A tourist in my own town

“Italy has great food, Barcelona has great energy” (Stefon Harris)

Actually, it turns out Barcelona has great food too, but I do feel re-energised after my weekend away: My heart may belong to London, but there’s always room for an occasional holiday romance. It was such a pleasure to feel the sun on my face (yep, it’s still raining in England), stroll along La Rambla and gaze wide-eyed at La Sagrada Familia. I was unashamedly a tourist doing all the things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do back home.

I came across a list of London’s top visitor attractions the other day. The London Eye – nope, not done that. St. Paul’s – no, that neither. Buckingham Palace – errm…. You get the general idea. Even those I had been to, I’d only visited for some specific exhibition or event, never just to enjoy them for themselves. Paris and the Eiffel Tower? Essential viewing. London and Tower Bridge? Not a chance.

tourismBut why not? London’s landmarks, the museums and galleries are amongst the finest in the world. I’d served time beyond the M25. I’d learnt not to take such luxuries for granted. Even so, there’s definitely an element of complacency. The trouble with landmarks is they don’t have a deadline, no tightening noose, no pressure of a closing date. The Tower of London has been around for a very long time and let’s face it, will probably still be around for a very long time: There’s always tomorrow.

I do wonder, though, whether part of me isn’t just dismissing it on principle – All those attractions? Stuff for the tourists! You’ve as much chance of discovering London there as me having tea with the Queen. Hidden gardens, obscure museums, little known restaurants – that’s the real London. So in other words, it’s all about visiting places without visitors? Riiight. . .! Nice logic there Lindz. Some secret London which most Londoners haven’t even heard of it isn’t a more ‘real’ London than the famous bits, it’s just less crowded. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel a sense of adventure when you’re on a time-share with the world and his wife, but maybe the reason they’re so popular is that they’re actually worth seeing. Maybe the tourists had it right all along.

Which raises the question – can you can really be a tourist in your own city? Tourists are often criticised for judging by their own standards, for importing their own ideas; and to be fair, it can sometimes lead to gross cultural insensitivities: standing on the wrong side of the escalator, say, or (god forbid) talking on the tube. But it’s precisely this alternative frame of reference which allows visitors to see with a fresh pair of eyes. As a local, the hardest part is recapturing the shock of the new. Your senses are dulled by constant exposure. Just staying focussed can be a challenge – On holiday, you’re removed from all the distractions of daily life but at home, there’s no escaping the mountain of work commitments and messy house: Even palaces don’t look that great when mentally covered in dirty laundry.

The flip side, of course, is that experience offers its own rewards. The London Eye can’t show me the city skyline for the first time, but there’s still a thrill in recognising familiar landmarks or seeing how the landscape has changed. Where ever you go in London, you’re surrounded by world famous attractions. By assuming I couldn’t and shouldn’t play the tourist, ironically I’ve become the worst kind of tourist of all: I’ve seen only what I want, not what’s all around me.

I saved that list of London visitor attractions. What better place to start tapping into my inner tourist? That said, I’m still not sure I’m quite ready to start talking to strangers on the tube!

Water Water Everywhere : The Crazy Appeal of Riverside Living

Nordic Dock

It feels a little like sitting beside a sleeping lion: Wonderful to be so close but when will he start to stir? First the horrific floods in Somerset, now the Thames is at its highest for over 60 years. To the west and south, vast swathes of countryside are already under water. The Thames, a constant companion in this part of London, no longer seems a gentle friend. Its black waters are filled with the menace of drowned homes and sodden dreams. I can’t begin to imagine what those poor people in Somerset, Surrey & Berks are going through. I look at the river, the channels and docks surrounding us and wonder : When will the lion roar?

The powers-that-be are making lots of soothing noises : Andy Batchelor, operations manager at the Thames Barrier, has stated categorically “there’s no risk to the centre of London”. I’m sure that’s what Datchet thought too, but at least if we were hit, we’d have the satisfaction of knowing the politicians also had wet feet (Westminster and the Houses of Parliament are themselves in the Thames flood zone). Nonetheless, I do feel lots of love and affection toward the Thames Barrier right now. In the past three months, it’s closed a staggering 28 times – that’s a fifth of all closures in its entire 30 year history (For the full story of the Thames Barrier and to see it in action, have a look at one of my earlier posts here). With the river already so full, there’s a risk high tide could push the extra water back upstream and flood the capital. The barrier keeps the sea safely at bay until the tide has turned.

“If you don’t want to get flooded, don’t live next to a river”. For all the nation’s sympathy and support, go on-line or read the letters pages in the press and you’ll see plenty of comments just like this. Harsh certainly, but fair? Yes, there have been some ill-advised developments in recent years, obviously encroaching on known flood plains and yes, you might be foolish to buy there, but equally there are houses now affected which have never before flooded in their history. Can you really tell these homeowners ‘it’s all your own fault’? Riverside living has been a mainstay of civilisation for thousands of years. If the risks now are potentially greater because of human intervention and global warming, simply walking away from the problem is hardly a solution. Quite apart from anything, where do they expect everyone to go? There are 1.6m people alone living on the Thames floodplain, never mind the rest of the country!

Thames Flood Zone

When we moved back to London, we ended up by the river more by accident than by design. Most, however, actively choose it inspite of all the risks: According to Savills estate agents, riverside property in London commands at least a 20-30% premium over equivalent accommodation inland. Unexpected indoor swimming pools aside, life by the water does offer some significant practical advantages. In this congested little island, have a room with a view and someone’s bound to build a bloomin’ great tower block right in front of it. The river is a natural buffer – blue belt vs green belt. Likewise, commuting by river is a million miles away from the sardine crush of the tube – a guaranteed seat, scenery to die for, even a cafe and bar on board. Absolutely fabulous, provided you find your sea legs (it can get a little bumpy en route): Mine, sadly, are still lost at sea.

A year on, however, I’ve realised the appeal of the water is so much more than mere practicalities. Like the best arranged marriage, what starts as a matter of convenience becomes a real affair of the heart. The bustle of river taxis, the comedy of water birds, the lapping of water against the shore – the sound of the river breathing whilst she sleeps. I could never tire of watching the river, her ever-changing moods. Even on the darkest days when all seems hopeless, her constant ebb and flow is a comforting reminder : Life goes on.

It’s estimated around 6000 homes in the UK are currently flooded. In the absence of significant shifts in global environmental policy, living by the river probably is daft but for all its stupidity, I now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else: I love it too much.

As they say, love is foolish.

For whom the bell tolls – The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

“Established A.D. 1570” the sign above the door proclaims proudly. That date alone makes the Whitechapel Bell Foundry the UK’s oldest manufacturing business. In reality, the company can trace its history back much further to around 1420 but as Alan Hughes, whose family have owned the foundry for generations, explains – “round here, we tend not to worry about the odd hundred and fifty years”.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry Main-001

Step beyond the Foundry’s magnificent oaken facade and you might as well have lost a couple of hundred years somewhere en route. Gone is the multicultural shabby chic of modern east London. Enter instead a Dickensian world of wood panelling, narrow stairwells and rickety floorboards. Waiting in Foundry’s front room, I spy an old pendulum clocking-in clock complete with name cards handwritten in beautiful italic script: It’s almost a surprise not to see one for Bob Cratchit. When Alan himself arrives, his striking resemblance to Michael Caine only reinforces the sense of being in some lavish period drama.

Although normally off-limits, on various Saturdays the Whitechapel Bell Foundry opens its doors to general public.  Dates are announced in September for the following year and sell out almost immediately. The rarity factor helps: There are now just 8 foundries left in the world so anyone with a love of bells is hardly spoiled for choice. For many, however, the real attraction is the connection to one bell in particular: Big Ben, recast at Whitechapel in 1858. No sound defines London better than that beloved bell. Londoners lined the streets and cheered when Big Ben first made the journey from Whitechapel to Westminster by horse drawn carriage. All through the Second World War it rang, a symbol of defiance against Hitler. Even today if, on rare occasion, something goes wrong, it always makes headline news and countless column inches will analyse when we’re going to get our bongs back.

