For Love of a Horse Book

I am not a horsey person. I have never had a horse, nor a pony – unless My Little Pony counts (my first was Blossom). When I was in hospital with appendicitis aged 9 my grandparents brought me two books by Patricia Leitch, someone I had never heard of, and this sparked my love of the Jinny books. Night of the Red Horse is the most supernatural of the stories which got my attention straight away. Once I finished the books I then wrote my own version, which were pretty hopeless as I knew nothing about horses. My heroine was called Jenny – fortunately I got more original as I got older.

I stumbled over this very book a few months ago as I was clearing out my old bedroom, and decided to collect the whole series again. As is my wont, I became obsessed by getting all the books in the same cover I had in my childhood. This wasn’t easy – of course !- the late 1980 Armada edition was rare. I scoured eBay, Abebooks and charity shops (a mistake, as I never found a Jinny book but I did find another book I wanted to buy – always!). Some sellers online told me rather snittily that they didn’t have time nor resources to find out which edition they had for sale and I would just be allocated one when I paid. As any serious book collector knows, the edition of the book is vital and I’m not sure someone who doesn’t understand books should be selling them!

My patience paid off, although it did include having a book sent over from South Africa (fortunately a friend in SA is coming over to the UK soon and was able to act as a carrier pigeon). I now have all 12 of my Jinny books again – including 2 individual copies of the double-book compendium I was originally given.

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Jinny is an 11 year old whose family move to the Scottish highlands from a grey city. On their way to Scotland the family see a circus and Jinny is entranced by an Arabian horse named Yasmin. When Yasmin escapes across the moors, Jinny makes it her mission to find her and keep her safe – never to tame her, as her wildness is what Jinny loves most about her.

Jinny’s passion for Yasmin – whom she renames Shantih – and her determination to win her over – is the main theme running through the series but even if you really don’t like horses you will still find these books engrossing. There are 12 of these books – written for children, ostensibly, but in my view they are much deeper and darker than mere pony stories. They deal with relationships, family, bravery, tolerance, and the various traumas of growing up. In my view Patricia Leitch was right to finish the series at book 12, rather than drag it out indefinitely like the Sweet Valley books (another series I avidly collected). Jinny’s burgeoning self-knowledge would have torn her away from her symbiotic relationship with Shantih and the magic of the Celts. Another joy of the books now is reading Jinny’s innocence through my adult eyes; her frustrations, fears and failures are all too easy to remember as my own.

These books are now republished by Catnip, if you want sparkling new copies – but I found mine on Amazon, eBay, Abebooks and through these sites:

www.childrensbookshop.com

www.clhawley.co.uk

There’s a real joy in stumbling upon and making a connection with independent booksellers. When I next go on one of my little jaunts, I think it will be to Hay-on-Wye: the kingdom of books.

I also stumbled upon The Grapes of Wrath. How have I misssed Steinbeck until now? (Of Mice and Men is a much shorter piece) What an incredible book. I lived it. I could smell the heat of that dreadful summer, feel the pangs of hunger the Boads learned to live with. The ending for me was not redemption so much as utter despair – but did I read it wrongly? Was there some hope for the future in Rosasharn’s action of mercy?

I also read the new Lisa Jewell – Then She Was Gone. BAH! I love Lisa’s warm, perfectly observed, extraordinary story of ordinary people and ordinary lives. I don’t want a psychological thriller from my ‘big sister’ author. The book is as perfectly written as always – Jewell gets emotion, sensation and dialogue spot on in her own inimitable style – but the plot is melodramatic and even I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for the length of it.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore’s last, did not hold me. It’s beautifully written as always enough but dragged – there’s only so long one can care about a builder slowly going bankrupt against the background of the French Revolution. I feel bad about being disappointed by this, and have ordered The Lie, which in my mind should be her last book and is a much more fitting epitaph.

And – because I have never read it – I tracked down Rosemary’s Baby from my library. Fabulous stuff, with much more depth than you would expect; and above all, a real chill which went from the top of my spine right down to the very tips of my toes. I love that chill as much now as I loved it nearly 30 years ago, prostrate in my hospital bed, reading about the Red Horse haunting Jinny Manders.

Mourning Helen

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I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.

I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.

When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.

If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.

She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

 

I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.

Captured by Candlelight

I indulged a great deal this Christmas. Possibly because last year it took all my strength to put one foot in front of the other, so I made up for it. Elton John tells us to step into Christmas, but I plunged headfirst into it, and came up smelling of cinnamon and cloves, covered in glitter which I can’t bring myself to wash off.

The title of this particular post is a perfume by 4160 Tuesdays – check it out.

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet wasn’t exactly festive reading, but it was an astonishing novel worthy of its place in the Booker list. It comprises of witness statements, a memoir from a jailed man, and other documents which the author apparently stumbled upon when looking up his family history. I am rather embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realise it wasn’t true at first, but the fact that it is fiction does not stop it being a powerful lesson on truth.

I was a few months late with Ali Smith’s Autumn but this was another wonderful read: deceptively light and gentle, with a great depth and tenderness interweaved through the story like gold thread through a tapestry. It’s about the relationship between Daniel Gluck, aged 101, and Elisabeth Demand, aged 30. But it’s also about artist Pauline Boty, who I immediately Googled once I’d finished.

The Tempest comes to life in Margaret Attwood’s latest, the Chinese-box narrative Hag-seed. The story is retold as a retired theatre director helps men in a prison put on their own version of the play. Spell-binding.

Continuing my investigation into new publications by some of my regular authors I enjoyed The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland. As always, her historical detail is both fascinating and sickening (the detail of how regular-sized babies are made into dwarves is particularly horrific). Not one to be read if one is of a sensitive disposition!

And then to Christmas reading; Silent Nights and Murder Under The Christmas Tree (anthologies of Christmas mysteries), The Mistletoe Murder, four great new stories by P D James, and The Children of Green Knowe which anyone who has ever been a child should read. The best by far though was Mark Forsyth’s A Christmas Cornucopia which tells you anything you ever needed to know about Christmas and a load of other stuff. Not only is it fascinating, it’s really, really well-written, and you could read it any time of the year, not just Christmas.

Inhaling all these words means that you have to exhale at some point, and I did yesterday – 2 hours of writing. It made me very happy. A good way to end the old year, and to welcome in the new one.

I wish anyone who’s taken the trouble to read this a very, very happy new year.

 

 

 

The Final Word

I have spent the entire time since my last post reading this book.

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Hefty tome, isn’t it? I was reading it in the local fish & chips shop as I waited for my order and a gentleman commented “That looks like light reading.” Indeed – over 3lbs of it, sir.

David Cesarani died months before Final Solution was published. To my mind this is the definitive work for not only those who want to study the Holocaust and the rise of anti-Semitism but also the psychology of us all: how quickly humans can turn on their brethren. How easily we transform from the epitome of civility into creatures more bestial than animals.

I started reading this book before I went on holiday and I had to hand it back to the library (a) because someone else wanted it, (b) because it was way too heavy to take with me and (c) because I needed a break from the horrendous truth of what people can do to other people. I am glad I have finished it though. It is immensely readable, even though the subject matter is such agony. It is painstakingly researched and no sin is left uncovered. It was as difficult to read as you can imagine and more so. In some paragraphs my eyes skidded away from the text and on others they were hooked onto words as if on barbed wire, unable to believe what they were seeing. At one point I had to put the book down and do something else because I couldn’t take what I was reading – but I always returned to it. If people suffered unimaginable cruelties the least I could do was read about it, and bear witness to it.

Thank you, Professor Cesarani. Rest in peace; God knows you deserve to.

Coming up next:

Mount! by Jilly Cooper. My copy arrived 2 weeks ago and I was desperate to start it but I needed to finish Final Solution first. I wrote to Jilly to inform and she promised she understands!

Sumer is icumin in…

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The Wicker Man

…and then it icumined out again. Still, nice when it lasted wasn’t it. I spent most of it (all 1.5 days) lying in my parents’ garden in a bikini reading. In the early evening the sun dropped behind the massive tree dad is always muttering about chopping down, but there was still muted gold light on the hill behind our house so I walked up the Park and sat on the road amongst the sheep. The tarmac had trapped the heat so it was like sitting on a gentle Aga. (Last time I sat on a not so gentle Aga I wound up burning my bottom and it’s not as funny as it sounds.)

SO what was I reading? I know at least one person knows because she asked me to write my blog again which was very gratifying – thank you!

The first was What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. A rather odd but enjoyable collection of stories, some of which left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth like liquorice. (Apart from I bloody hate liquorice.) Then I read Emma Donoghue’s new short story collection, Astray. I think Donoghue is one of the most versatile talented authors on this planet: she writes in different styles depending on her mood/subject and while some people frown on that I think it’s a real art.  When I was sixteen I wrote to an agent who told me that I couldn’t write in different voices and that each author has to have their one recongisable vein or they risk disappointing their reader, but I disagree: I look forward to every book by Donoghue, and you couldn’t find more different novels than, say, Room and Slammerkin.

