I get grumpy at this time of year.
Before you say “Bah, humbug”, let me tell you a story.
When The Wombles were at their height, Mike Batt came into my office and flopped down on my couch.
He looked exhausted.
“I’m exhausted,” he said.
He was. Exhausted. And he and I were about to get a lesson in the demands of the market over the welfare of the humans.
Mike Batt, lest it be forgot, did almost everything on the Wombles records apart from playing the violins.
He wrote the songs. And that was pressure, right there. Each song was under intense scrutiny from Elisabeth Beresford, who wrote the books. Elisabeth was not about to allow her creations to be involved in anything less than her own moral universe would allow.
Having finished the songs to Elisabeth’s satisfaction (and they weren’t always, and out would go the song), Mike would then write the arrangements.
If you listen to those records now, without your child’s ear, you will marvel at their cleverness. There was no era, no genre, no style, that Mike Batt could not recreate and incorporate.
Mozart? Check. The Beach Boys? Check. Thirties dance band? Check.
Having written these brilliant arrangements he would then produce the recording sessions with big orchestras under intense time pressure.
And then he would do the vocals, including most of the harmony voices. If you want to get a flavour of what that entailed, have a listen to Down At The Barbershop. The only voice I doubt is Mike’s is the bass.
And when he had done all that, he would don the Womble suit, visit hospitals and schools, pop up around the streets of London for a photo opp, and sweat off pounds on Top Of The Pops.
Exhausted? Barely covers it really.
So, here we are in my office. He’s already gone through this process twice in eight months. Now he’s telling me CBS is going to want a Christmas album. It’s September already.
“Well, let’s go and tell them you can’t do it,” say I.
He smiles, but his eyes tell the story. ‘They’ are not going to want to hear that.
And here’s where we get the lesson. Or, more to the point, I get the lesson. We go up to see Dick Asher, the head honcho sent from New York to make some money.
“I’m exhausted, Dick,” says Mike.
“Dick,” I say. “Mike’s exhausted.”
Dick looks at me. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, “I’ll deal with you later.”
Then he turns his charm on Mike. Dick Asher being charming was like that moment when you look at the shark’s smile and think, “Oh, maybe he’s not going to bite my leg off”. And then he bites your leg off.
“We need a Christmas album, Mike. I know you’re tired, and we really appreciate all the work you’ve done. But there’s no way around it. This Christmas has to be a Wombling Christmas.”
And so it transpired that Mike Batt delivered his third Wombles album and seventh single in less than 15 months. And not just any old single, but a Christmas record that was held off the Number One slot only by Mud’s Lonely This Christmas.
The Christmas Number One. What a palaver.
I blame John Lennon. I don’t remember the Christmas record being ‘a thing’ until Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Readers will correct me, I’m sure.
There are obvious songs we associate with Christmas. Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte was the first in my memory. Little Donkey by Nina & Frederik came four or five years later. In between there was Little Drummer Boy. The version I preferred was by Michael Flanders of Flanders & Swann fame.
But the specially designed Christmas single didn’t really get going until Lennon showed the way, more or less telling the world, ‘it’s ok to be sentimental – it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake’. War Is Over didn’t make Number One, but it did open the floodgates. So, thanks for that, John.
Yet I can’t find more than 12 songs that are about Christmas (or religion) that have been Number One since charts began 60-odd years ago. And three of those are Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Which kind of makes my point, really. That Christmas is about money and consumption. And Mike Batt’s exhaustion. And Dick Asher’s crass commercial imperative.
And that’s why I get grumpy at this time of year.
I’ve experienced Christmas in at least eight different ways. As a young child – Irish Catholic – it was a religious celebration. The music was fabulous, the feeling was profound and the sense of community was palpable.
Presents? What presents? That’s not what it was about. There was no sleepless Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa. We were poor, working class and it was about the baby Jesus, not some pagan ritual.
When I was eight, everything changed. My mother (divorced since I was two) remarried. My protestant step-father was lower middle-class, an only child, and Christmas for him was about spoiling everyone. It certainly wasn’t about Jesus (of whom he disapproved) or Church (which he tried to forbid).
This was the version of Christmas I carried forward to my own children. Having long abandoned religion, family and celebration seemed the right focus. The music, of course, was still fabulous (I’m talking about Carols, not Slade – although I might just mention Phil Spector’s Christmas Album).
But as my kids got older, I noticed the piles of presents getting bigger, until one year I couldn’t open the living room door because the boxes had collapsed in the night, blocking the room up.
That is the exact moment my seasonal grumpiness began.
Later, I discovered a different Christmas – divorced, my children with their mother and other family (quite right), I would leave the country and ignore the whole damn thing. Suited me fine.
Then I started another family. Went through the whole process again. Except this time, the excess was there from the start. Presents for my kids from people I didn’t know, friends of their grandmother, people I had never clapped eyes on. Rooms set aside for presents, there were so many of them.
At this point, I started to pine for the simplicity of my Irish roots and the Catholic celebration. Without Jesus, what was the point? The point had become, clearly, money, consumption and competitive buying.
So I resigned. From Christmas. I stay out of preparations and avoid, as much as possible, the preamble. Thank God for Tivo. I never watch a commercial, haven’t even seen the new John Lewis.
Of course, every time I go to buy bread and milk, the shops are saturated with all those yucky songs. So thanks again, John Lennon.
But really, I count it a triumph if I haven’t become too stressed by Christmas Eve, have plans to see my family, and wake up in my own bed on Boxing Day – all over for another year. And that is really, sincerely, how I feel about it.
So, now, altogether – Bah, humbug…..
But not before we remind ourselves that Mike Batt was no one-trick pony. For me, still being capable of a song as romantic and heart-wrenching as this in your mid-50s is an inspiration. As for Katie Melua – I don’t care what you think (unless you love her). If the current crop of pop divas would just once sing a song with this level of control, tone and emotion I might take them a bit more seriously.