Christmas

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
T.S. Eliot

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Being in the mood to write about traditions lately, I was going to write something about Christmas traditions – in other words (as there’s no consensus) what I/you/he/she grew up with.

But TS Eliot – intense, intellectual, difficult, dry, serious, reactionary, opinionated and low on humour – says here everything which seems to me important. In this simple little poem, written in 1954 at the age of 66, he reaches back across the years in which he sought, in revolutionary language and intense personal depth, to find truth and meaning in human thought and experience. Having reached back, his quest ends in simple, childlike wonder.

If it ever puzzles you why Christmas carries a special magic for huge numbers of people, why it is such a special time, the poem says it all. You don’t have to be religious like Eliot, and I’m certainly not these days, to identify the awe and wonder and feel it acutely. I’m not a literary critic, but even if I were I can’t see any reason to comment further on the poem. I certainly can’t add to it.

Writing today, with the tree up and ready to be decorated, listening to Trinity College Choir sing O little one sweet by my beloved JS Bach, which we sang at primary school, planning a trip to the butcher to order some specials for the coming feast, getting ready to visit the National Gallery to see their new display of Maino’s Adoration of the Magi, looking at the lovely home made card now bearing the names of three grandchildren, and musing on Eliot’s penetratingly simple poetry, the tears prick in my eyes. It’s a special time, and I defy anyone to prove me wrong.

And if you think all this – and the poem for that matter – is a bit on the mawkish side, stop and examine yourself. You do buy into it, don’t you? And if you pretend you don’t:

  1.    I don’t believe you.
  2.    You are denying yourself the pleasure and the privilege of being a child.
  3.    You are a miserable old sod.

Let yourself go!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS.

What – me worry?

Baby I see this world has made you sad
Some people can be bad
The things they do, the things they say.
But baby I’ll wipe away those bitter tears
I’ll chase away those restless fears
That turn your blue skies into grey.

Why worry? There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now? Why worry now?

When I was growing up I loved an American comic called MAD. Its strapline was What – me worry? It poked gentle fun at all sorts of shibboleths, bringing aspects of that country, which finds it so hard to laugh at itself, well and truly down to earth. I’d find it hard to quote anything from it now, but its basic message passes through my mind most days: What – me worry?

The great EM Forster is supposed to have said “One has two duties: to be worried and not to be worried”. I’m with him. Like you I have my demons, which usually lie down obediently but occasionally leap up and bite – typically when I’m imagining scenarios that haven’t happened – and lead to conversations with myself that I don’t need to have. This brings on real anxiety which changes nothing – simply feeds fears and keeps them going. Why worry? You can give yourself permission to stop.

I wonder what put all this in my mind right now? I guess more than a few people are feeling a bit theatrical about even switching on the news – there’s been a  bit too much news around, to put it mildly. The best tweet was posted earlier this month:

Time to go home, 2016. You’re drunk.

Too right there. What – me worry? Well, I grew up in days where the threat of a catastrophic nuclear exchange was (believe me) even more real than it is now. A vivid memory is the day in 1962 when our primary school headmaster, Mr Callery, came into our classroom, hung a world map over the blackboard, pointed to Cuba, explained solemnly why there might be a world war before the day was out, and moved on to the next class, leaving us impressionable ten year olds with our hair standing on end.

Why worry? Well, that was a day for worrying, though I remember thinking even then that there wasn’t actually much I could do about it. It turned out to be the day when President John Kennedy faced down the threat of Russian missiles, ably advised by his brother Bobby, who as Attorney General delivered what might have been the most important political advice of the 20th century: When the signals are ambiguous, put on them the interpretation you want. Nepotism may have something going for it after all, though whether or not Trump’s family are endowed with similar wisdom remains to be seen.

Moving up a gear or two, Jesus had a few words of advice:

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Words of wisdom, and you don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to see their value. Whatever he intended, his words lead me to the Stoicism that underpins the way I now see the world: life’s complicated, stuff happens, and the only thing that makes any difference is how we respond to it. Or, as I read somewhere recently, Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s learning to dance in the rain.

Why worry? Worry when there’s something to worry about, not before. That’s what I say anyway. These days.

Where did I start? With a song from Dire Straits’ mighty album Brothers in Arms, which swings between tracks (Walk of Life) which have you up and dancing, to a soulful freedom song (Brothers in Arms), to this one – called, funnily enough, Why worry? – the gentle vocal line supported by a guitar solo as calming, reassuring, tender, consoling and, well, right as any modern song I know. It’s one to hum gently to yourself, every day if you like, but certainly whenever you need to.

 Why worry? There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now? Why worry now?

A Day in the Old England

Sometimes you just need to walk backwards. OK, it’s not the best experience when someone suddenly does that in front of you in the middle of Oxford Street (which they do), but there’s a time and a place. The time was summer and the place was Glyndebourne in Sussex. Backwards to a day in the Old England.

Not my natural habitat, you understand: I’d been twice before in my life – or rather I’d been taken twice. And, although I did the organising this time, you could say I was still being taken again. It’s the kind of place where it’s best to be taken.

I had former colleagues to thank. When I stood down after seven not unsuccessful years as Chair of CILEx Regulation – the regulatory arm of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives – some little bird sang to them that as a retirement gift I wouldn’t mind some vouchers to make it possible for me to have a day out, with someone special, at this most English of venues. With extraordinary generosity they did just that. Lovely people.

We settled on a Saturday in July – The Cunning Little Vixen by the Czech composer Janáček – lyrical, charming, life enhancing and (perhaps best of all) quite short so as to allow us to enjoy a balanced day for all its many pleasures. Hedging against the sort of summer which could sabotage the traditional picnic, we booked for dinner at one of the indoor restaurants, sorted out travel and sat back to fret over the changing weather forecast.

They run the operation with a frightening efficiency which is less English than German/Austrian. Catch the train they specify and from Lewes station they ease you into double decker buses, whisk you through the lovely countryside and drop you at precisely the point where you can stroll, ever so slowly, down the herbaceous borders and round the rose gardens before slipping effortlessly into a restaurant where tea, scones, jam and the all-important clotted cream drop from the trees.

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Taking in the ambience

 

 

 

 

 

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England in July
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Looking the part

 

 

 

 

There are covered as well as open places for a picnic, a library to snooze in, clear but unobtrusive announcements to keep you to time, and careful shepherding to ensure that occasional visitors get as fair a crack of the whip as the seasoned old lags.

It’s an oldish country house onto which a smallish modern opera house has been built. It’s an entirely private affair – hence the prices – and inevitably has to live with jibes about elitism, exclusivity and all the rest. As far as I’m concerned it’s just a matter of what you want to put in your shopping basket, a treat where the experience is worth more than just the music (which after all you can hear for free on Spotify), more than the gardens (which you can find for free in most parks), more than the food (which you can find locally, or cook for yourself at a fraction of the price).

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Glimpse inside the house itself
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All a small opera house should be
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The interval: no need to rush

 

 

 

 

Dressing up? No you don’t have to and we saw some bizarre combinations:

  • dinner jacket plus walking shorts and boots?
  • ragged tweed skirt and sagging, beloved old cardi?
  • casual knitwear that would embarrass an American golfer
  • etc

But yes, we dressed for the occasion because everyone – go on, admit it! – likes dressing up. Most of the people there joined in and who can object to being surrounded by people who want to look nice? More than anything, everyone seemed excited at being somewhere, and doing something, special. Even overhearing one or two Brexit-related conversations, just a week after that referendum, served only to emphasise that we were indeed in the Old England.

We enjoyed a beautiful production in an exceptionally comfortable auditorium. The weather stayed agreeable save for a passing squall which unfortunately caught us at the wrong end of the lake, but there were plenty of trees for shelter. And everything worked like clockwork: in the 90 minute interval they serve you a three course meal (easily booked in advance online) without for a moment letting you feel rushed. When it’s all over the buses are revving up, ready to relay you to the station.

