And in despair I bowed my head,
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead: nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’
‘Christmas Bells’ - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping in Manchester earlier this evening.
After I left Waterstones, I turned off Deansgate and headed up St Ann’s Square and there I briefly stopped, as I suppose I must do at some point each year, to look at the small plaster nativity, housed in a glowing wooden box across the street from the annual markets.
Ordinarily, I would stop to contemplate this scene for perhaps 30 seconds before joining the city centre bustle and finding my way home to start my wrapping. Today however, I found myself dwelling a little longer, staring at those familiar figures, each set carefully into position on a handful of straw, as they are in town centres all over the UK.
The story these painted, chipped pieces tell is such a foundation of our culture, is embedded so deeply in our storytelling, that it’s also one which is easy for us to pass by without thinking too deeply.
Gloomy stable, mother and child, ass and ox, three wise men. For most people this imagery is ubiquity itself, something which has inhabited our Christmases since we can remember: sure, I’ve seen it in paintings by Bruegel and Caravaggio, heard it described in hymns and carols and prayers and read it in poems, but it’s also there in the school plays, the cards, the decorations, the Christmas packaging.
Now, however, standing there in St Anne' Square, things seemed different. I peered through the glass, assessing each figure present at this birth: the battered shepherds, the wise men, Joseph, the animals. Outside of this tableau, in the darkness which lies beyond, King Herod's Massacre of the Innocents is underway, with soldiers roaming from door to door looking for male infants to slaughter. The nativity is ineluctably a story of refugees.
The ox and the ass - they've always intrigued me. Almost universal in modern depictions of the nativity, their presence receives no mention in Matthew or Luke, the two gospels which relate the story of Jesus's birth. There have been similarly non-canonical details – the infant's glowing skin, Mary's midwives, the circumcision, the messiah’s first bath – which were once popular aspects of the retelling of the nativity but they have long drifted out of fashion.
Indeed, in all the iterations of the nativity that span the ages, the only two constants have been virgin and saviour, mother and son. The rest of the cast is expendable.
I've often thought about how Christmas – both the gaudy holiday and its perilous founding story – is foremost a celebration of childhood. But here, standing in a quiet corner of a cold and busy street, I thought of it as a celebration more specifically of infanthood, of babies.
Perhaps gazing into this biblical frieze, trying to tease from it some new meaning despite being an unbeliever wasn’t an entirely surprising response. Its rather spooky mixture of the ordinary and the miraculous is something I’d been assailed by only a few months earlier: this is my first Christmas as a father. The items I was bringing home were Christmas presents for my baby daughter: pyjamas, a dressing gown, some toys.
Eventually, I made my way home and during the night, when I was unable to sleep, I read on my phone, as I often do, about the daily tally of drownings which have taken place in the Mediterranean following families and individuals trying to cross over to Europe (18 today, six of which were children).
I then looked up the few poems inspired by the nativity with which I’m most familiar: John Donne’s ‘Nativity’, John Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ's Nativity’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. I love each of these poems but tonight they felt wrong, attempting at imbue the scene with a bombast which somehow seems to miss the point.
I drifted into old secular seasonal favourites: ‘Christmas at Sea’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Winter Nocturne’ by Philip Larkin, another atheist drawn to such things. ‘What survives of us is love’, Larkin concludes elsewhere, a line in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ that I’ve always liked but also found difficult to agree with. What survives of us is very little at all: artefacts, buildings, systems. But love? As such a kernel of the lived experience, of the purely inner world, how could it outlast those within whom it dwells? No, I don't think so, sadly. It's simply not possible.
Next, I found myself Googling images of the nativity, until I settled on the one I was looking for, Sassoferranto’s Madonna and Child which consists of just the two principle figures, pudgy baby at rest and mother drowsy.
We do not survive. We die and are remembered for a time and then are forgotten, each of us, eroded by the steady pull of time.
And yet this year I’ve become keenly aware how fragile we are as a species, how entirely dependent babies are on our better instincts for their simple survival. It has become clear to me that the workaday handing down of love through the generations, tenderly passed from one lifespan to the next, is indeed the sum force of what binds human life to the toil of existence. Despite existence itself often causing us confusion and pain and always - without exception - ending with tragedy.
