IMG_20221212_0001Amazingly, it seems there are still people out there excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the festive schedules on the mainstream TV channels, as though the DVD box-set or streaming sites cease to exist on at midnight on 24 December, and for the duration of Christmas Day the only option for visual entertainment will be to watch the seasonal special of a BBC1 or ITV show nobody wants to watch the rest of the year. Even as far back as the late 80s, the one-time dominance of television to provide the masses with their yuletide viewing habits was being eroded by the gift-wrapped live comedy video, which would be shoved into the VCR instead of sitting through an over-familiar Bond movie or second-guessing which character would top themselves on the Xmas ‘Eastenders’. Television’s unchallenged power to monopolise leisure time on 25 December was broken long before the novelty of a Christmas Day terrestrial film premiere was rendered redundant by multiple means of seeing said movie months in advance of BBC1 getting hold of it. In a way, I suspect broadcasters are more aware of this than they let on, which is probably why they put so little effort into their Christmas output now than they used to; why waste time and money making festive telly people might want to watch when the people are planning their own personal schedules?

Like most unburdened by ‘family get-togethers’, I myself have the luxury of not having to take anyone else’s taste into account; I could watch ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at 2.00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day if I wanted to. I don’t, but that’s not the point. Instead, I’ll no doubt dip into those neglected gems from the TV archive that the BBC will only trot out occasionally; indeed, what better way to feel seasonal without opting for the obvious than revisiting the fondly-recalled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series that annually aired on or around Xmas Eve from 1971 to 1978? An author whose low-key spine-chillers always appear best served by the small screen, M.R. James provided this series with the stories that comprised the first five entries, beginning with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ in 1971; with its characteristically creepy Victorian setting, the chills are masterfully achieved on a shoestring budget, and though this psychological horror starring Robert Hardy as an Archdeacon tormented by voices and glimpses of imagined spectres in the shadows was intended as a one-off, it prompted a follow-up the following Christmas and swiftly established a tradition that spanned seven years.

There’d been successful televisual attempts to illustrate James’s talent for unsettling the reader prior to the start of this series; in 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an especially nightmarish adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ in which Michael Horden’s twitchy academic suffers uncomfortably realistic nightmares during a spell on vacation in coastal Suffolk. It followed a familiar James path of placing pompous clergymen and dons in positions of peril, confronted by the consequences of their hubris when up against supernatural forces. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (as it was re-titled) made enough of an impact at the time to warrant further James adaptations, though by the time ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ appeared, television had grown out of its monochrome roots and director of all-but one of the BBC Ghost Stories, Lawrence Gordon Clark, made full use of colour location filming in East Anglia to visualise James’s written words. Perhaps the finest example of this came with his second outing, 1972’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Peter Vaughan stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of the lost crown of the Saxon kingdoms; against all odds, he discovers it, though he bargains without the presence of the crown’s guardian, an out-of-focus figure who pursues Vaughan’s character even when he is convinced enough of the trophy’s curse to return it to its burial place. It remains a uniquely eerie 50 minutes that hasn’t lost its ability to unnerve.

By the time of the third entry in the series, ‘Lost Hearts’, the annual Ghost Story was in danger of becoming as much of a Christmas tradition as the Xmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ – albeit an alternative sedative to the usual festive cheer, reconnecting with a gleefully disturbing Victorian and Edwardian sensibility which had been lost in the wholesome Americanisation of the season that had become the norm by the late 20th century. 1974’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ returned to recognisable M.R. James territory by featuring Michael Bryant as a smug medieval scholar looking for the lost fortune of a disgraced cleric; when he finds it, the ramifications of his avarice reduce him to a gibbering victim of his own superior attitude towards the unknown. The following year’s ‘The Ash Tree’ delves even deeper into pagan superstition, recalling the witch-hunts of the 17th century and evoking primal arachnophobia with the mutant ‘spiders’ lurking in the tree of the title. However, by 1976 the M.R. James adaptations were deemed worn-out and the series then turned to a short story by Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’.

An early outing for the now-veteran TV adaptor of classic fiction Andrew Davies, ‘The Signalman’ features Denholm Elliott as the title character who recounts a bloody train crash on the line outside his signal-box to an unnamed traveller, an event that continues to haunt him in his solitary exile from society. The fact the original story was penned a year after Dickens himself survived similar carnage on a train travelling through Staplehurst in Kent is probably no coincidence, but it certainly taps into the nightmares that remained with the author until his premature death on the fifth anniversary of the incident in 1870. The television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ bears the same psychological tropes that opened the series with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ five years previously, and is – along with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – perhaps the most effectively chilling of all the entries in the series.

In 1977, the series received something of a contemporary makeover by dispensing with adaptations of classic authors and commissioning a newly-written story set in the present day, ‘Stigma’; although this tale, starring the dependable Peter Bowles, has its moments by calling upon the same pagan myths that fuelled ‘The Ash Tree’, a key element of the series is lost by relocating events to the here and now, and the trend was carried over into the following year’s ‘The Ice House’, the final Ghost Story of the 70s run. Bar the odd repeat screening, the tradition was discontinued for several decades until BBC4 decided to revive the series during the period when the channel was producing daring drama the mainstream channels had largely abandoned. 2005’s adaptation of a previously-untouched M.R. James story, ‘A View from a Hill’, managed to retain the creepiness of the 1970s adaptations as well as adding a slicker look and feel that made the revival more than merely a nostalgic rehash. It worked well enough to lead to another James adaptation the year after (‘Number 13’) and the series has continued off and on ever since. A new instalment is scheduled for this year, hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Mezzotint’, and all (bar one) have been derived from the works of the master, M.R. James.

Post-lockdown, the ongoing ‘things can only get worse’ mood of the nation has led to an annual ‘Oh, well – let’s just enjoy Christmas’ attitude that obscures the fact that, for many, this is a time of year when detachment from one’s fellow man is intensified by an overemphasis on convivial group gatherings that not everyone is party to. The likes of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ serves as a much-needed antidote to such facile clichés and any addition to a series that now stretches back half-a-century is a welcome – not to say rare – contribution from mainstream broadcasters that acknowledges the needs of viewers for more than a Christmas ‘Strictly’ special to lure them away from online attractions. Long may it continue.


A shadowy, near-mythical figure whose brilliantly offensive and near-the-knuckle manipulations of archive TV illuminated late-night Channel 4 back in the days when the station had balls, Victor Lewis-Smith was also renowned as a witty, sardonic journalist for publications as varied as the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and Private Eye. His death at the age of 65 will probably pass most people by, but his pioneering prank calls (which were unremittingly amusing, if deliciously beyond the pale) paved the way for the likes of Ali G; I particularly recall his call to Hughie Green in the late 90s, when he asked the one-time ‘Opportunity Knocks’ host if he’d ever f***ed Lena Zavaroni, which provoked laughter from Green rather than apoplexy. His call to Michael Winner was even better; if Lewis-Smith’s ‘TV Offal’ series is still available on YT, track it down; it also features the Gay Daleks. Say no more. The Winegum salutes you as a master satirist, sir.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294



Steptoe and SonIt goes without saying that this time of year is notable for a gradual withdrawal from the usual duties, and whilst I haven’t consciously taken time out from here, inspiration has dwindled somewhat. I can’t necessarily lay the blame at the festive door, however; when one subject dominates every bleedin’ headline, it’s not so much fear of repeating one’s self – more a certain jaded fatigue with writing about the whole bloody business. Even comparing some of the increasingly bonkers rules and regulations to dystopian fiction can feel like a rather tiresome comparison now; and as for satire, a noticeable absence of compulsion on my part to even try via my sideline video platform reflects the fact that this situation has already satirised itself. When Mark ‘Diwali’ Drakeford, the elected dictator of the People’s Republic of Wales, can make going to work a crime and fine employees £60 for attempting to earn a living in the workplace (and even fine employers £1000 for enticing their workforce back), how can one satirise something so f***ing stupid or declare ‘Bloody hell, talk about Kafkaesque’?!

The fact that the television sitcom is perhaps the most redundant of all the dying TV genres means the traditional Xmas episode viewers looked forward to is now a purely nostalgic treat. ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Rising Damp’, ‘The Good Life’ et al – all produced memorable seasonal specials that remain worthy of wheeling out every December because their collective narrative remains relevant, or at least did do up until last Christmas. In 2020 – and, no doubt, 2021 – there’s an additional nostalgia factor on top of the usual long-dead actors and vintage cultural tropes; the fact that these characters are indulging in a pre-pandemic world of family gatherings, parties and all the other hallmarks of what Christmas meant until this time last year coats them in an extra sentimental sheen that places them even further from the here and now than the mere fact they were produced over 40 years ago.

