The Phil Spector Christmas album is the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Not for me the party songs. Come, listen to the clanging chimes of doom!

Is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”?

The true reward of making a Christmas album lies in becoming part of people’s annual traditions. I released Tinsel and Lights in 2012, so this will be its third outing on the festive turntable, and I am already getting tweets telling me that it has been fetched out of the box in the loft, along with the actual tinsel – all scruffy with bits of Sellotape that fixed it to someone’s bedroom wall last year. It’s a time when many of us like everything to be unchanging; we play the same records to accompany the same moments, and their resonance deepens with each passing year. After we’d emptied our stockings, my mum would faithfully stick on her green vinyl seven-inch of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, and we’d all groan, the groaning being half the fun. Later, I discovered the Phil Spector Christmas album and it provided the soundtrack to my present-wrapping, the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Audible glitter.

Actually making a Christmas record is an odd business, in that you have to start in the spring. So as one new year got under way, I compiled a tracklist of not strictly Christmas songs, but any that referenced winter, or ice, or just cold weather. The lovely melancholy of Harry Nilsson’s “Snow” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” encapsulated the mood I wanted to strike. Not for me a compilation of party bangers, but a collection of seasonally appropriate gloom. During the recording, the producer Ewan Pearson and I cheerfully gave it the working title The Clanging Chimes of Doom, though one or two songs proved too miserable even for me. For instance, Janis Ian’s “In the Winter”, where a lyric about freezing with a broken heater – being so lonely you call Dial-a-Prayer just to hear a voice, and bumping into your ex’s new “friend” – ends with the punchline, “I’ll live alone forever!” Wonderful stuff, properly festive.

Talking of the Clanging Chimes of Doom, is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s? It seems to get more and more stick every time it’s released, poor song, particularly the line that was originally roared by Bono, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” which I saw recently described as the worst line ever written.

I’ll come clean – I think it’s a good line. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a nice line, or a nice thought. It doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t make the singer look good, which is perhaps why Bono was apparently reluctant to sing it. We always assume that singers believe every word they sing: he might have worried that people would for ever identify him with this ignoble sentiment. But it seems to me to contain a kernel of horrible truth, which we’d rather deny – that if something awful has to happen, if someone has to get it in the neck, we’d rather it wasn’t us, fearful, flawed creatures that we are.

It has always reminded me of the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Winston Smith is finally broken, by the imminent threat of his worst nightmare being visited upon him, he pleads not just for mercy, but for it to be done to Julia instead – “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me!” We seem to take for granted that someone has to suffer; we just plead for it to be someone else. In that howl of Bono’s, the Band Aid song deliberately undermines all its good cheer, letting in the shade and banishing light. Lovely and Christmassy.

We can’t take too much of it, though. Indeed, it seems we can’t take that line at all any more – it has been edited out from this year’s version of the song. A little reality at Christmas goes a long way; we need to temper it with hope, dreams, fantasy. Everyone knows that I love sad songs, but only Ben knows me well enough to have stuffed the Michael Bublé Christmas album into my stocking a couple of years ago, leading to a new tradition now where I happily potter around the kitchen on Christmas morning, cooking and singing, in a glow of bubbly and Bublé, while everyone else groans, the groaning being half the fun.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

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

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Long Road From Jarrow: a revolutionary tale of long-distance protest

Stuart Maconie tells the story of the men who marched from Tyneside to London.

There were several long-distance protest marches to London between the wars. Some involved many thousands of marchers and some were met with violence, but the only one that is widely remembered today is the “Jarrow Crusade” of October 1936. From 1851 to the early 1930s, the Tyneside town of Jarrow had launched a thousand ships, from tankers and colliers to cruisers and battleships – but as a result of postwar government cost-cutting and a global economic downturn, the area’s main employer, the Palmers shipyard, was forced to close in 1933, putting thousands out of work.

In 1936, as unemployment dragged on and government support failed to materialise, Jarrow’s local council arranged for 200 out-of-work local men to march to parliament – accompanied by their MP, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson – to “obtain the sympathy of the general public” and petition Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to provide work for the town.

