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Christmas is coming

by Alan Townend

If you drive north up the motorway for about ten minutes from where I live, you'll come to what we call one of Britain's Stately Homes. These are large historic buildings that nowadays are open to the public providing you pay the entrance fee. The owners of these houses are now desperate to attract visitors simply because they have to find money somehow to pay for the upkeep of their huge houses. The one I'm talking about has been standing since the end of the 15th century and I must admit looks in pretty good shape. Over the centuries Queen Elizabeth 1st, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and even the Rolling Stones have popped in for a short or lengthy stay. The last mentioned are one of the many pop groups that have staged concerts there. Although it's about 10 miles from my little house, on a calm night when a rock concert is in full force, you can just about catch the sound of the odd strain of music percolating through the ether. Now that's just how I like to listen to loud pop music - at a distance of at least ten miles. And the name of this illustrious dwelling is Knebworth House. It has belonged to the Lytton family since 1490. In the 19th century the incumbent (owner) was Edward Bulwer Lytton, the Victorian novelist. He can make several claims to fame. He created the saying ''The pen is mightier than the sword'' (I'll let you work that one out yourself). He also wrote what are considered to be the worst opening lines in a novel (Paul Clifford):

''It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness''.

Personally I don't think it's that bad but as a result of this reputation the San Jose State University (California) established in 1982 a Bulwer Lytton Fiction Prize presented each year to a writer whose published novel is considered to be equally bad in its opening lines. Not, as you can imagine a much coveted prize (who would want it?) Oh and the last claim to fame is that our Edward had his wife incarcerated (imprisoned) on the grounds of insanity - hers, that is. She was however as sane as you and me (well you any way), quite sane and very intelligent, having written some 13 novels herself and was later released. Her ''madness'' was apparently due to the fact that she discovered Edward was having a series of love affairs. I should add that the present owners are happily married -together of course.

I mentioned that one of the visitors to Knebworth was Charles Dickens. In fact he and Edward Lytton were good friends and despite the latter being known for the dodgy start to one of his novels, his opinion was often sought by Dickens, who valued his judgment on his writing. Now Dickens was a great enthusiast for amateur dramatics and loved putting on plays and getting everyone up on stage. He was a great party-goer and his name seems always to be linked with Christmas. The traditional Christmas card invariably shows a picture of a Dickensian scene. And remember Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. The main character in this novel is Mr. Scrooge, who resolutely refused to accept Christmas. Whenever the word was mentioned, his response would always be: Bah humbug! The first word is one of those you have to say out loud to give it its true value. Try it! It suggests ''nonsense'', ''rubbish''. What does ''humbug'' mean? It's difficult to find an exact synonym for but the sense of it is that you think someone is trying to trick or deceive you. Oh and it also means a hard boiled sweet with a peppermint flavour but of course Scrooge used it in its first meaning because he just didn't believe in Christmas or giving presents or wanting anyone to have an enjoyable time. Today ironically, he would be regarded as virtuous for saving energy because he never permitted much heat in his office. As a result his poor clerk sat at his desk all day and shivered. The name ''Scrooge'' has now entered the English language. We use it to describe anyone who's mean, tightfisted and never opens their wallet if they can help it. As the story opens, it is Christmas Eve. We see Scrooge walking up to his house and suddenly the knocker on the front door changes into the face of his former partner, Jacob Marley who died seven years ago. When Scrooge has finished his frugal meal, Jacob again appears as a ghostly figure dragging chains and reminding him that if he continues worshipping money, he will suffer even after death. He also warns Scrooge that he will be visited in the night by three ghosts.

Scrooge assumes the apparition has been caused by a spot of indigestion. But then that doesn't seem likely because he didn't really eat enough to warrant a stomach upset. The old man goes upstairs to his freezing bedroom and just as Marley had foretold, three ghosts appear before him one after the other as each hour passes. The first is called Christmas Past. Scrooge sees himself as a child and then as a young man in love. Yes, he's actually laughing! But his girlfriend, Bella is rejected as he chooses money in preference to love. Christmas Present shows his nephew at a Christmas dinner singing his uncle''s praises (saying what a good man he really is) although the other people at the table disagree. He also sees his poor clerk, Cratchit sitting at home with his family desperately trying to enjoy themselves despite the small meal and the cold. Finally Christmas Future appears and silently points at a grave with no name as he shows how no one regrets the death of Sctrooge. And then the old man wakes up relieved to find. he's still alive. The sun is shining and he actually leaps (well almost because he's still very old) out of bed. Rushes (well as quickly as his ancient legs allow) to the window and calls out to a small boy to buy the big turkey at the butcher''s and send it to the Cratchit family and for doing that the boy will be well rewarded.