Even if there were such a thing as an unmissable sitcom today, how could any of the plotlines involving Yuletide scenarios that everyone watching would be familiar with actually be written now? With filming done months in advance of transmission, the first lockdown was characterised on television by characters going about their daily business without social distancing or donning masks or being confined to quarters; it seemed to expose the medium as more artificial than it had ever seemed to the casual viewer before, particularly in the heightened reality of the soap opera, when life in Weatherfield, Walford or Emmerdale suddenly seemed less realistic than it normally does when enacting its gruesome litany of murders, rapes, sieges and spectacular explosions. Any lingering pretence of reflecting real life – or a real life derived from the most sensational of tabloid headlines – was obliterated by the failure of such dramas to mirror the actual drama viewers were experiencing beyond the parallel universe confines of the small screen.

And whilst it could easily have been argued before the world had even heard the word Covid that there hadn’t been a decent Christmas song for over 30 years anyway, to compose such a ditty today would require the ejection of all the clichés that constitute the classic Christmas dirge. ‘Are you waiting for the family to arrive?’ asked Noddy Holder on Slade’s evergreen seasonal smash. Most outside of ivory Tory towers in 2020 would have replied, ‘No; they’re not allowed to visit’. When your granny always tells you that the old songs are the best, she can’t be up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest when she’s locked in her care-home and can’t receive any members of her family to dance with. And denied the luxury of driving home for Christmas, Chris Rea would probably have to settle for pulling a cracker on his own whilst he waved to the rest of the Rea clan on Zoom. If he were he still around, George Michael would have to sing about the Christmas before last. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? Well, it isn’t Christmas time ‘cause it’s been cancelled. Not only can it not be Christmas every day, Roy; it isn’t even Christmas on 25 December anymore.

Nostalgia has always been a crucial element of the Christmas experience as the TV shows, songs and movies that take us back to our formative festive memories are recycled annually for a reason. When exposed to the Christmas hit mix on the supermarket loop, one can almost play a game in one’s head as to who’ll pop up next once one over-familiar standard finishes. Will it be Greg Lake or Mud or Mariah Carey or The Wombles or Wizzard or Boney M or Band Aid or Bing Crosby? Place your bets now. Either way, it’s doubtful any song penned on the subject issued this century will figure on the unavoidable Xmas mix-tape because, as Noddy’s granny reminded us, the old songs are the best – as are the TV shows and the movies when it comes to Christmas. Whether the sitcom seasonal specials or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, schedulers know what their audiences want and it sure as hell ain’t anything that bears even a passing resemblance to today.

In many respects, with Christmas now reduced to a shadow of its former self, the power of nostalgia is more poignant than ever as the old spirit of the season once intended to be jolly becomes almost wholly past tense. Watching or listening to any pop culture artefact highlighting the peculiar customs traditionally associated with the last couple of weeks of December – as was – is now the same as viewing or hearing any art produced before 2020 which attempts to mirror real life. It no longer mirrors anything resembling the new normal and is therefore instantly as archaic and charming as steam trains or a Jane Austen adaptation or any other reflection of a world that has been transformed into otherworldly not by the passing of time but by the passing of legislation. Look at that grainy old footage all the way back from 2019 – a restaurant or a pub or a concert; punters are packed in like sardines, and some are shaking hands, some are hugging, and none are wearing surgical masks. Like I said, otherworldly.

The 21st century was already a pretty joyless place before Covid came along, but I guess the pandemic is the icing on an especially unappetising cake, albeit one that Mary Berry and all the rest are no doubt currently baking on their numerous festive-themed cookery specials. Boris has had to put his rebooted lockdown plans on ice in order to stave off further backbench rebellions and cling to the remaining vestiges of his lifelong mission to be loved as opposed to loathed by graciously giving the electorate the opportunity to pretend this Christmas can be just like Christmas used to be. And then he’ll probably complement the moves of his devolved despots across the Caledonian and Cymru borders by attempting to impose the same tried, trusted and ultimately failed formulas for combating the coronavirus variants that he’s been imposing for what feels like forever with no discernible success.

