On my lunch break today I stopped by Manchester Central Library to look at the design plans for the St Michael’s development, essentially a pair of enormous skyscrapers whose proposed construction is being led by Manchester City Council in partnership with ex-footballer Gary Neville. Although the designs and copious amounts of accompanying blurb present the project as a pinnacle of a daring dreamland vision of Manchester's future, looking at the little plastic model I couldn’t help but think of the whole thing as yet another example – perhaps the perfect example – of the mode of thinking which seems to be prevalent within Manchester’s upper echelons these days, thinking which runs simply thus: let’s build something enormous.
St Michael’s is controversial because, as well as its unparalleled size, its construction requires the demolition of a number of buildings, including the Sir Ralph Abercromby, a decent if not entirely salubrious backstreet pub which also happens to be the sole surviving structure from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
In August 1819 around 70,000 people congregated in St Peter's Field, now the site of St Peter’s Square, to demand economic and parliamentary reform. The army was called in and charged on those gathered, killing 15 people and injuring over 500 as they dispersed in panic, pouring around the Abercromby, some seeking refuge inside (some dubious accounts claim that one victim died in the pub). The subsequent public outcry led to further demonstrations and riots across the north, the protestors becoming increasingly organised in the face of government opposition. This in turn led directly to the creation of the Chartist movement, the establishment of trade unions, the founding of The Guardian and eventually to the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, commonly seen as the cornerstone of our modern democracy. Although its interior has been periodically refurbished, the fact remains that the walls of the Abercromby (or two of them, the other two were destroyed in WWII) are the last surviving fragments of the backdrop to this most defining of moments in both the city’s and the country’s history.
But sadly – the local government here in Manchester is never one to shy away from an opportunity for crushingly heavy symbolism – in a couple of years’ time Manchester will most likely be celebrating the bicentennial this key moment of its past by demolishing its one remaining structure to make way for another block of flats. And, like I say, this all feels very emblematic. As I left the library, itself built on the site of the massacre, it was difficult to avoid the invisible presence of Peterloo and all it represents. I passed a beggar outside and was reminded that a large homeless camp had sprung up outside the building after its renovation a couple of years ago, before the ‘protestors’, as they were branded, had been evicted to make way the surrounding area to be ‘futureproofed’ (the council’s word for endless roadworks), something which involved dismantling and moving the city’s war memorial and building a tram stop in the centre of the square. The hundred or so homeless moved on to St Anne’s Square, their new camp in the shadow of St Anne’s Church, which forms something of the city’s heart being as it is the absolute central point of Manchester. Again they were moved on, by which point the council had seen to it that any kind of rough-sleeping within the perimeters of the city had been officially criminalised. Near Victoria railway station, originally the site of St. Michael's Flags, one of Manchester’s most notorious slum, some of this ‘futureproofing’ resulted in the unearthing a mass paupers’ grave. The bodies were disinterred and shipped out, their original resting place taken up with another tram stop. While all this played out the council, in an ugly act of symmetry, simultaneously pledged £32m towards the construction of The Factory, a residential development which promises ‘public and semi-public pocket parks for impromptu community happenings, relaxing, ping pong, chess and horticulture’ but zero provision for social housing.
Crossing St. Peter's Square towards Piccadilly I thought about the massacre. Had the victims been trampled and attacked here, where the maintenance work is still ongoing? Or had they died here, outside where the the town hall now stands? Or here? Was a life ended abruptly here? Or here? How about here?
But such thoughts become difficult to entertain when faced with such a changed, benign landscape. Carnage seems so improbable in such proximity to a San Carlo outlet, a branch of Sainsbury's and groups of international students congregating around benches, chattering away happily to one another. I wondered what other individuals had made this walk in the past, from point A to point B, this particular trajectory. Had they looked around, thinking or trying to think similar thoughts?
