Haphazard by Starlight – Poems for Advent

The Adoration of the Magi, by Andrea Mantegnadd – celebrate Christmas
 by reading TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the

Being a bit of a magpie, I look at what people write about books, then steal authors and titles for my own use. Sometimes I require instant gratification, which is where the Kindle comes into its own. Or, if I’m prepared to wait a short while, I order online, or make a trip to a bookshop (here in Tamworth we only have The Works, which is nice in its way but, sadly, its way is not that of a proper bookshop). Usually, however, details of the desired volume store themselves away in my mind and get forgotten unless, by some strange serendipity, I come across the book whilst mooching around in charity shops and second-hand stores. Then snippets of hidden knowledge surface, and I pounce triumphantly on my literary treasure.

And that’s more or less what happened when I was visiting my mother last week, only I was browsing in a ‘real’ bookshop. Ledbury Books and Maps is one of the town’s two independent bookshops (I hope residents realise how lucky they are), and I’d been in there for ages, and bought ‘Poetry Please’ for Mum (more on this another day), and was on my way out when there, on a stand by the door, was the last copy Haphazard by Starlight, A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany, by Janet Morley. I certainly don’t remember seeing it as I went in, but as I looked at the beautiful cover, something clicked in my brain, because back at the beginning of the month Moira, over at Vulpes Libris, waxed lyrical about this book. It was the title as much as anything which caught my attention, because it’s from ‘BC:AD’ by UA Fanthorpe, and I’m a huge fan of her work – that’s why Moira’s review stayed in my mind. So I bought the book, because I felt I was meant to have it.  
It’s published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which may put some people off, but it’s not preachy, and it really is a wonderful collection of poems, which will take you from December 1 all the way through to January 6, with explanatory notes and comments on each.  

Like all good anthologies, there’s a nice mix of old favourites and unknowns (unknown to me at any rate). I may not agree with all Morley’s choices – personally I think it’s incomplete without John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal Upon St Lucie’s Day’ (but then I think any poetry anthology is incomplete if it doesn’t include Donne). And I would have liked to see something really old, like a medieval carol perhaps, but you can’t have everything, and any anthology is always a very personal choice, and I can see why Morley made the selection she did.

In this book you’ll find Auden, DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Jennings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Sylvia Plath, and TS Eliot (Journey of the Magi, one of my favourites) to name but a few. There’s also a poem by Rowan Williams (I only know him as an Archbishop, and had no idea he wrote poetry) which I enjoyed very much. There are poems about Christmas and winter, and faith, and light and dark. But many, like Ozymandias or Dover Beach are not overtly religious, or even about Christmas or the winter season. However they do contain truths about mankind and the world in the general, and the author uses them (as she uses all the poems) as a kind of meditation, giving her thoughts on the meaning, ending each piece with a question, to make you think about your own values and beliefs, and the way we live our lives. Her commentaries and questions are reflections on life which are, as Moira says, rather like Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.  
Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Scene on a Canal may not be quite as bleak
as Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, but it does conjure up
the chilly feel of ice and snow.
Actually, I wanted my review to be different to Moira’s but, like her, I cannot resist explaining the book’s title with some quotes from U A Fanthorpe’s BC:AD, which is the choice for Christmas Day. Here is the opening: 

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms. 

And here is the end:  

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
 

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the Kingdom of Heaven.
 

Isn’t that wonderful? It always makes me catch my breath and think about ancient kingdoms, and where the Three Wise Men may actually have come from, and how the very beginning of Christianity was about poor people and minorities, rather than wealthy VIPs and rulers. And I love the way Fanthorpe describes the Nativity as ‘the moment when Before turned into After’, and that wonderful phrase about the three members of an obscure Persian sect walking ‘haphazard by starlight’. 
Rosseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm always reminds me of Blake’s Tyger,
which features in ‘Haphazard by Starlight’.
Today’s offering is seasonal ghazal by Harry Gilonis, who I’d never heard of before. Nor did I know that a ‘ghazal’ is an ancient form of Arabic verse, dating from the 6th century and widely sung in the Arabic speaking world. According to Morley it typically consists of five or more couplets, which have the same metre, but are not necessarily linked by themes. “It is the poetic expression of the pain of loss and separation, shot through with a sense of beauty, and its normal theme is unattainable love,” She explains. “Frequently the Beloved becomes a metaphor for God, and the themes revolve around metaphysical issues.” 

