From the train window as dusk faded it seemed that every house had a tree illuminated with coloured lights. Passing through snow-covered countryside the trees were often living in gardens or potted beside drives. As we sped through suburbia, more of them were framed in curtainless windows, and as the train slowed into city stations sometimes the trees gave way to spray-snowed apartment decorations, but the lights shone out all the way, from leaving Prague, through newly reunified Germany, and into Belgium. 

It was a few days after joyously seeing in the New Year of 1991 in Wenceslas Square, just over a year after the Velvet Revolution, yet I vividly remember all those Christmas trees shining out as 12th Night approached. No one had thought of taking them down as New Year approached. No one had thought to unplug the lights, and take down the angels before Epiphany. 

Now, Epiphany can be the answer to a quiz question, and, however worded, many won’t know the answer. I don’t know if those trees across the Europe we are in danger of fragmenting still blaze in the second of January and on up to the sixth, but ours was taken down today. 

Listening to the wistful ‘Taking Down the Tree’ by Low, we removed the baubles and wound up the lights; I unscrewed the clamp at the tree’s base and took it, shedding needles as branches sprang against door jambs, out to the garden. 

The season has shifted. The forty day Christmastide ending at Candlemas shrunk to the twelve days to Epiphany, then expanded and slid backwards, obliterating Advent, then guttering out like wind-blown candles on a votive stand: some abruptly as Boxing Day turns, some before New Year, yet more as thoughts turn back to school and work and a Bank Holiday provides the time for hoovering needles and passing boxes up the loft ladder, while only an eccentric few hold out their light until we remember (or more likely, for most of us, don’t) the guiding star. 

I’m not really sure what I make of this. Nor, to be frank, does the church, shunting Epiphany around to fit the pattern of days of the week against dates, and cutting Candlemas off from Christmas with a strand of ‘ordinary time’. But none of this matters to most of us. When it’s over it’s over. And it’s over in a day. 

Our traditions evolve, or devolve, and if that means picking up the tree as November slides into December, then staring into the blankness where only this morning it still put up its little arms, while (their ways deep and the weather sharp), a cold going so many have of it, then it is (you might say) unsatisfactory. 

But this putting away can perhaps also be transfigured. We dismantle the old year and make room for the new. I will cut up the tree for kindling and it will blaze sometime in this new year. Warmth will come, somehow, into a world that seems cold, and perhaps our empty space will make room for the stranger. 

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6am, Christmas morning. But it feels like the heart of night. 

Most Christmases these two decades past I would not that long since have come to bed, weary from wrapping presents smuggled out of hiding in the loft. But this year is the first since our firstborn blazed into a July heatwave in 1995 that winter has not brought the fabricated visit of Father Christmas. 

Presents have accumulated under the tree over weeks rather than ‘magically’ appearing overnight. The bottle of port is yet to be opened. No mince pie was eaten,  a fragment of crust and crumbs not left, artfully carelessly, with a tooth-marked stump of carrot. 

This year I have not hunted with fruitlessly wracking brain for the ‘Santa stop here’ sign. I have neither found, nor replaced, the wax and seal that I couldn’t find last Christmas eve/morn, and so didn’t grace the ivory paper with its Tolkien-tribute shaky handed message from Father Christmas. (Our youngest noticed the missing seal last year. Was this the beginning of the end for Santa?)

I might have felt sad about all this, wheeling in the new bike last night that she knows she’s getting, because she knows we bought it, and that I didn’t bother trying to wrap. 

But I didn’t. 

I might have reflected on a year of treasured celebrities passing, and bewildering turmoil in domestic and world affairs (and I did) — and felt fearful. 

But I didn’t. 

I might have thought of all the times I finished the domestic Santa charade and turned in thought and writing with a message to my students, knowing it would be read and acknowledged by many, and felt a sense of loss and failure that now my students are fewer and my relationship with them more tangential and my sense of purpose less secure. 

But I didn’t. 

I might, in posting a picture taken as we entered ‘midnight’ mass at 10pm, with a hastily written poem, of sorts, expressing a kind of melancholy that the outward and acknowledged celebration of Christ’s birth (at least as experienced by me, here, now) signally fails to tell out that story in its fierce and tender and glorious and frightening luminosity, have seemed, as the one commenter on my Instagram suggested, to have been intending to put a ‘downer’ on Christmas. 

But I wasn’t. 