The German writer W.G. Sebald relocated to Manchester in the mid 1960’s to work at the University and live, as he put it, ‘among the previous century’s ruins’. In The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated into English, he provided a description of his early impressions of the smog-marked city, the one time core of global industry: ‘I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see… Even the grandest of the buildings, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops.’ Well indeed. Perhaps this is overstating things, but for the young, gloomy Sebald, as for most of those who inhabited the city prior to the extensive regeneration it went through in the 90’s, Manchester was a kind of living museum of its own past, one whose theme was collapse – collapse of progress, of prosperity, of the grand promise they once held – something which held an added symbolism for someone like Sebald, born as he was into a country in the thrall of ideals which promised much but brought only destruction.
Now, walking around central Manchester, in its permanent state of upgrade and its jostling newbuild skyscrapers, it once again often feels as though one is wandering a museum. The collection – opulent flats, lavish hotels, immaculate offices, imposing and implacably crafted stelae of glinting steel and glass all – once again stands proudly for prosperity, progress and promise. But, for those with little and those with nothing, the theme, as ever, is one of absence, erasure and amnesia.
Terry Jones has dementia. More specifically, he has primary progressive aphasia, a condition which intrudes onto the brain’s semantics, fraying the connecting thread between language and its meaning. Words remain banked in the brain yet what they signify grows adrift. The world retains its familiarity, customs their habit, objects their function – those with aphasia are quite capable of, say, dressing themselves – but the correct names for their items of clothing are lost. In primary progressive aphasia all of this is gradual, the lexicon becoming steadily depleted, the words dwindling, the alphabet crumbling. It’s a little like becoming foreign: the world is recognisable yet its language, and all that language hinges on, grows inaccessible. Eventually, that connecting linguistic thread is severed, leading to memory loss, identity loss and a marked incomprehension.
All in all, a sad thing to know that this is something a personal hero, and his young family, is going through.
Like most people in their 30’s I don't really have any specific memory of first experiencing Monty Python. It just seemed to be there, in the form of clips on television, a late night movie or a feature in the Radio Times. And when I grew up my dad, like countless other dads, would punctuate our conversations with talk of ex-parrots, the People’s Front of Judea and how no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition. I had no idea what he was on about but, then again, when you’re a child that’s true of a good deal of adult talk. Monty Python was simply present, lurking in the cultural background in much the same way as the Beatles, the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, totemic components of the ruling boomer generation’s own personal lore.
But I do remember when, as a teenager who hitherto took himself incredibly seriously, I bought the complete Monty Python TV series boxset on VHS and spent a lonely summer in my bedroom enthralled by its mixture of showy intelligence, stream-of-consciousness structure and baroque silliness. Terry Jones was the most sensible and scholarly of the group, rarely anyone’s favourite, especially when his softness and vulnerability is seen alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman whose berserk pyrotechnics are much more appealing to an adolescent’s anarchic streak. But Jones was always my favourite. Later I would learn that in many ways he was the mother of the group, its chief architect – ‘the bowels of Python’ is how Eric Idle described him. And of all the Pythons Jones was also the one who arguably had the most productive post-Python life, directing feature films, presenting documentaries and writing a copious amount of books.
It's this last specialism in particular which makes it so sad that Jones is suffering from a form of dementia defined by its power to obliterate language. I have a fondness for his children’s books, particularly one titled Nicobobinus, a note-perfect fantasy yarn of pirates, dragons and magic which I have memories of being read to me at bedtime by my dad, memories so vivid in part because he had trouble pronouncing the title character’s name and eventually rechristened him as simply 'Nick', but also because I can still recall the feelings of adventure and peril Nicobobinus provoked.
Aphasia is a condition which I've recently come to know about also because of my dad. Recently he had a stroke which left him with a severe case of aphasia. Initially, he had trouble communicating at all. After a few days he could understand a good deal of what was being said to him, a few days after that could read pages of text at a time fluently (without necessarily being able to interpret what it is he was reading) and within a fortnight could set out to begin saying basic sentences without too many problems. But, for the most part, there was and still is a murkily unsettling divide between words and what they mean. Early on, when shown a picture and asked to name it – I bought a pack of children's flash cards and spent long afternoons in hospital testing him on them – he was usually unable to do so. In most instances, when the correct word was then revealed it suddenly seemed obvious to him: 'Banana! It's a banana! Of course!' In other cases he would find the correct word baffling: 'Shed? Is that right? You sure? Shed, shed...' He would trail off, shaking his head. 'No, I don't think so... shed... that's so silly.'