I remember the last post on here last year was called ‘Slippery Slopes and Silver Linings’, in which I closed the piece by referencing some of the positive voices of sanity and reason that had gradually emerged as obedience and exhaustion were superseded by exasperation and anger. Neil Oliver, one of those mentioned, has continued to deliver eloquent and incisive observations on where we are throughout 2021, and I ended on a hopeful note by writing ‘And, as long as those voices can continue to be heard in 2021, there is hope that twelve months from now we won’t find ourselves living in an offshore suburb of Riyadh or Beijing, bereft of any proof of who we used to be or who we really are.’ Well, we’re not quite there yet, though it’s not through want of trying on the part of our beloved leaders. Merry Xmas, everybody.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294


BorisThe first ‘Christmas song’ hovered into my hearing range before we’d even reached December this year; November had yet to enter its dying days when my ears detected the familiar seasonal strains of a festive dirge in my local branch of Wilkos – though who can blame folk for wishing it into existence earlier than usual? To be honest, people are that desperate to have something to look forward to after the last eighteen months that it’s a wonder ‘Fairytale of New York’ or ‘Stop the Cavalry’ weren’t providing shoppers with a supermarket soundtrack when the initial restrictions were lifted back in the summer. Mind you, one of those tweeted online headlines did catch my eye the other day, one about Boris consulting with the Cabinet over whether or not to cancel Christmas 2021. Who does the fat f**k think he is – God? Or at least Oliver Cromwell? Our PM is evidently so drunk on unlimited powers that he seems to believe he has the authority or right to make such a decision. The ramifications of it would only affect me and thee, mind – lest we forget, it has recently emerged that the one place last Christmas wasn’t actually cancelled was 10 Downing Street. Fancy that!

The official Government line when the Daily Mirror revealed an illegal party was held at No.10 on 18 December last year was that there was no party; yes, people were gathered in the same way people would gather for a party, but it wasn’t a party – oh, and all guidance was carefully followed at the party that most definitely wasn’t a party. In case you’ve forgotten, this was the time of tiers; last Christmas, London was in Tier 3, and the guidance in December 2020 read as follows – ‘No person may participate in a gathering in the Tier 3 area which consists of two or more people, and takes place in any indoor space’. Those were the Health Protection Regulations we were all supposed to abide by at the time, the rules we were constantly being reminded of and were advised not to break because to do so would result in police raids, extortionate fines and the wholesale collapse of the NHS. Government guidance made it even clearer – ‘You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.’ These edicts were issued from on-high and those who delivered them were insistent that we were all in it together.

An anonymous source has told the BBC that at this non-party ‘food and drink was laid on for staff including those from the press office and the Number 10 events team and party games were played.’ Sounds a bit like a party, doesn’t it – even though it wasn’t, of course. The non-party allegedly took place two days after the capital entered Tier 3; earlier that day, the PM had tweeted further warning advice to the general public in reference to a ‘Christmas bubble’, reminding everyone that the day in question marked the start of minimising contact with people from outside one’s own household. And if one happened to live alone, it basically meant no contact with anybody else at all – with any sort of party most certainly verboten. But, as we must constantly emphasise, what took place in Downing Street on 18 December 2020 wasn’t a party, and Boris keeps insisting that no restrictions were contravened despite the fact that restrictions were contravened.

The impression given is that No.10 was this country’s very own Versailles during the depths of the most oppressive lockdowns, with life carrying on along the lines of the old normal rather than the new one. Whilst less fortunate individuals beyond the hedonistic enclave of the PM’s residence were forcibly isolated and many breathed their last without the privilege of family and friends gathered around their deathbed, Downing Street was Studio Fifty-f***ing Four by comparison. Nobody has been reported as recommending the peasants eat cake whilst the political aristocrats partied on, though perhaps Michael Gove might have said ‘Let them snort coke’. The day after the non-party, Boris delivered – with a ‘heavy heart’ (his own words) – the announcement that we couldn’t continue with ‘Christmas as planned’; he was castigated for leaving such a speech till the eleventh hour, throwing the best-laid plans of millions into disarray and provoking a flight from London that resembled the evacuation of Saigon – yet he apparently didn’t consider the rules applied to him and his team. Granted, like most, it’s hard to think of anything less appealing than a party for Tory MPs and their staff; but that’s not really the point.

