Watch out when you go back home

R D Laing was right: family Christmases can drive us mad, argues Oliver James

Every December I am asked to write something for the press about "how to survive Christmas" or "why Christmas is such hell". Usually I take the money and run but just for a change I thought that this year I would check out the premise: is Christmas really any worse than other times of the year?

The answer is a resounding "yes".

The Christmas blues have been around for some time. In the 1960s, the much maligned psychiatrist R D Laing elaborated an interesting theory about the adverse effects of being hurled back into the bosom of our family during the annual festivities.

Laing's work contains graphic accounts of the ways in which families are like dramas, with each of us accorded a scripted role tightly directed in its performance. From the moment we walk through the door on Christmas Eve or on the day itself, Laing warned, our parents and siblings will demand that we enact our appointed parts.

Never mind that you may have long since ceased to be the clever one or the attention-seeker or the tactless one or the secretive, silent one - your family treat you just as they always did. This becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy and within a short period of time you are liable to become exactly the person they project. In a matter of minutes the achievements and independence of adulthood can be swept away and you find yourself acting in a play you did not write, performing a role that you thought was long obsolete.

More alarmingly, if your task was to be the mad one of the family, so much the worse for your mental health: psychiatrists and geneticists may continue to discredit Laing's theory, claiming that mental illness is primarily caused by genes, but his work included important findings regarding the impact of families on schizophrenics who have been returned to them.

In those families where they are highly expressive towards the sufferer, making substantial demands on them to be like this or like that, the schizophrenics are more likely to suffer a relapse than ones who are sent to live in hostels with strangers. At the very least this evidence proves that some kinds of family projections, in some cases, can drive you mad.

The pressure that families place on us to re-enact our childhood roles is easily the greatest stress at Christmas and it could help to explain such dire holiday statistics as the Samaritans' claim that in last year's Christmas week (beginning 20 December) they received 15 per cent more calls compared with their weekly numbers in November and the rest of December. Even more dramatically, there were 26 per cent more calls in New Year's week, pouring in at a rate of 625 an hour or 15,000 a day.

But that should not make us buy into the idea that it is neccessarily grim for everyone. Certain groups are obviously more at risk than others because of particular problems in their lives.

The divorced and single are liable to feel excluded or envious of their smug married friends and to feel especially lonely on Christmas Day itself, perhaps missing ex-partners. The feeling that they are failures because they have no one is powerful. In the run-up period, "what are you doing for Christmas?" becomes a sore question.

Quarreling parents, perhaps headed towards separation, often become exasperated with each other when forced together over Christmas. Children pick up the bad vibes and act up.

For the widowed or recently bereaved the routine of the festivities makes it impossible to avoid recalling that this year, a loved person is not there to do the charades, get drunk or whatever it was that they are remembered for on this occasion. The loneliness may be increased by having to spend Christmas Day itself in an unaccustomed way, perhaps at one's children's home for the first time.

For those who have endured other calamities, such as redundancy, the comparison with 12 months before is unavoidable. If a house move has been forced upon them or there is little money with which to buy presents for the children, the incapacity to fulfil Christmas rituals rubs salt in the wound.

Of course, Christmas can heighten a pleasant or needed life change as well as an unpleasant one. The first Christmas together in their own home for the newly married or cohabiting couple can be an especially enjoyable one, likewise for couples with a new child. For the bereaved there can be a sense of relief if the dead person had a long and painful terminal illness; for the divorced, it can be a relief to be free.

It is also important to remember that for many people, Christmas is the wonderful, magical experience we are always told it should be and for many others, if nothing else, it is a pleasant and enjoyable holiday.

For millions of small children there is the build-up to the big day itself and the thrill of the presents; for their parents a delight in giving so much pleasure. Millions of practising Christians find solace and a confirmation of their faith in the celebration of the religious festival.

But if Christmas is a time of good cheer for some, I suspect it remains a tricky business for the many who will go back into the bosom of their families and experience the full deranging effects of being infantilised.

Oliver James's book "Britain on the Couch: why we're unhappier compared with 1950 despite being richer" is now available in paperback (Arrow, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times