On the sixth day of Christmas

 

 

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Six Geese a-laying
and
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

According to the tradition, the Six Geese a-laying represent the six days of the Creation, as it is well known that God took a rest on the seventh day.
At this point, roads branch out along which I may choose to go. I may praise the Creation and describe the countryside in winter time as I did this spring and the seasons that followed. I may notice that this is the end of the year and tell you how grateful I am that you are spending time reading me. I may chat about the revels of the Little Family while waiting for midnight – if midnight is awaited. I may assess the situation at the end of the year, which is something very popular on this time, and/or speak with hope and tremolos of what I expect / am thrilled / can’t wait / to do next year.
Nothing of this. Not yet.
I shall dip once more into my memories and the collective memory that makes part of these “Sketches and Vignettes”.
Grand-Mother used to remember a time when, even in the mild and mellow Dordogne, there were winters with snow, sleet and ice. Grand-Mother’s was Aunt Sweet’s and Great-Uncle Mark’s sister. She was the eldest and was sometimes asked to play Little Mother to her sister when Nanny was too busy and when the children were let loose outside to play with the farms and the village children.
There was this grand time when there went all sick – all but Aunt Sweet who was still too young to be admitted in such noble company – after their first taste of smoking. They had found in a barn the rest of the corn or maize long stalks; the boys had cut them with their penknives and handed out to all “reasonably old” children. Then Great-Uncle Mark had handsomely invited all back home, in the drawing room that was empty that afternoon. They had lighted the stalks to fire in the chimney place … and smoked them. Grand-Mother had been sorry not to be able to proffer refreshments, but she had explained who George Sand was to the girls (who did not give a thought neither to the tea nor to the female novelist) and she had played at being Sand smoking the cigar in company with the intellectuals of her time.
They had been interrupted in the middle of their coughs by Great-Grand-Mother who showed her disapproval of smoking, using her drawing room, and George Sand in a few curt words. The village children were sent back to their homes with a few well chosen words and the promise that their parents would know about their deportment; as to the children of the house, they were only too glad to fly to the nursery and to be as sick as they needed.
They were much more “outside” children than I was and I aways marveled at their plays and pranks, when they talked about sliding  and throwing snow balls. It seemed that they had lived in a world constricted by more rules, and at the same time more free to do many things that did not exist anymore. I expect some lustre was added by memory and by the fact that they lived in the same place half the year, and therefore had more friends among the residents.
They were afraid of only one thing and that was on New Year’s Eve.
The ceremony of the Yule Log took place that night. A log was put to burn in chimney places in all houses with a ditty said by one of the elder folks of the family, praying that they might be the same number or more the next year at the same time, but certanly no less. Then there was some drinks and kisses under the mistletoe, and the lads would go out to meet, each with a long stick decorated with ribbons and mistletoe. But before they left their houses, they would smear their faces with soot coming from the Yule Log. Black men not to be recognised under their masks.
They went from house to house, begging for sweets, money and kisses from the girls. They were called in the local dialect les guilhannos. That was twisting the words they were shouting which meant (in French) “Au gui, l’an neuf” and in English, something like “With the mistletoe (au gui), comes the new year (l’an neuf). Their name was the contraction ofgui (mistletoe) and an/année (year): “guilhanno”.
Grand-Mother told us that she and Aunt Sweet would go upstairs and look down through the gaps of the bannister when they heard what they knew would be les guilhannos. Great-Uncle Mark would stay downstairs  with the adults but would never be far from Great-Grand-Father. Les guihannos were received with courtesy and respect. They would be given something to drink – wine, I suppose -, cakes and sweet to take back home, and money to go revelling at the café when they had finished their visits to the houses of the village or nearby.
Time passing, Grand-Mother discovered that they were lads who worked in the felds and who she knew well by meting them every day or so. But the soot disguised them so well that, younger, she thought they were foreigners to the village or the country, who would curse the house, and make away with her and Aunt Sweet to live on the roads like gypsies.
Mother did not know them. This custom stopped with WWII or just after. In fact, lots of customs dwindled and slowly disappeared then. They were entering the modern era of cinema, radio sets, then television, and loss of regional habits and language. By the 1960s, l’Occitan, which is the language of the South of France, and its local variants that make the dialects, were almost a linguistic forgotten aberration. It was studied as a foreign language in High School but one could hear the difference between the real thing still spoken by the elder and the language that had been taught. Nevertheless, the effort was a good one as there was no complete loss of the culture (doesn’t this ring a bell with what Adam Thorpe wrote in Ulverton and that we discussed yesterday along with The Forsyte Saga?)
This evening, there will be no guilhanno knocking at our door, and this is fine as I would be too scared to open the door: nowadays, this could well be anybody, and fear of the other has won over the traditional rural confidence. There will be dinner, TV programme and going to bed before midnight. No party. No waiting for the New Year. The Girls fare better when they sleep early. And I shall not revel by myself.
It might be time then to thank for the Creation as:
On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Six Geese a-laying
and
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fifth day of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

According to a tradition linked with the Tudor era, the Five Gold Rings, for the Faithfuls, were the name for the Five first Books of the Ancient Testament or Pentateuch – the Torah.
As the year draws in, I wanted to talk about the other great pattern and cause of this blog – other than reminiscences -, books and their place in my life. They are more than simple reads. First of all because lots of them are re-reads that become inbred or take roots within me and grow out of me as lessons for life. I shall take two examples: two novels that are not among the great classics.

 

Some time ago, I exchanged one or two comments with another purely book blogger who had set herself the challenge to read the complete Forsyte Saga (by John Galsworthy) during this year. It is a trilogy: three periods of the life of a family, each period divided in three books, which makes nine books, but to which one has to add “Interludes” or three brief novellas or long short stor ies, one of which – at the end of the first three books – is of poignant beauty. The whole sequence is therefore of twelve “book” and that was perfect for this blogger’s challenge: one book a month.
I was waiting for this with some trepidation. You may have clearly understood by now that I hate challenges, readalongs, and other more or less forced reading and writing, even if the participants feel they are free in choosing the “challenge”. I do not read for challenge. I read for pleasure and for learning. The idea of “challenge” associated with reading makes me feel that competition has truly entered the worlds of study, learning and pleasure. Moreover, I do not always agree with book bloggers. In fact, I mostly disagree. But this is the salt of  the talk – when there is one – and this gives some spice to life.
I sailed through the report of the first two trilogies without a comment. But in the middle book of the last trilogy, I knew we would have to disagree. (Nota: the last trilogy comprises “Maid in Waiting”, “Flowering Wilderness” and “One More River”).
The time is the inter-war, between 1920 and 1936 / 38. We have gone from the Forsyte family per se, to a secondary branch of the family tree, the Cherrells, and one of the daughters is playing lead. We are on the fringes of the upper-class – let’s say upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class, but still with members of Parliament, vicars, army officers, lawyers, gentlemen farmers, senior civil servants – with one Sir xxx and Lady yyyy here and there but no Lord and Lady Grantham that you would recognise if you are addicted to Downtown Abbey.
Some of the characters are living in Town and others in the country. Most alternate with at least a pied-à-terre in London and a house in the country but some with a house in London and a real country house.
Dinny, the young lady who takes the lead, is in love with a British gentleman, or so we think, but he has a secret. He has recanted his faith in the Midde-East and espoused the Mahometan faith under threat of death. When this secret is known in London, he is thought no more a gentleman, the clubs and houses close before him, society turns its back, and Dinny has almost no choice but to break the officious engagement they had. However, the man is still gentleman enough to go before she has to do it. He takes the fault all on himself and disappears to live the destiny of a pariah under all skies.
The blogger said something like “the British fuss” about the situation and being a gentleman or not, which in a nutshell meant that she thought it was “much ado about nothing” that prevented his life in Britain and the wedding bells to ring.
I disagreed.
We agreed that birth, education and culture moulded each person and his/her feelings and attitudes towards life as well as beginning to give him/her a set of values that might change during life. Such was the case for each of us: we had each our own set of values.
We agreed that on this particular point our sets of values disagreed.
In fact, we were very polite and courteous and are still writing and commenting each other’s blog in the most civilized way.
And I still disagree.
I disagree because I have been moulded by a certain birth, education and culture that have given me a certain set of values – duties more than rights. Duties towards my faith, my family, my friends, the people I know, the people I do not know, society at large, my country, others in general – and myself. Some of these values belong to the past and seem ridiculous. Some ARE ridiculous. Fortunately, I have been given education and instruction, which help me both to question these values and to write today that some ARE ridiculous. Or wrong. Or belong to another age.
I do not say that it was not being a gentleman to recant under threat of death. Nowadays it is seen differently. But we cannot and we must not pass judgement upon facts that happened when values and rules were different. Then, it was not “much ado about nothing” or “a British fuss”.
The main issue of this being or not being a gentleman is mentioned a little later in the novel when Dinny comes home in the country where her family lives. They have not a grand castle (nothing like Downtown Abbey again) but a mansion, hall, manor – a large house. And people to help, farms with tenants, and older folks who are still inhabiting cottages on the land. There is no Providence State, no NHS, but the landlord, being a gentleman, has the duty to take care of them until their deaths. And “to take care” includes to visit, to feed, if necessary, to provide for their health be they ill, to consider them as part of the family. This is what Dinny does, what her mother does, and why her father worries.
Dinny then wonders about the role of her family and she concludes a rather long meditation by thinking they have been the backbone of Britain – all these long lines of civil servants, clerics, military and Navy men, lawyers, farmers, Parliamentary men – not grandees but educated and instructed men and women who worked for the State and the people of  Britain. This made them gentlemen and ladies and to fail in one duty or not to respect one rule was raising the doubt as the possibilty to fail in all duties. The sanction was exclusion.
I expect I do not speak too much for my fellow blogger and does not put too much into her words. Of course, there is now the Providence State, the NHS, equal rights for all (and equal duties) and this kind of remnant of fealty does not exist anymore. Are people more happy? Are duties really equal and equally discharged? Are their discharged with care and love?
Don’t think me a fool. I know that my family’s Christmas visits belonged to this past social order, past sets of rules, past duties. We lived both in the dire present and in the dire past. Those quasi-codified visits to Great-Grand-Mother and Mother’s Nanny were things that almost nobody observed anymore. Anyway, there was no paternalism but true care for real people. I would not say the same about the visits made by social workers paid for that today.
I do not say either that all that is passed was good and has to be kept alive or ressuscitated. And I shall take as example another book that is a gem: Ulverton by Adam Thorpe. His first novel.

