Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’


“Christmas is for the children”,
It’s a truth I can’t deny,
The presents, songs and snow fall,
On those you can rely.

But adulthood became a chore,
An annual long, exhausting drive
Between the two headline events,
To keep our parents’ hopes alive.

For many years I tried to keep
December’s clutches at arms’ length,
But as each passing year sweeps by
I just don’t have the strength.

Its claws dig deep and earlier,
And pierce my inattentive heart;
No more indifferently immune
To its sharp, insidious dart.

Despite my ears that are assailed
Through October, November long
By Aled, Pogues, Mud, Wings and Wham,
And that infernal Slade sing-song.

Large family revelries now in the past,
Dear parents, and their parents, long gone,
Diluting the shimmer of the show and
Bequeathing a muted and less joyful throng.

But now it is again a welcome treat –
Panto, choral concerts, feasts and plays,
Tours of dazzling lights at Leeds and Kew,
“German” market trips and shopping days.

The season’s music never fails to thrill:
King’s College Cambridge, Ella, Bing and Dean,
Perennial playlist for the biggest day of all,
Soundtrack to a merry Christmas scene.

Vintage movies too take pride of place,
Dusted down from off the topmost shelf,
A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street,
It’s A Wonderful Life, Love Actually and Elf.

So here I am now, two weeks to go,
Already neatly labelled and wrapped tight,
Unlike the presents I have yet to buy,
Far too early yet for that “delight”!

Is it age that makes me reconnect?
A sign that days are hastening on?
A desperate clinging to an ideal past,
Now the future is uncertain, short or long?

Is it my childhood Christian faith,
Gently prodded by my parents’ mind,
That now provokes renewed affection;
No – that has long been left behind.

If it is one thing, it is the music
That still inspires and enraptures me,
Uniting my juvenile and recent years,
Inducing tears to flow from memory.

So I look forward now to Christmas,
The kids, the carols and the theatre live,
The turkey, sprouts, exchange of gifts
And even that long northbound drive.

But one disturbing image still remains –
I won’t be able to suppress a groan
When Noddy Holder clears his throat
And yells “It’s Christmas” to everyone!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Firstly, regular readers will be delighted to learn that this account will be considerably shorter than the majority of posts on the road trip. It was the longest ‘road” day, 309 miles from Music City USA (Nashville) to the Gateway to the West (St Louis). And, despite driving in four different states, a largely uneventful one.

I kept my promise to finish the sandwich we had had “boxed” in Ole Red’s on Broadway the night before, though, even heated in the microwave, it was much less palatable than it had been twelve hours before.

After a confusing episode over the correct recycling bin in which to place glass, paper, plastic and trash, we left the bungalow at 10am.

 

At first, on the outskirts of Nashville and towards Clarksville, the traffic was heavy, which is a relative term given the emptiness of roads on much of the trip.

We made an early “elevenses” stop at a drive-thru Starbucks near Trenton.

Trucks were our constant companions as we crossed the stateline into Kentucky. Fedex was particularly prominent, at one point four appeared to be travelling in convoy.

Squashed critters and burnt out tyres, unsurprisingly in the light of the poor road surface in places, dotted the hard shoulder.

The temperature gauge approached the mid eighties, despite the scudding clouds. There was a hint of autumn in the changing of the leaves on the trees that stood sentry on either side of the highway.

The bridge over the Red River injected some welcome variety into the endlessly bland scenery.

As we drove deeper into Kentucky, the roads became emptier, and we were back to enjoying them by ourselves for miles on end.

The road signs, always a fascination for me, became the only distractions for dozens of miles.


We had broken the back of the journey by the time we reached Mount Vernon, and our thoughts turned to lunch.

Cracker Barrel had been a regular stop on the two coach trips we had taken in the late nineties, but we had not patronised much in recent years.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is a chain of combined restaurant and gift stores with a Southern country theme. It operates 645 stores in 44 states. Its menu is based on traditional Southern cuisine with appearance and decor designed to resemble an old-fashioned general store, with reasonable prices. We both plumped for an American fried breakfast.

It was clear that the store was already heavily geared up for both Halloween and Christmas.

Kentucky begat Illinois begat Missouri as we entered the environs of St Louis. After three hours of empty roads it came as a shock to encounter the early rush hour hubbub of a major city.