Even though large bells still account for the majority of Whitechapel’s business, nowadays they’re a more modest size than Big Ben’s mighty 13.5 tonnes: “Even if we could melt the metal, we couldn’t get anything bigger out the door!”. The metal, a mixture of copper and 22% tin, is heated in the foundry’s furnaces and then cast using a specially constructed loam mould. Large bell casting only takes place on a Friday as they need at least the weekend to cool down. Sure enough, the first mould we come across is still warm to the touch. ‘What’s the secret to successful mould making?’ someone asks, enjoying the heat. Good clay, goat hair and horse poo explains Alan with a grin. “Horse manure is porous so it helps to let any gases escape”. Hands are rapidly removed from the warm mould.

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The size and shape of a bell has a significant influence on its tone. It is possible just to cast a bell and have done with it (a so-called “maiden bell”) but to achieve that aesthetic, harmonious bell sound, tuning is required. By careful removal of metal from the inside of the bell, the tuner can sharpen or flatten the various notes of the bell from the ‘strike note’, the sound the bell makes when it’s first struck, to the ‘hum note’, the lingering sound produced by the vibration of the entire bell (There are in fact five key notes the bell tuner is concerned with). Modern technology has helped considerably in providing precise sound analysis, so much so that someone tone deaf could now do a bell tuner’s job, but it still takes extraordinary skill to know exactly how much metal to remove and from where on the bell:  “One mistake – We smash up the bell and start all over again”.

Given the precision of the work and the pristine world of modern manufacturing, Whitechapel’s workshop comes as quite a shock. It’s a riot of equipment, dust, debris and of course bells, which crowd every surface and every corner. Alan’s good humoured safety warning at the start of the tour suddenly takes on a level of seriousness : “There are literally dozens of ways to hurt yourself here: We’d prefer it if you didn’t!”. Conditions are so cramped in the upstairs area used for small bell production, the foundry can’t employ anyone there over 5ft8. I enjoy the momentary satisfaction of standing tall at 5ft 3 alongside my doubled-up tour companions.

Heightism aside, how does Whitechapel recruit? By comparison with pop star, astronaut or banker, bell making hardly seems a likely choice of career so it’s a real surprise to learn the foundry receives far more applications than it could ever have positions. With only 20 staff, the team is small, bordering on tiny, and people tend to stay – the nearby wall is covered with memorials to all those who’ve died or retired on the job. We’ve always been far more interested in people who actually want to join, says Alan. A passion for bells is far more relevant than previous experience. As if to make a point, he picks up a handbell. It’s a beautiful thing, all gleaming bronze and seductive curves, and the sound it makes is exquisite – rich, resonant, far removed from the shrill, tarnished cry that once summoned me to school assembly.

How rarely do we get the chance to appreciate a bell? For most of us, it’s simply the sound of order and obedience. Fire drill – leave now, door bell – open up, bicycle – step aside, a symbol of compliance. It makes a business like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry all the more remarkable. Nothing about it complies with the modern world. Arcane industry, family values, hand craftsmanship. By rights it shouldn’t exist. Then again, as the irreverent company motto puts it : “Nothing is impossible: For those who don’t have to do it themselves”.

Have a break, have a lunch hour

I’ve become a lady who lunches. After years of dining al desko, I’ve finally discovered the pleasures of a lunch break. Not that I can take any credit for this new-found wisdom. Lack of an office canteen and a strict ‘no-eating-at-desk’ policy had far more to do with it: No break, no food. Necessity may be a good teacher, but hunger is even better.

lunchbreak

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes confidently predicted his grandchildren’s generation would work no more than three hours a day. How wrong can you be? Not only does the UK have some of the longest working hours in Europe but 60% of us don’t even take a lunch break. It’s all a far cry from the Hong Kong stock-exchange where traders, hardly a profession known for shirking on the job, were up-in-arms at their lunch break being cut to just one hour! It’s not even necessarily any good for UK business – Yes, companies may be getting anything up to 16 extra days a year out of us, but they reckon it costs them around £50m a day in lost productivity. All this sandwiching-at-desk, SAD living does little except reduce concentration and increase stress, both mental and physical.

