Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Sunday Squared

I'm afraid I've been a bit uncommunicative since last week -- I've been in bed for several days with the traditional pre-Christmas virus, and still feel pretty dreadful. Odd, how this happens. It's probably the body's way of saying, "Nooo!!" ...

Like everyone over eight, I have mixed feelings about this time of year. I sometimes wonder if the only reason WW1 went on so long was that initial rash promise that it would all be over by Christmas. "Can't we make it, over by -- say -- next summer, sarge? I ain't that keen on getting back fer Chrissmas, truth be told... Our Sissie's s'posed to be comin' over this year, an' 'er kids drive me round the bend... Pass me that there rum." Only a tiny percentage of the army was ever in the trenches; everyone else was getting the regular meals, semi-skilled work, good company and family-free life that is the secret dream of most young men. Not least in 1914, when a large proportion of the British male population was found to be undersized, undernourished, and living in over-crowded domestic conditions.

In bed, feverish and half-awake, I found myself visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past. Nothing dramatic or Dickensian: I remembered shapes and textures that have now vanished: red and green crepe paper, concertina-folded paper chains, a brace of pheasants hanging unplucked in the larder, blancmange, and my mother's rock-hard cake icing, white, smooth and inviolable as dental plaster. I remembered seeing red-faced aunts and uncles playing slightly risqué competitive party games in a community hall, involving standing in lines to pass keys on a string up, down and through clothing (causing much squealing and showing of knickers), or to manoeuvre a balloon from person to person without the use of hands, with us kids goggle-eyed and forgotten on the sidelines with our orangeade and crisps. I remembered a swooning sense of bliss, high on a sugar rush and up several hours past my usual bedtime, lying on the carpet in a darkened living room under the Christmas tree, looking up through the branches at the blinking coloured lights, like a happy drunk in a gutter.

I also remembered some truly appalling days earning Christmas cash, one year stretching the necks and plucking the feathers of turkeys in a freezing barn, and another trudging through driving sleet as a temporary postman. Above all, I recalled the sheer, screaming tedium of being 16, and counting the minutes until I could escape from the overheated fug of a Christmas night in a fourth-floor two-bedroomed flat jammed with family members bent on nothing more entertaining than watching Morecambe and Wise on the TV.

Christmas and Boxing Day, in the years before the 1980s, were like Sunday squared; nothing to do, plenty of time to do it in, and no-one to do it with. Everything was shut; leaving your family home (other than to test ride a new bike or roller skates) was, if not technically illegal, an act of rebellion liable to have you branded as a teddy-boy delinquent. That character-building boredom has now become as historic as Dickens (whose fault, I am given to understand, Christmas largely is). Nothing much is now shut for more than ten minutes over Christmas, and few kids seem to have the urge to escape from the house to hang out in the cold with their mates (unless they really are teddy-boy delinquents). In fact, it's the kids that want the bloody TV on all night, and seem to have no interest whatsoever in antiquated games that involve chasing paper fish with a rolled up newspaper, or rolling a balloon over your sister-in-law's bottom with your chin. Ah, well, we had to make our own entertainment in those days...

Talking of Dickens, is anyone out there a ghost story fan? It's a genre I've never really explored, mainly because the few I have read did nothing for me. I actually read a couple of M.R. James stories last night, alone in a semi-darkened room, and found them risible; the much-praised "Whistle And I'll Come To You" is, frankly, utterly daft, practically Python-esque in its silliness. Does anyone have any more modern takes on the ghost story to recommend?


Gustaf Erikson said...

Funny you should mention that story, I saw it mentioned by Paul McAuley and googled it. It had some promising spooky beginnings but the setting and the ending were indeed risible.

Speaking of McAuley, have a gander at "Inheritance" which I believe owes a lot to that genre:


Martin said...

Similar recollections, Mike, different environment. But I guess that kind of boredom came to many 16 year olds of our generation, wherever.

Can't recommend any worthwhile ghost stories...I'm afraid (sorry, couldn't resist)

Hope you're feeling tip-top in time for the festivities.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Gustaf (and that must be the Fastest Comment Ever) -- I'll check that out, though I'm wary of getting drawn into the sf/fantasy Pit of Doom, which seems as inescapable as the proverbial black hole... It's the classic ghost story that's interesting me, for some reason, despite the fact that everything I've looked at so far is utter tosh!

Cheers, Martin -- actually there's a lot to be said for real boredom, but it's very hard to experience it in its pure form, these days.


Mike C. said...


I read the Paul McAuley story this evening -- not bad, and certainly nowhere near as daft as M.R. James. But still lacking something (not sure what) -- somehow it's not a 21st century ghost story.

I think the problem may be that, although we're all susceptible to "atmospheres", and enjoy having our spines chilled a bit, very few of us today believe in the "theory" of ghosts (i.e. unquiet spirits, unfinished business with burial rituals, inherited curses, and all that) and it is usually this "theory" that drives the story plot (even if ambiguously, as in this story).

It's an interesting thing to think about, and I may set myself the task of writing a ghost story over Christmas.


David Brookes said...


I love your recollections of Christmas past - as a 1945 baby it all rings so true!

Anyway, I hope you're feeling better, and a big vote of thanks for your writing during 2011 - please keep it coming!

Mike C. said...

Thanks, David, not feeling too bad, now, especially with the prospect of a couple of weeks at home coming up.

There's a film (can't remember which) in which someone says that Christmas, for them, always smells of oranges. For me, it always smells of Airfix glue... I always imagine thousands of small boys, high as kites on solvent, bent over plastic model kits on Boxing Day.


Dave Leeke said...

Actually, Mike, I quite like M. R. James - one or two are genuinely spooky, especially the one involving a mad Punch character running away over a field. Anyway, although I haven't read Susan Hill's "The Woman in Black" it comes highly recommended. Personally, I remember Richard Adam's "The Girl in a Swing" as probably the best ghost novel. Paul Theroux's "Black House" (I think) is worth it for a sexy take on the subject.

Get well soon and a Happy Christmas to you.

Mike C. said...


I'm willing to try a few more M.R.J's -- haven't laughed so much for ages. I've got the Susan Hill on my Kindle now -- it was hearing her on the radio earlier this week that started me down this track.

I'm still trying to work out what the true contemporary equivalent of the Unquiet Dead might be. Watch out for my 21st c. chiller, "The USB Stick of Doom"...

Have a good break,