Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London, No 152 – go away for Christmas.
Setting your boyfriend’s head on fire isn’t easy, but, with the right equipment, it can be done. All you need is a wood-burning stove, some wood, a small amount of petrol, matches and, of course, your boyfriend’s head. And while you’re at it, why not burn the lining from his throat? That’s almost easier, requiring only a flagon of cider, a metal pan and a Baby Belling hotplate. These items, like wood-burning stoves and wood, will be easily available if you’ve decided to escape London for Christmas and have rented a cottage in the countryside.
Across London, hundreds of couples are heading for hamlets where you can see the stars at night, the locals in the charming village pub are friendly and there are bracing walks around the bay just outside the front door. ‘I’ll light the fire, darling,’ someone will say as they arrive at the converted lobster hut or renovated tin-miner’s shack they’ve taken for a fortnight. ‘I’ll start mulling the cider,’ will come the happy response as the room fills with green smoke. ‘We’ll soon be toasty. And darling…’ ‘Yes?’ ‘We’re going to have a lovely Christmas.’ ‘We are. Hang on, this wood’s damp. I’ll just splash a little petrol on it…’
Rural Britain can be enchanting, but this is a strange time to leave London. There are few more Christmassy places than the home of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family, and much of the world thinks of London as a city where it is December 25 for 365 days a year and the majority of male citizens wear stovepipe hats. More importantly, it’s full of people employed to light fires and mull cider, so there’s no need to set fire to your partner’s head or suffer third-degree facial burns doing these things yourself.
Of course, not everything about Christmas in London is good. There are garish decorations in the West End and ex-members of 1990s boybands switching on lights in the suburbs. If you stay at home there’s a good chance people you are only tenuously related to will arrive expecting to be offered a bed, monopolise the bathroom and be provided with a constant supply of hot meals and cold cuts as they work their way through your drinks collection while wearing paper hats. And, almost as bad, people who you are not even tenuously related to will expect you to visit their house. You seldom see these people – there’s a reason for that, you don’t like them – but each year they call. ‘Yes, it’s a Christmas fondue party again this year,’ they’ll declare as you foolishly answer your mobile without checking the number. ‘And yes, we’re still in Streatham.’
But even the most wearisome of Christmas traditions can be survived. There are buses out of Streatham, fondue can be fun and you can reduce the time that even the most unwelcome houseguests spend on your premises by taking them out to do interesting and original things, like visiting London Wetland Centre in Barnes. This makes you look like a kind and generous host and at the same time provides opportunities to slip away. You can lose six or seven unwanted houseguests in London Wetland Centre, leaving you free to go to the pub.
Which is where you might find the people who went away for Christmas, huddled miserably in a corner with bandaged heads and faces dabbed with antiseptic cream. Having returned three days early, they will not talk of twinkling stars, friendly locals and brisk walks around the bay. Instead, they recount the terrible storm, the horrible fight in the pub and the unexpected cliff face that turned a Boxing Day stroll into a 12-hour air-sea rescue operation. Don’t snigger or point: simply raise your mulled cider, say ‘Merry Christmas!’ and then sit by the fire that someone else has lit.
Also not recommended: four more things not to do at Christmas
GO FOR A WALK ON HAMPSTEAD HEATH
Millions of people will have the same idea and the heath will disappear under a seething crowd of maddened dogs and embittered grandparents.
CARVE THE TURKEY
You stand at the head of the table. All eyes are upon you. You have spent the entire morning drinking bucks fizz and brandy alexanders. There is a long knife in your hand…
LOSE YOUR WITS
Nearly all TV is going to be awful and most conversation drunken. To maintain sanity, read one page of a difficult and inappropriate book in the lavatory every day. ‘Crime and Punishment’ should do it.
FORGET WHOSE CHRISTMAS IT IS
What better excuse to make like the Saviour and replace your water intake with wine for 12 days? But throw in a few acts of kindness to those who need it as well…