Old December: seasonal tidings

Old 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.

Sefton Park 70

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

Sefton Park 64

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.

Christmas card: Clare Leighton’s Santa Claus shoulders his load

Christmas card: Clare Leighton’s Santa Claus shoulders his load

Clare Leighton Santa Claus with tree

Here’s Santa Claus – but not, as in conventional representations, hauling a sack of toys.  Instead, in this woodcut that is typical of the work of its creator Clare Leighton, Santa shoulders a tree, recently harvested from the forest.

Many of Clare Leighton’s works contain images of physical labour: farmers toiling in the fields, fishermen pulling in their catch, dockhands off-loading goods, and women washing clothes or mending nets. She is an artist whose work I have admired since seeing some of her woodcuts displayed in an exhibition in Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery.  She was an artist, writer and wood engraver, best known for the illustrated books she produced in the 1930s that recorded English rural life (The Farmer’s Year, 1933, Four Hedges, 1935), and her recording of life in America to where she emigrated in 1939. Southern Harvest, 1942 and New England Industries, 1952, are considered amongst the most celebrated and poignant records of American rural life in the middle of the last century.

Leighton had an unconventional childhood. Both her parents were writers – her father wrote cowboy stories whilst her mother wrote yarns for the daily newspaper in order to keep the upper-class household going. Her brother Roland, killed in 1915, was later immortalised by his fiancé Vera Brittain in her memoir Testament of Youth.

Clare Leighton, Sowing

‘Sowing’ from ‘The Farmer’s Year’

Leighton attended Brighton Art School before studying at the Slade School of Art, where she spent ‘months on end sitting before a model and drawing and drawing and drawing.’  Faced with the reality of needing to earn her living she left the Slade and began illustrating her father’s Wild West stories, enrolling for evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in order to learn about black and white reproduction.

In the late 1920s Leighton took a job teaching children from one of the poorest slum districts of London, taking them to the National Gallery and encouraging them to see beauty in the shapes and forms of chimney pots around them. During this time she continued to engrave ‘countless wood blocks, aware of neither fatigue or impatience’.

As Leighton built up a reputation as a book illustrator her teaching career gave way to lecturing, and in 1928 she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. There she produced a series of engravings of Canadian lumberjacks at work in remote snowy woodland, created during a subsequent trip to a lumber camp on the Quebec-Ontario border in the winter of 1930-31.

Farmers-Year-Jacket

The cover of the recent republication of ‘The Farmers’ Year’

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‘Threshing – March’ from ‘The Farmer’s Year

During the 1930s Leighton worked on several celebrated books, such as The Farmer’s Year (1933, recently republished by Toller Books), which depicted rural activities such as threshing, haymaking, apple-picking, lambing, ploughing and sowing that were associated with the months of the year, examples of which are included in the show. Other books that she authored and illustrated included Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle (1935) which was inspired by her garden, and the very influential manual Wood-engraving and Woodcuts (1932).

Cotton Picking

‘Cotton Picking’ from ‘Southern Harvest’

In 1939 Leighton settled in the Unitesd States. The landscape and rural activities of the American South, such as cotton picking and corn shucking, inspired her 1942 book Southern Harvest, whilst activities such as cranberrying, codfishing, whaling and lobstering in Connecticut were the focus of a series of twelve designs for Wedgwood plates on the theme of New England Industries.

Breadline, New York

Other notable works include a powerful and bleak engraving called Breadline, New York produced at the height of the Great Depression in which men warm themselves before a fire at the end of a seemingly endless queue that stretches through the city.

I was reminded of the strength and beauty of Clare Leighton’s work by a recent post on Caught by the River (which was also the source of the Santa Claus woodcut).  The post gave news of a forthcoming exhibition of Clare Leighton’s work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex.  Pallant House put on some magnificent exhibitions – but they are about as far from Liverpool as it’s possible to be.  However, I did see their magnificent Edward Burra exhibition when it went on tour.

And so – Happy Christmas.  And may Santa, shouldering his load, bring you good things.

See also

Sefton Park Palm House at Christmas

Sefton Park Palm House at Christmas

Palm House Christmas

On our doorstep: the treasure that is Sefton Park.  At its heart: the jewel, the Palm House.  Twice a day dog and I loop around this beautiful building.  In the weeks around Christmas the filigree dome is illuminated with coloured light, and the interior decorated with seasonal lights.

