Monday, 24 December 2012

The true meaning of Christmas

It’s the 24th December.  Sunrise, here at 52° North, was at 8.05 and sunset will be at 15.55.  Sorry, Christians, but that’s what Christmas is about.  It might be different in South Africa or Australia, or even in California and Florida, but here in Britain, this is very obviously the sad and sorry time of the year.  More than two thirds of the day are in darkness, with the sun abysmally low at noon and a good chance of lowering clouds and pouring rain to cut down the light even further. What do we have to look forward to in the coming weeks, but ice, snow, chill, rheumatism, transport snarl-ups and misery.  So it goes without saying that Christmas, conveniently parked next to the Winter solstice, is the one ‘Christian’ festival that a secular society has clung to, for reasons that have nothing to do with official religion.
Just as we have clung to the need for bonfires and fireworks to mark the onset of the dark, without really giving a toss about 17th century terrorists trying to blow up Parliament, so we stick to an instinctive need to celebrate wildly and illogically in the very heart of darkness.  We want singing and noise, we want feasting and drunkenness, to cheer us up and, most of all, we want reassurance that this isn’t the onset of the end but a turning point, that from here on, the days are going to start getting just that little bit longer.  We want light: candles, and fairy lights on the Christmas tree if we no longer have the yule log blazing. We want families, to reassure us that we belong somewhere, even if we finish up snarling at each other.
Most of all, we want tradition.  We want ritual, the same thing, year after year, the same ritual food, even the sprouts that nobody likes and pudding that everyone is too stuffed to tackle.  We want the same songs, the choir boy singing Once in Royal, the same Slade and Bing.  We want to watch infants perform the same nativity plays really badly, and the same… well, things haven’t quite been the same since the loss of Morecombe and Wise, but there’s always the Midsomer Murders Christmas special.  It has to be the same, because then we know that it’s all one big cycle.  It comes around and it goes around. The light will come back, the days will be once again be long and warm and sunny.  Never mind that warm sunny days are as much a myth as snowy Christmases, it’s the thought that counts.  The carefully nurtured illusion.
We need Christmas when it is, how it is, because we’ve still got to get through January.  The mysterious birth of a baby fits beautifully with our need for the notion of new beginnings,  just as the vulgarity, the frantic shopping and the absurdly extravagant spending on unwanted gifts and pointless frills, fit with the lord of misrule in us all that is itching to come out and defy this full stop of the year.  We need to turn everything upside down, like we did last year and we will insist on doing next year.  I suppose even the inevitable sermons decrying our irreligious consumerism and imploring us to remember ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is a part of the ritual we couldn’t possibly do without. Bring it on.

Monday, 10 December 2012

This Kate stuff

I am not a monarchist.  I have no personal feelings for or against any member of the royal family because I don’t know them personally, but I am just plain embarrassed at the idea of an apparently adult democracy being ‘ruled’ over by an accident of genetics.  My feelings of indifference extend to all those posh girls and boys who marry into the royal family, so I shouldn’t give a toss about the latest Kate Middleton hooha.  But really!  Any pregnant woman is entitled to have her feelings, her nausea and her medical details kept confidential, so the broadcast hoax call was grubby in the extreme.  But so is the sight of wrinkly male royal correspondents standing outside palaces or hospitals solemnly informing the world of the latest non-news on the woman’s condition.  If you like an hereditary monarchy, the confirmed conception of a new sprog was news, but now drop it, give the pregnant woman her privacy, and wait for the next piece of news, which will be the birth.  Shoo.  Out of the room now.
Meanwhile, the Australian DJs and their station are claiming that “The tragic outcome could not have been predicted.”  Why not?  What exactly did they expect would happen if they made a public fool of a nurse and tricked her into breaking the strict professional rules of confidentiality? I could predict that she might lose her job or choose to quit. That she might have her professional reputation ruined. That she might feel mortified, be in tears, make herself ill, even attempt suicide.  All these were possible, if not inevitable, consequences of the prank.  The ability to predict the possible consequences of our actions is one of the things, like opposable thumbs, that differentiate us from animals. Do Australian DJs have opposable thumbs?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Driven crazy

