Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy old year

Well, old December’s bareness lies everywhere and the beautiful, death-struck year draws to its close – and I’ve managed to keep this blog coughing and spluttering for a whole twelve months, so hurrah for me. As a contemporary historian I read a lot of diaries and journals, and I’ve always found something rather touching about the entries for new year’s eve and new year’s day, when the diarists offer their reflections on the year just past and proffer hopes for the year to come – both now long gone of course:

‘Last day of the 1970s. Clear, dry, fine, cold … On the way back to Hampstead Heath a magnificently cheery black ticket-collector waived my offer of the extra 16p for my ticket with great bonhomie. “Happy New Year,” he shouted. It was like the end of A Christmas Carol!
Friends come round in the evening and we eat Chinese take-away and play games and half watch a poor compilation of the 1970s from BBC TV. As midnight strikes and the first chimes of the 1980s are met by the obligatory cheers of well-oiled Scotsmen on the box, we take photos of ourselves in celebration and agree that whatever happens – barring the work of the Grim Reaper, of course – we will look back at these pics together on December 31st 1989!’ – Michael Palin, 31 December 1979

‘Saw the old year literally “go out” on the Northern Line tube, at East Finchley! Michael Harald, Hitchman, Susan, Rachel & me – all returning from the Kaufmanns’ gew√∂hnlich parlour games party, all did our “Auld Lang Syne” stuff in the carriage, and I invited the one other passenger (a ragged and befogged gentleman of 40 or so years) to join us in the crossed hands ritual …
So the old year of ’51 has gone … not a very auspicious year and yet – I feel a certain sentimental affection for it … it was the first year I cried properly. Cried my eyes out on Boxing Night … in a sudden wave of utter futility … such a very silly young man.’ – Kenneth Williams, 1 January 1952

‘I hope that 1958 may bring you God's blessing and all the things you long for.’ - The Queen’s first TV Christmas broadcast, 25 December 1957

I hope so too – or I hope it did.

And for anyone reading this (although here’s hoping these words won’t seem proleptically poignant to someone stumbling across this blog in 2059) I wish you all beauty, inspiration and mundane delight in 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Merry Christmas 1973

Before this blog shuts up shop for its Christmas break, I thought I would post a newspaper article I did last Christmas. Sadly we haven’t yet emerged into the bright sunlit consumerist uplands so I guess at least some of what it says still applies.

If anyone’s still out there, a merry Christmas to all my readers. Peace and blogospherical joy to you all.


It looks like being an austerity Christmas. Radio 2 has already run a “Don’t cancel Christmas” campaign, including Delia Smith’s budget recipe for pot-roast turkey drumsticks and advice about doing the shopping on eBay and plumping out the stuffing with cornflakes. The tone of the TV adverts seems smugly Spartan, like the one that rips off the ostentatious gift-wrapping scene in Love Actually before declaring that “at Argos, we make a little less fuss”.

To find a similar mood, you have to go back to Christmas 1973, when the last great global recession began. Then Britain had also just come to the abrupt end of an unsustainable property boom, the FTSE was in freefall and December had its very own credit crunch, when the fringe banks which had offered unwise loans to property developers looked on the verge of collapse and the Bank of England launched a £3000m “lifeboat” to increase liquidity. The chancellor Anthony Barber, just like Alistair Darling, announced a pre-Christmas emergency budget. Then, as now, everyone knew that a long period of unbroken prosperity was over.

But we are not in an episode of Life on Mars, and there the historical parallels start to fizzle out. The end of 1973 was a real state of emergency. A combination of the OPEC oil crisis and industrial action threatened to bring the country to its knees. Thousands of people queued for hours outside post offices to receive petrol ration books. In mid-December, Edward Heath announced the three-day week and for a time it looked like Christmas might really be cancelled. All display lighting was banned and Christmas shoppers searched for gifts by candlelight and hurricane lamps. There were fears that presents and cards would not arrive in the post, that people would not have enough fuel to heat their homes or enough petrol to visit their families. The Daily Mirror’s front page asked: “Is everybody going mad?”

The fate of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree hung in the balance. At the lighting ceremony on 14 December, its 650 bulbs were lit up and then switched off again. The Norwegians offered to send a special electricity generator for it so that it would not have to rely on the national grid. Eventually the environment minister Geoffrey Rippon granted a special dispensation for all outdoor trees to be lit for just three days over Christmas.