I remain a nonbeliever. But I also cannot look at the nativity without sensing a real presence, something grander than our individual lives. There's a reason why it is our favourite story, the narrative we have placed at the heart of of our shared public lives.
Looking again at Sassoferranto’s painting I can see how the image a woman caring for her newborn – mother and child forming a hidden flicker of warmth in a landscape of darkness and hostility – makes for a more compelling basis for a philosophy than anything else found our planet.
Do You Know How to Waltz?
Above the entrance there is an illuminated clock, the heavy rain misting around it, obscuring its hands. Below, a crowd of people is kept continual by their coming and going through the swing doors. And beyond them she can see the inviting white of the shop’s interior, decorated with red and gold. The rain grows stronger. She moves into the crowd and through the entrance.
I have a ghost story, ‘Do You Know How to Waltz?’, in the Christmas edition of The Big Issue.
It is taken from a new collection, Congregation of Innocents: Five Curious Tales, which can be purchased here.
Stevenson in the Suburbs
Recently I was in Ipswich, staying with relatives. Late one afternoon, whilst my partner went for a nap, I strapped our baby daughter into her buggy and went for a wander around the neighbourhood. At the time I was working on a ghost story – one set in a Tudor reenactment society, something I've been writing on and off for well over year but was now at a loss as to how it should proceed – and thought a stroll might help me puzzle it out. And so I set out, walking and thinking, walking and thinking. I tried to put my mind to the constituent elements of this story, much the same as a good deal of what I write: history, imagination, dreams, fears.
I followed a path along a narrow wooded stream for a while and then, turning down a side-street, found myself in a typical suburb: wide-open streets lined with well-manicured shrubs, impeccable lawns and, beyond those, rows of large dwellings sat quietly in the early dusk. For all their normalcy, there’s an indelible strangeness to the suburbs, I’ve always thought, particularly in the more unsociable hours: their stillness can make them seem uninhabited, as though all the houses have been calmly and methodically abandoned. After about fifteen minutes of walking down one long, deserted street and then another, and another, each seeming to lead me somewhere without ever quite arriving there, I conceded that I had lost my bearings, vanished from the small patch of the area I knew.
I grew up in a suburb very much like to this, another conurbation in commuting distance of a large town, and still feel very much at home whenever I visit a similarly unassuming backwater. In fact, the history of such places is itself an unassuming backwater in the broader story of human habitation. Although it found its locus in the interwar period, the suburb was a phenomenon of the nineteenth century middle-class boom and its genteel appeal has remained the promise of quiet order, manageable ruralness, humdrum tranquillity and, above all, security. Huddled together in their tamed acres, homes here are hard for an opportunistic criminal to stumble upon, respectable local residents being the only unlikely threat. And with so many houses – and so many interchangeable – what possible likelihood is there of ever being singled out for a break-in?
And yet, I reflected, fear dwells in such places. Not just in the gated driveways, hi-tech security systems and Bluetooth house alarms which surrounded me. Often, places such as these have always seemed to me characterised by an air of low-level mistrust.
The night had begun to gather around me – with a suddenness, as it does in Suffolk in winter – streetlights flickered on unseen, the cold began to dig in, wind blew, my daughter whimpered sleepily. I was thinking about fear but, easily distracted, had still not given any thought to the story I was trying to write. Fear is almost always experienced through fantasy, it is an instinct powered by imagination, one which finds its true potency after the sun has set. As I continued wandering alongside glowing windows figures within turned to watch me, a stranger passing by their snug-looking homes – an evident rarity – and I wondered what I must have looked like to them. A night-prowler? A drug-dealer? A dog-kidnapper whose captives are concealed in a seemingly innocuous pram? A familiar phrase – Why does he gallop and gallop about? – came into my mind and I found myself darkly enjoying my role as the man in the shadows. For some of us, those who are fortunate enough to have been born into such places, with so little to materially endanger us, the unsafe – darkness, mystery and disruption – develops something of an allure. The night, and all it represents, becomes something to be enjoyed and engaged with.
I continued, walking and singing to my daughter. After rounding one winding street onto yet another, I put the brake on the buggy and opened the map on my phone. Whilst waiting for the app to load, I looked at the house in front of which I had stopped. On the lawn there was a boat – a yacht – covered with a weathered tarpaulin sheet and sinking into the grass, the buckled wheels of its chassis visible in the fluorescent light, a rusting, mossed-over monument to the dreams of whoever lived here. I stared at the yacht for some time, still waiting for the app, but it was no good – no signal out here. I resumed walking, thinking my formless thoughts – inspiration, imagination, anxiety, the past and the present. Where do these intersect? Where do they divide?
