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4 January 2023

Howard Jacobson’s Diary: Escaping an icy fate in the Highlands, celebrity-spotting in London, and my soft spot for the King

Finding poetic consolation on a quest for snow, solace and Santa.

By Howard Jacobson

In the Highlands over Christmas in search of snow, solace and Santa. Though it’s unlikely that the poet Emily Dickinson ever left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, her account of a leaden sky powdering the hills with snow as through a sieve perfectly describes the scene I’m looking out upon. She isn’t the only woman writer who has my ear this weekend. Inscribed on a plank above my hotel bed are the words, “A thread of grey/On blue” by the early 20th-century Scottish poet Marion Angus.

As an act of hostly consideration, the hotel has left a copy of her selected works, The Singin’ Lass, on my bedside table. Flicking through, I find the poem that contains the line I’ve been sleeping under. It’s called “A Small Thing” and alludes to those petty agonies that common sense advises us to ignore. “And yet,/When thrushes call,/Or winds awake…/I think –/And think/This small heartbreak/Will wear my life away.” Why such a naked confession of vulnerability should prove so consolatory I can’t explain. But I am overcome by its exquisiteness and read it again and again as the snow falls.

[See also: Ian Hislop’s Diary: Getting the choir back together, remembering John Sessions, and what politicians forget about A Christmas Carol]

A miracle in the Cairngorms

The Range Rover in which I’m travelling to Christmas lunch with five septuagenarians slides in the snow, reverses itself on to a cattle grid and blows a tyre. The height of the vehicle, the depth of the falling snow, and the emptiness of the landscape persuade us we will not make it out alive. Talk turns to our having to eat one another to survive. As the eldest, I volunteer to be eaten first, but as the eldest I am considered the least succulent.

By some miracle – it’s Christmas: miracles occur – a member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team appears like a yeti out of the blizzard and sets about saving us. In the cold, our bodies have begun to fuse, so he is unable to tell whether the leg he’s pulling belongs to the person he’s telling to stay calm. And there’s no point asking us: in the matter of whose limbs are whose we are too old to be sure. It takes about an hour to get us all out. Santa might have done it quicker but I’m beginning to think there is no Santa.

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Build it and they will come

I don’t, of course, tell our friend’s grandchildren that when we finally make it to lunch and find them opening their presents. One is building an entire city of London out of Lego – the financial district, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, everything. Remembering when Lego was ten dimpled bricks and a couple of windows, we look on in wonder. But I’m not sure it’s seemly for grown-ups to be in awe of a child. “I was a dab hand at Lego in my youth,” I tell her. She is getting the Thames Barrier to open and close, and doesn’t look up. “So what did you make?” she asks incuriously. “Metropolis, the Lost City of Atlantis, and the Great Wall of China,” I lie. (I’m not going to tell her I made a house.) “Aha,” she says, still not looking at me. “I did those last Christmas.”

Sympathy for the monarch

Back at the hotel, bleary-eyed and crackered-out, I enjoy a repeat of King Charles addressing the nation from Windsor. I’ve had a soft spot for Charles since observing his loneliness as a boy who had to make do with handshakes from his parents. Would he end up a lonely monarch, over-principled and shy? Camilla at least ensured he wouldn’t be lonely. I see theirs as a great love story. Hugger-mugger, in the royal box at the Opera House, they swoon over Scylla and Glaucus, and leave Elton John to blow out his own candle. There was, of course, collateral damage. But that’s love for you. Someone’s happiness is always someone else’s tragedy.

Celebrity in the age of Gogglebox

After the royal broadcast I find an episode of Gogglebox to watch – the ordinary-person one not the celebrity version, though that’s a distinction that’s getting harder to maintain, what with celebrities striving for the natural wit of the man in the street and the man in the street becoming famous for being a man in the street. At a predictably starry Christmas party I attended in London the other week, the one person exciting interest was a woman known only for sitting stroking a dog and eating chocolates in front of the telly. “So what’s it like?” we were all desperate to learn, “just sitting there?” Thus we approach cultural democracy’s ultimate goal: a gaudy world where the thing to which we attach the most value is the thing that doesn’t have any. The very obverse of Marion Angus’s thread of grey on blue – in which the subtlest intimation bears the deepest meaning.

Howard Jacobson’s most recent book, “Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings”, is published by Jonathan Cape

[See also: Sasha Swire’s Diary: Rishi Rich in No 10, lords-in-waiting, and a case of the green-eyed monster]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege