Christmas at home this year

WILL BAXTER WAS a teacher at the University of Cape Town, whilst my late father was studying for a BComm degree before WW2. Will, recognising my father’s academic excellence, persuaded my father’s mother that she and her family would do well to subsidize my father continuing his studies in London. When he presented his case to Dad’s mother, my grandmother was at first surprised and said that my father’s siblings were even brighter than him. By all accounts, my father and his three siblings were well-endowed with brain power. My grandmother agreed, but before Dad was able to set off for London, there was another hurdle. Dad had become articled to an accountancy firm in Cape Town. Leaving this would have involved breaking a legal contract between him and the firm. Will spoke to the senior partners and managed to get Dad released from his contract. Then, the year before WW2 started, Dad sailed to England and enrolled for higher studies at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). With the exception of a few of the war years and one year in Montreal (Canada), Dad spent the rest of his life in London, where I was born.

Will Baxter returned to the UK and taught at the LSE and became a firm family friend. My earliest reminiscences of him were at Christmas time. Until I was in my mid-teens, we used to visit Will and his wife at his home in the Ridgeway in Golders Green on Christmas morning. We used to have warm drinks in the living room in which there was always a large, decorated Christmas tree.  Will always had wrapped presents ready for my sister and me, always books. I cannot remember which books I was given, but I do recall that every year my sister always received a beautiful hardback edition of one of the classic British novels by authors such as Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

The Baxters’ front garden had a gate supported by brick pillars. When I was about 3 or 4, we visited the Baxters one morning (not on Christmas Day), soon after the mortar between the bricks had been renewed. It was still wet, and Will inscribed a small ‘A’ in the mortar to record how high I was on that day. Year after year when we visited the Baxters, the letter was there in the set mortar, but my height had increased considerably. After many years, several decades, it disappeared after Will and his second wife, his first having died many years previously, had had the pillars refurbished.

Always after our Christmas morning visit to the Baxters, we walked or drove over to my mother’s sisters’s home, where we ate a festive lunch, often featuring roast goose. In addition to my close family and my aunts, other people attended this party. These included my aunt’s in-laws, various people we knew who had no close family in London, and my uncle Felix, my mother’s brother.

Felix, more than many of the other adults, truly enjoyed our Christmas lunches. He entertained us kids, my two cousins, my sister, and me, by tales of ‘Turkey Lurky’, ‘Goosey Lucy’, ‘Ducky Lucky’, and similarly named fowl. However, as we grew older, he failed to realise that we had become a little more sophisticated and blasé to enjoy this type of entertainment. At the end of the main course, he used to interrupt the adults’ conversation by standing up, thumping the table, and singing a song about bringing us some ‘figgy pudding’. I noticed that it always annoyed the adults and especially my aunt who was already stressed enough already, having produced a magnificent meal for 15 or more people.

After lunch, we retired to the living room to open presents, and always enjoyed. Felix always felt it necessary to entertain us, his nieces, and nephews, after lunch. To this end, he brought along packets of coloured inflatable balloons. He inflated them and asked one of us to hold them at their necks whilst he knotted them. Next, he twisted and tied the balloons together to make sculptures of animals. I hated these balloons because I could not tolerate the goose-pimples that the squeaking of the balloons set off in me, and still do today. One of my cousins did not enjoy this balloon experience because of the risk that a balloon might pop noisily. It is probably to our credit that none of us, his nephews, ever told him how much we disliked the balloons that Felix always brought with him.

Christmas lunches at my aunt’s house ceased many years ago. For many years, I spent Christmas enjoyably with the family of my PhD supervisor and his wife, with whom I became close friends. Then later, we often spent Christmas in India, in Bangalore where my in-laws live. This year, we had planned to do the same, but, in common with everyone else, this plan had to be abandoned for reasons that need no explanation.

I have celebrated Christmas Day at my aunt’s house, in Paris, in Méribel-les-Allues, in Manhattan, in Bangalore, in Stoke Poges, in Belgrade, in Wrocław, on a ‘plane to Sri Lanka, in Cornwall,  and in Cochin, but until this year, never at home. So, this year is a first for me: Christmas at home.

Scottish reels

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BOXING DAY IS the day after Christmas Day (25th of December), the 26th of December. Traditionally, it is the day on which money or gifts are given to persons in need or those offering services, for example servants.

For many years, I used to spend the Christmas Season with my old (and now sadly deceased) friends Robert and Margaret at their large country home outside London. The first time I was invited to do this, Margaret checked with my mother that she did not mind me being ‘dragged’ away from our family festivities. My mother had no objections because by then, in the late 1970s, we never celebrated Christmas ‘en-famille’.

Robert and Margaret celebrated Boxing Day on the 26th of December, whether it was a weekday or not, in an especially enjoyable way. They invited friends to their home for an evening of Scottish dancing. The living room at their home was large but filled with furniture. Beneath the carpets, there was a wooden parquet floor that my friends laid down as a dance floor when they moved into the house many years before I met them.

After breakfast on the 26th of December, everyone staying with Robert and Margaret over Christmas began working. In the kitchen, vast amounts of food were prepared for the evening:  goulash or curry and accompanying rice and vegetables; meringues; fruit trifles; peppermint creams and homemade fudge; mince pies; a cheese platter etc. Also, Robert spent hours at one of the stoves, stirring ingredients for concocting two different alcoholic punches, guided by the recipes scribbled in his almost illegible handwriting in one of his numerous notebooks. The kitchen was a hive of activity.

A few yards away from the kitchen, heavy physical work was underway. Almost every item of furniture had to be moved from the living room into either a room called ‘the library’ or into the long corridor between it and the living room. We used to shift heavy armchairs and even heavier sofas, smaller chairs (some of them quite fragile), occasional tables, oriental rugs, framed photographs, and ornament cases containing fragile objects including an ostrich egg. Fortunately, we did not have to carry the family’s upright pianoforte or the large decorated Christmas tree out of the room. After almost all the furniture had been removed, the two enormous floor carpets had to be rolled up tightly. One of them had to be carried into the library and the other was rolled up to remain in front of the huge Christmas tree at one end of the room.

With the floor cleared, the beautiful parquet floor became exposed to view. Floor polish was then sprinkled on to the wood and rubbed into it with an electric floor polisher, a job I often performed after helping to shift furniture. The floor had to be polished until it was shiny, which was easy to achieve with the machine.  

The dining room also required preparation. The heavy large antique wooden dining table that had been acquired from University College London when they were discarding it had to be shifted to one side of the room, where it would serve as the place on which the evening buffet was to be laid out. Dining room and other chairs were arranged for those who were sitting out from the dancing and for those who preferred being seated whilst eating. Also, cutlery, plates, various kinds of glasses, and coffee cups with saucers and spoons had to be placed in readiness for the evening.

After lunch, there was a short period of ‘calm before the storm’. Afternoon tea was served as usual in the living room, but we took it seated on the floor instead of on the comfortable furniture which had been moved earlier. Margaret retrieved her two books of dance instructions, one of which made little sense to me. She also made sure that the records with Scottish dance music were near to the gramophone turntable and explained to me which record was suitable for each dance. For, usually I was to be responsible for finding the right tracks on the LPs (including music performed by Jimmy Shand and his band and by Jimmy Mc Cleod) and playing them on the turntable before dashing back to join the dance.

Guests began arriving in the early evening. Everyone was handed a glass of one of Robert’s special warmed punches on arrival and was invited to help themselves to mince pies and other confectionery. When there were sufficient people to perform at least one eightsome, the dancing commenced. The evening’s proceedings continued with dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, a good warm-up routine. It was not that people needed warming up because there would be a good fire burning in the hearth at one end of the living room.

For about an hour and a half, we danced the ‘Eightsome Reel’, The ‘Duke of Perth’, ‘The Reel of The 51st’, ‘Petronella’, and others whose names I cannot recall. The “Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh” was too complicated for us to master. The dancers varied in skill from expert to almost clueless. Margaret issued instructions, other guests contradicted her, but we all had much fun. As for me, I usually knew where I was supposed to be at any instant during a dance and got there, but without being able to execute my dance movements with any degree of elegance.

By 9 pm, everyone, up to thirty people, was exhausted and hungry, but feeling exhilarated. The hot food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room, which in true English tradition was further away from the kitchen than any other room in the house. It was wheeled on a rickety trolley held together in places with string. People helped themselves to servings of the meat dish and accompanying vegetables and washed this down with glasses of the second punch that Robert had mixed earlier. Then fresh plates were supplied for the trifles and pairs of meringues stuck together with whipped cream. Coffee was served.

Then, it was back to the dance floor. You would have thought after such a hearty supper that it would have been impossible to resume dancing, but this was not the case. However, by then the living room was getting quite warm and it was necessary to open a door that led to the draughty conservatory next to the living room. Dancing continued, sometimes as late as midnight. For me, the highlight of the second part of the evening was a riotous dance called ‘Strip the Willow’. Margaret was usually my partner in this potentially energetic dance. To see her in action either in this dance or on a tennis court, one would not be able to believe that she was as old as she was. In fact, until the last few years of her life, she was a perfect example of a ‘live wire’.

