Christmas 2015 was really awful. It was one of those years when everything goes wrong on Christmas Eve and suddenly you’re confronted with the realization that you’re not actually going to have a Christmas this year. After the build up, and the easy assumption that you’ll be able to kick back and enjoy yourself as usual… suddenly it all looks very different.
And when I was in a quiet house on Christmas Day, completely alone, with no decorations or dinner or anything going on… it was a strange, still feeling. I almost felt that everyone should experience this… just once, perhaps. Looking out the back window at our misty street and gardens, and all the windows gently lit up… I was thinking how lovely it would be to be part of any of those family gatherings right now…
If your Christmas is ruined one year it ensures that you’ll never take it for granted again.
In 2015 Jeremy was whisked into hospital in the early hours of Christmas Eve. He’d had a suspected flare-up of the Crohn’s that was diagnosed nineteen years earlier. Suddenly he was in agony in the very early hours of the night, and I had to call an ambulance. Next thing I was sitting by his side as they zoomed us to Manchester Royal Infirmary. We stayed awake all night in numberless waiting rooms and consulting rooms and corridors. We were placed on ward after ward and the nightmare went on through the next morning and into the short afternoon. Everywhere we went people were wearing Christmas jumpers and trying to look cheery, and Jeremy was gasping in pain the whole time.
And, as they tried to sort him out, it became clear he’d be stuck there for at least a week.
And so our Christmas was off.
Just as it got dark I walked home through the south of the city. I was popping home for a few hours to feed the cat, get a shower, and pack a bag for Jeremy. I walked through the traffic chugging home and through streets with glowing trees in every window. I remembered the running tally we always kept as kids, counting the trees we saw in windows.
When I eventually got to our street it was dark and the lamps were on. The neighbours were starting up their Christmases. And Bernard Socks was racing towards me down the middle of the street. Our strange, psychic cat seemed to have had advance warning, and he came bounding up to me… I was delirious with lack of sleep and it seems to me that he came running up on his hind legs like Puss in Boots…
In the hours I wasn’t visiting Jeremy in hospital during that Christmas-that-wasn’t, I sat on our settee with Socks on my lap and I turned for comfort-viewing to a certain box of DVDs I’d built up into a collection over the years. I’ve made a habit of curating my very favourite Christmas specials and episodes and movies into an impeccably tacky collection of discs.
That Christmas our house was still a bit wrecked and half-decorated following a disaster we’d had with ceilings falling in, and being left at the mercy of awful insurance people and awful builders. The place was chilly and the bare boards were covered in blobs of dried plaster. I felt adrift on the settee with Socks… I didn’t touch any of the Christmas food I’d bought with Jeremy. Everything went into the freezer… I ate pies made by my friend Wendy, who had her own pie-making business (‘Life of Pie’) and had baked a batch with variously festive fillings…
And I sought solace in old friends from the telly… Tom and Barbara Good, Doctor Who and Rose, Sarah and K9, Cagney and Lacey, Larry Grayson and Isla StClair, MR James and Michael Hordern… from low comedy to high drama, sci-fi to sentimental TV movies… Each single episode took me back to different Christmases past… from childhood, from years in Edinburgh and Norwich and here in Manchester.
They filled an entire week, and were curiously comforting. They reminded me: there have been other Christmases. There will be other Christmases to come. It won’t always be like this one.
That’s the feeling I wanted to get into my book about Christmas Telly. I wanted to dig down into the reason for my obsession with vintage shows like ‘The Box of Delights’, or my seemingly ridiculous devotion to, say, the Christmas 1979 edition of ‘Crossroads.’ All these things are festive, but they’re brimming with pathos, too: with a sense they represent a happiness that’s always only just, and only briefly, within reach…
Our hellish Christmas of 2015 forms the over-arching story of my book about telly, ‘The Christmas Box’, and I hope it’ll be a fun reminder for readers of the joy of old telly. It might prompt them to go and find particular shows, it might trigger a few happy dormant memories. Also, I hope it’ll be a reminder never to take Christmas for granted.
Here we are in 2017 and December is approaching fast. Unpacking boxes from the attic, a hale and hearty Jeremy unfurls a miniature pink Christmas tree. He fits new batteries and the lights glow brilliant white. He brings it up to my study and we put it pride of place. It’s the first bit of Christmas in our house this year.
I couldn’t give a fig if anyone thinks it’s too early. Jeremy puts on records, crackly and vinyl: records he’s kept preserved almost all his life. It’s early for Christmas but these days I just think if you feel even the tiniest bit festive… get a bloody tree up. Chuck some tinsel on. Who cares if it’s September or January or Christmas itself? Make the bloody most of it. Don’t wait for it to come to you. Because one year it might not turn up. So – get on with it. And happy holidays – whatever and whenever you wish to celebrate.
Order 'The Christmas Box' from Obverse Books here!