Unsolicited Justin Bieber

You know how it is. Every Christmas, the same old decision: do you go for one with a chunky wooden base that can just be stood in a corner of the sitting room, or do you go for one without a chunky wooden base that needs to be wedged in a wastepaper bin filled with earth dug up from the garden or a local park? Or do you – just for once, just for a change – think, what the hell, and go for one that needs to be supported by an obscuring framework of waist-high steel crash barriers?

It’s like a metal polo-neck jumper on a triangular-headed green robot spy in some Sixties TV sci-fi oh, this is not a good simile.

But you know what I mean. Poking up over the top of the barriers like that, it just looks a bit neckless, and sad. It wasn’t helped by the fact that there was no sky today.

I hate it when the sky disappears.

Obviously some years you end up with a shorter one than you intended, just because the big ones are sold out (2009), or too expensive (2008), or you can’t get them on the bus back from Clapham (2007), but – surely, when that happens, you just stand what you’ve got on an improvised coffee table plinth or upturned bucket covered in crepe paper, don’t you?

Just to leave room for the presents, if nothing else.

Do Greenwich Council really not have any spare plinths?

I always imagined they had loads… and took turns standing on them after every meeting…

Also, those lights; everyone knows that Christmas tree lights wind round and round like a helter-skelter, they don’t just drop straight down from the top like maypole ribbons. Where’s the artistry in that?

Oh well. It’s done now, and that must mean Christmas is definitely on the way. I see there’s already a “pop up gift store” next to the Greenwich Clipper, selling things that are, by definition, useless, otherwise shops would exist to sell them in the other eleven months of the year. While I was staring in through the window, trying to see what was on offer – origami toast racks, hats made of cheese, prettily decorated boxes to keep other boxes in – I spotted, for the first time, the small print at the bottom of the Clipper’s STAND-BY HAIRCUTS AVAILABLE NOW £20 sign; it pointed out that such haircuts are performed UPON REQUEST ONLY.

Damn it. For weeks now I’ve been crossing over at the lights, just in case someone leapt out of the Greenwich Clipper with a pair of scissors and tried to give me an unsolicited Justin Bieber.

I’ve no idea whether the sudden appearance of a board outside Green Village advertising “all-day breakfasts” is also a festive gesture: I suspect not. And it wasn’t there today, so maybe they’ve thought better of it. Shame, as I was really quite tempted by that offer of bacon, eggs, beans and two slices of toast served with a choice of existential despair or overwhelming hopelessness.

I do enjoy my afternoon strolls.

The Unbelievable Niceness of Penge

Ampere Way

I’d intended posting something warm-hearted and sentimental here just before Christmas – a festive gesture, to wish you all merriment and good cheer. But that was before the damn fairy light business threatened to quite literally take a shine off the whole tinselly caboodle.

Oh lord. I’ve not told you about the fairy lights, have I?

OK. Come December, most people – even those who are mostly disposed to be crabby and curmudgeonly – find bubbling up within them a fancy for fairy lights that’s lain dormant throughout the preceding eleven months. And if I ran a shop that sold fairy lights, which I don’t, I’d take this into account, and make sure I was fully stocked with illuminating baubles till 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve; surely we can’t be the only people, after all, who – on going up to the loft to retrieve the old set – suddenly remembered that they moved house last January and that the loft they were thinking of is, unlike them, still in Vauxhall.

But B&Q clearly thinks that any fairy lights left unsold on 24th December will go off, like a rashly defrosted turkey, and couldn’t possibly be put into storage till next year, when there’ll almost certainly be another Christmas. Thus, their vast warehouse out on the Peninsula had been thoroughly scavenged by light-seeking hordes a good fortnight before the last window in our advent calendar was slated to open, and up on the Old Kent Road there was nary a glimmer, not even a glimmer that pulsed in seven different modes including “random”. Argos in Lewisham would’ve sold us a set mounted on a frame in the shape of a nodding reindeer, but if we’d wanted that sort of thing in our house then frankly we would’ve moved to Lewisham. Kidbrooke Homebase had long sold out, and Wickes appeared to be taking a deeply rationalist approach to Christmas that even Richard Dawkins would have found worthy of almost biblical awe: in Wickes there were no fairy lights, and never had been.

Finally, a desperate on-line search of South-East London uncovered a set in Homebase in Penge. None of the other five nearest branches had them, but Penge had one box. So we clicked “Reserve and Collect”, and I saddled up my bike.

At this point, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a soft-spoken man from Penge Homebase, apologising profusely in what I think was a Dundee accent. Apparently, it was all a lie: the on-line database hadn’t updated overnight, and the promised box, just like Father Christmas or the London New Year’s Day Parade*, did not, in fact, exist. While I was still coming to terms with the full and dreadful import of this – we had a deadly rival, a stop-at-nothing fiend who was, even now, scouring South-East London for tree ornaments, having already uncovered Penge as an unexpected source of light – the Affable Young Pict (as I now incorrectly, ahistorically, and somewhat offensively thought of him) offered to ring around other Homebase branches south of the Thames, and get back to me.

By this stage I was badly in need of a cup of coffee and a sit down, so I said that would be brilliant, apologised profusely for Culloden, and let him get to work. Half an hour later, he rang back to say that a set had been detected in Croydon. Even more impressively, he’d apparently refused to get off the line till someone in Croydon had walked to the shelves, physically ascertained that the lights were actually there, and then removed them – again physically – to a place of safe keeping.

The lights were ours, he said, for a price. Specifically, £12.99, as they had a 50% deal on all Christmas items.

I could’ve wept. In fact, I think I did.

Knowing that our Arch Nemesis was engaged on a similar quest, we obviously didn’t want to take chances; so, as soon as I’d finished telling the AYP that I’d always had a fondness for Irn Bru, a soft spot for Brechin City, and an almost painful lust for Alex Salmond, we dashed round assembling hats, gloves and Thermos flasks, ready for a trip cross-country to Croydon.

And, while you’re waiting for us to get ready, perhaps you’d like to dwell on the fact that these events are taking place on the Sunday a week before Christmas. Not Christmas Eve, but a whole week before. And, although I’m not a betting man, I’d happily have an each-way accumulator spread (look, I told you I wasn’t a betting man…) on the demand for fairy lights tending to peak in December, and tending to drop off pretty much to zero in those months that don’t start with the letters D-E-C-E-M-B-E. Christmas, to put it bluntly, is somewhat seasonal. So why do the managers of DIY shops all, to a man or woman, insist on behaving like a Grinch with no business acumen?

It’s madness.

BaubleI’d never been to Croydon Homebase, so wasn’t entirely sure where it was, but past experience told me to head to Purley Way. Matalan, Screwfix, Sports Direct – they’re all out there, in vast great windowless sheds beside the A23. Purley Way, not to beat around the bush, is where IKEA is; and IKEA don’t do town centres.

For those of us without cars, trips to IKEA are always a bit of an adventure. When we were living in Vauxhall, we tried them all: Neasden (aka Wembley), Edmonton (aka Tottenham), Croydon (aka… Croydon). Neasden was on the Jubilee Line, but getting back to the station meant walking through the basement of a multi-storey car park, across a field, answering three riddles posed by a troll that lived under the North Circular, and fording the River Brent – not easy, if you also need to keep a flat-pack Billy, Ebba or Nyberg above your head. Edmonton was actually just a single bus ride away, once you’d walked fifteen minutes to the bus stop and realised that the mystical Angel Road Superstores at which the 341 poetically claimed to terminate was just IKEA and Wickes, but the journey took forever and meant lugging your Grönkvist, Svartman or Tord Grip upstairs on a double-decker.

Croydon, though, in the days before the Tramlink, was the worst of the lot: I remember once struggling down Purley Way in the rain with a pine-effect bookcase, our sights set on distant Waddon station, when salvation suddenly appeared in the wheeled shape of an abandoned Sainsbury’s trolley wedged in the roadside mud like, well, like an abandoned Sainsbury’s trolley. But once the Tramlink was open, with the platforms at Ampere Way nestling at the foot of those blue-and-yellow-ringed chimneys, Croydon became the IKEA of choice, and remains so, even though we’re now in Greenwich.