I don’t know whether taking a lunch break has increased my productivity, but it’s certainly made me happier. Sometimes, it’s the casual conversations in the kitchen: Getting to know colleagues in something other than a work context has given a much greater sense of belonging, of being part of the team. I’ve even discovered the most difficult managers can be human after all. Occasionally, it’s the luxury of running errands (no more weekends spent chained to domestic chores). Mostly, it’s the quiet time. As often as not, I’ll grab a few moments of private escape – walk round the block, soak up the sun in the park, read a book in a local cafe. On those Herculean days when tasks slither and multiply all around you, doubling and tripling with every attack on the to-do list, getting out of the office has become a survival strategy, a tactical retreat, a chance to regroup and rethink; Even when everything is going according to plan, the change of perspective is still so valuable. Why forever run uphill and never once stop to admire the view?

lunch 2

So what’s taken so long? Why have I only just figured out a lunch break is actually a Good ThingTM ? Doctors, psychologists, magazines have been singing its praises for decades. By comparison with drinking less or exercising more, their usual nags, stopping work and taking a break ought to be a doddle. At its most extreme, the pressure of work and cultural expectations can make even the idea of a lunch break impossible, let alone the reality. I’ve worked in such an office and will never forget the fallout when a colleague disappeared briefly one lunch-hour and wasn’t immediately on hand for the boss. In fact, one in seven of us deliberately work through lunch in order to impress the management. As Ron Sims, VP at Right Management says, in these difficult economic times, you “don’t want to be seen as somebody who is not fully contributing.”

But even when I wasn’t working for some wannabe Gordon Gekko, I’d still usually eat at my desk – there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. With UK businesses increasingly relocating from city centres to out-of-town industrial estates, choices are often limited to either a concrete carpark or a noisy, crowded canteen – hardly places to relax and unwind. So many horror stories are told about the challenges of working in London – the nightmare commute (definitely), the brutal working culture (maybe) – it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to be right in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. I now have at least 8 delis, 6 pubs, 3 restaurants and a greasy spoon all within 5 minutes walk of the office – and that’s just the food options, never mind the parks, museums and shops. There’s even a scuba diving club: Clearly I’m a lunchtime underachiever just settling for a sandwich.

Not that London lunch-hours themselves are perfect. Far from it. The UK climate is too unforgiving for a start. It’s amazing how much more appealing staying at your desk can seem when it’s pissing it down outside. Drowning in work is one thing, looking like a drowned rat after your lunch hour is quite another. There’s a time and a place for a wet T-Shirt and a meeting with the boss just ain’t one of them. Nor is this the only price to pay for taking a break. London’s reputation as a cripplingly expensive city is well deserved – £4 for a sandwich here, £6 for a salad there, it all soon mounts up.

Taking a break may be priceless but sadly there’s still no such thing as a free lunch.

The Big Chill – Ice Bars, Ice Hotels and the London Ice Sculpting Festival

There is a place in Southern Iceland where the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier meets the Atlantic Ocean. Under the inscrutable gaze of the surrounding mountains, this vast river of ice finally yields to warmer maritime air, a mighty warrior kneeling before the conqueror, the endless expanse of Jökulsárlón, the melt-water lake, a monument to the struggle. All across the lagoon icebergs, scattered and lost, drift towards the seaward channel. They are the survivors, crawling on the battlefield, jagged and broken but still hoping for escape, their frozen armour glinting proudly in the sunshine. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth, enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.

Jokulsarlon (1 of 1)

I first visited Jökulsárlón five years ago. It was the beginning of a love affair with ice, no less passionate today than it was back then, standing on a rocky Icelandic shore (Apparently I’m a ‘pagophile’ – a lover of ice – but it didn’t sound the sort of thing to be shouting about too loudly on the internet!). Killer, healer, homeland, wilderness, sculptor, sculpted: ice is an extraordinary substance. Thanks to its peculiar chemistry, its temperate freezing point and lightness of form, it covers nearly 10% of the earth’s surface. It touches our lives in so many everyday ways, from the simple pleasure of an iced drink to the adrenalin rush of the skating rink, yet remains mysterious, contradictory: More fragile than glass, yet capable of sinking ships. Freezing to the touch, yet will burn the skin blacker than the hottest flame. Definitions here are elusive, slipping through the fingers like ice itself.

