Ian McMillan: Holly and the envy

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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At this point in the eleventh month of the year, people who work in shops are sick and tired of the Christmas music they’ve been forced to play, and listen to, since about mid-October.

Like tinselled earworms, the Yuletide ditties burrow relentlessly and accurately into the brain, so that when the shop worker goes home and is standing at the sink washing the pots they start whistling We Three Kings of Orient Are just because they’ve heard it 37 times that day, and it speeds across the brain like a toy car whizzing around and round a track. They try to stop whistling it but they can’t. They’re doomed. Christmas doomed.

I have a different reaction when I walk into a shop and hear a standard like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: I imagine that I wrote it and I plunge into a fantasy world where I’m sitting on a beach somewhere and the royalties from the song keep being brought to me in a big cashbox by a respectful uniformed flunkey whose sole purpose in life is to bring me the royalties from my Christmas song in a heavy cashbox. Or I see a DVD of The Snowman or Father Christmas and I wish I’d thought of those simple, resonant stories. Or I see a copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in a bookshop and I speculate on what it would have been like to define the modern idea of Christmas for the reading public.

I’m sure I can’t be the only writer who wants to leave behind a legacy that consists of one great Christmas work that people can whistle or read to their children or take off the shelf on Christmas Eve to read with a glowing of nostalgia and fulfilment.

I once had a meeting, in high and perspiring summer, with a publisher who wanted to talk to me about ideas for children’s books; we met in a cafe on the rooftop of a vast glassy building in a city, and the sky was blue and the air was hot and we talked about Christmas. “What we’re looking for is Christmas books for very small children,” the publisher said, and I briefly imagined that the vapour trails in the heavens were from Santa’s sleigh. “You’re a grandad,” she said, “and it would be great if you could write us a very simple story, probably in rhyme, about a grandad at Christmas.” I nodded, and my fertile imagination fast-forwarded to selling the film rights and putting on a dickie bow for the awards ceremony.

Later, at home, I sat down to write the book and I sent it off and it wasn’t quite right and I rewrote it and, to be honest, I’m still rewriting it and one day I’ll get it right and it’ll be the new Miracle on 34th Street or Santa Claus: The Movie, you’ll see.

If I can just make it simpler, and funnier, and more Christmassy.

Time to go back to the shops to get me in the Christmas mood, I reckon, before they get the Easter eggs in.