The double-edged nature of Christmas

Christmas is always bittersweet.

Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.

Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.

The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it.  Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.

That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.

One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.

A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.

It is a deeply weird song.

Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back. 

Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.

The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.

Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.

That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.

‘The clock moves around 

The child is a joy

But death doesn’t care just who it destroys

The woman gets sick 

Thins down to the bone

She says “where I’m going next,

I’m going alone….”‘

Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.

Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.

It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and  uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.

It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway –  are part of our lives.

That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.

And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.

Listening to Old Voices with a new year

John Hiatt.  One of his greatest.  A mix of Christian and pagan imagery, and at its core a simple, unspectacular faith in redemption.

‘It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here- you’re just listening to old voices with a new ear’

Listening To Old Voices

They have come to haunt the children
They have come to walk the wind
I can hear them as they rustle through the trees
Looking for the love that killed them
So that they might live again
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees

With drums and bells and rattles
They have caught us in our time
To watch the eagle rise up from the fire
Now is it true we are possessed
By all the ones we leave behind
Or is it by their lives we are inspired?

It’s a new light, new day
Listening for new meaning, learning how to say
It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here
You’re just listening to old voices with a new ear

It’s the livin’ and the dyin’
Well it scares the young ones so
They can hardly catch their breath before too long
They see the tears we’re crying
And they watch the river flow
And they follow on the banks until it’s gone

I surrender to the mountains
I surrender to the sea
I surrender to the one who calls my name
I surrender to my lover and to my enemy
I surrender to the face that holds no shame
There’s a spider at my window
And she spins a web of truth
More beautiful than all those memories
And she surely is God’s artist
As she’s caught the morning dew
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees

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Discovered, online, a deeply fascinating piece of correspondence between two great writers of the homicidal, genocidal Midnight of the 20th Century – Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Waugh wrote to praise ‘1984’ but also to raise a few objections:

Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ (whether real or imaginary) was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be fucking in the style of Lady Chatterley – finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act….The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces.

And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

 The two writers had much which divided them, but more in common than was perhaps obvious. Both magnificent stylists with the English language, both more than a little at odds with the age in which they found themselves living.

Both, in their different ways, affronted idealists.

And both with a definite, conscious, contrivance about their public personae: Malcolm Muggeridge (another magnificent stylist with more than a touch of sham about him) once wrote of Waugh visiting Orwell as Orwell was dying and commented about “the bogus country gentleman gossiping with the equally bogus proletarian”.

Waugh – the social climbing middle class boy who half aped, half sent-up  (hmm…..perhaps three quarters aped, a quarter sent up) the upper English classes, was heading in a different direction to Orwell, who under his real name of Eric Blair attended Eton and was more of a social submariner.

It seems odd to find the two corresponded at all. But, apart from being superb writers, they were both men who recoiled from the ghastliness of their age

They recoiled, though, in different directions.

Waugh took refuge in a kind of obscurantist, throwback Toryism (he didn’t vote because he said he would not presume to advise his sovereign on her choice of advisers) and became a Catholic, it seems, mostly as a bid to seek a world not just outside the 20th Century but before the Reformation. 

We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘more Catholic than the Pope’  – Waugh was more Catholic than the previous 20 popes.

Orwell, whose  discovery of a cynically murderous power urge behind the idealistic platitudes of his ideological comrades when fighting in the Spanish Civil War, led to his rejection of his earlier communism. He was not, though,  going to head off into the kind of imaginary world Waugh inhabited. He was too much of a realist for that, and in any case, unlike Waugh, he was a journalist rather than a novelist. 

But he ended up in a kind of no-man’s-land, of the kind which, usually, can only see a rescue from either religion, drink, or the madhouse. It is intriguing to ponder where Orwell would have ended up if tuberculosis had not taken him aged only 46.

‘Long ago, life was clean, sex was bad and obscene….’

Today’ is Queen Victoria’s birthday. “Victorian” has become an epithet, mostly because of that Bloomsbury poseur Lytton Strachey, but it was a much more complex era than it is given credit for.

The modern writer with the best take on the era is A N Wilson: not only with his popular history ‘The Victorians’ but more importantly, I think, his brilliant and thought provoking ‘God’s Funeral‘ which tracks the gradual loss of conventional faith over that era – and the grief which accompanied it.