 

I shall let the author speak for his book himself:

Ulverton opens in 1650 when a returning veteran of Cromwell’s army is murdered by his wife and the man she married while he was away. In 1989, the victim’s skeleton is unearthed by a descendant of the murderers constructing a development that will help spoil what remains of old Ulverton. In the ten intervening episodes, we encounter a sin-obsessed clergyman, a farmer obsessed with improving fertilizer while his wife goes insane and he carries on an affair with a servant, an adulterous aristocratic wife, an illiterate mother whose son awaits hanging for supposedly stealing a hat, an elderly carpenter cadging drinks by recounting how he fooled his tyrannical master, a group of rebellious agricultural workers on trial in 1830 for smashing farm machinery, a woman photographer in 1859, a ploughman reminiscing about village life, the excavation of a prehistoric barrow during the beginning of World War I, and the diary of a frustrated secretary during the death of George VI and coronation of Elizabeth II, in whose honour ancient wagons and farm tools are to be burned in a bonfire. “Why can’t folk leave the past alone?” asks the secretary. At the end, the village within earshot of a roaring motorway, houses computer firms, and seems destined for inevitable urbanization.

Ulverton not only re-creates “the rich and complex pages of our ancient country”, but is a reflection on language, time and change.

This continues to be the novel most people know me by, which is frustrating. I remember the precise moment of inspiration, while crossing a ploughed field up on the Berkshire Downs on a cold clear February day. The whole thing mapped itself out in my head, and I felt an extraordinary pull from the chalky earth.

In fact, as at least three critics noticed, as can be read in the following excerpts, it is a way of telling social English history through the means of literature.

Sunday Independent
Hilary Mantel: May 10 1992
ON THE cover of Adam Thorpe’s novel there is a detail from The Haywain – a little rustic figure, almost formless, who seems to rise out of the water and mud. This is Thorpe’s subject matter: the landscape of England and the half-noticed people who live against it. His chosen ground is a downland village in west Berkshire; his book is a series of interlinked narratives, each one fed by its predecessor, each one informing what follows.
1650: A shepherd who has left his pastures to join Cromwell’s army, and who has seen service on the Irish killing-fields, returns to reclaim his bit of land; in his pockets are rings (cut from dead fingers?) and a tangle of dusty ribbons for his wife’s hair. Only one person, the shepherd-narrator, sees him arrive; then he vanishes. Gone away again, or dead? The narrator knows the answer, but conceals it. His simple, strong language reveals gradually the depth of his loneliness and sexual need; his stoicism cracks, and he trades truth for comfort. And a local legend is born: the shepherd who consorted with a witch.
The next century brings ”improvements”: a farmer keeps his mind on Mr Tull’s seed drill and on the qualities of hog’s dung to avoid thinking of his dead child, who appears to him at night.
1742: a woman sits in her room at the great house, writing letters to London to a lover who will never come back.
The 1830s bring riots, machine-breaking, ”Captain Swing”.
Each story creates its own world; Adam Thorpe writes beautifully, balancing each sentence as if it were poetry; he gives a voice to his often inarticulate characters without ever patronising them, and his idiom is always appropriate, always evolving. The stories work by accretion, so that as the book progresses it takes on more and more power. Images and motifs recur, and are more potent because they seem to arise naturally out of the consciousness of his characters; the inner metaphors by which they live are drawn from their observation of the world about them. 
By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the coming of photography, a different quality of attention is turned on the village.
As the First World War breaks out, the squire is excavating a barrow above Ulverton, prospecting for the bones of early Britons while sending the present generation to be dug into the Flanders mud.
In 1953, when the villagers are burying a ”time capsule”, they are still under the sway of local legends, garbled and amplified. A bradawl thrown into the river in 1803 comes to light 150 years later, and is mistaken for a Saxon dagger.
And in 1988, Ulverton is the setting for a TV film: a year in the life of a property developer. At this point the author himself speaks: Adam Thorpe, expert on local ghosts and local curses, is blamed when the ”Westminster” – five beds, ”Victorian” conservatory – fails to sell. Whatever the future – light industrial units, low-cost starter homes – the past is inviolable. A skeleton which appears to be that of a Cromwellian soldier comes to light in the property developer’s field.

 

Independent

Andrew St George: May 14, 1992
”IT MAY be,” wrote John Moore in the 1944 Brensham Trilogy, ”that the country towns and villages will be for a period the repositories (like the monasteries in the Dark Ages) of a certain way of life, a certain sort of culture.” Adam Thorpe’s bold and fascinating first novel, Ulverton, proves him right. Thorpe has written an anatomy of a Berkshire village from the Civil War to the present, a fictional repository of accreted history held in lives, voices and landscapes.
Ulverton holds together curiously. The first chapter resurfaces in the last. The book opens in 1650, as a Roundhead returns home to find his wife has remarried; he disappears, murdered, and the centuries wash over him until in the final chapter a property developer is thwarted by the discovery of a soldier’s skeleton beneath a 1988 building site. 
The 10 chapters in between are peopled with vanished forms of rural life. Three apprentices mimic a hellfire sermon just after the Glorious Revolution.
Then in 1712 an agrarian revolutionary, excited by talk of muskings, spewey loam and Mr Tull’s seed drill, tells of his mad wife’s death and his weakness for the milkmaid.
Then follows an eighteenth-century epistolary love affair as a woman writes to the father of her illegitimate baby, dreaming of raspberries and mutton and correcting his feeble poems.
The year 1803 brings a monologue from a wheelwright, proud and knowledgeable: ”Thy work goes on till the article be broke up, which if thy work be carried out proper won’t be till long after thee be dead an’ buried.”
Thirty years on, Thorpe offers the diary of a tubercular circuit judge in Sessions during the turmoil of the machine-breaking riots. All the while, Ulverton persists by changing. Its fields take on new names; a dotty squire has a chalk horse etched out of the hillside.
A photographer’s handbook from 1859 finds mellow certainties in the tamed landscape: a wooden bridge, soon to be replaced, over an ”oft-flooded ford”; or the village schoolmaster and the rectory tea, all recorded, all perfectly fitted to the surroundings. The photographer even manages a typically Victorian expedition to an Egyptian excavation, merely an extension of home.
The best chapter comes from 1914, and tells of an amateur archaeologist digging at Ulverton. News of the Great War comes piecemeal, but a pall of foreboding hangs over the proceedings. The local squire exhorts a recruitment meeting with his own history: ” ‘My grandfather . . . bore this sword at Waterloo’ . . . The Squire swung it through the evening air, and its high hiss was the civilised thrum of the great Empire, quietly valiant, subduing only the bloody places of the world, erecting Industry in its stead.”
Then follows 1953, bringing radio, gramophone records and tape-recording.
Lastly, in 1988, history becomes something fought over, as the developer builds ”Balmorals”, ”Westminsters” and ”Windsors”. Thorpe finds a pattern of timely moments that deliver England then and now, resonating backward and forward.
Ulverton amounts to a rural version of Simon Schama’s fine Dead Certainties, putting the fictive spin on historical events. Its strengths come from its breadth of vision, its wide sympathies and from Thorpe’s powers as a creator of historical dialogue: he has used glossaries, unmodernised spellings and books of husbandry to produce a credible context.

