Runton Hall is not the only stately home in Norfolk. There are others, and at this time of year many of them put ‘enchanted’ in front of their name, string lights all over the place and let reindeer loose in the grounds for the delight of local children. At Runton as December deepens, Joe and Becka dress their numerous offspring as Christmas puddings, whereupon the smaller ones are rolled around like marbles by their older siblings, no matter much they cry and/or throw up. Elsewhere, ‘Anton’ can often be heard shouting at a peacock to fuck off. This is Sebastopol the Peacock, Runton’s mascot, hated by all and fortunate to dodge the festive roasting tin. There are other reasons I feel that ‘Runton’ and ‘enchanted’ do not sit easily in the same sentence. Certainly, it looks nice if you like endless skies, meadows silver’d with frost, birch trees in the midday mist and all the other things that make the countryside so insufferable. At heart though, Runton is a workplace, and better for it. In any case, if a reindeer wandered around Runton, Graham would shoot it – that’s why Santa comes here last.
One of the years that the shooting of a reindeer would’ve caused me irreparable psychological damage is 1977, when I believe Douggie Muggeridge was head of scheduling at Radio 2. I was barely conscious of anything at the time, but his decision to broadcast the best selling singles of the year on Christmas morning still reverberates in my yuletide Spotify playlist, because whenever I hear Abba’s Name Of The Game, I smell cardboard. The cardboard was the box to something I was unwrapping, and amid the delirious excitement were Abba and their six part harmonies about bashful children and seeing someone twice in a short time, and a Christmas association was born. Played next that morning would have been Mull of Kintyre by Paul McBeatle, which replaced Name Of The Game at number one, and to which I credit my genuine love of bagpipe music. It was a significant ten minutes in a tiny life, and both tunes, yuletide playlist stalwarts, are as Christmassy to me as mistletoe and mittens.
They appear after a selection of Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. I am fond of these, even though they tend to show off – I’m not sure we need lengthy fanfares before Oh Come All Ye Faithful and Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and I don’t like how they muck about with Silent Night. Myself, I prefer Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht in the original Hun, having heard it one Christmas eve at Berlin cathedral, and it sits in the playlist after I Saw Three Ships, rendered as ‘I Saw Three Gits’ at Camden when announcing the approach of Stanton, Plastic Dave and the Goat Bag Man. Also featured is Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau* by the redoubtable Rhos male voice choir. This is to remember a Welsh yule during which, standing at a bus stop bathed in melodic, robust singing from a flint church opposite, I overheard two boys tell a third that they ‘had bought Nana a lighter for Christmas’ and a mother tell her small daughter that ‘you don’t want to sing in a choir, Bronwen – you want to work for Money Supermarket’, who at that time had a call centre in the area. I hope Bronwen does not forever associate Ding Ding Merrily On High, which the flint church choir were singing, with feelings of disappointment in the same way that I associate Name Of The Game with the smell of cardboard. Then again, it is one of the few carols I do not like – it is ridiculous – so perhaps it’s for the best.
My playlist has permeated the Old Servants’ Quarters, where ‘Anton’ and I are tidying up a couple of bits prior to departing for Christmas. Other than us, Runton is almost deserted. The film crew are long gone. The yoga groups are not back until January. Even the conspiracy theorists have gone home to tiresomely point out over and over again that Christmas is the Christian appropriation of a Pagan festival, overlooking the fact that before that it was the Pagan appropriation of a perfectly ordinary day of the week. Joe, Becka and their numerous children are housesitting elsewhere for the duration. Graham is still here, feeding some animals and killing others, but his children are with their mother, who he refers to as Stabby Onassis, in a caravan on Harlow Common. ‘Anton’ leaves for Deptford tomorrow, and while there are things I could be doing about the place over the festive season, I am simply too frightened to be here on my own, being a civilised person in the middle of nowhere. The whole point of civilisation is to eradicate the middle of nowhere, something that passes most country people by. Leaving aside intelligence and overall physical attractiveness, attitudes towards solitude are the major difference between urban dwellers, typically engaged in honest toil, producing the Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations that benefit us all, and their country counterparts, scratching about in fields and polishing cattle. I would find being at Runton alone terrifying because there is no one around for miles. A country person would find it comforting, for exactly the same reason. In turn, this reminds us that there is a serious side to Britain leaving the EU, all-too-easily lost amid the amusing spectacle of Guardian readers dying of rage and shrillness: after Brexit, we’ll have to subsidise our country folk ourselves, without seven hundred and fifty million other Europeans doing it for us. This, surely, is madness.
*Land Of My Fathers
Main: Runton donkeys having a lovely time.
Inset top: Christmas tree, Leadenhall Market, London EC1. Often, my last trading of the year would take place here, a frantic three hours of shifting as much stock as possible before walking up Bishopsgate and into the Duke of Wellington public house, Toynbee Street, London E1 for a ‘Christmas Feast’ courtesy of Vinny the Landlord. This would consist of a perfectly ordinary fried egg sandwich with a tiny sprig of plastic holly on top, served with a hearty ‘Ho ho ho – that’s three pounds fifty’.
Inset middle: Berlin cathedral. I don’t know who the people are.
Inset lower: The market place at North Walsham. My bikes are maintained in North Walsham by Dr Wheelgood, who has a small shop near this very picture.