2019, and the Great British Christmas
“The Boxing Day Hunt?”
“The Berkshire Hunt?”
This last suggestion was made rather pointedly, thought the new Prime Minister, but he was otherwise prepared to go along with it. The others, he ruefully expected, might be shot down on the grounds of various technicalities.
Sure enough, a familiar-looking senior civil servant chipped in.
“I’m afraid it’s rather late for the chestnut harvest. We don’t tend to produce many anyway; it seems our nation is rather more into horse chestnuts than sweet ones. Conkers,” he clarified.
“I don’t suppose we can import any?” the Prime Minister asked, already knowing the reply.
“Only from Italy. And they’re not too keen on signing new contracts with us at the moment.”
“They’ve already buggered off,” blustered the Foreign Secretary, wryly. “Along with half the liberal intelligentsia. Didn’t you see them croaking their way over South London last month? Even gave us the big ‘V’ as they went. I have to say, turkeys failing to vote for Christmas is one thing, but perhaps it’s a bit much to see geese deciding to vote with their bastard webbed feet too...”
At least, mused the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary was bringing some humour to an otherwise dreadful Cabinet meeting. Christ knew, humour was in short supply. And it was supposed to be the season of good will. Everything had surely gone about as right as it possibly could have done. It was, after all, only days ago that the Conservatives had enjoyed the largest electoral victory since the days when Rees-Mogg’s ancestors would have been representing rotten boroughs, and that dreadful London Mayor Khan’s predecessors would have been nodding punkawallahs. With a majority like his, thought the Prime Minister wistfully, he should even be allowed to make a comparison like that without being pilloried by the bloody London Times. Humourless Bastards.
As for this cabinet meeting, it had been brought about by the most innocuous of suggestions. I mean; what could be less political than simply asking the question, ‘How can we bring a proper British Christmas back?’ With all this doom and gloom about medicines, working hours and similar tedious nonsense, surely this one bloody topic could be discussed without a rebellion from the bloody technocrats? He thought he’d sacked most of them anyway?
Apparently not. Which was why they were now ‘brainstorming’. Bloody awful term, in the Prime Minister’s opinion, but needs must. And it was not going well.
“British Mince pies,” the meeting had begun. And the rot had set in almost immediately. It turned out that the fruit could only grow near the Med, and before a jar of the stuff finally turned up in the produce section of Fortnum’s, it had to stop off at a processing plant in virtually every European capital in-between. It even stopped in Lichtenstein, for Christ’s sake, and the Prime Minister couldn’t for the life of him recall whether Lichtenstein was even in Europe. “Turkey?” had been an even more controversial suggestion. There were, according to some of his cabinet colleagues with constituencies in the university towns, unfortunate xenophobic overtones of a dubious campaign tactic during the Brexit referendum. The PM couldn’t remember if it was one of the tactics he’d signed off on, but frankly, the whole campaign was starting to become something of a distant blur, and there was every possibility that it might have been his suggestion. The gloves had been off, after all.
“..the wrong tack,” continued someone in the room, as the PM found himself drifting out of reverie. “We’ve being heading on completely the wrong tack.”
“Go on…” the PM contributed, intrigued as to where this might be going. Or, indeed, where it might have come from.
“Concentrating on produce is only going to get us into trouble,” continued the Culture Secretary. “We may have won this election, but half the country still don’t believe in Brexit. They’re obsessing about empty shelves and week-long tailbacks on the M2, and, let’s be honest, the Christmas holidays are not the best time to try and put those fears to rest.”
“Your point being?” This was the Brexit Secretary now, defending his job, as usual.
The Culture Secretary continued, emolliently.
“The whole point of this exercise is to bring people together, right? To bring a bit of pride back to this country. Brexit’s going to happen – it needs to be celebrated - and those 50p pieces were a complete disaster.”
There was a discreet outbreak of affirmatory nodding around the table. The Brexit Secretary looked sheepish.
“So that’s why we’re trying to come up with the ‘Great British Christmas’...”
Another round of nodding. Perhaps a little more impatiently, this time.
“And we can’t figure out any form of nationally manufactured product that we can use to our advantage…”
“And we’re surprised?” muttered the Foreign Secretary, not entirely under his breath, and leaving the PM silently wondering if it wasn’t already about time for another reshuffle.
“So; let’s not think about consumption.”
The Chancellor nearly spat out his Danish Swirl at this suggestion. “What’s Christmas if it’s not bloody consumption? I’m buggered if I’m spending my day off eating crispbread and thinking about the bastard baby Jesus. We’re supposed to be making everybody feel a bit happier.”