Nevertheless, our trusty Google sat nav delivered us effortlessly to our home for the next three nights in an attractive suburb. In keeping with the diversity of accommodation we had booked on this trip, we were now staying in a bed and breakfast.

I was immediately impressed that the owners, Magretta and Chuck, were politically motivated, as indicated by the placards in the front garden. Chuck, along with amiable dogs, Spike and Haley, gave us a thorough guided tour of the property before we settled into our rooms.

20181010_103536

Although the features in the property were generally old, we were graced with the presence of a whirlpool bath. Most of the time we had been on the road, we had become accustomed to either a short, shallow bath or a shower. This proved quite a challenge, at least for me as I could not help myself sliding around in it once I had negotiated climbing into it in the first place. Application of the jets proved well beyond my capability.

As it had been a relatively long day on the road, we decided to eat in the neighbourhood on our first evening. A ten minute walk found us at the Shaved Duck, where we had a lovely meal, served by a delightful young woman, and with a guitarist playing a gentle blend of folk tunes as accompaniment.

20181009_204033

A slightly longer stroll brought us to the Tick Tock Tavern, a quirky but friendly pub where gin and tonics were only $5 (we had paid as much as $12 in earlier locations).

We had two full days in St Louis with a generally benign weather forecast ahead of us.

 

 

Read Full Post »


This is where east meets west,
Dover Road and Augusta Gardens;
Where DFLs mix with Folky born and breds,
Cold war adjourned for one warm afternoon.

Tram Road traffic crawls and curls
Around a heaving Harbour Street,
Affording passengers an extended view
Of much loved, yet loathed, Grand Burstin.

A brisk breeze, cooling the searing sun,
Sweeps champagne flutes to a watery end
In the chastening Channel spray
That laps the lighthouse;
Proof that, sometimes, weather
Can be a first to place and time.

Sinatra’s call to Come Fly with Me
Gives way to the eclectic sounds
That entertain the growing queues
For Sole Kitchen and Hog and Hop.
While the Native Oyster Band
Has the crowds singing and swaying,
Kadialy Kouyate’s kora mesmerises,
Bringing the authentic sounds of
New Orleans and Senegal to
This English coastal paradise.

Children build bricks to knock them down,
Dash between Baba Ji and Pick Up Pintxos
Or search for the iron man in the water,
(Don’t worry, kids, he will be back!).


But if the heat and tumult are too much
And it is peace you pine for,
Retire inside to the Mole Cafe
For a mug of strong, hot tea
And a chocolate swiss roll,
Reminders of a quieter,
Yet more violent, time.

Tomorrow, normal service will be resumed;
DFLs will become RTLs
(Work it out!);
The Arm will be handed back
To anglers, cormorants and
A few unsuspecting souls,
Drenched by crashing waves
Cascading over the Folkestone sign.

But is this the lull before the storm?
Eden before the Fall?
Will those blissful views across
To ancient East Cliff and to Sunny Sands
Be there to inspire us still
In three, or five, or ten, years?

Or will the thunder of pick and drill
Drown out those of bass and drum?

Read Full Post »


It is now four months since my father passed away.

With the initial practical issues now largely dealt with, apart from the small matter of selling his house, my thoughts turn more to him as a man and parent. And with Christmas approaching, a time of year when he was in his element, I feel his absence more acutely.

Dad was born on Valentine’s Day eighty eight years ago, the eldest of four brothers, and a sister who died in childhood. After attending the local primary school, he gained a place at the most prestigious secondary school in the area. He proudly recalled that he also spent a term at the neighbouring girls’ school due to his buildings being requisitioned for the war effort.

He joined the Army in 1945, claiming that his arrival precipitated Hitler’s departure, a theory at least corroborated by the calendar, and was based in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar for four years. His duties included recording the births and deaths of the island apes! One of the happiest moments of his later years was revisiting the “Rock” on his eightieth birthday with my wife and I, though he was mortified to discover that his barracks was now a particularly dowdy branch of Marks and Spencer!