This poem eschews the normal rules of grammar and punctuation, and abandons any rhyming conventions and is possibly the most ‘difficult’ in this anthology. It’s only short, but is suffused with images of Christmas from carols, songs, poems, books, the Bible, as well as touching on older, pagan traditions, challenging our perception of what a poem should be, as well as our perception of the way we celebrate Christmas. At first glance the poem seems almost like a string of unrelated words, especially the first two lines:  

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear tree 

But as you read, the allusions and layers of meaning become clearer, and words and thoughts echo each other in quick succession – it’s like a painting, packed with individual symbols, which seem to be unconnected, yet nevertheless all mesh together to form a cohesive whole.  

Having given her interpretation of this poem, Morley poses the question: “What are the connections or tensions for you between Christian beliefs and the traditional pagan practices around Christmas /Yuletide?” But you could equally well consider the connections or tensions between Christian beliefs and modern consumerism. I like her commentaries, but I only read them after I’ve gathered my own thoughts on the poems. Sometimes, to my surprise, we are in accord. Sometimes I look at her views and think ‘oh, that’s what that means’, or ‘how come I didn’t see that’. And occasionally (very occasionally) I wonder if she is right. 
 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Bruegel, vital to Auden’s Musee des
Beaux Arts, which should be read on December 30.
I’m really enjoying reading this book – it’s a really nice alternative to a conventional advent calendar, and I think it’s a wonderful idea to celebrate Christmas by forgetting about the glitz and glitter for a few moments each day and reading a poem. And if you’re new to reading poetry, or not very confident about your interpretation, then the notes really do help. 

Edited: I should perhaps, make it clear that there are no illustrations in Haphazard by Moonlight. I chose paintings I like to illustrate the review, because I have this thing about breaking up blocks of print with pictures to make it more user friendly. I think it’s the result of working as a local reporter and sub-editor for so many years, and being ingrained with the theory that photos attract people’s attention!
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Spellbound by a Sparkling Story!

Happy New Year people! I’m still here – I haven’t gone anywhere, and I certainly haven’t given up blogging. But I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything since the middle of November, and I haven’t really got much of an explanation. I’ve been trying to get ‘social media’ stuff up and running for Oxfam Lichfield, and I’ve been focusing so hard on that, it seems to have squeezed everything else out – I even wrote an Advent Alphabet, highlighting things in the shops and the charity’s work. Here’s the rhyme for ‘H’ on December 8. 
For warmth when it’s cold
Or shade in the Heat
A Hat on your Head
Makes an outfit complete.

And it was the anniversary of my Father’s death, which always gets me down, and then I don’t feel like doing much. And it there was the run-up to Christmas, and New Year, and my Mother has been to stay, and my Daughters visited, with their boyfriends, and I had a lovely time over Christmas, but The Book Trunk got a bit forgotten! 

Now it’s January 1, and I’m trying to organise myself for the year ahead… Back on the diet, lots of walks planned, crochet and sewing to finish, lists to write – you know the kind of thing. Anyway, Oxfam Lichfield’s Facebook page is doing quite well after being ignored for ages because no-one had any time to do anything with it. It’s generating ‘likes’ and a few comments, and almost runs itself. I take photos, and write little bits, then schedule them to appear. Scheduling is like magic I’ve decided, because you can do masses of stuff in advance, then more or less forget about it all – I should use it more here, and it might stop me getting behind! And I wish I could use it on Oxfam Lichfield Twitter, I’m sure it would make life easier – when I’m stuck, then whatever the weather I tell people it’s ideal weather for buying books! The weather can never be too bad or too good for buying books – wouldn’t you agree?
And I’ve set up a blog for our two Oxfam shops. It’s in what can only be described as an embryonic stage, but I’ve got posts scheduled to appear, someone cleverer than me is going to work on the design and, hopefully, it will gradually acquire its own identity. So you can see, I really have been busy, and haven’t been idling my time away.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, so I shall stop wittering on about my volunteering project, and enthuse about a book – Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark. With the exception of The Mandelbaum Gate, which I wouldn’t read again even if you paid me, I just love Spark’s novels, and this is one of her best – way up there with my favourites, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and The Girls of Slender Means. 
Spark doesn’t do heroines – she doesn’t do heroes of villains either – but Fleur Talbot is as near a heroine as you’ll find in Spark’s work. Fleur takes a mysterious job as secretary to Sir Quentin Oliver, who is the director of the Autobiographical Association, a very peculiar organisation whose idiosyncratic (positively batty even) members are compiling their memoirs, but no-one has got beyond the first chapter. They’re hampered by dodgy memories and lack of talent, and it falls to Fleur to try and make sense of their efforts .
She herself is writing a novel, Warrender Chase, which Sir Oliver steals, and somehow life and fiction become strangely and inextricably mixed as things Fleur believes she has created in her story actually happen, and it becomes more and more difficult to tell what’s real, and what’s not, and you start to wonder is Fleur a reliable witness to events – or is the whole mad, chaotic story spun out of her imagination.
Actually, Fleur reminds me a little of Pompey in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper – I know I said you are unlikely to ever read anything quite like it, but I hadn’t read this then, and quite apart from the fact that Pompey is writing a novel while she works as a secretary for publisher, there is something in these characters’ outlook on life, that is similar, and the way they stand back observing things and people.
I assume Fleur is based on Spark, and her thoughts on writing fiction and the creative process are, presumably those of the author. As in much of her other work, Spark raises issues about the nature of reality and fiction, belief in God, immortal souls, love, death, truth and lies. None of the characters ever quite connect with each other, and they all seem to have shaped their own little worlds from their own realities, but none of the realities fit together – and in any case does anyone ever know what truth really is. Loitering with Intent is darkly funny, very witty, beautifully written in classic Sparkling style, and held me spellbound from start to finish. How could anyone not like a book which opens like this:
One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.
And if you think that sounds gentle, then beware, because Spark is never gentle, and never safe. She’s wickedly funny, but she’s sharp and spiky and can be very unsettling indeed as she probes below the surface of polite society and turns the world upside down, and at the same time she poses those big questions about life, the universe and everything.

Honey, Prisoners – and a King’s Speech!

During the war honey was popular, because sugar was
rationed. But Vere doesn’t tell us if her sweet gift was made
by a local beekeeper, or was a mass produced jar.

Feel much better this week. Very hot. A jar of honey has been given me. Very pleasant to receive. Able to get one whole pound of tomatoes without queuing for them – so Hitler is not having it all his own way.

So says Vere Hodgson in her diary entry for July 2nd, 1941 – and how luxurious that honey and the tomatoes must have seemed – sugar was rationed, so honey was much in demand, and beekeeping became much more popular. Even the cat was in luck that day, because Vere (I feel I know her, and really cannot continue calling her Hodgson, even if it is the correct way to name an author) managed to get some Kitcat, which was ‘wolfed down as if it were a banquet’. It’s hardly surprising the poor creature fell on this unexpected feast as if there were no tomorrow, because cats and dogs got no rations. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pet food industry was still in its infancy, and animals were usually fed on table scraps, unless owners cooked meat or fish for them. During WW2 there was barely enough food to go round for people, so there can’t have been much to spare for animals.
You can see I am progressing with my slow read of Few Eggs and No Oranges, even if I do have a tendency to get side-tracked along the way. I seem to have become thoroughly immersed in the period, and now have a stack of other WW2 books to read!
On  a more serious note, in this first entry for the second half  of the year, Vere mentions the war in Russia, but has little sympathy for people there since, she says, they have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight, and ‘if they are not ready, it is no one’s fault but their own’. Surprisingly, however, she is confident that Stalin is more than a match for Hitler –because he looks ‘such an unpleasant individual’! 

Three cheers for Winnie! Winston Churchill was one
of Vere Hodgson’s heroes.  

Additionally, she tells us about a book she’s read (a biography of Churchill), a radio programme she enjoyed (The Brains Trust) and the sweet-smelling honeysuckle and syringa in her office. This particular entry is a good example of Vere’s range of interest, and the way she jumps from the drama of the war to homely, seemingly unimportant things which mean such a lot to ordinary people.
During these last six months of year, undeterred by the worsening situation, she visits friends and family in various parts of the country, and continues to wander around London looking at the damage. Set against that are small joys, like those flowers I mentioned earlier, a sparrow eating out of a friend’s hand, a garden party, and eating tins of pineapple and prawns with her aunt. 

There are splendid, uplifting stories (Vere likes the word splendid, and I can’t resist using it). In August there is news of the Home Guard catching a German ‘parashot’ who is promptly locked in the Tower. I think this is fascinating – I had no idea they did this in WW2! I was under the impression it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, which shows how much I know! Then, in September, when British bombers arrive in Oslo, residents take to the rooftops and cheer the ‘boys’ as the docks are bombed. In addition there is jubilation when five Free French fighters escape to England in canoes, and Vere enjoys the thought of them sharing champagne with Winston Churchill and his wife.
Were German prisoners really locked way in the
Tower of London during WW2?
In October she’s delighted when she acquires a ‘flatlet’ of her own, and friends and family rally round to help furnish it, which is not an easy task when everything is in such short supply. But she’s less happy when a friend describes life in the Isle of Man:
Full of internees who are doing themselves well. No rationing. Ample supplies from Ireland. His tales of tinned fruit and oceans of butter are galling to us hard-living folk.
Early in December, like everyone else in Britain, she’s stunned by the news from the Pacific (she gives few details but this is, of course, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour). And, she reflects, there is an upside to the tragedy, because it pushes America and Australia into the conflict. But things look grim. The British are losing Hong Kong, and everyone is still waiting to learn what is happening in Russia, where the Germans are being pushed back ‘into the snow’.
One of the surprising features of this period is the length of time it took for news to get through, the lack of information when it did, and the way rumours circulated and proliferated. With all our modern technology we are used to ‘instant’ news – we know about things as they happen, and there is such a wealth of data available it is hard not to be aware of what is going on the world. However, the situation was very different during the war. The immediacy of today’s news gathering process and the way it is spread around the world was simply not possible then, and I suppose some things were kept from the public on the grounds of national security, and perhaps there was an effort to keep people’s spirits up by not revealing every detail of what was happening.
The Christmas speech made by King George VI and
 broadcast on BBC Radio 
Anyway, however bleak the future may look, Vere remains upbeat about Life, the Universe and Everything, and she ends 1941 on a high, braving what she terms the ‘Ban on Travel’ to spend Christmas with her family in Birmingham.  Her journey is almost without adventure. Seven family and friends gather for Christmas dinner (a goose), and visitors from next door turn up (with the two airmen billeted on them) for the King’s Speech. More friends arrive during the afternoon and evening, and Vere tells us:

From the back of Elsie’s cupboard came plums and whipped cream. Then Neville poured some exciting looking liquid into glasses, and we did some toasts. Not until we were half-way through it did I discover that it was champagne… brought out specially. So kind.

A good time was had by all, and they shared what food they had – anything nice which could be stored was brought out for special occasions, and their festive fare over the Christmas period includes a tin of butter, and dried apricots, both gifts sent by relatives in South Africa.

Actually, among my stash of WW2 books I’ve got a couple on wartime cookery, and I’m thinking of trying out some of the recipes, to get an idea of what the food was like, but I’m not at all sure if the Man of the House will appreciate austerity in the kitchen – watch this space! 

War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone’s Few Eggs and No Oranges

are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscarf produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.