My assumption was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and heavily subsidised at that. After about five minutes, to my alarm, my lovely partner was saying we have to do this every year. I confess I was starting to feel the same – and with suitable economies I suppose it could work. Just a matter, as I say, of what you want to put in your shopping basket. And a day at Glyndebourne may well be worth a few tins of baked beans over the winter.

Putting the Horse before the Cart

What does a – well, this – regulator do on his day off? Apart from writing blog posts of course, which come to think of it I haven’t done much of lately.

Earlier in the summer I spent an agreeable day off on what you might call a busman’s holiday. Or, rather, a carman’s holiday. Let me explain.

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London’s Guildhall Yard – the setting

The cart marking ceremony is the largest annual civic event in the City of London, barring only the Lord Mayor’s Show. It is on the eve of its 500th birthday and continues the tradition begun in 1517 – long enough ago for King Henry VIII still to be married to his first wife. Liverymen of the Carters’ Company paid five shillings (25p) a year for the right to ply for trade within the City. Now the Worshipful Company of Carmen, they were originally the Fraternity of St Katherine the Virgin and Martyr of Carters. St Kate herself would be proud to see the tradition so richly honoured: she will have been floating around somewhere, looking down and smiling benignly.

For their five shillings the Liverymen got a simple ceremony for a registration number to be branded onto a wooden plate mounted on the outside of their carts. This entitled them to use the vehicle to deliver goods and services until the ceremony came round again a year later. It was the first form of vehicle registration and therefore an early and respectable example of – wait for it – regulation.

My schoolfriend Mike, who has spent his career in and around the railways, doubtless spent more than five shillings on treating me and two others to the Worshipful Company’s splendid hospitality, so later we drank his health vigorously and, being English, ribbing him mercilessly. The ceremony itself is in the open air and free to all, and consists of a parade of beautifully looked after historic vehicles, including a couple of very new ones that should (for their eco-friendliness if nothing else) find a place in history.

The vehicles come round slowly in turn, each pausing in front of the tent which is amply stocked with important-looking people, some of them in Tudor-looking robes. There, amid much bowing, nodding and doffing of caps, the Master or one of his party is handed a branding iron which is then applied ceremonially to the wooden plate fixed to the vehicle.

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The Master does the deed

Much applause, clouds of smoke, more cap doffing, excellent photo opportunities, and the driver moves off to general applause as the next one heaves into view.

It’s all very splendid and shot through with honour for the vehicles themselves, their proud owners and drivers, the history they represent, the memories they evoke and civic pride in the glorious City itself. And celebration of the noble traditions of this and all the livery companies which not only promote continuity by keeping these symbolic traditions alive but are also there to secure proper standards of professionalism among their members.

(If I were a professional regulator I would go off here into a riff on my view that education and training in trades and professions is best achieved within a ‘guild’ of this kind – individuals learning their craft, their traditions, their standards and their ethics from well-policed role models. If I say such a view is mediaeval, I mean that as a compliment, and hold it with pride. But I won’t bother you with all that today.)

A bit like the Trooping of the Colour, the slow walking pace of the ceremony is followed by a faster drive-through of all the same vehicles again – more cheering, doffing, photos …

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The worthies – being worthy

… and we all move off into the Guildhall for a packed bunfight with drinks followed by a fine lunch with the Loyal Toast, decently short speeches and much merriment around and about. Company at the table was very agreeable* and we ended in high spirits, dispersing to get lost in the streets around Bank station which, Londoner though I am, always appear to have been moved since the last time I was there.

What a good day out. The rain held off till we were safely indoors and the Guildhall Yard looked a picture. I walked away with a souvenir programme, a satisfied grin on my face, a store of memories and a camera full of photos that I was looking forward to sharing with my old uncle whom I was seeing the following day. He was stirred, of course.

