On Daniel Johnston
Girl, come share my dream
Daniel Johnston, the singer-songwriter who has long been, for many people like me, a sort of patron saint of DIY creativity, has passed away at the age of 58.
Johnston is someone who, if you're reading this and you’ve never listened to him, no one YouTube clip or screenshot of lyrics will really explain the appeal. Johnston was a bedroom-dwelling outsider artist who found a huge audience, including Lana Del Ray, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie.
The best way to get into his world (and 'world' feels much more apt a description of his output represents than 'music' or 'art') is to pick out an album or two of his, ideally the early ones with handmade black and white covers, and listen to them all the way through a few times. Soon you'll notice something emerging from beneath the muffled recordings, the tape hiss, the rudimentary instruments, the off-kilter singing - something interesting and addictive. You'll grow to love the glitches and the cheapness, viewing them as equally an essential part of his music as the compositions and their melodies.
I've actually been going through a mini phase of listening to his albums recently and his sudden death has led me to think seriously about his music in a way I've never really done before. I find I'm shocked that it hadn't ever occurred to me before that, despite being quite a big fan of Johnston for quite a long time, there is in fact quite a bit about him and his work which is problematic.
To begin with: Laurie. On his first release, 1981’s Songs of Pain, which like all his early albums was self-released on cassette tape, is an extended delineation of his love for Laurie, a girl who rejected him for a mortician. Johnston's discography, which spans almost 40 years, is replete with songs which dwell obsessively on Laurie, often in the abstract but just as frequently overtly, naming her and detailing his ongoing unrequited love for her. This, coupled with Johnston's other big theme - a naïf's quasi-Christian belief in innocence and purity - belie an unpleasant mindset when it comes to women, stalkerish, controlling and self-pitying - in short, entirely male (a good place to start with Johnston is the cover of his song 'King Kong' by Tom Waits, a songwriter whose own work demonstrates him to be an undervalued critic of masculinity, imho).
Almost any interview or article on him in the past twenty years will have also touched on the fact that Johnston, who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, lived with and was cared for by his parents, often seemingly beyond the needs of his illnesses, while he continued recording his own weird music, performing his own weird concerts and creating his own weird artwork. This wholesale dependency on others to support his self-belief feels unseemly.
Finally, there's the issue of my own culpability. Those thousands of us who paid for Johnston's music, artwork and live performances, and essentially bought into his vision, enabling a delusion, but worse, supplied the audience for an unwell man whose unwellness was key part of his life's performance.
So, after all this, what exactly is the appeal of Johnston for someone like me?
First of all, his struggles were clearly genuine - and his music is very much a testament to both that genuineness and to the power of pop. And I mean power here in the not-always-necessarily-positive-and-inspirational sense. Pop music - its themes, its myths, its promises - clearly possessed Johnston and in some ways controlled him.
He's also a figure who went on to become synonymous with mental illness. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how we talk about ‘mental health awareness’ in our current online age. It's undoubtedly something we're a lot more engaged with as a society, and there's no denying this is a good thing. But I find I often baulk at the way mental health is characterised when I see this awareness promoted online, which often sees 'depression' as a form of sadness or anxiety that evaporates on contact with hugs, understanding and friendship. The reality, in my experience, can often be far uglier and more difficult than this would suggest. Mental illness can take the form of anger, aggression, darkness and other kinds of extreme behaviour - in many cases psychotic behaviour - often resulting, ultimately, in the wholehearted rejection of any attempts at understanding or sympathy, and the dismissal of well-intentioned friends. Even if those friends remain, the friendships will most likely be forever marked. The loss of dignity that goes in to engaging with and understanding another's mental health is something no stigma-busting campaign can equip one for.
This, I think, is part of the reason Johnston's low-grade homemade tape recordings feel so compelling to so many listeners. There is little in the way of dignity to his recordings. Quite the opposite: they revel unabashed in their alienating qualities. Each of his songs, no matter how cheery and positive they may initially appear, is a genuine snapshot of a mind at war with existence. Whenever you hear his lyrics approach the usual pop themes of the thwarted lover or the underappreciated artist or the melancholic who bravely overcomes his condition to seize the day, it feels very much as though you're engaging with a piece of scenery Johnston constructed to protect himself from the reality which, going by the accounts of those who knew him, was full of darkness, anger, violence and unpleasantness (he was involuntarily institutionalised a number of times).
But what an absorbing, addictive vision it is, insistent on its own logic and drama, Bosch-like in its repeated motifs: frogs, ducks, toy instruments, monsters, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Frankenstein, boxers, floating eyeballs, Satan. For those of us who have engaged in similar behaviour, creating the world which best suits us, regardless of how it effects those around us, rather than adapting to the world we live in, an artist like Johnston - single-minded and industrious - will always be something of a touchstone. His music channelled his personality and transmuted his obsessions into something fascinating and, despite that war its creator was engaged in, was always utterly committed to leaving its own weird but indelible mark on the world he left behind.
He had by now grown accustomed to eliding almost all memories of his life in England, his childhood in particular, whenever he encountered something which might provoke them, allowing them to instead remain where they were in the back of his mind, being gently eroded and leaving him independent of his past. And yet, he had entered the café and was stamping the slush from his boots, shaking it from his jacket, when the image – the streetlamp inching its light over a dark heap of snow, luminating thick falling flakes, backgrounded by an endless terrible clanging and pervaded by his father’s dark, consuming madness – returned to assail him, impressing itself onto his thoughts like a religious vision.
I've been quite quiet lately, due in large part to an unusually large number of projects I currently find myself working on. BUT I do have a new short story out. It’s called ‘Sky Yen’ and can be found in Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks, an anthology from Manchester’s own DIY publisher Dostoevsky Wannabe. As its title hopefully makes clear, this is a collection of stories which take their inspiration from the late songwriter Pete Shelley and his erstwhile band Buzzcocks.
Shelley was perhaps the premier architect of the pop-punk song, largely down to the Buzzocks’ hits as well as his early solo recordings. But he has always struck me as a more enigmatic figure than his reputation would imply. His pop songs are powered by traditional teenage boy-girl lyrics but he was also openly bisexual; Buzzocks were very much emblematic of the deeply British anarchic music scene he was so instrumental in establishing in the late 70s but he later fled the country to settle down with his family in Estonia; his standing was built on his catchy melodic music but he also created perhaps the most austerely experimental recording I own, Sky Yen.