You still have to actually get there, of course. And here I’m going to let you into a little secret. A route from central Greenwich to Croydon IKEA that doesn’t involve going into Zone 1 or (on the return leg) clambering up and down footbridges and subways. Do you have piece of paper? Good, then write this down. DLR to Lewisham. Train from Lewisham to Elmers End. Tram from Elmers End to George Street. Tram from George Street to Ampere Way. Cunning, huh? The only catch is that (a) trains on the Hayes branch only run via Lewisham every 30 minutes and (b) trains on the Hayes branch only run via Lewisham every 60 minutes if SouthEastern decides to cancel one for no apparent reason and despite the fact it’s raining.

So, while you’re waiting for us to take a train from Lewisham to London Bridge, just to catch one back from London Bridge in the opposite direction (only this time by-passing Lewisham), why not entertain yourself by trying to work out which of the items I listed earlier are actual pieces of IKEA furniture, which are characters from Wallander, and which was formerly assistant to England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson?

But anyway. We got to Homebase in the end, got our lights, refused to pay extra to insure them for three years despite the fact that, as the assistant told us, you can’t replace the bulbs these days, because they’re LED, and then decided to celebrate by nipping across the road to IKEA itself and buying a 2×2 Träby for behind the sofa and having Sunday lunch in the restaurant – something of a regular family treat in these parts, we discovered, as we wheeled our trays of gravadlax and Christmas Pudding cheesecake between toddler-strewn tables heaving with meatballs, cream sauce, and lingonberry jam.


* come on, have you ever seen it???

The Scent of Pine in SE10

One of the drawbacks of living in Vauxhall (like we used to) and not having a car (like we don’t do) and falling out of favour with all my former buddies in the lumberjacking trade (like they didn’t know it was me in that giant squirrel costume – no sense of humour, some people…) was that, come mid-December, it was always really difficult getting hold of a Christmas tree. That particular part of Lambeth isn’t renowned for its deep-shadowed coniferous plantations, there aren’t any garden centres, and Nine Elms Sainsbury’s generally just has a handful of manky specimens out by the trolley park that no self-respecting fairy would sit on in a million years for fear of puncturing her reputation. One time we ended up wheeling a six-foot Norway Spruce back from Lower Marsh market in, oddly, a borrowed wheelbarrow, and once we bought a tree in a mobile phone shop in Clapham and then took it home on a 133 bus, but most years it was a case of paying over the odds and through the nose at Borough Market, and then struggling back on foot through the wet and wintry streets of Southwark – one of us at the front of the trunk, one at the rear – looking, I always suspected, like we’d set out to batter in the flimsy front gate of a castle built by hippy goblins, but lost our way.

Why am I telling you this? Well, partly because I think that every aspect of my life is deeply fascinating to complete strangers – other than the past three weeks, which have been of no interest to anyone at all, so please stop asking – but mostly because, on Saturday morning, on my way to buy the paper, I was greeted by a wonderful sight: a Christmas tree stall at the end of my very own road! I know! How good is that? The sort of dream that stuff is made of, as Shakespeare was wont to say when he wasn’t really concentrating.

So that’s good news, isn’t it? I knew you’d be pleased for me.

Christmas trees for sale in Greenwich

If anyone’s interested, the trees will be there Thursday to Sunday right up till Christmas – this is on that triangular bit of pavement above the railway bridge opposite the Mitre. There you go – I’m a public service. Use me or lose me.

I’d still like to know, incidentally, who decreed that the aforementioned triangular bit of pavement opposite the Mitre should be adorned with one solitary bicycle stand. Obviously it doesn’t bother me personally, as I don’t tend to cycle to the end of my own road, but – there’s room for more, so why did someone – Acting Head of Bicycles at Greenwich Council, or somesuch – decide that one stand would be useful, but any more than one would just risk opening the floodgates?

And is it possible to book it online?