Completed in 1896, Sefton Park Palm House was a gift to Liverpool by Henry Yates Thompson, whose grand uncle  was Richard Vaughan Yates who donated the land for Prince’s Park to Liverpool (the Yates were a wealthy family of merchants and lawyers, Unitarians, social reformers and prominent in the anti-slavery movement).

The Palm House is one of the country’s largest Victorian greenhouses and was designed in the tradition of Paxton’s glass houses and was stocked originally with a rich collection of exotic plants. There are nine marble statues on display inside, together with a marble bench. On plinths around the outside there are a further 8 bronze and marble statues of famous explorers and naturalists.

A period of decline and deterioration culminated in the closure of the Palm House in the 1980’s on grounds of public safety (I can remember the rusting metalwork and slipped panes of glass at that time, with brown palm leaves poking out of the dome through broken glass). T

In June 1992, a public meeting was held to protest the dereliction and calling for restoration. A petition of 5,000 names was presented to the City Council by what had become the Save the Palm House campaign. A fund raising campaign was established, with a ‘sponsor a pane’ programme, generating over £35,000. Eventually, the Save the Palm House campaign evolved into a registered charity, Friends of Sefton Park Palm House that is now the Sefton Park Palm House Preservation Trust.

A £2.5m lottery-funded refurbishment programme saw the building finally restored to its former glory and the building is now open to the public on most days, as well as being used for many other functions (it’s especially popular for weddings). A specially constructed performance area means that the building can be used to host concerts and performances (such as this one, with Eduardo Niebla, the brilliant guitarist from Andalucia).

So – Merry Christmas from Sefton Park, Liverpool!

Palm House 3

Palm House Christmas 2

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

A Christmas Carol illustration by John Leech

‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech

The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story.  Spoke, too, of  the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.

‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’

‘Scrooge!’

‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in.  But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’

‘I know what you mean.  I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting.  They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”

My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books.  During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.

Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going.  Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.

This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness.  Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.

Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’  To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.

I am the Ghost of Christmas Present

‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’.  Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843

In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.

Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches.  In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice.  Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation.  As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’

Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’.  In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns –  the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:

All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it.  Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.

Liverpool Mechanics Institution 1841

Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841

I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks  after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.

Artist impression of the Soiree  - 26th February 1844

An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844

In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’.  Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:

Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…

One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was

That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.

Dickens plaque

The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution

Dickens added that he derived great  pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.

This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that

It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.

That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught  themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.

That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts).  As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls.  For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.

Liverpool Institute

The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA

Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance.  The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover.  Inside were  four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts.  The book was an immense success.  Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.

Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844 text

Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit.  In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the  moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.

These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries.  Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:

Miserliness as a vice.  Generosity as virtue.  How people obtain money.  How people exert power over others because of money.  How money can be an aspect of cruelty.  How money can destroy a family.  How the want of money is oppressive.  How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.

The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.

A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

[…]

“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)

Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier,  in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.

While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:

Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate.  Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.

A Christmas Carol first edition illustration by John Leech

Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens.  Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position.  When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:

I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government.  At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Trotty Veck

Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’

I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story.  Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency.  Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.

The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety.  It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings.  It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.

The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story.  Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.

Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!

For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present.  In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’.  Here’s Filer:

‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born.  And that we know they haven’t.  We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’

Alderman Cute and his friends

Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition

And his friend, Alderman Cute:

‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down.  There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down.  That’s all!  Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]

Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this.  I tries to live elsewhere.  And I’m a vagabond.  To jail with him!  I comes back here.  I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two.  To jail with him!  One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun.  To jail with him!  I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again.  To jail with him!  I cuts a stick.  To jail with him!  I eats a rotten apple or a turnip.  To jail with him!  It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road.  To jail with him!  At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything.  To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’

Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?”  demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’.  However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Amen to that!

See also

Blowing in the Boxing Day wind

Boxing Day and we join the confederacy of dog walkers, joggers and Christmas sofa escapees on Crosby waterfront.  The plan when we left home was a bracing stroll along the beach, meandering between Anthony Gormley’s iron men.

It was not to be – the tide was in, and the wind, which in the city had been no more than breezy, was a here an ear-deafening, body-battering roar.  The waves pounded the promenade, sending spray  far into the dunes beyond.

Skeins of geese headed south, hugging the estuary coastline, working hard to hold their course as the wind buffeted them towards the land. In the distance the cranes of Seaforth docks and the towers of the city glinted silver in the sunlight.