Returning home, he met the love of his life, Betty, and they were married in August 1950. I joined the party two years later. Most of his working life was spent in the administration of education in the London area, including County Hall which sits beneath the iconic London Eye. It is one of my regrets that he didn’t get to take a “flight” on it before he died. He took early retirement in 1986, giving him the opportunity to play golf and tend his garden more often, as well as travel around the country with my mother.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

His life was turned upside down in 2004 when Mum died of cancer. In fifty four years of marriage, they had only spent one night apart. I had always thought that my mother would survive her husband’s death more successfully than the other way round.

But he surprised me.

Though her passing left him bereft and desperately lonely most of the time, he returned within months to his former social life, including playing bingo and dancing, which they had so enjoyed together. He even took his first flight in visiting his surviving brothers in Spain. For nearly four years, he continued to maintain an active social life, looking forward in particular to Thursday evenings when he kept up a tradition of nearly sixty years by meeting up with his closest friends to play snooker at a local working men’s club. There may not have been many breaks of 147, or even 14 for that matter, made on those occasions, but they were filled with laughter and much non-politically correct ranting but, above all, affection.

But then in August 2008, he suffered a stroke which was followed quickly by a heart attack and kidney failure. Though he recovered after several days in critical care, his mobility was progressively restricted thereafter and his self-confidence was shattered virtually overnight.

He was never the same man afterwards.

Although he remained in his home, he was no longer capable of carrying out everyday chores such as cleaning, shopping (other than at the corner store) and clothes washing/ironing  all of which fell to my wife and I. Carers visited him two or three times a days to cook the meals I had bought for him and check on his wellbeing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While Janet and I took him out for meals and to the theatre from time to time, he became increasingly disinclined to leave his home, content to watch Sky Sports from dawn to dusk on his new flat screen television. Living close by I was able to visit him two or three times a week and speak to him on the telephone every day.

He became increasingly negative about life in his last few years. For all that I and the health professionals did for him to make life comfortable, we could not do the one thing that he craved above every other thing.

Bring my mother back.

Comments like “throw me in a corner and leave me to die”, supplemented by ” you won’t have to worry about me anymore and can get on with your own life” became more frequent. His trips to hospital were a relief for him because he wasn’t surrounded by memories, and was attended to constantly rather than for half an hour a couple of times a day.

A particularly nasty fall in early 2013 led him to become virtually housebound. Intermittent falls in the home and a succession of infections meant periodic stays in hospital or respite care for the remainder of his life. The “final straw” came when he choked on a drink at the nursing home in March 2015, leading to an aspiration pneumonia diagnosis, a condition that just could not be beaten and which ultimately led to heart failure and death five months later.

During that period, and on previous occasions, he was deprived of the one real, enduring pleasure he still had – food. Nil by mouth or mashed up potatoes and carrots were no substitute for a hearty roast dinner or fish and chips. The last time I saw him genuinely enjoying himself was when he was tucking into the mountainous Christmas dinner Janet had prepared for him at his home last year. The turkey, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, parsnips and stuffing, followed by Christmas pudding and custard, must have weighed three or four times that of the microwaved meals he was accustomed, yet he cleared every scrap. And then had cheese board and biscuits a few hours later!

1419513144089.jpg

Just prior to the choking attack that triggered his ultimate demise, I had sneaked in a bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate to the nursing home. Despite the fact that, but an hour before, he had eaten a three course lunch, he devoured most of it within minutes!  He did have the good grace, however, to offer me a couple of squares!

He had been an enthusiastic sportsman, playing tennis in his early married days before becoming a reliable and popular member of a local cricket team. An average batsman and occasional bowler, it was in fielding that he excelled. It wasn’t just that he was a “safe pair of hands”, but he was able to use another part of his anatomy to great effect. Being amply proportioned, he perfected the art of bouncing the ball off his stomach to waiting team mates who would then catch it!

Though he rarely reached double figures, he played the occasional memorable innings, no more so than at a game in Faversham on a Bank Holiday Monday when, having been knockrd momentarily unconscious during the first innings by the home team’s fearsome West Indian fast bowler, and having his glasses shattered in the process, he returned in the second innings to win the match almost single-handed in the fading ligh with a score of 36, his second highest ever score.

It was through cricket that he taught me not only my love of the game but my affection for my home county of Kent. Summer weekends between the age of eight and sixteen were spent visiting delightful Wealden villages such as Goudhurst, Nursed, Hadlow and Addington, invariably on a bone-shaking double decker bus or in the back of a team member’s Morris Minor. And during the week in the school holidays we would take long rambling walks to exotic places such as Pig’s Hole Bottom.

