My favourite Christmas things




This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.



Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.



In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.


Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.


© Vintage


Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.


Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.


© First Look Pictures


For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!




Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)




As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.


© Charlemagne Productions Ltd


Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?


Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.






So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.


The dark end of Peebles



I recently read a collection of supernatural short stories by Charles Dickens.  I found the collection a mixed bag, with several stories suffering from a surfeit of humour and / or sentimentality to the point where they aren’t creepy or even slightly unsettling.  (Humour and sentimentality, I have to say, are two things that put me off much of Dickens’ fiction.)  However, there are other stories that work.  A Confession Found in a Prison at the Time of Charles II, for example, is a variation on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, though instead of an old man being murdered it’s – more disturbingly – a child.  The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber uses the clever idea that the ghost, of an aged murderer, is replicated according to the hour of the day – at two o’clock in the haunted house in question you’ll encounter two mysterious old men, at three o’clock you’ll encounter three of them, and so on.


And then, of course, there’s The Signalman.


The Signalman, in which the titular character is tormented by a spectral figure whose appearances at a remote stretch of railway line are invariably followed by tragic rail accidents, has none of Dickens’ comic / sentimental shtick.  It’s told in a straightforward manner and is deadly serious.  No doubt Dickens wrote the story with such earnestness because the subject matter was no laughing matter for him.  On 9th June, 1865, he’d been a passenger on a train involved in the Staplehurst rail disaster.  Ten people were killed and for hours during its aftermath Dickens tended to and comforted the injured.  Writing The Signalman may have been his attempt to exorcise the trauma he experienced that day.


(c) Alma Classics 


The story feels very familiar now, thanks to the famous BBC dramatization of it broadcast at Christmas-time in 1976.  Scripted by Andrew Davies and starring Denholm Elliot, the TV version of The Signalman is regarded as the greatest of the BBC’s traditional festive ghost stories.  Indeed, it’s interesting to read Dickens’ original story and compare it with its TV adaptation.  For the most part the latter is fairly faithful to the former, although the second railway accident foretold by the spectre’s appearance is more spectacular in the TV play – it has a young bride plunging to her death from the door of a carriage, before the signalman’s eyes.  In the story, he simply tells the narrator that a “beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments”.  Also, the signalman in the story – “a dark, sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” – is an earthier and more hirsute figure than the clean-shaven, well-groomed Elliot.


One aspect of the story that the TV adaptation captures very well is the grim, claustrophobic setting: “The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate.  It was made through a clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down…  His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.  On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky – the perspective one way, only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction, terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air.  So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot that it had an earthy deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it that it struck chill to me, as I had left the natural world.”


Actually, the setting in The Signalman reminded me a little of a place close to where I live, in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  Still visible west of Peebles are remnants of a railway line that was constructed between 1858 and 1864 and linked Peebles – from a station called Peebles West – with the village of Broughton, the town of Biggar and finally the village of Symington, just south of Carstairs Junction on the Glasgow-to-England line still in operation today.


Most of the Peebles-to-Symington line had disappeared even before Dr Richard Beeching published his notorious report in 1963, which led to the axing of some 5000 miles of track from the British rail network (and coincidentally left the Scottish Borders as the only region in mainland Britain without a single railway station on its soil).  The Peebles-to-Biggar section of the line was phased out in 1950 and 1954, with the last Biggar-to-Symington section disappearing post-Beeching in 1966.



What remains now at the Peebles end of the route is several miles of footpath, which follow the old railway track, and a lovely stone viaduct standing over the River Tweed just beyond Neidpath Castle.  Once you cross the viaduct to the southern side of the Tweed, the old track leads you into a cutting in the hillside of South Park Wood and then to the mouth of a tunnel.  I’ve read somewhere that the tunnel was used a ‘refuge’ during World War II and have even heard claims that the Royal Train was stored inside it.


Although on a good day the view from the viaduct along the Tweed Valley is gorgeous, the atmosphere changes as you enter the cutting and approach the tunnel.  It always feels damp and clammy there, the ground black and squelchy, a constant drip-drip-drip of water in the background.  The stone walls on either side of the tunnel-entrance have thick green fleeces of moss and the entrance itself seems to be permanently in shadow.  While it’s not the hellhole that Dickens describes in The Signalman, the place definitely feels a little sinister.



There used to be a wooden door sealing off the disused tunnel but that has disappeared.  Because the tunnel supposedly has a bend in the middle, when you peer in you can’t see any light at the far end of it.  After a few muddy yards everything seems to vanish in a mass of thick, dripping darkness.  It isn’t unusual to find those first few yards inside the tunnel littered with bottles and beer-cans, which suggests it’s become a popular party-site for foolhardy teenagers, the sort who’ve never seen a horror movie before.


A friend told me a little while ago that it’s possible to walk right through the tunnel now and emerge on the other side of the hill, a little way up from where Peebles West railway station used to be.  Maybe I will attempt to do that one day, with a powerful torch, lots of spare batteries and a pair of strong, dry walking boots.  But I’ll wait until the memories of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman fade a little.