Auld Lang Syne: Not Enough Hours In The Night

As a kid, New Year’s Eve was just a strange thing I watched adults doing; some strange ritual of exuberance and doilies that descended into the sloshing of booze and haphazard indiscriminate kissing. I sat, impatiently waiting to break in my new diary. It was the pencil concealed in the spine; it did things to me.

Now, New Year’s Eve is that vaguely annoying import-laden mark in the social calendar when I can never quite decide what I want to do, and always end up being a bit disappointed. You can never do everything or see everyone, there’s not enough hours in the night, and you end up worrying that where you choose to spend your midnight is not what best defines your heart. Your friends are scattered and can’t be collected together in the same room. You love too many people. In thinking of all the people you won’t see, all the things you won’t do, you have to just… let it go. Be where you are, and be there fully. You will never do your whole heart justice is such a short and silly night.

Perhaps we’re not supposed to truly enjoy ushering in a new year when we’re not sure we did all that we could with the old one. It’s like throwing out dead flowers. It never quite feels right; their buds had held such possibilities.

The best New Year’s Eve I ever spent was the first one I was allowed out alone with friends, chancing it under-aged to a pub, which ended up with me getting bundled into an old telephone box by five men who should have known better. Naturally I was wearing DMs so they paid for their lascivious joie de vivre. That night was a revel; it was freedom. Now I see it as the year I took the baton of my own time. After observing adults flick off the years like fluff from their sleeve, I was now counting my own years for myself. I never knew as I roared Wonderwall into a throng of madmen that some part of my brain was taking a snapshot of it for later. I never knew that, later, New Year’s Eve wasn’t as casual as the adults made it look.

If one thing has become clearer from all the years of merrily ticking off another annus along the road to death, it is that nobody bloody knows the words to Auld Lang Syne. No one. I suspect it is at the moment you learn the last verse that you die. It is the bell which buzzes you through to the waiting room of eternity. “And there’s a hand, my trusty friend…” BOOF. Gone. See ya.

Chancing the invitation to my own demise I googled the words, and found that most other columnists around the globe are writing something quite similar to this. Columnists talking about Robbie Burns’ famously unknown lyrics, about new years customs and resolutions, about traditions with friends. I worried that Christmas slothdom might have stolen the last wisp of originality from me. But then I felt comforted. Writing a New Year’s Eve column and feeling the trite pull to mention Auld Lang Syne is almost as unavoidable as the passing of the year itself. The song is the twine that stitches our years together; it’s as culturally innate to us as Happy Birthday, and is a darn sight less annoying.

What was strange about reading the lyrics to the song that everyone sings but no one knows was the fact that, despite never having heard them in a collected entirety amid the mumbling of drunken fools, I knew the feeling of the piece. It had made it through all the years of wrongly translated Scottish verse. It had made it through the weird cross-armed hand-shaking and ill-pitched droning – made it even through the mulsh of drunkenness.

It’s about friendship.

Allow me to paraphrase:

Cor. Life’s been a bit of a tinker so far, hasn’t it?
Let’s have a ruddy drink.
I’m glad you’re here, old chum. We’re in this together, right?
Yes. But it’s your round, you cheeky tyke.
Oh, give us a cuddle. We could die in five minutes for all we know.

And that’s pretty much it. Sort of.

Naturally, I’ll have forgotten any lyrics I’ve inadvertently taken in by the time I come to sing it at midnight tonight. But I’ll feel its sentiment coursing through me with the wine and the time. I’ll cross my arms against my chest, and link palms with the people by my side. I’ll shake hands with Time itself; make some sort of uncertain deal. We’ll all be holding hands, humming the tune, but never quite knowing the words; not knowing what the next year will have in store for us, but together in our not knowing. And then there’ll be awkward messy kissing, and we’ll have another drink that we don’t need, but want.