I’m fine with urban driving.  I can manage the three roundabouts in Cardigan without a second thought, and don’t hesitate with the Tesco’s interchange.  Even the blind turn by the Newport post office doesn’t worry me.  However.  London is quite a lot different to West Wales.  For a start there’s a whole lot more of it, and a whole lot more traffic.  Like, a million times more traffic, ten more lanes in every road, and none of them marked because, of course, all the drivers know exactly where they’re going, ad everyone in London precisely where Chiswick is, in relation to Hammersmith or Richmond.  Except me.  They point this out to me by hooting loudly at every occasion.  They don’t seem to think that stopping in the middle of a one-way system, putting the light on and consulting an atlas is reasonable behaviour.  I don’t understand them at all.
Neither do I understand the people in charge of road signs on the M4.  Okay, driving west from Reading, there’s a single sign, warning of deer for 43 miles.  43.  Not 45.  Not 40 or so, but 43. But coming the other way, from the west, there’s a sign warning of deer for the next 27 miles.  Then, a few miles further on, another sign warning of deer for 10 miles, then, eventually, another warning of deer for the next 12 miles.  Is this because the highways department only had one sheet of extra large Letraset and they used up the only 4 and 3 on the westbound carriageway, so they had to improvise on the east-bound?  And more importantly, how do the deer know when they have reached the limit of the stretch where they are allowed to run out in front of fast-moving traffic.  What happens to a deer who ventures beyond the 43 mile limit?  I think they just had some spare extra large Letraset deer symbols and wanted to use them up.  And they didn’t have any badger symbols.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


According to the BBC, voters are heading for the polls to elect police commissioners today.  They don't mention how many voters are doing the heading. 2 or 2 million? I haven't noticed much enthusiasm, or much interest.  In fact I haven't noticed anyone noticing that there are elections. I did make an effort a couple of weeks ago to discover, on-line, who my candidates might be, and I found there are two, one Labour and one Conservative.  The Labour candidate promises to make the police concentrate on anti-social behaviour.  The Conservative candidate suggests that the police should concentrate on anti-social behaviour.  I don't know, it's difficult.  How do I weigh up the opposing priorities? How shall I choose? I could use the opportunity to express my opinion of the Conservative party.  Or I could stay home and do something constructive.  Yes I know we fought for centuries for the right to vote, civil duty, social responsibility bla bla bla, but today I feel like being a bit of a rebel. Like nearly everyone else in the country. 

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Pro Patria

My mother’s father came back wounded from France in 1918, with a string of medals. His children used to play with them, but never discovered how or why he won them, because he never spoke of the war.
My grandmother’s brother William left his clerical job in South London in 1912 to seek his fortune in Australia.  Took on a farm, found a girl, began to make good. When war broke out he joined up, crossed the world again, and disappeared into the carnage of Passchendaele.
On Remembrance Sunday, I’ll wear a poppy and remember, but I will always choke on the terminology used when referring to the dead and wounded of World War I. Whether they volunteered in a fantastical notion of comradely patriotic bravura, or whether they were pressed reluctantly into service by law or by social pressure, once they were in the field they had no say in the part they played, no control over their own fates.  A refusal to advance meant a firing squad.  A willingness to advance meant stepping into a hell where they would be shot, bayoneted, blown apart, gassed, crushed, shell-shocked, dismembered, ripped apart by barbed wire, drowned in mud, buried alive, or rubbed out by gangrene and dysentery. 
Nearly 10 million soldiers were killed in World War I. I am content to remember that they were killed, much as if their country had gathered them up and fed them into a wood chipper.  I don’t want to be fed lines about valiant heroic sacrifice.  They did not make the ultimate sacrifice; they were the ultimate sacrifice. They did not give their lives for their country.  They had their lives taken away.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

America the Tedious

The BBC is going to give us The US Election.  Blow by blow, state by state, as the results come in, with extensive commentary and analysis.  Why?  An all-night agonising coverage of our own general election makes sense.  Some of us will have been desperate to vote and will be on tenterhooks waiting to see if our vote actually made any difference.  But we Brits don't get to vote for the US President, so why not leave us with Heston Blumenthal and Midsomer Murders, and just give us the final result in the morning?  The BBC tells us that the choice of president will matter to us.  Of course it will.  It will effect us in the same way it will effect every other world citizen whose government, repressive or enlightened, will be supported, undermined, targeted, nagged, bolstered, insulted or ignored by the most powerful bully in the playground, but nothing we say or do will influence the result.  We are not even supposed to express an opinion, although I cannot help saying:
Note to Obama: Yes you can, but you didn't.
Note to Romney, re Olympics: Yes we can, and we did. Ya boo, sucks to you.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Yesterday we woke up and found the internet didn’t work.  Never mind the long saga of getting through to BT and trying, unsuccessfully, to explain to the answer-by-rote call centre, that as the problem affected all 4 computers in the house, it must be their hub at fault, and not just us being incompetent with Windows.  What really made me think (once it was fixed), was that we were all at a complete loss without having instant access to everything and everyone in the world. We couldn’t get catch-up TV, we couldn’t natter on Facebook or Twitter, we couldn’t check our emails or update our web pages, we couldn’t contact customers, we couldn’t browse for Christmas presents, we couldn’t manage our money, we couldn’t, at a stroke, settle a dinner-time argument and establish when exactly Jane Austen first referred to white soup.  It might be because we live in the wilds, out of easy reach of High Street shops, libraries and friendly coffee shops, but I can really no longer get through the day without the internet.

