A Vicarage Christmas

I used to love reading tales of old-fashioned Christmases; stories like Laurie Lee’s or Flora Thompson’s where preparations begin as soon as summer is over and gradually ramp up to Chrismas Eve when puddings are boiled, vegetables prepared and everyone goes to bed after Midnight Mass and gets up at 5 am to light the oven for the turkey (or, more likely, the goose).  Preparations were unbelievably elaborate back then; none of your pre-stuffed or pre-basted turkeys; you made your own stuffing from a secret recipe and basted the turkey every half-hour.  If it was a goose, the bones would be boiled for broth and the fat saved to rub on when some child had a chest infection.

But, beguiling as these accounts are, you can’t help but be struck by the phenomenal amount of work they require.  And it would be servants or housewives who did that work.  Sure, the man might chop down a tree or dig the potatoes or kill the fatted goose but it’d be the women who did all the rest.  That was still true until recently: last year I shouted at the TV during a repeat of a Christmas ‘Royle Family’ when the mother, having prepared and served Christmas dinner for six, groans at the thought of all the washing-up.  ‘Get up off your big fat arse and get in the kitchen!’ I yelled at Ricky Tomlinson.  But he took no notice.

But I was leading up to telling you about Christmases in the vicarage when I was a child.  There were a lot of similarities with the accounts I mentioned above: for a start the house was a large Victorian vicarage built for a numerous family plus servants, so an old-fashioned Christmas suited it.  Preparations began early: mincemeat for the mince pies would be made in October, as would the Christmas pudding (we all had to give it a stir before it was boiled) – and vast quantities of dried fruit, breadcrumbs and peel would be employed in the process.  The stuffing, too, would be made ahead of time.  But until we got a freezer everything else had to be bought the week before; turkey, sausages, vegetables and the fresh cream which, with custard, was served with the pudding.  We always had an enormous tree (the rooms had very high ceilings) and spent hours as children making miles of paper chains to hang in every room along with balloons and tinsel.

But Christmas for us really began the week before with the arrival of our grandparents.  Then on Christmas Eve my aunt, uncle and cousin would crunch round the drive in their Audi, which made nine of us.  That was the usual number but one year Uncle Peter came with Aunty Joy and our four cousins Barbara-Richard-Lyn-and-David.  That made fifteen, which was a bit of a stretch even with both leaves in the table.

We ate in the dining-room – the only time the place was ever used for meals – which had a hatch through from outside the kitchen.  (This was now used as the dog’s room but presumably had originally been part of a Victorian kitchen.)  The dining-room was generally used as a lumber-room but had a large oak-veneer table which, with two leaves fitted, could seat a dozen people.  Sometimes we used it to play table-tennis but the fluted edges made the balls bounce all over the place.

With my aunt and grandmother here, the kitchen became a hellish region of pots and steam with three red-faced women frantically working to get everything ready.  My grandfather lounged in the sitting-room with a glass of sherry or else walked the garden with his tobacco-pouch as he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house.  My father, meanwhile, was busy with Church: we’d all been to Communion at 9.45 but the rest of us came back home quickly.

I guess every family has its Christmas rituals but ours had more than most.  We children were allowed to open our Christmas ‘stockings’ (pillow cases) as soon as we woke and to play with the contents so long as we Made No Noise; but the main presents were not until the afternoon.  The order of events was strictly planned and never varied: after we’d eaten dinner there was a short intermission during which the dishwasher would be stacked (men would help with this) and then the scene was set for pudding.  The curtains were all closed, the lights turned off and then with great ceremony and split-second timing a thimbleful of brandy was poured over the naked pudding and set alight: my mother would pour the brandy while my father stood poised with a match as though waiting to set off a bomb.  The flames licked the top of the pudding and spilled down the sides like a small volcano accompanied by oohs and ahs and sighs of satisfaction as the last blue flame flickered around the base and died.  Then a small, crumbly slice for each person, infused with the flavour of burnt brandy, and a triangle of home-made mince pie; the option of cream or custard.

When everything was put away (this would be around 2.45 – we had our Christmas dinner very early) we would assemble in the living-room to watch The Queen.  Total Silence.  After the National Anthem my grandmother would say something suitably respectful about her maj and we younglings would give a sigh of relief that the royal platitudes were over for another year.