Sky Yen is composed of two tracks, ‘Sky Yen 1’ and ‘Sky Yen 2’. It was recorded in the early 1970s, before Buzzcocks even existed, and was made using an oscillator Shelley has created himself by soldering together components which came free with electronics magazines. The resulting recording is something which in the words of one fan, 'has more in common with air raid sirens than music'. This is true. Sky Yen is the sound of a young man discovering he has the tools with which to experiment with sound, with harmonics and dissonance, compelling or unlistenable, depending on the mood you find yourself in when you listen to it.
So, you may reasonably wonder, how does someone set about trying to transmute music like this into narrative fiction?
I thought primarily about Shelley himself, a complex character who struggled with the career path music traditionally offers. The collection was instigated by his the sudden death and while I was writing I thought as much about the subsequent assessment of the impact Shelley had had on our culture as I did about the music of Sky Yen. Debates such as these, taking place as they do in our Brexit Hell era where, for me at least, remembrances of the past feel untrustworthy and nostalgia tainted with a noxious power, also fed into the story. Similarly, ‘Sky Yen’ concerns itself with the concertina-like nature of time, the past impacting on the present in the most violent ways only for it to retreat again, distant and untouchable. If all that sound rather gloomily po-faced rest assured that it also touches briefly on the cheerier themes of the Holocaust and PTSD.
The collection, which, like all Dostoevsky Wannabe books, looks great, also features work by Wendy Erskine, Lee Rourke and Luke Kennard, among many others, and can be purchased here.
The School Project
I have a new story, titled 'The School Project', in the latest issue of The Shadow Booth, the UK's premier book-shaped journal for the sort of weird, creepy fiction I love to both read and write.
Although, yeah - okay - technically, it's not really a new story. It is in fact an old story, one which I've slightly neatened up for publication. In its original iteration it was titled 'School Report' and was joint-winner of the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize. I've made a few minor cuts, smoothed out a few sections and sorted out my simply unforgivable inconsistencies with em- and en-dashes.
Back in 2011 when I first wrote this thing I was newly unemployed, having been made redundant from my job as a bookseller, and found I unexpectedly had the time to write in between desperately looking for another job, so decided to work on an idea I'd had for a short story and submit it to a competition, which turned out to be a good idea. If you've not read it before - any why should you have? - it is written from the collective first-person perspective of a group of children at a rural school and is takes poverty and collective delusion as its loose themes. I later spent a not inconsiderable amount of my time trying to turn it into a novel, which turned out to be a less good idea.
Although at the time my mind was full of Anders Breivik and the then fairly new culture of austerity, eight years down the line the mindset which vaguely linked those two things feels if anything more concrete and more prevalent: tribal groupthink and ideological violence seem set to be the hallmarks of 2019.
Perhaps now is the time for me to attempt a convincing suggestion that, despite all this, it's not quite as horrendously grim a story I've no doubt indicated. There is, for instance, also sneezing and beanbags and (something which somehow eluded me until I re-read and re-edited it) more of than a dose of Wicker Man to the proceedings.
And, in any case, despite the inclusion of my story, there are wonderful contributions from the likes of Robert Shearman and Verity Holloway, among others, which I highly recommend.
You can order a copy of The Shadow Booth here.
A Seasonal Personal Anthology
The author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace is always going to be remembered as a novelist. But even if those books had somehow gone unwritten it’s still likely, imho, that Tolstoy would enjoy a reputation for greatness purely on the basis of his short fiction, tales which wrestle with hefty themes in an unpretentious and eminently readable manner: 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' , 'Alyosha the Pot', 'The Forged Coupon', and this, a seemingly simple tale of what can happen to man when besieged by snow.
I’ve contributed a brief piece on Tolstoy’s classic winter tale ‘Master and Man’ to this year’s festive edition of A Personal Anthology, the site where writers curate their favourite works of short fiction into a dream anthology, all of which is overseen by the great Jonathan Gibbs.
You can read the whole thing here.
And that’s that. Another ridiculous year done.
Regular readers may recall that around this time last year I wrote a summary of my previous 12 months. In it I complained about how busy I’d been on the basis that I’d moved house, co-written a book, was the parent of a child and was working a full-time job. Well present-day me laughs a derisive and dryly hollow laugh in the face of 2017 me, a lazy, blinkered idiot who just doesn’t know how good he has it. One year on you find me the father of two children, one of whom, you may have mathematically deduced, is very much a baby. A lovely, wonderful, funny baby of course, but – Whither sleep! Whither free time! Whither comprehensible thought! – a baby nonetheless. And yet I plodded on like a dray horse, co-authoring another book, editing yet another one, and continuing to work a full-time office job.
To turn to the books, this year I once again worked with my occasional collaborator Jenn Ashworth on a slim horror novel. Plunge Hill is set in the early 1970s in a hospital in the remote north and is composed of the letters of a newly arrived typist and the entries in the diary she discovers which appear to have been written by her predecessor.
Fans of The Night Visitors, the novella Jenn and I brought out last year, or Bus Station: Unbound, the enormous online choose-your-own-adventure style novel we released in 2013, will be delighted (or perhaps dismayed – most likely nonplussed) to find some characters make reappearances, populating the alternative Lancashire mythos that lies behind these stories. Plunge Hill will be published next year with Dead Ink under a pseudonym, J.M.McVulpin as it constitutes an instalment of their Eden Society series. The notion is that Dead Ink have secured the rights to a catalogue of short horror novels originally published privately between 1919 and 2003 and sent directly to a list of subscribers and are now reissuing them. In truth, the whole thing is a hoax – the stories are written by the likes of me and Jenn, along with Andrew Michael Hurley, Alison Moore and othes.
And then there was We Were Strangers. I’ve grown to long for some kind of macro which makes it so that when I type ‘We Were Strangers’, it automatically adds ‘an anthology of stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures’. Because LORD how I am sore weariéd of typing that out.