Thirty years ago, I was working in a library (the place where information used to be accessed), where a strange new notion was introduced, whereby the phone receiver could be placed in a special cradle, miraculously linking our dumpy computer, working at the speed of a hibernating hedgehog, with computers in other libraries, so that we could share databases and catalogue lists.  The reference librarian (the only one allowed to access this high-tech esoteric system) was quite excited about it.  Me, I couldn’t really see the point.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Surviving the apocalypse

We've had the hedges cut in the lane.  Our friendly neighbourhood hedgecutter always phones in August, hoping to persuade us to have them cut then, probably because farmers can't cut theirs yet, and he's itching for something to do, but I insist on hanging on into October, so that the birds can make the most of the berries.  The hedges really do need trimming much earlier.  The summer growth of grass is just so much posturing, but by the end of August the brambles have decided to migrate, and start shooting out across the lane in thick and vicious tentacles, and the nettles and goosegrass, which have been lurching upwards quietly into the hedgerow all summer, suddenly decide they've had enough and flop over.  So it helps, in September, to tackle the lane with a machete.  But the hedgecutter, when he comes, doesn't just trim back the weeds.  He rips, mangles, snaps and savages his way through the hawthorn and ash and holly and blackthorn and elder so thoroughly the hedge is trimmed back to bleached bones.  Suddenly I can see the sky again.  If the birds haven't had their fill of the hips and haws, the elderberries and holly by now, tough.
What is odd though, now that I look more closely, is that although most of the leaves have been whipped off, along with every shred of new woody growth, most of the berries seem to have survived the cutting.  It's surprising enough with sturdy waxy little buggers like the rose hips or the holly berries, but how on earth did the bryony survive the thrashing and thwacking of the hedgecutter?  It is festooned along the shattered branches, in great swathes of blood bubbles, bursting with juice. The blackberries have gone, splattered into oblivion, but the bryony survives as if nothing has happened. I want to know how.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

breaking bonds

I go to the cinema, what, a couple of times a year?  At most.  So I'm not really in a position to comment, but this is the first time I've seen my local cinema totally full.  Admittedly, it's a very small cinema, but then they all are these days.  Not like the cavernous Odeon of my youth, which always thrilled me into thinking I'd just stepped into a Dan Dare set.  In the Odeon, audience participation was common - whoops, cheers and jeers.  Last night, watching Skyfall, we did get some tentative clapping when Bond's old car appeared, but it quickly petered out because the other 98 people in the cinema weren't joining in. Shame.
Anyway, Skyfall.  If I'm going to pay to look at a very (fairly) large screen, I expect to be seeing a spectacle, and I certainly got that.  Gone right off tube travel.  I'm not very good with heights: for some reason they make my shins hurt, and my shins did a lot of hurting, but is it Bond?  Yes, there's the artistic title sequence, ludicrous chase, slinky woman, the inevitably superhuman psychopathic villain intending to claim the world, and the final music.  There is, of course, the usual political incorrectness; Bond, son of a Scottish laird, keeps stressing his loyalty to England - which oddly, got no reaction from the Welsh audience.  But there is something vital missing.  Yes, the villain seems to have an unlimited number of obedient henchmen, who all have to die leaving him the last one standing.  But, my dear, what do they think they're wearing?  Denim, sweaters?  What on earth has happened to the turquoise lycra?  How are we supposed to know who's who if the baddies don't look like slimmed down teletubbies, fresh off the assembly line?
The lycra's missing.  Is anything else?  Daniel Craig walks like a gelded bulldog, so maybe.  Still a good night though.  It's not the pleasurably ridiculous Bond that lasted from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, but I think that Bond has probably run its course.  The world moves on, alas.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The ash trees in my lane are shedding their leaves, clogging the gullies. High wind snaps their branches off and occasionally a whole tree comes down. They're the meanest trees in Britain, the last to come into leaf, and all through the winter and spring, the upward flip of their twigs makes them look like beggars with outstretched hands cupped for donations. But I'd miss them if they weren't around. They're part of the landscape. Now there is a disease wiping out ash trees on the continent, so devastating that the government is going to ban their import. What I can't understand is why on earth they were ever imported in the first place?They're native British trees and their seedlings are unwanted weeds. I gather them up in bucketloads from the garden.  If anyone wants enough to plant a new forest, let me know.