In spite of the name, the real place of pilgrimage for ice worshippers isn’t Iceland, but Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. We’re deep into polar territory here, the Arctic Circle a distant memory some 145km to the south, the average winter temperature 18 degrees below – a perfect home for the world’s first Icehotel (nowadays, there are at least 7 others). Opening from December to April, the entire hotel is sculpted out of snow and ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. No two years are ever the same – It’s created from scratch each winter and only the magnificent ice chandelier is ever saved from the summer sun. Competition for places on the artistic team is fierce, especially the right to create one of the hotel’s fifteen ‘art suites’ : This year, you could sleep in anything from a tube train to Frankenstein’s laboratory. A constant five degrees below, stay in this frozen fantasy palace and for once, claiming your holiday was “really cool” wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

But what about something closer to home? How does a London ice lover get their fix? In spite of the fact the UK usually goes into meltdown at just a mention of snow, London is one of the few cities in the world with an Icebar – Below Zero. You can take your chances on the door, but it’s definitely better to book. The cold area is small and numbers are strictly limited, a maximum of 60 for no more than 40 minutes at a time – not that the adjacent warm bar is a bad place to linger, it’s just whether you’d settle for urban cool if you came for ice.

Ice Bar (1 of 1)

On arrival, you’re kitted out in what’s officially described as a “designer thermal cape”: In reality, it’s more of a hooded blue poncho. It’s intended not just to protect you from the ice, but also the ice from you – Given the amount of heat the average human being generates, put 60 people in a room and it’s the equivalent of switching on a 5 bar heater. The extra layers are obviously necessary, but the effect is still vaguely ridiculous. As I step into the cold, the neon glow and hooded crowds suddenly make me feel I’m in some pantomime version of Star Wars. I resist the urge to tell the doorman, ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’ and head instead for the bar. The price of entry here includes a complimentary cocktail served (naturally) in a glass made of ice. Thereafter drinks are £6.50 a shot, £10.50 if you’ve accidentally lost your original glass. Read the reviews online and these prices receive (not unreasonably) a decidedly frosty reception. Then again, go to the Ice Hotel and you’ll be charged an equally staggering amount : You can’t claim the Ice Bar doesn’t give you an authentic experience.

If I had one real criticism of the London Ice Bar, it would be the current design. Yes, the bar is made of ice. Yes, there are ice murals on the walls, but there are none of the intricate sculptures for which the Ice Hotel is famous. Fortunately, January also sees the capital play host in Canary Wharf to the London Ice Sculpting Festival. Now in its fourth year, this free celebration of frozen art has put London firmly on the international ice sculpting stage. 20 artists from 10 different countries battle it out across 3 days of competition. For sheer intensity and excitement, the first Friday is hard to beat (Being a working day, it’s also the least crowded – Over 50,000 people are thought to have attended this year!). Here are the single block events – the set theme competition, this year ‘River Life’, and the individual freestyle. Working at this scale, the intricacy of the designs is breathtaking, especially on an unseasonably mild January day when it’s a race against time to beat the heat: Sculptures die with every moment they live.

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If I was ever in any doubt as to the extraordinary skill of these artists, having a go myself in one of the ice sculpting workshops really hammered the point home. This isn’t just artistically challenging but intellectually demanding – understanding the conditions and the response of the ice – and physically tough to boot. The longer I worked, the more my frozen fingers complained. Looking round at our efforts, I saw a few goods, plenty of bads and at least one downright ugly (mine!).

Come the weekend and there’s a complete change of pace with the start of the two-day big-block pairs competition. Vast 2m tall, 2 tonne blocks of ice are specially shipped in for the country teams to craft, this year on the theme of ‘Fabulous Fashion’. When so much of the ice we get in this country is milky, ‘white’ ice – a form of frozen slush – just to see ice of this diamond purity is in itself a revelation : suddenly, I understand how the word ‘crystal’ could have come from krystallos, the ancient greek for ice.

