Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: My Christmas story collection tells me that less really is more

Christmas is here

Christmas is here - Credit: Archant

Welcome to the Joy of Essex Christmas Cornucopia 2013, the last one before the big day. It’s a chance for me to clear out the sundry yarns, gags and myths which have been cluttering up my desk since the summer. Roll up, now. Everything must go.

One problem with Christmases past, especially Christmas Day itself, is that the ones which we best recall are usually those which ended in either a) disaster or b) waking up looking at the wrong wallpaper.

I tried summoning up as many Christmas Day recollections as I could, and was quite shocked at how few there actually were. Sadly, this is probably because most of the earlier memories were dissolved in a marinade of liquid goodwill and television. Of recent years, I find that I’m likely to imbibe rather less over the Christmas season than once I might. Nowadays, anyway I do everything rather less. Regular readers may also remember that I got rid of my TV set over a year ago. I’ve never regretted it.

In earlier years, I used to suffer something which some call the Tarantino Hangover. That’s the one where, as in a Tarantino film, you keep getting flashbacks but then need to wait right until the end of the day, to put them in sequence, so that you can ascertain what it was that happened.

So there I was, standing in the pub listening raptly to this bloke going on about all the supplies he was laying in for Christmas: eight bottles of vodka, a crate of champagne, some white fizzy, twenty crates of lager, six boxes of red wine, 800 cigarettes, the list went on. This was without the brandy and Babycham for the go-go dancers he’d booked on Christmas Eve. The order came well into four figures. “Mad, isn’t it?” he sighed. “You’d never bother, if it weren’t for the kids.”

All of which brings to mind one particular Christmas when I worked in a country hotel. The receptionist was down with flu, so I volunteered for the graveyard shift. It was snowy weather and there’d been a tour coach breakdown earlier on. We’d managed to accommodate most of the party and then this older couple arrived in reception. It was almost midnight. She looked rather glamorous and a little younger than he did. I scanned the bookings diary. “I’m sorry.” I said. “I’ve only got one double room. Second floor. Twin beds. But they’ll push together if you want.” The old man, nodded, tiredly. The long and short of it was that between the night porter and myself, we managed to get the couple and their luggage quickly settled in. I pointed to the kettle, the phone and the en-suite bathroom and said: “Breakast’s between 7.30 and 10.00 tomorrow. Okay?” I shut the door and left. The next morning it was the woman who came into reception to settle up. “Everything all right, last night?” I asked. The woman said: “Actually I slept surprisingly well. But I didn’t much like that old guy you put me in with. Has my husband showed up yet?”

Many people seem to harbour an idea that because it’s Christmas, not only can you drink far more than you normally would, but that from as early as 8.30am onwards, you can also drink all manner of unusual combinations. It’s worth remembering, however, that none of your internal organs will acknowledge this theory.

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There is no such thing as a free liver pass and the best thing that a seasoned drinker can do at this time of year is either to ease up, or actually give up. That way you’ll get all the evangelical joy of watching the amateurs and semi-pros get themselves in a pickle. That’s another thing: even going into your local at Christmas time can be difficult, especially when you find the serving area clogged up by large groups of uncertain-looking people with no idea of what to do in a pub. You especially don’t want, in early evening, to run into the last remnants of some office party which has been going since lunchtime. By that time there’ll be smudged mascara, bitchiness and tears a-plenty – especially if the women have all gone home.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a man whom I’m beginning to rather admire for his straightforwardness, would probably cite much of what I’ve just described as being indicative of all that’s wrong with Christmas. He recently said that our over-the-top spending at Christmas “spoils life”. I think that he’s right. After fifty-odd Christmases on this planet – and one or two off it, I’ve come to the conclusion that less really is more. For some years, when I was a younger chap, I washed up dishes in a Colchester restaurant each Christmas. My fellow kitchen porters during that time would probably agree with me now that the camaraderie and humour of those times have rarely been equalled. It was hard work but also hysterically funny. We must all have been quite poor or we probably wouldn’t have been there. But the frantic fortnight of the Christmas run-up, slaving in that narrow steamy kitchen was probably much merrier than Christmas itself. With that, from a future which none of us would ever have predicted, wherever they are now, I wish Paul Ridley Thomas, Martin Chapman, Herbie Seifert, Junior Joseph and both of my readers, a quietly Merry Christmas.

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