Kissing Jesus

I’ve always sort of fancied Jesus. I don’t think it’s so much the fact he could probably get his Dad to pull some strings for you and get that fine waived for picking flowers from the roundabout shrubbery, or even the water to wine trick, but the fact he’s just a bit…elusive. Like Doctor Who, or Patrick Swayze in Ghost. He’s not really there, mainly coz he’s dead. That’s fit. I don’t think he’d be offended by that.

Jesus started flirting with me when I was about 13, I guess. I went to an American-style Christian jamboree in the park with some friends, lured mainly by the size of the big top style tent. I thought there might be lions and clowns and acrobats, but it was actually Kriss Akabusi bouncing around with a microphone. Despite this, I had fun. I heard a lot about Jesus. It was pretty Jesus-themed on the whole. Christians dig him.

When I got home I hid in the potting shed for a bit because I hadn’t told my mum I was going to an evangelical circus and I thought it might be safer if she thought I’d run away or been abducted or murdered. When I finally ventured in, she was more unsettled by the truth: I had been singing along to Christian soft-rock. I think she thought Kriss Akabusi had spiked my lemonade and done a Lycra voodoo conversion dance in my face. I fell in line and scoffed at religion to reassure her, but inside something had shifted. It was the first time I had been moved to tears by the story of Jesus. I had felt the emotion of a tent of hundreds of people who believed he was the son of the dude who made bird’s wings and bee’s knees, and rather than laughing I was moved. It doesn’t matter that I hadn’t believed the core tenets, merely that I had listened, contemplated, and felt something, for and with people.

I felt closer to Jesus after that. I noticed him around more. Churchyards, postcards given out by precociously polite young men in suits on my doorstep, framed iridescent pictures of him doing a two-fingered healing salute to some lambs in Oxfam. He was sort of everywhere, and I liked him.

Around the same sort of age as the brief introduction to happy-clapping, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and thought Atticus Finch was the best man ever created in the whole of literature. It didn’t matter that he was a character of fiction, it mattered that the story struck important notes deep within me, notes of love, tolerance, kindness, justice, and morality. I cried for Jesus, I cried for Atticus. I have cried for lots of men, real and unreal. Woody from Toy Story probably wins the award for Most Mascara Sadie Has Wasted Over An Imaginary Being. I’ve sploshed my eyeball essence around quite liberally if I’m honest. But if crying over stories about made-up men was a foolish thing to do, if emotional reactions to them weren’t good for humans somehow, fiction would have ceased to exist a long time ago. We have enough true stories to keep us moved, inspired and entertained. But we choose to invest ourselves just as devotedly in fiction as we do in truth. We need it. We wouldn’t know what to do without it. And the blurred lines between the two is enough to keep us fired up for millennia, in all sorts of ways.

I fell out of the thrall of Christmas for about a decade. In my disenchantment with it I even wondered if it was a more honest state for an atheist: borderline Scroogedom; the grumpiness of non-belief. It was dull. Not believing anything can be quite dull. But now I’m back, and ready to get back on the happy wagon.

I realise now, in coming back to Christmas after a few years of just going through the motions of it, that I am also returning to something else. In my not feeling festive, I was shutting out things, and thus wallowing in myself with my own concerns, which is essentially selfish. Coming back to Christmas means coming back to people, and that’s always a good thing.

Jesus looks pretty hot for 2013 years old. I will think of him tomorrow on his birthday in between mince pies, I will hum my favourite carol Oh Holy Night, and I will think of what he means to others, before I eat another mince pie. It doesn’t matter if I don’t believe, it doesn’t matter if it’s just a story – if a story makes you feel things, it’s a pretty good story, right?

No matter how much I don’t believe in him, I’ll always sort of want him to drop by one day, give me a wink and confound my dull science. Plus, I bet he’s a really good kisser.