It was a fine morning; away from the wind the day was mild, and has been so for several days – a stark contrast with the icy temperatures this time last year.  The air was clear and the views across the estuary towards the Wirral and the Welsh hills were sharp as a knife.

Looking at these photos now I think: this could be somewhere remote – the Scottish islands, perhaps – rather than a place barely ten miles from a city centre.  Only the turning blades of the wind turbines out on the horizon hint at something different.

It’s not often that we’ve seen it like this at Crosby.  We always seem to arrive when the tide is out and the iron men of Gormley’s Another Place stand erect along the sands – go compare.

Returning to the city and the other reality of the newspapers is a reminder of what else might be blowing in the wind as we edge towards 2012.  Assessing the crisis in the eurozone, Aditya Chakrabortty writes in The Guardian that something pretty scary lies in wait on 1 February:

It is almost certain that 2012 is going to be worst year yet for the eurozone. Easily the worst financially, terrible economically and increasingly grim politically.

A good rule of thumb in this crisis is that when a European state pays more to borrow than an ordinary taxpayer shells out for a bank loan, the government eventually has to call in the rescue brigade. For much of November, Italy was borrowing at a rate of 7% – and probably the only thing that has kept interest rates from going higher still is that the European Central Bank (ECB) has been buying Rome’s IOUs.

In other words, the markets trust the Italian state – with its own tax-raising powers – less than it does a couple in Kettering who’d quite like a new kitchen. Which, given that Italy plans to roll over more than €360bn (£310bn) of debt next year, is hardly sustainable for the new prime minister Mario Monti. Indeed, on 1 February, Rome will have to either repay or renew €28bn of loans. Even now, no one has the faintest idea how it will do that.

Over the next couple of months, Italy’s crisis can go one of three ways: either the ECB keeps on buying its bonds, with the blessing of northern-European voters and markets; or ECB head Mario Draghi pledges to fund financially distressed eurozone governments; or Rome gives in and calls for a bail-out. If the last even looks likely, financiers will almost certainly panic that Italy is about to default on its debt. With about a third of the country’s bonds held abroad, this could wreak chaos in world markets – including in Britain, which is by far the biggest foreign owner of BTPs. That’s the sort of event Barack Obama has in mind when he remarks that Europe’s crisis is “scaring the world”.

In the same paper, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, offers a precis of his book on the summer riots, Out of the Ashes, in which he, too, has a grim prediction for 2012:

In the inner-cities, lighting does strike twice – ask Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham. Last summer’s riots have been swept under a very big, eurozone-shaped carpet. All the while, the fundamentals of the disorder remain unchanged. Hopelessness still permeates the estates of concentrated poverty and worklessness. People who have no stake in society are the least likely to have respect for it. And those with the least to lose are invariably the first to throw the brick. There is a very real chance the riots will repeat themselves in 2012.

In a nutshell his argument is that the riots were the consequence of ‘two revolutions’, one social and cultural the second economic:

The riots signposted the failure of successive governments to deal with two liberal revolutions: a 1960s social revolution and a 1980s economic revolution. Together they made Britain a wealthier and more tolerant place. But these two revolutions, built around notions of personal freedom, sell Britain short unless they are moderated by other forces. The riots were a reminder that, whether we like it or not, we are heavily dependent on one another. A good life depends on the strength of our relationships with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and strangers.

Lammy’s conclusion is that  ‘we cannot live in a society in which banks are too big to fail but whole communities are allowed to sink without trace’.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life: thoughts on banks and ethics

Our annual Christmas Eve ritual: escaping Pottersville to spend 90 minutes in Bedford Falls.  We join the audience packing the Philharmonic Hall to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that has gained resonance since the banking crash of 2008.

But wait – isn’t the hero of this film a banker? Ah, yes, but the Scrooge-like villain,  Henry F. Potter is a banker, too – albeit of a rather different cut. But what kind of banker is George Bailey?  Watching the film, I found myself musing on this, perhaps as a result of having just finished John Lanchester’s brilliant account of the origins of the credit crunch in 2008, Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay.

Because what lies at the heart of Frank Capra’s film – dressed up in the admittedly sentimental Christmas angel story – is the same question that Lanchester pursues in his book: What are banks for and what social purpose do they serve?

Potter represents the malignant, rapacious side of banking, while Bailey Building and Loan is a bank that is responsible and benevolent, and serves the needs of the local community. This dichotomy is presented most clearly in what is, perhaps, the best scene of the film and the one that most people recall most vividly: the bank run.