Saturday sees much of the preparation work take place : what you lose in the lack of detail is more than compensated for by the drama of chainsaws and fountains of flying ice, especially later in the day when the blocks are dramatically underlit. With the immediate pressure of competition lifted, the artists also seem more relaxed – Reverend Butter from Team USA (otherwise known as Rolando De La Garza) hams it up Texas Chainsaw Massacre style; The UK’s Mike Kerslake begs for ‘crowd-funding’ when he needs a lighter for his blowtorch. By Sunday afternoon, however, the serious mood returns as everyone races towards 5pm and the competition deadline. This year’s winner was Africa, a stunning result in its own right, but even more so when you consider this was the first year they’ve ever participated. Then again, as Mario Amegee from the African team says : “When you have art, it’s ok. You can do everything, you know”.

Ice: Extraordinary substance. Extraordinary people.

Ice Detail-1

Fat Boy Slim: Chairman Meow’s New Year Diet & Exercise Regime

There’s no alarm clock more effective than a hungry cat wanting breakfast. If I was ever unsure about who’s boss in our relationship, these past few mornings have left me in absolutely no doubt : 6am sharp and Chairman Meow jumps straight on the bed. One moment I’m sound asleep, the next – a loud purring in the ear, a strategic paw placed firmly on the bladder, a gentle but persistent tapping on the chin. Resistance is futile.

You see, the Chairman is on a diet. Like a few other members of our household, the festive season has left him looking decidedly podgy. Even allowing for the fact he’s a big cat, it came as quite a shock when we last measured his weight. Clearly the Chairman couldn’t believe it either, because he kept getting back on and off the scales to check the reading!

Lazy Cat

The biggest challenge we’ve always faced with the Chairman is that he’s so darn lazy. If I thought it was hard getting myself up and out for a run, it’s not a patch on this tubby tabby. It all stems from when we were still living in the Village – back then every time he ventured out, the girl-cat-next-door would suddenly appear and start beating him up (Chairman Meow may be a heavyweight on the scales, but he’s a complete lightweight in all other respects). Things initially improved when we first moved back to London, but then the weather turned nasty and he decided a warm, comfy sofa was infinitely superior to the great outdoors. Frankly, I have some sympathy.

So in an attempt to become Ms. Moggy Motivator 2014, I’ve been trying everything. The first thought was ‘there must be an app for this’. And sure enough, there is – “Game For Cats”. A laser point of light whizzes randomly around the ipad screen and every time your cat catches it, it scores 100 points. It certainly caught the Chairman’s attention but all he would then do is lie flat and occasionally stick out a paw – hardly a high-impact workout.

Game for Cats 026

We had slightly more success with an actual laser pointer. At first, it had the Chairman running madly round the house whenever it appeared; But eye candy can never compete with something genuinely tasty. Once Chairman Meow realised he was never actually going to catch anything, he threw his proverbial toys out of the pram and stopped playing (As for the real toys, they ended up abandoned under the sideboard).

Eventually, I did what all sensible people nowadays do when they’re stuck for answers : I asked Twitter. The verdict was unequivocal. I needed “Da Bird”. Not that I was convinced – A handful of feathers on a piece of string? You’ve got to be kidding. As is so often the case, however, the best solution really was the simplest. Ever since the Chairman first laid eyes on Da Bird, it’s as if he’s bewitched (ok, the string is attached to a wand but even so!). He follows it round the house, grabbing at it claws-flexed, until it swings out of reach. Suddenly, he’s jumping and pouncing and somersaulting round the room, determined to defeat this feathery foe. Even when he’s left with no choice but to lie down and catch his breath, he’ll still be swatting away at it with this paw, then that. Nowadays, for the health and safety of all concerned (not to mention the more fragile household ornaments), play sessions are strictly rationed – 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

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So does this mean it’ll be ‘New Year, New You’ for Chairman Meow? There’s no doubt since we’ve been using Da Bird, he seems much more active. A number of his toy mice have made a reappearance and he’s even started going out once more, despite all the rain. We were feeling quietly confident, sure that come summer he’d be back to a lean, mean, fighting machine. Then the other evening, we caught him jumping in the window, licking his jowls and smelling of catfood: Maybe his Fat Cat days aren’t quite behind him yet.

