Winter Wonderland is a Christmas-themed playground that lands on the sorry part of Hyde Park in November; the part that is munched underfoot, and is sad, and makes money. It sucks up children and spits them out fatter and closer to death, but happy — at least that is what their parents say. The children themselves look drugged, or frightened, because their parents are invariably screaming at them. From the north, Wonderland looks like Coney Island, a cold, bleak fairground from Scooby Doo, with seagulls screaming and circling, far more than is usual for central London. That is when I begin to mistrust Wonderland. We are here for the same thing, these critic gulls and I: the food.
There is food in Wonderland; piles of food, most of it fake, or ersatz, or pretend food. There are shacks and huts and pubs and outlets; there is also an ice rink, a circus, a fairground, an ice kingdom, and Santa sweating obesely in his grotto; then there are the shops, selling every form of tat known to child. Wonderland has done that very modern thing of sacrificing charm to choice, like Jeremy Hunt. (Happy Christmas, Jeremy Hunt; why don’t you hand over, I mean sell, the entire NHS catering provision to Wonderland? Oh, you have? Burp.)
And so every possible Christmas experience, theme, idea, memory or possibility has been squelched into a patch of sorry grass, and the result is incredibly disorientating and anxious-making; my visit here is one long panic attack. If this were Disney World, Florida, the monster on which Wonderland is modelled, it would be slightly cleaner and better signposted, and there would be more fat people in motorised wheelchairs driving about shouting and looking for food, and the weather would be better; but this is England, where every place entirely dedicated to pleasure is faintly despairing or guilt-ridden, even if Bing Crosby is singing ‘I’m Dreaming of a Fat Christmas with Every Bagel that I Mindlessly Eat’.
The first thing I see is a talking plastic tree. It’s the Magic Faraway Marketing Tree; it welcomes me to Wonderland. The second thing I have never seen before — a cashpoint on wheels. It costs £2.95 to make a withdrawal, which is more than is usual. (Who knew that Wonderland is, in fact, a hostage type situation?) But why not, for a cashpoint that has developed the amazing art of moving about by itself, a sort of motorised Triffid cashpoint?
When I was a child I read about Rumplestiltskin and his room full of gold; except that for ‘gold’ I substituted ‘burgers’. And Wonderland is the destination restaurant for that mad child; it has enough sausages and burgers and novelty sweets to haunt a bulimic’s daydreams for years. I have to find a path through it.
So I stop at the Mirror Bar, which is not a bar but a zone — a collection of shacks near a mirror. There is a pie stall called Barnaby Sykes (Pie Maker) under a sign featuring two shotguns and what I think is a bucket; I try a beef and stout pie. It’s a good pie. The sausage stall next door is an offshoot of a restaurant from NW2, and it claims to present ‘Cuisine of Hungary’. If it is the cuisine of Hungary, Hungary can keep it. The Giant Sausage is lousy, even if I like the name; it is undercooked, oozing some kind of red matter the like of which I haven’t seen since the labour ward, encased in a bun so large it looks like an unfashionable hat. The Giant German Sausage next door is rather better — this one has bite, which makes me think Wonderland is, in food terms, a sort of Eurovision Song Contest with lard.
And so to the Famous Bavarian Village, a Munich beer-hall-putsch kind of mood bar; because of course, I can only think, lanterns and sawdust and bonhomie aside — where is Hitler? What is the point of a Famous Bavarian Village without a gnomish anti-Semite with terrible facial hair and a small blond child singing ‘Zuk-unft gehört mir’ — and don’t forget the fries. Because that is what they are actually famous for. Hitler didn’t really do food; he gave the most boring dinner parties in world history, although that was not the worst of his crimes.
I am lucky, I suppose, because The Spectator does not pay me enough to sample most of the food in Wonderland. The worst of it is pretzel-themed, a mad rape of a roll that shouldn’t really exist anyway — does Christmas really need a chorizo pretzel? I daren’t taste the cranberry and cheese pasty, and profoundly regret placing a marshmallow dipped in slime — ‘Tastes like slime!’ — in my mouth. Forgive me, mouth, for that and so much else. Perhaps that is why Santa is so fat — although we don’t talk about Santa and his food issues. It’s not nice to tell little children that the mince pie they left out is coming back. I see him wobbling in his grotto and sweating like Orson Welles or a big, fat, faintly ecclesiastical Dalek.
At the end of a particularly gruesome line of shacks (fudge and fish’n’ chips) I glimpse salvation at the Cherry Tree, which sells some good jams from the West Country and thus feels like the only hot girl at a party full of slugs — although the honey wine was a mistake; I only bought it because it was marketed as ‘Viking Blood (Made, inevitably, in Germany)’. The Jolly Hog, meanwhile, in a zone called the Fire Pit, has an excellent suckling pig, although I fear cones of crackling; they must take us further to the end. Past the Nordic Bar (‘an Arctic lodge environment to relax in’) and the Après Bar, which is simply a bubble of delusion, because no one here is thin enough for après ski — no one — and the Carousel Bar, which spins and will probably be covered in chorizo pretzel vomit by dawn, and out. I hate wonder. Reality is rather less awful.
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