Our first several days in our new house, perhaps predictably, were at once disorienting, exciting, and revelatory. Somehow we needed to fill each room with shared meaning culled separately from our individual lives in the Alsace, in the Cote d’Ivoire, and during the last four years of beguiling purgatory in Burgess Hill. We had to make our previous hybrid life fit into a three-storey Edwardian semi-detached house in a previously unfamiliar East Sussex town. But, as with our illustrious super-king-size double bed, our generous oak sideboard, our haughty old pine cupboard, and hundreds of my books, CDs, and vinyl records, it did not quite fit.
Changes were needed either to our lives, to our expectations, to the house, or, most probably, to all of these. Some were forced: administrative and geographic necessities; a cheery postman; enthusiastic and talented workpeople repairing and improving what had been sub-standard; unfamiliar dog-walks; a pub, a chip shop, a Chinese takeaway at the corner, and a bustling High Street, including a cinema, supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants, and a Post Office, all within a five minute stroll.
The inaccesibility of broadband and television added to a temporary sense of being adrift. Alli and I even resorted to playing Scrabble every night – the 21st century equivalent of cabin fever. I hoped the practice might even continue. But we are both over-dependent on those winking green lights. Moreover, our almost forgotten sensations of ownership, freedom, and independence have revived and begun to create a life change of real significance. It will be settled, but not quickly.
The dogs were also confused. Deprived of accessibility to wide open spaces and generous sofas at will, they spooned uncertainly with each other in the only dog-sleeping space left in the house (under the ground floor bay window). Alli and I made several visits back to the Burgess Hill mothership and the recycling centre until only boxes of my books, documents and photographs remained in Burgess Hill, along with the entire documentation of our daughters’ schooling in comprehensively filled exercise books and files.
Gwen celebrated her 25th birthday with us all at Tun-Tuns in Brighton on the 12th after staying with us in Uckfield: our first overnight guest. The previous evening, Ella, Sam, Gwen, and I went to Brighton’s Theatre Royal to see a robust Christmas stand-up comedy show featuring Ed Gamble, Jen Brister, and others, after eating at the enjoyable Wahaca restaurant.
Later in the month, Alli and I had dinner at the Figtree restaurant in Hurstpierpoint to mark the painstaking work she had done to make a home so quickly from our new house. It was already a favourite after Alli had been invited there some months ago by Ella. Some days later, Jessie, Ella, Gwen, and I went to Brighton’s brilliant Bonsai Plant Kitchen, then to a candle-lit Christmas concert in the Music Room of the Brighton Pavilion, given by the impressive South Downs Strings. The concert was entertaining: more profane than sacred, less religious than celebrated, but none the worse for that. It was compelling to hear a string quartet arranging and playing hits from ‘Love Actually’, ‘Elf’, and other festive films. Somehow it has become more traditional at this time to expect The Pogues, Mariah Carey, Slade, Bing Crosby, and Wizzard, than to welcome the Holy Ghost, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the angels. Nevertheless, the proposition that love is all around you is not so far from the Christmas message.
We often apply the word ‘traditional’ to things we do at Christmas when little really is. Pigs in blankets are now termed traditional Christmas ‘fayre’ but they seem only to have been created and consumed for a couple of decades. Love Actually was released as a perfectly formed good old Christmas family tradition. The local chip shop delivered a free portion of deep-fried Brussels sprouts. Alli described a photo of our family on a Christmas Eve walk with the dogs in Burgess Hill’s green route (see above) as the family’s traditional Christmas Eve walk, and although it was enjoyable, it was still a festive first. However, it seems a shame to wait too long to assert that distinct behaviours are traditional. Why not start from the beginning of the custom instead of later, when its celebration has been repeated too often to remember why or when it started? Why not start as you mean to carry on? A confident living tradition is like being a legend in one’s lifetime. This makes Alli’s description prescient.
Jessie cooked the Christmas Eve dinner and some of us stayed up late playing board games after a ground-breaking traditional visit to the nearest pub, the excellent Block and Gasket. On Christmas morning I joined Ella, Sam and Jessie for a parkrun at Preston Park, where over 900 runners ran the 5k course, including Sam’s parents, new local residents Peter and Lynne. I neither ran nor completed the course but it was energising to be walking briskly outside, even in the drizzle. At Broad Oaks, Alli cooked Christmas lunch, including a large goose, while Jessie and Gwen made a much-praised mushroom and pumpkin Wellington.
Our Boxing Day included a large leftovers lunch, board games, quizzes, and intermittent television. Gwen went to a pantomime in Brighton with Ella, Sam, and the Chisletts, following which we had a large leftovers dinner, then watched Channel 4’s celebrity-crazed ‘Big Fat Quiz’, where I scored a massive two points out of fifty after deciding not to watch Kapra’s ‘It’s a wonderful life’ this year. On the following day we left for the short drive home, wondering whether this had been a truly traditional Christmas, but aware that nobody with friends can fail to be traditional and legendary, even in quizzes.
Alli and I wish you all a very Happy New Year!