Month: December 2014

Thank You AS We Move Along

First a thank you to readers who remembered my birthday on the 27th and took the time to send greetings as I stumbled past milestone 91. I suppose I should write “metricstone” but “milestone” has a nicer ring.
Stumbled is the right word but the sometimes shaky legs and hesitant balance are, sadly, not due to single malt infusions but to old, (very) moving parts failing to function as surely as once they did. Aging ex-newsroom and press gallery colleagues take note.
Whatever, “only nine more miles to reach 100” sounds a much friendlier distance than only 14.484096000000001 kilometers to reach 160.934 clicks on life’s long but all too short road. And I bet you don’t even get a letter from Buckingham Palace for Klm’s.
But enough. Bickering over milestones versus metricstones is unseemly at this celebratory time of the year when all folks like me, born while Christmas bells were still ringing, are well acquainted with “Merry Christmas AND happy birthday” greetings – and appreciate them all.
So, as I head out in search of milestone 92 – and you, whatever distance you need to travel for your next birthday marker – let our journey be with American writer Neil Simon’s words helping us along. He wrote some years ago: “I love living. I have some problems with my life, but living is the best thing they’ve come up with so far.”
With three more days to go before we launch on the next leg of our continuing journey, we shall, I’m sure, be watching each other along the way, hopefully showing each other good examples not horrible warnings.
Again, thank you for the many kind words. You are all invited to my 100th. Details to be announced closer to the day!!

Christmas 1931

I wrote the following for Christmas 2003. To those who read me then, apologies; to those new to my writing here’s the way my Christmas was in 1931

We never had a Christmas tree when I was growing up. In the great depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s we couldn’t afford one – and there were no evergreen forests near my English industrial-town home from which to steal one.

We had holly, lots of it with bright red berries. We had mistletoe, indignantly avoided until I discovered girls. We had some greenery, poached from a St. Mary’s churchyard Yew trees, and paper decorations galore,hand and homemade to be hung in abundance from kitchen ceiling and every available wall spot from which they could be draped.

The manufacturing of the brightly coloured paper links, cutout bells and small green trees, was a kitchen table project for the long winter nights leading to Christmas Eve. While Dad was down at the Wheatsheaf making sure the beer met consumer standards, mother would order the kitchen table cleared, scissors found, paper and paste prepared and production started.

My older brother Tom at 12 was in charge of the cutting operation, which saw sheets of colored paper sliced into inch-wide strips. Mother and sister Doris, 10, did the weaving of the paper chains. I was confined to the mixing of the paste – made from flour and warm water – and dabbing the ends of the strips before they were pressed together to form another link in the ever-lengthening chain.

My sister would complain throughout that I was deliberately smearing her fingers with paste as she held strip-ends together. I would respond with seven year old blue-eyed innocence no mother could deny, that it wasn’t my fault she couldn’t keep her fingers out of the way.

I was lying. When you’re eight years old baiting a 10-year-old sister is fair game year-round, and not to be abandoned simply because it’s Christmas. Peace On Earth does not apply to small boys with slightly older sisters.

The assembly line evenings always ended the same way – with mugs of hot cocoa and fresh baked ginger snaps. Total decadence.

Then, two or three evenings before Christmas Eve, party night would be declared. It was the night father unveiled HIS (made from berry picking to bottling by mother) latest batch of Elderberry wine. The neighbours were invited in for a tasting during which dad graciously accepted their approval of HIS wine and mother just smiled. During the “new wine” celebration, teenage sons and daughters were permitted to sip a small glass while “the nippers”, of which I was one, were granted the briefest of sips from a dad or mother’s glass.

Father, trying to make me feel included, was obviously unaware that I hated Elderberries. Hated them every step of the picking, washing, mixing, tending, stirring, yeasting, liquefying red-mess, awful tasting, way. But when my kindliest of fathers, his unwavering Gallipoli-earned glass eye staring me down, said “just a sip”, I sipped.

With seasonable toasts completed mother would usher the neighbours out, and the genuinely happy task of “dressing” the kitchen for Christmas commenced. In short order it was transformed from a poky place where meals were prepared, cooked and consumed, to a cave worthy of Aladdin.

With the gaslight turned low the coal fire in the kitchen grate burned with a warmer glow; the holly berries were brighter. A few Christmas baubles glittered on the mantelpiece, our paper chains and streamers hung from the kitchen clock and every nail in every wall. Even the purloined and usually gloomy Yew clippings took on friendly air.

It was three days to Christmas Eve – and we were ready. Poor, but ready.

Christmas morning always began with the opening, however cold the dawn, of the window to the bedroom – and bed – I shared with my brother: Our clear voiced singing of “Christian’s Awake, salute the happy morn….” Preceded a seemingly interminable wait until we heard the kettle boiling downstairs – the signal that tea could now be made to settle the nerves of parents as the children scrambled through a hasty porridge breakfast and then the small – very small – piles of presents on the scrubbed-white kitchen table.

The waiting for the kettle to signal present opening time was maintained in my own family until the youngest left the nest. And, silly though it may sound, at 90, I still half listen for the kettle to whistle on Christmas morning before opening a Christmas gift. It’s a time for me to remember when no one in the family had to worry about the safety or sensible features of toys, because there were no toys. When, to a little boy’s dismay, there were only hand knitted “pullovers” (sweaters) which I was assured I would “grow into”, along with hand knitted gloves and socks, a book or two and always from my wonderful Aunt Emily (Pem) a small  “variety box” of Cadbury’s chocolates. Aunt Pem’s husband owned a corner grocery store, hence the touch of luxury.

We regarded ourselves a fortunate family even in the depths of the depression with dad on poverty level dole. Mother’s father had a small holding on the edge of town where he raised a few chickens, had a cow, grew vegetables. Christmas dinner, courtesy granddad, was always chicken – but not roasted. Granddad’s gift chickens needed an extra hour on the slow boil to be made edible. But it was ”chicken”, and with a few vegetables and light-as-feather dumplings, followed by homemade Christmas pudding smothered with hot custard, a feast of royal proportions – enjoyed but sometimes with a touch of guilt because we knew our neighbours, lacking granddads in the country, sat at tables close to bare.

There never was a Christmas in my growing up, before we launched into our chicken and dumplings, that mother, who scrubbed floors and took in laundry to make ends meet, didn’t ask us remember how blessed we were. It’s why decades later I can still call up the warm vision of that old Christmas kitchen and appreciate how blessed I was at eight – and still am now a few days from 91.

A time to again remind myself and old and new readers of “Adirondack” Murray’s great thoughts about Christmas dinner and the passage of time:

“Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray, how fast the guests do go!

 

Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay.

Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands.

 

The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand.

Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day may ever come to host or guest again.

 

Touch hands.”

And have a Christmas you will remember for ever.

 

VV

Old Story – New Look

It’s that time of the year. Memory buds clicking on and off, some bright, others just a flicker but strong enough to re-kindle flames of decades old memories. Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the regrets of lost opportunity, December has been a month to dream of what might have been – or what would have been if I had turned down a challenge to go “scrumping” in the orchard adjoining the residence of the Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in England’s industrial Midlands.
“Scrumping” involved scrambling over a six foot wall anytime between late September and November, finding a tree with unpicked apples or a recent crop of windfalls and loading every available pocket before hoisting yourself back to safety to share the harvest with friends. Friends awaiting my return from a Vicar’s orchard forage in the autumn of 1934 were fellow choristers, the boy soprano section of St. Mary’s choir. Early for choir practice, the devil had found work for idle hands to do – and it was my turn to go over the wall.
At least that’s the way Reg Snape, organist and choir master, saw things about an hour later when he found me unable to respond to his cry “Hume sing solo” my mouth being full of apple. Practice that evening was one of many “specials” designed to prepare the choir for a Christmas festival in Coventry Cathedral. On discovering that his entire soprano section had been eating stolen goods supplied by one “scrumper” he dismissed me from the choir – permanently.
“Scrumping” may have been regarded a youthful autumn sport throughout England – but not by Mr.Snape. To him it was outright stealing from the vicar and to be punished harshly. Fortunately banishment to the Colonies was no longer available, but expulsion of one from the choir to discourage other potential defaulters from pre-Cathedral evil was an option. He took it. I was expelled.
In the spring of 2002 I stood with my son Andrew in the shell of my old Coventry Cathedral, built in 1373, destroyed by German bombers on November 14, 1940. I told him how I almost got to sing there in 1934 as the organ (once played by Handel) lifted my less than angelic voice to the heavens. I was able to tell him how the last time I had stood where we were then standing was on the morning of Nov. 15, 1940, with still smouldering timbers wired as a cross standing in the ruin where the altar once stood. A simple message at its foot, placed there within hours of the air raid ending, read “Father forgive.”
The original charred-cross timbers are still preserved, but a replica replaces it above the Altar of Reconciliation. The original scrawled message, now carved on the altar wall remains unchanged. It is worth noting it remains “Father forgive… “us all, not “Father forgive them”.
At noon every Friday since November 1940 the old Coventry Cathedral has conducted a brief ceremony to remember the day of destruction. The congregation is asked to participate with the two word response: “Father Forgive” as the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is recited as a statement of faith:
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
“Father forgive.”
“The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own …
“The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth …
“Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others …
”Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee…
“The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children …
“The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
“Father forgive.”
”Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Non-Christians can find their own final words – but I think the rest of the Coventry Cathedral message is one most people can endorse.
And I can still dream about the day I almost got to sing there but was done in by an apple.

Print Is Dead – But Not Quite

I am thankful my daily newspaper appears to have changed its ways and no longer urges me to put down the print edition I am holding in my hands and switch to the on-line, electronic edition. I must be careful with my praise for the disappearance of the sometimes banner headline offering me a free electronic replica of what I had already paid for “in the flesh”. It could be a temporary respite to make more space for revenue generating Christmas ads.
My latest scan of the printed pages – with real not electronic eyes – revealed only one mention of the electronic marvel I could read on screen. It suggested that should I be travelling in far away parts and needed maintain contact with things at home, I could as a regular paid-up subscriber to the print edition, tap into the electronic edition for free.
That’s an improvement over the old invite which insulted every paid up subscriber to the print edition by suggesting what he or she had bought wasn’t sensible or fashionable; that relevant people no longer sat in café or home kitchen with a coffee, or settled in a comfortable fireside chair to “read the paper”. “The daily” could now only be properly read on screen with clicks or finger taps to make page turns look real.
Stupid, but not the only things modern newspaper publishers are being stupid about.
My own modest daily The Victoria Times-Colonist has a core of good reporters and writers – but it’s a core so reduced in strength over the years it can no longer claim to provide comprehensive local news coverage for its readers.
There was a time when, as separate, competitive entities the Times and the Colonist were staffed, with reporters, columnists, photographers and editors with one goal in life: to beat their rivals in the breaking news game with better writing, tougher editing, pride in being first to bring important community news to their readers. Whether you were working the Legislature or covering the municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, Oak Bay, Esquimalt or any of the smaller community governments, the “beat” reporter had high, self-imposed and editor demanded, standards to meet. ”How come you missed this?” was more than a simple rebuke from an editor when the opposition won one.
Then the “suits” began to take over. The Times and Colonist ended their historic news-beat battles by amalgamating and layoffs in every department followed. Higher profits replaced demands for ever-better news quality for readers. And each year the diminishing group of newsroom survivors took another hit when a reporter or editor died, retired, or moved. Rarely were replacements hired.
And the gentle push continues to wean us from print to commuter screen because the suits believe print is dead or soon will be.
To prove how serious it is about the death of print the Times Colonist has launched a new, glossy magazine devoted to the praise of local stores and businesses. The magazine, looks sharp, the writing and editing is sharp, the display ads smart. It’s powder puff writing, but here’s the thing – why is the TC launching a new glossy print supplement while trying to persuade its print newspaper readers to read on-line?
Writers of the magazine puff pieces are TC staff writers, several of them award winning journalists who while writing to entertain have less and less time to display their skills in writing to inform. And for those who wonder about such things I recently asked a senior editor how much extra the writers were paid for their new magazine glossy word spinning. “Nothing” he said.
But not to worry, you can search for what they haven’t written but should have in your daily limited-news print edition. Then search again – for free – in your electronic edition.