December 2020 was also the moment at which the police were in their most Jobsworth killjoy mode, actively on the hunt for outlawed social gatherings and relishing breaking up wedding parties or gate-crashing religious services. That very month, Leicestershire Police circulated a video of a raid on a party containing more than 60 people at a house in Leicester and proudly announced the two organisers of it were fined £10,000 each. Meanwhile, the Met had specified that ‘holding large gatherings could be the difference between life and death for someone else’, going on to say that ‘you must not mix inside with anyone who is not in your household or support bubble’. Pretty clear-cut statement from an organisation that now declares it does not ‘routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations’ whilst simultaneously prosecuting an alleged illegal gathering that took place on 18 December last year…at a house in Ilford.

The quartermaster’s stores of American air bases during WWII were notoriously crammed with goods the rationed natives had no access to – with the exception of spivs who did a healthy black market trade through having contacts on the inside. Although US forces were invited guests as opposed to an elite group of British citizens living in luxury, knowledge of how GIs were being spared the privations that the public were suffering must have stoked a degree of resentment at the time. But can that be anything like the resentment so many feel today towards our elected representatives and their shameless hypocrisy? Only a few weeks ago Comrade Mark Drakeford, the Labour leader of the People’s Republic of Wales and one of the most rigid advocates of the toughest pandemic restrictions, was caught on camera doing his bit for diversity by dancing around at a packed Diwali gathering sans mask. Another Labour MP, Zarah Sultana recently declared ‘I feel incredibly unsafe in the chamber…I see most of the Tories not wearing masks’, and then tweeted images of herself having a good time at the MOBO awards, surrounded by people and – you guessed it – sans mask.

It goes without saying that most of these cretins are incredibly stupid people, and were their stupidity restricted to themselves we could all have a good laugh at their expense. But when powers reside in the hands of such idiots, powers that can affect the lives of millions, the joke isn’t quite so funny anymore. The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ rhetoric of preaching without practising is especially grating to those who suffered the most during lockdowns and who are dreading the reintroduction of measures that were responsible for that suffering – measures promoted and policed by political figures not prepared to abide by rules the rest of us were no more keen to abide by but had no say in the matter. Yes, we’re so accustomed to double standards on the part of the political class of all colours that we expect nothing less now, though the whole story of the Downing Street Christmas party-that-never-was is particularly poignant considering just how hard it was for so many in this country when Boris and chums were playing pass-the-parcel. If the PM is seriously contemplating cancelling Christmas again (thanks to the latest convenient variant), I suspect few will – or indeed should – practise what Boris preaches.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294


So, Boris grabs the Cromwell crown and cancels Christmas. Sir Keir puts the boot in, but still supports the newest addition to the Tier system – 4 and counting – all the same. Just when the nation was giving thanks to our gracious overlords for being granted permission to take time out for a few days of festivities, that nasty coronavirus has gone and done what viruses have a habit of doing – it’s mutated into an even deadlier strain. A shame, because according to the Office of National Statistics, fewer deaths have been registered in the UK this year than at any time over the last five years; that either means the lockdown cycle, social distancing and mask-wearing works, or that this pandemic isn’t quite the apocalypse we’ve been led to believe; and if the latter is the case, where be the justification for the Prime Minister’s latest blow to public morale? The cruelty of an eleventh hour U-turn suggests a reluctance to do the deed on Boris’s part; then again, it could simply be another example of the man’s ineptitude as a leader. Many understandably feel he is playing Lucy to their Charlie Brown, promising not to move the football as hapless, trusting Chuck runs up to kick it and then falls flat on his back once more as Lucy does indeed move it before his kick makes contact.

Overnight images of the multitudes crammed into London’s stations, fleeing the capital like bewildered evacuees in 1939, also evoked the desperation of the citizens of Saigon besieging the US Embassy as the Communist forces approached in 1975. Indeed, in the vivid portraits painted by lockdown fanatics, Covid-19 has now almost taken on the qualities of an invading army; Matt Hancock, bravely holding back the tears on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning breakfast show and maintaining the hackneyed ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative, declared ‘collectively, we all face the same enemy’ – just like we faced Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. Thanks to the Government pressing the panic button, Londoners were given barely five or six hours to get out of London before the gates of the capital were bolted; if one buys into the wartime rhetoric and visualises the virus as a physical foe, the last-minute decision announced on Saturday has led to this enemy now being dispatched across the country, delivered to provincial doorsteps like so many gift-wrapped bath salts nobody wants.

