The way we were: Terrible Christmases

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
November 14, 2012

Barbara Skelton poses for a modelling photo in the 1940s (photo: Getty Images)

Christmas Day, 1940. Harold Nicolson writes in his diary:

“The gloomiest Christmas Day that I have yet spent. I get up early and have little work to do [at the Ministry of Information]. Finish reading the memoranda on local organisations with which I have been supplied. Have talk with Hall about the reorganisation of our propaganda among minor nationalities in the USA. Lunched alone at Antoine’s and read a book of Pitt’s war speeches. Hear the King on the wireless. Pick Raymond [Mortimer, literary editor of the New Statesman] up at the Ritz Bar where I meet Puffin Asquith [film director] and Terence Rattigan [playwright].

“After that I have a nice dinner with Raymond at Prunier. I then go back to the Ministry, where there is a party downstairs followed by a film.

“Poor old London is beginning to look very drab. Paris is so young and gay that she could stand a little battering. But London is charwoman among capitals, and when her teeth begin to fall out she looks ill indeed.”

Evelyn Waugh recounts a frightful Christmas Day, 1946:

“Drove to midnight Mass at Nympsfield very slowly on frozen roads with Teresa, Bron and Vera [two of his children and the nurserymaid] in the back of the car. The little church was painfully crowded. We sat behind a dozen insubordinate little boys who coughed and stole and wrangled. The chairs were packed so close that it was impossible to kneel straight.

“Drove home very slowly and did not get to bed until 2.30am. Laura [his wife] has imprudently sent Saunders and Kitty for holidays so that she and Deakin are grossly overworked. I made a fair show of geniality throughout the day, though the spectacle of a litter of shoddy toys and half-eaten sweets sickened me. Everything is so badly made nowadays that none of the children’s presents seemed to work. Luncheon was cold and poorly cooked. A ghastly day. I spent what leisure I had in comparing the Diary of a Nobody with its serialised version in Punch.

“Laura gave me a pot of caviar which I ate a week ago. My mother gave me a copy of Diary of a Nobody. But for these I have had no presents though I have given many. I should like to think that from the 29th October [the day after his birthday] onward friends in all parts of the country were thinking ‘What can we give him for Christmas?’ and hunting shops and embroidering and continuing to find me unique and delectable presents. But it is not so.”

Christmas, 1953. Barbara Skelton, married to the critic Cyril Connolly, writes in her journal:

“Arrive at the [Ian] Flemings in good time for lunch. A large gathering of three generations... Since doing the Atticus column [the diary of The Sunday Times], Ian seems to have become a very dried-up and red-veined plain family man. Has lost any semblance of glamour or good looks, a bottlenecked figure with a large bum. Very bad manners—by that I mean a heap of something is plonked on one’s plate so that it trickles over the side. Atmosphere hearty. We are offered a Bloody Mary. We had been told about their wonderful new pair of cooks. A rancid stuffing with turkey, bottled chipolatas and another brown sauce with bits of turkey liver floating in it. The Christmas pudding was good, but the brandy butter was made with sham cream. Then, after tea, the present giving. The Awkward Age from Peter, a Henry James he gave me ten years ago, although I didn’t tell him so. From Ian some sexy black pants with black lace and a hideous beige galoshes bag...

“We left at six and broke down on the hill—out of petrol. We both got out of the car and walked off in separate directions, me taking a shortcut so that I reached the garage first. I cried all the way to Eric Wood. Felt everything was miserable.”

Steven Berkoff writes about Christmas 1982 in his autobiography:

“Christmas reached its nadir this year. I had travelled much of the world, playing Hamlet in Paris, directing Kafka in LA, winning awards for Greek, also in LA, making Octopussy in England. So then why not celebrate a great Christmas with all my champions and world-touring colleagues? Instead, I let the glumps get to me and went into the hypnotic state which had conditioned me for years: this is the gloomy season and verily ye shall be ultra miserable. This is the Christmas of your deprived youth, the time when you watched the world enjoy itself, but ye shall not since ye are an outcast.

“I took myself to my sister’s house in Bristol, a ghastly hole that looked as if the plague had decimated it; the one place to go was the Wimpy Bar, even on Boxing Day, when you needed to escape from the family for a few hours. Britain does invent perfect horrors that seem to suit it so well. I strolled aimlessly round the docks and returned to the house, where my relationship with my sister was becoming more and more strained and the evil telly continued to spew out its numbing waves.

“I was glad to have someone at least to visit, a table to sit at and someone to talk to, but during that holiday I was inspired to write Christmas out of my being for all time. I wrote Harry’s Christmas, which details the journey of a lonely man in the days leading up to Christmas… The play was never shown, which is a great shame as I believe it is a very powerful antidote to Christmas.”