My parents, having been up since six, then went for a nap, as did all the adults.  We children then played with whatever toys had been in our stockings, or perhaps set up the dining-room table for table-tennis and tried to cope with the erratic bounces.  Excitement mounted as the hour of Four drew near, the Hour appointed for the Main Presents.  After an age had passed the yawning adults came down: but not until every person had found their glasses, been to the loo, finished their soggy roll-up or done whatever tedious task they had to do and had settled in the living-room, could the present-giving begin.

No prior examination of the presents was allowed: we might wonder excitedly what was in the huge box wrapped in red and gold or whether the tiny oblong package in green was something even more thrilling, but examination of the labels was strictly forbidden.  No furious tearing of paper, no chaotic free-for-all; no grabbing of gifts and opening them all at once – not for us.  No sir!  What happened was that the children took it in turns to fetch a present from the pile under the tree.  Each label said not only who the present was for but who it was from, so we would then hand it to the person giving the gift, who would with great ceremony hand it to the recipient.  They would then, in full view of everyone, open the present so we could all see what it was and whether they liked it or not.

These being pre-recycling days, the wrapping paper was stacked next to the fire to be burnt (on special occasions we had a coal fire made with smokeless fuel; this would be lit later on.)  Then came tea and Christmas cake (I forgot to mention the Christmas cake earlier, which was made around the same time as the mincemeat and pudding and later covered with marzipan and home-made icing.  It was decorated with a fat red ribbon round the outside and silver balls on top: I think there was also a tiny snowman in the middle but it may have been an angel.)  After this came what is to my mind the most bizarre part of our Christmas ritual and one replicated in no other family I have ever known: the adults went upstairs to Dress.  Yes, they actually put on formal evening dress; the women in long skirts and blouses with necklaces, the men in smart trousers and jackets.  Was the Queen expected?  If so, she never arrived.  Perhaps like the smart soldier who salutes in the dark although no-one can see him, it was felt that standards should be maintained nonetheless.  And then the evening began.

As a child I resented the lack of TV at Christmas.  There were so many good programmes on Christmas Day and with no VCR or iplayer, there was no way to see them once you’d missed them.  As a teenager I particularly resented missing the Christmas Top of the Pops though if we were lucky we could sneak in a bit before the tea and cake and do a bit of undisturbed bopping.

So.  The evening unrolled without TV: instead we played parlour games.  These I have to admit were quite fun; games like Squeak, Piggy Squeak or Twenty Questions (AKA Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.)  We also played a version of Who Am I? but without the headbands and there were other games too but I have forgotten them.  As a treat we would usually be allowed to Stay Up Late, though ‘late’ didn’t mean much as the cocoa was on by 9.30 and everyone was in bed by 10.

And that was our vicarage Christmas.  Fun, ritualised, matriarchal and probably never to be repeated.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

 

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C S What?

I’ve been getting daily writing prompts for about three weeks now, and along with them I get other little titbits such as cartoons:

(image removed on request)

There are also quotes and advice from well-known writers, and today’s advice was in the form of five writing rules by C S Lewis.  But for some reason I found myself strangely resistant to clicking on the link.  Like most modern readers I love love love the Narnia books (oh, that I could go back and read them for the first time!) but am less keen on his particular brand of theological sci-fi:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Hideous_Strength

and still less keen on his misogynistic views.  This last is a little unfair on him as he was no worse and perhaps better than most men of his time: however it remains a sticking point, and that constituted a scotch in the free movement of cursor to link and a reluctance to click.  Nevertheless I decided to give him a chance; and lo! his rules turned out to be eminently sensible.  They boil down to this:

Always be clear and unambiguous

Don’t use long words where short ones will do

Be concrete, not abstract

Show, don’t tell.

