Lucy and Todd

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Everything Unelectric

In Recent Articles on January 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Once there was a world without power. No power stations, power surges, or power suits. A world in which, okay, people ruined their eyesight sewing stuff in the dark, and had the occasional riding accident. Indoor plumbing too still had a way to go. But at least genes and gonads weren’t permanently damaged by manmade radiation leaks, and nobody was ever in a multi-vehicle pile-up. They were spared so much, our ancestors! Mowing the lawn, wrestling with the Teasmade, ferrying children to piano lessons… They had it all – they had freedom, individuality, culture. And then electricity was tapped, Henry Ford discovered the source of the vile, and Steve Jobs handed Eve her Apple.

With technology, industrialisation and their bedmate, alienation, we’re not just losing sight of what art is, but what the human hand can do. It’s capable of a lot more than just gliding a mouse around or struggling with Velcro. As James Joyce said about the hand that wrote Ulysses, ‘It did lots of other things too.’ Hands are great! We wouldn’t last a minute without them. Nobody would catch you when you’re born, or affix you to the nipple, or change your nappy. No matter how much we like computers, consumerism, and sitting motionless in front of the TV fingering the remote, the human hand is our biggest love. Not to see anything made by hand, on a human scale, is a kind of death – like the prospect of never being touched again.

I’m tired of electricity, gas, petrol, and nuclear power. I’m just sick of any energy other than the kind plants and animals naturally expend going about their daily business. I now search the world for anything that doesn’t require electricity. I’ve come to view electricity as a kind of ethereal rapist, that can’t stop interfering with everyone: gas and electricity insinuate themselves into the house, and the money drains out of the bank. It’s a form of abuse. Electrification has taken the place of education as the one thing governments must provide (at the risk of every type of nuclear disaster!). And we seem convinced we must use it all up as fast as possible, before developing countries get their mitts on it.

I’ve recently started observing in myself a disgust with all things buzzing, humming and zapping – a definite increase in my allegiance to simple stuff that doesn’t move without help, stuff that just sits there, stuff that doesn’t require the aid of power stations to validate its existence. These things include: toilets, bicycles, butter, jam, keys, buttons, belts, Bandaids, blankets, books, pens, pencils, paper, shoes, sheds, sleds, skis, skates, bells, wind-up clocks, musical instruments, typewriters, wooden tools and hand-powered gardening implements, cutlery, clothing, Kleenex, needles and cotton, corkscrews, cigarettes, doors, door knobs, candles, see-saws, tennis rackets, tulips in a glass of water, Japanese padded silk panels, cupboards, tables and chairs. Just thinking about anything unelectric, ungaseous and non-nuclear fills me with a warm, private, low-tech, halogen-free glow.

The shutters in my bedroom, that keep out the light and the cold, are manually operated. A human being has to effect any change in their position. No other force, no artificial, doomed or dwindling power source, is involved. And they work! The duvet works too, without electricity, as do the cupboards, shelves, floorboards and rug. So too the pictures I love on the wall, and my husband, who runs on his own steam, especially when steamed about something. It’s a simple pleasure, but I like the fact that you can open and close our bedroom door without having to enlist the services of the National Grid.

But there are lamps in the room too – though not as many as a friend of mine would advise (she always says I have too few lamps, while I think she has too many: she makes no allowance for my aversion to electricity!). There’s also a laptop, and an electric heater. These things jar.

I have fantasies of electricitylessness. To live in a steading somewhere, equipped with a reliable well, vegetable patch, fireplace, maybe a wood-fired Aga. Cold white wine would somehow emanate from its own spring just outside the door. Inside, it would be all porridge and patchwork quilts, padded silk hangings in progress, a chicken or two, and musical instruments, which we’d play to warm ourselves up. Yes, I would miss the ready supply of the finest music, now provided instantly by CDs. And washing clothes by hand would be a chore. And it’s easier to fill a hot water bottle if you’ve got an electric kettle. Many household machines, I admit, are useful – but they take up so much space!