Anyway, that is precisely what We Were Strangers is, and the book itself has been a long time coming. I first came up with the notion of an anthology which shadows Joy Division’s debut a couple of years ago. Initially I launched it on Unbound, the publisher which uses crowdfunding to fund its books, but a combination of factors quickly made clear it wasn’t the right fit, so I instead approached Confingo, an independent publisher based here in Manchester. I knew of them primarily as they produce a lit-mag, also called Confingo, which had once accepted one of my stories, ‘Bait’, for publication, but they had also taken the step in 2017 of branching out into de facto books, publishing Ornithology, a collection of reliably creepy stories by Nicholas Royle, all of which are unified by the presence of birds and which was graced with an elegant, spare design aesthetic. And they turned out to be a great find. I was given the freedom to make whatever wayward editorial choices took my capricious fancy – A previously unpublished writer! A graphic interlude! Demands a commissioned story be rewritten entirely! – as though I knew what I was doing, but along with that came forensic editorial assistance, beguiling artwork and design, and the kind of commitment to make We Were Strangers as successful as possible that most independent, slightly outré books would only dream about (NB. books do not dream). As a result we produced a book which matched pretty exactly what I had envisioned at the start of the process, one which got a big, glowing review splashed across the start of the Observer’s review section, along with other, similarly positive notices elsewhere. The Guardian also commissioned one of the authors in We Were Strangers, Sophie Mackintosh, to write a piece about her experiences of composing her story and her relationship with Joy Division more generally. Granta subsequently got in touch to ask if they could republish another one of the stories, Jessie Greengrass’s ‘Candidate’ and at the end of the year Rough Trade announced that the anthology was number 4 – 4! – in their Books of the Year list, ahead of a number of starry names (Sorry, Stormzy! Better luck next time, Kate Bush! East my dust, John Lennon!) Needless to say, the time spent assembling and pushing We Were Strangers gobbled up my free time and when I would ordinarily be writing my own work I was instead frantically emailing event organisers, drafting press releases and endlessly typing out the phrase 'an anthology of stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures'. I did however find time to write something related to the collection for The Learned Pig, a site whose writing I love and which has been supportive of the book from the start. What began as a slightly expanded version of my introduction to We Were Strangers morphed into a sort of roving think-piece about Manchester, its industrial and musical heritage, and our contradictory modernity’s headachey state of digital permanence and chronic amnesia. Cheery stuff.
Anyway, as that iceberg sized paragraph indicates, while We Were Strangers dominated my year, creatively and actually, there were other goings-on. I had only one piece of new fiction published in 2018, but it made up for this scantiness by finding a home in This Dreaming Isle, a knockout anthology from Unsung Stories.
Each of the stories in This Dreaming Isle takes a piece of specific UK folklore as its starting point and I, rather predictably, wrote about Manchester. Following the success with We Were Strangers (or perhaps following its avoidance of disaster) I also took up a role as Fiction Editor with Bare Fiction magazine, and also started work as Contributing Editor for Confingo, the magazine We Were Strangers’ publisher brings out twice a year. Most excitingly, I was also lucky enough to become the recipient of an ACE grant, one that I intend to use in order to work on my next book, which I’m tentatively going to declare ‘a novel’. This grant also contributed to my decision – potentially hare-brained – to hand in my notice at my aforementioned office job towards the end of the year. So 2019 shall see me writing as my day job, at least in some sense.
Like in 2017, my reading in 2018 has once again been an exercise in inconsistency. The editorial positions I’ve taken up mean I have read hundreds of short stories this year, almost all of them presently unpublished but some of them quite brilliant. But as far as the purely recreational reading of contemporary novels goes, 2018 been something of a relatively fallow season. I did enjoy the works of a couple of authors whose work I edited – my absolute favourite 2018 book was Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, which occupies that fascinating, liminal space between novel and nonfiction. I first encountered Jessie's writing when the eye-catching cover art and title of her short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, well, caught my eye. Sight, as a title, may sound as though a change of tack is being signposted, and the careful protractedness of prose which made Auk such a stong and consistent collection has been traded in for brevity. While that isn't the case, there is a directness and a candidness which seemed to divide critics broadly between people who loved it (who mostly seemed to be women) and those who were rather baffled (who mostly seemed to be men). For me it satisfied something I hadn't quite noticed I was lacking, a hunger I have for a particular type of writing: steely, rich, incisive and unapologetically serious, all of which Sight provides in undiluted abundance. (I also loved this short piece by Jessie on the benefits of being too busy to write.)
Like the rest of the reading world I was also bowled over by Sophie Mackintosh’s woozy The Water Cure – I’d first approached Sophie to contribute to We Were Strangers in 2016 on the basis of a pair of wonderful short stories I’d encountered, so it was pleasing (and oddly gratifying) to see her transfer her evident dexterity to a novel – an unpredictable, compelling novel – and meet with such success.
As with last year, the books which I found stuck with me most were a pair of true crime titles. Last year I encountered Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Myra Hindley, One of Your Own, which led me to read a number of her other books. The best of which has been The Murders at the White House Farm, a retelling of Jeremy Bamber who was in 1986 was convicted of the killing of his adoptive parents, his adoptive sister Sheila and her twin sons in an elaborate murder designed to frame Sheila which took place on the parents' farmhouse in Essex. Since then, Bamber has made it his lifelong work to campaign for his release, claiming, often with apparent credibility, that he is innocent. The Murders at the White House Farm is a scrupulous examination of the case, meticulously detailing what took place on the night in question and in the subsequent investigation, but it's also very much about the personalities involved and their lifelong conflicts which led up to the murders. Lee herself avoids commenting on where precisely she stands on the subject of Bamber’s guilt, but her conclusions, when they come, make it devastatingly clear that realistically there could only have been one course of events. I think the book I'm most looking forward to next year is Carol Ann Lee's latest, Somebody's Mother, Somebody's Daughter, a timely reframing of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, from the point of view of his numerous female victims.
I also listened to the audiobook of The People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry during the summer, mostly in the evenings, when I would walking the streets of my neighbourhood with my baby son in his sling to help him get some sleep. As such it emphasised the book’s woozy, neon-lit quality. The People Who Eat Darkness, which relates the brutal murder in 2000 of Lucie Blackman, a young woman from Kent who was working at the time as a hostess in Tokyo, is as much about the grisly act as it is about the curious vagaries of Japansese society and, therefore, the curious vagaries society as a whole, and the very real, very compromised individuals caught up in a nightmare of cross-continental dimensions, all of which darkly blossomed from the appetites of one highly disturbed perpetrator.
Finally, if I largely failed in 2018 at reading 2018 books, I made up for it by listening to a lot of 2018 music. I put this down to necessarily listening to Unknown Pleasures a lot and needing a contemporary curative to all that bygone gloom. Not that my top five records of the year, which I’ll end with, are defined particularly by their cheeriness:
Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Low - Double Negative
Alias and Doseone – Less is Orchestra
Daniel Knox - Chasescene
Noname – Room 25
Each weekday morning I walk my daughter to her childminder, a half-mile dawn stroll which in the past few days has taken on an arduousness. Each morning we stop to note the sycamore leaves on the ground, the latest of the last few still to fall, their veins and midribs forensic with frost, their blanched russet vivid atop others long gone black, ragged and mulchy. We move along the empty streets passing dark houses, some with glowing bedroom windows, some wreathed with steam from their early blasts of central heating. Outside however, shut out from such domesticity, the cold is very hard. My bare hands grow chapped and painfully numb as they push the buggy, my daughter nestles into her scarf, and I long for my rammed commuter train as though it were a log fire.
