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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 29 December 2017

"An English Christmas" edited by John Julius Norwich

This is a compilation of passages from literature describing Christmas. It is an almost relentless cosy and complacent Tory view of an English Christmas: it is all priests and monarchs and country houses. Perhaps it is inevitable: history has always been written by the literate and for most of history that has meant the rich. Perhaps you can't blame Norwich for quoting from the diaries of Queen Victoria and Samuel Pepys and he does include the occasional peep of a different perspective but bizarrely the overwhelming impression of nearly the longest night of the year is one of warmth.

I wondered when he quoted Virginia Woolf, that he might have included her to demonstrate her appalling snobbery: “I grant, says the middle-class woman [wife of a bank clerk trying to make ends meet by shopping in the sales], that I linger and look and barter and cheapen and turnover basket after basket of remnants hour by hour. My eyes glisten unseemlily I know, and I grab and pounce with disgusting greed.” (p 36) But he had the opportunity to include some editorial gloss to suggest that he found this remark distasteful.  The same situation came with the selection from Henry James in which the great writer visits a workhouse at Christmas hoping that the children will be romantic little Oliver Twists to discover that they “were all very prosaic little mortals. They were made of very common clay indeed, and a certain number of them were idiotic.” (p 65) No comment from Norwich. As for Cecil Beaton whose diary records a Duke and Duchess patronising their tenants: “The Duchess stood to attention surrounded by many ugly, grey-haired women, including a few deaf mutes. The village children, puny and unattractive, made a startling contrast to the healthy ducal offspring.” (p 235) I wanted to scream that the ducal offspring are well fed because they reap the rewards of the labour of the villagers whose own children are malnourished. But Norwich appears to condone the blind snobbery behind this thought.

After all, as he tells us, he spent childhood Christmases with his uncle, Duke of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle, surrounded by footmen, valets, ladies maids (and presumably, cooks and kitchen maids and stable boys and gardeners and cleaners). How could he have seen behind the magic to the toil?

Just occasionally there is a counterbalance. He does, of course, include the sentimental poem Christmas Day at the Workhouse. Lord Shaftesbury's diary records: “Rose before six to prayer and meditation. Ah blessed God, how many in the mills and factories have risen at four, on this day even, to toil and suffering!” (p 185) And George Eliot writing about old Christmas says “His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless - fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faced had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want.” (p 123) I loved the unexpectancy of the want. The poor are so poor they have not even hope. But no comment from Norwich. And these moments are few and far between.

There is some wonderful writing:

  • Dylan Thomas: “The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves.”  (p 50)
  • Saki: “everyone ate raisins and almonds with the nervous industry of sheep feeding during threatening weather.”  (p 74)
  • Winifred Holtby: “the chill air was a sharp as eau de cologne, as icy water, on our bodies.” (p 85) 


There are other pleasures: 
  • I come constantly to Church to hear divine Service, and make Conquests.” (p 26)
  • My sister, having so much to do, was going to church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going. In his working clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else.” (Charles Dickens) (p 142)
  • All nations say they want peace. Yet on this Christmas morning, I wonder if we want it quite enough.” (letter from the trenches about the Christmas Eve ceasefire) (p 154)
  • Edmund Gosse’s dad was anti-Christmas: “The very word is popish, he used to exclaim. Christ's mass! pursing up his lips with the gesture of the one who tastes asafoetida by accident.” (p 161)
  • George Orwell: “The only reasonable motive for not overeating at Christmas would be that somebody else needs the food more than you do.” (p 191)
  • I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise [a medieval defence against horses: a log with iron spikes like a cylindrical hedgehog], not particularly comfortable to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. the ice water stung and scorched like fire.” (A rather masochistic Reverend Kilvert) (p 199)
  • Some do fall on their faces and some do fall on their rumps. And they as do hold their selves uncommon stiff do most in generally fall on their rumps.” (p 203)
But the overall impression is that Christmas is a time of plenty and joy ... if you're rich.

It's a shame because Norwich writes great books, including The Popes.

December 2017; 262 pages





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