Today’s Christmas EP song started in two very different places: the title came from an in-joke, and the lyrics came from remembering a conversation in a Partick nail bar.
Christmas in Calton was originally the name of a playlist I made to amuse a Glasgow pal. The title was a riff on Christmas In Hollis, the (brilliant!) Run DMC track from the late eighties, with New York’s Hollis replaced with Glasgow’s Calton. The playlist was a collection of the least Christmassy Christmas songs imaginable. But it was a trap! It also contained U2’s cover of Baby Please Come Home, Cocteau Twins’ shimmering Frosty The Snowman and of course, Mariah. Because I love joyful Christmas songs.
When I wrote Didn’t Kiss You This Christmas, which I wrote about yesterday, I decided I also wanted to write something smaller and more intimate but still with a Christmas theme. I’d had a mental image for a while of a youngish woman of colour sitting in a draughty East End church, praying.
The song stayed frustratingly out of focus, something almost but not quite visible in the corner of my mind’s eye, and it stayed there until I remembered a conversation I’d had months previously with a really lovely woman in a Partick beauty salon. She was from the Middle East and had had a high-powered job there; I don’t remember what it was – a lawyer, maybe? – but she was not able to work in the same career here. Hence doing nails in a Partick nail bar. Her husband was similarly high-powered, some kind of doctor, and he was still over there. She missed him terribly and prayed he’d come to join her soon. She was very worried about his safety.
I had the first line of my song.
I miss my beautiful boy
There’s a thing I really love about songwriting when something frustratingly fuzzy comes rushing into sharp focus. That’s what happened here. The words came out in a rush because the picture in my head was so clear: a tired woman giving money she can’t really spare in the church where she prays for her “beautiful boy” to be with her.
I miss my beautiful boy
the smell of your skin and the smile in your voice
every Sunday I pray
I give as much as I can when they pass the plate
I can see them both, the woman and the man she’s missing: he’s a big guy with the kind of smile that lights up the world, a man who’s quick to laugh and whose hugs feel like bear hugs.
Oh how you’d laugh at the cold and you’d hold me and you’d never let go
I’ll happily admit that I cried the first couple of times I tried to sing that line. I really like these people.
Enter the second character in the song: Calton.
This is a hard place but a kind place
Calton is the bit of Glasgow where the Barras market and Barrowland venue are. Like lots of bits of Glasgow it has a long, proud history but has also suffered from severe deprivation. In the mid-2000s, The Guardian reported that the average life expectancy in Calton was just under 54. The Scottish average at the time was 78.
That figure is thankfully out of date and was an estimate to begin with, but the life expectancy for Calton and neighbouring Bridgeton (the stats lump the two areas together) does trail the national average. That’s partly because Calton was home to various hostels for people with drug, alcohol and/or mental health problems and partly because it’s a relatively poor area.
One of the big, positive changes in Calton is its demographic. It’s much younger than it used to be, it has more people there, and it’s more culturally diverse. Between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of residents from minority ethnic groups increased from 3% to 12%.
Chances are, the woman in my song was one of them.
So here’s what I’ve got. I can imagine the woman in the church, the flat she lives in, the organisations that helped her get started when she first arrived, the people she encounters during her days, the many kindnesses she experiences because despite its mean city reputation, Glasgow is a kind place.
All I need now is a punchy chorus with simple rhymes and without too many words in it, the sort of thing a football crowd might chant in a stadium.
The kindness of strangers is not enough to warm another Christmas without you, my love
Okay, so it’s not exactly short. But when you hear it, it works (it’s something another of my favourite bands, Manic Street Preachers, do: on paper you think “they can’t possibly sing that for a chorus”, but they do, and it works, mostly). And because the song wasn’t melancholic enough, it adds a crucial bit of information: this isn’t her first Christmas without him. Depending on the time of day, I have different explanations for that.
I see you in the shapes when the lights go on
I wish you were here, my dear
Spending Christmas in Calton
The lights are Christmas lights, of course.
So that’s the second of our three Christmas songs. Next up: thinking about death!