Unhappy families: a scene from Eastenders' Christmas past. Photo: _BRMB_/Flickr
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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: My family will never have a “perfect Christmas” – and that’s OK

It’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could soil themselves at any moment. But even a bittersweet Christmas is worth having.

Here’s a handy – bastardised – literary  maxim for the festive season: “All un-crappy families are alike; each crappy family is crappy in its own way”.

It may not be Tolstoy, but it’s something I’ve certainly learned as I have got older. You think your family has problems? Divorce, disability, drug addiction, maybe some anger issues, a recent bereavement? Perhaps you’ve got someone literally going cold turkey in the upstairs bedroom? Tempting as it can be to lament how disappointingly unconventional your family is (and hell, at Christmas isn’t everyone dining out on their “weird” relatives?), there comes a time when you have to accept that you’re not the only one. 

Every family has its tragedies. As Christmas brings these sadnesses into sharper focus by bombarding us with wholesome images of happy, rosy-cheeked nuclear families in reindeer jumpers with no alcohol problems to speak of, remembering this factoid can be something of a comfort blanket when things get tough. It might not be as therapeutic as tanking up on more “port and brandy” (my Dad’s “cocktail” of choice) or nipping out the back to consume all the drugs you confiscated from your teenage offspring on Christmas Eve, but next time you’re midway through weathering the annual Yuletide rowpocalypse, do give it some thought. It helps. Tempting as it is to wallow in misery as you compare your eccentric, badly-behaved blood relatives with the respectable Joneses next door, it’s far healthier to assume that in all likelihood your neighbours have some dark secrets of their own too.

Still, you could give me all the “Christmas weed” (trust me, it’s a thing) in the world and I still wouldn’t view the festive period as a particularly happy time. After spending most of my teenage years wanting a Bing Cosby Christmas, by my mid-twenties, I finally accepted that 25 December  was never going to resemble the picture-perfect media confection I was presented with as a child. What can you expect with a family that is known to social services and has been ruptured by divorce? Unless you’re part of a tiny majority, you’re never going to see a supermarket Christmas advert that reflects your reality, whatever that might be – drunken rows, racist grandparents, Dad coming by to take you to his for that first Christmas dinner since the separation while your mum stays at home in her nightie, crying (and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have parents.) Factual depictions of real family dysfunction just wouldn’t sell enough chocolate logs, I guess. TV traditionally leaves that stuff to Eastenders.

Every Christmas I visit my severely disabled brother in his care home.  I help him open his presents and cuddle him while he sits there smiling in a Santa hat and then afterwards, every year, I cry because he is poorly and I wish he wasn’t. It’s always really sad and I always struggle to be the picture of festive joy and good tidings that I’m supposed to be because of it. It’s just not very “#Chrimbles” you know? What am I going to Instagram? His face as we drive away? Fuck that.

(Incidentally, I might be one of the few people on the planet who has a modicum of respect remaining for the film Love, Actually. That scene where she spends Christmas with her mentally ill brother breaks me, completely, every year.)

I know I’m not the only one who spends Christmas this way. Perhaps you’re visiting a terminally ill relative in hospital, are a victim of abuse, have a parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, or are one of the many hundreds of families who, thanks to our evil government Scrooge overlords, will be forced to rely on food banks and temporary accommodation this Christmas. If so, it can feel heartbreaking to have a life so imperfect when you are surrounded everywhere by Christmas cheer and crippled frog puppets announcing “God bless us, everyone!”

At Christmas, social inequalities become manifest – people naturally turn their thoughts to those who have nothing, donating money to those less fortunate via charities and Pret sandwiches. Unless, of course, you yourself have pretty much nothing, in which case you’re too busy worrying that you can’t give your children the Christmas they have been taught by advanced capitalism to want so desperately because your benefits have been cut and the fairy lights are fucked and Cancer Research only has dog-eared puzzles left on the shelves. I know Christmas is supposed to be a jolly time and it’s just not “done” to be too much of a Grinch about it, but it’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could shit themselves at any moment.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the person I’m currently in a relationship with absolutely loves Christmas. He comes from a big family (he’s one of nine children) that’s always considered Christmas as more of a festival than just a roast dinner with some extras and an excuse to get trashed. He maintains that, despite my suspicions, his family’s Christmas in no way resembles the “Home Alone” house, and yes, his family has its own issues (divorce, prison, veganism), but still nothing, and I mean nothing, comes in the way of Christmas. He struggles to understand why, for me, Christmas can feel emotionally fraught. There just aren’t enough of us to maintain a festive atmosphere, for a start. When it’s just you and your mum on the day itself it’s always going to feel a bit sad, no matter how much you might try and keep your spirits topped up.

I don’t want you to think that I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not – I do look forward to the day. I’d just like some media balance, because I’m sick of this peddled myth of Christmas perfection. None of us has the ideal family and every human has known sadness. This time of year, coming round as it does like clockwork throughout our lives, creates an impulse for nostalgia. Some of us will look back on the many Christmases we had as children, which will never be as innocent or as bounteous again. Others will remember those they loved whose seats around the table are now empty.

Personally, I try to balance sadness about my brother with the image of his excited, smiling face one December night a few years back when he still lived at home. Because my mum could not afford a tree, a good friend of mine agreed to risk the farmer’s shotgun to accompany me halfway up the mountain in the dark with a saw and “appropriate” one for us. It’s one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me or for my family. We may not be cookie cutter cut-outs, and we’re more than usually skint, but as a unit, we make it work.  It’s bittersweet, Christmas, for so many people, but somehow that’s what makes it mean something.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a founder of The Vagenda. She has donated the fee for this article to charity.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.