Thursday, 17 December 2015

Times and places of magic and wonder - the 5th Christmas blessay

As many of you more frequent fliers of my blessays will acknowledge, it normally takes me a little time to warm up and get to my subject matter.  No such prevarication this year: there is only one subject, and it lies just across the channel.

A few Saturdays ago, my wife came into the kitchen as she was about to go out for the day looking horror-struck: who’s called? I thought.  What news has she received?  I knew that this particular look augured only bad news.  Finally, she said it – “There have been loads of shootings … in Paris.”

You all know me well enough by now to know that news of this sort, in any format, always troubles me.  As a confirmed and dedicated pacifist, by which I mean against all acts of anger and aggression, regardless of their motivation, the news of any death toll – regardless of the number – always makes me recoil with horror.

But this news was that little bit more important.  For my wife and I, this news meant more.  It was one of those moments in a relationship where words were not enough, but a hug and a few quiet moments were required.  For Paris, for reasons I shall now share, had recently become very close to our hearts. 

In February of this year, my wife and I celebrated / commiserated over twenty years together with a trip to – you’ve guessed it – Paris.  Having wanted to go for several years, she finally managed to overcome my natural reluctance to anything out of the ordinary, and to my inbuilt British sentiment about our Gallic cousins.  In the run up to our trip, people gave us mixed reviews, from the tepid to the downright frosty, and the general consensus was that if the waiters looked like they wanted to kill you, it was most likely because they did.

So, on Valentine’s itself, we boarded Eurostar with a picnic and a vague idea of how to get to our place to stay.   We discovered, in a very short space of time, that the reviews and the doubting Tomas’ were wrong.  We discovered, quickly, pleasantly and easily, that there is one simple truth about Paris.

It is wonderful.

All this, recall, in the wake of the Charlie Ebdo event in late January, which shook the city and brought it to international attention.  The shooting of a journalist, and this attack on the free press in a country famously and rightly proud for its freedom of speech, had been reported on the news with almost ghoulish intrigue. Despite this, the mood in the city was upbeat, friendly, enjoyable, and we didn’t encounter a single person who wasn’t pleasant, generous and welcoming.  There was no backlash of hate – a friendly city simply became … even more friendly. 

So now you can start to see why the news of a few weeks ago was so upsetting, and had such personal resonance for my wife and I.  It was as if someone were attacking our personal memories.  It got even more personal when we discovered that the attacks had taken place at a music venue and at various restaurants – pretty much how we had spent all of our time there.

Furthermore, I have been watching in awe how the people of Paris have continued to display awe-inspiring dignity and imagination in their recovery.  Have you seen the wonderful news about the silent protest?  As they still languish in a state of emergency, large gatherings and protests are outlawed, and, in order to show how much they still care, thousands of Parisians placed a pair of their shoes in the Place de la Republique – a way of registering their protests surrounding climate change at a time when protesting is banned.

That, of course, may be part of the problem.  When you visit somewhere for such personal and, let us not deny it, romantic reasons, you will invariably only ever view it through rose-tinted specs.  A Sunday spent by the Seine will most probably only ever be looked upon through the hazy glow of warm nostalgia. 

And I think this is the key to this time of year.  It is connected to a thousand thoughts and feelings and emotions, wrapped up in triggers such as food, music, people and places, smells, sights and sounds, and irrevocably linked with warmth and happiness (or, for some, for the reverse). 

For me, as a child, there were certain key signals and signs that Christmas was due to arrive – the furniture would be moved to accommodate the tree, and our house would be full of food stuffs it never saw at any other time of the year such as dates and nuts.  Certain decorations that belonged solely in a Birmingham flat in the early 1980s still live with me – a Rudolph and his reindeer frieze used to adorn the entire wall above the fire, and a pop-up Santa in his car was filled with confectionery.  As the years passed, and I turned from blonde haired child to floppy haired teenager, this time of year was always accompanied by that mixture of too-cool embarrassment and warm pride that decorations I had made as a child were still part of my Mum’s Christmas collection. 

I always loved – and still enjoy even now – those weekends in the lead up to Christmas when you see, little by little, our dark world transformed from drab and humdrum to bright and welcoming, filled with lights and warmth.  It is a real signal to my children that December is about to start when the people at the end of our road decorate the tree in their front garden which – for the other 11 months of the year, is an eyesore, ugly thing, but for the twelfth month is adorned with beautiful lights, and is a real thing of beauty.

As our family grows older, so too does it embed further and further the little rituals which make our Christmas … ours.  The calendar which comes out every year, the candles, the box of decs for the outdoor tree, and those decorations and baubles which are becoming old friends.  When the winter Chris Cringle comes out of the tree box, we know good times are arriving.  My wife commented this weekend that we needed a new bag for some of our stuff, so old and falling to pieces is the current one.  I bluntly refused: “We’ve had that bag longer than we’ve had Thea!” I protested.  The bag has stayed.  For now. 

Tell me, how did your first mince pie taste / feel / smell?  And at what other time of the year would you say to yourself “I think I’ll have a plate of stodge now please”?  I’m no great fan of turkey, but you can guarantee that I will still be picking and gnawing away with greed come the 28th or 29th.  

Our special times, and special places, are so intrinsically linked with our memories that their emotional value is priceless.   I still cannot feel anything but warm when I hear the opening bars of certain songs, and having two warm mince pies with cream for dessert on a Tuesday evening is only ever permissible at this time of year.

Schools carry their emotive and emotional indicators as well.  A wooden toy cot lies, usually on the very top shelf of that groaningly full cupboard for most of the year, and filled with all sorts of junk, before it becomes the centre piece of the infant nativity in mid-December.  I cannot recall a year in my working history when my first Christmas card has not been presented to me, unexpectedly, from a child in the playground.  The school starts to rock to different tunes, and there is a corner of each classroom filled with props and items that were not there at the end of December.  You can recognise gifts of frankincense and myrrh from a Judean mile away, even if, beneath that fancy packaging, they are really just empty biscuit boxes from a disco of yesteryear.

Of course, it is at this time of year that schools also hum to another tune – ill adults trying to keep their snuffles tissue-bound throughout productions, whilst a child invariably shouts out something inappropriate but hysterically funny half way through the donkey’s one and only big moment.  The jingle of sleigh bells is almost imperceptibly accompanied by the near silent rattle of paracetamol in staff handbags.   Yet do you want to know something strange? Staff are rarely absent at this time of year…

When the lists go up outside classrooms, asking for foodie donations, I am almost instantly whisked back to Warren Farm J&I school and the childhood I loved, the manic and almost obsessive anticipation with which we looked forward to our Christmas parties in school.  When I see a child dragging their bookbag in one morning, whilst over their shoulder they carry their party clothes with reverential care, I know that the party season is in full swing.  And, quite simply, why not?

You see, even the worst Christmases, the ones when you had that row, or burnt the cake, or got completely the wrong present (I recall being the fortunate benefactor of an Ultravox misunderstanding as a child) are generally blotted out by the sentimentality of the good.  Although they might’ve stung at the time, you can gaze down the portal of hindsight and almost laugh at the slightly awkward memory, so strong and powerful is this time and place of wonder and magic.

I am, however, not too niave to acknowledge that this is not the case for everyone.  I am fully aware that there are people for whom this is not a time of wonder or a place of magic, but a time of hurt and sadness, and a place of grief and loss.

I am all too keenly aware that there are many who at this time will be living not in a place of wonder and magic, but in a place torn apart by war and conflict.  There can be little magic, and precious little wonder in such places, other than wonder at how, once again and despite the multiple lessons of the past, man still seeks to excel in the field of hurting others.

Furthermore, consider a moment all those place where Christmas does not thrive, or, indeed, is shunned or even outlawed.  It would be difficult to appreciate the full majesty of tinsel and paper crowns in places where such things are banned.  Think about the places where Christianity and its most important messages are not only unpopular, but where they are scorned and derided.  It is difficult yet sad and extremely important to acknowledge that there are places on this planet where the story of the virgin birth, and all its inherent beauty and wisdom, are mocked as heretic.  Little magic here, sadly.

Places where danger lies hidden, or silent, or ever lurking, are nowhere near magical or wonderous, yet still they exist.  They often lie hidden in places that you wouldn’t expect; not necessarily in war torn nations or cities under siege, but in houses closer to home, where we suspect all is calm, but I can assure you that, for some, not all is bright.

Although you have never known me to meander in to the world of religion or politics without flippancy, even I feel duty bound to acknowledge places where belief and faith have been lost, be that religious faith, or secular belief.  There are such places, and they cannot contain enough magic to look after all the people within them.

My deepest thoughts are, as ever at this time, to those whose feeling towards this special season is marred by the loss of someone near, and the coming of the season does nothing to comfort, only to remind.  In this place or time, there is no hiding place.

And Paris? Surely if any place deserves to feel unmagical and devoid of wonder at this time it is the Gallic capital.    

Having heard me ramble on for more pages than seems fitting, this year’s blessay contains, believe it or not, three simple wishes:

Firstly, to those for whom Christmas is not special or wondrous, then to you may I pass on nought but my simplest human good wishes, devoid of any spiritual intention or agenda.  I hope simply and humbly that, as we reach the end of a calendar year, I may wish you well as you forge your path in this world for another twelvemonth.  The world is becoming a difficult place, and I hope we may become some sort of friends in seeking a solution to some of the troubles, no matter how small. 

Next, to those for whom it is a special and magical time and whose homes will become special places, to you I offer all the wonders and joys of the season.  I share with you the sheer magnificence of what this season can bring and mean.  The rumours around our school which suggest I dislike Christmas are utterly untrue, and completely inaccurate.  The truth is that I don’t like Christmas in November, or even earlier.  It robs the season of something of its splendour.  I, like you, am looking forward to each and every one of our little traditions that would mean nothing to anyone other than our family.  There are hundreds of little things – now that we are close – that I’m looking forward to enormously, and I hope that any magic or wonder visited on our house in the next few weeks is visited a thousand-fold upon your own.  A magic time, a special place, enjoy it all.

Finally, and this year most importantly, to the beautiful people of Paris.  How you have retained your dignity, humour and nobility at this time has been a lesson to us all.  Times and places of magic and wonder litter your every corner and square, every flagstone flanking your beautiful river – never let anything stop that, and never change.  Joyeux Noel to everyone concerned – in the face of one of the most hideous acts of unpleasantness imaginable, Paris showed the world what it is to care.  In the darkness of what will inevitably become war (sorry to drop a spoiler) Paris has been a light; in a world growing all too realistic and harsh, Paris has sprinkled some magic.  I’ve said in these blessays before, the world is suddenly becoming very scared of its own shadow; perhaps Paris’ light is one we should all walk towards – together. 

As ever, I hope my little festive rambling has caused no upset or outrage; certainly none was ever intended.  I hope it may have raised the ghost a smile, or a passing thought, even if that thought is “What is fatboy going on about now?” or “He’s really lost it this time”.  Whatever your thoughts, please take from this blessay my warmest and fondest Christmas wishes, and nothing but goodwill towards you all. It goes without saying, but I hope your Christmas is a time and place of magic and wonder…and more.

From the desk in the corridor, looking ahead to what portents to be a challenging and important 2016, that it all.