Mistletoe and Whine…

Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Present

I freely admit that Christmas is a rather mad time. We all moan about how much it costs and how stressful it is and how commercialised it’s become and all that – but if you strip away the stresses that we give OURSELVES, it can be really rather lovely. And I say this after a few very black years where I did my best to block Christmas out completely and became an utter bah-humbug, so I do understand it is a difficult time if you aren’t filled with festive cheer. After one year in which I refused to have a tree, wanted to lock myself away from EVERYONE and came close to throttling an innocent stranger who said “Merry Christmas” to a sulky woman with a thundercloud on her forehead, I decided that being unhappy wasn’t fun and decided to try harder to enjoy what had once been my favourite time of year. The harder I worked at it, the easier it got. Perhaps this post will help if you need a bit of an injection of festive adrenalin. Perhaps it won’t. Let me know if it does; but don’t let me know if it doesn’t, you will be snuffing out my candle!

Off the top of my head, these are the things that light a little warm flame in my heart when I think about Christmas.

– The smell of the pomander I spend a good hour making every year. Shoving cloves into an orange is a rather sticky passtime (and cloves hurt!) but the resulting aroma is spicy and inviting. (I’d say “just like me” but it’s not true.)

– The excuse to play Christmas songs ad nauseum; not just the old favourites by Slade, Kate Bush and Chris Rhea (have any good ones come out, other than George Michael’s December song, since 1986?) but carols as well. I splashed out on a couple of carol CDs this year and, with my Angel chimes tinkling and sending little flickers like fairies around the room, it was the perfect excuse to sit and relax. I think I baked/ironed/wrapped presents/wrote cards/cleaned the gerbil tank/made that sodding pomander while listening to them rather than relaxing but the thought is what counts, and I THOUGHT about relaxing for a bit.

– The excuse to buy someone something nice and exciting. I’m not rich by any stretch but gone are the days that I frantically saved up for months to be able to afford my friends a candle, or when our parents set me and bruv a target to spend no more than £2.50 (!!!) each on them. I ask my friends and family what they’d like because I want to get them something they actually want, not something that will be promptly regifted to someone who doesn’t require much thought. And the joy of wrapping it and knowing that they will be happy to receive it is quite immense.

– Getting stuff back. But that doesn’t need saying really.

– When it gets cold. I don’t mean cold and grey and rainy – I’m looking at you, current weather! – but crisp bitter wind that bites chunks out of your face and turns your toes (fingers for feet) to icicles. The cold that makes the simplest thing – coming into a warm building – an unusual bliss. The frost turning spiderwebs into lace and trees into garlands. Your breath turning to smoke in the air. Cold nights when the stars are so close you could reach out and pluck one from the sky.

– Winter food. Not so much the vegetable soups that I’ve been blending for months on end in an attempt to make myself healthy and shift that bloody stone I said I was sure I’d shift 4 weeks ago, but allspice, cinammon, cloves. Mulled wine (or even punch – my blackberry-and-apple cordial served hot works just as well). Steaming stews and pies, roasts and crumbles. Nutmeg grated into hot milk.

– The Nativity. Polite warning: I’m going to ignore anyone who writes on here commenting about how, if it happened at all, it happened in March not December and it wasn’t necessarily a stable and blah; I believe in it, and I love it. The wonder of it all: such a huge thing to happen, and yet at the same time, so simple. When you think about it, the best things about Christmas are the simplest, really. Smells, foods, lights, giving, and being with the people you love.

With this in mind I’ve put together some of the old favourite books I dig out every year (if I have time inbetween baking, cooking, cleaning, and making pomanders). See if you can find an hour in the whole period to curl up in a chair, preferably with a glass of mulled wine, next to an open fire with your Angel Chimes spinning, to dive into one of these. And have a good one.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The oldest and the best; a lot of the festivities and traditions we take for granted today were thought up by Dickens and A Christmas Carol, with wonderfully-written Scrooge and the host of ghosts (my favourite things!), should be read every Christmas Eve. His other Christmas tales are not so well known but also enjoyable. The edition I’ve linked to is from Waterstones and is a collection of them all. One of my favourite books of all time, I wrote a stage play of it complete with rapping Marley and an episode in which the entire cast did a routine to Stayin’ Alive; my friends and I performed it in our village hall. I was 15 and it was probably the happiest night of my life.

