At the risk of sounding ungracious, I'd describe Christmas 2023 with my mother-in-law as 'challenging'. It's a long, long way from the Lot to Cumbria, but the journey wasn't the worst of it. Nor was it the 'outlaw' herself (as my pal Dan might call her), the brunt of all those jokes of past comedians. She can be utterly exasperating, but can also be – at times – quite sweet. No, the most indelible souvenir, longer lingering than driving down the A1 in the aftermath of Storm Whoever, was something I witnessed on Christmas Eve TV, stretched out on the floor of the outlaw's suffocating, overheated sitting room. It seemed to confirm that we are on Talking Heads' road to nowhere.
But that's getting ahead of myself. We had to get there first. A wet coming we had of it and an even wetter going. French motorways are a doddle; you could almost drive them in your sleep. But even less-travelled routes like the autoroute between Rouen and Calais can be hostile when you add darkness, rain and holiday traffic into the equation. This much I can tell you about Calais, where we stayed the night in a B&B that smelled suspiciously of powerful air-fresheners: its centre boasts a fine-looking belle époque theatre.
We arrived at our destination later than scheduled, just as a rainy night in old Westmoreland was falling. One forgets what a difference an hour makes. In Cumbria, you cannot forget the rain, which raineth seemingly every day. Once tucked up tight inside the outlaw's converted chapel, our first task was to inspect the contentious all-singing, all-dancing chair – like the one that Frasier's irascible dad sat in throughout the sitcom – that my well-meaning wife had bought from a friend whose father had just died. It hadn't worked since the contentious delayed delivery. Several assorted carers had checked it over, and the octogenarian proprietor of Appleby's electrical shop had been consulted. To no avail.
In among the sophisticated electrical doings underneath the seat, Debs and I found two cables that seemed to have come apart. After reunification, behold! Press a button on the accompanying handset and the contentious chair could perform its gymnastics: up, down; back and forth; recline, decline; foot-support going up, foot-support going down. Debs attempted to give her mother a lesson in self-manipulation. Not easy. Not only is the old dear quite deaf, but also so heavy-fingered that she has broken several phones in the last couple of years in her impatience to phone someone, anyone, when bored between visits from carers or neighbours.
Who knows what might happen if she were let loose with the zapper? What hazards might lurk? Mind you, after listening to all the crass remarks about being more comfortable in her old armchair (after all the litany of complaints about the Big Chair's non-arrival and then its non-functioning), the idea of her jabbing irritably at the zapper and catapulting herself across the room to crash into the opposite wall seemed something devoutly to be wished. Longevity had its place for Dr. King, but there's a big but in the equation...
Fortunately, dear understanding friends from our days in Sheffield had lent us their beautifully restored holiday cottage a safe 20-minute drive from the house of wounding complaints. So we were able to slip away at the end of each trying afternoon to find refuge in an oasis of sanity. Each morning we lingered longer and longer over breakfast.
We did allow ourselves half a day off to travel on the stunning Settle to Carlisle train line, across the famous Ribblehead viaduct and the windswept, rain-lashed Dales to Skipton for a visit to the Oxfam bookshop and a chance to do some shopping for stocking fillers. Skipton has been surveyed as one of the happiest places to live in England and, even in the rain, one could see why. It has a down-to-earth, attractive charm and its inhabitants seemed uniformly friendly. Its Oxfam bookshop is a treasury of fine reading matter.
Anyway... came Christmas Eve. I drove to Penrith to meet the London to Glasgow train and greet Tilley the Kid on a windswept, rain-lashed platform. After a spot of tea and Christmas cake, it was the outlaw's dearest wish to watch her beloved André Rieu's 'Winter Wonderland' on Sky Arts. Never let it be said that she misses one of his innumerable televised concerts. So we duly obliged. None of us had ever seen the inheritor of the easy-listening mantle passed down by the likes of Mantovani, James Last and Bert Kaempfert. As we watched aghast, with mouths agape, it became increasingly clear that the genial Dutchman has monetised that mantle TO THE MAX!
Superficially, at least, you can understand why my mother-in-law loves the cheery conductor. He's a man for one thing. Hers is a generation of often house-bound women who worshipped their men and forgave them their every transgression. Now that I've 'grown on' her, I myself can't do anything wrong – especially after cooking her a risotto last April with some of her frozen scallops that needed eating. I repeated the trick over Christmas and she loved it so much that she attributed everything lovingly cooked and served up by her daughter to me. The Man. At the further risk of sounding ungracious, I was both embarrassed and just a little outraged.
Yes, 'superficially': there's the rub. But it's not just the anodyne nature of the spectacle, there's a disturbing note of megalomania in the way that the genial raconteur keeps referring to his orchestra and his winter palace in Maastricht. Maybe that's why I kept imagining Vlad Put, Ben Muss and A-dolf H. in the vast audience, gaily clapping along with the gathered throng, beaming from ear to ear as the conductor and his proprietary orchestra served up the kind of pap that helps to mask all the ills of the world.
But we endured the entertainment and it certainly gave us something to talk about. We got through Christmas, too. The outlaw told us that it was her best Christmas EVER and it would be ungracious, churlish even, to hope that we never, ever have to do it again.
All was well at home. During our absence, it was mild and wet. I spoke with my brother, who spent his Christmas in Finland. He understands completely the unease that André Rieyeuch creates – unlike our two sisters, who went to see the maestro at the O2 or some such mega-venue in London. He, too, reckons that Adolf Hitler would have loved him.
On Boxing Day, he had sent a video on WhatsApp of the season's white-out. All around his new second home was an all-encompassing whiteness. Like the icing on a Christmas cake. Trees, lake, ground, in eerie suspension under a blue, cloudless sky. Apart from the creaking of his footsteps on the virgin snow, the silence was total. A true winter wonderland. Just before he and his partner left for Helsinki for the flight back to England, the temperature fell to -24oC or some such Polar level. The cold is finally on its way.