View from the Bridge: 34

by John Morrison


34: Christmas Tears

Is sarcasm really the lowest form of wit? Surely not while Bernard Manning lives and breathes. But it's all too easy to scoff, isn't it? So let's see if we can find those rose-tinted spectacles - the ones we last wore when England were playing in the 1994 World Cup - and take a less jaundiced view of Milltown.

For those who don't know Milltown, just imagine paranoia in reverse: strangers smiling as they pass you on the street. Residents can either offer grateful thanks that they live in such a close-knit community... or complain that everybody knows their business. One thing's for sure: it's hard to keep a secret in Milltown.

We do have a few smug bastards in Milltown - and the Smallholders would feel slighted to be excluded from their number - but they are still rare enough to be worthy of mention. As for the rest... well, we've already decided which is more important, 'quality of life' or 'standard of living'. In any case, our strict code of business ethics successfully excludes us from all the most lucrative areas of work.

Since almost everyone seems to live in an unpretentious terraced house, and drive a tatty ex-BT van, we are unlikely to be impressed by worthless status symbols. Such as money. We understand that a life filled with wealth would be a life of sham and shallowness. But just occasionally we yearn to discover, at first hand, exactly how shallow and meaningless such a life might be, so that we can renounce it the more effectively.

The rows of terraced houses, giving straight onto the streets, look much as they did a century ago, when the mill-chimneys were more than just characterful landmarks. There isn't room to add on a conservatory, or a porch, or anything bigger than a satellite dish. We have to be a bit more imaginative if we want to make the neighbours purse their lips in envious disapproval. These are simple houses, eminently suitable for those whose lives are more concerned with 'being' than 'having'.

Taking its inspiration from the terraces of vines hugging the contour lines in a baked Tuscan landscape, Milltown has come to terms with its unusual topography. Imagine a washing-up bowl, with flat base and steep sides. Into the narrow confines of the valley bottom are shoe-horned the road, railway, river and canal. They cross and re-cross one another repeatedly, like the braided flex of an old-fashioned telephone.

So tightly are the houses crammed together that gardening tends to be confined to window boxes. They have character, these houses: a patina that can't be faked. Space was at such a premium at the height of the industrial revolution that houses were built on top of one another. 'Top & bottom' houses: what an ingenious response to a unique problem.

The rows of houses are stacked up the hillside like seats in a stadium, ensuring that most people have unhindered views over the rooftops of Milltown. As night falls, the bulbs on the Christmas tree in the square seem to twinkle ever more brightly. Through eyes moistened by tears the lights are surrounded by shadowy penumba that dissolve with every blink.

Christmas is the time of year when we feel our own shortcomings most acutely. When the gap seems to widen, unbridgeably, between what we wanted to be and what we seem to have become. When we are forced to confront the goodness that's in the world and the badness that's in us.

It doesn't matter why the tears began. It could be the unexpected power of such cathartic emotions. It could be something as mundane as peeling onions. But for anyone standing, moist-eyed, by the window of a little terraced house in Milltown, those Christmas lights act as a powerful antidote against cynicism and world-weariness. Near the Christmas tree is a traditional nativity scene, assembled by local school-children: a heartwarming tableau of familiar figures that tell the Christmas story. The Virgin Mary watches tenderly over baby Jesus in his wooden crib. Joseph is protective, paternal, yet a bit dumbfounded by events he doesn't yet understand. Princess Diana, the first new recruit to this little entourage for almost two thousand years, peers doe-eyed over her surgeon's mask.

You could almost imagine that the trio of new-age travellers squatting nearby were the three kings - especially if they were carrying gold, frankinsense and myrrh instead of cans of Special Brew. You know, once you put those rose-tinted glasses down, it can be the devil of a job to find them again.

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