Dad was afflicted, as, of course, was I, at an early age with the family curse of supporting Gillingham Football Club, always claiming, even when the club had risen to the second tier of English football in 2000, that the team of the late nineteen forties, which plied its trade in non-league, was the best.

He loved to tell the story of the game when, shortly after they were married, he and my mother were sat in the old Gordon Road Stand, and one of the crowd repeatedly yelled at an opposition player, calling him a “sod”. When the local vicar, sat a few rows behind, protested, Dad jumped to the man’s defence by exclaiming “it’s in the Bible you know”!

He would have been so thrilled to learn that “the Gills” were top of the league at the time of his death, though he would have added that “it won’t last”!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Above all, he was a highly sociable man, the veritable “life and soul of the party”. One story that epitomised this occurred on the family’s first holiday abroad to Ireland in 1968.

On the first Saturday evening a timid group of six adults and three teenagers made its way to the local bar where they were forced to endure two hours of Irish rebel songs, bellowed out passionately by the local menfolk.

Eventually, one of the men turned to their “guests” and proclaimed it was now their turn to sing. Undeterred, and fuelled by several libations from the well of Arthur Guinness, Dad leapt to his feet and delivered to a bewildered but ecstatic audience his party piece of The Winkle Song with its immortal chorus, of “my old woman and ‘er seven kids were a-pickin’ all the big ones out”!

The English family holidaying in the former jailhouse were local celebrities overnight, so much so that we were given the keys to another local bar for our exclusive use any time, and told to close up when we’d finished!

He could deliver word perfect renditions of the famous monologues, Gunga Din and There’s a Green Eyed Yellow Idol to the North of Kathmandu. And, at this time of year, he and his eldest brother would bring the house down at social events with their heartfelt singing of See Amid the Winter’s Snow.

He was never a “dad dancer” (indeed, he and Mum were extremely competent ballroom dancers), but he could embarrass my teenage self by  being the loudest, and admittedly, the most tuneful voice in church or other venue where communal singing was required.

It was all this which made his last years in which he was almost afraid to mix with people all the more heartbreaking. Every health professional – nurse, doctor, carer, health visitor –  remarked that he was a “lovely man”,  always smiling and grateful for whatever service they provided. Whilst I often saw the other side when we quarrelled about his negativity – when I often reminded him that his wife would not have stood for any self-pity had she been alive – there is no question that he was all of those things.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As father and son, we shared few genuinely intimate moments – for example, I don’t ever recall anything approaching the “birds and bees” conversation – but we did share hundreds of occasions together of elation and despair, mostly the latter, on the football terraces.

According to my mother, his first words on seeing his son and heir were “if he doesn’t like sport, I’ll have nothing to do with him”. I’m sure it was meant in jest, but there was real feeling in it. He needn’t have worried. In fact, my obsession with cricket and football in particular drove him to distraction during my childhood, especially when I returned home from school at the end of each term with a report that referred to my preference for Gillingham Football Club over my studies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I know he was proud of me, even though there were times when I tested his loyalty.  We had fallen out periodically over my life choices, and we would argue constantly but good-naturedly about politics and sport. But there was mutual respect, admiration and, yes, love, in those exchanges.

He did enjoy introducing me to friends and acquaintances as his daughter during the years when my hair was exceedingly long, but it was done with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.

Until the last few months when he was incapable of doing so, we had spoken almost every day. There have been few days  since he died when I haven’t gone to pick up the telephone to call him to discuss the previous night’s live televised football game or give him some juicy sporting gossip that he would not have otherwise been aware of.

Or just to check that he was Ok.

Which he is now, of course.

Though I’m not sure I can say the same.

 

 

 

(more…)

Read Full Post »


This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.

I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:

there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.

That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy – Kate Rusby

This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.

Read Full Post »


It’s mid-December. A seven year old boy in crew cut and tiny shorts sits cross-legged on the cold wooden floor of the school assembly hall, singing, or rather miming, along to:

Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir

We will lend a coat of fur

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

We will rock you, rock you, rock you

See the fur to keep you warm

Snugly round your tiny form

Fast forward to 2am on Christmas morning. A short, portly figure creeps into the child’s room, cursing through Watney Red Barrel breath that he really should have delivered on his year old promise to oil the door hinges.

