...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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December 24, 2004 || 10:30 pm

It's Christmas, again...and the routine repeats itself, with subtle variations, fromthe moment I leave my London flat to go back 'home' to my parents in the countryside. I have too many bags to carry the 15 minute walk to the station, so I get a cab. On the way, I pass two police cars that have stopped and three 'youths' thrust against the wall under a garish stret light, being questioned under the benevolent gaze of a police horse wearing red reindeer antlers.

The train is really packed. My father, meeting me at the station, has a cold. I'm exhausted by last minute shopping and the travelling, and go to bed immediately after supper. Today, as is our tradition, we decorate the house, going to get our Christmas tree from the same old farm where we have the same conversation about the virtues of buying trees on Christmas Eve that I have had for as long as I can remember. We pace the field, weighing up the pros and cons of various trees and measuring their height against our shoulders.

At home, my mother pesters me to leave off what I am doing and come to gather holly from the tree before the darkness closes in completely. I read all the newspapers and journals that I've missed, and don't talk much, slightly irritable at being a 'child' again. Lots of tea is drunk.

We decorate the tree with a glass of champagne before dinner, listening to our ancient, totally camp LP of the Vienna Boys Choir singing Christmas carols and laughing at the same mispronunciations when they do 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' in English with that absurd vibrato. We have to load every single decoration onto the tree, a garish and totally tasteless mishmash, making the same comments about the same deocrations as always happens. My mother sighs over the ones I made in primary school when I was five. My father always forgets the provenance of one or two, and insists that something was certainly so last year when it certainly wasn't. I'm told I make the same comment every year too, but I don't ever remember making it before.

It's a great family occasion, even though the lines are worn and now that I am no longer childishly entranced by the magic of Christmas, one slightly wonders why we bother. Small things change - we put up less holly than we used to, realising that it is actually a really dark plant and not that jolly. We don't actually sing the carols around the tree. We debate whether to display the crib figures that my father made when he was fourteen as we're all no longer religious, but realise that if one year we make the decision to secularise, we will never display them again and there is something slightly sad in that. After dinner we all scatter to our rooms and shut the doors while we do our last minute wrapping, and I peek my head out to check the coast is clear before delivering my stocking contribututions to the relevant 'Santa's.

I've been reading the diaries of Cynthia Gladwyn, a now-dead friend and matriarch of a local family from an era of parties with the Asquiths and tiara-clad diplomacy in Paris. Like her husband, a former ambassador the the UN, and her children and grandchildren, she was hugely intelligent and observant. Her comments about the Americans hold absolutely true - too much food on every plate, never walk even ten minutes, an alcoholic nation and working too hard making money to have any leisure and therefore 'crashingly boring' and badly read. The latter failing is a timely one to remind myself of - an easy trap to fall into, sacrificing civility and all-round education for a 'career' and 'success'. The calibre of one's thinking and perception has to be nurtured, by reading properly (and not just the LRB, however wonderful), going to as many plays and films as possible, and making time to meet the most intelligent and thought-provoking people one knows in situations where one can really enjoy their conversation and benefit from their company.

An old-fashioned idea, I know, but I must try to stick to it. After all, one can be happy with very little in the way of career or money if one's brain is constantly stimulated.

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