Women, married or single, get a raw deal at Christmas

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

There’s a Christmas poem of mine, written in the 1980s, that ends with the line ‘And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single’. When I read Bridget Jones’s Diary I was interested to find that the central character felt the same, and even more interested to see that Helen Fielding had included my poem. The first thing I did was to check the acknowledgements to make sure that her publishers had asked permission from my publishers. They had. Having established that, I was delighted. I wrote to Helen and got a nice reply. When I heard that there was going to be a film I had high hopes that it might do for me what Four Weddings and a Funeral had done for Auden by including his poem ‘Funeral Blues’. Sadly, my poem didn’t make it into the film.

In those days people used to tell me that Christmas could be pretty dreadful if you were married, too, and I’ve discovered there is some truth in that. In most families women still take on the bulk of the seasonal work — writing cards, choosing presents, planning the food and so on. I have observed that adults who say they love Christmas are predominantly male. However, since I’ve been with a partner, my attitude has mellowed: the message of love and light usually shines through the grumpiness at some point. The best thing, now that we live in Ely, is the cathedral carol service. When we lived in Winchester I went to the carol service every year and often found myself sitting where I couldn’t see anything. The architecture in Ely is more helpful: there are far more places that allow people to see what’s going on and to have a view of the spectacularly beautiful Christmas tree. Every year I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen.

There is good news in our corner of the world: the Ely southern bypass is up and running at last. This project was pushed through in the teeth of opposition from English Heritage but with the support of almost everyone who lives here. There was some delay because the contractors made the unexpected discovery that the ground in the fens is rather wet. Who knew? Eventually they overcame the problem and finished the job. We can now walk to the station without having to breathe in fumes from the queue of lorries waiting for the level crossing to open. The objection to the bypass was that it would spoil views of the cathedral. I haven’t checked from every viewpoint but I have looked from most of them and there is no difference at all.

Twenty-eight years have passed since I stopped being The Spectator’s television critic. It was a relief not to be writing a weekly column and I’ve never taken on another one. Now and again, however, I see something I’d like to write about, either because it’s so annoying or so good. I’ve been telling friends that the best news programme on television at present is Beyond 100 Days (BBC News Channel, Monday to Thursday 7 p.m.). The presenters are Katty Kay in Washington and Christian Fraser in London. They are a likeable pair with a gently teasing relationship that works well. They seem not to have been indoctrinated with the belief that current affairs journalists aren’t doing their job properly unless they are rude and aggressive.  As you would expect with a programme coming partly from the US, the coverage of American politics is especially good. We discovered Katty and Christian when we switched over because we couldn’t stand Channel 4 News any longer. It’s more peaceful here now that I’ve stopped arguing with the television and telling Jon Snow what I think of him.

The palaver about who should be the next Poet Laureate has begun. I hate the way that the serious art of poetry is turned into something like a horse race, with odds at William Hill. In 1998 the press began speculating about the next one before Ted Hughes was buried. I still haven’t forgiven them for that. It’s not as if the matter is urgent. If the Prime Minister dies, we need a new one quickly. But the country could struggle on without a Poet Laureate for quite a while. If any journalists are thinking of asking me who I think it should be, don’t waste your time. I won’t comment, except to confirm that I don’t want the job.

A position that I would like is womenswear consultant to Marks & Spencer. They are not doing well these days and I know what the problem is: they have gone too far downmarket. They should stock more good-quality basics and fewer cheap fabrics and horrible prints. I’ve talked to several other women who believe that they, too, could offer the company some useful advice. My husband suggests that we are the female equivalent of all the men who think they could make a better job of managing the England football team.

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