Nine Lessons & Carols

Alas, the annual ceremony of lessons and carols due to take place in Glasgow the Sunday before Christmas was cancelled, due to Covid, and consequently the Archinto Strad (copy thereof, D. M. Sanderson, Glasgow, 1965) stayed in its case.  I had to be content with the vicarious experience, from King’s College Cambridge.

  1.  Once in Royal David’s City…

I understand that the treble given the nod to sing unaccompanied to a congregation of a billion or so doesn’t know he’s got the gig until the downbeat happens.  That strikes me as a completely nightmarish scenario.  But then I don’t have the temperament.  Anyway, since the viola has been silent, let me continue with this offering of my personal nine:

  •  A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

In my annual revisitation to this hardy perennial, it only occurred to me this time round that the novella has “staves”, rather than chapters, because, of course, it is a carol.  I suppose the reason why it remains so popular is that it reflects something we all do at this time of year.  We look back to the past, we “consider our position” in the present, and, looking to the future, we guess, and fear.  I find myself identifying more and more with Ebenezer Scrooge.  Not that, if I may say so, I was ever a skinflint.  Indeed, on a couple of occasions in my life, if I haven’t exactly sold all I had and given the money to the poor, I have at least spectacularly chucked everything over and started again from scratch.  I’m not proud of it.  Self-destruction can pose as largesse.  And miserliness is not the only way of being parsimonious. 

  •  Winterreise

A performance of Schubert’s great song cycle was supposed to be on BBC4 on Christmas night.  I switched on in high expectation.  Blow me, if they didn’t announce, “in a change to our schedule…” that the Berlin Phil was going to play film scores by John Williams.  No explanation; no promise to reschedule.  I bet you somebody in management said, well, we can’t possibly put on something as lugubrious as Winterreise on Christmas night.  Let’s do Star Wars. 

  •  Ode to Freedom

It’s the last track on the latest offering from Abba, after forty years’ silence.  It sounds like Tchaikovsky.  I like it, but I gave away the CD to my local hospice charity shop, along with Adele’s Thirty.  Now that’s lugubrious.  To be loved?  Such anguish.  Billy Connolly tells a story about crying as a child because he was always being berated by his elders.  He was reproducing the yodelling, snivelling cry of an urchin on stage, when he actually started to cry, for real.  He got too close.  Never sing louder than lovely.  I gave the charity shop a few tomes.  Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch 22, and the autobiography (signed by the author) of Brian Cox, the actor, not the physicist.  I enjoyed them but I’m not going to read them again.  So I handed them on, with a few others.  It’s a good exercise.  I’m a bibliophile, but not to the extent of Barry Humphries, whose library apparently contains 50,000 volumes.  Hearing that on Christmas morning, I didn’t feel so bad about my own stacked shelves.   

  •  Journey of the Magi

I got this very amusing Christmas card.  It depicts three wise men astride camels, gazing up at a shining star.  The sender had appended the note, “They don’t look very refractory to me.”  This is an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s poem, full of wonderful images.  I, too, am full of regret over silken girls bringing sherbet. 

  •  In the Bleak Midwinter

It’s a classy carol, with words by Christina Georgina Rossetti, and music by Gustav Theodore von Holst, to give him his Sunday-go-to-meeting name.  Mind, you need to keep the tune, Cranham, moving.  If it crawls along it becomes disorientated, like a walker with hypothermia straying off course and finally dying of exposure.  I’m not sure about the lines

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow – on – snow…  

Is this not called the fallacy of imitative form?  You depict lots of snow by piling on the snow.  It is like a concrete poem





If I’d been Rossetti’s editor I might have said, “Too much snow, Chrissie.  How about…  Snow had fallen, don’t ye know, on the bleak ice floe…”  Rossetti might have acquiesced out of sheer exhaustion.  Such is the torture of being edited.  You compromise, and end up with something slightly worse.   

Of course, snow is pronounced something like sniouw, that is, with a diphthong.  North of the border, it is just straight snow the way The Proclaimers would say it.  Choirmasters have this exercise whereby we hapless Scots are cajoled to attempt to imitate BBC RP.  Roses grow on Moses’ nose.  Riouwses griouw on Miouwses niouws.  On the whole I’d rather hear it from The Proclaimers.  The snow would sound bitterly cold.

  •  The God Equation by Michio Kaku (Allen Lane, 2021)

I got this as a Christmas gift.  Michio Kaku has taken up the quest for the Grand Unified Theory, the theory of everything.  Well, it stumped Einstein, so good luck with that.  Apparently the God equation might only be an inch and a half long.  Personally, ah ha’e ma doots.  Haven’t we been here before, around the end of the nineteenth century?  Then along came Einstein, Planck, at al.  I’m not sure that the discovery of the God equation would be propitious for the world, or efficacious to anybody in it.  There would be nothing left to explore.  No more equations to find.  The world would end, not with a big bang, or even a big crunch, but a whimper.  We would die of ennui. 

  •  The Holiday

It has become a Yuletide war horse, much as The White Tower once was, and then The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape.  Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, both attempting to escape disastrous relationships, do a transatlantic house swap and run, respectively, into Jude Law, and Jack Black, in a series of “meets cute”.    And also Eli Wallach.  It is nice to see that that ruthless bandit who couldn’t figure out why men like the Magnificent Seven would bother about a bunch of peasants in their stinking pueblos, should mellow into a kindly elderly gent tottering around on a zimmer frame. 

  •  Little Gidding

Got a phone call from New Zealand on Christmas night.  Apparently it was unbearably hot in Auckland on Christmas Day.  I think I could have borne it quite well.  I thought of my own dawn walk round Flanders Moss on Christmas morning, in a biting wind, when I had the world to myself.  And I remembered these lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Where is the summer, the unimaginable

Zero summer?

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