I don’t have anything particularly thought provoking or insightful to say, at least not this morning, except that if you have an interest in religion, feel you cannot accept many of the more literal and simplistic canons of Christianity, but feel a need to believe and a hunger for some sort of intelligent, sceptical but not scornful conversation about Christianity (oh, and you value good writing) ‘God’s Funeral’ is a must.

Even if he is, I feel, rather hard on Matthew Arnold.

Anyway, that’s my burst of in depth stuff for now. Here’s the Kinks.

Eternity – Don Walker

There isn’t, unfortunately, a clip of Don Walker’s epic song about trying, and failing, to hitch a lift out of Queensland mining town Mt Isa.

With an oblique nod to the Aldous Huxley’s mystical novel ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ (or perhaps to John Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, in which that phrase first appeared) Walker’s song is called ‘Carless in Isa’.  Love it.

If anyone has done any hitching, he captures a sense of the waiting, the longueurs, drawling out the sense of an approaching car as it, and hope of a lift, arrives and then passes.. “I’ve been heeerrre………….fr’ever.”

This one, though, delves even deeper. It has been nearly 20 years since I have been hitch hiking: most of it was done at a time of inward as well as outward searching.

And ‘Eternity’ catches this feeling so accurately it hurts:

The withered skin on my hand was lined
 Like a map of the land I´d left behind alone  
A drifter and a pharisee 

On a highway straighter than the barrel of eternity.”

The song goes on to talk of being picked up by a driver of “a long black car” who calls his name…and the narrator recognises the driver, and his diseases, and how, “ you ate up the seed corn
All this side of the Sambatyon River,
How the cattle died
How the pain o’ your fever
Spread across the moon like a thunderhead
Like a lost will,
A hole in the law,

Split the stone o’ the cathedral floor.”

It is eerie and evocative – and for those who do not know, the Sambatyon is the legendary river over which 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel disappeared.

It then becomes hallucinatory, spinning out the images like a Biblical Yeats….

“I’m hookin my thumb
Round a well sucked bottle of Inner Circle rum
And I’m handin it over
He’s whackin it down
His old man’s Adam’s apple’s jumpin around
Kickin at a rope-burn under his chin
And I’m lookin at the sky like a sheeta hot tin
And I’m feeling so sick in the head
An’ I fall to one knee,Then another
An’ all that I can see
Is a highway straighter than the barrel of eternity…

Long ago, and far away
I opened my eyes and attempted to pray
I opened my eyes on a land as frozen
Cold as the hole where Jesus rose
And I layAnd wondered if he died for me

On a highway straighter than the barrel of eternity…”

I still often dream I am out on a road, somewhere, nothing happening: just the tarmac’s flat upward radiating heat and smell, the white noise of the approaching vehicles and the vast flatness of notorious hitchers traps like Sanson, Murchison or PioPio.

Walker is most famous as the guy who wrote most of Aussie band Cold Chisel’s songs: – ‘Flame Trees’, ‘Khe Sanh’ ‘Cheap Wine’, and a personal favourite (also about hitch hiking) ‘Houndog’ are all his.

A few years back he wrote a great, if idiosyncratic, memoir, ‘Shots’.  I’ll return to that another time: all I’ll say now is it takes a chapter or two to get the rhythm of the writing (Walker is very stream-of-conscious at times) but its worth the effort.

Don Walker appeared last night in Auckland and is appearing tomorrow night in Leigh. I can’t make it there, to my deep regret.

Religious instruction – for St Patricks Day

I recall an acquaintance of Catholic origins saying a young priest had explained to him, as a teenager at school, just what heaven would be like.

It would be like sex: constant, everlasting, sex, this presumably celibate priest told his youthful and impressionable charges –  I suspect with a bit of drool hanging down his virginal chin.

Not for the first time, I find myself lamenting my lack of a Catholic upbringing.

I was brought up a Presbyterian, and I cannot recall any of my Bible Class teachers even mentioning such a thing as sexual intercourse existed, in this world or the next.

It sounds a lot more colourful, the Catholic thing.  Also, I can sort of see the upside of confession.  Why?  Well it seems to me, as an outsider,  that you can go and get all that stuff off your chest, do the hail Mary or whatever thing, and then get on with stuff.