The weaknesses lie in the book’s resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters. However, Thorpe knows that among the sifting processes of history, where facts harden, persist and reappear in new forms, historians are forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner out of earshot. Connections have to be earned. As time thins the density of attachment with the past, his book charts the double sadness of waning understanding and growing ignorance about the environment. Modern life, scabrous and disconnected, can only look back to better times, since it has no past image of itself by which to create a present. This makes the book a passionate appeal for rural continuity and gradual change, for a world in which it makes a difference where one lives. 

Guardian
John Fowles: May 28, 1992
.
Outwardly the story of a Wessex downland village (I suspect not too far from Richard Jefferies’ heartland, near Swindon), it is told in a dozen very varied accounts (starting in Cromwellian England and ending in the 1980s). What I found remarkable in this long fictional sequence (from very different periods and social milieux) of episodes from our rural and agricultural past was their skill and vividness. One , is not introduced so often for nothing: Thorpe’s characters and events constantly intertwine, snake their way through the generations. This interconnectedness is partly what gives the book its rich and dense texture; and gives it its sense of crossing rhythms – the slowness of time and its ephemeral transience. It should also shame all urban groaners fearing themselves back in Cold Comfort Farm. It really isn’t one of those.
We aren’t used to the many deep matters Thorpe evokes or touches on, nor to such a thorough grasp of the complex nature of our national rural past, and through it, of all existence itself. He lives in France and some of that country’s literary expertise in getting close to the imaginative reality of the past haunts his work, with an added skill in uncovering the endless English ways (perfide Albion!) we have found to mask and conceal our paradoxical nature.
He seems equally at home with dialect, farming language and (most importantly) the “sound” of period. He has a truly great skill with different tones of voice – perhaps the hardest thing for any novelist to acquire. For this doesn’t just require a vocal skill at mimicry, but the knack of conveying it in print. The last episode in this novel (dated 1988) is a mock script for a documentary on the village. It is sour-funny, as a hideous Thatcherite developer moves in and tries to ride rough-shod through the usual bureaucracy (strangled by their own lamentable jargon) and kerfuffling local opposition. Most of the modern village, on every side, express themselves in a language so tired and debased that it explains in itself why England these days so often seems self-torpedoed. If you are losing your language, you are in grave danger of losing yourself.
One of the amusingly incoherent opponents to this 20th century rape of the village called Ulverton is a man called Adam Thorpe; but as the novelist, he neatly traces the blood of the appalling developer of 1988 to that of the sullen murderer in the novel’s first episode three centuries earlier. I suspect he is as au fait with contemporary literary theory as he is with obsolete agricultural naming.

Hilary Mantel does describe the material tenor of the book in its ten sequences or chapters with a little crticism. I do not agree with Andrew St George’s critic “The weaknesses lie in the book’s resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters”. These are not weaknesses but the way memory works. Past history is sometimes forgotten in one or two generations, sometimes changed in details, and the amount of changes becomes such that a new history is entirely created. “Resolute diffuseness” and “obtuse connections between the chapters” are the essence of what John Fowles calls the “frequent symbol, the wild clematis “.

The novel is about communal memory. Of course, there are individual lives and individual memories that shape each character, who is cearly drawn and speaks in his own voice through his own medium: diary, letters, story telling, rambling, writing of a “common book” to refer to during one’s life, even with a scenario for TV. Each is adapted to the period to which the character belongs, with his own vocabulary and the vocabulary of his time and station in life. This defines him in a more complex context. And as each character refers of time past, it inserts himself in the larger history of the village: the village itself talks and takes the quality of a character in itself. It goes further still as the reader realises that each village of this country has its voice and personality. The book thus becomes an essay of social history of – at least – the Downs and Hardy’s Wessex.
Part of this history is forgotten, part of it is distorted, part of it is created anew with memories gone wrong. It is still the history of a village and of a community. But as time passes and new comers arrive, memory goes thin and the fabric of the community shows more and more holes. This when disconnection arises and new past is needed to make roots. Strong, solid, firm present needs to be rooted in some past.
As the three critics I have chosen to cite at great length emphasize, there is a delicious irony in the fact that the “lead” or main character in the last chapter is in fact a direct descendant of one of the main protagonists of the first chapter without knowing it – without the smallest inkling of knowledge. And what played an important part in the village history turns against him and his projects of changing the history of the village.
Nevertheless, I would not call Ulverton nostalgic or reactionary. Life as it is told by the various characters from 1650 to 1988 is never idyllic or as sugary as a “chocolate box lid”: it is tough, harsh, hard, sharp and killing, This is not the life of “ye merrie England” or of the “good old time”. It does not exalt either the return to the past or to the rural life as seen by glamorous magazines. Inexorably, Ulverton will have to leave its insularity and to join the national and interational life of telephones, internet, news and speed – as Margaret and Helen Schlegel as well as Ruth Wilcox had to adapt to the new ruthless life of the Wilcoxes in Howards End (“Only connect”) – as the Cherrels in the last trilogy of the Forsyte Saga will have to do either with the advent of WWII and the new Providence State.
As my family has done and as I must do to survive.
But I still wonder. Perhaps because I have this lost sense of “continuity and gradual change”. Perhaps because I have read too much of Proust and have tried not only to see time flowing forth toward the present but also have tried to trace it back to the far past. Perhaps because the word “progress” does not have only positive meanings for me but also negative ones of loss.
So, I wonder: are people more happy? Are duties really equal and equally discharged? Are they discharged with care and love? Are rights really the same for all? Under its new bright, colourful, and sometimes gaudy and garish clothes, have society and humanity change that much now that we have Welfare State as the backbone of our countries?
This is a long post, even more rambling than usual, about village life and country life, and Country/State life. These lives which are mine today. Uppermost, it is the life I have thanks to books, inherent part of myself, ingrained, deep-rooted within me. It is not “a life in books”; it is “books in life”. Not the five Books of the Pentateuch, but books. And it is well as it is since today:
On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Five Gold Rings
and
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fourth day of Christmas

 

 

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Except that “calling birds” is a mispronunciation of the old word “Colly birds”, which meant blackbirds. And therefore, the illustration should be:
Black birds are out of season here. We shall see them again, very shyly in March and in full assurance of courtship in April. But the winter season leaves us mainly with Mr Robin and the blue and black tits. In the evenings, I hear owls hooting. This is not a frightening noise but a haunting one. The night noises are full of swishes, shrieks, whisperings, and rustlings, Sometimes, a cat meows loudly on the terrace before the closed French windows. Sometimes, these are the answering calls of a fox and its vixen. Country life has nothing of the niceness and anthropomorphism of “Brambley Hedge” and Beatrix Potter’s tales or of “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Wind In the Willow”. Life in the country is bloody and savage. It is a constant fight between the animals, between men and nature, between men and the animals. I think we, human beings, made it idyllic when we left touch with it and began living in towns and cities – and had pets. Reality is starker.
While I was re-reading my two posts about the second and the third day of Christmas yesterday, I saw how idyllic they may appear to readers. I was a child then and time seemed to expand infinitely before me. How long did these Christmases last? A handful of years certainly.
The people around me were old and I remember the year when Great-Grand-Mother, Great-Uncles and Great-Aunts died one after the other as by an epidemy. We had to come back from sumer holidays at Father’s parents in the East of France to be in time for Great-Grand-Mother’s funeral. We had to come back from the country where we lived, on short leaves for other funerals. That year, it seemed that Mother had a uniform of black or dull colours.
And during all this time, there was the increasing degeneracy of my brother’s muscles. First, he stumbled, fell down, then he could not walk, then he he could not stand up, then, his arms lost strength, then… And during all this time, under our smiles like masks, we all knew he was going to die. Soon.
And during all this time, there was my sister growing up slowly, very slowly, like a hot house flower. First, she gained strength and could sit, then she crawled, then she made a tentative pace. She warbled to herself in her own language. She had to learn everything that made her a human being: to eat, to stand up, to speak, to walk. One victory upon another. And such work.
Odd when I think of it. My brother was slowly dying while my sister was slowly learning to live.
And what about the others? The other children were older. They remembered a time when they lived in a “normal” family with no disabled brother and sister. They were studying, they were going to high school an to university. I was the one in between my physically disabled brother and my mentally disabled sister – and I was THE girl of the family. I did my best to help but I soon seeked refuge in my own world. The extended family with all the older characters was the testimony that things may stand still and that one may weave a protective cocoon of affection and well-being.
This is wrong. Nature is red in teeth and claws with the blood of mankind.
I was happy being the “Innocent”, a little lost, a little apart. Well, I was happy most of the time, not all the time. I lost myself in books and stories. I had imaginary friends. I was travelling on a schooner in summer time and I was drawing boat plans during winter time. I was writing about Scotland where I was chieftain during the times of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I was living with the heroes of Dumas and Verne, conquering new worlds or saving kings. In real life, I had a muff and gloves, and knew how to curtsey and smile; in my true inner life, I was a tomboy.
It was probably slightly schizophrenic but I did not suffer from it. It was a way to live through difficult things and times.
Meanwhile, on the fourth day of Christmas, we had a day without visits to make. It was the day where Mother and Father were at home and received nephews and nieces with their children. We only had to be polite and say “how do you do?” and then we could disappear and  read or play or do whatever pleased us as long as it was not too noisy.
A good book, a pencil and a ream of paper were all that I needed!
That is how,
On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Four Calling Birds
and
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the third day of Christmas

 

 

On the third day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Why three “French” hens? I never understood unless there is a specie of hens that is typically French or it is an allusion that I do not undertstand to something entirely French. As I have hear lots of things about French “ladies” – all being calledles petites femmes de Paris -, I dread the worst and prefer not to know!
On Christmas Day, our first visit was to the farm to convey our best wishes. On Boxing Day, we had a reprieve and were allowed to stay at home to enjoy our presents after the rounds to the Grand-Parents on Mother’s side – Grand-Parents on Father’s side were usually spending Christmas at our place since they had left the East of France to be with us -, to nearest Uncles and Aunts present in the country as well as to the Godfathers and Godmothers also in the country for the season. On the second day of Christmas, we had been to visit Great-Grand-Mother and Aunt Sweet and met Great-Uncle Mark and Great-Aunt Elisa.
On the third day of Christmas, be it Sunday, Monday, Wednesday or whatever day, we went to visit Mother’s Nanny who had been Grand-Mother’s Nanny-cum- maid as well. All children were required to come. Father was left with his parents and Mother’s Father (if he so wished – but my two Grand-Fathers got on very well together). Grand-Mother -Mother’s Mother- was coming with us.
Nanny was part of the family and she came before several members of the family in order of precedence and in our hearts. She could still be stern and nobody like falling under her severe look, but she was also full of love for her ex-charges and for their children. During the first years that I can remember, we went to see her at her place and we behaved as we had behaved on the eve with Great-Grand-Mother. She sat in her chair and I think Mother and Grand-Mother were slightly shy of her; they, too, had armchairs. We had straight chairs without arms, that had been collected in all the rooms of her house, and we were requested to sit erect, without leaning on the back of said chairs. And, as at Great-Grand-Mother’s, we were not to talk unless we were talked to.
Nanny, Grand-Mother and Mother had tea – a very proper tea for a French old lady when you think that tea is no custom in France. The eldest among us had tea, too. And the number changed every year or every two years. The youngest had hot chocolate or milk. And there was fruit cakes that were eaten around the table with a linen cloth on it. Nanny did not move from her armchair and one of us, children, brought a little low table for the three ladies. We were asked to put on the cups, saucers, dessert plates and cuttlery under Mother’s supervision. Nanny sliced the cake and poured the tea. The rest was left to Mother who was still a young girl in this house and married only by accident (error?) with her brood foolishly with her.
The long fruit cakes were Nannie’s and we always brough the British round fruit cake that had matured and left it to share with her family. Grand-Mother and Mother gave her presents. And they received embroidered towelcloths or a dozen napkins duly homemade or crocheted doilies that they hated but were used nonetheless as a reminder of Nanny and a token of her love throughout the year. They followed us during our travels. One was specially used during May on a little table where stood a statue of the Virgin offered by Father to Mother and a vase of fresh flowers. May is the Month of Nary for Roman Catholics and prayers were said in front of this makeshift altar covered with Nannie’s doily.
In later years, she was not abe to stay at home any more and went to a Home for elderly folks. I know the my family contributedd to the monthly allocation that had to be paid by her family as she was our family too. When we visited her for Christmas, we still left the British round fruit cake with presents, and she still gave embroidered or crocheted things but her view was greatly impaired and the delicate handiwork she was used to make was rougher.
But the third day of Christmas is also the 28th of December, and in the RC calendar, the commemoration of the Saint Innocents – innocent children who were massacred in Bethleem upon the order of King Herod as he feared Jesus to become the King of Palestine – a misunderstanding in the reading of the Bible if there was one -.
It was (unofficially) my name feast day as I had been dubbed the “Innocent” of the family. In this context, “innocent” has the meaning of silly, head-in-the-clouds, brainless. It came from the fact that I had always “my nose in a book” or was dreaming about some story I would write or tell myself when going to sleep. Therefore I was never entirely there, with the others, except with my sister and my disabled brother. But left on my own to see to boiling water, it could well overflow and I beside it, I would never see it. I was silly and I am still.
The advantage of being the “Innocent” was to receive silly presents on that day. It might be a funnily shaped biscuit, a child book well under my age, a crooked piece of chocolate, whatever seemed quaint to my family. Everything was well wrapped and given throughout the day, with my parents’ present under my pillow at night. But I swear I never received three French hens!
And, of course, the carol for the day was the Coventry Carol, probably the saddest that can exist in the whole series of Christmas songs:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,

Bye bye, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,

Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

Herod the king, in his raging,

Chargèd he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee

And ever mourn and may

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

https://youtu.be/UFnM8pSsyUU

(King’s College Choir – 2011)
On the third day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Three French Hens
and
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the second day of Christmas

 

 

On the second day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
On the 27th of December, there were still pear trees in the orchard but no partridge and the turtle doves had long migrated for greener pastures or bluer skies. They were (and still are) a pain during the summer time: they seem to weep for each other from morning until night and it is a small blessing when they go away. I know: I am being unfair, sarcastic and, most of all, show a total lack of romantic feeling.
Our family has never been demonstrative and there have never been turtle doves to be found in dark corners of rooms, or on the stairs, or in the garden. There were hugs; there are still hugs for those who need them or ask for them but affectionate gestures are not our forte – which is sometimes a disappointment.
The 27th of December is the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist and of Father, “his namesake”. Therefore the day started with greetings, cards, little presents, and a breakfast as served only on Sundays and feast days: fruit juice, croissants andbrioches, marmelade, coffee and tea.
Then we prepared ourselves for our traditional visit to Great-Aunt Lucy as it was her birthday. I have told you of Great-Aunt Lucy in a previous entry, on December, 13th, for the Swedish Sankta Lucia (http://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/12/on-december-13th-and-third-sunday-in.html) – my poor Great-Aunt born as “an accident” in 1917, christened Lucie-Marie-Noëlie, having birthday, feast day and Christmas almost roled in one, and to whom we sended little Sankta Lucia objects when we lived in Sweden.

 

The 27th of December started the long string of visits to relatives that we would make before Epiphany or, at least, in between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Visits would go on after Epiphany with or without us, to further relatives, friends, acquaintances, until the last person we knew would have been visited at least by Mother, more likely by Mother accompanied by my sister and me. But for the closest family, relatives, etc., the full family was required, including Father.
Starting with “Aunt Sweet”, my name for Great-Aunt Lucy since the day she had given me a sweet – something almost forbidden at home.
We would stack into two cars, Father driving one with Mother, my sister, my disabled brother and his folding wheelchair, and me, brothers in another car – not wishing to know how their stacking was made! – and we would drive the dozen kilometresor so that separated us from Great-Grand-Mother’s house where she was living with Aunt Sweet. Of course, even if our arrival was awaited and ritual, Mother would have rung up in the morning to ask what time would be convenient. That way, we never bumped into other guests: that would have been too much for the two ladies.
It seems that we always arrived in a flurry of scarves and gloves and coats. But there were surely winters with rain or as mild as the present one. Anyway, all superfluous garments were left in the great hallway. There were not so superfluous really. Having been born during a world  war and lived through a second, Aunt Sweet was parcimonious (which had made her gift of a sweet so striking) and believed in Spartan education and a sparsity of commodities, including fuel and heat. We had to move in this great barn of a house or to drink something piping hot in great quantity to keep warm. But one was prohibited. We had to sit down and make conversation when asked to.
This drawback was cancelled as we had to stand in Great-Grand-Mother’s bedroom. She was bedridden in her last years and I was afraid of her, so shrinked and wrinkled she was in her big bed. But the bedroom was the only fully heated room of the whole house. Aunt Sweet was ravenously devoted to her mother. She had had to sacrifice her own private life for her and in her mother’s great age, she was taking some sort of revenge by keeping her mainly for herself. Great-Grand-Mother received all possible care and attentions but she was stuck in her bed and had to ask almost everything to her daughter. As I grew up, I became fascinated by this all wrapping love that was also a prison for both of them. Younger, I used to think we were permitted to enter the real story of Little Red Riding Hood. But I never could decide who was the Woolf and who was Little Red Riding Hood.
There was a tree in a corner of the room with the presents under it. We were called one by one and given our gift rather ceremoniously. Aunt Sweet’s presents were varied and unequal. We never knew what there would be in the boxes. Some years they were real treats, others, they were odd, and rather catastrophic in our point of view. I remember that once, my sister and  I received very lovely white cashmere berets, scarves and gloves that we had to wear to go to school and that turned a disaster because they were grey and muddy in no time. The preceding year, we had had white fur “toques” and collars to adapt to our coats with a little muff with a string to pass around our necks and white gloves. That was for special outings and Sundays. There were glorious years where we had little cane chairs with cushions, and the famous small cardboard suitcases with handmade clothes for the dolls we had received in the “mended crates” that were craddles.
But the most “magnificent” Christmas was when we all received bathrobes. Aunt Sweet had bought two rolls of terry cloth: one for girls (pink flowers on white) and one for boys (blue flowers on white), and had asked her seamstress to turn that into … mantles (yes, I suppose you might call the so) with a blue ribbon for the boys and a pink one for the girls) at the collars, to close them very prudishly. We looked ridiculous. The boys mostly – when you think that some were already in their first years at university… They wore them when they had to – at home – half as a Roman toga and half as Zorro’s or conspirators’ capes. Mother loved them for the youngest of us – therefore for my sister and me – because we were well wrapped when we went out of the bath. And I must confess that, though ridiculous, they were very comfortable and very useful. But we would never have said so!
After the presents and our more or less fake exclamations of delight, tea was brought in. And then, we felt like Royalty!
Aunt Sweet had a maid who had stayed from better and older time. She would put a snowy embroidered white cloth over a table in the corner of the room, near the tree, and bring a small spirit lamp over which was the kettle, then the teapot with warm water inside and a basin to slop the water, some more water to reheat, milk in a miniature pitcher, its brother for hot water to add to the tea would it be found too strong, a sugar basin, plates with a sliced tea loaf to be toasted, cakes, little sandwiches, a fruit cake, butter and marmalade, cups and saucers with chinese characters on them. The china was so thin that the cups were translucent and we could see the tea through it. The youngest of us had stronger crockery with hot chocolate in a special chocolate container.
I felt I was diving in a book but I never was able to know which. It could not be the homely Dickens. It could not be Louisa May Alcott. It might have been Proust but when younger, I had to rely upon Mother’s descriptions of her own young days or Grand-Mother’s young days when there were still maids and the tea ceremony.
This is when my sister, as the youngest, gave Aunt Sweet her birthday present. And Great-Uncle Mark with his wife, Great-Aunt Elisa, made their entrance. We were hugged and relieved from almost all conversation, except for the eldest ones but they knew how to deal with that. We, the youngest, might be together and whispered quietly to each others. I was fascinated by three things: Great-Grand-Mother stting upright in her bed (well, as upright as she could) and drinking tea with the help of the maid, Great-Aunt Elisa’s long teeth that made her look like a horse with garnet earrings (I loved the word “garnet”), and Aunt Sweet’s two warts, one with three straight hair darting towards us.
Great-Uncle Mark was Aunt Sweet’s brother and her idol. He could monopolize the conversation for hours on end. Aunt Sweet would listen to him with adoring eyes and sometimes an unexpected  tart comment. Great-Aunt Eliza talked in a quiet voice with Mother about her daughter, Aunt Laura who had two sons with the same degenerative muscular illness as my brother. Father went over to Great-Grand-Mother and spoke with her in a clear voice as she was partly deaf. The talk was not entirely coherent as she lived mostly in her own world and measured over times in terms of her youth.
Then the maid would close the shutters and draw the curtains over the sunking sun. There was a lull in the small talk that had taken place. Father would wander back to the tea table and look at Mother who would smile her thanks, gather her bag and gloves. We would all be blinking as if we were leaving a gentle world of sleep and dream to go back to reality. And we would say our good-byes and thanks.
Time to leave. Time left and over nowadays. It has been a privilege to live it even if I did not realise it then. I declared that it was part of “the enchanted week” between Christmas and NewYear’s Day. And it really was. Of course, it was part of another world. I thought it was normal and would last forever. But what and who remains from that time? The younger generation only. I am not sure they remember and I am often told I dwell too much on the past. It is true but the past has to be remembered. It is made sweetest and softest by our memories but it was as harsh as our days. It was … different. Nevertheless life was as difficult as life today. Perhaps I need it because I need roots. Can people truly live rootless? Perhaps. Even in my family. But I see sadness and no deep contentment in the rootless today as I see nostalgia and sometimes sadness in my rooted life. One cannot escape the past ad one cannot escape the present. The whole issue is to find oneself in media res.
On the second day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Two Turtle Doves
and
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The twelve days of Christmas

I don’t know if the Twelve Days of Christmas
are still a custom in the UK
(and perhaps Canada, New Zealand, Australia … and the USA)
but I never heard of them in the Dordogne!

 

And yet, the omniscient Wikipedia tells me it is a French custom adopted by Britain and formalized as late as the beginning of the 20th century. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song) ). There is something knocking in my mind about “La Perdriole” but it may well be associated with “La Périchole” by Jacques Offenbach, which has nothing at all to do with this. BUT, it seems that we used to make a chain with my cousins upon the same principle as the Twelve Days of Christmas, only it was for the months of the year. All this is very confused and meddled.
So, what do we find in these Twelve Days:
  • a Partridge in a Pear Tree
  • two Turtle Doves
  • three French Hens (nota: why French?)
  • four Calling Birds
  • five Gold Rings
  • six Geese a-Laying
  • seven Swans a-Swimming
  • eight Maids a-Milking
  • nine Ladies Dancing
  • ten Lords a-Leaping
  • eleven Pipers Piping
  • twelve Drummers Drumming.
I can see Mother smiling at the idea of the Drummers Drumming, and she would enjoy so much being the True Love to give twelve Cherubim or Seraphim-like little boys each his drum to entertain their respective parents…
Otherwise, when I close my eyes, I visualize twelve days during the reign of Henry VIII or, possibly, Elizabeth I, with loud and playful merrymaking although we know now that these times were dangerous for the “greats”, with possible beheadings, and more than often famine and cold ridden for the poor. But TV and films have done their jobs and have idealized times long passed.
Should we be waiting for Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”?
Or an English XVIIIth century is still a possible setting in my mind’s eye. I look upon a rural Britain with the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution but still in its swaddles. It is a pre-lapsarian England, and it is before the contamination of the French ideas of Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
At home, the first day of Christmas would have been spent around the tree and playing with the new toys.
Or spending time in the kitchen. There were the aromas of cinnamon; dried slices of oranges and lemons, pommanders, fresh baking for family coming to tea, ham slowly cooked and glazed in honey, curry made with the remainings of the Christmas turkey, mince pies, lots of laugh.
Yes, lots of laugh and movement, doors opened and closed, galloping in the corridors, loud voices, giggling, simpering, wailing when a toy was taken from the arms of a new mama (my sister and a doll), and the loudest voice from Father asking if, for goodness’ sake, there could be a little quiet in this house in which he would hear himself think!
I would be found in the kitchen in my special corner, a small space with a straight wooden chair, totally uncomfortable, in between the large chimney place and the first fridge that had belonged to my grand-parents. I was reading, absorbing words and sentences as well as smells and conversations around me. All this had a taste of Christmas. People would come to make me go out and run and move and play. I sticked to my uncomfortable chair, with a stack of books at my feet. Why would I have had to run and move when I had such worlds at the tips of my fingers?
And that was the First Day of Christmas
Without a Partridge but with Pear Trees in the orchard.
Jingle Bells
Jesus College Choir (Cambridge – UK)

On Christmas Day

On Christmas Day,
there is no more window to open
and eyes begin to turn away from the Advent Calendar,
although it seems too soon to discard it.
On Christmas Day,
having gone to all services,
having opened all presents and all cards,
having eaten lunch,
A treacherous sleep comes by
and it is difficult to choose
between looking properly at presents
 and falling into the arms of the chairs
or
lying luxuriously on the sofa.
SO!
Let’s do like the skating minister!
Come!
We shall walk and run and move around,
coming back to the house with rosy cheeks
and thirst to quench with a cup of tea!
While the minister will sedately
glide over the ice,poised over a leg
as a dark blue heron.