Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Bookends

Two poems I like to think of as Christmas bookends:

Thomas Hardy's, The Oxen,


T.S.Eliot's, A cold coming we had of it.

Why bookends is a little obvious I'm afraid - The Oxen is set on Christmas Eve - or rather, the moment BC turned to AD (to steal from U.A. Fanthorpe) - and the ‘Cold Coming’ is the Epiphany (12th Night, the time when 'Members of an obscure Persian sect' - Fanthorpe again - 'walked into history').

Both have become, like Holly, Christmas Evergreens associated in the minds of my generation of English Teacher - and consequently countless students - with the Christmas Carol Service - (which we still called it back then) - and regular recitations tucked somewhere between 'Away in a Manger' and 'We Three Kings'.

If you had a good, younger student, the Hardy could be given a lovely simpering twist; Eliot needed a teacher to deliver it well - bit of a grumpy ex-PE, now Geography teacher - or a slightly fading girl's heartthrob English staff junior member!

And therein lies the tragedy.

Both poems get stuck on the shelf for the rest of the year (dusted off sometimes for examination) to await another Resurection as a quick fix of emotion amongst the Plastic Glitter, Bugger-the-fire-regulations Candles and Coca-Cola Santas.

Both poems though, like Holly, have a bit more 'history' - and spikes which raise blood.

The first thing I notice, and which I think is frequently ignored, is the ‘quote’ at the start.

“Now they’re on their knees” – an elder said. When was it said? – When we were children.

As children we see the world in a hopeful way – optimistically.

It is a pastoral view – gentle shepherds, gentle oxen.

Good will out.

“ . . . meek mild creatures . . .” make up our world – and nature is dominant.

Hardy is remembering innocence.

It was beautiful; it was honourable: It is dead.

It is, ‘so fair a fancy’ – that few would now weave it. Only a fancy.

It is a time, “childhood used to know”.

In the Eliot, they had a cold coming.

He is quoting doubly – Launcelot Andrews and the old, near to death, Magi.

His memories are not so pleasant, but they are as ideal.

Like the child in Hardy, there is a yearning for that birth – for the glory and beauty of new life.

The reality though is “Hard and bitter agony”.

There is a suggestion of disillusionment.

But it is only a suggestion – there is tremendous hope.

It is the hope of the child, still in the man – “If someone said . . . I should go with him . . .hoping it might be so.”

For Eliot, “All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again.”

Once again, that core stone of hope, the ‘no regrets’ of the old man that is in both poems.

What chance I wonder have children of ever understanding these poems?

‘Birth or Death?’

Sunday, December 10, 2006


At 113 years old, Miss Treason, a witch, knows about the connection between age, beans, fresh fruit and 'letting out wind'!

Tiffany, only 13 years old, with a 'he's not my boyfriend!' (even if he does send her letters with SWALK on them), is learning witchcraft from Miss Treason. She discovers there is lot of hard work, cleaning around the cobwebs and polishing the skulls, chasing after the cheese - called Horace, a rather single-minded blue cheese - oh, and a strange tingling feeling behind the eyes when Miss Treason, who is blind, uses you as a mirror.

Like most teenage girls, Tiffany has a will of her own - and even if she was told to stay still and just watch, why can't she join in the dance - especially when there is an empty space just waiting for her?

Months latter, with the snow falling thick, burying the newborn lambs, with a young brother missing and with her father begging her to help, she understands why.

This is one of Terry Pratchett's books for 'all children, aged 12 and above' - meaning anyone who is or once was 12!

It has a thumping good story line - strong characters, awful jokes and moments of danger: Perfect for the Christmas stocking.

At the heart of it is Tiffany's growing sense of identity - she has to cope with establishing who she is in a world of strong personalities (none stronger than Granny Weatherwax - control freak leader of the witches - who don't have a leader), deal with Death - and loss (someone has to clean up after the funeral, and milk the goat, and hide the Boffo), and ward off the unwanted attentions of a love-struck adolescent elemental.

This might be Discworld - but the emotions and themes are of this world.

The clear lines of the plot, the straightforward language and the characters all make this an attractive read for younger teenagers - but straight forward doesn't mean without depth.

As with many of his other books, Pratchett taps into age-old myths - fictional expressions of the fears and hopes, the irrational explanations of what it is to be human.

Here we have the Persephony myth entangled with Morris Dancing; Orpheus and the 'Wee People' working together; Celtic Ironsmiths crossed with the Greek pantheon.

This gives the story much greater significance - it is for the proto-adult in the child as much as for the vestigial child in the adult.

Yes, I smile when I see Morris Dancers prancing around in the concrete shopping centres of our towns - but having read this book, I will now see a dance which touches on the very turning of the seasons.

It is a Carry On meets The Golden Bough sort of experience!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Climate Change?

At two this morning I was woken by a bird singing!

This is December - in central Europe.

There should be snow.

There should be birds freezing to the branches, noses going white and ears red.

Why is there a bird singing in the night?