The religious tradition I came from had so such safety valve. Apart from work, of course. Just work a bit harder.

So, for St Patrick’s Day….the Pogues, who seem to me to be *all* safety valve, mostly of an alcoholic variety.

But hell, they can play. And on this song – about the Irish diaspora – they’re playing their heart and guts out. 

I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in my veins, but this one chokes me up every time.

Especially that last verse…

Thousands are sailing

Across the western ocean

Where the hand of opportunity

Draws tickets in a lottery

Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of Priests with empty plates
From guilt, and weeping effigies

And we dance...

Illogical nonsense on the Turin Shroud

I see there’s now a claim the Turin Shroud may be geniune after all.   The story doesn’t quite bear out the headline – the scientists have only concluded that they don’t actually know what might have caused the images of a crucified man to appear on the cloth.

That is not quite the same as saying, we don’t know, therefore God did it.

But here’s the thing:  even if God did do it, is this really such a good advert for God?

If there is a Supreme Being has the power to perform miracles, shouldn’t this Supreme Being do some useful ones?

I mean, if this Being has that sort of power, shouldn’t this Supreme Being perform a miracle and, to take a topical example,  prevent this sort of child abuse rather than just make some strange marks on a bit of cloth?

It seems to me that anyone who venerates the Turin Shroud as some sort of sign from God has seriously got their wires crossed.

If it is a “sign” from God, its a very dubious one.

POSTSCRIPT: I got a bit of offline feedback on this one, and a few links.  For the sake of clarity here:  my point is that if the Turin Shroud were what its adherents say it is, it would be a very poor advertisement for God.  I don’t believe the shroud is what its adherents say it is.

A bit surprised by a hunger


Poem for Sunday – from the determinedly irreverent Philip Larkin
 Church Going
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Sunday thoughts on the King James version from the Guardian

Jeanette Winterson leads off:

The King James translation was written to be read out loud – and that simple overlooked fact changes every argument about “difficulty” and “comprehension”. Even now, the phrasing of the King James has a naturalness to it. Awkwardness disappears within a few chapters of vocal reading – providing that you will trust yourself and trust the text. I say that because children are not brought up to read out loud any more, at home or at school. This is a new problem in the history of language development. Until mass literacy, reading aloud was essential and a pleasure.

As every poet knows, words begin in the mouth before they hit the page, and it is our experience of learning language. The King James karaoke nights, common to households where long familiarity with the stories meant that everyone joined in the refrains, built a confidence with language that the educated classes prefer to imagine as their own. My dad left school at 12, and never learned to read properly. He had no trouble with his Bible, and when he didn’t understand a word or a construction, he asked Mrs Winterson or the minister. He was a man of few words himself, but he had dignity of speech, learned directly from the King James.

Scrapping the King James version, in the well-meaning way of the well-educated classes, had a number of effects, the most decisive and the most disastrous of which was to destroy for ever an ordinary, everyday connection with 400 years of the English language.

The whole thing is here:

Hosanna in Excelcis

The toddler has discovered Christmas carols.

This is great: her health issues mean she is way behind in her language and related social skills. But she’s always responded well to music and she has picked up about half a dozen Christmas carols in the space of a week.

So we’ve been woken (she’s like her dad, an early riser: I’d assumed I would welcome this but I now see the downside) several mornings with ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ ‘Good King Wencelas’ or a sort of blend of ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

Or ‘We Three Kings’ (also known as ‘ Star of Wonder’.)

Now, this last one is kind of interesting. I don’t know the ‘proper’ words to it: I only know the Fred Dagg version, which was done way back in 197omumble.

I’ve been running this past a lot of people – of, I guess, a broadly similar age to myself – and first I get a quizzical look as they try to think of what the real words are. Then they say, ‘yeah, me too…’

So, herewith, both versions

Fred Dagg

We three kings of Orient are
One on a tractor, two in a car
One on a scooter tooting a hooter
Following yonder star.

Ooh – Ooooh….

Star of wonder
Star of light
Star of beauty, she’ll be right
Star of glory, that’s the story
Following yonder star.

Somewhat surprisingly, no-one has Youtubed this yet. There was a video clip done of it at the time but perhaps it has long since been shredded.

The Original Version

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

There’s a heap of other verses, but we don’t need to labour the point, I feel.