And the noise! Noise is a new fetish with us. Why rake leaves quietly, allowing neighbours to sleep late, when you can frazzle everybody’s nerves with a leaf-blower? Why sweep the streets manually with brooms when you can send out an ineffectual (but expensive) little mechanical pavement sweeper with a cutesy name and vexing electronic voice that repeats the command ‘Attention. Take care, pavement cleaning in progress’, all the way down the street? (Though from afar it sounds like ‘Buzz off buster, buzz off buster…’)

You can’t even have a baby anymore without using vast amounts of electricity, though our ancestors somehow managed without, and most animals still do. We revel, we wallow, in our dependence on electricity. But what about power cuts? After 2012’s Hallowe’en hurricane, people in New York couldn’t use the elevators, had no water supply, the food in the fridges rotted, and dialysis had to be rationed. We’re completely at the mercy of energy-providers. We have given up any remnant of self-sufficiency to become mere capitalist units that purchase electricity. We exist only to establish more and more outlets for electricity, and to make more requirements of it.

It would be wonderfully calm and quiet in our steading, and so private.

Things were still beautiful a few hundred years ago, before the hatred of anything natural took us over. Okay, so there was no whooping cough vaccine. But there was a lot more clarity, not just in the air and the water, but in people’s minds. Now we go to war over oil! Is it really worth killing for? Maybe we need to use all the remaining electricity to manufacture bikes, and then turn it off.

You know what works without electricity?  Nighttime. We survive hours and hours of electricitylessness at night (unless you’re dependent on an electric blanket or iron lung). You can sleep right through these low-tech periods of darkness, or go for a walk. You might fall over a bit, but with any luck you’ll see some stars. And other people. They’re not electric yet either – but they’ll probably soon be replaced with robots out on ethnic cleansing missions, so enjoy real people while you can.

This world is too expensive, too ugly, too heartless, too handless. Where’s art, where’s humanity, where’s comfort? Where are the simple, amiable, graspable products of our labour? All I’m saying is, when the primordial shit hits the electric fan and all current sources of energy are kaput, I will have books, pencils, paper, needles and thread, socks, slippers, long johns, a loo, a toothbrush, a typewriter, some candles and a wind-up torch. I hope. What’ll you have?


A version of this essay appeared in Aeon Magazine, Jan. 24, 2013

John Burnside — Something Like Happy

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Who are the truly artistic writers of today?

This is a question you don’t like to ask yourself too often, isn’t it? For at least 20 years I’ve found it impossible to name a better writer in English than John Burnside. I was going to say in Scotland, or in Britain, but when I allow my mind to drift across the Atlantic, where I always tell myself the “real talent” is sequestered, I find an equal paucity of skill, of daring, honesty and beauty.

Something Like Happy, a collection of stories is, largely, about happiness. So it is, therefore, about pain. It is about things which are here and things that have disappeared. It is about the frightening blankness of fog, and of people, and the deliberate erasures we make in our lives. It’s about indistinct forms, figures in chambers and unvisited rooms.

Burnside manages to write about the world on the stage and in the wings of Fife (there’s one story here which has escaped to Salerno). There are three distinct districts. There is the Fife of pretty villages and St Andrews, which could pass for almost anywhere in the bourgeois world; this county he peoples with a number of characters gone gently wrong. Almost all of them are pitifully alone in one way or another; this is something that has long been a part of Burnside’s plea about existence. Then there are rough estates, the pebble-dashed life of Dundee. And there is the teeming natural world of the shore, to which he always returns us.

For all the tumult, violence and longing in these stories, there is happiness in the world as Burnside paints it – rather private and solitary happiness, but of a kind to which we should perhaps all aspire, now. He seems willing, in a way, to forgive everybody everything, and to remind us in our struggle not to forget to look on nature, which has been observing us and our actions all the while.