All too quickly, the evening drew to an end. The guests stumbled out into the darkness and retrieved their vehicles from the large gravelly car park. We, the house party, breathed a sigh of relief because the party had been successful; it always was. When I first attended these parties, we used to retire to bed and leave rearranging the furniture to the next morning. However, after a few years Margaret’s son-in-law and I agreed that it was dreadful waking up the next morning with the prospect of furniture shifting. So, we agreed that despite being tired, it was best to do this awful job before retiring for the night and while the excess adrenaline we had generated during the dancing was still flowing through our blood vessels. This proved to be a real improvement.

All of this was long ago. The house where it happened has been demolished and Robert and Margaret are no more than wonderfully warm memories. I am eternally grateful that I knew them and was able to partake in their memorable celebrations and other activities. I am pleased that they did not have to experience this covid19 pandemic, which we are enduring this year. I dread to think what their reaction would have been had they been around when the British Government had effectively ‘cancelled Christmas’ this year. Although they were not deeply religious, Christmas and the day following meant a great deal to them, as it does to many of us who have survived them.

Changing travel plans

WE ARRIVED BACK IN LONDON from several months in India on the 27th of February 2020. Since we retired, we have taken to spending a few of the winter months in my wife’s native land, India.

We have often spent Christmas in the south Indian city of Bangalore, where we stay at the long-established ex-colonial Bangalore Club, where the young Winston S Churchill once stayed and then left without settling an outstanding bill. To date, we have settled all our Club bills, you will be pleased to know. However, maybe this is one reason why none of us has ever been elected as Prime Minister of the UK or any other nation.

Christmas is celebrated in style at the Club. Strings of tiny lightbulbs are draped all over the establishment’s buildings and the many lovely trees in the Club’s extensive grounds. Shortly before Christmas, there is an outdoor evening carol singing concert that ends with the lighting of a huge bonfire. There is also a lively Christmas party for the members’ children that culminates with the arrival of Father Christmas on a horse-drawn carriage. I always feel a bit sorry for him as he must dress not only in a bushy white beard but also in clothing that is far too warm for the December temperatures in Bangalore, which can be in the high twenties Celsius. On Christmas Day, members and their families, who are not vegetarian as many are in India, queue up for servings of roast Turkey and a wealth of other foods available at a luncheon buffet. There is plenty available for those who prefer not to eat meat. Well, we will be missing all of this in 2020, and a lot more.

Usually, a day or so after we return to London, we visit our travel agent to book tickets for our next ‘Winterreise’ to borrow a title from the composer Franz Peter Schubert. Air tickets become available eleven months before a flight’s departure date. When we were seated at our travel agent’s desk, we told him the dates of our proposed trip. He looked on his system and told us that we could book the outbound flight, but the return flight tickets would not be available for purchase until early April. He advised us to return in April and then book both outward and inbound tickets together. That turned out to be extremely sound advice.

In the middle of March, the UK went into a total ‘lockdown’. It was no longer possible to return to our travel agent or to do much else. In addition, things were deteriorating all over the world as a result of the spreading of covid19 infections. As the weeks went past, it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be making a trip to India at the end of 2020. We were fortunate that we had been advised not to buy our outbound air tickets. Now, having reached December, travel abroad is not advised and currently travel from the UK is being curtailed. Many countries, including India, are banning travel from the UK.

In August, when restrictions on movement were being relaxed, we spent a pleasant week in a rented cottage in Kingsbridge, Devon. We liked the cottage so much that we asked its owner whether we could reserve it over the Christmas/New Year holiday period. She was happy with the idea providing that future ‘lockdown’ rules did not find her trapped there. A couple of months ago, she informed us that the cottage would not be available after all. This was not because of travel restrictions, but because a friend of hers needed temporary accommodation for a few months in winter.

Undismayed, we managed to find another self-catering cottage in the West Country to rent during the Festive Season. Then, London was cast into Tier 3 covid19 preventive measures, which discourage travel outside the Tier 3 restrictions area except between the 23rd and 28th of December. We rang our landlady in the West Country to explain that we would rather not drive so far to spend such a short time and she agreed to rebook us in March 2021.

With the West Country shelved, we decided to stay in a hotel near Cambridge and to spend some ‘socially distanced’ time with one of my cousins, who lives in the area. As the 23rd of December grew nearer, we began planning our festive feasting programme and buying mouth-watering supplies for it. Then, we all learned that the coronavirus had become highly creative and managed to mutate in more ways that most of these bugs can usually manage. This new viral creation is far more efficient at spreading from person to person than its awful ancestors. As a result, and surprisingly sensibly for our strange government, London and much of southeast England was put under stricter restrictions, Tier 4, which include a travel prohibition that forbids travel out of Tier 4 and no relaxation of restrictions during the period that we had planned to spend near Cambridge. So, that was Cambridge ‘out of the window’.

Soon after London was made subject to Tier 4 regulations, we learned that even with the arrival of new vaccines it was likely that the severe restrictions on travel might continue until Easter. So, we reached for the ‘phone and asked our future landlady in the West Country to shift our booking until May 2021. Now, we will make the most of Christmas and New Year without leaving London for any kind of winter journey, let alone India. I hope that all of this does not sound too depressing to you, because we subscribe to the idea that ‘all’s well that ends well’, and we hope that by following the rules, as ad hoc as they might be, we will all keep well.

While we munch our way through all of the festive ‘goodies’ we have accumulated, we will think of you, our friends all over the world, and wish you a prosperous and healthy future.

A Christmas carol

I HAVE JUST HEARD a BBC concert of Christmas music this evening (18th of December 2020). The performance was good, the music and songs enjoyable, and that was just about it until we reached the final item, a performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The ‘author’ of the words of this carol, which were originally in Latin, is uncertain but might be one of the following: John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. Hearing this carol evoked strong emotions and recalled memories of long ago.

St Michaels, Highgate

Every Christmas term when I was at school, we had to sing the carol in Latin. Its first verse is as follows:

“Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,

Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

Natum videte

Regem angelorum:

Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus,

Dominum.”

Hearing the tune of this hymn transports my mind to the wooden pews in the large draughty nave of the Victorian Church of St Michael in Highgate (built by 1832). Our school’s Christmas Carol service took place in that church. For some inexplicable reason, the carol moved me much more than any of the other carols that were sung year after year, and whenever I hear it, it still stirs up strong emotions.

After leaving my school in Highgate, and completing my PhD, I used to spend Christmas with my PhD supervisor, Professor Robert Harkness, and his family. On Christmas morning after breakfast, we used to tramp across the fields in the Buckinghamshire countryside to Hedgerley Church, where we attended a Christmas morning service. The service involved carol singing. The song “O, Come All Ye Faithful” was sung every year, in its English translation. Robert, who had been schooled at Winchester and had a strong, good singing voice, always sung the song in Latin whilst everyone around him sung it in English.

I left school fifty years ago. I last spent Christmas with the Harkness family in about 1998, and Robert died in 2006. Far off as these events are becoming, hearing this carol, either in Latin or in English, always manages to evoke a welling of nostalgic feelings. Why this should occur, is a mystery to me.

Preaching prejudice

BLOG XMAS St Georges Day_1024

 

MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

Talking turkey

Until I was about fifteen, our family usually ate Christmas lunch at my aunt’s home with other relatives and friends. The centrepiece of the meal was often roast goose. My mother’s brother Felix used to try to entertain us youngsters with a story about Turkey Lurkey and his chums Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Chicken Licken. He meant well, but his story, repeated annually, elicited groans from young and old alike.

One year, 1963, I was in Manhattan with my sister and parents on Christmas Day. That Christmas, I ate sirloin steak for lunch.

Many times during my late twenties and throughout my thirties, I spent Christmas in the English countryside with my PhD supervisor, his wife, and family. They served turkey for evening dinner on Christmas Day. They used to cook enormous birds capable of generously feeding twenty or more folk, yet there was never more than about ten or eleven of us around the festive table.

Everyone except me preferred white meat. One year, when I was asked my preference, I chose brown meat. My host cut off and then placed a whole turkey leg on my plate. It looked like an enormous club, such as might have been used by Fred Flintstone.

After 1994, I often spent Christmas in India. One Christmas Day, I fancied French onion soup rather than festive fare. A couple of years running, we ate Christmas lunch at Sunnies restaurant, which blazed the trail for fine dining with European food in Bangalore. The Christmas menu included the best turkeys I have ever eaten; they were juicy and very tasty. The turkeys at Sunnies were Butterballs specially imported from the USA.

Finally, I will tell you about an unusual Christmas Day ingredient, which I encountered at a place in Bangalore , which I will not name to save causing embarrassment. Several large roasted turkeys were being served at a buffet lunch. After I had enjoyed a serving of turkey, a friend of mine brought me his daughter’s plate, which contained a sizeable piece of uneaten Turkey meat and … a perfectly roasted large cockroach.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

The writing on the wall

India is a country with many religions. This sign advertises a store that gets in new stock for Ramzan ( Muslim ), Christmas ( Christian ), Diwali ( Hindu ) and New Year ( which one is not specified ).

Sadly, inter-religious tolerance is being challenged in today’s India.