Happy New Year x

Xmas Past & Xmas Presents: 400 Years of Xmas Tradition at the Geffrye Museum

“I think there are more people in this store than there are in the whole of Canada”

6pm. 23rd December. Just two shopping days to go until Christmas and I still haven’t bought a single present. I’m clearly not the only one who’s left it all to the last minute. My Canadian friend wasn’t exaggerating – the World and his Wife really are in John Lewis. Not that it makes me feel any better, any more than the walls of novelty gifts screaming at me to “Keep Calm”. Back in 1647, the Puritans tried to ban Christmas. Right now, life would be a lot easier if they’d succeeded.

They reckon us Brits will spend a staggering £22.3bn this year on Christmas. If Christmas UK were a country, it’d be about the same size as Bahrain and they’re a member of OPEC. Probably a lesson in there somewhere. Want to survive Christmas? Shop early, spend hard, strike oil.

It’s easy to assume the commercialisation of Christmas is something recent, but in reality, we’ve been over-indulging at Xmas for at least 150 years. Records from 1868 show Lord Braybrooke and his family enjoyed no less than 10 courses for Christmas lunch, polishing off (amongst others) 34 rabbits, 18 partridges and 2 ducks. Even a basic Christmas lunch of goose, pudding and stuffing would cost an ordinary man a week’s wages.

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We also have the Victorians to thank for other essential elements of Christmas. The printed Christmas card first appeared in 1843 (the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole who’d grown tired of hand-writing seasonal notes to numerous friends and colleagues), the Christmas cracker in 1848. As for the Christmas tree – The idea of decorating fir trees had been around in Germany for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1840s and Victoria & Albert’s enthusiasm for the custom that the English practice really caught on.

Of course, it was this fascination with Christmas Past which had got me into trouble now with Christmas present(s). It was all going so well. I’d booked a day off work last week. I was all set to go Christmas shopping. Then I heard about the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum. It sounded so much more appealing than battling crowds and battering credit cards on Oxford Street. Off to Hoxton I went instead. What can I say? Christmas has always been a time of giving in to temptation.

The Geffrye Museum is London’s Museum of the Home. Located in the magnificent 18th Century almshouses built at the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye (a former Lord Mayor of London), it explores how the typical English middle-class home has evolved over the years. Like many of London’s best-kept secrets, it’s free to enter so there’s no excuse not to visit the café. Even if you’ve no interest in domestic design, its smoked salmon bagels are sensational – not to be missed.

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Every year, the museum plays host to its annual Christmas exhibition. All the period rooms are authentically decorated, each recreating seasonal festivities from a different period of history. You squeeze through the museum’s wormhole corridors suddenly to emerge in another moment and another time – from a 17th Century hall to the self-conscious style of a modern day loft.

For all this, what struck me the most during my visit wasn’t how much Christmas had changed, but how little. A speed dating session with 400 years of history and I’d met fabrics and furnishings in every shape, colour and style but Christmas? Maybe three types at most: The feasting and frivolity of the 1600s with their semi-pagan undertones; the neglect of the 18th Century; the Victorian revival. Look in on a late 19th Century drawing room and most of the elements of a modern Christmas are recognisable but even in a 1630s hall, the decorative holly is comfortably familiar.

I never really understood how much I appreciated the stability of Christmas until one year when it was all change. Christmas in transit through South East Asia : Shops open, sunshine, not a Brussels sprout in sight (ok, so maybe it wasn’t all bad!). I missed all our silly family traditions more than words could say. There’s so little in modern life that’s reassuring and routine. How many other customs have just fallen by the wayside? It’s easy to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but it has at least helped to keep it on the map, to make it a constant. Would I really make the same time for giving and sharing, food family and friends without the pressure of collective expectation?

Cards, crackers and the pudding no one eats. Leaving it all last minute again. Socks, family squabbles and snow (lack of): Some things about Christmas never change, but you know what, that’s just the way I like it.

Do need to shop earlier next year though!

Merry Christmas x