I was thinking about quite why it was so delightful this year, and I came to slightly odd conclusion. From my own point of view, it was because I read no magazines.
I do not mean interesting generalist publications, like the dear old Lady. I mean what are horribly called Lifestyle Magazines. I object, on about eight different principles, to the very term lifestyle. I think one has a life, not a lifestyle. The very use of the word suggests something superficial, competitive, meretricious and commercial. It’s all about keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses. In my darker moments, I think it as part of the great conspiracy to make the women sad.
I used to think that the lifestyle mags were very helpful, especially coming up to the yuletide season. Here would be another cunning recipe for stuffing, there would be a charming way of decorating the house. I would buy them all, and try to copy them, in my small, paltry way.
The problem with this is that failure is built in. Life will never, ever look as seamless and shining and lovely as a picture on a glossy page. Your own ham will never be quite as gleaming and glazed (mostly because it is not covered in brown shoe polish); your own house will never be quite as inviting and box-fresh. The rational brain knows quite well that the photographs are as alluring as they are thanks to lighting and stylists and tricks of the trade. The sane brain knows none of it is real. But the irrational brain wails: why, why, why is my life not like that?
I’m not on a jeremiad against the mags. They can entertain and divert. I just think it’s really important to remember that they exist to sell things. In order to be put into a buying mood, people need to be riled into a mild state of discontent. There must be the sense of something missing. Then – le voilà! – there is the solution. This frock, that standard lamp, this pair of shoes is the ultimate solution to every existential ill that ails you.
This year, I had no time for discontent. I was worn out from work, coming up on a tight deadline, and fragile from mourning my beloved dog, who had to be put down in November. I needed a really happy Christmas. So, for once in my life, I did not give a bugger about what Nigella was going to do, or which stuffing Jamie was going to use. I had no use for the faintly smug decorating tips of the famous. I was not going to compete against the impossible standards of the magazine version of life or style.
After a frenzied moment of Christmas panic about three weeks out, I calmed myself, went to the village flower shop, and with the happy feeling of supporting a local business, bought armfuls of eucalyptus and holly and ivy. I flung it all about and felt amazingly happy at the cheering vista of green. No one would come and photograph it, but it was real and it was mine and I loved it. I was not doing the ideal Christmas, I just did the authentic, slightly muddly human version.
And now, in the same novel tradition, I am not looking at the January features about detoxification, and cleansing diets, and losing those festive pounds. I have invented my own new year health plan, which involves stomping round a muddy field in pursuit of a very determined little Welsh pony. I am free-schooling her, and it is the best and funniest exercise either of us ever had. We are both going to be fit as a butcher’s dog by the end of it. Then I come in from the weather and eat some chicken soup. It is the Pony-and-Chicken-Soup Plan. It doesn’t really trip off the tongue, and you will not find it in any lifestyle section. I shall not be able to spin it into a best-selling book and retire on the proceeds. But it is, without a doubt, the best January regime I ever found.