Please Father Christmas, If You Love Me At All…

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Elly, circa 2004

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ”

(Norman Vincent Peale)

Mr Peale is as bad as Richard Curtis. His snowy Christmasses, rosy-cheeked well-spoken carol-singers, his happy endings, his tying together of all the knots, are the ramblings of a madman. I love Four Weddings, and I like Notting Hill immensely, but Love Actually makes me want to pull my own teeth out. Not only because it has loathesome Keira Knightley in it (last night I dreamt she was cutting my hair, and not terribly well) but because you want its happy endings to be real and life isn’t like that.

I must admit to having my own Richard Curtis moment. I would never tell anyone about it but it’s like one of those bloody candles you blow out and then it relights itself, every sodding year, only to be eventually snuffed out.

Things don’t “all work out for Christmas”. People do not fall in love with you just because it’s darker than usual (unless you’re in a nightclub) and it is cold. The missing do not turn up on the doorstep just in time for eggnog over the Queen’s Speech. There are no unexpected windfalls which mean you can buy the perfect gift, boilers do not magically start working, arguments are not resolved over fairy lights and broken relationships are not magically mended by a formulaic card. There are no happy endings, not at Christmas, and not at any other time of the year. If you do want one, then you have to rely on yourself rather than festive spirit to get it.

Disclaimer – the following may be complete nonsense.

Christmas is ultimately what you make it – and I try to do a better job than I have done in the past (I’m thinking of 2003/4/5/6 in particular). Making an effort to call people, send cards which say more than just “To – from” in them, put thought into presents and make Christmas biscuits which aren’t charcoaled (this may take several attempts). I find investing in CDs of unusual festive music and each year buying a new decoration for my little tree to make it more ‘mine’ helps me get into the spirit.

Kindness begets kindness. I bought some doughnuts from a stall in town to give to a beggar and the seller refused to take any payment. (I did the same from a waffle stand and was charged £4 for a considerably ropey waffle so it doesn’t happen everywhere). A few years ago a random man wished me a merry Christmas in the street and I wanted to “boil him in his own pudding, with a stake of holly through his heart”. This time I’ve said it back (not to the same bloke obviously; don’t know where he is and can’t even remember what he looks like and chances are he would probably not dare say it to me again anyway) and I’ve had nice responses. It’s become an add-on to “thank you, goodbye” and it makes people smile. (I didn’t say it to the beggar because it seemed a bit thoughtless, really, as chances are he won’t have one. But I scruffled his dog’s head.)

I have not been reading festive stuff at all. I really ought to start, but for the record, Six Weeks by John Lewis-Stemple is a comprehensive and eye-opening look at the lives of the average British Officer in WW1. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is a short and rather disturbing but very original look at Mary’s view of her son Jesus, and who he really was. It’s deliberately not referring to the fact that Mary knew long before Jesus was born who He was which weakens the story, but anyway. And now I’m on Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne which is ideal for anyone who loves Barbara Erskine’s tales of history colliding with modern day.

(Oh and here’s another I thing I hate. Bloody Eastenders when there have been arguments over dry turkey and someone’s thrown someone else through the window, but then suddenly they all stand round the tree and it starts snowing and they all soften and smile at each other. It’s the most unrealistic thing in the soap – and that’s saying something.)

I am phenomenally lazy if I allow myself to be, and I’m a hugely talented wallower. The more I decided to try and enjoy Christmas again (after being a complete Scrooge for approx 3 years) the easier it got and the more I looked forward to it. So – and I speak from experience here – if you’ve had a row with someone, and it might have been sort-of your fault, get in touch with them. Don’t do it via text or sodding email., do it PROPERLY like in ye olde days. Face to face if you can, and in a letter – handwritten, it doesn’t matter if your writing’s crap – if you can’t. If you’ve got a spare quid, buy a beggar a doughnut or a coffee (not a waffle) or hell just give it to him, you’ll get another one from somewhere. But don’t do any of that just because it’s bloody Christmas. And also don’t do the row thing if you were really badly treated by someone. Sod them. Don’t make up with them just because it’s Christmas – use the time on someone worthwhile instead.

Don’t tell someone you love them just because you think it might work because it’s Christmas. It won’t unless they love you back, and chances are you’ll know whether they do or not long before December 25th.

One more thing. As I have eschewed Love Actually may I suggest The Muppet Christmas Carol as perfect seasonal viewing. The inspiration for my own version of A Christmas Carol (staging it was probably the happiest evening of my life – I was 15): warm, original, funny, spooky and damn near perfect. Of course, if my RC moment (ice-skating down a frozen river all the way to Ely hand-in-hand with a bemittened Prince Harry) comes to pass then my turn as Scrooge would be the second happiest evening of my life, but I’m not holding my breath. If you keep dreaming about your future you miss out on the present.

Light a candle for those who aren’t with you; don’t feel you have to pretend they didn’t exist, that their loss is forgotten. I will be burning several; flames I will never extinguish.

Here endeth the lesson. It doesn’t take much to have a nice Christmas. It only took Bad King John an india-rubber ball, after all.

ppc_redball2Have a good one x

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Digesting Life

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I didn’t want to write two posts about death one after the other, but I don’t have much choice (well you have a choice whether to read it or not obviously). The helicopter crash in Glasgow has claimed nine precious lives, including a friend of mine. Nine friends, relatives, colleagues, loved ones. Nine families will have an empty chair at the Christmas table. Nine pillows undented. Nine is a hell of a lot when you think of it. (Yet hear of hundreds killed in an earthquake in a country far, far away and you think “Gosh how awful” and turn the page to find Peanuts.)

My quiet weekend, so deliciously anticipated in my last post, turned out to be anything but.

On the same day that these lives were snatched away, Black Friday indeed, people went crazy in Asda for a slightly-discounted TV or other pointless bargains, wild-eyed and frothy-mouthed (I imagine) with greed. One woman had her arm broken in the melee. It’s a bloody television, people. When did we become so primitive? Silly question – we’ve always been primitive, we are supposed to have evolved. (I hasten to reassure that I do not think such bestial behaviour is the sole preserve of Asda, though going there after 2100 one evening was so unnerving I would take a crucifix if forced by lack of camembert to go again.)

Today, finally, I started crying, and could not stop. It was a relief in a way as I had not cried before. I had been sick and sobbed a bit but not a proper “mourn”. Not even at N’s funeral. I felt a fraud, dry-eyed, calm and unperturbed – when I was perturbed, somewhere at the very back of my subconscious. I’ve never forgotten a Reader’s Digest article (my parents used to keep copies by the loo, and you could spend a good seventeen minutes on the seat if you found a decent story)  in which it said that if you didn’t cry you risked a heart attack. (Is Reader’s Digest still going? It was ace.) Not a case of Break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” so much as “Break, my heart… well at least bleed. Or bend. You might twinge a bit, please. I’d like to know I’m still alive even if they’re not.”

I don’t have words for what has happened in the last few weeks. Which is unusual considering I was known as “diarrhoea pen” at middle school – because I wrote fast, I hope, rather than because I wrote crap. There is grief that cannot be assuaged and loss which cannot be comprehended. We are aghast, wide-eyed and numb, because this kind of thing happens to someone else. Five years ago I drove past a newspaper stand with the headline “Man fights for life in crash” and thought “How sad” and turned up my radio to sing to Crazy Crazy Nights. Only when I reached my destination did I learn the victim was one of my dearest friends.  When life happens to us nothing is safe. The things we take for granted are swept away by events as merciless as the Asian tsunami. Destroyed, left for dead and covered in silt.

I have been lucky to be buoyed up by two wonderful books to escape into. All Change is the latest and final novel in the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It commences with a death but ends with the start of a new life for one of the family. The Cazalet chronicles are books complete within themselves, tracing a family through the war, but like a roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings if you devour them one after the other. This should be done more than once a year.

Speaking of spell-binding serieseses (seri?) I am now on The Magus of Hay by Phil Rickman, the latest in the Merrily Watkins series. Looking forward to reading one of Rickman’s books is like anticipating the arrival of a good friend, then relishing every minute of their company. He just gets better and better.

Sit down and enjoy both of them. That’s an order.

The photograph is one I took this morning leaning out of my bedroom window. It took me about 17 attempts to get one half-decent shot and I hope my neighbours weren’t watching as they’ll probably have me reported. It is not a good picture, but it gives you a vague idea of how beautiful the sunrise was. Grey and pink, gentle and vivid. A reminder that life happens to us every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and sometimes it brings pain, but, as surely as the sun follows the moon, in time it also brings peace.

With love, in memory of David Traill and Naomi Hall