Christmas eve traditions

Salmon terrine, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Being a blogger – and one who frequently runs short of reasonably interesting things to write about – I’m always scrabbling around looking for suitable inspiration in a bid to get my regular 500 or so words out.

Up until yesterday morning I had thought I might be thinking about whether or not I’d actually embraced the religious aspect of the festive season. It is, after all, the whole point of Christmas. Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth and all that.

Pope Benedict’s end-of-year address to various Vatican bigwigs kind of put that thought process to rest. Gregory’s standpoint on homosexuals didn’t especially come as a surprise. He was after all just towing the party line.

But even though I’ve not hitherto possessed a latent desire to convert to Catholicism, his headline message did rather leave feel a little left out in the cold.

If I was formerly about to go through a road to Damascus experience, understand and feel the true meaning of Christmas, shun consumerism and then blog about it, Pope Benedict’s end-of-term presentation just left me painfully aware that the largest church in the world wasn’t terribly keen on homosexuals and only served to underline that religion is an earthly construct with all those hideous unpleasant rules drawn up by earthy individuals.

Hey ho. At least there’s the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I can always just sing along to the carols and relive my childhood.

There is, however, one other perhaps even more important tradition which I realise I really get off on at Christmas. It does perhaps surpass all others.

It’s the food. I love the food. Christmas food is all about preparation, preparing food for the big event on Christmas Day. It’s about project management. It’s about keeping a reasonably careful eye on the budget whilst juggling the schedule and keeping in mind the grand vision.

In short, Christmas food is about being a producer. It calls on nerves of steel, untold amounts of energy, patience, understanding, persuasion, boundless amounts of enthusiasm and an overwhelming sense of excitement at the prospect of seeing the end product light up the eyes of its recipients.

Nine people will sit around a six foot round table in our lounge tomorrow afternoon. Everything that can be has been prepared already (the salmon terrines are looking especially fab, personally speaking whislt Nigella’s gingerbread stuffing as yet uncooked offers much for tomorrow). Four hours in the kitchen yesterday, another four today. At times the place looked like a bomb had hit it. Now, it’s prepared ready for the big day, all of it ready in time to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – the very beginning of Christmas.

Christmas present anxiety

I’m staring at the presents on the train seat in front of me. They don’t look very big and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near enough. Should I have bought more? Don’t my parents deserve more than this?

In spite of the credit crunch, my debit card has seen quite a lot of activity over the past few days. It’s paid for a massive online food shop and a handful of presents sourced from the internet too. It’s been whipped out at a moment’s notice to post woefully late Christmas cards to Australia and the US, as well as meeting my impulsive desires as I flirt with supposedly must-have goods in various stores. The smallest transaction, and to my mind the one which represents the best value for money, was to pay for the repair of my bike – a mere £12.50 to repair a painfully slow puncture.

As far as distance is concerned, my shopping trips have not seen me venture out too far. Westfield – Europe’s largest shopping mall – was the first destination, certain as I was that it’s proximity to work at White City would make it ideal for all my Christmas shopping. Not so. Only half an hour dodging slow-moving families as I make internal notes to “come back to that shop later and get that” I was exhausted. I slumped in front of a friend and an Americano for a much-needed break before trudging back home.

A few transactions on the internet under my belt, I reckoned I’d try again with real shopping. I pootled off to the nearby Lewisham Shopping Centre with a list of things I needed to get, confident I could always press on to Canary Wharf or the West End if I absolutely needed to.

Energy and enthusiasm failed me on this occasion too. I knew exactly where I wanted to go in Lewisham Shopping Centre, but as I wandered around WHSmith eyeing up potential gifts for my parents I soon realised that this was the final stop. I had no desire to go on to another shopping venue. I’d have to find everything I needed in Lewisham.

Hesitation gripped me. I wanted to get everything now. I wanted to return home with gifts in my bag smug in the knowledge that all the chores were now done and I wouldn’t have to stress about it anymore. But I couldn’t find anything? Some things were too cheap, some things way too expensive. Some things I knew my parents wouldn’t want or enjoy what would be the point in buying that? Exactly who derives the pleasure when a rashly considered obviously crap gift is bought in a rush? The giver feels guilty as hell and the recipient is left asking “Why?”

In the end I opted for being resourceful. What do I want to give this year? What do I want to say? What do I give when they have everything anyway? Is a gesture really enough? Do parents need big shiny boxes on Christmas Day? How many bottles of aftershave does a Dad actually need?

Guilt is what propels me around the shops both online and in person.

Everything has to be perfect at Christmas otherwise it’s a failure – at least that’s how it seems to me. In pursuit of that perfection my vision of what the optimum number and size of gifts for the perfect image of a tree on Christmas day morning seriously comes in to play when I’m shopping. I have to rein myself in and resist reaching for the credit card when I’m certain the debit card will get rejected.

Deep inside there’s an overriding desire to look at Christmas differently this year. The gift-giving aspect to the season is exhausting. The season brings enough guilt as it is without the additional worries about whether I’ve found the perfect for someone.

If I’m in search of an alternative experience, I’m can’t pinpoint exactly what it is. I know it’s not a full on submission to the religious celebration. I know technically it should be, I just can’t. To do that will mean believing in God and proclaiming that throughout the year. I’m not ready for all that just yet (if at all). I’m not entirely convinced my significant other is ready for me to do that either.

Baby steps first. Take the church music and a flirtation with the majesty of the Christmas story and throw in an exchange of gifts small in size but big on gesture and resourcefulness. Factor in one or two fingers crossed and a healthy number of reality checks and the usual Christmas present anxiety could well be a thing of the past in future years. We can but hope.

TV: Royal Variety Performance 2008

Mark Owen from Take That

Mark Owen sings his little heart out at the Royal Variety Performance, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

We swung by the Royal Variety Performance quite by accident at around about 9.20pm.

