent to boot camp in September for persistent recidivism; at the end of October I am the surprise choice to fly to New York and sing backing vocals on a new album by Madonna).

Second, although I sent my apologies to the AGM from Italy, everyone was so agitated about the holiday that they didn't think to leave me anything to write about. It's lonely up here you know, like Nelson at the top of his column, without so much as a wig or a hat to fend off the biting North wind and the flurries of snow. Except that - wait a minute - yes, at last I'm beginning to feel a subject coming on.

ALL the things I hate most about Christmas, from carols to indigestible meals with members of your own or someone else's family - people you may not like but who invariably require you to wear paper hats and pull crackers with them - are a sentimental Victorian invention. What's really just a longish break from work (if you're lucky enough to have a job) at the coldest, darkest time of the year is tricked out in a lot of mawkish, quasi-religious ceremonial, so it's impossible even to buy a kitchen chair without the accompaniment of ghastly taped Christmas music.

The Holy Family has long been ousted as an object of worship by the nuclear family whose role in the proceedings becomes more central as the institution itself breaks down. What we do at Christmas is indulge an illusion about ourselves in which we all live in happy family units, share an untaxing commitment to a national religion, and group obediently in front of the television to hear the words of a universally loved sovereign.

The 1990s are turning out to be a characteristically turbulent fin-de- siecle decade in which the family, the monarchy and the established church are coming under intense critical scrutiny. I suspect this isn't so much from choice as because of the way in which people's lives have already diverged from the ideal. The yearly pretence that none of this is happening simply shows up the cracks and increases the pressure for change. This is a good thing. It's time to cut the carols and bin the pudding. My New Year's message is: get real.

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