Peach Melba is a fantastic, astonishingly vivid story of accidental death, with the visual punch of a Pedro Almodóvar film – a number of these stories have much in common with that film-maker’s intense, lurid broodings on sex, men and women, and the fragile self. Another tale, Sunburn, is a winning observation of a single moment in a young man’s erotic history when an attractive neighbour rubs lotion on his shoulder.

The collection is also concerned with the sheer impossibility of men. There are many betrayals muffled in fog and snow. In Slut’s Hair, an emotionally isolated young wife has a tooth extracted by her arsehole of a husband in place of the more usual sort of domestic violence. The surgical precision of his unpleasantness is beyond creepy.

In The Cold Outside, a story brimming with tension, a lorry driver whose cancer has “returned” offers a lift to a person who turns out to be a young man in drag. He’s been beaten up. What this might suggest to the driver goes unsaid, the boy surprising him by saying that he is relatively happy in the world.

The driver later remembers the things that have made the young man happy: “Like his memory of the school atlas that he’d been given in geography class – how he had loved the way the world was all mapped out, all the colours and lines and borders perfect and just, so that it looked like the kind of world it would be a pleasure to inhabit, an utterly fictional world where you could never be lost, because everybody and everything belonged somewhere.” What a perfect description of John Burnside’s wish for us.


(A version of this review appeared in the Herald, Jan 6, 2013)

Log Cabin Coziness

In Recent Articles on January 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm

It’s all so innocent: you live in a log cabin with the guy you love, snuggle up every night under patchwork quilts, somehow give birth all alone to several obedient children, make butter, tend animals, cook stuff, sew stuff. That’s the woman’s point of view. The man’s? You perform powerfully outdoors: you hunt, you fish, you farm, and you trade furs and lame jokes at the general store before making your way back through blizzards, bears and buffalo wolves to your family. Your gun is slow, you think before you shoot, and you can rustle up a little log cabin any old time.

A far cry from the state of the union today, in which the woman worries constantly about celebrities and cellulite, resentfully doing her 98% of the housework while the husband works two jobs, or none at all, and spends his leisure hours acquainting himself with porn. Their children go to school to be indoctrinated, bullied, drugged, shot and horrified – never educated! – in a society that cherishes only the shortest of marriages and the measliest bundle of human rights, a nation devoted to ugliness.

All of this was in train when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family wandered the American plains in their covered wagon – they just didn’t notice. They thought the further west they got the freer they would be. They didn’t know that America, founded on usurpation, as much as on the hopes of emigrants and philanthropic forefathers, had been stitched up from the start. Who helps you in a capitalist set-up when the locusts eat your crops, or fire destroys your homestead, or the bank calls in your loan? A neighbor, if you’re lucky. But mostly, it’s each man for himself – everybody’s too busy and confused complying with capitalism to try outsmarting it.

They should have all stayed in Europe. Still, it’s nice to believe, even temporarily, that the world is your oyster. Charles Ingalls, the father Wilder depicts in her novels, has a gift for keeping cheerful. Here’s the deal: you kill, you cook, you eat, you sing songs, and you do it with a positive attitude or you’re probably going to die. Optimism is not a sign of imbecility in such a situation, it’s a necessity. The poverty and deprivation is at times severe: Pa once has to walk for hundreds of miles in worn-out boots, just to find enough work to keep the family alive. At another point, he more or less hibernates for three days in a snow hole, unable to find the house in a blizzard. Is this any way for a man to behave? Ever thought about a desk job? But during the Depression (Wilder embarked on writing this autobiographical series in the 1930s), a lot of people were in similar trouble.