Silly is the word. There’s something distinctively cruel about an illness which causes you to speak gibberish. To begin with my dad's sentences would very quickly veer off into nonsense - dropping words or picking a string of incorrect ones before he gave up. He has since made good progress and this behaviour has slowly become less extreme, but it is still there. ‘I’m sorry the house is so chunky,’ he said when I last visited him at home. He meant untidy of course but chunky had come out. Similarly, during a flashcard test shortly before he left hospital he developed a temporary inability to say the word 'cow' due to some some mental insistence that the word was 'bicep'.
‘It’s a cow,’ I said holding up the picture of a cow. ‘Say it after me: cow.’
‘Cow. Cow. Cow.’
Nodding his head, concentrating, trying to get into the rhythm of the word: ‘Bicep… d'oh... Bicep… Right, I’ve got it… this time… Bicep.’
Fortunately, my dad is a man who has always valued and enjoyed silliness – I can’t honestly think of anything sillier than thinking a cow is called a bicep – and would have struggled to take the steps he's managed towards recovery without a dark appreciation for the sheer ridiculousness of his situation.
I imagine Terry Jones is having similar interactions to these, but sadly with less optimism about his future prospects. Still, I hope he’s able to maintain that sense of the absurd. After all, he was the one who taught me how important this can be.
Yesterday was the 241st birthday of William Henry Ireland, someone who I’ve always found fascinating.
Ireland was considered by most – including his father, a frosty publisher and antiquarian collector – to be something of a disappointment. Although from a fairly well-to-do family he performed poorly at school, preferring to spend his time alone dreaming of becoming a great actor and reading his favourite poets. At the age of 19 he found himself working in a mindless job as a solicitor’s apprentice in East London. It was there that an anonymous client approached him with something astonishing which he promptly showed to his father: a property deed signed by none other than William Shakespeare.
Or so he claimed. In actual fact Ireland had taken it upon himself to create a modest yet credible forgery, one produced while working unsupervised in an office surrounded by Elizabethan mortgage documents, long-forgotten deeds and court orders written on velum and sealed with wax.
His father was delighted, even more so in the following months when further documents of Shakespeare’s came to light: contracts, legal letters, love letters, a proclamation of faith, annotated books, early drafts of plays, even a lock of the great poet’s hair. The Ireland family home soon became a museum to these items, with many of the great and good of the day – including Boswell and Henry James Pye, the then Poet Laureate – stopping by to handle them. Such were the numbers and rate of these callers that Ireland senior had to instigate a system of opening times: visitors were allowed entry to the house on Norfolk Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where they were then permitted to commune with the magical presence of the newly discovered artefacts between midday and three. Those who visited confirmed, either by their presence or by pronouncement, the unimpeachable authenticity of what they had been privileged enough to come into contact with.
For Ireland, although risky, these documents had succeeded in their aim: making his father proud of him. But the gathering flow with which they appeared, each item’s importance superseding the previous, also had the cumulative effect of implanting a nagging conviction in Ireland’s father’s mind that there were other, more valuable items at hand which were going undiscovered. He was keen to publish a manuscript of his trove Shakespearean discoveries, and although these items had all been brought to him by Ireland his father nonetheless berated him for ‘being an absolute idiot’ in not simply acquiring all of his anonymous benefactor’s documents in one go rather than piece by piece. Spurred by this combination of a long-sought approval and no doubt a rebuking irascibility, Ireland took the next logical step and unearthed the complete manuscript of a lost play written by Shakespeare.