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Towards the back of my mind my thoughts had fixed on these words. They come from a book I’d owned as a boy, a slim anthology of poems for children titled Spine Tinglers, published by Ladybird and edited by Ian and Zenka Woodward, a couple (presumably) about whom I’ve been unable to learn anything, other than that they edited a handful of similar titles: Poems That Go Bump in the Night, Witches’ Brew: Spooky Verse for Halloween, The Howling Pandemonium and Other Noisy Poems. Although, as a boy, I amassed a sizeable library of books on monsters, ghosts, vampires and the like (always reliable gifts for relatives – still are), Spine Tinglers was a steadfast favourite, perhaps because, although it contained works by dully respectable names like Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, they were legitimized for my Ghostbusters sensibilities by the accompaniment of ghoulish cartoon illustrations.
One Robert Louis Stevenson poem in particular which stuck with me was ‘Windy Nights’, a simple enough piece – brief and straightforward – but one which also, I found, has the capacity to lodge itself in the mind, seeming to carry with it an echo something more substantive and more mysterious than is initially visible.
Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.
Later, when I went to university, I would learn that, a little like myself, Stevenson had been a nervous child, one who had been afflicted by what would today be termed sleep paralysis, the phenomenon whereby the safety of sleep becomes transmuted into a heightened terror. Visions of a particular shade of brown, powerless when thought about in the daylight, would strike horror at night; he received visits from a ‘night-hag’ who would stoop over his bed, at times even seizing up his paralysed body by the throat; invariably he would awake in a cold sweat, breathless and contorted. He also experienced vivid nightmares, no doubt fuelled by his infatuation with the gruesome folk tales related to him by his much-loved family nurse, the unfortunately named Cummie: dreams of panic, brutality and unconscionable degradations. When awake, he also, as ‘Windy Nights’ suggests, had a powerful loathing for storms. ‘I remember,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘that the noises on such occasions always grouped themselves for me into the sound of a horseman, or rather a succession of horsemen, riding furiously past the bottom of the street and away up the hill into town; I think even now that I hear the terrible howl of his passage, and the clinking that I used to attribute to his bit and stirrups. On such nights I would lie awake and pray and cry, until I prayed and cried myself asleep.’
As an adult Stevenson eventually succeeded in freeing himself of the terrors of the night, and yet his extraordinary sleep-life – always fascinating and always to be taken with a pinch of salt (or, as some of his biographers would have it, a pinch of cocaine) – remained crucial to him as he increasingly drew inspiration from the vivid and detailed dreams he would experience. He would dream in epic narratives; he would at times even read nonexistent novels in his sleep, details of which he awoke with almost perfect recall; nocturnal figures, referred to in a brief section of Across the Plains as his ‘Brownies’, would appear to him, presenting him with crucial imagery or piecing together loose ends of an unfinished plot he was working on. The basis for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came, Stevenson claimed, from a single feverish dream so horrific he awoke his wife with his screams.
A small storm was now congregating over my scrap of suburb: the wind had picked up, rain was beginning to fall, my daughter began to grumble. I pressed on quickly, passing the endless implacable houses, all their curtains now drawn, until I found I was once again alongside the stream, babbling forcefully in the darkness. I followed it upstream, grateful to finally be free from the meandering ouroboros of silent streets, trying again to think of my story – I could make one of my female protagonists a man, could bring a scene from later in the story to the opening, could remove a section of back-story – but I found I was unable to fully shake my thoughts free from ‘Windy Nights’.
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Why indeed? On the surface the poem is a simple, descriptive exercise based around Stevenson’s childhood dread. But, as I took the final familiar path to the house where I was staying, it occurred to me that the poem could also easily be taken for being about inspiration, darkly assailing, receding and then once again galloping back to assail. In fact, for many, possibly for Stevenson, the two – fear and the imagination – are hardly divisible.
Indeed, it seemed to me that only when we are safe – I unlocked the front door and pushed the buggy into the hallway as quietly as I could, the occupants all no doubt still soundly asleep in their beds – are we free to dream up our threats.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on The Workshy Fop.