Merry Christmas? I don't think so

Michael Bywater
Sunday 13 December 1998 01:02

WHAT WE need is a good money-making scheme or it's going to be a cold, hard Christmas. Oh dear! Oops! It's going to be a cold, hard Christmas anyway, under a fortnight to go, with bastards (Group A) moaning for their money like bleak midwinter and bastards (Group B) resolutely refusing to pay me. So too late for anything this year. It'll be turkey burgers, all web and wattle, and pictures from the Sunday Sport stuck up as decorations, and me huddled round the solitary guttering candle remembering years gone by: the groaning board, the rich odours of meat and claret, the sound of homeless people singing carols in the frosty streets and the sharp scent of anticipation from my silken servitors ("Merry Christmas, vicar; help yourself to one of these women").

How times move on. When I was little it was a tremendous treat to come up to London to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street and Regent Street, and rightly so. To a child's eye they were magical, and blurry old photographs suggest that, even to an adult's eye, they weren't so bad. But this year ... Look down Regent Street and you see the seasonal message "'Tis the Season to be Tango'd"; look along Oxford Street and there is the gnomic utterance "Bird's Eye".

A recent newspaper "survey" announced that the shopkeepers of Oxford Street are "bracing themselves" for a truly lousy Christmas, and frankly they deserve it. The best thing we can hope for is that everyone who agreed to this shameless exhibition of skirts-up, knickers-down, up-against-the- wall display of moral and aesthetic short-time knee-trembling ends up bankrupt, evicted from their homes and trudging the streets with the cries of their starving children ringing in their frostbitten ears.

You might argue that anyone who drinks Tango (a rather sickly, chemical- tasting range of fizzy pop advertised, last time I bothered to turn on the television, by an orange person in a loincloth hitting Tango-drinkers in the face, a fate which they richly deserve) or who eats Bird's Eye frozen food (unpleasant stuff sold to the poor at inflated prices on the promise of some ill-defined "convenience") is so far gone in tastelessness as to be immune to any further assault.

You might also say that only the aesthetically destitute ever go to Oxford Street anyway: growling ogres in combat trousers and anoraks, jittery swivel-eyed tourists in Burberry underwear, wondering why it's all so horrid, tense, pale suburban families in thin chainstore leisurewear, hard-faced teenage trollops, National Lottery players, off-duty traffic wardens, epsilon-minus semi-morons shouting at their children, mad people with heads like nodding bulbs, the gullible, the monosyllabic, the deracinated, the ugly.

You might therefore conclude that this lumpy aggregation of fools and swine - shoppers and traders and Bird's Eye vulgarians and Tango-pushers - are terribly well-suited, have found their collective level, and that the rest of us should rejoice that the Oxford Street/Regent Street nexus has turned itself into a sort of leprosarium or commercial charnel-house which we can improve the quality of our lives no end by simply never entering.

You might, however, be asking for a smack in the face, which, having little better else to do at Christmas, I would be only too happy to pop round and administer ("Merry Christmas, madam. Kindly step aside as I have to punch your husband's lights out. Ho ho ho"). Because the trouble is that, although we may believe we live in a postmodern society, fragmented into shifting and ill-aligned cultural sub-groups, adrift on a turbulent ocean of media pressures, the truth is that we are as homogenous as ever, and all that Mr Toni Blair and his exciting new government have done is find a new demotic form of rhetoric with which to articulate two of this country's oldest and most over-arching philosophies. The first is the great commercial motto best expressed as "Give us the money. Now fuck off," while the second is the ancient doxology of the snob-disguised-as- democrat, "The proletariat are happy as they are and don't like thinking for themselves."

Combine the two and you have Bird's Eye; you have Tango; you have the National Lottery and the Millennium Dome; you have everything for sale and nothing sacred (in the old sense of set-aside, excluded from ordinary use or depredation); you have market research and focus groups; you have Oxford University Press being told by the University to close down its poetry list to save money (enough to keep every shrivel-prick don who voted for the measure in Tango and frozen fish fingers for the rest of his miserable life); you have ... you have, in short, the entire miserable package of New Britain, its public culture reduced to a matter of slogans, sponsorship and statistics.

I was lucky, and have remained so. Once you pass a certain level of educational attainment, people stop patronising you, and instead offer you things that you might not like or understand, at first on the assumption that you will probably be prepared to have a go and possess the ability to do so. Our public discourse makes no such assumptions; our proletariat is there to be patronised, fleeced, kept docile with television and consumer goods (the one symbiotically driving the desire for the other) and, above all, not to be got excited or given Ideas.

If there's anything resembling a Christmas ethos in our post-religious world, it must be the exact opposite: that the common man is not to be treated as a milch-cow for money-maddened corporations, and that his soul is not for sale or even offered for sponsorship. The prophet whose birth we celebrate whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. Now we whip them in. Perhaps we should amend our ways, and as a small oblation to the gods of civilisation, next year's Oxford Street illuminations should have as their theme a collection of mains-wired Bird's Eye executives, Tango marketing men and greedy, vulgar traders, fizzing and crackling prettily as they twitch and shriek 50ft above the festive street. !

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