Love & Christmas: The Cath Kidston Trap

I’ve spent weeks laughing at people churning themselves into a frenzy over Christmas shopping. “Calm down dears, it’s only November”, I scoffed internally at the harried mums jabbing me in the bum with rolls of wrapping paper that have been cynically bolstering the tills like coiled harbingers of January’s pennilessness. There I’ve been – smugly tutting for weeks like I’d somehow escaped The System – until I realised with a gulp that it’s now…actually…well, pretty close. Like, a week away. And I’ve done next to nothing.

I should have learned by now to plan ahead and do it in manageable chunks, but to be honest this last minute panic is as much a Christmas tradition for me as doubling my podge and weeping in the street at the Salvation Army band. “You’re old and wearing a really big coat and playing the tuba – HAVE SOME SNOT!”

It’s an amazing pressure that swirls around us as this time of enforced happiness. Aside from the emotional obligation you feel to the nostalgia of Christmasses past, to being the same festive person you’ve always been when actually you’re mostly stressed and distracted, you also have to think about other people; family, humanity, maybe even – dare I venture – Jesus. Christmas is demanding – you have to buy stuff, wrap stuff, plan stuff, eat stuff, juggle stuff, do stuff, eat stuff, think of stuff, be stuff, eat stuff, sing stuff, wear stuff, stuff stuff, eat more stuff, and stuff. It’s like work, (if work encouraged you to always have a fortifying mulled wine in hand).

One of the hardest bits is buying stuff for people that doesn’t leave their faces looking like you just handed them a kipper on a frisbee. No one wants to see that face. You want to see the face like you just gave them a winning lottery ticket wrapped in Michael Buble’s best pants. You want the good face. You want to make those tinkers feel loved. (And, secretly, a silly little part of you wants to make them love you the most.)

But the pressure’s on, and you’re squeezing through a throng of people who are seemingly buying the best presents ever, and they’re smiling smugly at you as you dither with a battery-operated meerkat, and your brain, panicking, turns to anything else but the logic that tells you: “Your family love you, they want you to save your money so you can fix your car and not be stressing in the new year – they want to just spend time with you.”
No. The spending of Time isn’t pretty enough. You can’t put Time in a box and make people cry with it.

So naturally, I fell into the Cath Kidston trap. I wanted to spoil my sister rotten and so I found myself in a squished boutique, stylish women cooing in my ear that Cath Kidston is the best thing to happen to Britain since Hitler killed himself, and frantically thrusting my debit card into a cashier’s hand because…I want my sister to know I love her. I want her to know I am always here, that my heart is still charged by all the power in my blood which rushed me like a pre-pubescent warrior towards her doomed bullies in the playground, that I think she has the prettiest face I have ever seen on a real live woman, that I think her vegetable lasagne is the best.

So I bought her a floral bag.

And even though I know she will love it because it’s bloody gorgeous (she’d better not fucking read this or the surprise is ruined), a small part of me was disappointed in myself. Because Cath Kidston bothers me a bit. Not because she’s now astoundingly rich or is turning pretty designs and nice craft ideas into generic badges of proscribed femininity, not because she’s cynically seized upon that quiet, comfy, increasingly shameful part of most women that wants to be baking and feathering and making everything ‘nice’, not because she would probably not be seen dead out in something as common as her own designs (the ones that make it into the shops anyway), but because she is going against the whole ethos behind her floral/birdy/polka-dotty loveliness. She’s the queen of twee; the figurehead for the renaissance of vintage thrift, and the Cath Kidston empire which lures us with its shabby-chic ‘I’ve just macraméd the hair I pulled out of the plughole into a charming brooch’ is a facade. It’s not hand-woven in an English country cottage by Cath herself – no, it’s made in China. It’s about as English as Chairman Mao slurping noodles with a panda. It’s made in massive quantities to be shipped out to shops which make people feel like they’re buying into an authentic experience, or expressing some aspirational or creative part of themselves not being otherwise satisfied. Cath Kidston, and all her pricey ilk, is the opposite of tepid tea and stale jam tarts at jumble sales in honour of post-war ‘make do and mend’. Cath Kidston is sort of the new Burberry; ethos turncoat and brand flake. The symbols of qualities we admire and covet – domestic contentedness, resourceful canniness, attractive living – are made available to everyone not out of good spirit, but out of the voracity of business. Cath Kidston is not likely (nor would ever have been advised by anyone with a brain) to have limited her wares to the country stores of farmers’ wives in moneyed rural England because they were more honest showrooms for her designs. You’d have to be a fool to wilfully limit your own success.

