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Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Years ago my sister, Dorothy, gave us a calendar for Christmas. Every December I unroll it and hang it in the kitchen. There are decorations backed with velcro that stick on the tree. When the children were younger I'd put chocolates in the pockets, stealing some for myself and replacing them. It's not an Advent Calendar. I remember one with tableaus behind cardboard doors - Angel Gabriel visiting Mary at her home in Nazareth to tell her she's going to have a baby, a bright star with a tail high in the East, the Magi, Οι Μάγοι, on camels follow it across the desert, Mary on an ass led by her husband Joseph walking to Bethlehem for the census, In crowded Bethlehem there are no rooms left but an innkeeper offers them a stable for the night; in the snowy hills an angel appears to shepherds and tells them of a baby to be born in the town; Mary gives birth to a son. She lays the child in a manger between an ox and the ass; the shepherds arrive to see the baby. The Magi arrive with prescient gifts - gold, myrrh, frankincense...
Much later when I was about 15 we read T.S.Eliot's poem about their journey - full of foreboding, written by one of the wise men - weary, disgruntled, apprehensive 'hard and bitter agony for us'...

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

..from XCVI Sermons by the Right Honourable and Reverend Father in God, Lancelot Andrewes, Late Bishop of Winchester, London: 1661

Barry Round then grounded me with this viral on the Nativity:
**** **** ****
New Street Station concourse - on my way to Dumfries
On Monday I took a train from New Street to Scotland, to the border at Dumfries, via Carlisle. I was leading seminars for members and officers of Dumfries and Galloway Council on using scrutiny to improve the council's performance.
Train from Carlisle

At Carlisle Station a man touched me on the shoulder. He handed me a £20 note.
"I think you dropped this" This is almost exactly what I did for a Canadian tourist in Oxford Street, London, about twenty years ago, seeing the more drop from his back pocket.
At Dumfries it had been raining but as I cycled from the station the air seemed merely wet. Almost at once I found the Caledonian cycle route signed to Locharbriggs, just over two miles, a smooth ribbon of tarmac though the darkness to a village of low houses, just east of Dumfries.
Another few hundred yards, I was at South Park Guest House, with friendly guidance to the local chippy, where I bought fish, chips and curry sauce. I ate pleasurably from a cardboard box sitting at the small table where people were meant to wait for their take-away, reading A Woman in Berlin, as the chip shop ladies put up Christmas decorations; local children and youths chattering on the sulphur lit green space outside. It was a short cycle back to the Bed and Breakfast and early sleep. I woke around 3.30 in the morning a gale buffeting the picture window. I phoned Lin knowing she'd still be up "Get to bed, woman!". After that I couldn't sleep - thinking of Corfu and getting about without Lin who may not be able to come with me in January - until, around 5, I must have dropped off, to be woken by my phone alarm at 7.00am, the gale blowing as strong, driving rain.
At breakfast, porridge, then a spread of bacon, beans, tomatoes, hash browns, two fried eggs, sausages, mushrooms, toast and marmalade and a pot of tea. Donna from the council gave me and my bicycle a ride to the training venue, crossing a couple of swollen rivers.
"We've had a lot of rain"
"While we've had very little in the Midlands."

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