“May the wind be always at your back,” say the Irish, usually after they’ve poured you enough pints of Guinness for you to need it, because you can’t feel your legs any more. It’s a generous thought, but as I sped up the East Coast Main Line yesterday, hoping that I’d snuck on to a sufficiently early train, I could have done with the wind being a few hundred miles further back. This filthy sky, horizontal rain and howling gale business is getting to be a habit. Just as well I don’t believe in climate change, or I’d be getting worried.*
My four-day trip to London at the weekend wasn’t a nostalgia-fest, although it was good to see old friends and discover that they were getting on fine, thanks, without my captivating wit and sloshed bonhomie. Nor was it a Christmas shopping trip, although a cock-up on the organisational front did necessitate one excursion to Ealing Broadway, where in a fiendish squall and a heaving crowd my high point was dropping some cheese in a puddle while trying to avoid trampling a child. (By the way, memo to W H Smith: (1) I do not want any flaming Dairy Milk, (2) Turn on the lights in your stores, they’re like funeral parlours, and (3) Get rid of that infernal Strauss waltz tape-loop constantly repeating next to the e-reader display, before I snap and REDACTED ON LEGAL ADVICE with a chainsaw.)
No, I came down to London for the carol singing in Trafalgar Square. Each year, when the big spruce tree goes up, the Greater London Authority offers 50 hour-long slots, first come first served, to bands of singers keen to wow an admiring crowd with their unique spin on the Christmas classics and pass the hat round in support of their chosen charity. The group with which I’m involved comes from the two London-based Churches of Scotland, Crown Court and St Columba’s, and skates enticingly on the edge of musicality in support of Christian Aid. Other charities and causes are available, and they all do fantastic work; this particular set-up just happens to be the one that floats my boat.
I’ve been part of the Trafalgar Square gig for about 20 years now, the last 15 or so as front man. This means that I don’t sing, itself a huge positive on humanitarian grounds, but I do get to chat up the audience between numbers and persuade them to part with their hard or soft cash. I’ve been drowned out by police sirens, had rubbish collectors empty bins right in front of me as I rabbited on, been repeatedly mistaken for a “vicar” and of course built up a tremendous library of responses to hecklers. Some of which I’ve been able to think up as little as five hours after the actual heckle.
Even the increasingly duff British weather has smiled on us over the years. Rain and wind have had as much impact as a North Korean defence lawyer. It’s always cold, but we merely smile rigidly and look forward to the post-event party, when we can chisel the ice off our body parts straight into our gins. The only outright “abort” was last year, and that wasn’t down to the elements. It was a flash-mob of Santas taking part in “Santacon”, which if you Google it you’ll find is a highly informal red-costumed festival of goodwill and drinking, theoretically in that order. Trafalgar Square was their rendezvous, arranged online at the last minute, and they weren’t budging.
When we arrived in the Square it was a mass of bobbing red. There were Santas everywhere, like confetti in a newly-wed’s undies: frolicking in and on the fountains, dough-nutting Nelson, planning a mountaineering attempt on the fourth plinth and - of course - boogying energetically around the Christmas tree, exactly where we were supposed to sing. They were boisterous and far from nasty. Several of them offered me a drink, presumably because I looked so glum. So there was no doubt they were invoking the spirit of Christmas, but unfortunately it was the 40% proof type, and not the bit marked “Hey guys, let’s sing about Jesus now.”
It was bleedin’ obvious this red sea would not be parted, either by divine intervention or by the Met Police. The sole representative of that organisation radioed for reinforcements and was advised, in broad terms, that they might consider popping along when they’d finished their tea and buns. The GLA’s sound and lighting man, who’d provided his own personal equipment, and whose face had gone a vaguely spearmint hue as if he’d consumed an iffy prawn, opined that maybe we should call the whole thing off to prevent damage. I pretended to hum and haw, putting off the actual admission of defeat for as long as possible.
It was at this moment that one of our slower-on the-uptake members prodded me and asked for a carol sheet. He owes his life to the presence of that Met officer. She may have been the short arm of the law when it came to riot control, but she could have taken me out in a flash if she’d spotted me doing a Saatchi throat-shake.
Anyhow, we regarded our return to Trafalgar Square this year as coming under the heading of “unfinished business”. The GLA, for their part, had decided that this year it would be “back to basics”: no stage, no lighting, no amplification provided. Was this a reaction to last year’s Little Saint Nick invasion? Had the sound engineer taken his toys home? Or was it the latest manifestation of Austerity Britain? Who cares? It didn’t matter. Someone stuck a rinky-dink little megaphone in my hand, I waffled, the singers warbled, the crowd gathered round, and it was like moving from a concert in a stadium to “Unplugged” in a wee room. The punters were generous, and our arms became unfeasibly stretched as we returned the groaning buckets to base afterwards.
That’s what I want to highlight here: it’s getting harder and harder to raise money for charity. The rules and regulations get tougher, the co-operation of the authorities slackens off, you’re constantly having to do more with less, you’re wiped off stage by an impromptu piss-up. Sometimes you feel it would be simpler and smarter just to support your valued cause through organised crime.
But, whatever the obstacles - despite the obstacles - many, many people still do whatever it takes to raise money for all manner of causes, and, even though they’re feeling the pinch, the great British public still come through with the dosh. This is something truly worth celebrating.
Hardened cynic that I am, I feel that the bastards currently running the planet are only too aware of this widespread altruism, and quite delighted to exploit it. For example, there’s a rant about food banks just waiting to be projectile-vomited all over a future blog post. At this stage, let me simply say that I applaud the people who volunteer to help in them, those who organise, and those who provide. They see a need and, between them, they work flat out to fill it. They’d rather this didn’t have to happen, but they hold their noses and get on with it.
But what of politicians who see food banks as a policy option, who visit them in pursuit of smiley photo-opportunities, who squeal with indignation (guess who?) when an authoritative source points out in a witty but depressing poster that “Britain Isn’t Eating”? They are beyond words. They deserve to occupy the very lowest circle of Hell, and after this brief break for festivities I trust that all right-thinking people will pursue them without mercy.
On which joyous and uplifting note, may I wish all of my readers, old and new, the very happiest of Christmases. I’m off for a wee glass of Irn Bru now, but will return at the weekend with whatever pops into my addled brain between now and then.
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