Vortigern and Rowena, as it was titled, focused in part on the knotty relationship between a king and his loving yet overlooked son. Suspicions were quickly aroused: the play’s mix of clumsy simplicity and exhaustive longueurs made it seem a juvenile effort rather than Shakespeare’s crowning masterpiece as the Bard claimed in an accompanying letter miraculously discovered alongside the manuscript. Nonetheless, Richard Sheridan, the celebrated playwright and owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, saw the potential for a big hit and forked out a huge sum for the rights to Vortigern. It opened in April 1796, over a year since Ireland embarked on a career as a Shakespearian forger, to a sell-out crowd.
The ridicule was intense and immediate, with members of both cast and the audience busting into fits of infectious laughter at the appalling dialogue; fights broke out among those who felt the words of their beloved national poet was being mocked and those for whom it was an obvious and insulting hoax; the performance ended with an announcement that this would be the play’s final performance; the ensuing press was brutal in its scorn.
Within days Ireland came clean: he had fabricated the whole thing - the documents, the story behind them, the play. His father, thinking all this far too advanced a deception for his dim-witted son to pull off, went to his grave four years later still adamant that both Vortigern and all the other precious documents were genuine.
Ireland himself went on to become a poet, historian and relatively successful gothic novelist, although his works are now largely forgotten. Which is a bit of a shame because, although by turns stodgy and bombastic, there’s something pleasingly meta about his fiction. One of his novels, Gondez the Monk, a roaring tale of the sex, torture and the occult, opens with a pair of epigrams from Shakespeare – one genuine, the other not – and contains a plot which hinges on the discovery of a manuscript, The Legend of the Little Red Woman, whose disputed authorship and uncanny power over the material world have a familiar ring.
I suppose the story of William Ireland retains a fascination for me for three reasons. Firstly, the overlapping folly of fatherhood and the English language feels rather touching to me (my own father had a stroke very recently, which has left him with aphasia, a language-erasing neurological condition requiring him to effectively re-learn how to speak and read). Secondly, as a writer who spends most of his days in an office doing mundane work, it's heartening to step back a couple of centuries and find an antecedent admin-minion, dreaming up an elaborate literary escape from his day-job. Thirdly, Ireland's year spent pretending to be William Shakespeare serves as a neat example of collective delusion, albeit on a charming and relatively harmless pop-up scale, demonstrating how formidable an impact the imagination can have on the world - not simply in one man's creation of a series of silly yet believable forgeries, but also in the act of belief engaged in by others: that legion of intelligent, educated men who came into contact with and breathed life into Ireland's hoax, overlooking its glaring inconsistencies and imperfections, seeing instead vivid, life-affirming qualities which were simply not there, but which they wished dearly were.
As I lie here in my own bed in the dead of night, wide awake, writing this on my phone, it occurs to me that it’s no surprise that I and other night-time souls like myself have always been drawn to Frankenstein. It’s easy to forget that the novel is effectively set entirely in the dark, with Victor Frankenstein relaying all he has to tell to the story’s narrator from a schooner stranded in the wastelands of the Canadian Arctic under a polar night sky. But there’s also an elemental simplicity to the story – essentially that of an artist, as Shelley refers to Frankenstein, fearful of what it is he creates – which feels murkily profound, particularly when it’s night and the rest of the world is safely asleep. At times such as these it often seems as though dreaming is mandatory, a nocturnal prerequisite regardless of whether one is sleeping or awake: something in the imaginations of those left behind comes to life and begins to roam, shading in the blankness of the surrounding night, picking out horrors. Just ask Mary Shelley.
I've a new essay up at The Learned Pig. It's titled 'Before the Beginning' and is about insomnia, volcanoes and the origins of Frankenstein.
You can read it here.
'I counted that I had read seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories,’ wrote Roald Dahl, summing up his brief experiences as an editor in the early 1980’s: ‘I was completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.’
It's perhaps a little sweeping, that rubbish, but anyone who reads a large number of ghost stories will be hard put to disagree with Dahl entirely. When it comes to ghost stories it's a sub-genre tend whose most well-known examples tend to come from a rarified group of tales, their presence in anthologies ubiquitous, their mien steadfastly traditional. There are of course stories which have been very unfairly consigned to history, and those readers willing to venture into the territory of the lesser known ghost story will find rich rewards, but to do so one is first required to first sift their way through countless tales which were perhaps best left forgotten. There is, in short, no greater test for a lover of ghost stories than to read widely in the field.
