I really dislike Christmas.
I don’t buy into the religious aspect of the festival, and I totally abhor the crass commercial hysteria that infects normal life from about August onwards. So although Christmas is supposed to be a time for families when everyone tries to get home (there is even a song called Driving Home for Christmas), those who think they know me and consider me to be a re-incarnated Victor Meldrew or a latter-day Grinch won’t be surprised to learn that my best-ever Christmas was spent as far away from my family as I could be and still be on the planet – New Zealand.
In October 2002 my wife Annabel and I fulfilled a lifetime ambition and flew off to Auckland via Los Angeles. For six weeks we toured both islands together before she flew home, leaving me to my self-appointed task of researching the country’s breweries and cider-makers for some articles for the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly newspaper. I was also sending back fortnightly reports of my activities to my local newspaper, so it wasn’t just a holiday.
By late December I was in the wonderful Scottish city of Dunedin in the South Island, where one walks down Princes Street, past the Edinburgh Rock Shop and out to Mornington, Calton Hill and Corstorphine. Here, among others, was Emerson’s Brewery, a small family company producing beer as good as anything made in the UK. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived they were closed until after Christmas, so I had no choice but to sit it out until they re-opened. It proved not to be a hardship.
Dunedin harbour is a 20-mile-long inlet, at the seawards end of which is Taiaroa Head, housing the Royal Albatross Centre and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Colony. Annabel and I had visited these two attractions earlier and I found that the latter contained Penguin Place Lodge, a self-catering establishment where visitors could stay. It was a long wooden building with a TV lounge, kitchen, laundry, showers, toilets and a number of single, twin and double rooms off a central corridor. Not the least of its attractions was the price – 15 New Zealand dollars (approximately £5) per night. A no-brainer, I felt.
A number of other people were also staying there, including a genial Methodist minister and his wife and children, but the lodge was not full. Before leaving Dunedin I had shopped for some succulent pork chops from the best butcher in the city, purchased a selection of vegetables (carefully excluding Brussels sprouts) and ensured that I had several bottles of Emerson’s excellent beer to keep me going. I also had a good supply of paperbacks from one of the city’s many second-hand bookshops.
On the morning of 25th December I fulfilled a long-standing ambition which residence in the Northern Hemisphere had hitherto precluded – I had a swim in the sea on Christmas Day. Below the Royal Albatross Centre was a small sandy cove called Pilots Beach, and it was here that I disported myself. I had a companion, a seal who spent the time rolling on his back and preening himself. Fortunately he was right at one end of the beach and there was plenty of room for both of us to sun ourselves. Apart from a couple of sightseers and some seabirds, we were on our own.
Mission accomplished, I returned to the lodge and cooked myself my preferred lunch. All the other inmates spent the day elsewhere, so I had the lounge to myself. There were no tacky decorations to offend the eye, although the Methodist minister (or his wife) had placed a very small artificial Christmas tree on the sideboard. However, I was quite easily able to avoid looking at it.
Instead I must confess that at one stage I watched some television; notably an episode of the old British series Jason King, starring the flamboyant and extravagantly-moustachioed Peter Wyngarde. TVNZ must have been really desperate. This very soon palled so I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, occasionally taking in the view of the Sound and the activity in it, and enjoying my stock of beer.
A walk in the evening sunshine and another satisfying meal rounded off a day that was almost perfect. Despite my earlier remark, the only thing that would have improved it was the presence of Annabel, who had phoned me on my mobile earlier that day. Still, perfection is never possible, neither at Christmas nor at any other time of the year.