You’d think with such a grandly billed event like the Royal Variety Performance and me being such a BBC sponge, I’d have made a point of settling down with a sharp pencil and a reporter’s notebook in a bid to produce a achingly long blog posting in response to it.

The likes of the Royal Variety Performance does normally give me the fear. It is exactly the kind of programme which I know I remember enjoying as a kid possibly because I knew I could chance my arm and stay up just that little bit longer. I’d see stuff on TV I’d not normally see. At least, that how it seemed.

What a complete idiot. Watch it now and I realise it’s family entertainment, guaranteed to underwhelm by virtue of the fact that it has to appeal to as many people as it possibly can not least the member of the royal family trapped in the box conscious that the camera will focus on his or her reactions.

What we saw of the final 40 minutes was actually rather good, so good in fact we fell in to the oh-so-predictable-and-much-applauded TV technique employed by TV people the world over.

It works like this. “We’ll give them this act to watch. It will only last three minutes. As this particular act finishes their performance the viewer will end up thinking they’d quite like to see what’s coming on next just to compare.”

Picture the unsuspecting, slightly naiive viewer in his/her chair, slumped in front of the TV ready to be all scathing and dismissive when Take That come on. “I bet that Owen bloke is miming,” I chimed as I took another swig of beer.

Take That weren’t miming – at least Mark Owen wasn’t in Shine – Jimmy Carr was quite good, Peter Kay was brilliant (although frankly, I was just waiting for *that* Christmas song) and it was just about alright to see Graham Norton in drag for La Cage aux Folles

But most striking (in a slightly geeky way) was the TV presentation. There was something reassuringly retro about seeing something like the RVP – essentially a theatre performance filmed for TV – with it’s final curtain call and the royal line-up. Cameras glided around the auditorium, sweeping shots complimented the action and most of the musical numbers did look good on TV. They had obviously been produced for TV.

Why is this so important .. to me, at least? It’s important because given my weird obsession with the idea of us hosting the Eurovision Song Contest again, I’m naturally keeping an eye on what it might look like on TV if we ever got to win the contest. Obviously, the UK has some way to go yet (although news Gordon Brown has set a final troop withdrawal date might help us, who knows?) and in the event that we did win I’m sure there would be other people wheeled in to do the big job on the night.

Still, messrs Tumbridge, Smith and Bishop did a lovely job at the Royal Variety Performance. Well done them. *

* I should like to point out that I am in no way “crawling” up to producery-type people Tumbridge, Smith and Bishop. I don’t do that kind of thing.

TV: Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe (5/6)

Sadly, pesky rights ‘n’ stuff might possibly mean that the nice piece about Oliver Postgate on Mr Brooker’s Screenwipey thing this evening may not be viewable again.

Really sorry. Still, follow this link just in case. You never know.

The thing is I’m really not going to want to check first thing in the morning. I really wouldn’t mind jacking this in for a bit really. Just a few days. It is Christmas after all.

Is Madoff someone to blame for the economic crisis?

Making plans, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Best of luck to David Cameron who today seized the opportunity to occupy some kind of high-ground concerning the growing financial crisis.

Is it a recession ? Is it a credit crunch ? Is it an impending catastrophe? Who really knows. I’ve heard conflicting assessments quite a bit just recently. I’m confused. But then that’s hardly surprising given that I got a C-grade at GCSE maths. I was a creative, more artistic. Maths just wasn’t my thing. At least, that’s my defence.

Cameron is right, in some respects. If there are people responsible for defrauding financial institutions out of billions of pounds (or dollars) then they should really be brought to book. So too those individuals in the financial institutions who will undoubtedly plead the victim card for having been swizzed by a clever fraudster intent (if we are to summise correctly) on making a fortune at the expense of others.

What strikes me hardest is to what extent I feel relieved at hearing about Bernard Madoff’s arrest. It’s an utterly selfish, misguided and shameful sense of relief rooted firmly in a clear demonstration of denial on my part.

It goes like this.

In trying to lift us out of the economic crisis, the Government’s watchword here is to get as many people as possible to spend as much money as possible thus kick-starting the economy. We need more money flowing through the system. So go spending.

Those of us in debt are also aware at the same time of the need to cut back. These are lean times. We need to be more effecient, cut back on an extravagant lifestyle. These supposedly demanding economic times also remind us that we have a debt to pay back. We must also pay that back if the economy is to get back on it’s feet. At least, that’s the way I see it as I sit and think about my debt bill.

Inevitably I do look back on the past five-ten years and rather wish I been a little more prudent back then like I am slowly teaching myself to be now. I seem to be managing to plan food shops and curb present buying and focus on smaller, less expensive Christmas-related pleasures quite well now. Why couldn’t I have succeeded in doing that years ago and thus avoided the bill I face now?

Then I read about Bernard Madoff and remind myself about how little I understand about the economic crisis. Was it just that banks became unable or reluctant to lend to one another or is there actually someone or (a group of people) who can be blamed for the crisis? Were there fraudsters at work? Are we now able to blame investment bankers for the problems we’re in now? And, if we are, is it possible that me NOT borrowing money over the past ten years wouldn’t have made any difference anyway?

That’s where my argument falls down largely because I’m not informed enough about that which is levelled at them. At least, that’s how it feels. Money and the economy and politics are all subjects I feel I need to know more about before I can have an opinion.

And here I am and here you are reading this. Lack of knowledge hasn’t stopped me writing this. Regardless of my lack of knowledge, as a consumer I’m slowly beginning to feel less guilty about the debt I racked up over the past ten years and that – shamefully – is down purely to the fact that it appears I have someone else to blame for the financial crisis we face. And that leaves and extremely sour taste in my mouth, I’m prepared to admit.