The ghost story’s golden age ran from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a period defined by revolutionary scientific progress, but also by the conservative reaction against it. Whereas the concurrent rise of detective fiction was borne out of the era’s principle of methodical rationalism, the heyday of the ghost story reflected the reverse: beware inquiry is invariably the message of the Victorian-Edwardian spectre. The protagonists in both Dickens’ ‘The Signal-Man’ and M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (to pick two stories from the grand canon at random) encounter spirits powered by a forbidding, inscrutable knowledge and are sent away humbled and cowed, life lessons learnt.
The interwar period effectively saw off the genre as we know it. As well as the advent of electricity illuminating hitherto darkened corners, the First World War had brought home the very real suffering and slaughter humans can endure. In the face of industrial carnage, tales of titillating terror began to seem inconsequential, even tasteless.
Or so it would seem. In fact, one could argue, not only has the ghost story survived but also – with an aptly invisible stealth – it has triumphed.
Firstly, writers continue to be drawn to the form. No bad thing that, but also not without its problems. The popular view of the ghost story as intrinsically Victorian has compelled many to recreate the starchy bygone tone and revisit extinct concerns. Understandably, this yields mixed results, something embodied by the supernatural novellas of Susan Hill.
Hill, still perhaps best known for 1983’s The Woman in Black, a note perfect piece of Victoriana, began revisiting the supernatural in 2007 with a series of similar-length works, each published as small and elegantly designed souvenir books. These stories – 2007’s The Man in the Picture, 2010’s The Small Hand, 2012’s Dolly and 2014’s Printer’s Devil Court – were republished recently alongside Woman as an omnibus edition (1992’s The Mist in the Mirror is omitted both from the collection and its list of the author’s other works). Taken as a whole, they serve as a handbook for the ways in which an ersatz nineteenth century performance can succeed or fail. While The Woman in Black retains its power (the book routinely pops up on the school curriculum in the UK), a reading of her subsequent efforts brings the formula which shapes them into increasingly sharp relief: the prim writing style grows increasingly perfunctory, the period details begin to look like off-the-peg gothic trappings, the circuitous someone-told-me-this second hand narrative so much padding.
But can one fault Hill? As Roald Dahl discovered, on the whole ghost stories simply aren’t any very good, and it often feels unfair to hold their authors responsible. A brief summary of what goes on in even the most successful examples – possessed paintings, sentient trees, magical monkey paws – makes clear what a tenuous, risky job it is to write seriously about the unbelievable. The reality is they either end up working or they don’t: I can think of very few okay ghost stories, which inclines me to conclude that success is as much down to serendipity as it is to craft. As a handful otherwise eminently capable authors have testified in their recent collections – Hill’s The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories (2015), Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (2013), Sophie Hannah’s The Visitor’s Book and Other Ghost Stories (2015), John Connolly’s loopy Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two (2015) – finding one has written a decent ghost story does not necessarily mean another will follow.
While successful single-author collections remain relatively scarce, the popularity of the ghost story anthology endures. It’s rare, at least in the UK, to encounter a bookshop which doesn’t stock at least one olde-worlde hardback. In part this is because many of the most loved tales, now long out of copyright, make for a cost-effective publishing venture when gathered together. But also the simple truth is that, for all its seeming antiquated obscurity, this is a form of fiction which continues to exert a surprising hold on the reading public. Not everyone is drawn to horror, to short stories or to nineteenth-century fiction, but few can resist the rich promise of a good ghost story.