Yet many people rather enjoyed the subdued and melancholy atmosphere. Released from the endless obligation to get and spend, they started talking to strangers and noticing their surroundings more – and Britain’s cities did look pleasingly Dickensian by gaslight. Many factory workers had 11 days off, their longest ever Christmas break. Fuel turned out to be less catastrophically scarce than feared – enough, anyway, to see cars through to the new year. Christmas was reprieved. Everyone hunkered down in their just-about heated homes and forgot for a few days that the world was collapsing around them.

In fact, the Christmas that almost didn’t happen now reads like a collection of warm-hearted seasonal cliches. Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas, with a Santa Claus who seemed appropriately grumpy for the economic downturn, was a children’s bestseller. Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” beat Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” to number one. On TV, people watched the first ever Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and Vanessa Redgrave camping it up with Morecambe and Wise. Secular Britons returned to old certainties and found the true meaning of Christmas in the bumper issue of the Radio Times.

Perhaps paradoxically, Christmas is a good time to have a crisis. It is a compulsory caesura, a demonstration of the power of ritual over fate and circumstance. Ever since it began as a pagan festival in the middle of the winter solstice, Christmas was designed to be celebrated through cloudy, unprosperous days. Christmas narratives, including the Biblical one, are full of tales of it almost not happening and then being rescued from disaster at the last minute.

Things are not, or not yet, as bad as 1973. No one is ordering television to stop at 10.30pm; there will be no Christmas tree blackout. But the lesson of 35 years ago is that Christmas happens anyway, whatever else is happening. Now we are being urged to spend our way out of the recession, to pretend that it is business as usual. But the public mood seems to be to follow the ascetic example of our parents in 1973, driving slowly to save fuel, setting price limits on presents and staying at home. Gathered round the hearth – or its modern equivalent, the flatscreen TV – we may think, as Walter Scott wrote in Marmion: “Heap on more wood! The wind is chill; But let it whistle as it will. We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.”

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The brotherhood of boredom

It’s been the week of the office party, the Christmas meal, the ‘sorry you’re leaving’ card stuffed with Next vouchers and scribbled best wishes. It’s been a diet of cheap wine, mini-mince pies, stale samozas, soggy Doritos, chocolate marshmallows wrapped in foil and sandwich triangles with unidentified fillings and curled corners. I have measured out my life in Marks & Spencer’s party food.

This has all brought to mind the delicious melancholy of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s classic book The Office, written nearly forty years ago when Ricky Gervais was still wearing short trousers in Reading:

‘It’s really a question of the small canvas. People who do petit-point and who get absorbed in thousands of small stitches. Or trompe l’oeil. I think in a way it may be for people who want to stay in the nursery. Certainly I’ve found myself thinking of the office as I ride towards it as a large squat nanny, waiting comfortably there to gently fuss me with all details of her tiny, cosy world …

‘This monotony is increased because shared. While office events are taking place around you, identical events are taking place in hundreds of thousands of offices in London, France, America, all over the world. An invisible pall of office activity hangs over one, exerting a continuous exhausting, psychic pressure. And the sense of number, spread across the world, makes the office seem part of the human condition, something from which it is impossible to escape …

‘It’s like Vivaldi. It’s an initial subjective reaction. If you like it, every variation is fascinating, however small. You know what I mean – there are tiny nuances within the repetition. Take leaden afternoons like this, when the rain is falling on bored buildings, so many bored buildings. Today there’s a feeling of universal boredom, a great brotherhood of boredom. I find it very warming.’

Talking of boozy Christmas meals, David Mitchell’s succinct explanation of the financial and environmental crisis in last week’s Observer says it all, really: ‘Our long, unaffordable global lunch is coming to an end and a headachey afternoon in the office beckons. We've spent the last 10 years downing extra digestifs to delay the arrival of the bill. But here it is, without so much as an accompanying mint, and it’s massive. The trick now is to persuade the third world to pay an equal share even though they only had a soup.’

Oh, well. While they were arguing in Copenhagen over who had the poppadoms, Roddy Woomble, lead singer of Scottish band Idlewild, cheered me up with his book of the year in the Sunday Herald: ‘I spend a fair bit of time driving from place to place, so Joe Moran’s On Roads was a pretty fascinating read, documenting the history of the British motorway system and the change in thinking that came with it. More a philosophy than a history, it’s full of memorable passages.’