The Children of Green Knowe – L. M. Boston
Many moons ago the BBC did a fantastic adaptation of this book. I’d never heard of it but my mum bought it for me after the show (in fact I remember loving it so much that i dreamt about getting it from a book shop before I was actually given a copy). It’s a tale of true magic – a young boy, Tolly, goes to live with his grandmother in the huge house of Green Knowe and learns about the family who lived there centuries before – who haven’t quite left. An eerie yet heartwarming story, ghosts (again!), the supernatural and a lovely relationship between grandmother and grandson make this book an absolute treat. The Green Knowe series is on the whole a classic, though I’d recommend An Enemy At Green Knowe second (a lot scarier than The Children).

I was lucky enough to find a copy of the DVD on eBay and I try to watch it every Christmas.

The Box of Delights – John Masefield
Another book of magic, but one with a bit of a twist. Kay Harker, on his way home from school for the holidays, comes into contact with an old gentleman who gives him a very special box. The story of what happens when Kay fiddles with the box, and the characters he encounters, is chilling and entrancing. Again, the BBC did a dramatisation years ago which was truly magnificent though children nowadays would probably find it a little dated. I intend to give this to my godson when he is old enough to appreciate it.

The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories – ed. Dennis Pepper
A reviewer called this “a lovely pudding of book” and that’s exactly what it is. Like a Christmas pudding it has many different ingredients all combining to make a very special collection. I bought it when I was about 11 and was perhaps a bit young to fully appreciate all the tales: you have stories of carol-singing by Laurie Lee, the story of the Nativity told from Mary’s perspective, some unsettling ghost tales including one by Philippa Pearce, Adrian Mole’s Christmas, Mr Pickwick on the ice, and many more. There are many compendiums of Christmas stories but this one is the star on top of the tree.

A Christmas Posy – ed. Celia Haddon
I was given this many years ago, and still open it every year. It’s a beautiful little collection of Christmas poems, most from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, illustrated with Victorian Christmas cards.

And for your Kindle:

Christmas Ghost Stories: Festive SkinCrawlers with a Twist – Stewart King
Stewart King writes in the tradition of the greats (M R James, Dickens, et al) some original tales to be told around a blazing fire.

I will undoubtedly come back to this post with more titles when I think of them. If you have any others to add to this, please do let me know: there’s no such thing as a full bookshelf.

So. Have a good one; and God bless us all, everyone!

(I’ve google-imaged Tiny Tim and didn’t get quite what I expected so it is probably best if you imagine him.)

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

I have meant to write this post for about two weeks. But I’ve been wrapping presents, baking odd-looking biscuits, partaying at carol concerts (including The Messiah), making pomanders, cleaning, and buying new gerbils. I have to schedule in ‘relax’ in my diary alongside my hair appointment and delivering a Christmas card to the bloke down the road – I don’t know him, but he puts up the prettiest little Father Christmas lights in his tree every Christmas. It look forward to seeing them, and when I do I know Christmas is on its way, so I wanted to say thank you for that. He might think I’m a bit peculiar, but I won’t put my address on it so he won’t be able to alert the police.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents' garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

This little guy came from a mountain somewhere in Scotland when he was but a sapling and grows happily in my parents’ garden all year before coming to stay with me for the festive period.