These are surely rules no-one could disagree with.  Lewis, though some modern feminists would attempt to consign him to the dustbin of patriarchy, was an interesting character; a dry academic with a Blakeian imagination, a confirmed bachelor until he fell in love, a romantic who wrote about palaces while lodging with his alcoholic brother in a freezing house (the heating broke down and they couldn’t be bothered to fix it) a man with strong, unflattering views on both women and divorce – until he fell in love with an American divorcee.  It was almost as though life was trying to teach him something…

It seems Lewis had to be pushed to the brink before he would allow himself to live.  He had a difficult relationship with his mother and only reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn into a liaison with Joy Davidman.  This, however, was short-lived as she died of cancer and he married her on her death-bed (having previously entered a civil marriage so that she could live in the UK: you wonder how much he was kidding himself there.)  His non-fiction works Surprised by Joy and The Problem of Pain seem almost anticipatory biographies, life following the blueprint of art. 

His Christianity is a mix of fear and joy, though his apprehensions of hell are somewhat prosaic: people sin the most not by living too much but by living too little; by being afraid of life.  But he did liven up what was a very dull theological epoch during the inter- and post-war years.  And to an extent I agree with him as my vision of hell is like this guy in the Channel 4 series Mimic, who longs for fame but when his big chance comes he hides in the toilets. 

Anyway, I guess if your worst nightmare is NOT taking the opportunity then you’ll take it.  Otherwise your worst nightmare would be – oh, I don’t know, farting on live TV or picking your nose or crying or losing your trousers or… or something that would be shared on social media and stay on youtube forever.

Come to think of it, those are my worst nightmares…

Kirk out

What a Load of Old Santosh

There’s not a lot of the old Santosh sloshing around these days: the practice of contentment is so far off the radar that most of us don’t even see it, and even those of us who practise are liable to forget it just at the crucial moment.  Though it stands at our elbow and nudges, we push it away.  Only let me have this, we say, then I’ll be content.  I just need this one thing to be happy.  But Santosh is a wily old bird, and she knows better.  ‘You come along-a me,’ she says, ‘and then you’ll have everything you need.’  You know she’s right but you resist, you delay; because you’re afraid that following santosh will mean accepting that you can never have the Thing.  And you really really want The Thing.  The Thing is what your whole life has been pointing at, and you can’t give up The Thing.

Give me the Thing!

Santosh is one of the practices of Hinduism and hence of yoga.  What with Eastern traditions being non-dualistic they don’t have Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins: even though the concept is roughly the same (as you’ll see in a minute) the approach is much more gentle.  Rather than choosing between heaven and hell, you arrive at different levels (as it were) and are reincarnated accordingly.  I don’t believe in actual reincarnation but the principle makes a lot more sense to me than an arbitrary ‘on-off’ switch where you’re going down a chute and God flips the switch to send you up to heaven or down to hell.  There are ten of these ‘practices’; five things to do and five to avoid.

Here are the niyamas, or things to practice:

Santosh

Saucha, or cleanliness,

Tapas, or discipline (primarily self-discipline)

Svadhyaya, study of self and of texts

Ishvara-pranidhana, acceptance of a higher power (a bit like the practice in Alcoholics Anonymous, and susceptible of many interpretations).

But before you get to these there are five yamas, or things to avoid:

Ahimsa, non-violence (the corner-stone of Gandhi’s philosophy)

Satya, truth-telling (Gandhi also spoke of satyagraha, or ‘truth-power’)

Asteya, non-stealing

Aparigraha, non-greed

Brahmacharya, either celibacy or the right direction of sexual energy (this does not necessarily imply homophobia but a focussing on sexual energy to foster relationships rather than on personal gratification.)

https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/practice/the-yamas-and-niyamas

The thing about these is they all work together; and it occurred to me this morning that santosh and aparigraha, or the avoidance of greed, are very much in tandem.  If you are satisfied with what you have you do not crave more (this does not apply to those whose basic needs are not met) so it could be said that the constant striving after achievement is a kind of greed.  That sounds a little harsh, I know, but in an age where being driven is seen as some sort of virtue, it might help to see it in that way.

Kirk out

 

 

Happy With Your Life?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent and so should be a time for looking forward.  Yet we often find ourselves looking back on the year and asking the inevitable question, ‘What have I achieved?’

Well, the answer to that depends on how you define achievement.  The usual way is to consider worldly success in terms of work, money, possessions, and so on, followed by personal goals (travel, weight loss, exercise, etc).  You draw up a sort of achievement balance-sheet: on the plus side you put goals attained and on the minus, and much more painful, side you put negatives such as goals you didn’t achieve.  There might be even worse things to add such as giving up smoking and then taking it up again, losing your job or putting on weight you’d previously lost.

