I meant to do some research for this article by walking into the Conran Shop and asking whether they sold tea cosies. I was ready to forestall any more sneering than strictly necessary by saying: “I know it sounds a bit naff, but tea really does taste better if you reduce the amount of heat escaping from the pot.” But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Still less could I have gone in and asked for a toilet-roll cosy of the sort often found muffling the Andrex in Blackpool guest-houses. (The idea, by the way, is not to keep the toilet roll warm, but to disguise it.)
No, it would be fatal to ask for one of those in any shop with pretensions to style, because we British do not in theory like the word “cosy”. It often denotes objects we think we despise, and to say that A is “cosying up” to B has sinister connotations. But I would argue that we are the cosiest nation, especially at Christmas.
In Charles Dickens we have the world’s cosiest author. His cosiest book is A Christmas Carol (bugger the Christian morality: Scrooge’s important progression is from appalling non-cosiness to cosiness), and at the time of writing, versions of this are being performed in London at the Albery Theatre (starring Patrick Stewart) and at the Palladium (starring Tommy Steele). It is also being read out, over “traditional afternoon tea”, at Fortnum & Mason on Sunday afternoons.
Most of our national heroes are cosy. There’s Winston Churchill, who won the war from his bed; there’s John Peel, who was our favourite kind of iconoclast, namely one who tended to be inter-viewed while sipping red wine next to an Aga; and Delia Smith, whom I would nominate as the Queen of Cosy. Take this from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course (Classic Edition): “Although you can buy good crumpets, I do think they’re fun to make – especially on a cold snowy day, when everyone’s housebound.”
We also love steam locomotives, which we see as essentially fireplaces on wheels, and we do love fireplaces, whereas our north European neighbours have favoured the more economical iron stoves. Yes, this year did bring the end of the very cosy Routemaster bus (let’s hear it one last time for low-wattage bulbs, burgundy lining panels, Chinese green window surrounds and Sung yellow ceilings), but the miracle to some is that it survived so long.
I admit that cosiness as an intellectual concept is enshrined in a word that is not English but German. Gemutlich, meaning comfortable or convivial, is most often employed either to promote German beer cellars or in the literature of modernists denouncing passe features such as fireplaces, inglenooks or nice, comfy seats.
Modernists have always found a lot to denounce in Britain, where their cause of high-minded austerity and classless open space has never made much headway. It had a brief look-in during the Nine- ties, but walk into the Conran Shop this Christmas and, though you won’t exactly see toilet-roll cosies, the predominant colours are warm reds, greens and browns.
The first person to use the word gemut-lich in Britain was Queen Victoria. She was German, after all, but she helped establish Britain as top Christmas nation through her fondness for decorated trees and family togetherness. She couldn’t have done it without Dickens, though. Before him, Christmas was a rather pallid festival, like the modern Easter. If you were particularly busy (or poor) you might not notice it. Dickens magnified it and – as Peter Ackroyd writes in his biography – he “made it cosy”. Dickens’s insecure childhood gave him “an acute sense of, and need for, ‘Home'”, and in seeking the comforts of the hearthside he reflected the spirit of his times. Entire tracts of his novels work well as Christmas card inscriptions. I myself will be sending out some cards this year (very reasonable at £5.99 for 20) in which Mr Pickwick, standing before a blazing hearth, proposes a toast: “This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking around him, “this is, indeed, comfort.” Not much has changed in the national taste since that was written in 1836; if anything, our love of domesticity has been increased by Thatcher’s property-owning revolution.
I have long since faced the fact that I like cosiness. It’s why I listen to the Shipping Forecast – whatever else might be going wrong, I am not sitting in a leaky trawler off Dogger – and it’s why I listen to football on the radio on a cold Saturday afternoon. I especially relish those far-north fixtures that don’t happen: Cowdenbeath v Morton (“match postponed because of a frozen pitch”).
My favourite bar for a Christmas drink is Gordon’s, which is in (or rather underneath) Villiers Street, WC2. Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Light That Failed” there, and the light has been failing ever since. It’s beautifully cobwebbed and candlelit, the late owner, Luis Gordon, having instituted a strict regime of not cleaning – although Westminster City Council persuaded him to “stabilise” the dust in the mid-Nineties. There are old newspaper cuttings on the wall, including one of mine, which is gradually turning the same shade of brown as everything else in the place, and appears alongside a Daily Mail report of the coronation, in which the young Queen is quoted as urging Britons to “cherish our own way of life”. I seem to be doing the same myself.