So we have a traditional happy ending and also a moral, which today we might direct towards all those bankers with their annual bonuses! Tradition of course is a feature of Christmas and another regular ritual is the sending of Christmas cards first launched around the time Dickens was writing, which became as popular then as the email is today. But of all the most treasured events at this time of year is the school Nativity play portraying the birth of Christ and performed by small children. The best story of one of these productions I've ever heard and I don't care whether it's true or not, concerns one small boy whom we shall call Johnnie. Johnnie was the troublesome child in the class. He drove his teacher mad because he never stopped talking and never sat still. She then had what she considered to be a brainwave (a brilliant idea). She would put Johnnie in the Nativity play and he would play the part of Joseph. In the play, Johnnie was told, he and Mary would find they couldn't stay at the inn (hotel) but would have to overnight in a stable (where the animals slept) where Jesus would be born. Now being Joseph was a starring role even though there wasn't a lot to say but the fact that the offer had been made, changed Johnnie''s life. He was so pleased with himself that he became a model pupil (behaved perfectly).

For his teacher those weeks leading up to the play were pure bliss (heaven). Then came the night of the performance. The school hall was awash with emotional tears. There wasn't a dry eye to be seen. Well, that wasn't the case with older brothers and sisters who had been forced to attend. They weren't that affected. Johnnie comes onto the stage dragging a rather petulant Mary who was snivelling and asked the innkeeper if there was room for him and Mary. The innkeeper dutifully following the script tells him that he is sorry but the inn is: ''Full up.'' Then it happened. The pent up thespian (subdued theatrical player) inside Johnnie burst out. He forgot all about the script and said: Full up? You cannot be serious (he'd obviously been listening to the tennis player, McEnroe).The wife and I have trudged miles and miles today. The weather's been shocking and if that wasn't enough, the wife''s about to give birth any minute and so I insist you find us a room!'' It was at this point that Johnnie''s teacher started to have kittens (was in a state of panic), wet eyes suddenly dried, Johnnie''s mother''s cheeks went brilliant red, the head teacher was metaphorically writing her letter of resignation and a deadly silence prevailed. Even Mary stopped snivelling. The innkeeper was lost for words and thought Johnnie had gone mad but in a flash of inspiration said: ''All right, mate. Come in and we'll see what we can do''. And with that the play ended.

And while we're in the world of Nativity plays I must add that I was in one once. Not as a child, you understand but as an adult. I was teaching English in Zurich, Switzerland and somehow got involved with an amateur dramatic company who were doing a Nativity play in the English Church. The one part they couldn't fill was that of the Archangel Gabriel. Clearly no one had volunteered and without realising what it would involve, I agreed to take on the role. The worst aspect of the part was that you had to wear a large pair of wings. And when I say large, I mean enormous. The wings, as it were, wore you and not you them, if you follow. They squeaked too, as you walked. The one thing to avoid was narrow spaces because the wings had obviously completed many ''flying hours'' and were consequently weak. The play ran for three nights. Nights one and two ''flew'' past if you'll pardon the joke but night three I felt the left wing was definitely sagging (leaning) to one side. Nevertheless it held for the performance but the wretched thing dropped off as I was walking down the aisle at the very end. I can tell you it's very difficult to be both sensitive and angelic when you bend down to pick up a wing but as we were in a church most people refrained from laughing.

The following day all the members of the cast packed up and went home to their different countries for Christmas. Some by car, some by coach and some went home by air. As for me I took the train. Flying somehow didn't really appeal just then. After all, I had tried to impersonate an Archangel and look what happened - I'd ended up with only one wing!

If you do celebrate Christmas, have a happy one!

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