All of this, I submit, has a very negative effect on us.  Even if the goals have all been achieved and the boxes ticked, the sense of satisfaction is likely to be short-lived; then when similar goals are set in the New Year we may feel we should move the goal posts.  Of course this in itself can be very positive: in the last couple of years I increased my yoga practice from 10 – 15 minutes to 20-30 minutes; I now have a vague aim of doing one or two longer sessions.  But this goal comes from an inner prompting, a desire to do more – rather than an external taskmaster wagging their finger and saying ’30 minutes is not enough!’

There’s a truth here which I believe to be universal; and it’s this:

Contentment with where you are is the key to achieving more.

By ‘contentment’ I don’t mean a sort of self-satisfied sloth:

Image result for a self-satisfied sloth

(image removed on request)

but a genuine ability to be OK with where you are, even at the same time as recognising that’s not where you want to stay.  It’s one of life’s paradoxes that lasting change comes from a standpoint of acceptance rather than discontent.  It’s also self-evident that a lack of contentment means that no goal is actually worth achieving because you won’t be contented there.

The hills may look blue from a distance but once you get there you see more and bluer hills in the distance.  When I get there I’ll be happy, you think – but if you’re not content now, why would you be then?  There are always more and bluer hills to climb.  So you’ve run a marathon?  That warm glow of satisfaction worn off already?  Do a triathlon.  Swim the channel, climb Everest, row around the coast.  Then you’ll be happy.

Consider, if you will, the super-rich.  I don’t know any of these people personally but to judge by their behaviour they, too, are never satisfied with what they have – otherwise why would they always want more?  And they always do want more: one yacht is never enough.  There’s always someone richer than they are.

But as the Baghavad Gita says (I think it’s the Gita) ‘What is found here will be found there.’  Contentment is a quality that comes from within, not from external achievements.  It can be developed but it takes dedication and practice – the willingness to say to yourself, no matter where you are and what’s happening, ‘I am content to be here right now.’  The paradox is that this can spur you on to greater achievements – with which you will be content – until it’s time to move on.

Of course it’s a hell of a lot easier to do this when you’re somewhere nice than if you’re on the streets or in a refugee camp or a hostage in solitary confinement – and far be it from me to lecture people in those situations about how they should behave.  As for me, I first started the practice of santosh (as it’s called in Sanskrit – beautiful word) when I lived in Madrid: walking round the streets and being aware that I wouldn’t be there for ever, I made a conscious decision to appreciate everything I saw and felt and experienced.  But contentment can have a transformative effect on negative experiences too; and be the springboard that gets you out of them.

So I guess that teaches me to be content with only being slightly published.  Hmm – it’s harder than it looks, this santosh…

Kirk out

One Man and His God

Years ago, in the dead hours of Sunday afternoon before Songs of Praise and after the black-and-white film, you could watch One Man and His Dog.  This most spectacularly dull programme featured a farmer and his sheepdog performing such feats as getting a flock of sheep through a gate two at a time (zzzzzzzzzzz) arranging them in a quadrangle, a square, a tortoise and a wedge like a Roman army; getting them to leap over hedges and perform the double pike with arabesque, and having them pile one on top of the other like the sheep in Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave; all of this using just a whistle and some arcane words only the dog could understand.  (Incidentally one of the best jokes in the Aardman film comes when Gromit is up before the judge on a charge of sheep-rustling: the headline reads ‘Sheep Dog Trial.’)