He places the bulging paper sack at the end of the bed, applauding himself for fooling his son once for what might just be the last time, that he is a certain someone else.

Seven hours later, his excitement at receiving the microscope and Beano Annual spent, the child bounds into four inches of new-fallen snow in the back yard. Turning swiftly at the fake Santa’s voice, he is hit full square between the eyes with a gently rolled but deadly fastball. Tears follow as readily as the squeals of delight that had greeted the contents of the sack.

But there is neither time for crying nor testing the capacity of the new chemistry set to blow up the house. The traditional whistle stop tour around the houses of friends and neighbours beckons. The breathalyser, legal drink drive limit and compulsory seat belt legislation have all yet to be introduced, and few drivers think of the potentially dire consequences of having a “drink for Christmas” at every one. It is fortunate, therefore, that Mrs Santa takes the wheel. 

And then the main event. Three tables of varying design, height, width and degree of wobbliness are wedged together, and an equally motley assortment of chairs are looted from every available room to complete the scene. Fifteen places are set for a party that spans three generations.

The grandfather, prior to the ceremonial carving of the turkey, leads the toast to his wife and their four daughters-in-law for the preparation of the feast. Secretly, he prays that there will be enough of the bird leftover to lie with his beloved piccalilli in the sandwiches he will take to work at the Royal Navy dockyard.

Even the normally taciturn budgerigar averts its permanent gaze through net curtains onto the street outside to join in the festivities by trilling along to Ella, Dean and Bing on the radio in the opposite corner.

As the remnants of the Christmas and mincemeat puddings are laid away, the cooks, their work done, turn their attention to Billy Smart’s Circus on the small black and white television.

The men are consigned to the kitchen to discharge their traditional washing up duties and the children squabble over who gets the next ride on the new sledge in the snowy back yard. Postprandial slumbers are the order of the next two hours before, prompted by the junior members of the party, it is time for “tree presents”.

Television plays only a peripheral role in Christmases of this era, losing out by mid evening to a family singalong. The favourite uncle, worse for wear from a cocktail of cheap fizz, Party Seven beer and Bols advocaat, leads the traditional rendition of the Music Man who “comes from down your way”. The children wrestle their weariness as they “pi-a-pi-a-pi-a-no” and “umpa-umpa-umpapa” to their heart’s content, their giggling intensified by the bandleader flicking his loose front tooth up and down with his tongue as they sing. 

Boxing Day is barely two hours old when the ladies ascend the stairs to sleep, but only after they have, after customary mock protests, prepared Irish coffees for their increasingly inebriated husbands. Their departure lends licence to the grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, male cousins and grandsons to fight for every available inch of floor space in the lounge. A ritual as old as the monarch’s Christmas message or brussel sprouts is about to be played out  – the annual “world farting contest”, the title of champion having been proudly borne for nearly a decade by the child’s youngest and supremely flatulent uncle. 

But as the boy drifts into a long overdue sleep, his only thoughts are of the seasonal event that is second only to opening of that sack nearly twenty four hours earlier – the Boxing Day football match.

Read Full Post »


Or it may not be.

For doesn’t the music you prefer to listen to so often reflect the mood that you are in at that moment in time?

And then there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching thirty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely (sorry X Factor) to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way).

So I have tried to avoid these potential pitfalls and focus on those songs and performances that transcend current inclination or mood.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the excrutiating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties – and are the bane of my life at this time of year. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of Fairytale of New York, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow –  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by In the Bleak Midwinter, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing – Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I turn to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory – King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to hold a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow – King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols such as Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night, While Shepherds Watched, O little Town of Bethlehem, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell and O Come All Ye Faithful might be thought to have bred – far from it, but these and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – Rocking and Away in A Manger which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

See Amid the Winter’s Snow has added resonance too in that this was my father and eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. Fuelled by a cocktail of beer, wine, gin and tonic and Irish coffee (not all at once though), they would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy  Kate Rusby

This should have been The First Tree in the Greenwood but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph – Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the faith be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

So you’ve heard mine. What are your favourites?

Please let me know either by commenting at the end of this post, or replying via Facebook or Twitter.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »