Sunday, 21 December 2014

Fourth Sunday in Advent

December has been flying by, as it always does, so here is the fourth poem, another serious one, but shorter.  This poem brought me up short, it has overtones of Sleeping Beauty, but a better happy ending.  As Joseph says to his brothers at the end of Genesis, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good", I find God's ability to bring good out of bad a great comfort.

The Wicked Fairy at the Manger
by U A Fanthorpe

My gift for the child:
No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes. But the wrong sort –
The workshy, women, wimps,
Petty infringers of the law, persons
With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;
The bottom rung.
His end?
I think we’ll make it
Public, prolonged, painful.

Right, said the baby. That was roughly
What we had in mind.

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Friday, 19 December 2014

The Year in Books December

Naturally my book for this month is Christmassy, how could it not be?  I am not sure how I stumbled across Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive, but it is exactly the sort of book I would have adored as a child, gentle, funny and giving a window on the past.  It is an account of a child's Christmas in a big country house at the turn of the twentieth century, observed with a quiet humour and that rare ability to remember how things feel and look to a child.

Mary Clive photographed by Cecil Beaton at around the time Christmas with the Savages was published. Image National Portrait Gallery Collection
Mary Clive was one of the sisters of the social campaigner Lord Longford and was recalling her own childhood Christmases in the book.  Her life seems to have been heavily overshadowed by the two world wars, in the first her father was killed, devastating her mother and her husband died in the second.  Despite this she seems to have been a woman of great spirit and I would love to read her account of life as a debutante and her autobiography.  The illustrations are lovely and truly deserve printing on better paper to make the most of them.  Definitely a book worth reading.



I also thought, as it was Christmas, that I would share a few of my favourite Christmas books, first those for children and then those for adults.  However, there is no reason why the adults should not read the children's books, why should they get all the fun?

Picture books
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs - I read and watch this every Christmas, essential, see also his Father Christmas
Mog's Christmas, Judith Kerr - Mog gets scared of the walking, talking Christmas tree
Lucy and Tom's Christmas, Shirley Hughes - a gentle, London Christmas, I also want to read Alfie's Christmas and The Christmas Ghost
A Christmas Story, Brian Wildsmith - lovely retelling of the nativity story with pictures reminiscent of medieval manuscripts
The Jolly Christmas Postman, by Allan and Janet Ahlberg - packed with little surprises and wonderful illustrations

For older children
I love Noel Streatfield's descriptions of Christmas in books like Ballet Shoes* and Gemma, if you can get hold of it second hand she did an anthology, The Christmas Holiday Book, which is well worth looking for.
Likewise the Christmas in Little Women by L M Alcott is very special.
Just William At Christmas, Richmal Crompton - hilarious, I dip into this every year.



Adults
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens - I'm not particularly a Dickens fan, but this is a gem and even if you feel you know the book from the numerous versions of it, it's well worth reading the original.  The descriptions of Victorian London at Christmas are wonderful.
Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford - very funny as she always is
The Everyman Book of Christmas Stories - a lovely collection and beautifully produced book
The Virago Christmas Book - a mix of writing about Christmas, not all soft and fluffy
Treasure on Earth, Phyllis Sandeman - out of print, but still available, autobiographical account of  an Edwardian Christmas at Lyme Park in Cheshire.  It is a delight and makes a nice companion to the Mary Clive book.

Finally, I would love to read Michael Morpurgo's Christmas stories, am hoping for P L Travers' recently re-released Aunt Sass and this year also plan to read Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales, as well as re-acquainting myself with the Paddington Christmas stories in the free copy of More About Paddington that came with the Radio Times.  While researching this I did find that Penguin have released a lovely looking collection of Christmas classics including Anthony Trollope's Christmas stories.

You have probably realised by now that I love Christmas books, what are your favourites?


I have thoroughly enjoyed The Year in Books series by Circle of Pine Trees, you can see the other December entries here.  I look forward to seeing what she suggests for 2015, certainly I shall continue to write about books, I do enjoy it.

*Try to get an edition with the original illustrations by Noel Streatfeild's older sister Ruth Gervis, which Streatfeild apparently felt had captured the book perfectly.  With such a perfect partnership between author and illustrator it seems a pity to me ever to change them, it would be like publishing Roald Dahl without Quentin Blake's illustrations.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Third Sunday in Advent

This Sunday I have chosen T S Eliot's Journey of the Magi, a vivid imaging of the long journey from the east.  To me there seems to be a reminder of the Exodus story, leaving one place to follow God and entering that trustful discomfort, looking back with longing, but knowing you have to go on.  There is a spiritual journey taking place alongside the physical journey and the poem leaves us in the "now but not yet" time in which we still live today, with God's kingdom being here, but not fully yet.

There is a recording of Eliot reading his own poem, which is magnificent and well worth a listen, I hope you enjoy it and that your Christmas preparations are going well.

Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Than at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different: this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Monday, 8 December 2014

A lovely day

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The Greyhound Inn

This last Saturday was my dad's birthday and one of those crisp, cold, bright, sunny days that make winter so much more bearable.  We went to Carshalton, a former village, now swallowed up into south London, for lunch at the pub in the picture above and a walk.  It was busy with a frost fair going on but the crowds were relaxed and there was a good atmosphere.  I am still very tired from it but all in all it was a lovely day.

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Tufted duck

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The other event of the weekend was reviving my Locke St Cardigan, which had been languishing for some weeks with only the left front left to complete.  Hoping to finish it before Christmas, certainly it is the weather for it at present!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Second Sunday in Advent

I discovered this poem last Christmas, in an Advent book called Haphazard by Starlight, which has a poem for every day of Advent and loved it.  It is another poem that connects the Christmas of long ago with now, but in a very different way, focusing instead on the hope that Christmas gives us.  Hope for the future, that Jesus will return and the hope we have in us now, a hope that cannot be counted in a census or understood by the powers of this world.

In the days of Caesar
By Waldo Williams, translated Rowan Williams

In the days of Caesar, when his subjects went to be reckoned,
there was a poem mad, too dark for him (naive with power)
      to read
It was a bunch of shepherds who discovered
in Bethlehem of Judah, the great music beyond reason and
      reckoning:
shepherds, the sort of folk who leave the ninety-nine behind
so as to bring the stray back home, dawning toward cock-crow,
the birthday of the Lamb of God, shepherd of mortals.

Well, little people, and my nation, can you see
The secret buried in you, that no Caesar ever captures in his lists?
Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,
Gathering us in to give us birth again, weaving us into one
In a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?
He seeks us out as wordhoard for his workmanship, the laureate
     of heaven

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Sunday, 30 November 2014

First Sunday in Advent

This Advent I thought I would mark the Sundays of Advent by posting some of my favourite Christmas poems, one on each Sunday, although the odd poem may appear on other days as well.  I decided to start with an old favourite, Christmas by John Betjeman, which masterfully combines Christmas ancient and modern.  I was introduced to this poem when a couple of us read some of it at a prep school carol concert at the local church and have loved it ever since.

Christmas by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain.
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker's Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that villagers can say
'The Church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

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Friday, 28 November 2014

The Year in Books: November

This month's book, The Dreaming Suburb by R F Delderfield, is one set locally to wear I live, which is always a matter of great curiosity, to see a place one knows at a different time and through different eyes.  The novel is set at the far edge of Addiscombe, about a mile and a half east of central Croydon, then the far edge of London, where a street of suburban houses hit the countryside.  Although sadly and predictably swathes of suburbs have covered much of that countryside since.  The action opens as the First World War finished and followed various residents of the avenue through to the beginning of the second war, via the vicissitudes of the intervening years.

R F Delderfield
Delderfield writes in defence of the suburbs, already by the 1940s (when he wrote the book) denigrated, arguing that residents of suburbs have dreams and worries, hopes and fears, just as a city or country dweller has.  It is clear that he enjoyed his time living in Addiscombe as a child and that he retained vivid memories of the place.  He has changed very little about his descriptions, depicting Addiscombe almost exactly as she was and is, almost street by street.

"The Rec" 1918
This is not a great work of literature but it is a pleasant, relaxing and engaging read: the characters are engaging and "real" and he is skillful at weaving a story through their various lives and the events that surround them.  Throughout there is a definite sense of how people react in their various ways to the history that surrounds them, in this case things like the General Strike and the Munich crisis.  The change in the suburb is charted too as the great houses decay and streets of terraces fill their grounds.

"The Lower Road"
Croydon as a whole has a bad reputation and a low self esteem (if one can say that of a place?) these days and so it is lovely to see a time in her past when this was not so.  A lot of these problems have come about from appalling decisions made in the second half of the twentieth century and which continue today.  But Croydon does have a proud past and we should celebrate it more, from the Old Palace, regularly visited by kings and queens, especially Elizabeth I, to the college of the East India Company and the world's first international airport, which saw Amy Johnson return from her solo flight to Australia.  Croydon has other literary claims to fame, for example, at the time that Delderfield lived in Addiscombe, D H Lawrence was living a few streets away, teaching at a nearby school and beginning his literary career and in the previous century Arthur Conan Doyle had lived a few miles away in South Norwood.

But to get back to The Dreaming Suburb, I would recommend it as a gentle, well written book, which captures a time in our life as a nation through the lens of an ordinary street of ordinary people, a perspective different to most histories.

Photographs of Addiscombe past from here

To see the other entries in The Year in Books click here