Which is why we need these books now! In an era when the individual is dishonoured for failings in beauty, health, wealth and technological know-how, Wilder’s world-view (reinforced by Garth Williams’ memorable illustrations, from the ’50s) seems strikingly humane, even socialist at times. People act like the western expansion was accomplished by a few Republican Paul Bunyans, chopping down trees and tee-pees as they went. It wasn’t. America could not have come into being without collective effort. The Ingallses are tirelessly charitable towards everyone they meet (even tiresomely so – was it really necessary to make Laura give her rag doll to a spoiled brat?). In Little House on the Prairie, Ma manages to overcome her distaste for Indians and feeds the Osages, whose land the Wilders mistakenly occupy – and the chief later saves the family from slaughter. In The Long Winter, Pa persuades the storekeeper to sell grain for no profit to the starving townsfolk marooned for seven months by snow. Pa calls it ‘justice’, not communism, but the capitalist ethos is nonetheless brought (briefly) to its knees.

Pa’s the more charismatic of the two; Ma is steady, quiet, probably shy (like her daughters). But Pa’s pleasure in her is an important element of the books. The imprint of her palm on the cornbread, he says, is all he needs as food. Wilder’s world is full of the imprint of the female hand. Pioneering was not a solo masculine activity – women were there too. Somebody had to make the codfish gravy to go with the cod philosophy. Men don’t do anything without dragging women into it somehow; they can’t do anything without love (who can?). Women imposed home comforts on the log cabin, comforts essential to the survival of infants. They brought coziness. These stories aren’t just about woods and prairies and Plum Creeks after all: they’re about the house in the woods, the shanty on the prairie, the dugout by the creek. Wilderness is there to be tamed by the American family – and the Ingalls family is almost wholly female.

Nobody knows what feminism is anymore, but it isn’t just about equal pay and abortion rights. It’s about appreciating femaleness for femaleness’ sake. Wilder was rightwing, religious, practically silent as a writer until her sixty-fifth year. What pulls these books of hers, unwittingly or not, on to a feminist level derives from her innate rebelliousness, a rebelliousness hinted at in the fictional Laura’s moments of indignation, sisterly rivalry and dare-devil escapades. Wilder boldly took the American dream and eighteenth-century individualism to include herself, and wrote without apology about the daily lives of women and girls. She’s not writing about eyebrow threading or how to please men, she’s writing about survival. Women aren’t frail here: they’re noble and brave.

Wilder did write about a boy once: her second book, Farmer Boy, was based on the early life of her husband, Almanzo. Clearly an act of love – but she couldn’t help descending into envy. His parents ran a prosperous farm in New York state, and for Wilder this meant that Almanzo had access to a quite unbelievable amount of food. Pancakes, sausage cakes, golden buckwheat cakes, gravy, oatmeal, thick cream, maple syrup, fried potatoes, preserves, jams, jellies, doughnuts, spicy apple pie: that was breakfast. For snacks, he’d grab some apples, more doughnuts, cookies, popcorn and watermelons. For supper: four large helpings of fried apple’n’onions, roast beef and brown gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, boiled turnips, ‘countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly’, a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding covered with sweetened cream, huckleberry pie and blueberry pudding. At Christmas there was roast goose and suckling pig, candied carrots, cream pie, mince pie, horehound candy and fruitcake – but any ordinary Sunday would involve a three-chicken pie, beans and fat pork, pickled beets and rye’n’injun bread, pumpkin pie, then a piece of apple pie with cheese, all provided punctually by Almanzo’s dexterous mama.

But wait a minute – how does she do it? I find it hard enough to feed two people once in a while – how can there be all these mashed potatoes and doughnuts everywhere when the woman’s always huddled upstairs over her loom, weaving cloth to make home-tailored suits for her husband and sons, or spinning, dyeing, knitting, patching, and darning, or churning prize-winning butter and molding a year’s-worth of candles…? She makes soap too. The only thing she doesn’t do is card her own wool (it gets machine-carded in town). Get real, lazybones.

