Not everyone’s Christmas looks like this. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Suzanne Moore: I never learned exactly what my mother put in the buckets brewing under the bed

Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed.

You always knew it was Christmas in our house because my mum would start on the Baileys. Not just drinking it, but making it. It was one of her proudest achievements. She had the “secret recipe” for Baileys. She made it in buckets stored under the bed.

“What’s in it, Mum?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she used to say as she decanted the beigey cream into real Baileys bottles to flog to our neighbours.

Another of her sayings was, “One of these days I’ll be gone for a soldier,” which really terrified me. What did it mean? She never answered that either.

The fake Baileys, a concoction of condensed milk and knock-off scotch, was a big hit, even though the Christmas dinner itself was often fraught.

“Here you are, you bunch of gannets,” she would say as she slapped it down on the table, refusing to eat any herself.

She sat smoking while we ate and would talk about how her life was “a fight against dirt”, a fight to feed us, the gannets. For as with so many women of her generation, she had glimpsed a better life and could never settle for the one she had.

She tried upgrading it the only way she knew how. Men. Getting different ones. Husbands, boyfriends, lovers, all initially promising something different. All somehow ending up much the same. That is why we were surprised when she suddenly announced, “This year we’re having a lesbian for Christmas.”

Jay the Lesbian would be arriving soon from New York. This was exotic beyond belief. My mother had met her when she was married to my father. The main thing about Jay, my mum said, was she was fat and needed to lose weight. She arrived in shocking pink tights and heavy-rimmed glasses. She ignored us children almost completely, except for once telling me that “Shakespeare is worth the effort, honey”. By this I understood she had a life of the mind.

She was always making some vile soup thing in the kitchen which I now see was a proto cabbage-soup diet.

“It’s ridiculous,” my mum said. “I know she sneaks down in the night and stuffs herself out of the fridge. She’s a gannet just like the rest of you.”

Yet Jay the lesbian gannet made our Christmas much less tense than normal. The home-made Baileys flowed. It was the only time I ever saw my mum enjoying the festivities. The house was a castle of tinsel and smoking and cabbagey smells. Then, just like that, Jay was gone and another man who would make Mum cry was installed.

Many years later I asked her about Jay. “Oh yes, she did try to interfere with me,” she said. She often referred to sex as “interference”. “It’s not my cup of tea but as it was Christmas I thought I should get on with it for a bit of peace.”

Oh, the sacrifices we women make for our children.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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