The chance to begin again

A fire, a cat, carols on Christmas Eve and cabbage picked from the garden. Certain rituals cannot be

award As far as I am concerned, Christmas begins at 3pm on Christmas Eve on Radio 4. This is the moment to tune in to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. There is nothing better than popping the pink champagne and enjoying it chilled and lively with a few squares of black bread and wild smoked salmon. If the salmon seems too dear, don't buy the farmed stuff - it's like eating that pink loo roll they use on French trains. Buy a jar of blushed cod's roe instead, or even a tin of sardines. I like to add a fire and a cat, though these are optional, and the cat will certainly want some of your salmon or sardines.

Today, I am also adding a dog. Max is a working cocker who belongs to the actress Fiona Shaw. I've been looking after Max quite a bit while Fiona tours Beckett's Happy Days round the globe. As a stay-at-home-writer-type, I make a useful kennel maid. The great thing about Max is that he loves everybody, which shines a searchlight on the impatience and intolerance of us human beings.

It's no wonder that the Christmas message of Peace and Goodwill to All Men has so many animals in the picture; they are better at it than us.

Real pals, not i-Friends

Boxing Day is my ritual visit to Ruth Rendell. We always eat pheasant shot by one of my neighbours (country neighbours are much more useful than city neighbours, who just shoot each other), sprouts from my garden, and red cabbage picked by Ruth, who is a great cook. This is the day that we exchange our gifts and generally declare how glad we are to have been friends for more than 20 years. The whole Facebook/ internet friend-thing depresses me the way farmed fish does. I want the real thing, however rare and infrequent. I don't want to list as friends those whom I have never met, or a load of avatar buddies in Second Life. As the world becomes more mediated and impersonal, the direct connection to someone you love - not a partner, just an old-fashioned pal - provides sanity as well as security. Not everything can be improved by technology. A book is better than an e-book, an old friend better than an i-Friend.

Random delights

I'm taking the godchildren to War Horse at the National Theatre, because I'm a fan of Marianne Elliott - thought her Saint Joan wonderful - and because me and the kids like to have a good cry over animal stories. The youngest, who is only eight, is a bit nervous about this outing; when I was reading them the Christmas options, and War Horse marked an age rating of 11 upwards, though fine for robust nine-year-olds, Cara shouted out: "But I'm not nine and I'm not robust." I'm bringing one of those airline eye-masks, just in case.

If we survive the theatre, then I'm off to Paris for the remaining days of the year. I walk the streets and do on foot what taxi drivers do on scooters: take a random destination, and set off to find it - in my case by the least direct route. At around 10pm my destination is always the same; the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, opposite Notre Dame. The shop stays open until 11pm, even on Christmas Day. George Whitman, who reopened the shop in its present location after the Second World War, and with the blessing of its founder, Sylvia Beach, is still alive at 94. Beach published Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, and closed the shop to avoid Nazi occupation. Whitman was a young and romantic GI who fell in love with Paris and decided to stay. He lives above the shop, now run by his daughter. There is no better place in Paris to browse and talk - another old-fashioned thing that can't be improved upon.

Unto us a child is born

As the Twelve Days of Christmas pass by, I keep in mind the story of the Nativity that begins with a demand - the decree from Augustus Caesar that all the world should be taxed - and ends with a gift - unto us a child is born. You need not be a believer to find this encouraging. Then, as now, the miracle-moment doesn't happen via the hard-headed realists and the money-men. The repeating gift of new life happens anyway, and offers a chance to begin again. That feels like real progress to me. Happy New Year.

Jeanette Winterson's latest novel is "The Stone Gods" (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.