Not Iraq

Like Norm, I’m long of the belief that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who like Abba’s music, and those who pretend they don’t. Knowing I’d be stuck for a Christmas present for my wife this year – what do you give the woman who has everything? – I booked up for Mamma Mia at the recently-ish renovated Prince Of Wales Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. I used to work opposite the PoW and before the refit it was, to be generous, a dump. Not so now, with the most comfortable seats in theatre-land and even sufficient ladies restrooms to accommodate all those needing to powder noses in the 15-minute interval. Any woman who has been to a show in the West End – or anywhere else for that matter – will appreciate how rare this is.

“It’s not Hamlet”, as the critics are found of saying, but ‘Mamma Mia’ is hugely entertaining. As I left the theatre, I overheard one guy saying to his partner: “You’d have to be a right grumpy bastard not to enjoy that.” It’s true, although, ironically, the highlight of the show is its most melancholy scene, which sees the mother preparing for her daughter’s wedding whilst singing “Slipping Through My Fingers”, written by Bjorn Ulvaeus nearly 30 years ago as he contemplated the inevitable future ‘loss’ of what was then his own 7-year old daughter. As I looked around me, I was only half-surprised to see it was mainly men who were wiping away tears. I, on the other hand, had something in my eye.

I continued to push the cultural envelope as I visited the British Museum for what I think was the first time. I’d done the Science Museum, V&A and the Natural History Museum – mostly on school trips, it has to be said – but the daddy of them all had thus far evaded me. Given we were staying in a charming, Bloomsbury boutique hotel just around the corner from the museum, there could be no excuse this time.

There’s probably no-one reading this in the UK who hasn’t already seen it, but just in case, if you haven’t yet visited the Reading Room in the Great Court at the British Museum, make a new year resolution to do just that. Believe the hype. I stood at the entrance and listened to each new visitor gasp aloud as the draw-dropping magnificence of the scene hit home. Even my wife, whose main complaint about museums is that she doesn’t like to “spend too long looking at things that don’t move”, was impressed.

I mentioned the hotel. I’m lucky enough with my job to get to stay in some rather splendid, sprawling hotels (that I don’t pay for……..this is key), but when it comes to pleasure instead of business, I think less is more. Boutique is currently very chic and in London, at least, there are some truly fantastic bargains to be had without having to compromise on service, quality or cuisine. Unfortunately for you, I’m not going to tell you where they are, as the secret to accessing such opulence on a budget is that these boutique hotels remain just that…..a secret.

I will make one exception, and only because the establishment in question isn’t really a secret anymore and, consequently, is no longer a bargain (unless you are prepared to chance your arm with a last minute booking).

About 5 years ago, I was working for the fledgling UK division of an American company and, as is the way when organizations are this organic, I benefited from that most valuable of corporate travel policies: the authority to make my own business travel arrangements. (When I think back, it’s simply staggering the number of times economy was full and all the 3-star hotels were completely booked.) Anyhow, I had to attend a mind-numbingly tedious seminar in West London the week before Xmas, so I scoured the internet and found what looked to be, in its early online incarnation, a comfortable, but no more than that, boutique hotel a 2-minute walk from Harrods. I had to spend the Monday at the seminar giving a PowerPoint presentation to an audience whose feigned enthusiasm for the industry in which we worked was even less-convincing than my own, so it would be a late check-in.

That evening, as I left the soul-less, 6 million room establishment hosting the seminar, I felt the flakes of a gentle snow caress my face……..I mean, I felt the icy finger of winter scratch my cheeks. At this time in the evening and in weather like that, I stood more chance of riding Shergar to my hotel than I did of getting a black cab, so I resigned myself to the walk.

I eventually came to Harrods, although I’d seen it about 10 minutes before I reached Knightsbridge (at Christmas, Harrods emits more light than Cassiopeia), and not for the first time caught my breath at the wondrous window displays. That year’s theme was fairy tales (that’s proper fairy tales, as in ‘Grimm’ and not ‘Andersen’), so there was a scene from Snow White in one window, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in others. Prince Charming wore a Canali suit and Cinderella’s slipper came courtesy of Prada. (As with the museum reading room before, if you’ve yet to go to Harrods at Christmas time, give yourself a present next year and go. It’s spectacular and is one trip to the shops that you can enjoy without actually buying anything….although if you can manage a visit the Christmas floor and not buy so much as a bauble, your soul is probably dead.)

A couple of minutes past Harrods and I turned left into Beaufort Gardens, a tree-lined cul-de-sac of terraced Regency townhouses…the kind of buildings that, if they were still houses and not mostly apartments and hotels, can only be bought with inherited, and not earned, wealth. Think Mr Brownlow’s house in Carol Reed’s “Oliver!”, but swap the flower-sellers outside for Ferraris. (I’m sure many would describe such a scene as “quintessentially English”, but given 99% of the population will likely never walk down such a street, let alone live in one, I’m not sure that’s the appropriate phrase.)

I found my hotel and pushed at the 9-foot high, solid, black door. A minute later, I was sipping Rémy from the courtesy bar as I checked-in in what was once someone’s front room. I clocked some of my fellow residents and tried my best to pretend I didn’t feel out of my depth. “I wonder how many of them are overdrawn?” I asked myself. As I entered my ground-floor room, I could hear “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” coming from the CD player next to my bed. I kicked off my shoes, lay down and recounted the previous 20 minutes: Kensington and Knightsbridge dusted with snow; the tangible excitement of the Christmas throng outside Harrods; the majestic Beaufort on a SW3 street that drips money but secretes undefinable, un-buyable, class; angels dining at the Ritz and a nightingale singing in Berkely square. For the first time in my life, I loved London. I mean, really loved it. And best of all, it wasn’t costing me a penny.

I think the two may be related.

On Christmas morning, I sat at the top of our stairs with Ellie, my 5-year old, as my wife collected Sasha (2) from her room. “What if Santa hasn’t been?” I teased. “It won’t matter. We’ve got millions of stuff already”, replied Ellie, totally unaware that I was joking. Little did she know, but what she was about to see would suggest half a dozen Santas had been. Some people would look at what she got this Christmas and, I’m certain, consider her spoilt. But they don’t know Ellie and they didn’t hear what she said at the top of our stairs.

They also didn’t hear what she said when we played “I-Spy” later in the day. “Something begining with ‘C’” had been running about 10 minutes and I was drawing a blank. I finally threw in the towel. “What is it, then?” I asked. “Catholics”, she said proudly. “Not fair”, I thought to myself. I’m lapsed.

As much as I adore Christmas, I can’t abide all the nonsense associated with New Year. The fact is, since I’ve been old enough to get served in pubs, I’ve spent twice as many New Year’s Eves at home as I have in a bar, club or at party. I don’t see that changing any time soon, unless I get an invite to Jools Holland’s Hootenanny.

I don’t make resolutions, but I’m going to try to write more in 2007. I once saw an interview with Woody Allen where he was asked to give one bit of advice to aspiring screenwriters struggling with their art. “Finish it”, he said. He explained that most writers never bother finishing their work. And “finishing” in this case means drafting, redrafting and, at the very least, a third draft. If what you submit is truly “finished”, he argued, this puts you in a select band of 1% or 2% of all those claiming to be writers. The best screenplays may never have made it to celluloid, and some of the worst clearly have. The difference between them is that the latter are always “finished”. Don’t expect the studio to do your job for you, is I guess what he was saying.

So if I’m going to resolve myself to doing one thing this year, it will be to finish a piece of writing, even if I hate it before the first plot-point. And I always hate it.

“Don’t mention the war”, I hear some of you saying. That was Fawlty Towers, wasn’t it? The wall-to-wall comedy re-runs over Chrsitmas reaffirmed my belief that the only 1970s (and even 80s) sit-com still worth watching is “Porridge”. If it weren’t for the occasional reference to Leyton Orient playing in division 1, you could easily be persuaded that Clement and La Frenais had written the script last week.

“I won’t let you catch me, Mr Mackay”.

In its own way, as classy as the Beaufort.

That’s me done. I promise/threaten to write more in the coming year and some of it might even be about stuff that you find interesting and not limited to self-indulgent twaddle.

Then again……..