I don’t quite know how it’s happened but a few days ago I was getting on a plane to Greece (July to be exact). And suddenly 2012 is in its dotage once again. I was talking about it with a friend, who said that time does go quicker when you get older, but I also think we have so much more to DO in our lives nowadays. I’ve just read a wonderful book – which details how Victorian women passed their time (sewing, cutting up bits of paper, printing things, calling on people). More about that in due course – but think how much more we have to occupy ourselves with. Gyms, book clubs, TV, computer gaming, surfing the net, emailing, charity work, second/third jobs, shopping, and all the rest of it – we fill our days so it is inevitable that you blink and hours have passed. It reminds me of the poem Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox –

What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?

I intend to ‘stand and stare’ (and not just at Father Christmas tree-lights) a bit more in future. That, together with not going into my overdraft, is my resolution for 2013.

SO. I will post about Christmas in a bit because I want to devote a whole post to the delicious time, and I want to recommend some reading especially for Christmas too. But I’ve read some great books recently and wanted to share them with you. I love the fact that people (well, two) mention that they’re going to try books I blog about, or add them to their Kindles. I am doing links to books where I can to Waterstone’s (note the apostrophe!) rather than Amazon now but I would recommend trying secondhand bookshops or independent stores when you can, as they are few and far between and need protecting. I am also going to do more of this in 2013.

So! Here is what I have read in the last almost-month for those of you who fancy trying something new:

The Heresy of Dr Dee by Phil Rickman
I ADORE Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins stories, and his lesser known earlier novels including December, Candlenight and The Man in the Moss. This is his second novel about John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s ‘wise man’, and it’s another fascinating read. Rickman’s stories are human and believable with a supernatural edge which sends a shiver down the most cynical spine. The story is set shortly after the death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley who was in love with Queen Elizabeth 1 (it is believed she reciprocated his feelings). Amy’s death was never fully explained and Dudley was heavily under suspicion of causing it. Dee and Dudley set off for the dark borders of Wales to try and discover a scrying globe. (Scrying is the ancient art of seeing phantoms or spirits in a mirror in the shadows cast by candlelight or similar. Don’t try it alone!)

Rickman has researched his tale accurately and his characters are believable, modern-day humans amongst a perfect historical back-drop. I really hope he continues with the Dee series as well as the Merrily books. Check out The Bones of Avalon which is his first Dee book and he also wrote under the name Will Kingdom.

The Waiting Room – F G Cottam
This is a ghost story about a haunted waiting-room and is bloody sinister – though I felt somewhat cheated by the end as it was a bit ‘meh’ to use yoof-speak. It went rather melodramatic. Those who’ve read it will know what I mean but I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t. I do recommend you try it as it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story, but the ending did make me feel a bit like Piglet’s balloon.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro
A fascinating glimpse into Shakespeare’s life, and his world, and what was going on at around the time that he wrote some of his most famous plays. Recommended not just for fans of the playwright but also anyone with an interest in Elizabethan history.

The Victorian House – Judith Flanders
I started this book and felt bored for about the first 4 pages – then it leapt into life and I couldn’t put it down. Flanders takes each room in a Victorian house and uses it as an anchor for which to describe in fascinating detail Victorian lives: food, costume, etiquettes, pastimes, sanitation, illness, beliefs, streets, etc. I had already read one by her about murder in Victorian Britain but this one made me hop to my library and order all her other titles. I really can’t rate it highly enough, not just for someone interested in the Victorian period but it was just absolutely fascinating and so beautifully written. I think Flanders may be quite unique in her method of telling the facts of the past in such readable and enthralling fashion.

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson
This is a story about the Pendle ‘witches’ and it comes from an unusual approach in that the characters accused of witchcraft are not as innocent as history may tell us. I felt very odd reading this book knowing that whatever the truth about the crimes they were accused of, the characters Winterson writes about genuinely went through the torments and tortures that she describes. Odd and very sad. aside from that it’s a spell-binding (sorry) story, very well written (not that that should surprise you from Winterson!).