‘Have to finish my mother’s goddam juvenile’, wrote Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, whose role in the editing process has unsettled some Wilder fans. Rose wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp. Her contribution to her mother’s efforts consisted of a thorough line-edit, many questions and some pretty bossy advice – more typing and griping than anything else. Wilder stuck up for herself during clashes of opinion on content, in a working arrangement that was fraught. Wilder once commented in a letter to Almanzo (as reported in John E. Miller’s informative Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder), ‘The more I see of how Rose works the better satisfied I am to raise chickens.’

Whatever editorial influence Rose had, she didn’t manage to remove every peculiarity of her mother’s style. Wilder’s technical descriptions, from bobsleds and railroads to growing a giant milk-fed pumpkin or constructing a whatnot, are often hard to follow. The narrative is suddenly abandoned so she can explain how to make a door-latch: ‘First he hewed a short, thick piece of oak. From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot. Then he hewed and whittled a longer, smaller stick…’ After that ‘up and down near the edge’, I’m lost. Practical advice is always welcome, but it’s got to work. She’s also quite a comma-flinger, our Laura, Ingalls, Wilder, and uses the word ‘little’ too much.

She just needed more practice. In Little House on the Prairie (the third book she wrote), Wilder’s getting into her stride, with better character-development, a real sense of place, and plenty of drama – cattle out of control, the flooding creek, leeches, and locusts (not just chomping through crops but astounding everybody with a sudden exodus). Laura now emerges as a fully conscious being, ‘naughty’ and inventive – qualities that come in handy when she exacts a malicious revenge on her enemy, Nellie Oleson (making good use of those leeches).  Her impatience with church-going too is endearingly honest.

Wilder’s descriptions of landscape are often elegiac. But who are they for? They assume more feeling for meadows, birds and flowers than I think most children have. As a child, I skipped them, but now I like them. Maybe she wrote these passages for herself, nobody else, just to record sensations that mattered to her. She later formulated this love of nature into a policy: ‘I can still plainly see the grass and the trees and the path winding ahead, flecked with sunshine and shadow and the beautiful gold-hearted daisies scattered all along the way. I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.’

Sure, there are disasters, such as Laura’s older sister Mary’s blindness, that must and can be borne (and sanitized, for our benefit), but there’s also the importance of repeatedly rolling down an irresistible hay-stack, or getting a fur cape for Christmas, or seeing Jack, the faithful bulldog, turn up at the campsite when they all thought he’d drowned. And there’s love, for her family and particularly her father, who can converse with nightingales on the violin. ‘Phoebe-birds called sadly from the woods down by the creek… Softly Pa’s fiddle sang in the starlight… The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with music… The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.’

When they have to leave their little house on the prairie, Pa claims that they’re taking away more than they brought. ‘I don’t know what,’ Ma replies. ‘Why, there’s the mule!’ he says. But you feel it’s more than that: experience, solidarity, the rocking chair he carved for her…and a girl in the back of the wagon who will later tell the world their story and make Pa a hero.

(Quotations from Wilder’s and Lane’s letters, etc., and my interpretation of Rose’s editorial role, are based on John E. Miller’s book, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, University of Missouri Press, 1998.)


A version of this article appeared in the Guardian, Dec. 29, 2012


In Recent Articles on January 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Last Christmas, all Man and Woman did, it seemed, was fetch, carry and cook. Auntie S. got blootered and monopolized the DVD player watching Dr. No three times, and the Adult Children stayed and stayed, necessitating the preparation of yet another meal. Christmas no longer belonged to Man and Woman. They wanted it back! So this year they devised a


We, Man and Woman, of sound mind sort of, do hereby decree that the celebration of Christmas from this day forward in our household shall consist of the following and only the following in perpetuity:


Tree: from the corner shop. Fed on lemonade & water, decorated with red lights. Stockings presented and enjoyed on arrival of guests. To be the only gifts exchanged. Kilted sausages. Prosecco. Malt.

Supper: Oysters. Spaghetti Bolognese, according to the receipt of Anna del Conte, minus the milk and with extra Barbera and stock added because of lactose intolerance. Nutmeg dreams guaranteed. It is a celebration of the Bolognese, not Christmas. Salad. Christmas crackers, half price, bought the preceding January.