Ghostly (2015), edited and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, has an agreeably atypical quality, breaking with anthology conventions in its pairing of reliable standards from the likes of Poe, Kipling and M.R. James with tales of sci-fi and humour and, most importantly, some first-rate contemporary stories (Amy Giacalone’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ is published here for the first time). But there’s one story in particular, Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’, first published in 1911, which dominates the collection, due to both its domineering 25,000-plus word-count but also its subtle, gnomic impact. Although written well before the First World War, Onions’ story bristles with a queasy modernity (indeed almost modernism), equal parts trad. arr. ghost story and delineation of mental disintegration. The protagonist – a writer who moves into a new house whose previous occupant seems to have not quite left – gradually sheds his friends, his work and his life, becoming steadily immersed in a recondite, quasi-sexual malaise. But why? Is he compelled down this path by the story’s barely detectable female presence or is he simply experiencing a psychotic break? It’s a story whose aversion of cosy certainties and insistence on destructive pathology exemplify the gravity that this type of fiction can wield, uncannily prefiguring (much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper) the Freudian inwardness and dissociative brutality which would come to dominate the coming century. Indeed, there are breezy echoes in Rebecca Curtis’ 2014 ‘The Pink House’, Ghostly’s other stand-out story, in which a possible act of possession appears to compel a pair of unsuited MFA students into a miserable, doomed and inexplicable relationship.
Beginning in 113 AD with Pliny the Younger’s rumours of a remote house plagued by the sounds of clanking chains and concluding with a sharp and abstruse piece of flash fiction from 2014, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Light On (2015), an omnivorous 800-page brick of a collection curated by thriller novelist Louise Welsh, flouts anthology norms even more brazenly. The golden age is healthily represented, but Welsh’s collection is informed by a freewheeling liberality when it comes to assessing what it is that constitutes ‘a ghost story’: stories proper sit alongside extracts from novels, poetry, non-fiction and screenplays. Glancing down the contents page, a reader may be surprised to learn that Richard Brautigan has written a ghost story, as have J.G. Ballard, Yukio Mishima and Lydia Davis. Except perhaps they haven’t, at least not in any conventional sense. Although old school yarns of dilapidated mansions and wailing phantoms abound, Ghost is at its most engaging with those more oblique stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘The Dancing Partner’, in which an inventor creates a mechanical man for his daughter and her friends to dance with. No obvious ghost intrudes on the narrative and it is impossible to put one’s finger on any otherworldly force which governs the story’s events and imparts such disquiet on the reader. And yet it is there.
The inclusion of Mishima in Ghost, as well as Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami, is particularly welcome. Although the canon has, rather surprisingly, been hospitable to stories written by women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'The Old Nurse’s Story’, Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ all sit among the elect – there remains a deep Anglo-Saxon conservatism to the ghost story which, for those who read a large number of these sorts of books, can be very claustrophobic. It’s almost a cliché to say so but all cultures have their own ghoulish modes of storytelling: Japanese kwaidan stories remain hugely popular; China owes its existence to the Ming dynasty, the supernatural looming large in both the period’s classical novels and its folklore; Bengali literature has as rich a tradition of ghostly fiction as one could hope to encounter. On the whole, however, tales of djinn, kunti, bhoots and the like remain absent from the great ghost story songbook, viewed as anthropological curios rather than quality fiction worthy of addition to the grand canon.
And yet triumphed was the word I ventured earlier to describe the ghost story. A baffling claim perhaps, certainly a grand one, but one which I promise makes sense to anyone making their way through Ghost in the chronological order in which the stories are presented. In doing so, one begins to suspect that the ghost story, as we have come to know it, is simply the most easily categorisable iteration of a seam of writing which probes the stratum of the dark, murky unknown which generations of men and women have always suspected operates beneath their lives. The most successful modern ghost stories are rarely those which replicate the formal gothic quality of the golden age but those which retain its fascination with the inexplicable and the unreliable, which are at ease with the aberrant and the unheimlich, and which accommodate ellipses and are alert to the power of apparent non-sequiturs. All of which, it could be said, are intrinsic components on which the craft of many of our most celebrated modern authors who write non-ghostly short stories – Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill, Kevin Williams, Deborah Levy, to name a semi-random transatlantic few – have come to rely.
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.