Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A British Christmas with The Secret Shopper Unwrapped

The far wall had been wallpapered with a vintage print featuring boutique shop fronts. Another wall was lined with white-painted wooden shelving units, with primrose-coloured  lever arch files, ready to be filled with mystery shopping reports.

I want to throw off my shoes and clothes and jump into the shower and then change into leggings and a fleece and lie on the sofa with my baked beans on toast watching EastEnders followed by Nigella Lawson telling me how to stuff my Christmas goose.

I want to dress her in my fleecy pyjamas and fatten her up with tea and buttered toast. I spot Jean scoffing away on a hog-roast roll with apple sauce.

Freddie casts a contemptuous look at the much-loved penguin, lying abandoned in the corner of the room. I feel stung on poor Pingu's behalf.

Not what was in the shops but the wonderful promenade, with the pillars and the roofs to keep the rain off as you window-shopped, and the ironwork, intricate as a lace doily. Southport could only be a woman, fussy retired woman who smells of Yardley Lavender perfume, dignified but old before her time. The kind who will greet you after a long journey with tea made with loose leaves, and a home-made cake, served on matching crockery.

Try the sweet shop in the arcade.

The newspaper proclaims on the front, Feel-good Festive Special.

It's a million miles from the little girl who fell in love with Oxford Street and this very boulevard.

I look at the shoppers, wrapped up against the coastal breeze in Christmas reds and greens and purples, and I see the smiles on their faces as they are drawn towards the window displays, against all their sensible instincts. I see a small girl outside a toyshop, her eyes stretched wide at some unknown but utterly desirable doll or game, her mother pulling her away gently, but the girl's eyes stay fixed on the window for as long as possible before she disappears into the crowd.

Marylebone High Street at dusk is perhaps the closest thing I have ever seen to my romantic teenaged imaginings of England. Dickens could not have conjured up somewhere so picture perfect. There is enough ice in the air to make one feel wintry, but not enough to chill the bones. There are the stores, the prettiest of stores, selling the loveliest of inconsequential non-essentials. I covet everything: the lotions and potions in Space NK, the heavenly haberdashery and ribbons at V.V. Rouleaux, the huge glass jars of e-numbered delights in the window of the sweet shop, the hand-painted naif plates and teapots in Emma Bridgewater, the thousands of classic books in Daunt's, the jewel-coloured cashmere sweaters in Brora, the copper pans in Divertimenti....

There are the stalls, just for Christmas, with strings of fairy lights suspended from the canvas roofs. I stop by a stall selling biscuits and cakes, every single one snow white. Star-shaped meringues dusted with icing sugar. Cookies with big chunks of white chocolate melted into the dough. Marzipan hearts with a frosty sheen. I am seized by the desire to buy up half the stall. The hearts are perfect for Emily. The cookies will go down well with Nigel. Little Freddie will love the stars...oh, and perhaps those tiny snowmen, too. The woman wraps the pile in glorious shimmery cellophane, with cascades of ribbon.

I'm going to use cupcake cases as tealight holders - I tried it out and it looks gorgeous, the flames reflected in the gold and silver foil. I found a spare container of Johnson's powder so I can scatter it like snow across the living room. Then Will can tramp through it in his biggest boots, to 'prove' that Santa visited.

We pass through the ground floor, which is decked out as a Winter Wonderland, with lights that simulate soft falling snow, and assistants dressed as woodland animals offering free samples of reviving hot cider punch and butterscotch Florentines.

I have imagined fresh nuts and mince pies on the hour, plus soups and devils on horseback and smoked salmon and a fat, golden turkey with all the trimmings and rib-sticking Christmas pudding with pounds and pounds of freshly-made brandy butter....

I have to confess that I believe the Papists do the Christmas thing better than anyone else. The thrill of staying up past midnight was the big draw, and then gradually the magic of the ritual worked on me, until it seemed like the only way to begin Christmas.

I think of Christmas at Garnett's: the decorations and the music and the smells and....

Her delicate features are lost in a round face, like currants in fruit bread as the dough rises.

Enjoy the entire British Christmas experience. It's not just the lunch. There's the evening buffet, the midnight snack. Jill always invites the whole close to the Boxing Day Brunch. A sideboard groaning with cold turkey and defrosted supermarket desserts is the highlight of the social calendar.

I spoon the carrots into a built-in slot in a heated trolley. As they tumble in, the carrots coil around, coated in melted golden butter. The turkey meat is perfectly moist, and the stuffing curiously tasty. The chestnuts are crunchy, and the chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon taste deliciously savoury.

There is an adorable Victorian compendium of fairy tales, with full-colour plate illustrations. Not to mention and original photograph of our shop back in Edwardian times.

Mick and I are in the lounge, listening to a CD of Christmas hits sung by Bing Crosby. The display cabinet is full of Lladro porcelain figurines, the ones of grey-and-white-hued young girls holding kittens or reading books. I feel relaxed enough to let myself drift sleepwards....

Her storecupboard essentials would put Fortnum's Food Hall to shame. Decadence is in such a feast: dill-marinated salmon and chicken liver pate and caviar and tiny olives and even tinier capers and peppers stuffed with feta and mustard fruits and spiced truffles and cantucci biscuits and pomegranates split in half to reveal their crimson-jewelled seeds and white chocolate cookies and white meringues and.... Grazia returns with a tray heaped with a cooked turkey, a pack of pre-roasted chestnuts, a huge pack of cranberry and pistachio toffee, home-baked mince pies, cheeses, iced and unevenly cut star biscuits, pigs-in-blankets, and a big bottle of sunshine-yellow egg nog. We retire to the lounge and sink into the squishy sofas next to her roaring open fire. She has immaculate tastes and an unlimited budget.

We must recapture the Christmas spirit with stories. Think of memories to share of the best Christmas you have celebrated. A memory comes, that triggers another, and then another. Smells, tastes, sounds.

I get to the roundabout, where the Bush ends and Holland Park begins. I've walked the length of the Holland Road, and now I am in Kensington. I've been past the big houses where they leave the curtains open so you can admire their gigantic trees. Then I cross the Cromwell Road. Now I'm in Earl's Court, the bit where the Kiwis and the Aussies go if they don't like Shepherd's Bush.

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