Wines to cost no more per bottle than the current minimum wage. Pudding: anything from the corner patisserie. All parties to disperse by midnight.


No appointments to be made. No communication by telephone. Only activities allowed: short walk. Making love. Massive DVD consumption. Only comestibles allowed: French toast, Chinese dumplings, steak pie, left-over Bolognese. Maybe popcorn.


The cats to be honoured. Auntie S. to be given her gin and ox tongue. All supplies to be acquired on the Twenty-Fourth of December. Newspaper quizzes to be attempted only if answers are supplied. No presents to or from faraway relatives; charitable contributions instead. No one may come to the house who bickers; Adult Children must bring a new partner every year. Christmas itself may not be mentioned. Basta to be the watchword of Christmas.


On Christmas Eve, Man and Woman clambered genially through the festive open pits of the tramworks to reach the German Market. Many sharp rusty dangerous things tore at their clothes. Everywhere were happy children, frozen peas, gaping holes in the streets and drivers in carefree murderous mood.

Gusts of stöllen, deep fat and fruity alcohols engulfed Man and Woman as they took their customary glass of kirschwein before shopping. This year, in the vivid sun, Man and Woman felt the hot mugs of thick liqueur didn’t go down so well, the people on the Big Wheel screaming and whirling above them. The tram guys had thoughtfully dug a pit directly under the wheel, to receive the overly gluhweined bodies flung off it. But you do need a straightener before jamming yourself into Jenners. Man and Woman entered arm in arm and immediately became separated, but they were prepared for this possibility. The plan was to carry on regardless.

Man squared his shoulders and turned to the Gentlemen’s Ties, which were the object of much cooing, pulling and fondling. In fact, Man realized, there was a kind of battle going on, between Ladies Who Wanted Ties and staff. Man bought himself one tie a year, on Christmas Eve. This year he fancied a red polka dot tie. It would look so distinguished as he ate his Bolognese. The sales clerk wrested it from his hand. It’s for the sale Boxing Day, she said. What? said Man, it’s only three thirty! Nevertheless, she said, whipping tie after tie off the rack. The Ladies Who Wanted jumped back in alarm.

Woman headed for the lift. She was after felt and sequins, having recently identified this combo (always sewn, never glued) as essential to the Christmas mood. The felt must be green or red, the sequins multi-coloured. Out of these she would construct holly and berries, Christmas trees and catnip toys while the Bolognese reduced, and she’d give double-dip recession felt reindeer, instead of store-bought presents, to the Adult Children, as she and Man now described their offspring.

Maybe it was the kirschwein, but Woman was unusually bewildered by the lay-out of Jenners.  It not only sold Escher jigsaw puzzles, it was one, with tiny lifts going up and down here and there, and staircases to nowhere. She searched the place high and low for the haberdashery department but it had recently become too tiny to find.

Nothing said Christmas to Man so much as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. He had almost managed to convince Woman that White Christmas held in store everything vital about the Yule—not just songs and holiday romance, but secret things that make you happy: the brick red and ivy green of the décor, Bing’s jacket and pipe, the General’s retirement cardigans, Rosemary’s green velvet party dress. Vermont logs burning briskly. Also, the Irving Berlin song Snow was very important to Man: but last year he failed to put White Christmas properly back into its box, and one of the cats scratched it, so that Snow was now a ‘damaged area’. He had also promised Auntie S. a different James Bond video. (He’d already tramped across the Meadows in a downpour of frozen peas that morning to the literary wine merchant’s, where he’d purchased for Auntie S. an incredibly dear bottle of gin made in Shetland, of all places, and then got involved in an extended wrangle over Malcolm Lowry.)

