I travelled to London recently from my home in Southampton and it made me so sad to see how empty and forlorn the streets were.
I was there to discuss my new book, The Christmas Killer, with various people, and to touch base with relatives who reside there.
I was shocked to discover how sombre the mood was and how the sparkle of optimism was so lacking.
I was born and raised in London and so I know just how big an impact the festive season usually has on the people who live, work and visit there.
To me it’s the most magical place to be in the run-up to Christmas. In fact, when I first discussed the storyline for The Christmas Killer with my publisher, I thought it should be set it in London, because the main protagonist spent twenty years there as a Met detective.
Thankfully they didn’t agree, and I think the setting of a snow-bound village in Cumbria works perfectly. But all the conversations I had with my editor invoked memories of the time when I was one of those people who looked forward to and relied on the Christmas business bounce in the capital.
This was long before I became a journalist and then an author. I spent three years as an unlicenced street trader – selling cheap jewellery and perfume ‘Del Boy’ style from a suitcase while trying to avoid getting collared by the police.
It was great fun, but for most of the year it was also a bit of a grind. However, at Christmas I found it to be sheer delight.
That’s because the streets of London were always bursting with Yuletide spirit from the start of November right through to the New Year. The lights, decorations and crowds conjured up such a joyful atmosphere that I was encouraged to work all day, every day.
My regular ‘pavement plots’ were in Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Petticoat Lane and Leicester Square. The crowds who gathered around me were invariably good-natured and more than happy to trust that I was providing them with a bargain.
Even the police who hounded me did it with a smile and a wink, especially on those days when I wore a Santa Claus hat and a fake beard.
For me there was really no place I would rather have been at Christmas than on those bustling streets of London. It was so enjoyable and stimulating, and there was never a dull moment.
The lights of Regents Street were a sight to behold, and so too were the window displays in stores such as Hamleys, Selfridges and Harrods.
I remember how I would try to find the time on most days to pop into Hatchards in Piccadilly or Foyles in Charing Cross Road to treat myself to a book or two. The stores were always packed to the rafters and I often hung around until they closed.
In those days my writing career was in its infancy, but I was forever making notes and developing stories that are still waiting to be developed and turned into more Christmas-themed novels.
The Covid pandemic has cast a cloud over Christmas across the country this year. I suspect that in London the celebrations will be muted, along with the lights and the colours.
But the virus can’t take away our memories of better times. And these will hopefully provide us with a measure of comfort and joy as we struggle through these dark days.
If I get to visit London again in the months ahead, I suspect I’ll find that it’s not as mad and merry as it used to be at Christmas. But I won’t let it get me down because I’m confident that Santa will soon be back with a bang.
And that future Christmases in our wonderful capital city will be just like the ones I used to know – and love!
Alex Pine's new novel, The Christmas Killer, publishes in all formats on 29 October.