George Bailey has just married his childhood sweetheart Mary. As they are leaving town for their honeymoon, they witness a run on the bank that leaves Bailey Building and Loan in danger of collapse. The couple quell the depositors’ panic with a personal bail-out –  the $2,000 earmarked for their honeymoon. George gets up and makes a speech that defines the ethics of socially responsible banking:

Now wait…now listen…now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He got the department stores. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments? You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.

In a little lesson on balance sheet accounting, George explains to the crowd that their money isn’t at Bailey Building and Loan:  it’s invested in another person’s house and another’s loan.  ‘You’re thinking of this place all wrong’, he says. ‘Your money is in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Macklin’s house and a hundred others. You’re loaning them the money to build and they’ll pay it back’.

Bailey Building and Loan survives because George and Mary and all the depositors of Bailey’s Building and Loan stick together; the bank is saved by contributions from ordinary townspeople. In the 2007-8 remake, it was pretty much the same thing, but on a vaster scale: governments bailed out the banks, using taxpayers’ money. When the big banks required a ‘guardian angel’, they got a bailout, but they were not George Bailey nor are they any longer an integral part of local communities like Bailey Building and Loan was in Bedford Falls.

Remember how it all kicked off, back in September 2007?  The UK’s 5th largest lender Northern Rock experienced a good old fashioned bank-run. People expecting Northern Rock to become insolvent camped outside overnight. The Bank of England had to step in and promise to provide liquidity to Northern Rock, which was taken into public ownership.

It’s pertinent to recall that moment, because Northern Rock was, like  Bailey Building and Loan, a former building society (they call them Savings and Loans in the States), with its roots in the 19th century heyday of building society formation.  Savings and Loans or building societies emerged in the 19th century as small banks that accepted cash deposits from customers and made loans to borrowers in the community, replacing the extended family as a source of capital.  They were democratic in a way that banks were not since they were ‘mutual’ – the depositors controlled the investment strategy deployed by management.  In their UK heyday, there were hundreds of building societies, with just about every town in the country having a building society named after the town.  In contrast, equity investors (such as Potter), usually with no connection to the deposit community, controlled the management of banks.

Borrowers and depositors seem to have genuinely respected these institutions, because the interests of the bank were at one with the local community on which it depended. But It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that not all banks are so constituted.  Potter, the greedy banker, stokes the run on Bailey Building and Loan, by offering depositors 50 cents on the dollar for their shares (and, later in the film, causes the second, climatic crisis by stealing some of Bailey’s cash).  Unlike Bailey, Potter sees Bedford Falls as a resource to exploit for his own gain.  If he could eliminate Bailey’s, he would  monopolize both the local banking and housing markets and use his market power to grind the faces of the poor.

George has earlier established Bailey Park, an affordable housing project. The residents no longer have to pay extortionate rents to slum landlord Potter, who as the majority shareholder in Bailey Building and Loan, tries to persuade the board of directors to stop providing home loans to the working poor. George talks them into rejecting Potter’s proposal, but it’s at the cost of his dream of leaving Bedford Falls to pursue a college education.The board agree only on the condition that George himself run the Building and Loan.

This episode, too, has its parallels in the events of the credit crunch.  In Whoops! John Lanchester describes in the most intelligible and entertaining manner how the creation by financial engineers of new mathematical formulas underpinned the explosive growth of credit default swaps that seemed to magic away any risk involved in advancing mortgages to people without the means or inclination to repay.  Without the risk, these sub-prime loans, with their high interest rates, became deeply attractive.  In the book, Lanchester quotes a lawyer trying to protect home-owners caught up in the American foreclosure hurricane:

Remember It’s a Wonderful Life?  It’s not like that any more.  They don’t care about you.  If they did, they wouldn’t give you a $300,000 loan if you didn’t have a job and had no chance of paying it back’.

Except Potter would have – if credit default swaps had existed back in the 1930s; and, if they had fallen behind on their repayments, he’d have foreclosed:

– Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.

– Then foreclose!

– I can’t do that. These families have children.

– They’re not my children

– But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter.

– Are you running a business or a charity ward?

But there is one crucial way in which it’s not like the film any more: there are very few building societies left.  In explaining the roots of the present crisis in Whoops!, Lanchester winds the clock right back to 1980s. In that decade, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, coupled with the re-emergence of a virulent form of free market economic promoted by Thatcher and Reagan,  produced a climate – ‘a victory party of free market capitalism’.  That climate underpinned the deregulation and privatisation mania of the following two decades – one notable feature of which was the demutualisation of the building societies, now free to offer any of the banking services provided by normal banks.  As John Lanchester puts it in Whoops!:

It began with Northern Rock, done in by Britain’s first bank run in 150 years. The bank was a demutualised former mutual society. It had adopted a groovy, go-go financial strategy: only 27 per cent of its funds came from money deposited in its accounts by savers; the rest came from short-term borrowing, on an as-and-when-needed basis, from the international money markets. When those markets choked up the Rock sought emergency funding from the Bank of England, which acted too slowly and by doing so triggered the run on the Rock, which led, after a certain amount of governmental faffing about, to its nationalisation on 17 February.

Note that the Rock wasn’t destroyed by risky lending. Some of its loans were risky: a banker contact of mine told me that there was trouble with a ‘book’ of mortgage loans for 120 per cent of the value of homes. (Why would any sane person want to borrow 120 per cent of the value of the thing they wanted to buy? I can just about answer that question: because they want to do the place up, or spend the extra on a new car, and because all parties involved are mortally certain that the price is going to go up. But it’s still crazily reckless. Why would any sane lender lend the money? No idea.) But while loans like this did nothing to help the Rock, what ruined the bank was its exposure to the now malfunctioning money markets.

If you want a book that will explain derivatives, leveraging ratios,the difference between a CDO and a CDS, the significance of the Var statistical tool, and many other arcane mysteries of the banking stratosphere that contributed to the great crash of 2008, in a highly readable and often humourous manner that even enumerate people like me can grasp, then Whoops! is the book to read. Lanchester’s book reveals clearly how the mathematical models that the ‘quants’ working for the big banks developed in the 1990s were a mistake that ultimately led to the 2008 collapse. They were a mistake because they violated practical common-sense rules of risk management; they proved a disaster because neither the bankers themselves nor the regulators properly understood them.

In summary, Lanchester’s analysis is that ‘the credit crunch was based on a climate (the post-Cold War victory party of free market capitalism), a problem (the sub-prime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk) and a failure, that of the regulators’.  He is explicit about the crucial importance of contemporary banking culture – Potteresque in its brutal, money-grubbing lack of ethics:

Doctors don’t, for the most part, pride themselves on saying, ‘What the hell, nobody’s looking, so I’m just going to reuse this dirty needle.’ … But the culture of modern banking is not like that; in fact, it’s close to the opposite of that.  The bankers’ slogan is something closer to ‘We’re not that fussed about safety, because if we have an accident, it’s you who pays’.

Lanchester illustrates this point with the most spectacular example:

Goldman Sachs … went from having to end its status  as an investment bank and take federal support, in September 2008, to declaring all-time record profits – with bonuses to match – in July 2009.  The bank which would have gone under without government help, and had to borrow $10 billion from the taxpayer, was less than a year later setting aside $16.8 billion in pay, bonuses and benefits for itself.

He concludes that the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism has failed – it only survives because of the huge government bailouts.  ‘The amount of state intervention in the US and UK at this moment is at a level comparable with wartime.  We have in effect had to declare war to get us out of the hole created by our economic system. … It is a 100 per cent pure form of socialism for the rich’.  Two decades after the end of the Cold war, capitalism, Lanchester says, ‘has found a deadly opponent; but the problem is that the opponent is capitalism itself’.

Back in the 1940s, there were some who perceived that It’s a Wonderful Life amounted to more than a syrupy, feel good Christmas film.  The May, 1947 FBI memorandum to the McCarthy committee concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry stated:

In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”

In Whoops!, Lanchester kicks around some ideas about where we go now. Tighter regulation of banks, splitting ‘casino banking’ off from what he calls the ‘piggy bank’ role (something like the service provided by George Bailey), transparency with regard to pay and rewards and the ratio of pay between top and bottom, and so on. Perhaps most dramatically he argues that if a bank receives any taxpayers’ money, the existing shareholders should be wiped out. That’s what happens, he argues to investors in other institutions: if the firm you’ve bought shares in goes broke, you lose your money.  At the moment, it doesn’t happen with banks (because of the ‘too big to fail’ problem).  But, Lanchester argues, this simple and  brutal change in the law would ensure that banks managed their risks properly.