There is a certain democratisation, I suppose, present in the dispersal of such products in the way a brand can go from exclusive to inclusive, elitist to commonplace (like when the poor could suddenly get their hands on bottom-rung qualities of coffee, spices, chocolate, and the BMW after the rich had grown ambivalent about it all) – but democratisation and class unification is not the mission nor the driving force; boundless cold hard cash is.

Perhaps Cath doesn’t like what it’s become. Perhaps Cath herself is sick of the whole look and is reclining in a minimalist Bauhaus pad somewhere sickeningly urban. Maybe she doesn’t poo in pastel colours after all. Maybe she’d surprise us all by being a messy eater and saying ‘cunt’ a lot. But her ego must be somewhat sated by the knowledge she is an image-maker of her generation, as were Coco Chanel, Mary Quant, and the dude who painted that black woman a bit greeny-blue in the 70s. Cath Kidston’s designs will one day evoke a whole era. Perhaps it will have earned it, perhaps the history of a brand is the history of a people, perhaps what is coursing through its lines and colours is the disparateness of Britain – the haves, the have-nots, the spirit, the laziness, the pride, the nonchalance, the reserve, the gaucheness, the snobbish aspiration, the humble salt of the earth; Britain in all its chequered (gingham) past.

A part of our culture all woven up in a bag for Christmas.


When we were little, and one of us was sick, my sister and I used to take a plate of malt biscuits and a glass of milk to whoever was languishing in bed. I could have reminded her of the infinitesimally huge things I felt for her by spending 59p on a packet of biscuits and arranging them in a heart shape; I could have given her a bit of our time in a box – a tiny malt cow grazing on a golden brown biscuit – and she would have loved it. But I fell into the Christmas buying trap of needing to somehow quantify the immeasurable, and I bought something pretty that I know would make her walk down the street all jaunty. And that jaunt will have a lifetime of my love trailing clumsily behind it. My love is in her fibres.


Actors: Portrait of a Showmance

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s convenient perception of actors being self-absorbed needy coxcombs, but I feel I should tell you that some of them can actually be…the opposite of wank. I spent last week recording a BBC series called Walk On The Wild Side (comedy voiceovers to funny footage gleaned from the BBC’s wildlife footage), and I got to work with some of the loveliest dudes in the business. Like, some proper darlings, darlings.

The week got off to a laborious start however after I politely declined a car to pick me up from the station. I always feel funny being driven in a swish black car by a man in a suit – it makes me feel like I’m a colonial slave-owner named Miss Mabel in an undiscovered bootleg Dylan song about privilege and evil, so I usually say no and get the tube – wishing the TV companies would merely issue an Oyster card as one of the perks. Perhaps with a jaunty plastic cover, maximum. But I learnt my lesson this week as I ran late for the first day’s work and got sandwiched between two men on the central line who were both clearly sweating out a decade of bad late night curries right into my face. I sprang out of the carriage at Tottenham Court Road and spent the whole of my trot to Soho trying to keep my oesophagus from bursting out of my nostrils like a serpent of bile and woe. I turned up huffing, puffing, sweaty and stressed, lamenting my ridiculous decision not to have slaves.

Thank goodness the day got easier or it might have become something like work. I read the paper, ate a croissant, Brummied it up as a speed-dating chimp, had some tea, was a penguin for a bit, had some sushi, squealed as a meerkat, and wondered what to have for lunch the next day while having another sit down.