Winter itself, it occurred to me, is also a journey, one through privation. We watch as the world presses on, growing denuded, defined by absences. Daylight is short, trees are stripped, colour bleaches from the sky, warmth saps from the air, animals either retreats south or else disperse underground and the world turns stark, a stage cleared for the eventual return of life.
Or so it was. Any journey of the season is one shared by all, and while mice and hedgehogs may lie low, for humans, particularly humans who like me live in a big city, winter is a time when life glows, with December, the darkest month, repurposed as an extended festival of communality and illumination. Whether that’s a Christmas party, a carol service, a trip to a market, a pantomime or watching the year’s ‘event’ TV finale, opportunities for us to commune with one another flourish and are seized on.
For Thomas Hardy, perhaps Britain’s highest laureate of the cold season, creating light and warmth in winter is a defiance, a rallying act of civilization.
To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.
I think this gets to why, even though I’m not overly keen on pantomimes, the parties or the Christmas specials, winter nonetheless holds such a singular fascination for me. We extend warmth to banish the cold and light lights to banish the dark, something which seems as miraculous as it does simple. More than any other season, Winter is a time which demands solidarity of us, imparting its inhospitableness on us all. More than that, it also brings an elemental, almost animal, touch of grandeur to the everyday, endurance the big theme, darkness and snow the plain Brechtian backdrop. And yet winter is also the season we’ve gradually fashioned into a time of colour, celebration and enchantment, which feels precisely human.
And so we travelled, my daughter and I, from one warm and welcoming house to another. We leave our home in darkness and return in darkness: for her, for now, this is a night-time journey. Perhaps for her family too might become a foundation gone nocturnal, were it not for the knowledge that we shall eventually cross the midwinter brink and slowly move towards the spring when we can once again look at one another in daylight.
It was during the middle of the 16th century that the world’s winters grew harsher, something which was to remain constant until the Victorian era. All over Europe trees were felled for fuel in ever increasing numbers, eventually leading to the culture of mass deforestation which defined the early 18th century, particularly in Britain. This necessitated the seismic national change the country underwent in the industrial revolution in which fuel prices dropped and, gradually, the conception of winter for many (the wealthy, in truth) shifted from something unwelcome and harsh to be endured to something which one could find the opportunity to experience enjoyment sheltering from.
The Christmas markets in central Manchester are overlooked by a gigantic sparkling effigy of Father Christmas fixed atop the central spire of the town hall. He basks in the pale blue sky and sunlight, his cartoonish benevolence radiating down on a scene below composed of stalls, produce and punters, all of which feels similarly out of joint with the spirit of this gathering. Simply put, the weather is wrong. A recent cold snap aside, this winter will, like last year’s, no doubt be a warm affair, something which throws the rites and celebrations of winter into question.
When our collective imagination lights upon winter it often finds satisfaction in extremes and ideals. At the market I was surrounded by imagery of snow: snowflakes, white dusted trees, lush quilted landscapes. As our world has started to heat up it seems snow has taken on a mythic quality, like Father Christmas or the nativity.
Curiously, I found myself thinking on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. In the novel a character, named simply K, arrives in a town which lies in the grounds of a large, distant castle. K wants to gain access but cannot, due to bureaucracy but also the thick snow which covers the village and impedes his travels.
Kafka wrote much of The Castle while snowbound, having been sent by his doctor to Spindelmühle, a resort in northern Bohemia. He discovered a place which was deluged with snow and worried that, rather then curing him, the extreme cold would exacerbate his tuberculosis and kill him.
In the novel, the snow which besets K feels weightily symbolic, but precisely what it symbolises is something which seems to shift and evade specificity. In its blankness and its insistence on erasing all it encounters, snow encourages projection. Is Kafka’s snow a social amnesia, a spiritual myopia, an emotional disconnect?
Like all those around me, drinking mulled wine, wearing Christmas jumpers, buying toys, I gaze up occasionally at my own castle, the town hall with its monolithic Santa, hoping for some kind of entry into the grand Christmas something, but stuck down here, among my fellow messy, dreaming mortals.
1846 saw one of America's the great mass exoduses as droves of migrants headed west, many following one another along a route known as the Oregon trail towards California, a promised land of fertility and prosperity.
Among those caught up in this exodus were a group of families who would go on to become known as the Donner-Reed party, essentially a lair of of big families, the Reeds and the Donners, with large numbers of children and assorted employees and hangers-on. They were led by George Donner. Little is known of Donner’s personality, but by the time of the great upheaval he was on his third marriage, had fathered seven children and had hitherto worked as an itinerant farmer: I think it’s more than possible that for Donner the great journey to California was an act of personal salvation, a chance for him to make something of his life, got himself and his family.
The Donner-Reeds had begun their trek west in May and were already wearied from traversing difficult terrains to get as far as Wyoming. There, as autumn settled in and they fell behind the rest of the multitudes, they took a shortcut, known as the Hastings Cutoff, which took them over steep, rocky mountains and then across the Great Salt Lake Desert.
They rejoined the route but much later than they’d planned. Duly, they came to the 100 mile stretch across the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range famous for the amount of snow it receives, more than most others in North America, and which would experience a particularly harsh winter that year.
Disaster struck almost immediately. After one of the Donners’ wagons overturned and broke an axle, the group – 83 in total – was forced to halt. In due course the October storms moved in, covering their route with more than six feet of snow. By early November this had risen to ten feet.
The families which formed the group separated, setting up individual camps near Truckee Lake. The Donners, unlike the other families who had insubstantial yet serviceable pine cabins, were protected from the elements only by makeshift tents they fashioned from wagon covers and whatever bracken they could use and, as they were six miles up the mountainside from the others, the snow was the worst for them.
And as they awaited rescue more snow beset them – in early December the depth increased to around 14 feet. By the middle of the month the families has re-grouped out of desperation and sent out a party of 15 to attempt to cross the treacherous pass on homemade snowshoes. Another attempt was only possible in early March, when another 17 of the group took advantage of a lull in the bad weather and set out to traverse the mountains.
But the lull was temporary: almost immediately they were assailed by more snow and had to stop. They built a fire which melted the surrounding snowpack until they were all huddled in a pit 24 feet deep. Cannibalism became rife.
