Friday, 30 December 2016

The ghosts of Christmas past

I love Christmas and everything that goes with it: the decorations, the presents, the music, the shameless excess, and the convivial atmosphere. It's the summer of the soul in December, as the Muppets once sang - a warm glow of joy amid that cheerless gulf that begins in autumn and ends in spring.

I once spent a Christmas in Australia and was amused to discover they share our imagery of snowscapes and roaring fires, despite it being the middle of their summer. Much of this has to do with their British roots, of course, but it’s also because in the Anglosphere our notion of Christmas is intrinsically tied to the myths and traditions popularised by the Victorians. Christmas is an exercise in nostalgia for our own pasts and those of others.

Any annual event is bound to induce nostalgia, but it seems to me the Christmas we reminisce about and try to recreate each year belongs to an age that ended sometime in the early 1990s. Since then, few memorable festive songs have been written, programmes made, or traditions started – perhaps because this is when the world began to take on a look and feel that is familiar today. The warm glow of remembrance is generally reserved for different, simpler times, not dogeared versions of the here-and-now.

Christmases of yore were chintzy and naff, but that was their charm. They lacked the self-consciousness and affectation of today, where everything is an ‘event’, finessed within an inch of its life. The gaudy decorations, tacky gifts and blurry snapshots of yesteryear contained more authenticity than than anything found in the pixel-perfect modern Christmas. Give me Joe Brown flogging C90 tapes dressed as a ringmaster over a John Lewis sobfest any day.

Maybe no one has recorded a decent Christmas single lately because we’ve lost the ability to be so cheerfully uncool. Then again, maybe we lacked the means to be anything else back then, and technological and economic advancements have cost us our appreciation of modest pleasures. Yesterday's stuff of wonder is today's humdrum, the once-luxurious is now throw-away cheap, and what used to be hard to find is just a mouse click away. That’s the price of progress and there’s no way of putting the genie back in its bottle.

Progress has also made the world a smaller place. We are connected as never before to other people, inundated with a constant flow of news and information, able to document our lives and exchange opinions on social media whether we’re sitting at home or on the other side of the planet. This is a far cry from the the days when teenagers reached beyond their provincial bedrooms via letters, fanzines and transistor radios – lines of communication that made the world feel larger for being so insubstantial.

This was the Britain of my youth in the early 1980s. The country was still a grey, parochial place  a land of YTS schemes, picket lines and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Entertainment was three TV stations watched on a square wooden box. Offices were smoke-filled places, full of typewriters and casual sexism. Politics was a battleground, stalked by Tory radicals and Labour Trots. And above everything loomed the Cold War, the Russians, and the threat of armageddon.

No wonder feel-good pop music was so pervasive at the time. People needed a little colour in their lives, and those sun-drenched videos, garish hair-dos and ridiculous outfits provided the perfect tonic. Who wouldn't want to visit Club Tropicana or holiday on Duran Duran’s yacht when there were three million unemployed and nuclear oblivion was a four-minute warning away?

The Eighties also represented a tipping point, from a Britain steeped in heritage and tradition to a modern, cosmopolitan nation. It was the twilight of a less cynical, knowing age; gloriously corny, perhaps, but thankfully devoid of the kind of over-thought, over-regulated bullshit that blights life today.

For a few brief years, we had the best of both worlds: a Britain that was still decidedly British, but experiencing the first exotic signs of globalisation. For the young, it was an especially thrilling time, because popular culture was pitched more squarely at them than ever before. A technological revolution saw home computers, microwaves and video recorders becoming commonplace in people’s homes, and all this razzamataz was sufficiently baffling to the older generation to suggest a line had been drawn in the sand. It was the dawning of a new era that belonged to the young.

This is significant because our way of life until then had been largely dictated by that older generation. Most World War Two veterans were barely out of middle-age, and their influence, interests and experiences loomed large in our lives. They respected the past and its achievements, and paid tribute to them through the preservation of everything from our social norms to our architecture. It was clearly no longer Victorian England, but enough of that period’s ideas and infrastructure had survived to provide a sense of continuity from one age to another.

I am reminded of this by an incident from my childhood. I was seated by the window of my school classroom in what is now an antiquated scene: blackboard and chalk, rows of lid-top desks stained with ink. It was a cold morning and I was enjoying the warmth of an old cast-iron radiator set beneath the window. In places, the paint had been chipped away from the metal, revealing ancient layers that marked the passing of the years like the rings on a tree. It occurred to me that some of the caretakers who had applied this paint were probably long dead, and that the hundreds of children who had sat in this spot before me were now grown men, or had already completed life’s journey. That radiator, that classroom and that school were small monuments to experiences and practices stretching back a hundred years or more.

Accumulated experience is not something to be discarded lightly. It contains the wisdom of the ages, and catalogues the stories and traditions that make us who we are. It doesn't dictate our fate; it informs our choices and emboldens us to do things that conventional thinking might put out of bounds. And yet discard it we have done in recent years – possibly because it humiliates our modest accomplishments, or because its life-lessons threaten our egotistical desires, or simply because we think that all change is for the better. Whatever the reason, its gradual disappearance has left a soul-shaped hole in our lives.

There's plenty about the past we are well rid of, but with change comes the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and surrendering to the nudge-nudge of those who think they know better. Gentle customs are scorned out of existence; common ties are sacrificed in the name of diversity; cherished artefacts make way for charmless replacements; the open spaces of childhood are covered in houses; the freedom to live an unsupervised life is whittled away.

Perhaps the nostalgia that consumes us at this time of the year is the response of people who feel that, in the march of progress, they have left something behind. Like the Soviets who realised their way of life was wrong despite knowing no other, the society served up to us nowadays doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t reflect our tastes or stem from our experiences.

This is why the big public events we organise nowadays have lost their authenticity: because they are no longer a part of who are. I recall the celebrations that surrounded the Silver Jubilee of 1977 and the Royal Wedding of 1981 as being genuine outpourings of public affection. Street parties were just what people did. There was nothing contrived or ersatz about them; they were as genuine as any other similar events to have taken place over the previous century. By comparison, more recent public celebrations have had a whiff of tribute to them. They feel forced and phoney – simulacrums of the real thing, orchestrated by people hoping to resurrect experiences and sentiments that have been lost to us.

When striking poses of sophistication becomes a substitute for real accomplishment, the past appears shameful and ridiculous, with nothing to teach us about how we should live today. Society is rebuilt around our selfish whims, the need to feel good about ourselves and the snooty sophistication of . When the authorities step in to satisfy this need, they remove the autonomy and spontaneity that allow us to come together and build a society in our own image. They encourage us to look inwards, to feel vulnerable, and to regard other people as a threat to our wellbeing.

Technology has made it easier for us to stay connected, but it has also enabled us to keep each other at arm’s length. The more that Internet communication becomes the norm, the more weird and troublesome meeting in person seems. Staying in to avoid the hell of other people is seen as natural and healthy. Setting aside your hang-ups to be part of a crowd is becoming a thing of the past.

None of this is conducive to the joyous, devil-may-care attitude that characterises Christmas, which is probably why we still celebrate it so passionately each year. It’s a chance to throw off our inhibitions, ignore our modern pieties, and be the people we used to be. Not the idiots who goosed women and drunk-drove home, maybe, but the people who came together to enjoy simple pleasures in an unironic, heartfelt way.

To borrow from Ebeneezer Scrooge, honour Christmas in your heart and try to keep it all the year. Live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within you. Do not shut out the lessons that they teach.

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