A lot of people take the piddle out of actors being all ‘luvvy’, and that’s because they are. And I think I know why. Because actors get to spend a lot of time sitting. In make-up chairs, in trailers, in studio slob-out areas waiting for their next scene, (and, less illustriously, at home waiting for their agent to call). And when they’re sitting they chat incessantly – at first out of graciousness, then out of curiosity, then out of genuine care for their temporary colleagues. Tot up the hours spent chit-chatting and pretty soon they have shared a lot of stuff – their heritage, their dreams, their eccentricities, the dull details of their domestics. Compound with that the time spent on scenes – the concentrated moments of creating something, and the ‘at ease’ moments in between characterisation where you giggle or muse the process, all the while exposing different glinting shards of something which is you, but not you – all that bonds you quicker than any other initiation period in any other job. Being paid to act is a validation of all your confidences and a reminder of all your insecurities, and an invitation to a thousand unrecognised pulses of the psyche along the way; it’s only natural you should cling to your companions while doing it. By the end of the second day you’re kissing everyone goodbye, calling people darling, and faux-weeping if someone has to leave early. There has been a genuine bond forged in the fires of fleeting creative industry. It’s not Love, but it’s Luv. Or a term I heard only recently – a ‘showmance’.

One of the best things about acting is having the wherewithal to fully embrace just how ludicrous a job it is, and how ludicrous you are for wanting to do it. It is a foolish, childish, unimportant profession compared to 97.3% of others (clinically proven), and if you don’t retain a high level of awareness about it that’s when you’re at risk of turning into one of those total nobs whom everyone hates. Working in comedy in particular, thank fuck, keeps you hyper aware while ‘acting like a dick’ of the pitfalls of actually ‘being a dick’.

Let’s spell this out: I spent a week doing things like gargling water while humming Lady Gaga as a seal, singing Sweet Caroline badly as a bird of paradise, and finding just the right sort of lisp for a simpleton goat. I got driven to and from work, was bought breakfast and lunch, sat around with some lovely funny people, watched Come Dine With Me, and did a few voices in between. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not a proper job. I feel immensely guilty about it actually; I might not let them pay me. In fact, I might pay them.

No matter how peachy that all is, it’s sometimes quite easy to fall into nonchalance about it. Even astronauts must get bored. Even Buzz Aldrin must have huffed at the moon and wished he was at home eating cereal. No matter how grounded or humble actors remain while on a job, how lucky they remember to feel, how aware they are of the fact they might never work again if fortune (or casting director) decides to look them up and down and too-casually say “nah”, how utterly replaceable they are – the simple fact is they are being utterly spoilt in the meantime (in the nice comfy budgets of Tellyland at least) and the sulky teen that resides somewhere in us all is being coaxed to the surface. “These organic digestives are completely devoid of any taste.”, “My driver insisted on talking to me this morning when I was really busy trying to finish a tweet.”, “I can’t believe they forgot my wasabi!”

One afternoon, after a tough five minutes for us actors exploring the dynamic of a shoal of exuberant fish, Jude Law strolled past us in our corridor-cum-teenagers’ pit and reminded me that even though we were spoilt enough to be waiting for Wagamama lunches to be lovingly placed on our laps, we were amoebas next to him. Dirty, ugly, poor ones. He floated through wearing garbs of cloth not spun on this earth, and we all fell silent. I glanced at my script. I was about to play a slightly confused wildebeest. Jude was probably going to re-do a line for a movie in which he played God – but, like, an extra hot version of God, with extra powers – like – hot but edgy award-winning ones. Even while remembering how fun this was, how lucky I am, I felt for one small moment like I would never achieve anything. Because I was not, nor would ever be Jude Law, and not just because I don’t have testicles. The hierarchy present in acting, as in all industries, flexed itself right there in front of me.

But then I remembered it didn’t matter. Because this was all playing. This job is silly. And playing God for Warner Brothers is just as silly as playing an amnesiac goldfish for the BBC, is as silly as playing the back-end of a pantomime horse, is as silly as rushing home from your office job to play an ‘urban’ Puck in bad am-dram Shakespeare, is as silly as playing Doctors & Nurses in a Wendy house. At its truest core, acting has no hierarchy. We are all just children, playing games.