I’m afraid I also committed my cardinal sin of not-Magnus-Magnussing, and giving up on a book. This was Communion Town, another short story collection: not a bad book at all, just not my style. The stories started going into oddness and parallel-dimension-wise, and this isn’t my cup of tea at all. They were well written but I found myself losing patience with them and besides which I was DESPERATE to open the new Mo Hayder: Poppet.

Mo Hayder is a spine-chilling and very distinct horror writer. You need a strong stomach when you read her stuff (I think Tokyo is the ‘worst’) but you also need a brain, and that’s not always required when reading horror! Poppet was fiercely original, a bit sickening and very more-ish like eating something you shouldn’t. (Reminds me of when I was doing the housework and wound up eating seven – count’em! – marshmallow snowballs in 1 hour.)

I also discovered the author Rupert Thomson. His new novel Secrecy is so lush and rich I didn’t know whether to gobble it up or roll in it. In the end I just read it, which is the proper thing to do with books. It was like a peepshow in which you got to look at 17th century Italy through a rather grimy hole: the story of a young sculpter forced to his home accused of crime he did not commit and landing in even more trouble in Florence. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Finally, I’ve just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. She’s another author who isn’t afraid to write in a different style and this novel echoes her fiercely original and readable debut Behind The Scenes at the Museum. It examines the tiny moments in our lives which act as pivots and how something seemingly slight can drastically alter not just our futures, but those of others as well. The plot stumbles at points, but not enough to put you off; and when it got to the denouement I said “Oh!” out loud which doesn’t happen very often.

I think when a character raps on your mind’s window and goes “Oi!” there’s notlightoftheworld much you can do about it, and if you decide that character/story/idea won’t fit with what people expect of you you risk turning down a gift. Everything I’ve written has not come from me but from that tentative knock, kind of like a bastardised Light of the World (sorry Mr Hunt I do really love that painting). My literary-so-called-life and its rat-a-tat-tats consists of:

– My first ever book written aged 8: Keri Part 1. I never got to part 2. Keri and her elder sister Lucy lived in 1988 but wore crinolines and parasols (I was reading Little Women).

– A cartoon book about a dog called Woody Wellington, a flying spider called Tamoshanta, an owl called Mrs Miggs and a ‘groovy duck’ called Spike. I never got it published but  I made up a copy for Josie Russell, the sole survivor of a hammer attack on her family. The letter I got back from her father is one of my most prized posessions.

My Brother the Hero about Margery and her brother Mike and something to do with a football. I can’t remember why Mike was a hero, but he was.

– Seven Sisters: a 44 (at last count) chapter epic about seven sisters, oddly enough. The first time my naughty side came out. When I’m good, I’m very very good … but when I’m bad, you wouldn’t recognise me.

The Telephone Bird: the first proper book I finished. I got bored during my GCSEs and wrote it. The computer corrupted the file and I had to rewrite the whole thing. At the time I felt like one of my best friends had died, but the rewrite made it better. (Than ever? Well I was 16, what do you think?) I hope it’s not arrogant to occasionally dip into that and go “Man. That girl wasn’t half bad when she was young.”

A Makeless Maiden: the title is bizarre and nothing to do with the story, but it’s the second proper book I finished. I am still terribly fond of my awkward music teacher Elon and the eccentric Parrish family. I entered it for a competition a few years ago and got shortlisted for a bursary. It was very dull compared to all the other entries, I think. They were all about eighteenth-century-surrealism and finding oneself in remote corners of Scotland. Mine was about a guy who played the piano and blushed easily.

Those Are Pearls, which I wrote when I was about 18, about a girl whose mother is dying. I like this. (I like what I wrote not that her mother was dying.)

Tread Softly, Breathe Deeply – a collection of supernatural/odd stories some of which are very disturbing, particularly when you think a couple of them came from my dreams.

Mermaids in Satin – about a girl whose mum is a famous model or actress or something. Just a bit of meaningless tosh; the equivalent of a literary fling. Going nowhere and utterly meaningless, but fun.

That’s without counting other characters, stories and plots I’ve stumbled across, like walking through a ploughed field and turning up a Roman coin. I’m lucky in that I’ve still got 95% of everything I’ve ever written curling in spidery boxes in the garage but that’s where they sit, and whisper ever so often to me. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to dig them out – not because they will be rubbish but because they might be the best I’ll ever do. To quote Yeats:

There is grey in your hair.

Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath

When you are passing*

*They never DID IN THE FIRST PLACE, but it’s an allegory, okay?

Recently I was trying on dresses and worrying that a hemline was too short; that the back was too low; that I’m too old for sequins. Ten years ago (or maybe a few more *ahem*) I’d have been dressing to show off my cleavage, stomach, legs, bottom and back – all the same time if I could. Obviously one cannot dress like that at 33, but I wouldn’t really want to.

But I would like to write like I used to. I would like to get that feeling back of being utterly taken over by writing: when it’s all you think about, all you can do, when you sit at the computer and type without looking at the keyboard or thinking because the words are bypassing your brain and going right down your arm and spilling out through your fingers like quicksilver; because they’re not yours. After a bit you blink and look at the screen and know that what you’re reading is good because you can’t remember writing it.

Perhaps it’s time to let my writing self out again. I don’t know if I dare, any more than I dare wear this undeniably sexy but equally undeniably flashy silver dress hanging in my wardrobe. I’m frightened of looking stupid and being laughed at in both, and ultimately failing. I do think W. C. Fields was right when he said:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.

But perhaps I’ve never really tried in the first place. Perhaps it takes longer than the timescale I set myself when I made a conscious decision to make writing my Thing. I was six when I read Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters; although Ashford published the book as an adult she was eight when she wrote it and I remember thinking “I’ve only got two years left”.

If my six-year-old self could see me now…

A Catfish in the Kalahari?

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How pissed off would you be to be a giraffe and still have to stand on tiptoe?

Good evening, Gentle Reader. I am of course watching David Attenborough’s Africa, and loving it quite immensely. Not just because Attenborough is one my most favourite men ever, because everything is quite alright at the moment. I’m not saying it’s perfect, Gods of Fate, if you’re listening, so you needn’t accuse me of complacency – but it’s just nice.

Let me tell you about the oddest thing that happened to me this week which has made me extraordinarily happy. The story starts when I am approximately 3 years old, playing in my grandparents’ garden. When my mum’s at work this is where I spend most of my time. It’s in Ye Olde Days, which means that summer is hot, fiercely hot, grass-scorchingly hot, and I’m doing something with the dog, dressing her up in Great Auntie Min’s shawl I suspect. My gran is in the kitchen, probably bashing a crab with a mallet or putting clothes through the mangle (yes it was a while ago) and she has Radio 4 playing. I half-listen to it and then my ears prick up because the story is about a little girl who goes missing, and her name is Christine – which is my mum’s name.

The shawl slips off the dog. I stop paying attention. Even at this age I’ve got an interest in the unusual and the spooky and I creep closer to the kitchen window so I’m standing on the patio, right underneath it. The story ends with the little girl never being found, and the odd involvement of a boy named Harry. The last lines are “And that name. Harry.”

It frightens me, and fear is something I’ve not yet learned to rationalise or contain. I struggle with my cold prickling dread for a while, but eventually it overwhelms me. I burst into tears and run inside to tell my gran that I’m frightened that my mum will be kidnapped by this ‘Harry’ because her name is Christine, too.

The best thing to do when something frightens you, no matter how old you are, is to tell someone Grown Up so they can put their arms around you, press your tear-stained face into their flour-dusted apron and tell you everything is just fine.

That story stays with me. Every so often I try to track it down. I spend a lot of time ordering old copies of the ghost story collections I remember from primary school in case it’s in there. With the advent of the internet I log on forums to ask if anyone knows the story, and google the lines to no avail. I did this as recently as Christmas 2012. My fascination with the story and longing to know what ‘Harry’ did has never abated.

Last week I decided to treat myself to a few things on my Amazon wishlist, and I got Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories which had been on my list for about 4 years. When it arrived I idly flicked through it to get an idea of what was in it; and it opened on the last page of a story called ‘Harry’. There was the final line:

And that name. Harry. Such an ordinary name!

I couldn’t believe it. I looked frantically to the story’s beginning and yes, there’s Christine, a little girl with red hair. I’d found the story I have spent nigh on 29 years looking for and it is far more spine-chilling and dark than I’d remembered. The anthology in itself is a masterpiece; Dahl says in the introduction that he thinks he has chosen the best ghost stories ever, having read about a billion, and I don’t think he’s far wrong. I’d like to see If She Bends, She Breaks by John Gordon or The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce in there (as a starter) but each story in there is a real gem and I encourage anyone who enjoys being spooked to have a look.

SO. What else have I been reading, I hear you cry?

