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Zero Mistletoe, Some Wine – The Christmas Blog

Had I the possession of a computer I’d be posting blogs more frequently, but as things stand you’ll have to deal with my ramblings of genius as-and-when. Anyway, gotta keep ya keen, huh?

First things first:
I really must apologise for the Cliff Richard reference. I can’t stand him, and most likely, neither can you (I doubt there will be many late-middle aged women of the kind who still think Take That are good reading this). I must say though, he has provided us with some fine comedic moments over the years. Who can forget his live TV appearance when the dry ice got the better of his smooth-soled shoes, enthusiastically introducing his posterior to the stage, or the utter WTF-ness of this video?
“Oh-woah-woah-woah, woo-woo-woo”, yes, quite…
I think we can safely put the death of old school rock and roll at around the time this came out.

Anyway, on to the whole point of this blog: my Christmas day. Why? Because.
Well, because not only do I have friends in other parts of the world who’d follow different traditions, but I have friends in Britain who might have very different ways of celebrating this out-of-place festival that has never-the-less become ingrained in our culture. Not that I’m gonna give you a lesson in folklore – I’m not really qualified and if I were it would be a diversion too far from the point anyway.

As usual I spent Christmas with my family. We generally gather at my parents in The Midlands – my brother coming down from Liverpool, my sister and her family from Oxfordshire, and myself from London. There are often representatives from other branches too – my mum’s side of the family tree are only a couple of hours drive away so they would normally visit a day or two after the 25th, or we might gather there – an assembly that these days can number up to 15 bodies, depending on who can make it and what members of the most recent generation are around. This year has been a bit different though. Not only did my dad’s mother recently move from Somerset into a very nice care home near my parents, but his brother and sister-in-law, who we only get to see every five or so years, are over from Argentina. Because of all this we aren’t gonna see my mum’s side of the family this year, although a get-together later in the year isn’t unheard of.
I arrived here a couple of days before Christmas, giving me the chance to do all my present shopping on Christmas eve, in less than three hours, which is something of a record. I didn’t even break a procrastinatory sweat! Because my Aunt and Uncle are here I’m sleeping on the futon sofa, which is pretty comfortable, but I will be sharing it with the bro for the next couple of nights. I just hope he’s washed his feet recently.
The other thing that’s making this year a bit different is the fact that the UK has seen some of it’s “worst” snowfall for several years. I certainly haven’t seen more than a couple of inches since my teenage years in the late 80’s, but both London and Birmingham have been under an 8 or 10 inch blanket for the last 8 days. My parents garden looks like a thick sheet of royal (maybe we should call it republican) icing has been laid over it, including the small, frozen pond. It really only snowed last weekend (18th) but it’s been so damn cool that it’s not started to thaw out until today (monday, over a week later), when I woke to the sounds of dripping icicles and the creak of shifting slabs of snow. So it’s been a Christmas with some proper snow to add to the atmosphere.
On Christmas day we were up for breakfast at around 9am and being a Christian family (excluding myself) we went across the road to the local Baptist church where my parents have been members for several years. I joined them because I appreciate the spiritual nature and the broader significance of the festivities, even if my thoughts on the mythology of Christianity are quite different to theirs. I don’t have anything against Jesus at all, I’m just not keen on the dogma that’s grown up around the whole business (or indeed the business that’s grown up around Christmas – the use, to quote Tim Minchin, of “a dead Palestinian to sell Playstations and beer”). So far there doesn’t seem to have been any evidence to support the theory of the immaculate conception, I don’t imagine that the shepherds all really saw the heavenly host announcing the joyous, although admittedly I’d be hard pressed to come up with my own explanation (mass hallucination, the consumption of interesting plants?), and the business with the wise men – the Magi – magicians, who followed the stars (astrology) and presented the child Jesus with magically symbolic gifts makes me wonder why, centuries later, the medieval church decided to forbid such things as being the work of the devil. But still, I do like a good carol service and a christmas day church visit is part of the package that adds a layer of richness to proceedings. However, the service we got was really dull: lots of dead air, very little effort when it came to the singing, an unimaginative Christmas sermon presented with the help of Powerpoint. I suggested to the family later that it would have been a good idea to make everyone jog round the block a couple of times before the service to get them energised.

So that’s the spiritual part of the day (a part that will always hold some significance for me, seeing as how I’m into that side of things) done with, what of my mother’s amazing culinary skills? Being brought up in the way I was (Christian, left leaning and middle class), I sometimes feel a little guilty that we can spend all day stuffing ourselves, and quaffing nice wine when so many people struggle to feed themselves day by day, here in Britain as well as in the developing world. But when the food’s this good…
We get the full works – turkey, sausages, roast potatoes, carrots, sprouts, parsnips, stuffing and bread sauce cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding, trifle… Pretty much all of it is homemade, although mum – who would often make Christmas pudding a year in advance – has allowed Marks And Spencer to take on that task for the last few years, but they are good. She does make sweetmeats though and this year we have been enjoying her lovingly produced panforte, alongside more traditional fayre of nuts and chocolates. Between getting in from church and digging our eagerly wielded cutlery into the presented feast, we attend to the all important exchange of gifts, usually accompanied by comments to the effect that someone really ought to go through the rubbish and separate out all the paper for recycling, but do we ever get round to it?

My brother arrived from Northern parts on the 27th and so we indulged in Christmas Dinner Mk II, which consisted of cold turkey and sausages with roast potatoes and stir fried veg, more trifle and Christmas pud and a second round of presents. Tomorrow is Mk III with my sister’s family, which should be fun with my niece and nephew (5 and 3 respectively). I say “fun”, but there’s a fine line…
Hehe, nah – they’re great really. Unless it’s 7am and you happen to be sleeping on the sofa.
Oh…
Well it wasn’t too painful (it’s gone 10 o’clock the next morning now): I was poked awake by my three-year old nephew, who was encouraged by my mum (yeah, thanks…), clambered over by my niece, and had to endure the bright and annoying cheer of early morning CBeebies for an hour or so, but you can’t really be grumpy with a couple of kids like them around.
Can you?
I mean, if I find out that you can, I’ll be annoyed that no-one told me sooner.
Hehe, nah – they’re great really. Grandma and Grandpa have taken them out to explore Birmingham while I finish off here and get ready to go home.

In terms of what I actually received from my nearest and dearest, the range was somewhat typical but no less appreciated – additions to my literary and music libraries are always welcome (from my brother I got a Secret Machines album, and book about deception as military strategy and a copy of Dodgem Logic – a magazine produced by the fairly great Alan Moore, as well as a copy of his own writing – under the name of Urbin Flack – in the form of “Tales From The Valcro(sic) Room Volume II”, available from one good bookshop in Liverpool – News From Nowhere if you’re anywhere near), as is the cash I was more than happy to populate my new wallet (made from recycled Thai rice sacks) with, as is good ground coffee and a pair of daft Peter Storm penguin hand warmers, which will be invaluable on my winter bike rides. Alongside that lot I had a small but eagerly received selection of confection (I do like good chocolate).

And so, with the snow all but melted to nothing and the garden looking a little weary from its sub-zero ordeal, the ice-sheet on the pond noticeably thinning out (though still an inch+ thick) and the squirrels charging round looking for stored nuts – having forgotten their hibernation instinct years ago they still bury food amongst the flowerbeds, much to my parents frustration – my festive odyssey draws to a slightly weary, but happy, end as I head back to London later today. It’s been great to see everyone as always, and great to share my Christmas with people I don’t get to see very often at all. The gifts I’ve been given pale beside the value of being with my family, which is what Christmas is about for me – sharing the love, relaxing together, and remembering the spirit in which we are all bound as a family, and as a species. We are all connected, all part of something bigger, manifested in the myths of religion and in the reality of compassion, respect, love and understanding, and what better way to celebrate that?
Apropos to all that, is this from a film I saw – and can highly recommend – about a year ago.

I hope you, dear reader, had a great Christmas and I wish you a very happy New Year, till next time I can be bothered…

PS:
I realise that by the time I’ve got round to finishing and posting this it’s waaay too late for seasonal wishes, but whatever – save ’em for next time if ya like!

To Tramp These Sodden Pathways

A string of serendipitous – yet altogether innocuous – events lead me to take a wander last night, around the back streets of Shoreditch.
For those of you who don’t know, Shoreditch is the trendy part of town, the place where all the hipsters hang out. It’s full of overpriced bars and clubs, only a couple of which I’d be seen dead in, and it’s home to my least favourite pub venue in the whole world (The Macbeth (links to video – NSFW) on Hoxton street, which I loathe and avoid like the plague unless I’m carrying extra ammo or a band I like is putting on their own night there). For these reasons it’s an area I tend to avoid, other than passing through there on the way somewhere more interesting.
Except it DOES have an interesting side. Like much of Hackney (the borough in which it slouches arrogantly), it’s a haven for street artists. Take a stroll around there and you’ll find plenty of well placed pieces or varying quality, although most of it is rather cool. But the art was only a secondary objective, although it would be hard to avoid anyway.
Back in 1958, French Situationist Guy Debord described an activity whereby one takes a walk around an area of a town or city, not to have a breath of fresh air, or stretch of the legs, not even to ponder on its aesthetic beauty, but essentially to delve into the psyche of the city, to pick away at the layers that have built up over the decades, over the centuries, and most importantly to be lead on a journey, rather than to plan one out. A facet of psychogeography, it’s root activity even, that he called the derive, which simply translates into English as “drift”.
So, after listening to some vaguely esoteric hip hop, reading a few pages of a book from the library (Generation Hex) and catching an innocent remark on Radio 4 about shamanism, I put two and two and two together and decided to head out. Yes, the achingly hip streets of Shoreditch were calling, and it was a Saturday night.
Great.