Maybe, I thought as I watched James Stewart fight to save his community bank, we should have a re-mutualisation process, re-establishing the concept of the building society.  Or, as Will Hutton proposed in his 1995 bestseller The State We’re In, a German-type system of regional banks that would demonstrate commitment to local industry by investing for the long term, rather than for short term profit. Then there’s the credit union model: cooperative financial organisations that are owned and controlled by their members, providing credit at competitive rates, and often furthering community development. At the end of 2010 there were 52,945 credit unions in 100 countries around the world. Collectively they served 188 million members and oversaw $1.5 trillion in assets.

In the end, in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey represents the triumph of  ‘good’ capitalism over the predatory capitalism of  Potter, who espouses the philosophy of the rampant free market at its most rapacious. Potter almost succeeds. But Bailey’s customers recognise that his loyalty to them and their families and to the community of Bedford Falls means more than the get rich at any cost philosophy of Potter. In the memorable closing scene they flock back to the bank with their deposits.  The film’s closing line – ‘to George Bailey, the richest man in town’ – appeals to something buried deep within us – an understanding that real wealth cannot be measured in terms of money.

Lanchester concludes Whoops! on a similar note, re-emphasising his argument about the cultural roots of the crisis. But though he makes the point that a tiny minority of rich people were directly responsible for financial shenanigans behind the crash, and that everyone else is having to pick up the bill, he goes further.  He quotes ‘the greatest economist who ever lived’, John Maynard Keynes, in an essay he wrote in 1930 ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’:

The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will [in a century’s time] be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disorder.

For himself, Lanchester concludes:

Free-market capitalism’s victory party lasted for two decades: now it’s time to slow down, calm down and decide how to make the finance industry back into something which serves the rest of society, rather than predating on it.  And the level of our individual response is just as important. On that level, we have to start thinking about when we have sufficient – sufficient money, sufficient stuff – and whether we really need the things we do, beyond what we already have.  In a world running out of resources, the most important ethical and political and ecological idea can be summed up in one simple word: ‘enough’.

As we file out from It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s this truth, I think, that Frank Capra’s film speaks to – and to a yearning by its audience for life in 2012 to be a bit more akin to Bedford Falls and a lot less like Pottersville.  But here’s the rub: Potter keeps the $8000 he stole!  At the core of a film some regard as sentimental is a cold, hard, harsh truth.

See also

Midwinter Toast

Well I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all:
O Hallelujah!
O Hallelujah!
– Thea Gilmore, Midwinter Toast

This was sunrise over Sefton Park on Christmas morning: the first time I can remember snow lying at Christmas (though my memory may be faulty – it often is, these days).

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Merry Christmas from Pottersville

Is he sick? No. Worse. He’s discouraged.

There can be no better way to get into the festive spirit than with the family to join the throng packing out the Phil for the Christmas Eve screening of Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s A Wonderful Life.  The hall is packed and electric with good vibes – egged on by the legendary kilted organist who will eventually subside into the bowels of the building, always reminding me of the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Before he goes, he leads the audience in the annual ritual of rattling the car keys to ‘Jingle Bells’.  he descends, and the screen ascends.  Welcome to Bedford Falls!

Seeing this film for the umpteenth time, it still remains as fresh and joyous as ever, perhaps even more so.  Potter the evil banker is remarkably in tune with the times, while outside – for the first time that I can recall – the Liverpool streets, crusted with hard-packed snow, looked exactly like Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve.

It’s funny to think that Frank Capra’s film was forgotten for a two decades until, out of copyright and available to screen at no cost, American TV stations picked up on it, began to screen it at Christmas time in the early 1970s, and from then on the audience for the film began to climb exponentially.  Sitting in a packed Philharmonic hall today made me realise what a phenomenon this film has become: families like ours and groups of friends there to experience its Dickensian emotion –  a dash of sentimentalism with a bracing twist of social commentary and populism.

Frank Capra didn’t  intend It’s a Wonderful Life to be a Christmas film, screened only in the festive season.  Capra had come to be regarded as Hollywood’s poet of the common man in the 1930s with a series of populist parables such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Capra wanted It’s a Wonderful Life, the first film he made after returning from service in World War II, to be a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbours.

It’s the richness and variety of It’s a Wonderful Life that is revealed on another viewing.  It isn’t just the heart-warming message (‘No man is a failure who has friends’).  There is so much more to enjoy here: the slapstick comedy of the high school hop, where the dance floor opens over a swimming pool, and James Stewart and Donna Reed  continue doing the Charleston as they fall into the water; the erotically charged scene where Donna Reed loses her bathrobe;  the romantic telephone call where Stewart and Reed are helplessly drawn toward each other; the darker later passages when the drunken George Bailey staggers through a town he wants to hate, and then revisits it through the help of his guardian angel; and the moments when the populist politics bursts through:

Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was – why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? … Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You – you said – what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you … they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.