Celebrating Christmas

No list of Christmas books and readings could be complete without something from the Bible – after all, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. So here is the opening passage from St Luke’s Gospel, and to go with it here’s a painting, the Adoration of the Magi, by Gerard van Honthorst.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


A Grumpy Old Man with an Unusual Job

I have found myself a new role – as a volunteer in a charity bookshop, which is about as perfect as things can get. I was browsing there a couple of weeks ago and suddenly realised the lady behind the counter was an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years, and the next thing I  knew I was signed up as a volunteer! 

Today was my first stint as a helper, and I had a wonderful morning there, learning how to price the books up, how to ‘code’ them, and how to use the till. The last time I used a till I was a Saturday girl in an old-fashioned ironmongers, the till had keys which had to be pressed down (like a typewriter), and we had to add up the customers’ purchases and work out the change.  Fortunately, modern technology makes life much easier for those of us with wobbly maths, and the other volunteers and the customers were all so lovely that it didn’t seem like work at all. I enjoyed myself tremendously, and got very excited when I made my first sale and, as an added bonus, I bought a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, which I have always wanted to read.
Anyway, today’s selection for the Advent Bookfest is someone who is not nearly as charming as the people I met today – in fact, he could be considered to be bloomin’ bad-tempered. Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, in the book of the same name, is a wonderful creation, grumpy and grouchy, he moans and groans about everything and everyone. He’s got no helpers, and no wife, and he lives in an ordinary, old-fashioned house, with stabling for the reindeer at the back. He’d have us think he hates his job, but it soon becomes apparent that he takes great pride in making sure every present is delivered, on time, to the right person.
Briggs’ illustrations are magical, and it’s sheer genius to ignore the conventional image of  Father Christmas as a jolly man, living at the North Pole, with a host of elvish helpers. Instead Briggs makes him a lonely, curmudgeonly old man, leading a relatively normal life – apart from his rather unusual job.

Radio, Poetry – and Christmas!

Forget Christmas for a moment, and consider instead the lovely bookish week that lies ahead on BBC Radio.  There are some real treats in store on Radio 4, starting with Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon, which is being featured on Book of the Week. This takes a look at the hidden connections between words and is on my To Be Read list, so I’m looking forward to listening. Next up are two old favourites: a serialisation of AS Byatt’s Possession is the latest Women’s Hour Drama, while Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is the Book at Bedtime.  Each episode of each book is aired for just 15 minutes, but all three programmes have an excellent track record for their productions, and usually provide 15 minutes of quality time – and the lovely thing about radio is that unlike film and television it leaves your image of characters and places intact.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Black Hearts in Battersea, Joan Aiken’s classic tale for children, has been adapted into a two-part Afternoon Play, while the offering on Friday afternoon is Christmas Eve, based on a Gogol  story where a witch teams up with the Devil to steal the moon and stars, and I still have to catch up on Sunday’s Classic SerialGargantua and Pantagruel, by Rabelais.
Apart from drama, Michael Rosen is back with a new series of Word of Mouth, scrutinising words and the way we use them, and in Cat Women of the Moon writer Susan Hall is exploring the treatment of sex in science fiction, while over on Radio 3 throughout the week there is The Essay: The Writer’s Dickens
Meanwhile, since UA Fanthorpe is a poet of whom I am particularly fond, and I enjoyed listening to UA Fanthorpe’s Christmas Card Poems on Sunday, today’s Advent window opens on to one of her poems, taken fromUA Fanthorpe Collected Poems 1978-2003, published by Peterloo Poets:
BC:AD
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven. 

Journey of the Magi

I seem to be all behind hand with the Advent Bookfest. having missed day yesterday, but I have a poem for you today – TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, and if you go to http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070 you can hear him reciting it on an old and rather crackly radio recording.

I love the way Eliot makes the journey of the Three Kings sound so real, and the way little things foreshadow what is to come, like the men at the inn door ‘dicing for pieces of silver’, referencing the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas, and the Roman soldiers who gambled for Jesus’ robe.

And if that makes it sound grim, it isn’t. It’s a poem about rebirth and redemption, and an affirmation of Eliot’s own growing faith.

Journey of the Magi 

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. 

From Collected Poems 1909-1926, TS Eliot, published by Faber and Faber, 1963.