“I know,” soothed the Culture Secretary, “but if we focus simply on the season of over-eating six months before we have to advise people to stockpile bottled water and Fray Bentos pies, we‘re on a hiding to nothing.”
“Brilliant! What about Fray Bentos?” It was the Secretary of State for Transport, this time. “The great British Christmas Pie? Don’t they do a turkey and cranberry? No other country would want to put their hands up to that…”
The Culture Secretary managed to continue above the groans. “No. If we’re looking at a really Great British Christmas, we should be looking more culturally. We should be looking at literature.”
“A glass of the blushful Hippocrene, eh?” spluttered the red-faced Cabinet secretary. Too clever by half, thought the PM. He might agree with the chap’s sentiment, but oblique references to romantic poetry were the PM’s department, and not to be impinged upon by a bloody civil servant who might have a claim towards actual academic prowess.
“I was thinking about rather more approachable literature,” continued the Culture Secretary. “Dickens, in fact.”
“Dickens?” coughed Rees-Mogg, indignantly. It was about time he chipped in, thought the PM. It had been ten minutes. “Dickens the arch-socialist? There’s already enough column inches showing me in a top hat without us encouraging them to sell me as bloody Gradgrind!”
“There are already enough column inches,” corrected the PM. It was a favourite game; out-pedanting Jacob. “Carry on. I like the sound of this idea.”
“Dickens,” obliged the Culture Secretary. “What could be more appropriate to a Great British Christmas than a beneficent Victorian hero and the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future? It’s universal. There’s even a Muppet version of Christmas Carol. You don’t get more mainstream than that. Even Stormzy’s too niche to get a slot on the muppets.”
The PM was aware of a civil servant whispering in his ear.
“I know who Stormzy is, you buffoon!” he replied to the whisperer. “I just wish I didn’t. Now, can we carry on please?”
“So, I thought we could sell ourselves as the purveyors of a traditional, Great British, Dickensian Christmas.”
It had legs, the PM had to admit. There was some fleshing out to be done, though. Fine lines to be negotiated. Jacob had a point. Top hats needed to be avoided, or at least appropriated by the right socio-economic class. If there were top hats to be worn, everybody had to feel that they could wear one. Though in all honesty, the PM knew by experience that wearing a top hat was a difficult thing to carry off.
He was drifting again. In fact, if he was being honest with himself, the PM was getting rather bored. Also, the mention of a glass of blushful Hippocrene had made him rather thirsty. A full hour of discussing Christmas-related European imports had steered him inevitably in the direction of thoughts about a decent glass of Claret, and it was about time that he succumbed to the temptation. He had only just been made aware of the full extent of Number 10’s cellar, and he was looking forward to sampling some of its rarer offerings. Years of Labour government and, more recently, the premiership of that awful old diabetic, had meant that even the tenure of the arriviste ‘Dave’ hadn’t emptied the racks of some of the more significant vintages. And there had to be some perks to this bloody awful job. Yes. It was time to move on. If the Prime Minister of the greatest democracy the world had ever seen couldn’t close down a cabinet meeting for a decent glass of Paulliac, then the world was not turning properly.
“That’s settled then,” he opined to the meeting. There was a general glancing around, as the ministers of the great offices of state attempted to ascertain exactly what had been settled. They would, of course, sort it out eventually. The PM had faith in them. Delegation had always been a strong point of his management style. Ever since he had lobbed that pretty young English undergraduate a bit of folding to knock off a couple of essays at Balliol, he had understood that his own talents were better focussed on the bigger picture. “We sell our public a timeless bucolic of Dickensian festivity,” he continued. “Top hats. Geese – no matter where the buggers have gone to. Mulled wine. Deck the halls in boughs of holly. Tiny Tim. The works. Decked in plenty of fa-la-la. As British as roast beef, even if the labels say made in Taiwan. We want everyone to buy into this. Let’s light a festive yule log under a few arses, and get the whole country behind us. Dickens is ours, and Dickens invented Christmas. Let’s celebrate a Great British success story. I’ll leave it to you chaps to sort out the details, but if, by Thursday, every bloody High Street doesn’t look like Tiny Tim will be skipping down it any minute, then you’ve let the side down. And with that, as I’m sure you’ll all appreciate, I have red boxes to deal with. Until we convene again…”
He wasn’t technically lying. Red boxes. Boxes of Red. They were much the same thing.
