As befits a curmudgeonly older man, I tut a lot about Christmas decorations going up before the cricket season is over. I object loudly for months about the intrusions of the winter festival of excess. When Christmas eventually arrives, I enjoy it. Sharing good food and drink with people you care about is an irresistible pleasure.
The past year has been rather challenging for many of us, so I was surprised to find that, as the holiday season proper approached a week or so ago, I had a distinct ‘Christmassy’ feeling for the first time since my children stopped appearing in nativity plays. There is a dissonance between the unremitting grimness of the news and anticipation of the season of goodwill to all men.
Of all the brutal things in the world at present, the total destruction of Aleppo is the most distressing. The news from Berlin this morning is awful, but the scale of the tragedy in Aleppo is almost incomprehensible. Hospitals and civilians have been targeted in a way that can only have been intentional. The Geneva Convention is rarely observed in civil wars, but it is sobering to think that the European dictatorships of World War Two showed more respect for the rules of warfare than the modern Syrian and Russian governments.
An old friend of mine, Professor Mohammed Abou-Saleh, comes from Aleppo, which somehow makes the television images of violence more salient. Mohammed was one of the psychiatrists who set up the Royal College of Psychiatrists Syrian Refugees Taskforce. The College has a good record on human rights and disaster responses, but this does not offset the shame I feel over UK political attitudes to the war and to Syrian refugees.
My mother was eleven when Neville Chamberlain announced on the Home Service that Britain was at war with Germany. My grandmother kept her in London throughout the Blitz. She was an over-protected child with a disability. Living close to prime targets for bombing, such as Woolwich Arsenal, was perceived to be safer than evacuation to the countryside. In the light of what has subsequently emerged about the abuse and exploitation of some evacuees, the judgement may have been sound, although it was surely counter-intuitive at the time.
The amazing thing was that my mother regarded the Blitz as one of the happiest times in her life. She loved to go to the Anderson shelter to be told stories or play games with her parents and older sisters. Far from being terrified by the immediate risk of violent death, she experienced it as a time of warmth and security, surrounded by her family. She was aware of the external existential threat to civilisation but nonetheless 1940 was, she said, a lovely Christmas. There are many differences between Aleppo 2016 and South East London 1940. Like the Assad regime, the Nazis deployed terror as a weapon of war. They were not, however, attempting to annihilate the city.
Even in the UK, remote from relentless bombardment, we do face some really worrying prospects for 2017. The health service and the social care system that it depends on are in state of deep crisis owing to political decisions. Unable to reconcile conflicting demands arising from inadequate funding and concern over patient safety, health service managers are stressed. This sometimes leads them to behave badly towards the clinical and ancillary staff who are the heart of the NHS. These front-line workers are demoralised. Brexit offers little hope of any improvement in the economy and right-wing dreams of a better, more British, tomorrow sound like a dystopian nightmare to the multinational, multicultural, health service workforce. Just to top it off, the winner of the TV reality show called “America’s Most Inappropriate” has been given the prize of the Presidency for four years, and he wants to make friends with Putin and Assad. You could get quite despondent about it all.
I think the current state of the world makes Christmas especially resonant. Whilst I respect the particular meaning that Christmas has for Christians, I have no religion and I was not brought up in any faith. Like many other British non-Christians, for me Christmas is all about protected time with family, friends and communities. It is the one opportunity in the year to simultaneously come together across generations in a spirit of generosity, away from professional roles or job titles.
We especially need that sense of community when times are bad, and I think that is why Christmas felt special during the Blitz and why it feels special again at the end of 2016. It is not about leaders. It is about us, ourselves, together. If it really means something more important than excess consumption, ‘us together’ has to be inclusive of refugees and people living in a war zone where the modern technology of death is combined with a medieval war morality.