For the 80th anniversary of the march, Stuart Maconie, the current president of Ramblers – as the Ramblers’ Association is now known – retraced their steps to find out why their protest still resonates and how much England has changed over the past eight decades. Maconie’s eminence in pedestrian circles may be surprising to those who know him only as a cultural critic (Viz once ran a spoof Christmas television schedule listing a show called I Love Stuart Maconie’s Opinions) and as a coolly authoritative curator of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Freak Zone, but he has written several perceptive books based on his travels around an England that now feels to him “febrile and uncertain”.

This blend of travelogue and social commentary is self-consciously in the mould of Orwell and Priestley, but it also shares something of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s awareness and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations. While Leigh Fermor broke bread with Austrian aristos and Transylvanian lumberjacks, Maconie hitches lifts from Northamptonshire window-fitters, or blags a curry in a Leeds gurdwara.

Maconie’s passion for places and his pungent turn of phrase also call to mind Ian Nairn, who would dignify unfashionable towns with serious appraisal, or Robert Macfarlane, with his appreciation for even the “sub-countryside” that rings our towns. Newcastle’s thrilling buildings “crowd and elbow each other sideways to get into shot like excitable kids”. Civic Barnsley gives the impression of a Baltic seat of government, while commercial Leicester evokes the souks of Tangiers. In the “mountain stronghold” of Sheffield, he sees a “strapping, over-vigorous city” where forging steel gave the “Dee-Dars” (Sheffield folk) a unique Yorkshire virility. He has righteous scorn for architectural academics who enthuse over the “monumental dissonance” of brutalist Newton Aycliffe new town and riffs amusingly on cupcake fads, vaping shops and the ubiquity of salted caramel.

Maconie’s wandervogeling between record shops and twee museums is diverting, though there are some Wikipedia-heavy longueurs (and some clangers have crept in: Chester-le-Street is in Durham, not Northumberland, and the Tory benefactor John Jarvis was not the MP for South Shields, which is the only constituency created in the Reform Act 1832 never to have returned a Conservative). But this is a more explicitly political tract than Maconie’s previous works, and he clearly has something to get off his chest – namely his despair at the Labour Party. Maconie identifies as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain” and sees in Jeremy Corbyn “a spartist dinosaur reeking of hummus and hemp and definitely not the smoky fires of industry”.

This book was written before the election in June but its result would probably have confirmed Maconie’s pessimism. For all the rallies, marches and excitable hashtaggery, Labour has suffered its third consecutive defeat and hasn’t had a Blairless general election victory for 43 years.

What can we learn from the Jarrow marchers? Maconie writes, “The Jarrow men essentially came politely and with cap in hand, without the dangerous whiff of revolutionary sulphur of the older communist marches” – yet this is not to patronise them. It was a deliberate strategy. Even then, there was a view that marching and demonstrations were self-indulgent and unserious. Unless handled carefully, they could repel as much as they could galvanise. The organisers ensured that the march demonstrated discipline and dignity, and made the very reasonable demand for work, not handouts.

In Labour’s north-eastern heartland, for every firebrand such as Ellen Wilkinson, there were dozens more stolid Labour moderates: respectable Methodist lay preachers and pragmatic union men who knew that social progress was hard won and that electing Labour governments was extraordinarily demanding. There’s a martial and Stakhanovite strain in Geordie culture, and around 60 per cent of those unemployed riveters and platers were First World War veterans. Photographs usually show them marching smartly in step, their blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England. Conditions in Jarrow were so desperate that “reaching out” had to be taken seriously, so churchmen were courted, communists were weeded out and there were no “Tory scum” banners.

The immediate impact of the march was limited (an old joke in the town is that it was Hitler who saved Jarrow – by generating war work for the yards). But as A J P Taylor once put it, middle-class people felt “the call of conscience”, and Jarrow was remembered when votes were cast in the 1945 general election. With yet another Conservative government refusing to budge, it is hard to avoid Maconie’s conclusions that persuading the uncommitted is as vital as ever and that Labour needs “fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists”. 

Dan Jackson writes on Northumbrian history. He tweets as @northumbriana

Long Road From Jarrow: a Journey Through Britain Then and Now
Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder