It’s the first day of a new year and I’ve said ‘white rabbit’ (just like Vere Hodgson, further down this post), but I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a selection of excerpts from novels, poems and diaries, accompanied by a few pictures which, I hope, will fit the New Year theme – though I have to admit the post has morphed into a more general piece on ice, snow, January and winter. And I must apologise because the spacing on the poems has gone haywire.
I’ll start with a quiet evening in the company of Gladys Taber, who wrote a year-long account of her life on a Connecticut farm in the 1950s. I suspect her views on New Year celebrations must have seemed old-fashioned even them but I think she’s absolutely right.
Seeing the new year in seems to involve much paper caps, night clubbing, and hangovers for some people. This is not my idea at all, never was. I wish to start my new year with a few people I dearly love, and in front of an apple wood fire, with bowls of popcorn and apples, and hot buttered rum, and Port Salut cheese and crisp crackers. And playing some good music, and reading aloud some choice bits. And feeling so secure in the fact that beginning a new year is a beginning with the same old friends. (Gladys Taber, Stillmeadow Daybook, 1955).
And here’s the Rev Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary on New Year’s Day 1871:
My Mother, Peche and I sat up late last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in. The wind was in the North and the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow from Chippenham and Kington. We opened the dining room window to ‘loose in’ the sound of the chimes and ‘the New Year’ as they say in Wales. It was bitter cold, but we went to the door, Perch and I, to hear better, I was carrying my travelling clock in my hand and as we stood on the terrace just outside the front door, the little clock struck midnight with its tinkling silvery bell in the keen frost. We thought we could hear three peals of Church bells, Chippenham, St Paul’s, and very faintly Kington. ‘Ring happy bells across the snow.’ (The Rev Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary)
Still on a theme of bells, here’s Lord Peter Wimsey helping a short-handed group of bell-ringers to ring the old year out and the new year in (is there nothing the man cannot do, I ask myself). Anyway, here you are, Lord Peter saving the day:
The Rector pronounced the Benediction, the organ played the opening bars of a hymn and Hezekiah Lavender exclaimed sonorously: “Now, lads!” The ringers, with much subdued shuffling, extricated themselves from their chairs and wound their way up the belfry stair. Coats were pulled off and hung on nails in the ringing-chamber, and Wimsey, observing on a bench near the door an enormous brown jug and nine pewter tankards, understood, with pleasure, that the landlord of the Red Cow had, indeed, provided ‘the usual’ for the refreshment of the ringers. The eight men advanced to their stations, and Hezekiah consulted his watch.
“Time!” he said.
He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance. Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month. Then silence. Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes.
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. (Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Tailors)
Moving away from celebrations for a moment, here’s John Clare in sad and reflective mood, poor man. I think there must have been long periods when he himself felt cast off and forgotten by the world.
The Old Year
The Old Year’s gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he’d a neighbour’s face,
In this he’s known by none.
All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they’re here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall –
A guest to every heart’s desire,
And now he’s nought at all.
Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
All things identified;
But times once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year’s Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.
In contrast, here’s the opening lines of a poem I remember from my own childhood. It’s a very short couplet, but seems to me to be full of joy, and to capture the excitement of snow falling.
January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow. (From The Months by Sara Coleridge)
And while we’re talking about snow, here’s a piece by Jean Sprackland, in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach. which makes me long to walk in the magical, alien landscape where frothy sea foam turns to ice.
Nine o’clock on a January morning. I crunch my way through sand dunes hardened and sheened with frost, then slither over a sheet ice, which is the winter beach. Under the ice, pale bubbles swell and skitter away from my tread. The tidelline is an ice-line a sparkling white ribbon of frozen froth, curling away into the distance ahead and behind.
And the landscape in Sylvia Plath’s New Year on Dartmoor is just as strange – ‘awe full’ rather than awful perhaps, though it is that as well.
This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.
Then there’s Vere Hodgson, whose wartime diaries are a joy to read. I love her juxtaposition of the terrible things happening around her with the homely everday goings-on, and the little things that gave pleasure or concern.
Slept well and said white rabbits on waking. This is a good start. The cat much better. He was able to walk without groaning. He ate and drank, and so seems to have turned the corner – like the British Commonwealth.
Devastating news from Mr Bendall about All Hallows, Barking by the Tower. He seems to think it is quite destroyed. I knew it had had a bomb, but I thuoght it was only on part. I must go up and see on Sunday. They say still how awful everything looks. The whole of Finsbury St, where Mr Hillyard’s office was, is flat.
The doctor called and said Miss Moyes’ ankle is fractured in three places, and if she does not go carefully she will have a permanent limp. There seem to be a few more eggs and oranges in the shops. (January 1, 1941, Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45)
From the shortages of war-torn Britain I’ve turned to the sumprtuous New Year Feast in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage. (Please note, I abandoned any effort to replicate the line spacing).
The first course comes in to the fanfare and clamour of blasting trumpets
hung with trembling banners, then pounding double drums and dinning pipes, weird sounds and wails of such warbled wildness that to hear and feel them made the heart float free.
Flavoursome delicacies of flesh were fetched in and the freshest of foods, so many in fact therewas scarcely space to present the stews or to set the silver bowls on the cloth. Each guest received his share of bread, or meat or broth; a dozen plates per pair – plus beer, or wine, or both!
Still in Medieval mode, here’s King Arthur, pulling the sword Excalibur from a stone because Kay has forgotten his own weapon, and needs one to fight in the New Year tournament. There are various versions, including Malory, of course, and TH White but I’ve plumped for this bit from The Sword in the Stone, in Volume 5 of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge, which belonged to my father when he was young, and was one of my favourite books when I was young because it contained the ‘fable, myth and legend’ section. Here Arthur pulls the sword from a bar of steel set into the stone.
Arthur rode back, but when he reached the house, he found it was locked, for all the servants had gone to see the tournament. In anger the youth rode away, despairing to think that his brother might not have a weapon with which to fight.
Then he suddenly remembered the sword he had seen in the churchyard as he was coming out of church that morning.”Kay shall borrow that!” he cried, and he rode forthwith to the church. The two knights who had been on guard were gone to prepare for the mock-fights, and no-one was there. Arthur leapt off his horse and ran to the stone. He took hold of the sword, and pulled. It came forth from the steel easily, and with joy in his heart the boy ran back to horse.
And finally, because I never can resist it, I’ve included Keats’ The Eve of Saint Agnes (or a very small part – it’s much too long to include in its entirety, but you can find it here). It’s set on January 20th rather than the first, but I don’t think that matters, and it tells the tale of star-crossed lovers eloping to live happily ever after. It’s also one of the most beautifully written poems you’ll ever encounter – the first stanza always sends a tingle down my spine:
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
In contrast, inside the castle is warmth and light and rich, bejewelled colours, and there’s a wonderful account of exotic sweets and fruits Porphyro gathers for his beloved Madeline.
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.