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture book for children, is one whose contents and cultural impact have continued to fascinate me since I first encountered it in a manner I’m sure most people share: the 1982 cartoon adaptation. Or in my case, the cartoon adaptation on a tape, recorded from the television broadcast and watched every year.
For the young, the allure of VHS will no doubt be a complete mystery. Indeed for many VHS will be quite literally unheard of. For those sad few: VHS tapes were clunky black boxes presented in cardboard sleeves of functional, almost corporate design. One recorded what was on television to watch at a later date. As a result, most households accumulated a library of such tapes, each containing grainy recordings not just of a programme but of its full broadcast, replete with (in the case of The Snowman) the introductory Channel 4 ident and voiceover and the adverts which followed the programme, all abruptly truncated by the recorder being switched in and then off. A home-recorded VHS was a snapshot of a moment in television history - those dark pre-web days when one’s sense of communality came largely through simply knowing everyone else was watching what you were - as much as it was the programme itself. As such, having a brief look into what was present in families’ living rooms on Boxing Day 1982 (when The Snowman was first broadcast) feels weightily touching, like peering through a window into the past.
The film is very much a faithful adaptation of the book, not entirely in terms of content - there is not even a mention of Christmas in the book whereas the film dedicates much of its running time to a trip to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas - but certainly in terms of themes, tone and visual style. To the degree that the two - book and film - are fairly interchangeable. Briggs, who had at the time recently undergone some fairly harrowing personal experiences and had been enmeshed in writing Fungus the Bogeyman, a dark and dense picture book about the humdrum life of a monster, has said in the past that he ‘wanted to write a quiet book’. The Snowman is precisely that. There is no dialogue, the story is fable-like in its simplicity and the pages have a characteristicness all of their own: pastel colours sketched amid spaces of white.
This technique was something which was to stick with Briggs. When the Wind Blows, his Cold War chamber piece graphic novel, a nuclear explosion is depicted as a double-page spread of pure white; in The Bear, as close as Briggs has come to a spiritual sequel to The Snowman, a girl is embraced by a polar bear which turns into a page-consuming white.
1814, just over 200 years ago, was the year of London’s last ever frost fair.
The first recorded frost fair in the city took place in the winter of 1607-1608. In December the ice on the Thames had turned firm enough for people to make a perilous trek between Southwark and the City. By January the ice had turned so thick that people could set up camp on it. And thus they duly did. A city in miniature sprang up on the frozen water: food stalls, pubs, cobblers and hairdressers all touted for business and the uniqueness of the scenario drew in the punters.
One of the most well-known depictions of a frost fair comes not from the the 1600’s or even the 1800’s but the 20th century. In Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s exuberant 1928 novel of generational and sexual transgression, we encounter the following:
While the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the trade of the country was at a standstill, London enjoyed a carnival of the utmost brilliancy. The Court was at Greenwich, and the new King seized the opportunity that his coronation gave him to curry favour with the citizens. He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side, should be swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground, with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc. at his expense. For himself and the courtiers, he reserved a certain space immediately opposite the Palace gates; which, railed off from the public only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant society in England. Great statesmen, in their beards and ruffs, despatched affairs of state under the crimson awning of the Royal Pagoda. Soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor and the downfall of the Turk in striped arbours surmounted by plumes of ostrich feathers. Admirals strode up and down the narrow pathways, glass in hand, sweeping the horizon and telling stories of the north-west passage and the Spanish Armada. Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder.
A little over 100 years prior to Woolf writing, the great frost fair of London had come to an end. The fair of early 1814 was reckoned t be one of the largest fairs on record. Every day punters showed up in their multitudes, consumed mutton, ox, mince pies gingerbread and mince pies; temporary bars – 'pop-ups' in modern argot – prevailed on the ice; dancing was common; an elephant was marched across the river along Blackfriars Bridge.
The Thames has not frozen over since, or at least not in a manner that could support a temporary metropolis. At first glance it might seem that climate change is to blame – the average temperature for January 1814 was -2.9C, whereas in January 2010 it averaged 1.4C – but more crucial were the architectural changes made to the Thames in the nineteenth century. In 1831 a new London Bridge replaced the old one, which allowed more seawater to enter the river and the Embankment, constructed in 1869, tapered the river, increasing its flow, both of which reduced its freezing point.
There were many deaths by misadventure during the frost fairs – unmoored ships running adrift, sudden drownings in cracked ice – and for me the fairs themselves contain more than a hint of darkness, not just in this loss of life but in the willingness there in the common consciousness (and I include myself) to disregard it as an irritating blot on an otherwise wholesome instance of urban pastoralism. Indeed, although they don’t occupy anything like the high office of the Nativity or festive Dickensiana, frost fairs still have a potent effect when it comes to Britain’s winter imagination. They chime with our notion of the season as a kind of divine mischief wrought on a grand, democratising scale, with the extreme cold disrupting our norms and leaving us with no option but to down tools and make merry. Their absolute historicity – even at the time of Woolf writing no-one was around who had memories of a frost fair – means they’re part of a confected nostalgia which, for woolly types like me, smacks of the dread mindset which insists the past was a time of fun and games only upended by the intrusive complexities of modernity. A dangerous lie, that, as we can see in our present politics.
And yet it’s hard to ignore the sheer gleeful force of novelty, that pull once again of one’s inner child, when faced with the prospect of a Christmas party on a landscape of frozen water.
I remain a nonbeliever, but I can fully see how the image a woman caring for her newborn – mother and child forming a hidden flicker of human warmth in a landscape of darkness and hostility – would make a compelling basis for a philosophy.
Since I wrote this in December 2015 this things have changed. Although the crisis in the Mediterranean is still ongoing, with refugees still drowning in their thousands each year, the situation is less severe and has ceded its position as the world’s grand horror to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar and its position as the dominant focus of global politics to what feels like the degradation of major western powers via Trump and the effects of Brexit.
But that love which cleaves the world together, although threatened by instability and once again under the shadow of nuclear war – and frequently transmuted into tragedy by the ongoing nigthmares which afflict families and children – keens insistently like a wound, demanding to be noticed, something which is always worth doing but particularly in this, our season of parental reflection.
The winter of 1962-1963 remains the worst in living memory. January 1963 was the coldest since 1814. The snow was profuse with the temperatures dropping so low that it stuck, an ever-increasing blanket which covered the country, until March. The seas froze and glaciers formed on the shores.