A half hour bike ride saw me outside what used to be The Foundry – an arts and social centre in the heart of the area that’s recently been closed down to make way for a big shiny hotel where rich people can stay, because as we all know, people with money are more important than people with ideas and talent, right..? I locked up my bike and anxiously fingered the offering I’d brought for the spirits. an offering of spirits in fact. I was reluctant to part with the miniature of 18-year-old Glenfiddich which I had been looking forward to tasting, but after some rumination before leaving home, I’d come to understand that as it was all I had to offer, and as I really would rather not give it, it would be a most suitable gift. I crossed over the road and entered the region of the threshold – a point at which the boundary becomes a portal, just by an old drinking fountain outside a pizza restaurant. After lingering for a few minutes I spied my chance to act without getting too many odd looks, and asking the spirits guidance, protection and permission, gave the offering.

With an assurance that I was welcome I stepped out of one world into another, which seemed to be very much the same. I hadn’t expected vast swathes of reality to fall away, revealing an even more real other dimension, but I had expected a bit more than a faint tingle in the back of my head, and that might have just been because down the cold air. Still, I knew the area, I knew what it WAS capable of being. I’d taken that step many times before and felt the adrenalin increase in my bloodstream, felt my senses become more keen, felt as though I really was stepping from one world into another, but not this time. Had I done something wrong?

Afterwards I realised I had – I’d been there on a Saturday night before and felt it to be as dead as it felt now. I think that – quite wisely – the streets are left to the living for the big night of the week. The spirits stay huddled in their corners, maybe scowling and muttering at the drunk, boisterous bar hoppers and club goers. No wonder I sometimes feel an affinity with them!
Still, I walked on, along Paul Street towards my first target – a back street which I knew to be not only a secret little spot for some low-key street art, but that I also knew to be…well, to FEEL different. Maybe there’s something about it that draws people like myself to it, and maybe that same thing draws the likes of Ace, Omega and a number of other anonymous artists to paste and paint on the walls of the buildings that tower above this narrow street’s length. Of course, I notice the art and some of it is very cool, but it’s only a part of the journey.  I was hoping for more.

Well, to cut a long story short…
There was nothing out of the ordinary, which for an area where to hear someone call out, “Who’s that handsome boy then?! C’mon sailor!” in camp sincerity (not directed at me) is pretty much par for the course, was quite disappointing. To be fair, I had no direct intent, no will behind my decision to go out, I just thought that there were enough prompts to make the trip worthwhile. In a way it was – I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, didn’t get anything from it, but I hardly felt the keen edge of the night slice into my mind as I had expected, as it had several times before. I knew the spirits were there, they just weren’t coming out. I kept my eyes and mind open, listening – or rather feeling – out for any pull in a certain direction, towards a certain object, maybe something to bring back as a totem, but nothing came. As I sat at the junction of Paul and Leonard Streets, quietly observing with all my senses, the rain became heavier. People passed by on their way to revel in the joy of being successful idiots (but that’s for another time), maybe not even noticing me, the temperature dropped a little more, a guy on a bike rode slowly by, only to come back the other way a few minutes later (probably a drug dealer), but the spirits were quiet. In my search for the real life of the area, all I could see were people who probably didn’t even know they were alive.

So what did I get, aside from wet and cold?
It did feel like a small step along The Path, but as an exercise in paying attention to my surroundings I didn’t really learn any more than I already practice, which is a fair amount anyway. I certainly wasn’t embraced by a world beyond my everyday reality and my journey was rather – as indeed was I – pedestrian. Imagine going to a restaurant you like, ordering the same dish you usually have, getting the same friendly waiter, but the wine you like with that meal is off. You try a different one at the sommelier’s suggestion but it’s not the same. The meal doesn’t come alive in the way it does with the 2006 Pinot Grigio you like, and maybe your waiter has a bad back so is a little slower and a little less amiable than usual, but the food’s good, really (you manage to just about convince yourself), it is good. You don’t really feel hard done by, you don’t feel cheated – you’ve eaten well enough and the bill is pleasing as always, but you can’t help feeling a tiny bit disappointed.

Next time I feel the urge to drift on a Saturday night, I’ll try to have somewhere less “Saturday night” in mind. It’ll do me good to add to my repertoire of psychogeographic perambulations anyway. I know Shoreditch’s neighbour, Clerkenwell is pretty cool at night, and probably less full of ordinary life too. But what ghosts it holds!
Now there’s a blog…

Oh, and for the record I don’t carry ammo or weapons, just a deadly arsenal of  ways to run away.