c h r i s t m a s

[ 16:05 monday 30 december – train from swindon to london paddington ]

after my bleak christmas eve despatch it’s a little embarrassing to admit how enjoyable the past week has been. i feel closer to my family, and freer to be myself with them, than any time i can remember. what’s more there did seem to be a worthwhile point to the festival despite all my humbugging.

on christmas day my parents and i drove up to shropshire where my grandparents live. this is a sparsely populated area on the welsh borders crumpled into a chain of decent-sized hills interspersed with wild moorland and sheep pasture. my grandfather is a week short of 97, my grandmother a decade younger. grandpa is not an easy man. he grew up in a brutally scientific household where an individual’s worth was determined by their academic results. relatives were forbidden to perpetrate superstitious fictions such as the existence of a man who rides through the sky and delivers presents down the chimney. grandpa inherited a good deal of this outlook on the world.

after a lifetime’s service as a schoolmaster he wanted to go back to the mountains of north wales, where he grew up, but granny put her foot down. shropshire was the compromise they arrived at, as close to wales as it is possible to be whilst remaining in england. of course it didn’t give either of them what they wanted. over the decades i have watched grandpa sinking into a kind of nihilistic joyless decrepitude, punctuated by bouts of depressive madness. granny has flurried about tending to his needs and maintaining outlets for her creativity in vigorous gardening, knitting and flower-arranging.

grandpa’s hold on life is intimidating, motivated not so much by a desire to live as a monstrous terror of death. up until the age of 87 there was also a competitive element: he wanted to live longer than his father had done.

as grandpa’s physiology has slowly deteriorated the strain on granny has grown. she is getting older herself and consequently her ability to cope with him has declined. there are few pleasures left in her life. on christmas day, for nine precious hours, we were able to bring some light and laughter into her world. i don’t give a damn about baby jesus and swapping gifts. but for those hours it felt like i was participating in a ritual that truly meant something worthwhile.

during the afternoon i snuck down the road to ludlow to gatecrash christmas “lunch” with my godmother bear and her family. she and her husband david been a fabulous subversive influence on me and my sister anna over the years but i see them all too rarely nowadays. it was great to be with them all. i forgot my camera there so mum and dad and i dropped in on our way back home after supper.

anna and adam arrived on friday from cornwall and we talked late into the night. yesterday evening dad dug out an ancient slide projector so i showed some of my photos from america and he showed some of the ones he took during the 60s when he was a dashing young officer in the merchant navy, travelling across the world in the final years of britain’s great merchant fleet.

here in my flourescent-lit plastic carriage the robot voice announces that we are arriving in paddington and everyone must prepare to leave the train. dutifully my fellow-passengers start to gather their bags. the robot (a humourless female voice) speaks with the flat vowels of estuary english, the favoured accent of the new british establishment, rendered uglier here by its disjointed electronic rhythm and intonation. a moment later the intercom crackles and the train manager informs us in his gorgeous devon burr that we are arriving in reading, not paddington, and apologises for “problems with the passenger information system”. people freeze for a second, then start putting their bags in racks and sitting back down, happy to follow whatever instructions come their way.

at swindon the plummy male robot voice was busy announcing delays and cancellations. in extreme cases it used the phrase “i am very sorry” which i found rather troubling. what entity is the “i” to which the voice is referring?

my intention was to go to the mountains in central spain to join my friends andrew and cristina for new year. however on impulse i decided a couple of days ago to go to berlin instead to visit my friend reimar, a saxophonist whom i met at a jazz event in wales ten years ago. somehow it feels like the place i ought to be, plus i’ve been promising to visit ever since we met. i fly there tomorrow afternoon.

: c

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