The Last Train North on Christmas Eve.

Since the time of writing, Johnson has finally cancelled Christmas and we are left with the choice of criminalisation, infection or isolation. Thanks, pal.

As I write, the UK is on the edge of being submerged in the biggest crisis of my lifetime, as the most tumultuous year any of us has ever experienced limps to an end. No, I don’t mean Brexit. Liarman Johnson will, with a straight face, pull a supposed rabbit from a virtual hat and proclaim that he has heroically faced down the forces of evil at the eleventh hour and achieved a stunning deal that is brilliant for Britain. Anyone with functioning synapses knows that this is nonsense, and that he has, just as he did with Northern Ireland, rolled over in front of Michel Barnier and capitulated. Fishermen? Let them eat cake. Level playing field? We can manage being at the bottom of a steep cliff because we are English, are we not? ECJ ajudication? Bring it on, as long as we can call it something different. Maybe The Johnson Universal Deal Agreement System, or JUDAS for short.

All of that was always going to result in a stage-managed last-minute escape. No, the real crisis we face, is the terrible possibility (terrible to The Daily Mail, that is) that Christmas, as we know it, will not take place. And what makes it worse is that we can’t even blame it on Johnny Foreigner. So appalling is it to Johnson, with his psychopath’s need to be loved, that he is willing to contemplate millions of people travelling across the country, trailing infection in their wake, so that they can congregate around a groaning table, having spent an obscene amount of money they don’t have, on stuff that their nearest and dearest don’t want. Ah, Boris. Bless ‘im! Yes, just step over the bodies, dear, that’s right. Don’t distress yourself, it’s not important. It’s no-one’s fault – they had underlying health issues, you see.

When it comes to historical re-enactments, Boris is always going to want to play Charles II, (Nell Gwynne in tow), rather than Oliver Cromwell, who let’s face it, was a bit of pinko killjoy.

But let me, for a moment at least, step out my customary jaundiced mind set and acknowledge the joint humanity of this. Yes, even Tories (or Johnson’s English Nationalists) get some things right. And even Lefties value family and Christmas, and desperately want to end the year with some semblance of normality. So one can understand the reluctance to impose travel and mixing restrictions on a weary population, not least because it would be almost impossible to police. Allowing people to do something (ie removing the threat of legal enforcement) while advising them not to do it, in the light of the most up to date evidence, seems a reasonable course of action. It allows people to make sensible decisions based on their own personal circumstances. There will be people who know this will be their last ever Christmas. There will be those whose mental health would be severely tested by the prospect and the reality of a Christmas on their own. And, not least, there will be those ( the majority I believe) for whom cancelling Christmas as usual is by far the best solution. We can put up with more inconvenience for a while longer to play our part in not spreading this accursed virus any further. All of those groups can make defendable decisions.

My own Christmas arrangements have been completely disrupted. And the changes take me back down Memory Lane, to a time when the late December trip back up North, was a regular feature of my festive schedule. This tale takes place in the distant time of December 1982. Not quite Dickensian times, but near enough. I had just completed my first term as a trainee teacher, back in the days when trainees had the course paid for as their fourth year of Higher Education. (Yes, youngsters, Fees and maintenance all taken care of by the State. Don’t believe all you read about the Seventies and early eighties, before The Thatcher Ascendancy.)

I had to cycle twenty miles a day to get to my College and back during this term. Given the fact that I can’t get up two flights of stairs at home without groaning these days, this seems barely believable to me now. Although I really enjoyed the course and was amazed to find that I was quite good at teaching, it was with some relief that I greeted the Christmas holidays, with a break from the bike and the South Circular. But money, not leisure, was the main driver, despite the generosity of the state, and I was delighted to get a job for the Christmas holidays. I began to calculate the largesse I would demonstrate on my return to the land of my fathers, to check in with all of my Sixth Form chums again. Yes, the drinks would be on me.

I lived in a shared house at the top of Brixton Hill, just opposite the prison. One of the guys who I shared with, a friend from Teesside, was also training to be an English teacher, and we both got the same holiday job – seasonal shop assistant in Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”). We did it for about two weeks. I was on the stationery counter and spent a very depressing fortnight selling a whole range of Christmas tat to people who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families. They would shuffle up to the counter,  hands digging deep into their pockets for their last few coins, and begin the process of mentally calculating which things they would have to put back. I say “people”, but the reality was that they were almost exclusively women, often with small snotty kids in tow, looking harassed and malnourished. My mate was assigned to the fragrance counter, where he worked under the watchful eye of a very glamorous supervisor, who apparently found his jokes hilarious. He had to serve an endless queue of young women, with the occasional dutiful male partner thrown in, looking for the perfect Christmas perfume, while the supervisor stood behind him intermittently squeezing his bottom. When we exchanged notes every evening in the pub, it didn’t take long for me to feel that perhaps I was getting the worst end of the deal. Cheshire -cat- grinning mate sympathised with my plight, but not enough apparently, to offer to swap counters.

