Christmas In London: A Permanent Assurance
It is the writer’s curse to lose topicality; we age, the world changes fast and London becomes unrecognisable.
New York is, for good and bad, exactly the same old New York I visited on my twenties, even as New Yorkers complain about chain stores and rents. Finite and boundaried, it has barely changed in the time I’ve been going.
I feel that’s largely true of England, and especially at Christmas. The recent book tour reminded me that the changes are largely surface ones. Someone does the dirty work, someone is the lord.
‘You know what’s weird?’ Mihai, my Uber driver said. ‘London at Christmas. It’s like the 1950s, man. Everyone goes inside their houses and they stay in there for days, never going out. All the transport stops. It’s like the 1950s or something. There’s more going on in Romania. That’s when I get to perform my duties. All the essential services still have to run but no-one can get to work, so I do double-shifts to get them where they need to be.’
Mihai was right. Nothing has changed in my lifetime. If anything, it’s got quieter. When I was born, Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne. She still is. The towns and villages were disconnected, hard to travel between, almost isolated. They still are. As a friend points out, to visit anywhere in England you have to make careful plans. If anything small towns are even remoter than they once were – the cities leeched away residents.
But there is one noticeable big change. Because of the internet people are much less communal. Says David, another friend; ‘My son lives on Snapchat. I ban all phones at the meal table and they act as if I’m a nazi. His friends are obsessed with becoming stars but they don’t know what they want to do when they leave school.’
In other areas a steady, unchanging, common-sense Englishness is reflected in how we pass our leisure time, in what we read and watch and do.
In this most literate of nations (not true; Iceland is 100% literate but it’s the size of Norwich) we admire the most English writers, but with a tart edge, authors like Kate Atkinson, Alan Bennett, Phillip Pullman. We voted ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ as the top British comedy show which, with its grotesquely backward attitudes could have been made in 1972. Our politics are largely conservative. We still put on reruns of the Two Ronnies, and laugh when Ronnie Corbett conflates the Christmas turkey with his dance partner, saying ‘there’s a lot of meat on that old bird’. The most radical UK fashion movement in years was hipsterism, which actually began in the 1940s and involved looking like our grandparents. The British took to it with a vengeance; we are a country hobbled by our history. Our political leaders are the faintest ghosts of Churchill, without the bravery, the elan, wit or grace.
Topicality doesn’t play well in novels. And so we remain in our glitter-covered prisons, with the snowy cottages and the robins. First world problems, what are you gonna do? But I have to admit; there’s something safe and comfortable about Christmas in London. Tonight In Christmas Eve I was in Piccadilly and the West End. In the seventies it was filled with Arabs, in the eighties, with Americans. Now it’s Chinese. All stop and stare at London – changeless and changing, aglow in the winter night, as it always was.