A mass evacuation in which social distancing is unavoidably spurned makes ‘acting like you have the virus’ (© Mr Hancock) as much of a farcical piece of advice on a packed train carriage as it does on a crowded shopping street. Or maybe ‘acting like you have the virus’ equates with exercising one’s own judgement as to the risk you pose to others and not spending the rest of your days self-identifying as a leper. Earlier, somebody said on Twitter words to the effect that the current design for life seems to be simply avoiding dying, which isn’t really living, is it? If that was living, then Hillary would never have reached the summit of Everest, the Wright brothers would never have climbed aboard the Wright Flyer, and Yuri Gagarin would have left the space race to dogs and monkeys. Mind you, put the fear of God into enough people and chances are plenty of them will quickly come to believe the most basic and mundane of tasks are charged with the same risk to life and limb that accompanied every giant leap for mankind – and chances are they’ll opt out of undertaking them.

Sad as it is, we have now become accustomed to the constant threat of regional lockdowns that make travelling from one part of the country to another something of a minefield; but we were told it would be possible to journey into the lost worlds of the provinces over Christmas as some sort of reward for enduring the most repressive peacetime restrictions on civil liberties the British people have ever been subjected to – albeit at a cost; the prospect of another national lockdown in January was seen by many as the price to be paid for relaxing restrictions a little for a paltry four or five days in December. This is what it has come to – having to express gratitude to Government for allowing a bit of extended time in the company of loved ones that Government policy in 2020 has kept separated from one another. ‘Please, sir, I want some more,’ said the nation to Boris Bumble, and the Parish Beadle has duly obliged by refusing the request. Having the promised extended time now either cut short to one day (outside of London and the South East) or completely curtailed (London and the South East) means there are an awful lot of folk out there who are seeing their temporary respite from this abysmal year go up in smoke.

Of course, for many people, Christmas is always like this – lonely, empty and unhappy. When it belatedly registered that none of this would be over by Christmas, the news that friends and family would no longer be ringing the doorbell in the anticipated numbers has been a crushing disappointment to millions across the country; but for others, an absence of guests is the norm come December, every December. Christmas isn’t one long-running, sentimental John Lewis advert for everybody; and even if one strips away the Disneyfied sheen and acknowledges that those family gatherings in which festering grievances that are kept suppressed for the rest of the year can abruptly erupt are far more common than ad agencies would have us believe, these unpleasant reunions are not necessarily universal. It should be remembered that not everyone has family members, either with or without festering grievances; not everyone has enough friends to make up a party; not everyone has a partner or spouse to keep them company even in the event of Covid-19 preventing others from calling laden with presents.

Those for whom Christmas is a bleak reminder of their own isolation from the rest of humanity as television, the internet and the media bombard them with annual images of how the other half live are now seeing their miserable seasonal ritual shared by those utterly unused to it. I’m sure only the most mean-minded in that position would feel any sense of smug satisfaction at this development; most wouldn’t wish their kind of Christmas on anyone, and the thought that so many are now poised to experience it shouldn’t serve as any sort of solace. At the same time, perhaps these events could be seen as an invaluable reminder that the Christmas routine we are informed is that of the majority is also a luxury fantasy to the lonely and unloved. Some only appear capable of empathy when they themselves undergo privations, so we can but hope lessons are learned this year that prove useful on the off-chance that we’ve returned to a semblance of normality by Christmas 2021. We’ll see.

Personally, I do feel genuine sympathy for those whose plans for long-awaited get-togethers have now been completely trashed; I appreciate what a big deal this is to them, even if their concept of Christmas is entirely alien to me. Speaking for myself, I would’ve been spending Christmas Day alone with or without coronavirus, anyway, and – bar one divine deviation from the norm in recent years – this is pretty standard Yuletide fare for me. But observing the latest cruel move by a political class seemingly intent on crushing the spirit of the public so that they’ll eventually accept compulsory vaccination gives me no pleasure, and I really would be something of a Scrooge if it did.

© The Editor


As I’ve stated on more than one previous occasion, online shopping has been a Godsend for me, liberating me from having to make the dreaded trip ‘into town’ – especially this particularly appalling time of year. Only this morning, dashing down the aisles of my local Sainsbury’s in search of something to invigorate my jaded appetite, I received my first exposure of 2017 to the soundtrack that pumps out the same old seasonal songs on the same old loop until any lingering nostalgic affection for the individual tracks in question is finally, belatedly, obliterated. Yes, even ‘Fairytale of New York’, perennially held-up as the ‘Cool’ Christmas song, is beginning to grate after 30 years and is now firmly settled alongside Noddy, Roy, Greg and Jona as an earworm only marginally less unwelcome than the Radio 1 ‘mix-tape’ my new neighbour plays at 4.30am every weekend to obscure the bottom-spanking sex sounds emanating from her flat door.

I rarely make the journey into the nearest city centre now; until I stopped smoking I was mainly making the journey solely to purchase cheap tobacco from a small shop I frequented for the best part of fifteen years – baccy that supplemented the 40 cigs a day I was addicted to. Since I switched to vaping, I’ve been spared the fortnightly trek, and now I have no reason whatsoever to set foot there. A recent conversation with a friend on the horrors of physical shopping made me realise that I literally have nothing to venture into such an arena for anymore. All the shops that lured me there for the majority of my adult life have gone.

Memories of childhood city centre shopping outings mostly consist of being reluctantly dragged around ‘mum stores’ such as M&S and C&A, sterile feminine emporiums with little or no appeal for a bored boy; appeasement came as a reward before the bus-stop, when the bookshelves of Boots or WH Smiths would provide momentary portals to more exciting alternatives.

Once free from the maternal jackboot, locations that would provoke exasperation in mothers were ports-of-call on adolescent wanderings around the same square-mile – second-hand record, book and magazine shops situated down seedy side-streets off the previously beaten path, emitting intoxicatingly musty odours and manned by grubby geezers or shady ladies with mouths as foul as the enticingly archaic stench produced from the piles of yellowing 70s NME, Sounds and Melody Maker issues or LPs from record collections offloaded in the wake of the thirty-something CD exodus that such shops specialised in. Emerging from these divinely dark caves, one’s fingers were as dirty as the neglected corners of the town they were hidden away in.

The mainstream choices weren’t really mum-friendly either – mainly Virgin and HMV, which were initially as deliciously ‘alternative’ as the aforementioned independent specialist shops in the first half of the 80s, at least. If there was a colour scheme, it was sex-shop black; even the staff looked like they should be in bands, albeit The Specimen or The Slits; one pink-haired vamp was a particular personal incentive for making Virgin a regular haunt of bunking-off sessions during the last desperate days of school – sessions that would sometimes inadvertently lead to encounters with other truant wastrels dressed in uncharacteristic ensembles that would never be permissible in the place we were supposed to be attending. Of course, I didn’t ‘chat-up’ the pink-haired vamp behind the counter; I didn’t know how. But I occasionally wonder what became of her.

The shop sold videos too! ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ was on sale in there – and they’d never broadcast that on the telly. It’d cost you around £25 to see Sid Vicious strolling through Paris and offending the natives, mind; and you’d also have to wade through the VHS/Betamax debate in order to work out if your primitive family VCR would play the bloody thing. It was all academic, though; the tape was way out of your pocket-money league, so all you could do was study the packaging and wish YouTube into existence 20 years early.

By the time the HMV morphed into just another mall monstrosity aimed at game-boys, and Virgin briefly became known as ‘Zavvi’ – or the more common nickname, ‘Spazzi’ – there were other reasons to venture into the city centre, such as bookstore Borders. Books, CDs, a café, and another alluring female member of staff to moon over – that was a good enough reason to make it an essential stop-off point on a circuit that remained a fortnightly routine. And then came 2008. In a matter of months, the small list of shops that still made shopping bearable for me suddenly vanished. The disappearance of the traditional singles chart display in HMV and ‘Zavvi’ had already curtailed a 30-year habit that made 2007 the final year I bought a physical single, but now all the other stores that had constituted the map of my shopping ceremony had gone.

The news that Toys R Us are preparing to close a quarter of their 106 UK stores, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs, is the latest casualty of online shopping’s ascendancy almost a decade on from the 2008 crash. Although it wasn’t a shop I frequented, the announcement marks the latest development in a seemingly ongoing saga in which the ease of purchasing goods via eBay or Amazon has supplanted the undesirable experience of mulling around stores with one’s ears polluted by archive Xmas ditties and one’s person constantly confronted by the fat, sweaty crush of other people. It’s one more sign of our changing times, but one I don’t necessarily mourn the loss of. I left it all behind a long time ago.

© The Editor



vlcsnap-2015-12-20-22h07m29s100Question: What do the following songs have in common? ‘I Feel Fine’, The Beatles; ‘I Hear You Knocking’, Dave Edmunds; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Queen; ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Pink Floyd; ‘Don’t You Want Me’, The Human League; ‘Killing in The Name’, Rage Against The Machine. Answer: They all topped the UK singles chart at Christmastime. For the amateur Paul Gambaccini’s amongst you, the years concerned were 1964, 1970, 1975, 1979, 1981 and 2009 respectively.

None of those numbers are what could really be classified as ‘seasonal’; indeed, of the 63 singles to have been top of the charts on December 25, only 14 have been specifically Christmas or ‘party’-themed, and of those 14, three were the same song (albeit a trio of different recordings), Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ Lest we forget, last year’s fourth version was released so ridiculously early that we had a song about Christmas at No.1 during the last week in November, so it doesn’t count. The truth is the enduring appeal of ‘the Christmas song’ – at least if the supermarket playlists are anything to go by – is not necessarily complimented by a roll-call of chart-toppers. Some of the most popular hits wrapped in tinsel – ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday’, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, ‘Stop the Cavalry’, ‘Last Christmas’, ‘Fairytale of New York’ – failed to make the top spot. Many were prevented from reaching No.1 by records that had little to do with the time of year.

In the early years of the UK singles charts, a trio of what could be termed Christmas songs made it to No.1 – Winifred Atwell’s ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, Dickie Valentine’s ‘Christmas Alphabet’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Harry Belafonte; but there was no room for the Xmas genre at the top spot throughout the 60s. A trend of sorts was instigated at the very end of the decade when The Scaffold’s ‘Lily the Pink’ sparked the notion of the novelty Christmas chart-topper, something that was followed by the likes of Benny Hill, Little Jimmy Osmond, St Winifred’s School Choir and Renee & Renato in the 70s and into the 80s.

What we now view as the archetypal Christmas No.1 first appeared with Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in 1973. Something that had long been the province of cheesy, cardigan-clad crooners was now deemed a fitting subject for a contemporary rock act. John Lennon had coated the season in a credible musical sheen the previous year and Slade decided to give it a Glam makeover twelve months later.

Singles sales were so high in the 70s that a million-seller could occur at any time of the year, but as the 80s progressed and a gradual decline in the amount of sales required to top the charts set in, record companies latched onto the fact that Christmas alone was the one period when a single could still clock up a million, and they began to pour their resources into the month leading up to December 25. The Christmas No.1 then acquired the Holy Grail status it held for a decade or more.

When the first Band Aid record was launched in a blitz of publicity at the end of 1984 and subsequently became the biggest-selling single in the history of the UK charts up to that time, another ingredient was added to the recipe, the one that stated it was ‘all in a good cause’. The two other occasions that Geldof & Ure’s anthem claimed the Christmas top spot paved the way for the likes of 2011’s Military Wives and 2012’s Justice Collective. Criticisms of the records were beyond-the-pale, as they were for ‘charadee’.

What for many killed the element of surprise where the Xmas chart-topper was concerned – seasonal sing-along, charity plea or novelty dirge? – came in 2002 when Girls Aloud hit No.1 over the festive period with their debut single, ‘Sound of the Underground’; they were the first product of the Cowell industry to grab the top spot at Christmas and out of the twelve records to be No.1 on December 25 since then, seven have emerged from the same get-rich-quick/here today-gone tomorrow talent show conveyor belt.

Simon Cowell has been accused of buying the Christmas No.1 as though he somehow stole something precious from the nation; but it is the nation that buys the produce he produces, after all, and he is ruthless enough to exploit the gullibility of the nation without giving a toss if nobody can even remember who won ‘The X-Factor’ by time Easter comes around. An admirable rebellion against his dominance came via the newfangled protest vehicle of the online campaign in 2009, which propelled the least likely Christmas No.1 in the shape of veteran US rap metal act Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in The Name’ to the toppermost of the poppermost; but subsequent attempts to spike Cowell’s Christmas pud have failed.

The notion that the Christmas No.1 was once a platform for a song that united the country and kept the home-fires burning is largely a myth perpetuated by the Xmas edition of ‘TOTP2’ and all those 70s and 80s tracks on a loop in Sainsbury’s from the end of November till New Year’s Day. If Simon Cowell wants it, let him have it. The vast majority of his acts have a lifespan not much longer than the yuletide binge, anyway. They were made for each other.

© The Editor