Holidays are a time to abandon the comfort zone and try new things. So when my mate Adam Brereton, an editor at the Guardian Australia, graciously offers to introduce me to a traditional midnight mass, I throw my militant atheism to the wind. Like another member of our group, I have only ever been inside a church for funerals. The ceremony is utterly impressive; a spectacle that transcends the questionable content of proceedings. When the full choir, organ and congregation kick in, a wall of sound erupts that – just momentarily – has me shaking my head in awe. It does drag on a bit – by the time it’s over, it’s too late to get a much-needed drink thanks to Barry O’Farrell’s lockouts – but there are some lovely words in the sermon about love and harmony in the wake of the horrific Sydney siege just 10 days prior. Inevitably, though, we return to theme and I remember that this is a cult; one that claims to know the will of the divine and blackmails us all with eternal hellfire if we don’t submit to its demands. One that insists we are born sinful, but can’t explain why any God would create sinful babies. One that wills on the end of the world so that this sin can finally be defeated and the misery of human life on earth extinguished. That, of course, is the true meaning of Christmas.
Christmas Day starts late on account of the previous evening’s attempted holiness. I exchange gifts with housemates, lovingly wrapped and placed underneath a (real) Christmas tree I impulse-purchased from a Summer Hill florist. I receive boxers, some candles and a bottle of white wine. Together they will make for an excellent Big Night In on the couch. I proceed to lunch at a Circular Quay cafe (not owned by Eddie Obeid, to the best of my knowledge). I get drunk with an old friend and his mother, a woman who defies everything you thought you knew about the baby boomers. Rather than use her money to buy several North Shore mansions and veto nearby developments, she runs a charity that puts technology in schools. Later we relocate to the pub and I soon remember why I find daytime drinking so disagreeable. Christmas Day ends in bed by 10pm and I feel I have undone whatever heavenly credit I may have accidentally acquired the night before.
I abort an argument with another religious friend over brunch. The morning is no time to fight over divine matters and, as trying as the Christmas period inevitably is, there’s something to be said for just letting stuff go. The period between Christmas and New Year’s is a vacuum of news, which makes it a hard time for journalists with pages to fill or ‘content’, as they say now, to produce. I write a story about Korean pop artists suing Sony over music used in The Interview and await a Walkley. At night I check out a gig which, to everyone’s surprise, turns out to be incredible. Upstairs at an Oxford Street bar, talented musicians jam until 1 in the morning and the crowd, packed to suffocation, is chatty and rhythmic and up for a good time. Not bad for a Monday night after Christmas, we decide – and proof that despite the government’s efforts to stifle the place of all nightlife, Sydney can still put on a show.
Is there a sadder day than December 31? A gloom hangs over it; the spectre of time passed, goals unattained and youth disappeared down the drain of another wasted year. This is why we ritualistically drown ourselves in unconstitutional amounts of liquor; to push through those unbearable final hours and into the limitless possibilities of January 1. ‘Nothing changes on New Year’s Day’, as Bono sang, except perhaps our perspective.
On New Year’s Day, after little sleep and in a precarious state, I drive to the beach at Vaucluse. The city’s harbour beaches are criminally underrated; which is probably just as well. Shark Beach at Nielsen Park is a veritable paradise; peaceful, devoid of backpackers and – unlike Redleaf in Double Bay – you don’t have to be an underwear model to pass muster.
While eyeing the ocean we discuss Paul Allen’s super yacht, which is in Sydney for New Year’s. Allen is the cofounder of Microsoft and is worth $17 billion. His boat – the 414-foot ‘Octopus’ – costs $20 million a year to run and has 55 permanent staff. We determine this is too much for any one man. My wise friend Tom, who is something of a weekend Marxist, suggests arbitrary, extreme taxation of the rich and the theft of their assets by the state. For example, the government might randomly acquire Allen’s yacht and fine Gina Rinehart $5 billion. The surprise attack would be launched, say, once every six to eight years. In this way, the unpredictability would minimise any disincentive to generating wealth, and would in fact encourage spending among the very wealthy and stimulate the economy. We decide it is a laudable idea and commend it to any politicians reading.
Monday morning. The city reluctantly rouses from exile and heads back to work – and for NSW Labor that inevitably means choosing a new leader. Luke Foley is a shrewd operator, at least as far as charming journalists goes. He would occasionally call to discuss a column I had written in this journal, and indeed was one of the few people to phone in their congratulations when I picked up a gig at the Sydney Morning Herald. Foley, of course, doesn’t want people like me to get married and will almost certainly take umbrage at my rather cavalier assessment of midnight mass. I imagine he would be quite good to have around the dinner table; perhaps even the cabinet table, but alas, the polls indicate we will never find out.