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8 January 2020

I spend most of the year making an effort to embrace the new. Then something odd happens

In December, I retreat back into the past.

By Tracey Thorn

I’m not myself at Christmas. Or rather, I am, but it’s a version of myself that hides away the rest of the year. From January to November I roll up my sleeves and make an effort to stay in touch, look ahead, embrace the new. Then December arrives, I string up the lights and the baubles, close the curtains and retreat back into the past.

The last few weeks you would often have found me curled up in the corner of our sofa, surrounded by twinkling decorations in my own personal grotto, knitting as if my life depended on it. Ben had casually asked if he might have a new scarf for Christmas, and the very next day I dug out my needles, bought wool from John Lewis and made a start. I ended up knitting not one, not two, but three scarves, working at a pace that suggested I would be sending urgently needed items to the front.

And God it was soothing, and God I needed soothing. The December election was an unwelcome intrusion into my annual fantasy that Christmas heals everything, and the result even more so. I hunkered down afterwards, shutting the world out even more than usual, pausing only to reassure distraught twentysomethings in our house that I was 17 when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, and I didn’t see a change of government until 1997. I’m not sure that was actually very reassuring, but my point was, we survived it all once before, and you have to give young people something to cling to.

Once the holidays arrived I returned to nostalgia. I did a jigsaw puzzle of a picture of vintage pencils, and listened to an adaptation of Middlemarch. With the children (not children) we watched Fawlty Towers. I cooked lunch accompanied by the playlist Ben made me for Special Occasions, and which I react to every time as if I’ve never heard it before, shouting out, “Oh I love this one!” as Ben sadly shakes his head in the background.

In the evenings we rewatched the ten-year-old BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. Dickens is always perfect for the festive season, but I tried and couldn’t get on with the new version of A Christmas Carol, finding it too modern and new-fangled. This Little Dorrit is more classic, and while Tom Courtney elegantly wastes away in the Marshalsea Prison, Eddie Marsan, as Mr Pancks, moles out the truth about everyone’s birth and inheritance. In Dickens, everyone is haunted by their past. It defines who and what they are.

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In the daytime I read Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. My mind a turmoil of snow and revolution, I realised that as much as anything, I was remembering the film on TV one Christmas long ago, and my mum fancying Omar Sharif. It was the perfect book to get lost in: 600 pages long, messy and meandering, with a plot that dies out long before it actually ends, but filled with vivid set-pieces, and profound reflections on human life and society. “It’s only in bad novels,” says Lara at one point, “that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up!”

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That line rang such a bell with me that I underlined it. I’d just finished reading Jonathan’s Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, recommended to me on election night by the nature writer Melissa Harrison, which tries to make sense of why people come to different moral conclusions about the world, and how that affects their political thinking, and voting. It chimed with what I’ve always felt about the need to accept that we don’t all see things the same way, probably born out of my experience of coming from a family with whom I politically disagreed, yet loved.

But all that is to bring us back to the present, and I must now accept that it is January, and time to look ahead again. In my favourite Christmas song, “Things Fall Apart” by Cristina, she sings “Once a year, let’s have the past” and it can only be once a year, I suppose. Last January my great-niece Lola was born, and now she is saying her first word, practising it joyfully on everyone she met at our family Christmas lunch. It is, simply, “Hello.”

Hello then, new year. Hello, new decade. Bring it on, I suppose. 

Next week: Kate Mossman

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran