Old December: seasonal tidings

FeaturedOld December: seasonal tidings

Let’s sing for old December. Thea Gilmore’s 2009 album, Strange Communion – one of the best ‘Christmas’ albums ever – has been reissued this month in an expanded form. Christmas is in quote marks there because Strange Communion is not a conventional seasonal album, but one that raises a glass to all, ‘whoever you praise.’ The collection’s true inspiration is the conjunction of celebrations that mark this season

Raise a glass for these days
And sing, sing, sing for old December

To mark this re-release, here’s a re-post of my original blog post from December 2009:

It seems to be a rich year for Christmas albums (and I am not referring to the Dylan one).  For jazz, Carla Bley has produced the excellent Carla’s Christmas Carols, while the greatly-underrated Thea Gilmore has produced what may be, for me, the best non-jazz album of 2009: Strange Communion.

Actually, Christmas album is a bit misleading: this collection of songs  is redolent of all things wintry, the sense of short December days, cold outside and warmth within.  So Christmas is here, but more in its pre-Christian pagan form.

The album contains 8 originals and 2 unusual covers: Yoko Ono’s incandescent ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’, which in Gilmore’s arrangment really does conjure up that sense of muffled silence as snow falls, and ‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, a little known Elvis Costello song, that sonically comes from the same place as the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ but which has lyrics that illuminate the mad hilarity and agony of an English suburban family Christmas.

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On the stunning opening track Thea, singing acapella,  is joined by the Sense Of Sound Choir on ”Sol Invictus’, that invokes the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (‘Unconquered Sun’), whom the third century emperor Aurelian elevated to one of the premier divinities of the Roman empire, inaugurating the tradition of  celebrating Sol on December 25.

Come the dark
Come the cold
Come the beating air
Chill the night
Sol delight
Will be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Days stretching weary wings

Come the day
Come the dawn
Somewhere in the rain
Low my heart
Low my life
Forget everything

Come the day
Thief of the night
Lift his voice to sing
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again

Elsewhere, Thea Gilmore’s lyrics invoke the old Yule or Yule-tide pagan winter festival, later absorbed into the Christian festival of Christmas. In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for people in the northern latitudes: the growing season had ended and food stocks would br running low. As the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon, people feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they could take heart that warmth and growth would return, so the concept of birth and rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. A slight elevation of the sun’s path would be noticeable just a few days after the solstice – perhaps by December 25, the date on which celebrations were often timed to occur. In AD 730, the English historian Bede gave December 25 as the first day of the pagan year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night:

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through

So this is far from being a sugary, American-style Christmas album in the Christian tradition. Thea Gilmore has blended many different traditions and cultural commentaries on winter darkness and rebirth.  In ‘Midwinter Toast’ she sings:

I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all

‘Cold Coming’, inspired by TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the story that began with ‘a heart upon the straw’ is pursued to our ‘streets paved with light’, its meaning ‘the old reunion of the rebel with the fight’.

It was a cold coming
With stars upon the ground
And the sky was burning
And all the world was sound
It was a love beginning
A heart upon the straw
And the children were singing
Our Lord, our lord, our lord
Do you sing that song?

It was a cold coming
The streets were paved with light
You could hear the engines running
You could hear them all night long
It was a strange communion
His name raised up in lights
The old reunion
Of the rebel with the fight

Strange Communion does have a potential top ten Christmas single – ‘That’ll Be Christmas. The traditional Christmas staples – mulled wine, mistletoe – are here, but Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, which is probably how a lot of us feel about the whole thing.

This approach is captured, too, in Elvis Costello’s only Christmas song , The St Stephen’s Day Murders, about the day after after Christmas.  Elvis wrote and recorded the song for a Chieftains album in 1991. The lyric is a perfect portrayal of family life in the aftermath of Christmas. He is remembering , perhaps , extended family gatherings in his Anglo-Irish Liverpool-London childhood:

The good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen
For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
Till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
Cause it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
Ah, it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St. Stephen’s Day Murders

Aside from ‘Sol Invictus’, the most beautiful song on the album is ‘Drunken Angel’, which could have appeared on any Gilmore album and could be listened to in July, even though it is drenched in mid-winter imagery.  It is a song of affirmation and faith in beauty, feelings and renewal:

Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…

There are some things broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing
Shine your light…

Now is the time that I will raise my eyes and be honest
And look out across the plain of another tired and reckless year
Give thanks for the love and wonder that was hurled upon us…

A drunken angel danced into my heart
Singing lonely days and a brand-new start

You can hear the howl of wings
You can feel it when the wine is flowing
The tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads
And, baby, sometimes the beauty in this world
Comes from just not knowing
Feeling instead

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The album has been picking up glowing reviews everywhere.  The Independent carried an insightful review this week, which included these comments:Gilmore opens the album with ‘Sol Invictus’, a pagan hymn to winter solstice, sung a cappella with the Sense of Sound Choir, before offering ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’ in agnostic manner. “I don’t believe in many things, but here’s my hymn to you all”, she admits, facing the uneasy prospect of the new year with hope but no illusions. T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ provides the opening image to ‘Cold Coming’, Gilmore’s folk-rock rallying-cry celebrating Jesus as outlaw revolutionary, “the old reunion of the rebel with the fight”, and finding an even colder coming in “the ringing of the till” […]
Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Lest her Christmas slip too far towards the cautionary and sober-sided, Gilmore offers her own unabashed attempt at a Christmas single with ‘That’ll be Christmas’ – and makes a better fist of it than most, mingling sharp coinages like “faith, hope and gluttony” with unusually fresh, evocative images over a rolling pop groove streaked with slide guitar. This album’s “Fairytale of New York”, meanwhile, is not so much her melancholy separation song ‘December in New York’, as the celtic-flavoured duet ‘St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, an obscure Elvis Costello oddity on which DJ Mark Radcliffe plays the Shane MacGowan part, brusquely sharing anticipation of “laughter and tears over Tia Marias”. But it’s another obscure cover, of Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’, which provides the album’s most magical moment, Gilmore’s delivery a hushed murmur over a shimmering synth-pad sparsely illuminated by the occasional chime.

Elsewhere, ‘Old December’ is another non-denominational celebration of the season – “whoever you praise, raise a glass to these days” – while acoustic guitar and an intimate shiver of strings lends an Astral Weeks ambience to the lovely ‘Drunken Angel’, which carries much the same message in more evocative language, promising that

Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

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.

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Fox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

FeaturedFox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.

Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving  out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.

For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves

It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.

It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.

There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!

Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide
in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.
I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch
in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag
quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting
from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf

 

See also

Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

We have been entertained these past few days by the busy bustle of spring among the birds in our garden: a blue tit has found a hole in the sandstone wall and flies back and forth carrying nesting material, disappearing inside what should be a safe and warm shelter for its chicks, while a pair of magpies sift through the flower beds and fly off with beaks laden with twigs and leaves. Continue reading “Spring again, and our neighbours are restless”

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago

Sitting in a darkening room yesterday as evening came on, I sensed snowflakes falling beyond the window. Torn by a western wind and rain that had fallen throughout the day, the falling shards of ghostly white were the petals of the magnolia tree that stands in our front garden, planted by us thirty years ago. Every year since, its trunk has thickened and its branches have spread; and every spring before coming into leaf it has put forth its creamy-white, goblet-shaped flowers in growing profusion. This year it reached full maturity, putting on a display that has lit up our window and the entire street. Seeing this annual unfolding fills me with great happiness. Planting this tree three decades ago strikes me now as being one of the most satisfying and valuable things I have ever done.   Continue reading “To plant a tree: a love song to a magnolia planted thirty years ago”

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake‘, 1939

During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:

This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.

Continue reading “‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’”

The heart of a dog: an elegy

The heart of a dog: an elegy

I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion. Continue reading “The heart of a dog: an elegy”

Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’

Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’

A fine piece in today’s Guardian Country Diary by Mark Cocker. In a poetic column about the departure of swifts from the skies above his Norfolk home as they head south on their long migration he writes, ‘Surely more than anything else in British nature, swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve. It has the certainty of a steel blade. It is shaped like a strand of cobweb weighted with dew. It has the line of the Earth’s own rim mid-ocean, and a memory of it hangs momentarily in the air like breath on a winter’s morning.’

Here’s the full article: Continue reading “Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’”