It was in this winter that Sylvia Plath took her life. Plath, as a personality and as suicide, had been picked over ad tedium and doesn’t require revisiting here. But one overlooked aspect of Plath’s poetry is how frequently winter features, in titles - ‘Waking in Winter’, ‘Winter Trees’, ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ - but also within much of her work itself: ‘Tulips’, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’, even The Bell Jar.
But its her journals where the sporadic yet detailed descriptions of the cold and the snow which make it clear Plath was a winter person. Here’s an entry from December 1958:
It snowed this weekend. We woke up, Monday, to see against the far grey mountain range of buildings across the park innumerable white flakes, John Hancock’s blurred totally off the skyline and the snow on the rooftops mounding up, blowing against our windows, and the grind and repetitious slither of car-wheels revolving stuck in our canyon alley. Today, grey skies, but all very light up here with the white snow sharply etched on all the angles of rooftops, gutters, gables, chimneys, and the orange-and-rusty-black chimneypots smoking in small plumes all over lower Beacon Hill. The river basin thick almost luminous white. Have been happier this week than for six months.
Winter contains Christmas, the big happy time, but it is also a season of melancholy - cold, privation and death. For many, the solitude, scarcity and all-conquering austerity reflect something serious at the kernel of the human experience, giving a visible, tangible expression to something hard and unforgiving which, for the most part, is otherwise starkly at odds with the world, hiding itself from the sun and society.
We tend to think, not incorrectly, that Christmas is something we have inherited from the Victorians. But a quick glance at the celebrations of seventeenth century England show more similarities to ours than differences. Shops and businesses closed for Christmas Day; people’s homes and public buildings were decorated for the season; friends and families met for meals; noblemen distributed gifts of money among their social inferiors; seasonal food and drink, including turkey, mince pies and ale, were consumed in heroic quantities; above all Christmas was an extended public holiday of leisure and misrule, an extended hangover from the medieval era, defined by its unabashed merriment in the form of feasting, dancing, singing, gambling, entertainments, drunkenness and sexual impropriety.
And then the English Revolution happened. Puritans seized control of Parliament, the King was deposed, Oliver Cromwell became the head of state, and, eventually, Christmas was outlawed.
This formally began in 1645 when parliament established its Directory of Public Worship, an instruction manual on the forms of worship the new religious elites now expected the public to observe. Sundays were to be holy days and all others, including Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and the assorted saints’ days which made up the pre-Puritan calendar were to be canned. From this point until the 1660 Restoration, celebrating Christmas was officially a criminal act.
As well as the book and its adaptation, The Snowman colonised the shelves of wholesome chains like BHS and M&S throughout the 1990s: tins of sweets, mugs, plastic snow globes - Briggs’ creation became one of the most reliable currencies in the middle class family gift economy. As such, I have a fondness for such items and often find myself scouring eBay for elusive Snowman relics, something which has become much more difficult since The Snowman and the Snowdog has staged a takeover of the merchandising rights, flooding search engines with not-quite-what-I’m-after results.
But why the search? Because it is simply impossible, when faced with a page of its pastel-and-crayon blizzard, Snowman and child mid-flight, to ignore the pull of one’s inner child - winter is suddenly alive again with twilight magic. And what is adulthood if not a quest to recreate and correct our childhoods?
In 1914, one hundred years after London’s last ever frost faur, R.S. Coulson, a soldier serving in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote from France to his mother in Hertfordshire.
On Christmas Eve at about 4 p.m. we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines we could hear the German band playing ‘Old Folks at Home’, ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. On Christmas Day men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches. By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches so that we could give them burial here.
C.H. Brazier, a Rifleman of the Queen’s Westminsters, also in France, wrote to his family, also in Hertfordshire.
We spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and (it) was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches,. Halfway they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ. On Christmas Day we all got out of the trenches and walked about with the Germans, who, when asked if they were fed up with the war said ‘Yes, rather’. They all believed that London had been captured, and that German sentries were outside Buckingham Palace. They are evidently told a lot of rot. We gave them some of our newspapers to convince them. Some of them could speak English fairly well. A hundred yards or so in the rear of our trenches there were houses that had been shelled. These were explored with some of the regulars and we found old bicycles, top-hats, straw hats, umbrellas etc. We dressed ourselves up in these and went over to the Germans. It seemed so comical to see fellows walking about in top-hats and with umbrellas up. Some rode the bicycles backwards. We had some fine sport and made the Germans laugh. No firing took place on Christmas night and at four the next morning we were relieved by regulars. I managed to get hold of a German ammunition pouch and bayonet but the latter I have thrown away, as it was so awkward to carry. I intend bringing the pouch home with me – when I come home.
Brazier’s name doesn’t appear on the Roll of Honour, so he presumably returned home safely. If so, he was one of the luckier among his company. In 1983, Aubrey Rose, another rifleman in the Queen’s Westminsters, described what became of them in the summer of July 1916. 6:25am on 1st July the attack on Gommecourt Salient, which would go on to epitomise the lunatic bloodthirst of WW1, commenced. The contrast between the truce less than two years earlier and the scenes Rose encountered are stark and littered with occassional details - a grim of souvenirs - which seem a grim parody of what had gone before, presumably among the same men who had so recently dressed up, played football and shared cake with one another.
We went over the top and eventually arrived in the German trenches. The smoke barrage was so thick you could not see where you were going and we did not know it was a trap. They had withdrawn all their troops from the front line and left only a few. Many of these were dead or dying. They had deep dug outs and had set traps in them…. In the first dugout there were German helmets, which the men thought would do nicely as souvenirs. But as they touched them they were blown up. The word soon got around after that when we came to a dugout, we didn’t ask who was down there-it was just “take that Fritz! With a hand grenade.
Of the 750 men in the regiment who went over the top that day, 600 were wounded or killed. In total on that day the British Army suffered some 20,000 soldiers reported as killed in action or missing. The official confirmation of the deaths slowly made its way towards Britain, to the towns, streets and homes the where casualties had lived, derailing lives and breaking hearts forever.
Before the Great War, Britain at the turn of the century saw a gradual thawing of the mini ice age which had given us such iconic winters for the past few centuries, this coincided with a boom in polar exploration, with heroic intrepids making perilous, often fatal voyages into the mysterious winter continents which top and tail our planet. Perhaps as snow in its extreme form melted from our streets and fields there lingered in the public consciousness a longing for its privations.
One of the most enduring of these voyages was Ernest Shackleton’s.
In his memoir Shackleton recounts how, after Endurance, his ship, was wrecked and sunk in Antarctic waters, he and two of his companions trekked to a whaling station in search of assistance, walking nonstop for 36 hours through some of the harshest conditions experienced. ‘During that long and racking march,’ he writes, ‘over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’
TS Eliot famously picked up on this notion: ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?' he writes in The Wasteland. 'When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road, there is always another one walking beside you.’ Three had become two in the common imagination, with a ghostly third presence shadowing their movements across the snowy climes.
Other explorers such as Peter Hillary and Reinhold Messner reported similar experiences to Shackleton's, and not only explorers but sailors, pilots. survivors of terror attacks – people, in other words, in extreme physical circumstances. The rational explanation for their experiences, of course, is that there is some as-yet undetected scientific cause, that the presence of an unseen companion is some form of hallucinatory self-defence.
Which is no doubt true. But I like to think that this is where science and the paranormal intersect, that what Shackleton and legions of others experienced was something connected to a kind of ur-phenomenon, a glancing encounter with the area of consciousness, itself the meeting point of the human mind and the outer world, which informs whatever it is that birthed and shaped our cultural belief in ghosts, and that that encounter is experienced in its fullness in the snow.
The first ever photographic image of a snowflake, or more correctly a snow crystal, was captured by in January 1885 by Wilson Bentley, a teenager from Vermont. Obsessed with snow, he had succeeded in integrating a microscope into his bellows camera, pioneering a new type of photography – photomicrography – which he would spend the rest of his career finessing.
But it is the images rather than the technique for which he is best remembered. When he saw his first successful snow crystal photograph Bentley was ecstatic: 'The day that I developed the first negative made by this method, and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it! It was the greatest moment of my life.' He would go on to capture than 5,000 images of snow crystals in his lifetime, each caught, transferred to a microscope slide and then photographed before it melted. He published many of his images in his lifetime and remains with us both for bringing to the public the hitherto secret ornamentation of snow crystals, their intricate and miniature ostentatiousness (‘Was ever life history written in more dainty hieroglyphics!’), and his enduring claim that no two snowflakes are alike.
Bentley’s formal education, such as it was, consisted of his mother (a former teacher, hence the ready microscopic equipment) who taught him at home on the family farm until he was fourteen and a brief stint at the local public school. Nonetheless, he had the singular dedication of a scientist, his research bagging him a grant from the American Meteorological Society. But he was also a poetic soul. When making his no-two-alike claim in 1925 he wrote: ‘Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.’
However this hidden world of microscopic symmetry is not entirely as it seems. In his book Winter, Adam Gopnik looks through Bentley’s archives and finds that most of the images don’t quite tally with the theory. ‘Most snow crystals are nothing like our stellar flower,’ he writes, referring to a gigantic plastic snowflake sitting atop Fifth Avenue, one of the many replicas of Bentley’s snowflake images which, like Christmas puddings, Christmas trees and reindeer, now surround us in December. ‘They’re irregular, bluntly geometric. They are as plain and as misshapen as, well, people.’
Gopnik also finds that Bentley’s claims about dissimilarity aren’t entirely accurate, although this is less to do with poetic self-censorship on Bentley’s part and more to do with the scientific advances which followed. ‘In 1988, a cloud scientist named Nancy Knight took a plane up into the clouds over Wisconsin and found two simple but identical snow crystals, hexagonal prisms, each as like the other as one twin to another.’ The snow which falls around us, it emerges, does indeed consist of unique crystals, but it is their journey which creates the uniqueness. As Karl Kruszelnicki puts it: ‘As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments. So the snowflake that you see on the ground is affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc, that it has experienced on the way.’
Bentley’s achievements were eventually collected into a single book, Snow Crystals, a compendium of 2,400 of his images which was published in 1931. Later that year, after walking six miles home during a blizzard, Bentley caught pneumonia and died at his family home in Jericho, the same town where he had been born and raised and where he had carried out his experiments, on December 23.
Looking at Bentley’s photographs today it’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer fact of them - that such otherworldly constructions, which occupy the same psychic fantasyland as Father Christmas, do in fact exist. And what of his eagerness to have the world believe, by selective editing, that all snowflakes contain such majestic geometry? Obviously, this goes against scientific inflexibility, but I'm not a scientist and, for me, it's a notion which rhymes with this season, where we grope through the darkness, happy to tolerate a few white lies so long as they bring magic alive.
The nativity as a central piece of the grand Christian narrative is something which only gained prominence in 13th century Italy due to no less than Saint Francis of Assisi.
Assisi, whose devotion to Jesus as a newborn, spurred by his visions of the infant Christ, created the first recorded depiction of the famous stable scene in an attempt to do his bit to transform Christianity from an increasingly secular political force into a public faith by reasserting the life story of the galvanising personality at the centre of it, impressing how Christ came into the world destitute and humble. And so he created his nativity, but not by preaching or painting. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1223, he assembled a scene composed of real people, animals and props which the public came in huge numbers to watch in a cave in Grecio, central Italy. In short, the first ever depiction of a nativity was a nativity play. Soon every church in the country was staging similar performances each December, an industry which itself proved so demanding that soon the performers and animals were replaced with statues. The now ubiquitous scene and its constituent components – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, the ox, the ass – became literally cast, carved out of wood and into the world.
One of Assisi’s followers, Saint Bonaventure, gives a first-hand account.
In order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, he determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.
I remember – I must have been a teenager – being in the back of my parents’ car while snow beset the A66 as we made our way through the long, barren pass between the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines. Bad snow, the worst I’ve ever seen, a slow swarm of improbably thick flakes, so much of it that it clogged the windscreen and quilted the landscape, erasing all signs of there being a boundary between the road and the hard shoulder, the hard shoulder and the embankment. Anything beyond ten feet – signposts and recognisable features but also bends in the road and exits – were lost, shut off by that surrounding, endlessly falling curtain of snow. Inch by inch became all, my father moving the car slowly, following the rear lights of the car ahead, which was itself following the rear lights of the car in front, and so on into the whirling static. There was a shared tension in the car, presumably in all the cars, all of us silent and alert and afraid. Afraid of the snow which, even here in our shielded patch of the world, in our cossetted age, was suddenly something against which parents must combat and forge against in order to protect the ones they love.
Predictably, the Puritan outlawing of Christmas did not go well. Christmas rioting became general all over England, with serious incidents recorded in Bury, Norwich and London in 1647. In Ipswich it was reported that a protestor who called himself ‘Christmas’ was killed during the melee, a fatality so clunkily symbolic it strikes me unlikely to be apocryphal. In Canterbury it was decreed by the local authority on Tuesday 22 December 1647 that the coming Friday, the 25th of December, would be a market day like any other Friday. The town crier was ordered to announce that the market would be held as normal, the shops would stay open as normal and the people would work a full day as normal. The outcome was immediate outrage. By Christmas morning locals gathered in huge numbers to protest, trashing shops which has opened. Attempts were made at arresting the ringleaders but the mob followed the sheriff’s men to the jail where they laid siege, attacking the guards and aldermen, smashing the windows of local properties, taking control of the city gates and releasing the prisoners.
