Thank heavens for the comparative sanity of rural France. Give or take the odd over-dressed maison aux illuminations de Blackpool, the French generally seem to have a more clear-headed attitude when it comes to Christmas. Except when it comes to food, of course.
It's a relief to be home. I was in grave danger of being swept away in the tsunami of spending. Today's Grauniad home page tell us that Visa expects Britons (who will never, never be slaves to anything other than Big Retail) to add an extra £1.3 billion to their credit card accounts in a frenzy of last-minute shopping for Christmas. The horror, the horror! The waste, the waste. If all that money spent on fragrant cosmetics, Bristol Cream Sherry, socks and other potentially superfluous gifts could be channelled into something more worthwhile, just think...
Not that I am blameless. Au contraire, mes braves. Last year's worthy endangered wildlife adoptions were met with resounding silence from the UK branch of the family, so this year I felt I had to buy more conventional gifts lest the names of the French Connection were turned to mud. So The Kid and I took some time off from family duties to visit Southampton city centre one afternoon last week.
We started off in Ikea and did the usual trick of amassing a substantial bill with insubstantial trifles that we probably didn’t need anyway. Then Tilley talked me into lunch in the West Quay shopping complex, where we were unable to avert our eyes from the spectacle of overweight Britons augmenting their paunches with chips and other starch-enriched food. We split up afterwards, so I could buy stocking fillers from Poundland, spices and pickles from the Asian Food Emporium and sensible presents from Waterstone and the HMV shop, while my daughter conducted her own top-secret business. Everywhere was teeming and overheated and I was dressed for more continental winter weather. By the time we missed our agreed rendezvous – because I was inside rather than outside the HMV shop – we were both about ready to expire or to kill. Fortunately, we forwent an East Enders-style slanging match in favour of some deep breathing laced with a healthy dash of philosophy.
It wasn't that we were over there to shop, but given that Britain is so geared up for it and that Brive offers such a limited choice, it made sense to join in the communal madness. No, we were there to relieve my sisters by helping my father merge into his new flat. And once it was a little more straight, then there was time off at the weekend to attend my nephew's wedding.
I’m relieved to report that it wasn’t the kind of fairy-princess affair that cripples domestic economies. It was simple, elegant and thoroughly enjoyable. My nephew’s sombre suit was enlivened by the ornate waistcoat from Liberty’s that my father wore on his wedding day. His bride wore a pair of Uggs underneath her wedding dress, which she kept on right to the very end of the evening party to derive maximum benefit from an outfit that will undoubtedly be worn only once. My great nephews were all kitted out in clothes that were bought on the cheap from eBay. The table decorations for the afternoon ‘wedding breakfast’ were all hand-made by the radiant – and, it would seem, thoroughly practical – bride, and the speeches were concise, heartfelt and suitably lacking in pretension. So the whole affair will be nominated for the 2014 Queen’s Award for Dignity and Modesty in the Face of Prevalent Ostentation.
While breaking my fast, I chatted to the young woman to my knife-side. She was born in Chile, but moved with her parents to Sweden about 30 years ago, where she lives on the edge of the conifer woods not too far from Stockholm. She met her boyfriend, the bride's brother, bizarrely by playing Xbox games on the computer (if I've reported the term correctly). They teamed up on a search-and-destroy mission and developed such a rapport on their virtual walky-talkies that they have now teamed up in the parallel real world. I can only imagine that it must be like a Territorial Army exercise without having to leave the comfort of your own computer.
I have always had a touching faith that the sensible Scandinavian countries might yet lead us through a last-minute escape tunnel into a kind of promised car-less land of moderate weather and sylvan fields where humans, animals and a better class of insects live together in blissful harmony. It seems that I am misguided. She told me a familiar tale of burgeoning political extremism, unseasonably warm winters and, just to put the old tin lid on it, a similar kind of US-aping commercial apocalypse in the lead-up to Christmas.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness...? I kissed my demented mother goodbye and hoped that she continued to recover from her latest bout of care-home pneumonia. I hugged my father, the World's Laziest Man, and expressed the wish that he might learn to be a little more self-reliant in his new (tidier and less cluttered) residence. I packed the Berlingo with a trunk full of my mother's unpublished manuscripts, a box full of unwanted paperbacks (mainly given to my mother by her oldest child), bags of reciprocal presents and all those spices and stocking fillers from Southampton city centre, and set off for home. A beautifully packed boot is not quite so fine if you forget your daughter's winter overcoat and your own phone and camera chargers.
Never mind. We got back in one piece. It's a long, long way from Le Havre to La Poujade Basse, but French roads are mercifully emptier than all those British roads choked with last-minute shoppers. We ran into a bouchon through Limoges, but by then the grey sky of northern France had turned miraculously into the radiant blue of a proper cold continental winter's day. We were still back early enough to enjoy my wife's aubergine pie and an evening of decking the halls with decorations in preparation for our own brand of traditional family Christmas. The financial wound has been cauterised and the bleeding staunched before permanent damage was incurred.
I shall raise a glass at lunchtime on the 25th to the ghost of Cockers past. I learnt on my return that Joe has died at the age of 70. Not only was he a son of Sheffield, but he was blessed with a seriously good set of pipes. I remember clearly the site of that dishevelled man in a tie-die T-shirt on Top of The Pops, arms flailing epileptically as he delivered his almost unrecognisable version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. I rushed out to buy the single – on the Regal Zonophone label if I’m not mistaken. Even though his taste became a little questionable over the years, I wish I still had that record in my collection.
So Happy Christmas one and all – including the late lamented Joseph Cocker, should he be up there in some kind of Afterlife, backed by the Grease Band and writhing in apparent agony.