Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of last year’s pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page.
Angel Pavement by JB Priestleypublished 1930
Miss Matfield, sitting with cold feet and a novel she disliked in the 13 bus, realised with a shock that it was nearly Christmas. The shops she passed every day in the bus along Regent Street and Oxford Street had been celebrating Christmas for some time; and it was weeks since they had first broken out into their annual crimson rash of holly berries, robins, and Father Christmasses. The shops, followed by the illustrated papers, began it so early, with their full chorus of advertising managers and window dresses, shouting “Christmas Is Here,” at a time when it obviously wasn’t, that when it did actually come creeping up, you had forgotten about it.
Miss Matfield told herself this, and then remembered that every year her mother used to cry, “What, nearly Christmas already! I never thought it was so near. It’s taken me completely by surprise, this year.” Yes, every year she used to say that, and year after year, Miss Matfield would tease her about it. And now, Miss Matfield told herself, she had begun to say it, just as if she was on the point of becoming forgetful and absurd and middle-aged.
The festive season – help! It was all an elaborate stunt to persuade everybody to spend money buying useless things for everybody else. Christmas. It was, on the whole, she decided, revolting. You gave people a lot of silly things, diaries and calendars and rot, or useful things that were not right, gloves of the wrong size and stockings of the wrong shade (and she would have to be thinking out her presents now, and she was terribly hard up); and they in their turn gave you silly things and the useful things that were not right...
And what was so terribly depressing and revolting about it all was that it was possible to imagine a really good Christmas, the adult equivalent of the enchanting Christmasses of childhood, the sort of Christmas that people always thought they were going to have and never did have. Miss Matfield took out from its secret recess that dream of a Christmas. She was in an old house in the country somewhere, with firelight and candlelight reflected in the polished wood surfaces; by her side, adoring her, was a vague figure, a husband, tall, strong, not handsome perhaps but distinguished; two or three children, vague too, nothing but laughter and a gleam of curls; friends arriving, delightful people – “Hello,” they cried. “What a marvellous place you’ve got here! I say, Lilian!”; some smiling servants; logs on the fires, snow falling outside, old silver shining on the mahogany dining table, and “Darling, you look wonderful in that thing,” said the masculine shadow in his deep thrilling voice.
commentary: This extract is long but, surely, worth it. All this could be put into the mind of a young woman in 2016 – nothing has changed. Today she probably wouldn’t hope to have servant, and she probably wouldn’t be called Lilian.
JB Priestley is little read today, and must be ripe for rediscovery. He was hugely popular in his heyday, his books were massive bestsellers, and even then people dismissed him as ‘middlebrow’ and populist. But he wrote so very well about people: he was good at getting inside their heads, as I think the passage above shows.
This is a real slice-of-life book: JBP follows the fortunes of a small business in the City of London over about six months, and devotes chapters to the various employees and their families. Angel Pavement is the address of the office, and if that makes you think the book will be a gentle, mellow feel-good story – think again.
But over and over again I was struck by how modern it was – the young woman trying to live her single life in London, the parents who feel their children ‘belong to a younger generation that existed in a different world’, while the young people mock their elders’ ideas of sensible pastimes.
It’s a pleasure to read, and to be reminded that ancient history can be very modern… and now here are Christmas preparations again:
Never before had Miss Matfield seen so many boxes of figs and dates, obscenely naked fowls, cheeses, puddings in basins, beribboned cakes, and crackers, so much morocco and limp leather and suede and pigskin, so many calendars, diaries, engagement books, bridge scorers, fountain pens, pencils, patent lighters, cigarette-holders, dressing cases, slippers, handbags, manicure sets, powder-bowls, and “latest novelties.” There were several brigades of Santa Clauses, tons and tons of imitation holly, and enough cotton wool piled in the windows and dabbed on the glass to keep the hospitals supplied for the next ten years.Truly, nothing changes.
Picture from the Tyne and Wear archives. As John Betjeman says, ‘And hideous tie so kindly meant.’