*Those of you who know me well know that this is among my highest terms of praise.

IKEA: they’ve done something right

Not many people have heard me say anything nice about IKEA. Indeed, you could be the first. They have published a superbly funny sketch which pokes gentle fun at what I suppose we can call the Snapchat and Instagram generation. Click and enjoy.

Maybe I’m particularly wired up to foodie issues right now, having just returned punch-drunk from three packed weeks in Brazil, enjoying the delights of the food and drink that that amazingly diverse country can offer. You can get an idea about just a couple of days’ worth of that rich experience in the guest post I wrote for our lovely friend Rosana’s food blog.

Maybe, though, I’m influenced by living with someone who is just as much a foodie as I am and a skilled and enthusiastic user of social media. I’ve learned to draw conclusions about my cooking from whether the camera comes out, or doesn’t, before we can start to eat:

No camera, no commendation: draw your own conclusions

Camera + photo: a few seconds’ ‘immortality’ via Snapchat or Instagram

Camera + photo + invitation to present the dish so the photo can be captioned: high commendation followed by demands to reproduce the triumph repeatedly until some new triumph comes along.

Our old teacher Gerry Lafferty – a Scotsman with an Irish name who taught us English – taught us that putting food in front of someone on the table is a symbol of love and friendship. He was right about most things and I endorse this comment too.

What is better than cooking simple food that family, friends and I can enjoy? If anyone photographs it before diving in, why complain? But have a look at that IKEA film and enjoy its gentle, if not especially subtle, humour.

 

 

We are the 47

Oh! how I love, on a fair summer’s eve,
When streams of light pour down the golden west,
And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest
The silver clouds, far — far away to leave
All meaner thoughts, and take a sweet reprieve
From little cares; to find, with easy quest,
A fragrant wild, with Nature’s beauty drest,
And there into delight my soul deceive.
There warm my breast with patriotic lore,
Musing on Milton’s fate — on Sydney’s bier —
Till their stern forms before my mind arise:
Perhaps on wing of Poesy upsoar,
Full often dropping a delicious tear,
When some melodious sorrow spells mine eyes.

Summer came back to these parts last week. Last week I finally got round to visiting John Keats’ house in nearby Hampstead: it’s well worth a visit, nicely interpreted and making you want to read some of his poems. The week before, on a fair summer’s Sunday eve, I took a short spin around Finsbury Park, even closer to home, sharing some of the simple pleasures he expresses in this sonnet.

Obviously I can’t improve on his words because he says it all really. Is there, in all honesty, anything genuinely better than just walking slowly – very slowly – past a well-kept border? Or walking barefoot on the grass, testing the theory that this gets unproductive electricity out of your system (no idea whether it works but it feels nice)? Or sitting down on the same grass just because it’s dry, and just because you can? Or seeing families full of children making hay in the safe play areas? Or taking a small boat around the pond, dodging the floating weeds and barely disturbing the ducks, who couldn’t care less anyway? Or doing all that without rushing, or feeling you actually have to do anything?

Simple stuff, I know. No one is going to say that Finsbury Park is the most special park in London. That’s just the point. Even here, in an area full of life but not totally prepossessing, we are on the doorstep of a large green space which is one of the key places where the local area goes to relax. And on a pleasant evening – is there any weather, anywhere in the world, as fine as a perfect English summer’s day? – you don’t need much else. Look back at the poem – you don’t need to be anywhere in particular to experience that.

So who are the 47 then? Well, for the past five weeks I’ve inevitably identified myself with the people we call the 48 – the 48%+ who voted to stay in the EU. Coincidentally I discovered the figure that 47% of London is open space, most of it green. That’s where we have it over most other big cities. Paris is as beautiful, Vienna is as historic, New York is as vibrant. But wentralhere are their green spaces? Mainly on the outskirts – even Central Park, glorious as it is, is one big space, tidily packaged and corralled into one place.

