Monday, 28 December 2009

Magi! Magi! Magi! Out! Out! Out!



If the tradition of present giving at Christmas originates in the visit of the three kings, or magi, to the infant Jesus, then Pieter Brueghel, the great unmasker of vanities, has some pretty sharp things to say about it in his Adoration of the Magi, above*.

On the French news this morning, the second item - the first was about airport security - reported the roaring trade on e-bay in unwanted Christmas presents. This seemed to me to be so sad, a terrible indictment of overblown giving and receiving. It occurred to me at that moment that the very same thing was happening in Brueghel's Adoration of the Magi: the man standing to the right of Joseph in Brueghel's painting was whispering to him that the proffered gold/incense/myrrh might fetch a tidy sum, and in fact he's brought his friend (extreme right, with glasses) along, whose racial origins would have been clear to Brueghel's public, if Joseph was interested in doing a little business. Nor does Joseph object...

I had to look through what seemed like hundreds of much more conventional Adorations of the Magi on Google before I found what I was looking for. I wondered why it was hidden so deeply. Maybe because the truths in it have such sharp edges? Wherever you look there is greed, envy, avarice, vanity, stupidity, underlined by suggestions of violence and death. Mary holds a hand up in an expression of weary resignation, maybe thinking to herself Oh, why couldn't they have brought nappies or baby wipes? (Is this terribly irreverent? It's not meant to be.) The baby Jesus shrinks away, as far as he can, and who can blame him? The 'gift' being offered is myrrh, of which the nearest present-day equivalent is embalming fluid.

Oh dear. And yet I love presents, as long as they're unconditional.

*Title inspired by Rog. Thanks.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Unknown correspondent



While Dr Johnson was compiling his Dictionary someone unknown to him contributed the origin of 'curmudgeon' as a corruption of the French coeur méchant, i.e. 'wicked heart'. Accurate or not, this notion took Dr Johnson's fancy. He included this derivation, acknowledging its source as an 'unknown correspondent'.

Some years later a Dr Ash, a rival and lesser lexicographer, discovered this while plundering Johnson's dictionary for good things to put into his own. Reluctant to allow Johnson any credit, however, he announced that 'curmudgeon' was derived from coeur, 'unknown', and méchant, 'correspondent'.*

I only put this in to slake my own Christmas curmudgeonliness. It's not a case of Scroogeism, of bah, humbug. Enjoy what you can while you can, I say. Carpe diem. I just wish, I just wish, I just wish I could share it without pretending. I hated Christmas as a child. Z's (over there on the right) beautifully written Christmas memoirs reveal worlds unknown to me: I feel like a tousled orphan furtively staring in through a gap in the curtains, ashamed of my beggarly status.

It's not that people were ungenerous, quite the reverse. There were presents galore. I really didn't care for opening them very much: so many presents connoted an obligation to the giver, an intrusion into my independence. I hated the food, which was perfectly good, well cooked and imaginatively presented Christmas fare. My earliest memories of being sick stem from Christmas time. Lifelong dislikes mostly originating in Christmas won't go away, however hard I try: dates, brazil nuts, stuffing, bread sauce, potatoes, dark chocolate, especially the sort you got in gold foil-wrapped 'coins'.

I carried this uncomfortable burden with me into adulthood. I was afraid of passing it on to my children. However hard you try to mask them, certain hereditary phobias always get through. Working in schools didn't help: the end of the Christmas term was always so frantically active, especially in Scotland where it wasn't unknown to break up on Christmas Eve, that there was no energy left for Christmas at home.

Twenty years or so ago I tried to get this out of my system by writing what I decided was to become the definitive novel about Christmas. It was never finished and I don't expect it ever will be, now. In an early chapter the hero attends a watchnight service. While waiting for proceedings to start he tells his pew-neighbour Mrs Woods, who has brought her cat to the service in a basket, about St Francis of Assisi and the origin of Christmas cribs. St Francis, a very great saint indeed, once created a life-size stable, manger and all the rest of it. Into it he drove cattle, donkeys, poultry and maybe - who knows? - cats as well. His Mary was about 13. He wanted to show the dirt, darkness, stink, squalor, poverty and unwantedness that Jesus was born into, and to invite his parishioners to draw their own conclusions.

I don't know where this story came from. An unknown correspondent, probably. As for me, please don't worry. I'm a happy little soul really, and I do try hard not to be a skeleton at the feast. But I shan't be sorry when it's all over. Happy days, everyone!


* Mustn't fall into the same trap: I got this story from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. James Sutherland, OUP London 1975

...to cheer everyone up after this lead-weight of dismalness here's an extraordinary piece of truly seasonal music.


