Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A ghost story for Christmas

One tradition I still keep though… There should always be a ghost story for Christmas.  Why?  I have no idea.  Does it hark back to A Christmas Carol, I wonder?  Is it another Victorian fancy?  But where did they get the idea?  Wikipedia simply says there is an ‘oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.’  Unhelpful.
‘I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas,’ says James in the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Equally unhelpful.
Dickens himself, in his story The Christmas Tree (written in 1859) says: ‘There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.’
And what was a Winter Story?  Apparently it refers to a fantastical, magical, unearthly story.  Of course, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was one such.
‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins…’
And in The Jew of Malta, Marlowe has the words:
‘Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.’

So, not Victorian then.  An older tradition.  It’s tempting to rummage around and imagine they’re connected with the old pagan festival of Yule, of the Winter Solstice, a time when the year hangs precariously in balance once again before slowly (hopefully) swinging back towards the light. Maybe it was a cunning way to keep the family close around the fire, huddling together lest the ghosts and tricksy spirits pluck at the shoulder?  It’s interesting, huh? That the telling of ghost stories is associated with the bustling family festival of Christmas rather than the thinning of the veils ancestor festival of Samhain/Hallowe’en. 

But anyhow.  Needless to say, like many another (I’m so ununusual) I consider M.R. James to be the king of the Christmas ghost story. And 'Whistle and I'll Come' is surely the king of the M.R.James' ghost stories - no? The original 1960s version, please, with Michael  Horden please (not the travesty of a remake which doesn't even have a whistle!). Or do you prefer A Warning to the Curious?  Or The Ash Tree?
Incidentally, did you know that the title refers to an old Scottish folk tune?  

But anyhow.  There are loads of others, all gems.  And did you know that the classic movie Night of the Demon (one of my all-time faves) came from an M.R.James' story, Casting the Runes?  And that Kate Bush included lines from it in her song The Hounds of Love?  It's in the trees!  It's coming! 

Now I love Kate Bush, I really do... but her videos?  Sigh.  
Anyhow...tonight it's the fire and a well-thumbed book of ghost stories, I feel.  How about you?
And your favourite ghost stories?  

Bah humbug (Bottoms up!)

This time five years ago, I was sitting watching my mother die in hospital. Now it’s not usually something I dwell on.  I’m not maudlin or morbid about it because, let’s be honest, that wouldn’t help me and it most certainly wouldn’t help her.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t even have thought about it much had Adrian not wandered into my office from time to time, caught me staring into space and said, ‘You’re thinking about your mum, aren’t you?’  And I demurred for the first few times (because actually I wasn’t) but by the time he’d asked me for the sixth or seventh time, I did start thinking about her…and then (because the mind naturally trip-traps from one dead parent to another) about my father (the second one).  And Adrian said, 'It was five years ago, you know, since your mum died,' and I said, 'Crikey, time flies huh?' And then I got to thinking about how I used to love Christmas and now…well...
It’s not that I actively dislike it.  I mean, on a personal level there’s nothing much to dislike.  I don’t get involved in the whole consumer spendfest, I don’t cook and I don’t eat much more or different than usual. It’s a few days off from sitting at my desk trying to drum up work.  I don't do the Norad tracks Santa or float Christmas lists up the chimney or read The Night Before Christmas and leave out mince pies and sherry for Santa any more because, well, James wouldn't really appreciate it.  It’s a chance to slob by the fire and watch sloppy movies.  And…well, that’s quite nice. 
But I guess it is a time when, if I do let myself think about it, I miss my parents and the wider family get-togethers.  I sort of miss the rituals which, let’s be frank, pretty well all revolved around booze.  My father was one of those people who never felt comfortable unless the drinks cabinet had at least three bottles each of the ‘major’ spirits (gin, whiskey (Scotch and Irish, blends and single malts), brandy (cognac, Armagnac, Metaxa, Calvados), vodka, rum (dark and light) and tequila plus one each of every other drink anyone was ever likely to want.  His major paranoia was that someone might pitch up for a drink and ask for some obscure Lithuanian liqueur or heathen hybrid like Cinzano and that he wouldn’t have it. Needless to say, this never happened.  
So, we’d start with Buck’s Fizz for breakfast.  And then slide into Brandy Alexanders (the family nakesake drink) for elevenses. Pre-lunch, it was champagne cocktails and then a battalion of whites and reds during lunch.  Port with the pudding of course.  Mid-afternoon he’d rustle up liqueur coffees and then, if anyone was still conscious by tea-time, he’d be waving another port bottle or saying hopefully, ‘Sambuca? Tia Maria? Benedictine? Or shall I open another bottle of something?’
It was a far call from my childhood when the booze was generally home-made (my mother made fruit wine from the plum tree in the garden and my dad brewed his own beer).  And Aunty Molly would bring a bottle of gin and someone else would summon up a bottle of advocat and I’d be allowed a Snowball (does anyone still drink those?).  J  And the decorations were hand-made (not in an etsy way but because we couldn’t afford to buy them) and presents were things like bath-cubes (remember them?) or a magazine or a hand-embroidered hanky.  I used to make Christmas presents each year – knitting mittens or pot-holders or ties, stitching pin-cushions or wallets out of felt. I did, I really did. 
Anyhow.  I dunno.  This is getting maudlin and I’m becoming a bit Scrooge-ish.  Maybe this year I’ll invoke the spirit of Christmas past and raid what’s left of the drink cupboard (unfortunately we’re down to the dregs – those Lithuanian liqueurs and dusty bottles of Cinzano). But who cares? I’ll salute my mother (still happily ensconced between Knob Creek and the Gordon’s), raise my glass to the Viking (ignoring his eye-rolls at my lack of preparedness and the cavalier way I sloshed back all the vintage oddities from the seventies - Goldenheart, anyone?) and quietly slide into a sottish slumber by mid-morning.  Anyone gonna join me?  Cheers! 

Monday, 16 December 2013

There and back again. UnHobbitlike.

So, Suffolk...Walberswick to Dunwich, where the sea swallowed the shore.  And back again. UnHobbitlike. No gold found. Just a hagstone.  Good luck, they say.  Oh really, I say.  
Oh whistle and I'll come to you, my lad...  
They might be giants...sand silhouettes...
A stand of trees, a stripe of shore, a slim slither of sea...
The marshes...the cry of a curlew... There is someone coming...a warning to the curious?
Slow water, lazy eels of streams.  What was that film, the one set on a canal that turns into a river that turns into the sea?  That image of the lost, beyond lonely, heading to oblivion?  
The house of brick and straw, on land barely there, broken-armed by air, level-licked by water, leans against the sky...which lets it fall.
A cross selfie - a woman of straw sans substance.