One of the benefits of getting older is you get to mint new traditions.
So this year, as for the past three years, myself and my wife Ann will be hosting Christmas in London. My parents, both now in their 80s, are coming, as well as my sister, her Danish husband and their three children, aged between 15 and 20, and Ann’s 19-year-old god-daughter Zahra and her mother. We cook beef rather than turkey, have a (small) proper tree and I will have spent the week before swearing furiously as I festoon the house with fairy lights, under strict direction from my spouse. Ann’s late mother had the gift of making Christmas magical and that gift has been passed on to her daughter. In the run up to the main event our kitchen will become a factory for Christmas puddings, spicy nuts and tiny bottles of flavoured gin that she is giving to friends.
On Boxing Day, we’re serving a pre-prepared fish pie and peas to about 10 waifs and strays — friends who also choose to remain in the capital during the festive season. (Note to self: don’t get so drunk while doing a Gollum impression with the voice-changer from the £10 presents exchanged among the family that you are too hungover to speak on the 26th.) Everyone brings something, including, in the case of one couple, a side of salmon that they caught and cured themselves.
There are other traditions we’ve invented: joining the throng at the charity auction mounted every Christmas Eve by Harts the butchers at Smithfield Market to score a cheap, fantastic piece of meat to stick in the freezer for the New Year. A romantic dinner at a London dining institution either before or after the big day (in the past we’ve done Chez Bruce and Veeraswamy; this year it’s fondue at the St Moritz in Soho). Meeting my old university friend John and his family for a Christmas morning drink in the Fentiman Arms, between our house in Kennington and theirs in Stockwell. A walk along the Thames to the Imax to see the big seasonal film. A visit to the Hackney Empire’s panto.
Even before I was forcibly converted to Ann’s adoration of all things Christmassy, I loved December in London. Many people treat the season as a time to go cold turkey (pun intended, sorry) on the capital: to give up the hectic dash and dazzle of city life for somewhere less challenging, either heading off to the bosom of out of town family members, or by escaping to some cosy rural fastness or winter-sun retreat. To these people I say, are you mad?
Think about it. At Christmas, this fraught, frantic, overstuffed metropolis suddenly loses a huge chunk of its population: TFL estimates that bus and Tube journeys fall by more than 40 per cent between Christmas and New Year. In 2016, when Christmas fell on a weekend, the number of passengers flying out of London’s airports rose by around 12 per cent. London never truly sleeps — you can always find an open shop, restaurant or petrol station somewhere, unlike in the benighted countryside — but at Christmas it does at least slow down and breathe out for a bit.
I always used to enjoy working during the week between Christmas and New Year, not just because it gave me massive brownie points among my colleagues, but because it was such a massive doss, and such an opportunity to soak up the best of the city. I’d get off the Tube early and stroll to the Evening Standard offices in Kensington along a sparkly King’s Road bleached silver by winter sunlight, or through Hyde Park. There was hardly any work for the skeleton staff to do and we usually made it to the pub at lunchtime. We’d knock off mid-afternoon after the paper had gone to bed, and I’d head off to meet Ann at a blissfully uncrowded exhibition, or a suddenly easier-to-get restaurant table.
The people who stay behind when London empties are more cheerful and polite and share a complicit sense of being in on a secret. Tube and bus etiquette improves, both among passengers and between customers and staff. Workers get seasonal enhancements in their pay packets and generally find themselves dealing with a nicer, more generous class of person. Waiters and bar managers know that bigger spends and heftier tips will be in the offing, which compensates for an uptick in raucous (but mostly good-natured) drunkenness among punters.
Families that don’t darken the door of their local theatre — or indeed, any theatre — over the rest of the year frantically book pantos, ballets and carol concerts to provide relief and distraction for the extended tribe. Theatre and cinema employees, I’ve found, are vastly more tolerant of families that are not their own, no matter how hysterical and overstimulated they are — adults and children. They also know that profits from the Christmas show pay their wages for the rest of the year. Vicars probably feel something similar. And high street retailers.
One of the other benefits of getting older is that I realise how lucky I am — how lucky we all are — to live in London in 2018. Back in the mid-Eighties, as a virtue-signalling student, I volunteered on the night shift at a homeless shelter in Euston with the charity Crisis. I know, I know, this sounds like a MASSIVE humblebrag, but that’s honestly not where I’m going with it. There was nothing to do overnight except chat to the occasional insomniac, and make the roll-ups we handed out to smokers after each meal the next day. (For years, my greatest boast was that I’d taught a French nun to roll fags.)
The point is that, at 6am on Christmas day me and my friend Ian Sutton, who had also volunteered, clocked off and walked down to Leicester Square as a gentle snow fell around us. It was beautiful, there was hardly a soul around and nothing, absolutely nothing, was open, apart from one tiny greasy spoon next to the Tube station, where we had a bacon sandwich. I can’t remember how we got back to my family’s home in Wandsworth — can the Tube have been running to Tooting on Christmas Day? — or much else beyond falling asleep face down in my Christmas dinner.
But I remember the exhilaration of living in the best city in the world, back when the pubs closed early, there were three TV channels and no internet, people smoked on the Tube, and the best thing on offer in London at Christmas was a bacon sandwich. London has become exponentially more sophisticated, cosmopolitan and, well, just open since then. Why would you ever want to leave? Especially at Christmas.