Monday, 21 December 2009

December, 1910


Born in December 1910, my mother recently celebrated her 99th birthday and entered her 100th year. Here she is, very faint, when she was a few months old.

A random selection from Longman's Chronicle of the 20th Century gives a flavour of 1910:

*Girl Guides, a youth movement which encourages girls to be obedient, clean-living and resourceful, is formed by Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes

*Socialists are shot and sabred in Berlin during a suffrage demonstration

*Kissing is banned on French railways because of delays caused to trains thereby

*Diaghilev's Ballets Russes open their Paris season with première of Stravinsky's The Firebird

*Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker set up a tool company in Baltimore

*A London doctor claims that if lunacy increases at the current rate, the insane will outnumber the sane 40 years hence

*In Leipzig British officers Lt. Trench and Capt. Brandon are found guilty of espionage.

1910 was a busy year for the Ferryman:

*Edward VII died and was succeeded by his second son, George V

*Dr Crippen was hanged

*No amount of intercession by Dave could save Florence Nightingale

*The last surviving Pre-Raphaelite Brother, William Holman Hunt, died

*Charles Rolls, pioneer aviator, crashed fatally in Bournemouth, severing the Rolls-Royce partnership

*Reports of the death Mark Twain were no longer exaggerated.

My mother came from Colne, in Lancashire. The Burgh of Colne motto is, very aptly, 'We long endure'. She has been variously a teacher of home economics, a hotelière, a fashion retailer and a private caterer. She had to resign from her first post, in the West Riding, when she married. Married women were not then allowed in the teaching profession.

Several quotes have passed into family legend.

*When asked how she is: "A little better, thank you." Than what? We're never told.

*When tackling a bowl of raspberries, having emptied at least a quarter-pint of double cream into the dish:
"Do you eat much cream, dear?"
"No, I don't, really."
"Neither do I."

*Of her two marriages: "I never had any luck with my husbands."

Here she is with her great-grand-daughter, AKA the Blue Kitten. Almost 100 years separate them. When the Blue Kitten reaches a similar age, I wonder what her children will find remarkable about 2008, the year she was born?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Night of the Garter



Watching Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne on French TV the other night I became quite nostalgic over my days playing in pit orchestras. It was during a performance of La Vie Parisienne (playing the 2nd bassoon part on 'cello) in Scotland that I probably reached the very pinnacle of my musical career.

At the end everything becomes very animated with can-can dancers. Experience of this in the pit can be varied. If you're playing horn or trombone, they've probably put you right underneath the stage apron, and all you're conscious of is elephantine thumpings above your head, with each thump accompanied by showers of dust.

If you're playing violin, well to the front of the pit, the choice between appreciating the view immediately above you and keeping your eye on your music must be agonising. As it happens, the 2nd bassoon can-can part is so simple that it can be played effectively from memory, allowing the player to look about him/her and take in the whole frenetic ambience. I was lucky enough to be placed well forward.

On the last night of the run the famous can-can finished with the dancers ripping off their frilly garters and throwing them into the audience. Girls sometimes have problems throwing things any distance, and one short-trajectoried garter ended up on the end of my 'cello bow. I have to say at this point that it brought no privileges or benefits whatever, and I never discovered whose garter it was. But such an unusual trophy had to be kept, so it went into my special drawer and stayed there for many years.



When we moved house five years ago I emptied my special drawer into a bin-liner - we were only moving about 200 metres, so packing was fairly low-key - and into the black plastic bag went the frilly garter along with other treasured needments like a fossilised shark's tooth, some Spanish after-shave, a bird-warbler (put a little water into a bird-shaped container and blow gently down its hollow 'tail'), a lock of raven hair, a lucky Victorian penny, my favourite nail-scissors and so on. Then there was the Jolly Jumping Pecker, a wind-up penis that staggered fitfully about the floor, a prize I won at the Christmas do of the RAF band I played with for a time. All men should have a special drawer to keep such mementoes of halcyon moments in, wayside shrines filled with votive offerings to life's little triumphs and the winning hand fate occasionally deals. (Although at the time there were murmurings across the breakfast table about essentially frivolous natures, feet of clay, what would the neighbours/Board of Governors think, have you no sense of dignity?, capering's like a disease with you, etc., etc.)

There was also a pack of some pills called Wind-Eze, which I bought once simply for the name and the diverting possibility of passing the pack round, straight-faced, towards the end of any formal dinner parties we might be invited to.

It was a great mistake to put these treasures into a bin-liner. They were never seen again. As regards the Wind-Eze and the Jolly Jumping Pecker, probably just as well.