Silent Night…sleep in heavenly peace

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

It is probably fair to say that on the festive continuum I fall somewhat more on the side of the line that snorts “Bah Humbug” than the side that trills “Mistletoe and Wine”. That is not to say I don’t make just a little effort to enter into the spirit of things. For at least a couple of weeks of the year a scratched CD of Phil Spector’s Christmas album rattles around in the foot-well of the car. Say what you like about him, Spector sure knew how to throw up a wall of sound (probably to muffle the screams around him). Unfortunately, each year the CD gets a little less listened to and a lot more scratched as I cannot get past Spector’s monstrous preoccupation with shooting women. Still, (to the relief of those around me) other little rituals have begun to replace Darlene Love, the Ronettes and The Crystals. I always, for example, have a couple of viewings of 1970s film Heartworn Highways. Sometimes I just watch the end scene; Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle et al, sitting around a cluttered table in a dingy kitchen belting out an amazingly drunken and incredibly poignant good old boys version of Silent Night. I guess even I need the festive fix of a carol.

Christmas isn’t just a time for inflicting your appalling musical tastes on others. For a start there have to be others around you to do that, so Christmas is also a time for families. I usually manage to spend at least a bit of the time with some of my grown up children. This year I jumped in the car and headed off to see the two who live in London. I sometimes take the train or a ferry from Dunkirk but this time I made for Calais. I hadn’t been through the port for a while and noticed a scurry of activity on the approach road. As I passed by the flapping blue tarpaulins of the refugee camp on the right, usually referred to as “the Jungle”, surrounding the camp and all the way to the port a massive five metre high double fence was being erected complete with CCTV and razor wire. As usual I was running late for the ferry so didn’t take that much notice. I did, however, recall a story from a few months earlier in which the UK had agreed to finance a fence around the camp and the port as a way of tackling the refugee crisis. The story was supported by newsreel of the British Home Secretary, Teresa May, gazing down over the port with the mildly disapproving glare of a School Headmistress watching her muddied-kneed gals troop off the hockey field after a particularly humiliating defeat at the sticks of a rival public school.

Anyhow, the port was quiet and for once my engine compartment wasn’t searched for contortionist asylum seekers. The boat was three quarters empty, the roads almost deserted and I made it safely to London. It was a lovely couple of days in which well-worn rituals warmed the passing hours. The usual things, my children’s feigned exclamations of surprised delight at their unwanted presents and of course the forced feeding of mince pies. And then of course there was the Dr Who Christmas edition. Peter Capaldi truly is giving David Tennant a run for his money and is certainly up there with some of the earlier greats like John Pertwee and the criminally undervalued Peter Davison (I never could buy into the shouty excess of Tom Baker) Even the best of days begin to run out of steam and that’s the time for the Christmas film.

In ancient times when there were only three or four television channels the choice of which film to fall asleep to on Christmas night was pretty limited and generally repetitive with endless reruns of Holiday Inn and It’s a Wonderful Life. Now I tend to go along with the gruff voiced wisdom of John Prine when he sings “Jesus don’t like killing no matter what the reason for…” but for all that, even on Jesus’ birthday you can’t beat a good war film. And what was Christmas without a re-showing of The Great Escape? Not my favourite though; for me, my must see Christmas film was always Zulu. Directed by a blacklisted Hollywood escapee Cy Endfield with the inspired pairing of Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (cast entirely against what became his type) together with the magnificent Nigel Green as the fearsome and resolute Colour Sergeant ( avuncular hand on the shoulder of terrified boy soldier…”Steady, lad”).What is there not to like? The film even ends as an honourable score draw between the Redcoats and the Zulus. It is the final battle scene that always does it for me though. The beleaguered boyos from the valleys of Wales, short of ammunition but not spirit, respond to the advancing Zulus’ war cries and the deafening clutter of spear on shield with a rousing visceral rendition of Men of Harlech before all hell breaks out. Okay, the film is almost complete nonsense, based on Victorian myths constructed to obscure one of the worst defeats ever of the British army a few days earlier at Isandlwana. And yet, watching the Men of Harlech scene never fails to touch me on some deep atavistic level.