Of course it had fallen to her to sort it out. If the management style of any organisation depends upon the principle of delegation, then eventually everything will land on the desk of the most compliant lackey. That is, obviously, once the ambitious young men had checked first to see if it was a task that might further their careers. However, nobody’s career was going to be furthered by this - by trying to sell a post-Brexit salvation to the cynical British public in the shape of some absurd pseudo-Dickensian Christmas fantasy. Instead, in the eyes of any sane individual, this whole idea bore the hallmarks of an utter bloody nightmare. Something that she suspected the Cabinet might have foreseen, had any of them ever bothered to read a work by Dickens once they had left the molly-coddling English classrooms of their awful public schools. Only an absolute idiot was going to imagine that extolling Dickens’s harsh social satire was a shortcut to establishing a nationalist paradise. But this particular ‘minor civil servant’ was not allowed to make judgements like that, was she? Dear God. She had picked up some pretty dreadful briefs of late, but this one was really taking the biscuit. What the hell was she supposed to do with ‘Let’s sell to Great Britain a Great Dickensian Christmas, and let’s restore some national pride!’
Sitting at her desk, she span idly at her mouse wheel; her computer screen scrolling through top-hatted cliché after top-hatted cliché. This was going to take some imagination, and one hell of a speech to pull it off. It had to be a one-off. A PR stunt, obviously, but with depth. It had to touch a nerve. It would have to re-align people’s ideas of what it was to be British. Bring them back to the certainties of Empire, but without any of the unpleasantness: Local Famines. Racist overtones. Cholera. That sort of thing. Dressing the cabinet up in frock coats while the PM spoke over the fa-la-la-ing of some carol singers was simply not going to cut it. Half of the bloody cabinet wore frock coats anyway - she was pretty sure that the last time she saw Rees-Mogg, he had been twirling a pocket watch – and the country’s best singers were packing their bags in the expectation of a post-Brexit career apocalypse. She certainly wasn’t going to trawl through Central Casting trying to find an actor who was going to stand there like Bob Cratchitt - every actor she’d ever known viewed the Tories as tantamount to the ministers of the devil - and phoning up Great Ormond St to see if they had a willing Tiny Tim appealed to her darkest sense of irony, but very little else. No. This was going to take finesse, and a certain amount of deft footwork by all involved. Particularly by the Prime Minister himself. But one couldn’t have everything.
She shouted across the office. “Sophie! Can you get me a number please? It’s a heritage museum. That one in South London - you know - the old workhouse..”
The best thing about a really good wine, thought the Prime Minister, is that it doesn’t leave you with too much of a hangover. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a good single malt, and he’d enjoyed a fair amount of that last night too. Still, he mused, personal freedom can never be won without a certain amount of unpleasant consequence. Anyway, after a difficult election campaign, even with a mild case of crapulence this was going to be a breeze. After weeks of dull, interminable campaigning, a bit of Dickens was absolutely playing to the PM’s strengths. This was his forte. All those glorious-sounding names! Chuzzlewit. Wopsle. Sweedlepipe! Honestly, Dickens was clearly a man after his own heart. And, as he glanced out of the car window at the solid yellow-brick building in front of him, the day was shaping up to be exactly the sort of event where the PM knew he would shine. Fair play to those civil servant chaps. Or chappesses. Whatever they were. They’d found a cracking bit of grand Victorian architecture to act as back drop, with only 12 hours to put it together. Impressive really, he had to admit. He glanced down at the crumpling handful of papers that had been thrust at him just before he’d left Number 10. They’d even put a speech together. Not bad. A shame he hadn’t got around to reading it yet, but the best thing about government servants was that they were subservient, and he was the government. A lot safer than all those ambitious, back-biting political types whom one usually had to trust with the speech-writing stuff. No doubt about it. This was going to be a good day.
To the accompaniment of flash bulbs and shouted questions, the PM stepped out of the car, and hurried, head down, to the platform where the event was due to be staged. Parliament was not in proper session yet, so the cabinet had no decent excuses to be elsewhere, and he was gratified to see that some of the more ambitious chaps had taken the hint and were waiting for him on the dais. There was a good deal of shuffling around in the cold, and scarves were very much in evidence. Rees-Mogg, noticed the PM, was, not unexpectedly, looking particularly Dickensian. The very picture of a patrician Victorian gentleman - all that was missing was the top hat, but everybody seemed to have got the memo on that particular topic.
The PM acknowledged what were surely shouts of acclamation, then stood on the platform and patted the immense brick wall behind him.
“Solid,” he proclaimed. “A chunk of architecture like this should remind us of the past of which we should be proud. This is what strong and stable really looks like...”
There was a gentle muttering from some of the audience of journalists and civil servants in front of him. Time to turn the rhetorical volume up a little, the PM thought.