With Charles II restored to the throne in 1660, Christmas once again returned, in an initially subdued fashion, if Samuel Pepys’ Christmas Day entry in his diary for that year is representative (‘the morning to church… after dinner to church again, my wife and I, where we had a dull sermon of a stranger, which made me sleep’), but eventually in a manner which has a familiar, hearty ring to it (1666: ‘dined well on some good ribbs of beef roasted… and plenty of good wine.’)
It’s not surprising that the attempts to outlaw Christmas failed. the holiday is older than any one strand of Christianity, established in the fourth century when the Church set December 25 as the official date of Christ’s birth, a decision based not on any scriptural or religious foundations but simply because it marked the winter solstice, a phenomenon for which almost all cultures have their rituals, marking as it does the return of light and life.
The Terra Nova Expedition, Robert Scott’s doomed journey to the centre of the South Pole, was preceded by various scientific observations of the frozen continent which surrounded it, many of which were photographed by Herbert Ponting. Ponting was a bank clerk from Liverpool who had pursued his boyhood dreams of the Wild West and relocated to California where he bought a fruit farm which he promptly got bored with and sold. He moved back to Britain and decided to become a professional photographer.
In the Antarctic Ponting found his locus, taking pictures of the landscape and its inhabitants – penguins and the newcomers: Scott’s men, dwarfed by colossuses of ice. His most famous shot, which he titled ‘Grotto in an Iceberg’, shows Scott’s ship (the Terra Nova which the expedition was named for) viewed from within an hollow of ice. Knowing what we know – Scott would soon lead a party on a six-month trek in search of the geographical pole and to their deaths, starving and tortured by the cold – these images take on a manner which is not simply tragic, but something far darker. The white behemoths seem blankly predatory, like static yet dimly sentient beings, the tiny figures at their feet impossibly naïve in their defencelessness, the prettily hanging icicles in ‘Grotto in an Iceberg’ become liminal fingers clawing at the human life interloping onto this most hostile of landscapes.
The photographs became Scott's memorial but also seem like a warning to those who would seek to follow.
Meanwhile back at the camp in Sierra Nevada in 1847, George Donner - who had been unable to leave with either group due to a cut on his hand which had become infected and was becoming steadily more gangrenous - must have looked at where his actions had led his family and wondered what divine lunacy he had unwittingly triggered in these hostile climes to deal such a devastating blow to his life. And yet, he would have reflected, was it a force which emerged from the mountaintops or was it something he had hauled his family over the mountains in order to escape? Something which, he now knew, was within himself.
Eventually, the original search group of 15, although deaths along the way had reduced them to seven, succeeded in bringing a rescue effort to the stranded pioneers. It was a slow process and not completed until 19 April 1847 when the final rescue effort arrived to find George Donner dead from his infected cut. Only 45 of the original party survived.
Then the sun emerged and the snow melted to nothing.
The story of the nativity as a celebration of birth, infancy and innocence, when placed in dark depths of winter, takes on something of an elemental quality, tapping into an instinct we all share to protect the defenceless.
Perhaps this is what gives such prominence in our retellings of the nativity to what is in truth a single sentence in Matthew.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under.
Did Herod, Rome’s puppet governor of Jerusalem, unsettled by a prophesy of the birth of a child who would challenge his dominion over Judean, really carry out a extermination of the children in his keep in order to prevent it coming to pass? Herod’s brutality was well-known and his crimes well documented, but no historical basis for the massacre of the innocents has ever been found.
And yet an off-stage massacre remains lodged in our consciousness, a necessarily troubling storm cloud which looms over the safety of the softly glowing stable, a crucial element to the Christmas story, one which satiates a seemingly innate appetite we have for narrative.
I think too of The Shining, another tragedy of hope, one which a child of transcendent pedigree flees a brutal attempt on his life.
'Hey,' says Wendy in Kubrick's film, 'wasn't it around here that the Donner party got snowbound?' In the film the malevolent forces at play in The Overlook Hotel are encountered and fought by the humans actors, but what nullifies the threat itself is something much more tangible: the snow.
This evening I went out walking the suburbs around where I live. Although early in the month, I passed a few houses with Christmas trees. There’s something faintly unsettling about Christmas trees in such minority. There they stand, tall and sentry-like in the bay windows, their flashing lights thrown out into the unlit streets as though from parked police cars; the neighbouring houses seem almost emphatically unlit by comparison, giving one the sense of having intruded on some inscrutable tableau of local politics being played out.
I thought about Algernon Blackwood’ short story ‘The Man Whom The Trees Loved’ in which a man develops an interest in trees which slides first into obsession then into something else entirely, something dark and sublime. It’s a story which taps into the sense I often have of trees which I’m sure is shared by others: although we rely on them and use them as materials, that intimacy in our lives and the fact we use them in such great, wasteful numbers (and that if unmolested they can live centuries), gives them a sense of being a silent, patient companion who is perhaps biding his time and meditating on revenge. Is cutting down a tree, taking it into a home and dressing it in gaudy tinsel and ribbon a celebration of nature? Is it a humiliation?
I saw a high-up window in a block of flats covered with a large St George’s flag glowing in turns red and white from some interior source of light, no doubt a Christmas tree. Rather predictably, I found myself thinking of Brexit and Christmas, of the interplay between the two - the nostalgia and yearning for customs and rites which impart a sense of seriousness. I thought about how unknowable the lives can be of those among who we live, their implacable, uniform dwellings rarely betraying a hint of the occupants’ beliefs or prejudices. Christmas is a noisy exception.
The Christmas tree has its pagan roots in the pre-Christian practice of bringing cuttings from evergreens indoors to mark midwinter. But a more direct line can be drawn to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband who in the 1840’s brought to nineteenth century Britain the tradition of decorating an entire tree in one’s home, along with the notion that Christmas is a festival of childhood first, a holy time second. In doing so Albert probably did more than anyone, except Charles Dickens, to lay the foundations of what we now think of as our intrinsically British Christmas.
Soon they will have multiplied, the Christmas trees. Very soon and there will be one in almost every home, a secret beacon for Europe in every window and the better aspects of our nature are entertained.