Petronella Wyatt

A surfeit of fish

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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People ask me why I spend Christmas in South Africa. Why don’t I remain in England and have a proper British Christmas? Or, why don’t I go to Hungary, where I used to go, for the snow and the River Danube, which, when partly iced over, resembles shattered crystals?

I’m not sure myself. In England, Christmas seems to last too long (no one in the rest of the world, for example, seems to understand the idea of Boxing Day). And, much as I love Hungary, there is simply a surfeit of fish. Not on the streets, that is, but on the dining table. Hungarian Catholics, who include the maternal side of my family, eat nothing but fish for their Christmas meal. Because the country once had an admiral as regent (Horthy), there are a few imbeciles who assume Hungary has a sea. Not true. Horthy had been made an admiral when the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed. Hungary itself is landlocked. There is, admittedly, Lake Balaton, but the fish that comes out of that, a creature called fogas, tastes like mud mixed with piss.

In any case, contrary to received wisdom, South Africa is a very convenient place to spend Christmas — at least for me. This is primarily because my brother lives in Johannesburg; secondarily because he does all the cooking. Property remains so cheap that he succeeded in building himself a small palace. Much of the ground floor is taken up by a state-of-the-art kitchen that could house three families. You know, one of those things with huge granite counters, blenders the size of Ming vases, and seven sinks.

I never met a man who liked to cook as much as my brother. This may be because food in South Africa is about a tenth of the price of what it is in Europe. Some women are addicted to clothes shopping. He is addicted to supermarkets. No morning is complete without a trip to the nearest mall to fill at least five carts full of edibles. Being a chap who dislikes waste, he then determines that everything should be eaten. Anyone who spends some length of time with him shoots up a dress size in two days.

Not that this bothers me as it is perfectly angelic of him to cook Christmas dinner. The only thing I am required to do is produce the occasional soufflé for guests. This is another thing I like about South Africa. Christmas parties in London require going out in the cold every night and then sweltering in a hot room, with nowhere to sit, and with some clumsy chap likely to brush past you and cause your very expensive Wolford stocking to ladder.

Christmas parties in South Africa are all held outside. Instead of a view of the wall, there is the unsurpassable African landscape and night sky. If you feel like taking the weight off your legs, you can sit on the grass. Nobody would ever be able to tell if you were drunk or not. The only disadvantage to this is that it can be very hard on your evening shoes. The heels sink straight into the earth. I have spent morning after morning trying to brush off reddish soil.

But, hey, what is this to the credit side? No one even notices if you get bored and disappear. They merely assume you’ve been mugged or abducted. This is an excuse which can be used with particular frequency in Jo’burg. Morning call to hostess of night before: ‘So sorry I left early. Two youths pulled me over the garden wall.’ This is the only occasion on which you are likely to receive flowers from the party-giver as opposed to vice versa.

Besides, if one gets bored of such jollities, one can always take off to see some lions, as opposed to lion hunters. Or there is the Blue Train. The Blue Train has little to do with pornography. Rather, it takes the passenger through some of the most beautiful African country. The train itself is only a slightly less glamorous version of the Orient Express — it certainly beats Virgin down to Cornwall. Moreover, the gentle quiet is astonishing, punctuated only by romantic associations. Think of the song, ‘These Foolish Things’ — ‘The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations.’ Wonderful.