By the end of the two weeks, we had both had enough of South London’s West End Store. Even good-humoured sexual harassment (though it wouldn’t have been called that back then) can pall after a while and for me, the guilt of fleecing the poorest members of the community where I lived had become too much. We decided, without telling management, that we would not return after the holiday. That turned Christmas Eve into our last day and we become a little demob happy. We were due to finish early, and we had booked tickets on the last train North out of Kings Cross. We took our bags into work with us that morning, so we could get off to a flyer. The plan was to take the tube up west from Brixton, have something to eat and start our Christmas celebrations before boarding the train with a few cans of beer. You have to remember that we were much younger, we were Northerners, and we drank like fishes with little discernible impact on our bodies or brains. Oh happy day! What we didn’t know then was how much that would change as age began to take its toll as it inevitably did, but that’s another story or three.

In the last couple of hours of the shift, I had a Robin Hood type transformation, and began to assuage my guilt by handing over vast handfuls of excess change. At first, some customers, eyes wide, frowning, tried to give it back, but a subtle combination of non-verbal gestures made it clear that, yes, this was their lucky day.  A wink. A raised eyebrow. Even, for the less quick on the uptake, a tapping of the side of the nose. Word obviously got round and soon I had the longest queue in the store, much to the amazement of the supervisors who had pigeonholed me as a rather miserable presence on the shop floor. someone without any natural gifts for sales (ie capacity to lie with a straight face). This was in direct contrast to their attitude to my mate, who they had their eyes on for the fast-track management training course, because of his smiling charm. They didn’t seem to realise that it’s much easier to be happy and charming, when you are the object of the customers’ (and colleagues) sexual fantasies rather than the butt of their resentment of their own oppression. “Q: Why can’t I have a nice Christmas and get things that my children and my partner will really enjoy?” A: “Because of that miserable northern git behind the counter.” The lack of a Marxist analysis amongst the client base was deeply disappointing.

Eventually, the shift was over and we were free. I dread to think what the totting up of the till revealed at the end of the day, but no-one ever mentioned it, and the knock on the door from The Old Bill never came. Perhaps everyone else was on the take from the till, who knows? By the time we clambered on to the train at Kings Cross, we were firmly in holiday mode. An early dinner/late lunch with a few drinks had got things off the ground, and we looked forward to a jolly couple of hours to Darlington, aided and abetted by the train buffet. We had tried to get into the spirit of the occasion by attaching some modest bits of tinsel to our outfits, but a quick look at the queue of people boarding the train with us was the first indication that we had perhaps misjudged the situation. Everyone getting on the train appeared to be part of a larger group. They were dressed like extras from Brideshead Revisited, in tuxedos and formal evening wear, with the few women in attendance in posh frocks and they were all decorated with superior Christmas adornments, including liberal quantities of mistletoe. Each little knot of people had their own wicker hamper, and many of them already had champagne flutes in hand and were quaffing (because what else does one do with Champagne in this situation?) as they waited to board.

We both exchanged shifty, bemused glances, and our self-consciousness sky-rocketed. Never had one’s northern oikishness been so publicly exposed. The entire cohort of the passenger list appeared to be old alumni of the country’s finest public schools and Oxbridge, borne out by their braying self-congratulatory conversations. A little bit of shell-shocked earwigging confirmed that this was The City of London heading home to the parental pile in the North for the holidays. They had clearly, like us, come straight from work, but unlike us, their work wasn’t selling cheap cards and scent in Sarf London. The only response to this severe case of Class Alienation was to drink. So we did.

On the first trip to the toilet, it became clear that this was the Longest Party in the World. It was wild. Staggering down the rolling train aisle, I passed table after table of Champagne parties. Crackers were pulled, canapes and all manner of posh food, some of which I had never heard of back in the eighties, never mind tasted, were shovelled in, streamers streamed, music was played and eventually as the drink took hold, dances were danced. As the train pressed on to the frozen north, there was some thawing of the unspoken class war that had been bubbling under the surface of the  bonhomie. Alcohol can do that. We shared drinks and stories and had a laugh. It was a reminder of our common humanity and when we finally arrived at Darlington, shrouded in freezing fog, the doors opened and we literally poured out on to the platform in an hysterical tumble of giggles and spilled luggage. Had we continued on to Edinburgh, alcohol might well have worked its way inexorably into the mindless aggression phase, and we may well have attempted to start the revolution on British Rail, but thankfully we didn’t and we had, instead, a Stave-5-Scrooge like warm glow of love towards our fellow human beings. It’s a memory that has stayed with me ever since. A perfect, almost mythical Christmas Eve journey back home. I’ve often thought that Chris Rea should have left the car at home and let the train take the strain, but it all worked out pretty well for him in the car.

However you are spending Christmas, and whatever your movements (or lack of) across the country, I hope you have a restful holiday after what has been a miserable year. When we all get to New Year’s Eve, we need a collective resolution to hasten the vaccine, and never to forget the fiasco of incompetence we’ve endured, led by the charlatan in chief, Mr Johnson. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and most importantly, Stay Safe!