Sweet Heart – Peter James
I made a note in my diary that this was “a rather superior thriller” but to my shame I couldn’t actually remember anything about it, which says rather a lot. The story of a woman who moves to a new house with her husband and starts having flashbacks was, though (now I recall it!) interesting and exciting, though some of the deaths totting up remained unexplained. I would read more of James, though Mark Billingham would be ahead of him.

The Dark Monk – Oliver Potzsch
I stumbled over The Hangman’s Daughter (the first book in this series) quite accidentally and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Delightfully gory, and fascinating historically, the books also follow good if somewhat complex stories. The hangman Jacob is a most likeable hero: strong, amusing, yet ultimately human, and his feisty daughter Magdalena is a great sidekick.

In this, the second book of the series, a strange death in a church leads to investigations into the Knights Templar for Jacob, Magdalena and Simon, the local medic and Magdalena’s unofficial boyfriend. Simon’s relationship with Magdalena is put under strain by the arrival of a beautiful femme fatale and Jacob also has to deal with robbers near the town, showing touching humanity and restraint considering he is supposed to be the lowest of the low due to his trade.

I don’t just find these books great because they are a bit dark and old; they teach the reader a lot about 17th century Germany: its laws, its customs, its traditions. In particular the advances in medicine, as forward-thinking medic Simon battles with his old-fashioned father and common superstitions, are really interesting to read about. The author originally wrote The Hangman’s Daughter when he discovered the history of his own family, and his warmth and respect for his characters (loosely based on his ancestors) makes these books a real pleasure to read, and more than just a historical potboiler. I look forward to the third volume.

The King’s Spy – Andrew Swanson
I would like to know how much of this story is actually based on historical fact, but whether it is or not is a moot point really as it’s an enjoyable yarn. The story of a ‘simple’ man who breaks the code of a traitor within the King’s court during the Civil War is interesting although, as the endless paragraphs on cyphers and how to crack them are rather laborious. I’m not the most mathematical-minded of people, nor the most logical (!) and the detailed descriptions left me cold (and lost). Passing this, it’s an interesting story with some surprising twists which I wasn’t expecting. Although this isn’t a classic and didn’t get my heart racing, I will certainly search out the next one in the series.

For the Sender – Alex Woodard
This book was a bit of a let down. I closed it thinking, “OK” and then wandered off to do something else. It’s the story of a song-writer who started writing songs for people who wrote letters to him. The stories of the letter-writers are touching, but Alex’s story itself is a bit self-indulgent (I couldn’t believe that it took him 14 odd years to ‘find himself’). I can’t really comment on his music, which was pleasant enough, as music is very personal, and I sort of enjoyed the book, but not a huge amount. Alex is at his best when he writes about Kona, his beloved labrador, and I felt these passages really lived for me in a way that the others didn’t. Perhaps because I could empathise with his writing, as someone who lost a dearly-beloved dog myself; this story touched the soul, but the rest of it was as beige and forgettable as the cover. (Sorry Alex!)

Everything Beautiful Began After – Simon Van Booy
Sometimes writers are a little too aware of their own writing and less aware of their reader, and unfortunately I feel this is the problem with this book. I haven’t read anything else by the author so am not sure if it’s a one-off or this is his style, but the prose felt painfully artistic like a ballerina balancing on the very tips of her toes. I didn’t feel or understand any of the characters, and the desperate love of Henry for Rebecca felt like it came out of nowhere after a few weeks in each other’s company (and again felt utterly self-absorbed and over dramatic).

That’s not to totally destroy the book! There is some real beauty in the writing; but if only those lovely moments could be left to stand as they are rather than the author continually trying to better his previous effort. Actually whatever is beautiful, never actually begins at all, and the reader is left feeling as if he has been force-fed meringues: sweet and tempting, but ultimately empty.

Speaking of sweet and tempting, I’m off to make some more reindeer biscuits. I’ll come back later with my suggestions for Christmas reading and would love to hear anyone else’s (if nothing else it tells me that someone is reading this bloody thing)…