Smooth Christmas Jazz, anyone?

I love Christmas as much as the next turkey dinner-stuffed blob of atoms, but the yuletide hymns clogging the radio make me wish that Jesus was born on October the nineteenth in a four-bedroom detached house in Chippenham, to spare us the sax-parping, children’s choirs and Mariah arseing Carey. On the other hand, if Christmas did not exist in its current form, I’m sure some other reason – the birth of Steve Jobs, perhaps – would be concocted by retailers in an effort to batter every man, woman and child into credit card-busting submission.

While my music tastes may be decidedly ‘indie’ (boys with guitars and a lot of yelling is often my scene), I have to admit that I love Christmas songs. Adore them, in fact. Yes, even Mariah and her treacly ode to devotion in which she would rather unwrap the man of her dreams than a new diamond bracelet (mad bitch). I love that tune about the Royal Artillery with a chorus that goes ‘der der der dum dum’. Shane McGowan and Kirstie MacColl capture the essence of December 25th better than anyone: scumbags, maggots and cheap lousy faggots included. I ignore the hypocrisy of a crowd of rich pop stars asking ordinary members of the public to “feed the world” while they globetrot pumped full of cocaine and luxuriating in five star hotels.

I see Noddy Holder and force all thoughts of garden gnomes from the peripheries of my mind in case I am distracted from the sheer joy of hearing him yodel ‘It’s Chriiiiiistmas!!!”. The ear-shatteringly high-pitched vocals on ‘Walking In The Air’ fill me with joy, and not once do I exclaim that Aled Jones should “bloody well grow a pair!” All of these feelings, however, share one thing in common. I only believe them in the week leading up to the big day, never earlier. Although at all times, Cliff Richard is about as welcome as a residential trip to Guantanamo Bay.

When Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ is plastered over commercial radio without the Gregorian calendar even ticking over to December, it’s deleterious to the whole enterprise. It means that just at the point we should all be getting genuinely excited about opening a pair of pyjamas on Christmas morning and pretending to be really happy about it, we can’t bear to hear the soundtrack to the festivities for one more second, lest Dad smashes the radio with his newly acquired set of tools.

Heart FM, the colostomy bag of the radio world, takes pride in playing the likes of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (which begs the response, “I would if you’d quit playing Bing Crosby before I’ve even got the smell of gunpowder out of my best jacket”) a few days into November. Things are ramped up mercilessly, until the days before Christmas are a non-stop Xmas hit parade that under most definitions of torture, would put radio DJs in the dock at the fucking Hague.

If you are partial to bouts of insanity, you have the option of listening to Christmas tunes all year round, because obviously there is nothing more satisfying than driving along Route 66 (or the less glamorous A145 in the UK) on a hot summer’s day, Cadillac pounding down the highway, ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ blasting from the stereo. I don’t mean putting ‘Now That’s What I Call Sleigh Bells’ on the stereo either because that would be too easy. Believe it or not, there are a number of dedicated radio stations that play nothing but Christmas songs.

Who said the internet was a bad idea? You know that the world is taking a tentative step in the right direction when you can listen to Boney M’s ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ at any time of your choosing, interspersed with adverts for roof insulators. Type ‘Christmas radio station’ into Google and the search engine has a mild e-orgasm. You’ve got Forever Christmas Radio, who proudly announce that “2012 marks the first time we have been broadcasting all year round”. This is not said with an ounce of shame, as it should be, perhaps with promises that the radio station’s owners will be whisked away to an institution in due course. No, there’s millions of the buggers.

In case your tastes are a little more niche, there are plenty of other options, including a Smooth Christmas Jazz station, which must have the world’s smallest playlist unless they create mash-ups, pairing Miles Davis and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ while jazz purists foam at the mouth, decrying the desecration of a legend.

As I say, I love Christmas songs on the day. Mum’s got a turntable and we play all the classics while we eat burnt potatoes and I neck a bottle of rosé Lambrusco, a 2.6% wine that lies at the outer edge of my family’s edginess. They’re cheesy and rubbish and I love them.

Today is the last day in November. Believe me Nat King Cole, chestnuts are not roasting on my open fire any time soon, so piss off.


A fag in one hand, The Mail in the other

In a short five years or so, smoking has gone from a signifier of cool to a harbinger of cancer, socially ostracised puffing zones and shame. It’s easy to forget how all-encompassing lighting up used to be. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents all enjoyed their nicotine fix between forty and sixty times a day. A family union like a wedding or funeral would leave local meteorologists struggling to explain the abrupt appearance of dense smog. I used to peer longingly at IKEA catalogues, where the walls in the brochure were crystalline white, not the striking yellow of Watford’s home kit due to the accumulative effect of thousands of cigarette vapours.

I remember thinking my Nan must have been born with a fag in one hand and a copy of The Daily Mail in the other. To her, any moment spent without inhaling a lung full of Marlboro was a waste. Ashtrays were placed at strategic points around the house. By the phone, next to the cooker, her bedside cabinet, the bathroom sink, on the pouffe beside her armchair: they would all host a mountainous volume of charcoal cigarette plumage. Rubbish collectors must have thought her house was a bloody crematorium. Whenever my Nan spoke to me, I would brace myself for a hurricane of stale grey wind, like the time I got too close to the smoke machine at the school disco.

Speaking of school, all the kids who wanted to be seen as ‘hard’ needed an ASBO and a packet of Silk Cuts. They had to have something to do when they were bunking lessons, so dragging on a fag replaced the need to make conversation about each other’s attacks dogs. These smoking sessions were no-go areas if you enjoyed the full use of your limbs. Unless of course one of the teachers joined them for a snout.

I never bought the argument that smoking was cool. Mad Men makes a decent stab at giving it a veneer of elegance and sophistication, a key component of the show’s immaculate presentation. But a bunch of scrawny arseholes sucking a dog-end in a rainy playground, entering lessons smelling like a burnt down house riddled with damp? I’ll stick to my Harry Potter books and science revision textbooks, thanks.

This is not to say that I’ve never smoked. The only occasions I suddenly crave a puff on the magic white stick of doom is when I have been drinking. Something about the bubbly, chemical-laden texture of Beck’s Vier (or any other amber piss water that your local bar happens to stock) makes the prospect of breathing a mouthful of tar a little more desirable. However, I’m not sure if lager companies should run with this angle in their next round of adverts: “Drink Kronenburg. Making smoking enjoyable since 1666”.

I bring this subject up because one event demonstrated how the shift in perceptions of smoking has changed so dramatically in a short period of time. On the last train home the other night, four clearly rat-arsed blokes were stuffing themselves with a take away, as their faces competed with the newspaper wrapping of their fish and chips to see which was greasier. One of the men, wearing an ill-fitting leather jacket which failed to cover his considerable paunch, took out a packet of cigarettes and lighter.

This is perfectly normal behaviour, I thought. I have been on many train journeys with my Nan where she would eagerly prepare her post-journey toke hours before we arrived, anxiously perfecting her roll-up. Then he lit his cigarette and began puffing away with abandon, filling the passenger’s lungs with second-hand smoke and their minds with tension. The response was immediate and very British. Every person in the carriage bar me stood up and moved elsewhere, perhaps managing a disappointed tut as they stormed past the miscreant. I might have joined them but I was stuck in a nostalgic reverie of my childhood.

The bloke breaking the law (risking a fine of up to £1000 according to the red warning stickers, one of which was next to his elbow) didn’t look like he who would react well to being told what to do. Between ingesting a battered sausage and calling his mate for a rambling chat about his car’s failed MOT, his conversation was peppered with the worst swear words imaginable and he looked like he would liberally spray them (alongside bits of masticated sausage) at anyone who dared challenge him.

There are few things he could have done to be more offensive, short of setting someone on fire and lighting his cigarette from the flames. Nowadays, smoking on public transport is such bad form that people will happily stand in the next carriage rather than respire in an atmosphere poisoned by someone else’s smouldering fag remains. Of course, they’ll never actually tell the reprobate off. That’s far too uncivilised. Plus, with the sickening portraits of lung disease adorning his Embassy packet, we know who the winner will be in the long run.