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur – Jean Claude Ellena
I ought to start this review by saying I am a bit of a perfume fanatic (Jean Claude Ellena created my favourite ever scent L’eau d’Hiver) so it might not interest those who aren’t. The book explains the origins of some very popular scents and how synthetic fragrances are built from certain elements. I’d never really thought before about the complexities of creating a new perfume, and how long it takes: not just the fragrance itself, but the bottle, the name, the advertising. Ellena says something about how the advert makes you want to be the woman in the perfume and only the fragrance itself should make you want to wear it (I haven’t got my copy to hand so forgive me if I misquote that line) and the history of fragrance is also touched upon.

“Touched upon” sums the book up really: there’s nothing deep about it, and it’s a little thin. I suppose it is as hard to pin down the beauty of fragrance, just as hard as it is to pin down the beauty of music without experiencing it, so perhaps the best thing to do is read the book and sniff some of the perfumes Ellena writes about when you next pop into DutyFree, letting one element complement the other.

The Sick Rose – Erin Kelly
Oh rose, thou art sick! And Kelly, thou art good. If you enjoyed The Poison Tree on TV, get the book by Erin Kelly out. It’s about a billion times better than the TV series based on it and Kelly just gets better in The Sick Rose, the story of two very damaged people coming together. This book reminded me of Barbara Vine which is about as high an accolade as you can get (from me).

A Christmas Carol (on Christmas Eve!)
Of course.

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton – Diane Atkinson
Mr Norton decided to sue the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, over his alleged adultery with the aforementioned Mrs Norton. Caroline Norton, nee Sheridan, turns out to be one of the first feminists, fighting her husband and the law to get her children back. A devastating book and a story which should be much better known than it was.

Still Standing – Paul O’Grady
Paul O’Grady’s autobiographies are laugh-out-loud funny and this one, about the birth of Lily Savage, is no exception. I’d really like to go out for dinner with Paul who I think is fabulous, followed by a nice cup of a tea in a pub somewhere. So Paul, if you’re reading, drop me a line.

A Possible Life – Sebastian Faulks
This is more a collection of short stories which have very slight interlocking elements. Some of them are better than others. The story of a POW during World War II is very disturbing; another, set in the near future, is not so gripping. But it was a gripping read nonetheless.

I am not going to link to these books as I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn’t finish either of them – Swimming Home by Debra Levy, which was just rather dull, and Not Me, by Joachim Fest, about a childhood in Nazi Germany which wasn’t very interesting either. I am sure that this reflects worse on me than it does on the authors. So I moved on to

The Prince of Mist – Carlos Ruz Zafon
This is a really unusual and beautiful book. It’s written for young adults but I am a not-so-young-adult and was captivated by this sinister story of magic and the supernatural. It’s set during World War II when a family move into an old house and discover some disturbing old films.

Into That Darkness – Gitta Sereny
This was the story of Franz Stangel, who started working on the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme and then became commander of one of the four extermination camps. It’s written as a study on human behaviour rather than the Holocaust and, as with all Sereny’s work, is carefully observed and written to examine rather than to shock. By the end of it though I had made a decision – no more dark books for a while. I felt ill and unhappy. I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around the dreadful things people are capable of no matter how much I read or attempt to understand – so, after finishing it, I ‘cleansed my literary pallette’ with dear Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody.

I then went onto

The Origins of Sex – Farmerz Dabhoiwala
No it’s not Adam, Eve and the snake who went places he shouldn’t. It’s about the sexual revolution, enlightenment, and so on. How we went from being madly prudish to madly relaxed and then the other way around and where we are now. It’s historically very interesting and most amusing without being obscene.

One on One – Craig Brown
Craig Brown has taken small incidents in history – meetings between famous people like Rodin, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler, Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and others – and written entertaining little stories around them. He’s obviously done a huge amount of research and it pays off. This is the kind of book you might find in someone’s loo. I mean that as a compliment, incidentally. The loo would have a warm mahogany seat and carpet; the kind of bathroom where you decide to spend the afternoon because you don’t really want to join everyone else making polite conversation in the sitting-room.

Anyway. The Kalahari has a great lake in it and in the middle of it, in the pitch black, are blind catfish, swimming around, hoping that something might fall in the lake by mistake so they can eat it. What a way to live. Also, giraffes (giraves?) have to stand on tip-toe sometimes. What’s the point of having a long neck if it isn’t long enough? Sometimes I’m glad I don’t live in the Kalahari. Quite a lot of the time, actually, come to think of it.

Oh by the way – that story, Harry, was by Rosemary Timperley, and now I know what it’s called it’s bloody everywhere. It’s in about sixteen different languages. Someone is reading it on Youtube in Swahili.

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.)