Apparently, in 1947, an FBI analyst submitted a memo on ‘Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry’, with the observation that the film’s ‘obvious’ attempt to discredit bankers ‘is a common trick used by Communists’. Sixty or so years later it seems like a wake up call.

George Bailey is desperate to get out of Bedford Falls:

I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

But what I noticed this time was the rambunctious, joyous cacophony of community life in Bedford Falls.  It is not the bland, genteel opposite of the decadence of Pottersville, but is full of the richness of life lived well.

We all live in Pottersville now. That’s why the emotional audience response to the film this afternoon, and the wave of applause that greeted its conclusion, had, I thought, a tinge of sadness, of yearning – for something lost, or yet to be gained. At a seminar with film students in the 1970s Capra was asked if films could still be made with the kinds of values and ideals found in his films. ‘Well, if there isn’t’, he said, ‘we might as well give up’.

See also

Snow’s frolic architecture

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…
Thea Gilmore, ‘Drunken Angel’

There was a magical sunset this afternoon as I walked the dog in Sefton Park.  Above a landscape transformed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘frolic architecture of the snow’ a huge blood-red sun sank in a western sky streaked from pink to turquoise.

It’s remarkably cold for Liverpool – on Sunday a record low for Merseyside of -17C was recorded up the coast at Crosby, and this morning the reading in the car was -18C and the waterfalls in the park were frozen icicles.

This was Crosby beach a couple of weeks ago – with the unusual sight of frozen surf at the high-tide line.  That was at the time of the last snowfall and severely cold spell.  I really can’t remember snow like this before Christmas; my childhood memories are of wanting it to snow at Christmas – but always being disappointed.

Here’s a slideshow of snow scenes from Sefton Park two mornings ago and Crosby beach a couple of weeks back:

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The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Christmas poems

Carol Ann Duffy

The Christmas edition of the Radio Times features a seasonal verse by the new poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned exclusively for the magazine. I thought I’d reproduce it here, along with one from a couple of years back by the previous laureate, Andrew Motion.

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2009 by Carol Ann Duffy

1

ON THE FIRST DAY OF CHRISTMAS,
a buzzard on a branch.
In Afghanistan,
no partridge, pear tree;
but my true love sent to me
a card from home.
I sat alone,
crouched in yellow dust,
and traced the grins of my kids
with my thumb.
Somewhere down the line,
for another father, husband,
brother, son, a bullet
with his name on.

2

TWO TURTLE DOVES,
that Shakespeare loved –
turr turr, turr turr –
endangered now
by herbicide,
the chopping down
of where they hide –
turr turr, turr turr –
hawthorn thickets,
hedgerows, woodland.
Summer’s music
fainter, farther…
the spreading drought
of the Sahara.

3

THREE FRENCH HENS –
un, deux, trois –
do not know
that French they are.
Three Welsh lambs –
un, dau, tri –
do not know
that Welsh they baa.
Newborn babies –
one, two, three –
only know
you human be.
Only know
you human be.

4

THE GRENADA DOVE IS CALLING.
The Condor calls from the USA.
The Wood Stork calls from its wetlands.
The Albatross calls from the sea,
on the fourth day of Christmas.
The Yellow-eared Parrot is calling.
The Kakapo calls from NZ.
The Blue-throated Macaw is calling.
The Little Tern calls from Japan, calls
my true love sent to me.
The Corncrake is calling; the Osprey.
The Baikal Teal calls from Korea.
The Cuckoo is calling from England,
four calling birds.

5

THE FIRST GOLD RING WAS GOLD INDEED –
bankers’ profits fired in greed.
The second ring outshone the sun,
fuelled by carbon, doused by none.
Ring three was black gold, O for oil –
a serpent swallowing its tail.
The fourth ring was Celebrity;
Fool’s Gold, winking on TV.
Ring five, religion’s halo, slipped –
a blind for eyes or gag for lips.
With these five gold rings they you wed,
then slip them off when you are dead.
With these five go-o-o-old rings.