I’ve been impressed with Aardman lately (not that I wasn’t impressed before, because I was.  Deeply.)  But just recently, determined not to fall foul of the artistic industry’s tendency to ‘pick it up, f*** it up and drop it,’ they have sold a number of shares to their workers, thus avoiding the danger of a takeover and subsequent Disney-fication:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/10/wallace-gromit-producers-hand-stake-in-business-to-staff

Anything that avoids Disneyfication and keeps things local is all right by me.  I shudder to think of what Disney might do to Wallace and Gromit: I still haven’t forgiven them for the outrages they committed on the work of A A Milne and by way of compensation I spend a long time looking at the wonderful illustrations to the books by E H Shephard:

https://bit.ly/2TubHzM

On Sundays when I was a child there were any number of church services: an eight o’clock, then family communion followed by Matins and then Evensong in the evening.  The church would be full for communion, less so for Matins and Evensong and very sparse at eight o’clock in the morning, but my poor father had to do them all even when no-one else was there.  Because after all God was there.  So it was one man and his God…

There!  I got there in the end…

Kirk out

 

 

Paperback Raita

Last night I dreamed I went to the Feast of Faiths again.  It was a rather elaborate dream where I was in a series of rooms (or were they train compartments?) where tables were set out in different configurations and we moved around between them.  I left my bag on a seat and when I came back it was gone; after a while I found the bag but my wallet was gone.  Then I found the wallet but my bank card was gone.  I had to phone the bank to cancel it.

As I was walking down the corridor I passed Jeremy Corbyn and said hello; he said hello but in a very sombre and serious voice.

The origin of this dream is quite clear; last night I actually did go to the Feast of Faiths, an annual get-together and knees-up for people of all faiths and none organised by Loughborough Council of Faiths.  Last year we had a pantomime (I blogged about that here: https://wordpress.com/posts/lizardyoga.wordpress.com?s=Oh+No+It+Isn%27t+Panto)

and this year the entertainment was flinging ping-pong balls around and trying to get them into paper cups.  There was some rearranging of tables for this, then we went into another room for the Feast and I left my jacket on the chair.  The food was delicious and so was the conversation; on my table were two Hindus, two Seventh-Day Adventists and a Pagan.  We talked about the light and the dark as it manifests itself in different religions.

(Jeremy Corbyn was not there: I think that part of the dream came from seeing him at the Cenotaph memorial.)

So as well as aloo muttar paneer (curry with potatoes, peas and goats’ cheese) I had samosas with spicy sauce, pilau rice and of course raita.

Paperback raita…

Kirk out

 

Room at the Top, Room at the Bottom

Last night I was at a loose end browsing my father-in-law’s bookshelves.  He no longer reads, which is sad, because over the decades he’s accumulated yards and yards of old Penguins and Pelicans (the blue, non-fiction ones).  I love Penguin books and as a child I was reared on Puffins, their junior choice (so to speak).  There was a lot of stuff I didn’t care to read but then I came upon John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_at_the_Top_(novel)

This handbook-of-the-working-class-lad-who-makes-good was published in the late fifties, though it savours much more of the sixties: but what struck me in the first chapter was the obsession with clothes, manners and food; these markers of class which he must learn to mimic if he is to ‘pass’ for middle-class.  (He hasn’t yet mentioned his accent though, which I’d have thought was the primary marker: as Professor Higgins says, he can tell as soon as someone opens their mouth, where they come from ‘within six miles’:

https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/03/15/my-fair-lady/)

This preoccupation with clothes reminded me of George Orwell who, in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London,’ was making the opposite journey by being born into a relatively privileged family and wanting to experience the life of a down-and-out.  Downwards mobility is always easier than upwards; no-one questions him as a tramp but when he tries to get work as a waiter he has to use boot-black on his heels to cover up the holes in his socks.  Presumably he didn’t change his accent though, unlike lots of posh people today who use the fake glottal stop when they want to sound ‘down with the people’:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/stop-the-stop/

Orwell was writing in the ’30’s; the cities he describes seem very distant from us now, but you’d expect that.  What’s extraordinary is how social classes have broken down since ‘Room at the Top’ was written.  In theory we now have much more social mobility; but now what we’re seeing is the soaring rise of a super-privileged, super-rich class who are, ironically, the untouchables of our age.  The government doesn’t even try to curb top people’s pay and though Labour will give it their best shot when they get into government (yes, when) it remains to be seen how far those efforts will succeed.  After all, the first task of the rich is after all to hold on to their wealth: the second is to increase it.

The pay of people at the top is out of control; the pay of people at the bottom oozes and stagnates, which makes the death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City’s owner, all the more tragic.  There are no further updates as yet and no indication of foul play, unless you suspect a malevolent universe of keeping Phillip Green alive and murdering a generous and supportive man.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-46013381

Kirk out