Full of anticipation, Man entered Fopp. He carefully avoided the open tramworks in the middle of the shop, into which many customers had fallen. Man was delighted to see that Fopp was really in the Christmas spirit: TODAY ALL VIDEOS £2! He made his way to the Ws, where White Christmas was priced at £37.50. I thought everything was two pounds, Man said to a clerk. We’d never discount White Christmas, Sir, said the fellow, that’s a classic.

The normally muscular, bulging James Bond section was bare but for one title: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby. Why did it have to be Lazenby.

Outside Jenners, Woman heard the merry drilling hammering and blasting going on in St Andrew Square and headed diagonally across the park, once home to many fine flowering trees, now to yet another espresso outlet and a pond in the form of a puddle. She plodded gingerly along the briny, shiny path, deafened by heavy machinery laying tram tracks up one side of the Scott Monument and down the other, accompanied by a 190-decibel version of Silent Night. The municipal Christmas tree began to shake ominously. Then the entire earth seemed to move: it swelled up, sank, considered its options, then rose again. Lord Melville wiggled on top of his column, then was suddenly propelled like an artillery shell towards Jenners, as if he too had some last items to buy. Diving for cover, Woman found herself in the puddle. A caffeine worker dragged Woman out and got a ristretto down her.

No felt? No sequins? Okay! But she could not return home without bivalves. On their honeymoon in Lyon, Man and Woman feasted on a mound of oysters Charentais at a market on the banks of the Saone, with Tabasco, shallot sauce, and lemon, between gulps of Picpoul de Pinet. There had been an honorary oyster present named Tonton Guy, about a foot wide, who presided smilingly over the festivities in a forgiving sort of way, before being taken back to the beds from which he came.

The fishmonger at the top of Broughton Street sold Woman his last two dozen oysters, no problem – but he’d run out of carrier bags. She had to shove the oysters into every pocket of her coat, three here, four there, until she was encased in oysters and clacked as she walked. In some trepidation, she approached the tricky junction of Broughton and Albany streets which, as the result of the tramworks, had turned into an autobahn. The hill leading down to it was rather slippery, and Woman helplessly picked up speed. In her efforts to halt at the corner, so as to allow 5,000 cars to swish past, she skidded right into an open manhole and disappeared. Knocked briefly unconscious, she was revived by frozen peas running down the back of her neck and another sensation, which felt very much like someone pinching her bum! She jumped to her feet in the dark, ready to take a swing at whoever it was, but the pinching went on, and it dawned on her that she was being goosed by oysters. They were really fresh.

Where was Woman? Man hoped she was all right. Valvona’s had cleverly built a bridge of sturdy dry lasagne over the enormous yawning tram pit directly in front of their shop. Mr Valvona was there in person to make sure only one customer crossed the bridge at a time: These lasagne are robust, ladies and gentlemen, but they are still only lasagne. When he had the chance, he would drop sfogliatelle on the heads of the tram workers far below. Buon Natale, bastardi.

Inside, the shop was a blur of twinkling lights, panettone wrapped in red and gold foil, and alarming turquoise blue pappardelle, which always gave Man a turn. He pushed shoved hacked and excuseme’d his way through hundreds of dangling Parma hams to the wine department and asked for his yearly bottle of Barbera, the note of genius in his Bolognese. Attempting bonhomie, Man trained a smile on the clerk. Hope you’ll have a good Christmas, said Man, as the guy smartly wrapped the Barbera in tissue paper. Not likely. I’ll be visiting my family in Palermo. But oh, said Man, at least you’ll have the sun. The clerk looked at Man in surprise. Come on, think of the food, the wine, the shellfish! It’s nothing special, said the clerk evenly. I don’t understand, said Man, everyone raves about the cooking in Sicily. Sicily? said the guy. I said BALERNO.

The Council had decided this very afternoon to turn Gayfield Square into a Noel Pit over fifty feet deep. People were edging their way around it as best they could. There were frozen peas underfoot and a number of policemen had slipped on them and fallen in.

On Broughton Street there were many dead, covered in drifts of peas. A steady stream of cars was bulldozing citizens into newly opened Father Christmas Chasms.

Christmas isn’t only about broken electronic gifts, lurching relatives, naff cards, pine needles underfoot, nauseating cranberry scented candles or myrrh. It’s about something much more important: meat. Ham soaked in treacle and maple syrup and adorned with apricots; geese stuffed with chickens, chickens stuffed with geese; turkeys that roam ancient cherry orchards, ducks that float on moats; happy sirloins (now aged for twenty-eight days), Beef Wellingtons, T-bones, Chateaubriands, and, of course, the ox tongue for Auntie S.

There is something heroic always, something noble and just, in providing one’s family with Christmas excess. Making a rudimentary ladder out of rusty tram tracks, Woman hauled herself out of her hole and trotted toward Crombies. But, just as she approached, Crombies crumbled away in a cloud of smoke and squeals! Shoppers peered down into the mirk. The jolly tramworks had opened a primordial void, and the shop had collapsed under the weight of Christmas fayre. But the butchers were indomitable in their defiance of both calamity and gravity, and gravy, and as fast as the frozen peas rained down on them from the skies they began to throw turkeys and ham houghs up to their eager customers. When it was Woman’s turn, she yelled down into the hole, Some kilted sausages please, a steak pie, a kilo of best mince— Did you pre-order? called Simon the butcher from below. Uh…no! I can do you a pound of mince, he said and threw a bag of meat her way. She was never a good catcher.

Shops were beginning to close now. Man felt panicky. He hoped Woman had been able to get the best mince and the erotic commemorative oysters. The last Triumphal Purchase was of course to be the Tree, which he would buy from Ishtiaq. None of this putting on the flannels and corduroys of the bourgeoisie, piling into estate cars and zooming around Perthshire – we buy our tree at the corner shop.

Ishtiaq had no trees left. I thought you were not coming. But of course I was coming, said Man. Here I am, I’ve come. I am very sorry, said Ishtiaq. In despair, Man looked around for something, anything approximating the dimensions of a Christmas tree. I have some nice lettuces, said Ishtiaq. Big ones.

Woman stumbled into the chemists. But it was now five o’clock and their Christmas offerings were depleted. She came out with bath salts, disposable underpants and Pepto-Bismol: what these stocking fillers lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume. Round the corner of London Street, still full of unfounded hope, Woman wound her way past a parade of people coming out of the patisserie clutching beautiful pastry boxes tied with ribbon. Here she would get bread for the French toast on Christmas morning, and a Christmas log. The day before, there had been a forest of them in there. But the jolly tram workers, in their love of fine things, had swiped the lot and used them all for sleepers!

At Christmas, Man always regretted buying a flat that was four flights up. Despite the Credo, here he was again, struggling up the stair laden with heavy objects, panting, his left knee joint threatening to implode. He felt the Adult Children impending. He had no idea what he was going to say to them. How does one converse with Adult Children for six to eight hours? How does anybody do it? He staggered toward the door of the flat and gave the Barbera a nasty crack on the iron banister. But it didn’t break.

Woman had decorated the kitchen beautifully – Man loved that. The Advent calendar, favourite ornaments, little figures in a snow scene. Bravely, he set up the Christmas tree stand, and wrapped the string of red lights around a tall pale blue bag of Ayrshire potatoes. And plugged it in.

There was no possibility of making a Bolognese that day. But they had the bottle of Barbera, and a bit of bacon, and Man found a mushroom growing on the window sill, so they had Oeufs Meurette. The Adult Children cleared out pretty quick, but the cats seemed pleased and grateful for their catnip, though it was from last year. Auntie S. phoned to ask which Bond film Man had obtained. Lazenby, he mumbled. She hurriedly said she’d broken her specs and couldn’t make it.

And the trams, even the trams, couldn’t stop Man and Woman making love.


This Christmas story, commissioned by the Herald, came out on Dec. 22, 2012.