There was an exciting festive moment this morning as I drew the first curtains at a little after 10:30. Would there be snow, as Twitter suggested there might? No, a far more typical British festive scene greeted my eyes: rain and strong wind attempting to steal the last few leaves that the trees had managed to retain.
Given this opening paragraph, readers might wonder if the author is an avatar of the pre-haunting E Scrooge (I am haunted, as already established, only by sliced white bread). I like to think not, but that perhaps I do Christmas slightly differently (or perhaps, as so often, I am just deluding myself that I am some counter-cultural maverick). This post will likely provide some evidence for both the prosecution and the defence – but will serve as a note of my “preparations” to date.
In most respects, any preparation has been purely pyschological in nature – though yesterday I did technically buy a Christmas present. However, in the interests of full disclosure I must admit this was only because I had no cash and needed to reach the card-minimum spend. I have also, as I believe is a widely observed tradition, acquired an Advent cold. I am taking some time to shake this off – I don’t think my sinuses like the combination of viral load and extreme temperature changes – but I have high hopes that one morning I shall open the Advent calendar window of my duvet to find a different treat lurking beneath (so far, just phlegm-filled lungs)!
I have visited not one but two Christmas markets! Both in November – breaking a general, though weakly enforced rule of not troubling the concept of Christmas until December pits in an apperance. On both occasions the draw was the prospect of a warming polystyrene beaker of glühwein. Winchester was perfectly adequate, though I did object to having to queue to enter, but it did give me something to do both before and after seeing Temples of Youth play to a packed (and not easy to find) Elephant Independent Record Shop (and again, while waiting for a train home – you can’t be too careful when trying to avoid contracting a chill). Belfast though is much better – which I can (and do) visit on my walk from the office back to my hotel. It is such a joy to buy and then consume patisserie in my very rusty French (I do have order something I can remember the vocab for) and then do the same for glühwein in German.
As December began, I started an ill-fated arithmetic series of mince pie consumption. I did manage one on Dec 1 and two on Dec 2, but then I was struck down with man-flu and my subsequent performance has been much poorer. Some days, I have failed to consume even a single mince pie – it has been too chilly to take my germs out to hunt and/or gather examples of this festive treat. I prefer to avoid the industrial, plastic-wrapped, cardboard-boxed variety and go for those made in-house. Both the Art House and Mettricks in Southampton offer excellent examples – and I hope to try some more venus and examples before the season comes to an end (though today’s weather is reducing the temptation a little).
I have also been to my first Christmas concert of the year, staged at Turner Sims by the students of the music department. This contained all of the expected treats: an obligatory Oasis cover (nothing says Christmas like the feuding Gallagher brothers), seasonal music and audience participation carols. I was reminded, once again, that glorious as Hark the Herald Angels Sing is, as a carol (who can fail to enjoy and/or snigger at the line ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’: always feels more like a reference to almighty Zeus rather than his Christian counterpart), it is very hard to reproduce with a bass voice. Or at least I find it very hard, and this was not aided by my cold which moves my voice even deeper into Barry White territory than usual. My attempts to access sufficient head voice rather oddly left me with a rather severely aching jaw. Frankly, given the amount of exercise it gets both talking and chewing, I had not expected my jaw to prove the weak link in my performance…
There was a grade one orchestra – a group of people who can read music but playing instruments they have only just started learning – playing Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas (the most aggressive of all the carols). I am learning three of the instruments being showcased and now feel much better about my own abilities: particularly, my feeble attempts to generate music using the clarinet. I reckon I could produce a pretty functional rendition of either tune – albeit with some pauses to lie down and take oxygen – if transposed into a suitable key. Still, it was great fun watching young people flounder – rather than just seeing, hearing and feeling myself do so!
The gig also included two members of the faculty applying their four hands to the piano to bring us jazz versions of a couple of seasonal classics. Once you’ve heard, Jingle Bells played as a jazz standard or Away in a Manger as a minor key samba you will never want to go back to the original versions. To be absolutely clear, I am not joking and if Ben Oliver and Andy Fisher are willing to write and record a Christmas jazz album or EP, I would be willing to stump up some cash to make that happen!
The gig was held in conjunction with Mencap, so I manage to leave the concert not only full of Christmas spirit but also with a bag of home-made deep-filled mince pies. I regret to inform you, dear reader, that these did not survive the afternoon: my jaw recovered pretty swiftly given a suitable incentive! Still, what a joy to support charity, local musicians and fill my face with festive treats from a single event. I think this might be my closest approach to the true spirit of Christmas and one which can be enjoyed by those of almost any religion or none!
Despite the bravado of that last statement, in this coming week I shall have to knuckle-down and face the horrors of Christmas shopping, writing Christmas cards and the like. Then again, I seem to recall that last year the extraordinary shop workers of Southampton – I remember particular snaps are due to those of John Lewis and Game – actually made the shopping experience a pleasure. How they retain such good humour given what must be an appallingly trying job at this time of year, I do not know – but I doff my cap to them. I feel that there ought to be a charity that does something special for shop workers once they have survived the horror of Christmas and the January sales: perhaps to send them all on holiday somewhere nice come February. Lacking that, we should all make an effort to treat them well, however, stressed we may be feeling…