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Nine carols without the lessons

This has got bugger all to do with the everyday or the banal, but it’s my blog and I can do what I like, so here in no particular order are my favourite Christmas songs/carols:

1. The loveliest Hollywood Christmas song ever:

2. John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol:

3. We used to sing this Calypso Carol in primary school:

4. This one’s a no-brainer, obviously:

5. Kate Rusby with her South Yorkshire variant on a well-known carol:

6. Peter Cornelius’s Three Kings, always performed in carols from Kings on Christmas Eve:

7. A new one from Thea Gilmore:

8. Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, fondly remembered from the BBC children’s series The Box of Delights:

9. And (no sniggering at the back please) Christmas Day by Dido:

Sunday, 13 December 2009

O Tannenbaum

Here is a piece about Christmas trees I wrote for the Guardian a couple of years ago:

Along with most other aspects of the modern Christmas, America has bequeathed us our secular version of the nativity, retold in every medium from the Peanuts comic strip to the sitcom Friends: the story of the sparse, misshapen little Christmas tree that is saved by a benevolent consumer so it can fulfil its seasonal destiny. You would be hard-pressed to find any such sad-looking specimen among today’s plantation-grown, designer trees, with their flawless foliage, evenly spaced branches and miraculous needle-retaining qualities. But the Christmas tree industry still exploits this idea that individual trees are there waiting to be pitied, rescued and redeemed.

Inspired by the slow-food movement’s emphasis on local sourcing and sustainability, this industry has turned tree-buying into an all-day, themed event. We are now invited to attend festivals at Christmas tree farms, where we can stroll through illuminated forests, pick our own tree straight from the field, watch as it is pulled out by Shire horses, and leave with elaborate instructions on how to care for it to ensure that it is not dehydrated, overheated or otherwise traumatised. If we really must have a non-biodegradable artificial tree, then Marks & Spencer will assuage our consciences by planting a tree in a Scottish woodland for every plastic one it sells. The poor Christmas tree is being forced to bear the burden of all our contemporary ecological anxieties.

This year saw the publication of books about trees by two of our most distinguished nature writers: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings. These books are united in their dislike of this tendency to infantilise individual trees, this refusal to think of trees as communal organisms with resilient, independent lives of their own. Christmas trees, in particular, are only loved in the singular. Softwood plantations have been hated in this country ever since the 1940s and 1950s, when scientific forestry wiped out countless acres of native oak and beech to clear the ground for faster-growing, more lucrative conifers. Writers at the time complained about “spruce slums, ruining the soil,” “gloomy regiments of dark spruce trees, all exactly alike,” and “impudent little spruce trees goose-stepping on the fells”. It is almost as though we have showered conifers with love in December because we feel guilty about hating them for the rest of the year.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be nice to our Christmas trees, or that there is anything wrong with replanting schemes. But bringing a tree, even a container-grown one, into a centrally heated house is always going to be a fairly murderous act, so it seems a bit late by then to start treating the tree like a helpless child. Individually, trees are indeed vulnerable: the vast majority of them are killed off as saplings, not by human hands but by natural phenomena like canker, aphids and wet-rot. Collectively, though, trees are even hardier than us: an abandoned agricultural field will transform itself into a small wood in half a century, without any need for human intervention. “To care is a treacherous emotion,” writes Mabey, “apt to slip into a sense of custodianship, and then of possessiveness, into a habit of seeing the natural world as not just in need of protection, but unable to thrive without our help.” There is something self-centred about the way in which we cast ourselves alternately as the enemies and saviours of trees, pushing them to the centre of our own narratives and ignoring their tenacious otherness.

Even as the Christmas tree market increasingly demands consistency and uniformity in its products, the ritual of tree-buying still requires that we pick out our favourite and offer it a home. I must admit to feeling an anthropomorphic pang when I see the slightly lopsided, undersized trees left unwanted on the pavement outside florists. Since most Christmas trees are bought in the first two weeks of December, the ones that remain unsold now will probably finish up in the chipper. Their rejection just seems so palpable and public, like children not being picked for playground teams. This Christmas, however, I am trying not to feel too sorry for them.


Re my previous post about Hole in the Wall, Saturday night TV’s take on Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return. Last night while flipping channels I happened to catch a bit of the Hole in the Wall ‘highlights’ show, in which the host and the two team captains introduced clips of the ‘best bits’ from the series. For those intending to watch this later on iPlayer, I should perhaps offer a spoiler alert: these best bits consisted of celebrities trying to fit through oddly shaped holes in walls.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ – Henry Thoreau

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hurt feelings and potato peelings

I’ve just come across a little ditty from the Second World War, aimed at getting people to refrain from peeling their potatoes by invoking the name of Lord Woolton, the very popular Minister of Food:

Those that have the will to win
Cook potatoes in their skin
Knowing that the sight of peelings
deeply hurts Lord Woolton's feelings.

Given our cynical attitudes to contemporary politicians, it’s hard to imagine this kind of appeal to our better natures working today. But how about this one:

If you think New Labour’s bad
Gordon will be really sad.

Or perhaps this one from a few years ago:

If you don’t support the war
Tony’s feelings will be sore.

Although come to think of it, that isn’t a million miles away from how things were presented to us.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’ – Marcel Proust

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Jukebox culture

I did this little history of the jukebox for the FT:

There were jukeboxes in Britain before the mid-1950s, but they weren’t up to much. There was a small, indigenous jukebox industry that developed out of Blackpool’s amusement arcade market, and which produced small, unassuming models resembling domestic fridges. But in 1955, with the period of postwar austerity finally at an end, the government relaxed import restrictions on luxury goods and American jukeboxes arrived in the UK.

These machines, made by famous companies such as Wurlitzer and Rock-Ola, derived their styling from the Detroit car industry. With their tail fins, chrome grilles and windscreens, they were exciting, colourful objects. They could also hold up to 100 records. The British popular music market was already dominated by teenagers but, with only offshore stations such as Radio Luxembourg taking any real interest in rock’n’roll, the jukebox was one of the main ways that young people could listen to new records. By the end of 1957, the UK had imported 8,000 jukeboxes from America.

The jukebox became a powerful symbol of juvenile delinquency, mainly because it encouraged teenagers to hang around, apparently doing nothing. (A “juke” was an American brothel or roadhouse offering cheap food, drinks and music, which derived its name from a west African word for disorderly or rowdy.) In 1958, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham attacked the “aimless juvenile caf√© society”, which he blamed for leading young people into crime. “I do not think it a proper thing,” he said, “for groups of young people to go into coffee bars and spend hour after hour listening to records, buying cups of tea and coffee and bottles of pop.” He argued that these youngsters needed to be trained to spend their money wisely, instead of “feeding pennies into jukeboxes and fruit machines because they had nothing better to do with their spare time”. In Gillingham, Kent, in 1959, hundreds of young people performed a “processional jive”, marching to the municipal offices to protest against the banning of jukeboxes in coffee bars by the town’s magistrates.

Many established musicians were hostile to jukeboxes because they offered a cheap, synthetic alternative to live dance bands. They were right to be worried: the American jukebox helped to transform British popular music, paving the way for a new, youth-oriented market based around teen idols and hit singles.

On Roads appeared in a couple of those annual newspaper book roundups:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think Radio 4 is worth the entire licence fee … When I come back from holiday, and I put it on when I’m driving from the airport, and I hear Peter Donaldson saying, “And now part four of the history of the duffel coat,” I think oh yes, I’m home now, everything’s all right.’ – Sandi Toksvig

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Ghosts of Winter Hill

I went to see an excellent exhibition at Urbis in Manchester yesterday: Ghosts of Winter Hill, about the role of television in the city since the formation of Granada in 1956. The exhibition’s peg was the switching off of the analogue signal this year. There were some wonderful and rather touching mock-ups of 1950s and 1960s living rooms with Ekco bakelite television sets and forlorn-looking armchairs. It was the exhibition’s title that caught my eye. The first TV transmitters needed good elevation so they were built in these remote, romantic-sounding places: Holme Moss, Kirk o’Shotts, Emley Moor, Winter Hill. And ‘ghosts’ is just right too: there was something ethereal about those grainy 405-line transmissions, and early viewers were often troubled by ‘ghost images’ where one signal was laid on top of another.

Mostly it struck me, watching unremembered old clips of Granada TV’s Kick Off and The Army Game, how much of television is what Larkin called a ‘forgotten boredom’. Ludovic Kennedy, who died earlier this year and who is perhaps the only television presenter to fall asleep while interviewing someone, wrote in his autobiography that television was ‘comparable to a long train journey. As one gazes vacantly out of the window a succession of ever-changing images passes by. Occasionally something – the look of a house, a cricketer bowling, flowers in a garden – momentarily diverts the attention until another image takes its place, then it too vanishes and is forgotten, and presently, as with the television, we look away or pick up a newspaper or a magazine. For the essence of television is its ephemerality: it is a world of flickering images, each dying at the moment it is born … like the water tap or the electric light switch, we can take it for granted, turning it on or off at will, shifting from this channel to that, seeing a horse being born, survivors being pulled from wreckage, Miss World being crowned, one fish gobbling up another.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Even filling a Christmas stocking with tiny things was like writing a sonnet, keeping to the agreeable limitations of a strict form. Mundane things filled her with delight: picking up the blackened twigs from the lopped plane trees in the street, and later watching astonished as they burst into bud in a vase.’ – Jan Struther, Mrs Miniver

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The world unmapped

My last words on Argleton, from yesterday's Guardian:

It may be an unpromising place to look for Xanadu, but just north of Liverpool off the A59 there is a town that is already entering the annals of myth. This town, “Argleton”, appears on Google Maps, by mistake, and nowhere else. Mike Nolan and Roy Bayfield of Edge Hill University are the modern-day Marco Polos who discovered it and there is now a “save Argleton” campaign on the web which is urging Google not to correct the error.

The preservationists have poetry on their side. Argleton is a fortuitously evocative name, sounding a bit like Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, that village in deepest England known only by its railway station; and even more like something out of an old Ealing comedy, about a town fighting for its autonomy against the faceless drones of Whitehall.

Perhaps the save Argleton campaign also marks the beginnings of a dissident movement, a reaction against the speed and stealth with which Google is mapping every last blade of grass in the world. It is easy to overlook how quickly this has happened. A decade ago, only government and the military could view comprehensive aerial photography of the UK. Even when aerial maps began to be marketed to the general public, they were endearingly primitive. Who now remembers and its “millennium map”, a mosaic aerial photograph of Britain photographed by Rockwell Aerocommanders flying at 5000 feet? I bought Getmapping’s photographic atlas of London as a Christmas present for my brother in 2000. The Guardian called it “a sublime book … an amazing labour of love”. What a waste of £40 it was – and how strange it now seems that someone would exchange folding money for a coffee table, non-zoomable-in version of what you could find on the internet for free a few years later.

Now Google Earth allows us to fly effortlessly from deep space to our own back garden in a matter of moments, and then switch to Google Street View and check out the state of our neighbours’ curtains. And while I don’t agree with the anti-privacy campaigners who have tried to stop them doing this – the earth is not copyrightable, after all, and a street is a public space – it is still disconcerting to discover, as I did recently, your own front door in high resolution on the web.

This is where Argleton comes in. Maps help us to explore the world but they can also sever us from it, reducing it to a matter of Cartesian lines and intersections – or, in Google’s case, vectors and pixels - rather than real, living places. In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit argues that getting lost has become a subversive and creative act, releasing us from our over-directed, intricately mapped existences and reacquainting us with the local and vernacular.

Perhaps this explains the schadenfreude that some people feel when they hear about motorists deposited in village ponds by their satnavs. The discovery of Argleton is part of the same reassertion of the local, the happy realisation that the world is not completely mappable, that not even Google knows as much as God or the people on the ground. The Argletonians are the contemporary equivalent of the apocryphal local leaning on a gate who, when asked directions by a motorist, sucks his teeth and says, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”.

I am happy to confirm that, for now, Argleton remains a reassuring presence on Google Maps. In fact, having made my own explorations, I am even happier to confirm that it exists after all. Argleton is a real-life version of Brigadoon, the magical Scottish village dreamed up in Hollywood. By chance, I happened to visit it on the one day every hundred years that it appears out of the mists that drift across the West Lancashire plain. There I met the surveyor from Google Maps, who has been persuaded to stay in the town forever so that its magic spell will not be broken, and is now married to a local beauty with an uncanny resemblance to Cyd Charisse. So, all you preservationists, fear not. There is no need to “save Argleton”. Argleton endures; it will outlive us all.