The supply of old films at Christmas is now infinite but instead my children chose to download a recent film, Jurassic World, as a tribute to the sort of films I took them to as kids. I won’t try to describe the film as it would defeat even my capacity for clichés but it was highly enjoyable. It had it all, right down to the icy businesswoman progressively losing her reserve, coldness and half of her clothes through the course of the film. I also could not help but wonder how much Mercedes paid for the product placement privilege of having several fleets of their vehicles destroyed by rampaging genetically distorted dinosaurs. And then there were the high tech fences and enclosures which contained the threat of savage primitive beasts. Once they were breeched, sirens screeched and blue lights flashed…Darkness loomed.

The roads were even more deserted as I drove down to Dover the next day. I took my time, stocked up at Tesco’s and arrived in the Port of Calais just as, well, just as darkness loomed. There was an eerie familiarity about the drive out from the port towards the E40. The fences I had noticed two days earlier were now floodlit and every few hundred metres strewn along the road were the flashing blue lights of bull wagon after bull wagon of Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the French national riot police. I guess the creatures from the jungle, Syrianosausus Rex, Afganoraptor and Sudanarolophus were becoming restless. Scary stuff, really makes you realise why the fence is needed.

I have heard the tales from the jungle and before then Sangatte, I have even met the occasional refugee and asylum seeker. When you hear their stories it makes you wonder why the UK didn’t fork out a few million more and build even higher fences. The lonely young man who, twelve months earlier, fled the dust and despotism of his sub-Saharan village being sent on his way by his extended family who clubbed together their meagre belonging to give at least one member of the family some hope. Navigating his way through desert, Spanish enclave, the open sea and mountains he now spends his time in the jungle mending bicycles and sharing with younger children whatever food he scavenges. Or the prematurely aged war widow from Afghanistan, her shoulders stooped and her arms aching from having them wrapped around her young children’s shoulders as she steered them through the safe havens and cesspits of the treacherous 6,000 km refugee route until she arrived at Calais. And then there is the middle- aged Syrian, leaving behind his home and business to escape the horror of civil war but taking with him his elderly parents, his wife and three children, only one of whom drowned in the Aegean Sea. Let’s face it, they are not the sort of people you would want living next door to you, are they? After all, as the UK’s response to the refugee crisis demonstrates, it is a nation that already has more than enough hope, resilience, bravery, compassion and generosity.

Of course, given France’s enduring track-record of military brilliance, police effectiveness and its stoic defence of Marianne’s virtue (see for example, Algeria, Indo-China, half of the First World War and pretty much all of the Second), it is unlikely that the savages will ever break out from the Calais jungle. Even so, if they did I’m sure the UK’s response would reflect its national characteristics. I remember about ten years ago how well its citizens faced down one of the alarmingly frequent existential threats to the Realm. I listened through a meeting as local politicians in southern England discussed how they would defeat Avian flu. One of the less bizarre, and roundly supported, recommendations was that they would all take up their twelve bores and, supported by reinforcements from the local Lions clubs, ring the cliffs surrounding Dover and blast away at anything with feathers that flew in from the direction of France. Given the number of cross-party defections over the past few years I am surprised this suggestion has not become  UKIP national policy. Again, it would be one of their less bizarre ones.

Notwithstanding the inspirational leadership and resourcefulness of its local politicians the British can sleep safe in their beds knowing that there will always be one final line of defence against any threat to their green and pleasant land. Should the jungle savages storm and overwhelm the barricades that enclose them and then hijack a ferry or invade the channel tunnel (no doubt swiftly followed by packs of rabid dogs and hordes of French onion sellers on black sit-up-and-beg bicycles), they would undoubtedly be greeted by the sight of a few platoons of sturdy Welsh Guards forming squares on Dover’s beaches. The first rousing verse of Men of Harlech would swiftly dullen the “spear points gleaming” and send the savages scurrying back to their sanctuary in Calais, the Lost World.

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