Lachrymae

On the twelfth day of Christmas, it seems appropriate to take an inventory of all the accumulated junk on the front lawn that your true love has just sent you.

But soft! As I write (Sunday evening, January 5th), is this really the twelfth day? If Christmas Day is day 1, then this is indeed day 12. Or is it tomorrow, the 6th? Whatever. Or as Shakespeare said, fittingly on the title page of Twelfth Night, “What You Will”. Some people get exercised about this sort of question. Did the decade start on 1/1/20, or will it end on 31/12/20? Isn’t it all semantics?

Maybe not. Let the twelve days run from St. Stephens Day (Boxing Day) to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th). Now the OED defines Twelfth Night, as the eve of the Epiphany. So this is indeed Twelfth Night as I write, and tomorrow is indeed the twelfth day. Sorted! We need politicians who can pull rabbits out of a hat like this, and reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.

Small beer, I hear you say. You only need to decide whether to take the Christmas cards down on Sunday night or Monday morning. On the other hand, if you’ve got all that stuff on the lawn from your true love, you might want to know the season is really over, before you bring in the pick-up trucks.

Way I see it, the true love has got mental health issues. This becomes apparent when you apprehend that the gifts he sends are cumulative. (He to her – I’m making an assumption here. But it could be she to him – a prospect even scarier.) That partridge in a pear tree just keeps coming, every day, twelve times; the turtle doves – and remember there are two of them – eleven times; the French hens (trois, écoutez bien) – ten times. And so on. Once you make the inventory, you realise there are 457 pieces on the lawn, a larger number than you may anticipate, because the partridges come as a job lot with the pear trees, similarly the geese with the eggs they are laying, the maids with the cows they are milking, the pipers with the pipes they are playing, and the drummers with the drums they are drumming. What a cacophony.

Then look at the nature of the other gifts. There are six species of fowl, a total of 184 birds. There are in all 140 people, 76 female, 30 male, and 34 gender unspecified. There are 40 cows. There are 12 pear trees, 42 freshly laid eggs, and an unspecified quantity of milk, fresh from the udder. Of various accoutrements, there are 40 gold rings, 22 sets of bagpipes, and 12 drum kits. What a nightmare. This true love, whoever he or she may be, must be suffering from what the psychiatrists call “xenoerotica”.

Ian McEwan wrote a book centred round the idea of xenoerotica, Enduring Love. It’s very clever, in a McEwanesque way. Basically he takes a psychiatric case history and expands it into a full length novel. He presents the novel first, and reveals the case history as an afterward, a format analogous to that employed by Benjamin Britten in his Opus 48, composed for the Scottish viola player William Primrose, Lachrymae. Lachrymae is a series of variations on a theme by Dowland. Britten presents the variations first, and ends with the Dowland theme. There is a sense of paring down, of a resolution in simplicity, and of great calmness. Of course the protagonist of Enduring Love, threatened by an individual invading his life and, metaphorically speaking, filling his curtilage with unwanted paraphernalia, is far from calm. In fact, he is so driven to distraction that – and oddly enough the episode is one of farcical hilarity – he contacts the criminal underworld to obtain a firearm so that he can murder his tormentor. I’m pretty sure this must be how the recipient of the 457 items must have felt.

But perhaps not. Perhaps the recipient was equally crazy. Don’t some toffs behave just like this? 40 cows and 22 bagpipes, hoho har har, what a wheeze. Get the help to pick it all up. The 12 Days becomes a kind of anthem to conspicuous consumption. Isn’t it interesting that fowls of the air should figure so prominently? Ben Jonson says the last word on conspicuous consumption in his play Volpone

Could we get the Phoenix, though nature lost her kind, she were out dish.

That could almost be a motto for our time. 2020. The year we chose to consume ourselves to extinction? What the hell are we going to do with all that junk on the lawn?

Put it in landfill.

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