“It’s been a difficult few months,” he began, in what he trusted were conciliatory tones, “and I know that we’re all thoroughly sick of this bickering over Brexit. But now,” he paused, “we should be content that our future is in safe hands. Our hands. Hands that have shaped the best that is British for generations. The Conservative Party,” – he was warming to his theme now – “are the natural ancestors of the Great Britons that have forged this country’s grandeur since the first days of Empire.”
The PM looked to see the effect of his opening salvo, and caught sight of a special advisor making frantic gestures across his throat. Perhaps ‘empire’ wasn’t such a great topic, he conceded.
“And now, of course, we acknowledge that our Empire rightly belongs in the past… but we must take what it stood for, and remain proud of its higher purpose.
“Behind me stands an edifice. A concrete reminder of what a great civilisation can achieve, even when separate from its European neighbours. Look at it!” he gestured proudly at the Victorian institution behind him. “It’s testament to a great age! An age of ambition! An age of certainty. An age of moral responsibility. An age when we knew that our country was great, and we didn’t have to apologise for it. An age,” he paused for effect, “when everybody did their bit.”
There was more gesticulating from the advisors below. However, the PM knew that this was safe ground. Those over-educated secret Guardian-istas might view this as controversial, but he knew better. However, he may have drifted a little off-topic..
“This Christmas,” he soothed, “we are contemplating a future that we can embrace on our own terms. But it is a future that is rooted in an understanding of our past, and in a clear grasp upon the present.” Really, the PM astonished even himself sometimes with his ability to turn a phrase. “And that brings me to what we have come here to celebrate. For it was one of our own who neatly understood the ideas of past, present and future,” – the PM was unconsciously gesturing to particular ministers stood to his side – “ and how they might remind us of what Christmas really means. It was Dickens. A man synonymous with Christmas itself.
“When we think of Christmas, who doesn’t think of Dickens. Because it is our extraordinary culture that shapes us as a nation. We don’t think of German Christmas markets when we think of Christmas. We don’t think of Lebküchen or Glühwein! None of that umlaut nonsense! We think of Dickens. We think of Tiny Tim! We think of Scrooge, and the ghosts of past,” – he gestured generally at the foreign secretary – “present” – the corpulent Chancellor – “and future” – the aquiline Rees Mogg seemed almost to be feigning actual interest at this accolade.
“Coal fires!” – the PM was really starting to warm to this. “Mufflers. Pickwicks. Chuzzlewumps. Fuzzlewigs. Who but a great Englishman could have come up with this? This,” he gesticulated wildly, “is our birth-right. What better way to celebrate the joy that is Christmas than by reminding ourselves of our great past. Of our shared national culture. By reminding ourselves that a proud nation that was once responsible for all of this,” - another broad sweep at the looming institution behind him - “can now look to its Christmases past, and believe that its Christmases future will belong to the same glorious heritage!”
Below him, the PM had a vague sense that his audience were starting to appreciate his rhetorical grandeur. Heads were shaking in obvious respect.
“We are the nation to which only the great imagination of Dickens could do justice. Let’s celebrate our Great Britain. Our Great British Christmas. And may God bless us, every one!”
The PM stuffed his unused notes into his coat pocket, and looked at the small gathering in front of him. They seemed stupefied. Presumably, thought the PM - and he admitted some immodesty to himself - they had found themselves in awe of his abilities to craft great oratory out of nothing. In fact, looking a little more closely, didn’t he even recognise one of that small cluster of minor civil servants standing next to the BBC camera crew? Didn’t that blonde look like the pretty undergraduate he’d once known at Balliol? He should probably take a moment later to find out.
As his car swept out of the museum grounds, past the sign proclaiming its history as a vast workhouse, the first page of the speech lay trampled at the foot of the dais. The minor civil servant picked it up.
‘Dickens,’ it began, ‘understood, above all, that a great nation must always look to change…’
The Cabinet sat in despairing silence as the PM’s special advisor finished reading out the apocalyptic headlines. The Pm sat in the corner, in disgrace.
“What were you all thinking?! You actually stood in front of a Victorian workhouse whilst listening to a speech about how bloody marvellous it was? You allowed the festive message from our new government to come from the very mouth of Scrooge? How did this occur to any of you as being a good idea?”
“It was the only way we could think to keep Christmas British,” weasled the culture secretary. “Everything else seemed to sound a bit European…”
“The only festive tradition you’ve all kept,” struggled the special advisor, visibly wilting at the horror of it all, “is that you’re sitting around a table having another family row.”
“Come on,” suggested the Chancellor, “there must be something uncontroversial about Christmas that is quintessentially British. Something we can cling on to out of the wreckage of this whole bloody business. Christ. We’re all educated men. We think Christmas. We think…?
“Brussels Sprouts?” suggested the PM.