Lockdown might bring the Dickensian Christmas back into fashion

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

I feel like a prisoner, making daily marks on the cell wall to chart the approach of freedom. But will it be freedom, or will we be on parole, obliged to wear a tag and subject to re-incarceration at authority’s whim? Such thoughts do not encourage equanimity.

On that subject, I remember a delightfully splenetic political column by the late — alas — Alan Watkins, published a generation ago. As Christmas approaches, even the most acerbic hack feels obliged to relent and sound a little more like Fezziwig, a little less like Scrooge. Perhaps because he was never given to excessive astringency, Alan did not relent.

He was complaining about secretaries, who were then numerous in newspaper offices. As the season came on apace, some of the girls would decide to indulge themselves in a lunch at the sort of restaurant they were used to booking for their bosses. That had two consequences. First, the restaurant became fully booked. So this female frivolity would come between the journalist and the tools of his trade: knife, fork, glass, wine list et al. Second, at least one of the ladies was bound to over-indulge. When the men returned, not in the best of humours after being obliged to settle for a lesser establishment, there was more bad news. Even after only a modest potation in the pursuit of enlightenment, there might still be a case for a further cup of coffee. But it would be hard to find anyone to make it, let alone do any typing or process some expenses. All the girls would be relaying weak tea and aspirins to poor Miranda who was moaning in the ladies’ loo. Wise counsel might have attempted to para-phrase the most enchanting of her sex, Rosalind — ‘Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for hangovers’ — and suggest that the sufferer would feel better after a few minutes at the key-board. But no such counsellor would have been allowed near her.

Sadly, these memories of Christmas past, and columnists passed on, are as irrelevant to current journalism as Mr Fezziwig’s festivities. That said, lockdown might bring the brevity of a Dickensian Christmas back into fashion. Consider Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has missed her vocation. With her, it is less a case of an icicle in the heart, as a few scraps of tissue clinging to the ice. She ought to have been a tricoteuse. Banning Hogmanay: that is enough to start a revolution.

Also in an earlier generation, during the grouse season the final Earl of Sefton was having lunch in the Jockey Club rooms in Newmarket. Cold grouse was on the menu. His Lordship ordered one. ‘Terribly sorry, m’Lord, there are none left.’ ‘But it’s barely one o’clock.’ ‘Yes, m’Lord, but the Duke of Norfolk is giving luncheon to the Queen and her party in the private dining room. There were only a dozen grouse, and he’s taken them all.’ Sefton banged the table. ‘That sort of thing breeds bolshevism.’

In Scotland there is enough bolshevism already. But if anything could incite an uprising against la Sturgeon’s nationalist, socialist and increasingly authoritarian regime, closing down Hogmanay might be the spark.

As with the first lockdown, I have found myself surprisingly reluctant to open solitary bottles. I did help a friend — we were of course bubbled, and it was a business meeting — to drink a 2010 Bourgneuf, en magnum. It comes from a small estate in Pomerol, only about 20 acres. The Veyron family has been in charge for eight generations and I have the impression that they are not out to maximise profits, although they also run to a second wine, Les Saisons de Bourgneuf, which I have not tried. But the elder brother deserves to be better-known. That might be a good project, and indulgence, for Advent.

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