6

I BOUGHT A MAGIC GOOSE FROM A JOLLY FARMER.
This goose laid Barack Obama.
I bought a magic goose from a friendly fellow.
This goose laid Fabio Capello.
I bought a magic goose from a maiden (comely).
This goose laid Joanna Lumley.
I bought a magic goose from a busker (poor).
This goose laid Anish Kapoor.
I bought a magic goose from a bargain bin, it
was the goose laid Alan Bennett.
I bought a poisoned goose from a crook (sick, whiffing).
This foul goose laid Nick Griffin.

7

THE SWAN AT COCKERMOUTH –
of a broken heart, one half.
The Mersey Swans, flying
for Hillsborough, wings of justice.
Two, married and mute on the Thames,
watching The Wave.
A Swan for Adrian Mitchell
and a Swan for UA Fanthorpe,
swansongs for poetry.
The Queen’s birds, paired
for life, beauty and truth.

8

ONE MILKED MONEY TO MEND HER MOAT.
Two milked voters to float her boat.
Three milked Parliament to flip her flat.
Four milked Government to snip her cat.
Five milked the dead for close-up tears.
Six milked the tax-payer for years and
years and years…
Seven milked the system to Botox
her brow.
Eight milked herself – the selfish cow.

9

BUT THE DEAD SOLDIER’S LADY DOES NOT DANCE.
But the lady in the Detention Centre
does not dance.
But the honour killing lady does not dance.
But the drowned policeman’s lady
does not dance.
But the lady in the filthy hospital ward
does not dance.
But the lady in Wootton Bassett does not dance.
But the gangmaster’s lady does not dance.
But the lady with the pit bull terrier
does not dance.
But another dead soldier’s lady
does not dance.

10

LORDS DON’T LEAP.
They sleep.

11

WE PAID THE BLUDDY PIPER
fir ‘Royal Bank;
twa pipers each
fir Fred and Phil,
fir Finlay, Fraser, Frank.
Too big tae fail!
The wee dog laughed!
The dish ran awa’ wi’ the spoon…
We paid the bluddy pipers,
but we dinnae call the tune.

12

DID THEY HEAR THE DRUMS IN COPENHAGEN,
banging their warning?
On the twelfth day in Copenhagen
was global warming stopped in its tracks
by Brown and Barack and Hu Jintao,
by Meles Zenawi and Al Sabban,
by Yvo de Boer and Hedegaard?
Did they strike a match
or strike a bargain,
the politicos in Copenhagen?
Did they twiddle their thumbs?
Or hear the drums
and hear the drums
and hear the drums?

What is Given by Andrew Motion

Take William Legge, who
once upon a time
was forty-three, a barrister,
and lived
in comfort with the wife
and child he loved,
and didn’t care if this might
make things tame.

since happiness, or what he
knew of it,
depended on him working
out the place
where everything was most
itself, the space
it best belonged in and preserving that

no matter what, which
meant that come the day
his car slid off a B road,
slowing down
correctly as they travelled
out of town
to take a break, and lost its
way

at once among short grass
and little stones
and ended in the cold arms
of an ash
collapsed there years before
which made the crash
hard proof that something
out of place was prone.

to cause catastrophe, and
killed his wife
and child by folding sharply
inwards on itself, he had no
discipline
to settle him, no stable law
for life,

just randomness – a chaos
like the sight
on cloudless nights of stars
with shooting starts
rip-roaring nowhere in particular.
Or are they planes? Or are
they satellites?
______

Take William, or Will
As he has become,

stripped of his name
and his safe estate

now the rush of loss
has dumped him down

in the freezing gap
of doorways and steps

among the others the same,
all fallen from grace

with rates and foxes
and event those codgers

the stinking badgers
who lost their place

among fields and farms
so went to earth

in a shanty town
of cardboard boxes

where passers-by
might sometimes throw

a word or coins,
and later dream

at home and warm
they hear a spine

curve round and creak
against the rain

or ice-threads snap
when a fuddled head

on its pavement-bed
lifts, then settles back.
______

Take Will again, his swarming poacher’s coat
with long, stuffed pockets,
belt of plastic string
and gust of moonlight cold.
He’s standing there
inside the mantle of the
hostel light
strained forward while the
nightmen ask him in
but can’t be sure. What is
this love built up
from faith and charity? Not
known to him.

They ask again. He stalls
And stamps his boots
so hard star-splinters frazzle the cement –
We only want to know your
name, that’s all –

and squares himself, hands
pushed down deep
to grip those pocket-secrets,
then leans close
enough to smell the food
and warmth. My name?

He lifts his head. My name is
William Legge.