I’ll be back on the tube next week, squished into the armpit of a tramp, trying not to puke, and I’ll try to remember to feel just as lucky as when I’m waiting for sushi, with a car outside to take me back home.

Maybe the tramp will have an Oscar tucked in his coat; forgotten, tarnished, but his.


Dear Uncle Joe

Dear Uncle Joe,

Writing a letter to you by way of my column is hopefully the most Jeremy Kyle Show thing I will ever do. I’m constantly confused about the levels of personal reflection that should go into a piece going out to people you don’t know, and I’m not sure I get it right. But…

When I came to visit you recently I was afraid. Of seeing you changed and in pain. You opened the door like the perfect host and pulled back in your wheelchair like you were merely revealing how you’d decorated the hall (in Stanna Stairlift chic). I felt instantly comfortable. Having both your legs amputated after years of shocking diabetes had taken nothing from you that I could see, and I felt no need to make you feel better but to just spend time with you.

I sat beside you as you shifted about, at times leaning forward and placing your hands on the arms of a chair in front like a podium. Few men could make their discomforted adjustments look like they were about to give a great speech. Your cigar smoke wafted like an exotic cake being baked and we talked, and I learned some things about you.

I had always known you were an exceptionally clever man, but I didn’t know you had, scattered in your garage, the boxed-up parts of an economic thesis once branded “dangerous”. I had always known your dry wit crackled like an open fire in any room you graced, but I did not know that you wrote comedy, or that Morecambe and Wise once said if they ever found themselves out of contract with Eddie Braben they would come to you. I had always known you were a religious man, but I did not know that instead of excluding myself from your scholarly discourse because I do not believe in God, I should have been fathoming life with you. I had always known you have a voice with a sibilant whisper like two wise owls conspiring over something brilliant, but I never knew you had so much to say, so profoundly, in so short a time on a sofa.

You are a remarkable man, Uncle Joe.

When I left you, I got home and felt blue. Not pity because you’d lost your legs (you did not need it), but a more selfish thing… All that time when I was in agony after losing Dad, when I physically yearned for a cuddle, for guidance, I could have been sat beside you. You were there all along, the perfect source of the intellectual, spiritual, and physical comfort that I crave from older men because my wonderful, difficult Dad set the bar high and taught me to seek the best things. You, the best of the best, were right there and I was too busy and silly to see it. Perhaps in suffering I was honouring him. Perhaps I had to do it alone.

That night, without any conscious prompting I went online and bought myself some nostalgic Doctor Martens, the irony of buying sturdy boots after an evening in the presence of a double-amputee lost to me til the morning at least. Those boots gave me the most rancid blisters of my life, and resulted in me elastoplasting bra pads to my heels to beat the blasted things into submission. But even the blisters were a gift.

Before I left, I asked you what prayer meant to you. You told me it was any reflection, any thought which reached beyond yourself, the smallest gratitude for a flower, the most desperate cry for help. It could be silent and to no one. You made me want to pray, and so now I pray for you.

You are back in Basildon hospital. After some shocking mistakes worthy of serious investigation, you are now in with a punctured organ, the burns on your thighs from clumsy laser work now faded, your shock at being ignored while crying out that you could ‘feel it’, passed. You are said to be ‘doing very well’. Of course you are. You are strong.

I don’t know when you, or anyone, will go. I hope it is years from now. But when you do go I suspect it will feel to you quite natural, like you are just going into the next room to greet an old friend. I have not wrangled with nor found faith for myself, perhaps I never will, but I have hope (which is kinder than faith) that your god is waiting there for you – knower of all your thoughts, writer of all your stories, with a box of good cigars. And you, being wise, will not be surprised – but merely smile. And settle in, with your legs returned to you, for a ruddy long chat.

With more love than I ever made the opportunity of showing you,