In London the open spaces are dotted all over town – either staring you in the face or tucked behind back alleyways or along water courses, where to come across them is always a welcome surprise. I’ve wondered for years what the point is of the Green Belt around London. Green Belts are supposed to be the lungs of an industrial city – which is plain enough where a city is so heavily built that it’s too late to do much about it. London’s lungs are where they belong – alongside its beating heart. The Green Belt has only one real purpose: to sustain the property values of the noisy middle classes across the prosperous South East.

That’s today’s sermon, but really all I want to say is that many of the simplest pleasures are usually associated with open spaces – and are usually available, as they say, free, gratis and for nothing. John Keats understood that. So can anyone.

War is the statesman’s game

War is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight,

The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade …

We’ve just passed the centenary of the Battle of the Somme –  a war crime so flagrant, so shameless, so inhuman that I would call it demonic if that did not risk absolving from responsibility the appalling humans who caused it. Watching Peter Barton’s excellent in depth documentary about the whole appalling catastrophe was as sobering as you’d expect.

Most of you know that I am a pacifist. It has to be my deepest conviction, though I confess at once that I can’t be certain exactly how I’d respond if the chips were really down and I/we were seriously threatened. And of course I have genuine respect for those who, following their own convictions as I follow mine, risk their lives in combat. Even more do I feel for the families who lose people close to them as a result of war, often without understanding why.

You can see, I expect, where this post is heading. But bear with me while I work my way there. Here are some more quotations to add to the one above (which is from Shelley):

The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend (Abraham Lincoln, apparently)

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare (Mark Twain, as usual)

Before you set off in revenge, dig two graves (Old Chinese proverb, of course)

War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace (Thomas Mann, surprisingly)

I’ve got a million of them, as music hall comedians used to say. But there’s nothing comic about this. A few years ago the BBC broadcast an even more extraordinary documentary. It was called The Fallen, and it was based on the simplest of ideas: to commemorate individually each of the 300 or so British service people who had been killed in one of our recent Middle East ventures – the pointless war in Afghanistan or the immoral, illegal one in Iraq. And it was probably the best documentary I’ve ever been unable to watch.

The film was based just on names, photos and chats with family members in their homes. At least I think it was. It lasted about three hours and I managed only a few minutes before literally (I mean that word literally) running from the room, pausing only to turn off the TV and delete the recording. Just the sight of a very ordinary mother showing the cameraman into her dead son’s bedroom, still laid out – football posters and other young guys’ paraphernalia – as if for his return, her sad face, and her simple, bewildered words, was stronger meat than I could digest. As a film it was intensely powerful, indescribably moving and, for me at least, unwatchable. But I’m glad it was made, and anyone who did not react to it with the profoundest grief needs to see a doctor very quickly.

Which brings me to the despicable Donald Trump. What on earth is he for, apart from spewing out bile and hatred, devoid of empathy or any concept of the effect he is having, insulting anyone who doesn’t fit his fantasy world and generally making his (great?) country a laughing stock? How can anyone, free of his delusions, possibly think it acceptable to attack a couple of ordinary respectable Americans, bereaved parents of a dead serviceman who happen not to think like him and, perfectly reasonably, took the opportunity to tell him off in public?

When will this overgrown schoolboy notice that the needs of the world as a whole are not identical to his own needs? When will he discover that his cesspit of a mouth has upset one person too many? When will he accept that the best of Hillary Clinton might – just might – occasionally be better than the worst of him? When will he listen to wiser members of ‘his’ party such as the honest, decent, independent John McCain – a man with whose politics, I may say, I disagree profoundly? Don’t trouble to reply. The answer is never.

Bullies, even ones who spout jejeune trailer trash rubbish, are often very clever. They’re also usually quite scared, hence the bombast, the evasion of blame, and the need to put down others. The trouble is, clever scared people are quite dangerous. Please, my American friends, think about who you want as a role model for your children. Think about what you want your country to look like, and the damage that’s already been done. And, come November, please be careful. You are better than this.