Christmas changes for us, and in turn can be  a zooming, panning, tracking lens that focuses the wider shifts of our world and our place in it. Some of these changes are more or less natural and straightforward (Father Christmas retreats into legend), others are messy sites of tension between what we can control, what is served up to us regardless, and what we are not sure is either one or the other. 

The Christmas story for me now is one of those contested territories. Part of me would love to go back to the certainty about the incarnation that I had when I thought about it as I did about Father Christmas, knowing that the scrape of his sleigh runners on the roof of the Earby New Road Christmas party venue was sure and certain proof that he was coming. 

But I can’t. 

That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t celebrate the incarnation (whatever that is) of God (whatever that means) in a baby (whoever he was). So I will continue to wrestle meaning out of that story, and joy out of its crying wailing hope in a world that was then, and continues to be, so often troubling and tragic. 

(I will 

This year the carrot will remain unbitten,

One myth retreating as childhoods recede,

I’ll hang on to one other, partly written,

Heartly hoped-it-might-be-so child: God in deed. 

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It’s 7:30 am, Christmas Eve, and I’be been awake for well over an hour. My mind is preoccupied not by Christmas preparations but by parkrun. 

I’ve listened to the weather outside. I can’t hear the forecast strong winds. I flex my muscles. A really serious, experienced runner would know what they were all called and be able detect every nuance of fatigue, nascent injury and strength. I just know, that despite the echo of a little tenderness from earlier in the week, they feel a little better than yesterday. Maybe that PB is a possibility after all. Or maybe I haven’t slept enough?

Tea and a slice of toast. It’s become something of a Saturday morning ritual, but it’s half an hour or so earlier than normal today. The Garmin buzzes and beeps. I don’t usually use the pacing feature, but I’ve set it for 4:10 m/km. I’m trying to visualise being ahead of it 2, 5, 10, 15 seconds, but the prospect of a headwind on the outer leg forcing me to fall so far behind that I’m demoralised on the return insinuates itself. 

I don’t want to be too ambitious: that way disappointment lies. 

As with life, so with running. 

But still, I keep wondering if this time, at last, I’ll turn it around.

(If writing it will make it happen

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Even the casual birthday greeting from someone I didn’t really know meant something. That tiny effort to respond to a prompt from an algorithm made to create data-for-sale punches through the discomfiting medium and strikes at something worthwhile within. I hear the shouldered voices: they don’t even know you, what’s the point?, they’re only making themselves feel/look good, and am momentarily cowed, and I look again. Indeed: Happy Birthday mate. The ones who called me mate aren’t ‘mates’. Not sure they ever were. But they use the word. Choose it (however) casually. Because it’s matey.

And that can surely be no bad thing?

The cards on my mantelpiece are fewer, but are they the more sincere for being in(k)scribed and en-veloped? Even a small effort is an effort. It’s the thought that counts, when you know, however you know, that the thought’s been thought.

(So thank you, thinkers

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It is 2:34am on Christmas morning: a mince pie has been eaten, a carrot gnawed, and presents piled around a tree in a now familiar ritual albeit in a still relatively novel setting. For a number of years part of that ritual was sending a Christmas message to my students once those fantastic domestic duties were done. Last year, for the first time since 1992, I had no students to write for. Now, at my second Christmas since moving to Wales I have plenty of students, but spread in sometimes isolated hours across a range of subjects, and some of whom I only met recently after picking up some maternity cover.

This fragmented and rather fragile work situation reflects the (not unpleasant) dislocation I still feel after living and working in the same place (which never felt entirely like home) for around two decades, and which, in turn reflects the uncertain wonder with which I reflect on the past, and look to the future.

Fragmented, bewildered, astonished wonder was something felt, I imagine, by the protagonists and extras in the original Christmas drama. One of my favourite poets, e e cummings, seems to have known something about that, and I was grateful for being reminded of the poetic product of that knowing a couple of days ago online by a cherished colleague and friend whom I’ve never met in person. But not meeting someone in person needn’t preclude having a relationship with them. And so, I share with you, students, ex-students, and accidental onlookers, cummings’s Christmas sonnet:

from spiralling ecstatically this

proud nowhere of earth’s most prodigious night
blossoms a newborn babe: around him, eyes
—gifted with every keener appetite
than mere unmiracle can quite appease—
humbly in their imagined bodies kneel
(over time space doom dream while floats the whole

perhapsless mystery of paradise)

mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings
against the silence of his mother’s smile

—whose only secret all creation sings

Happy Christmas!

(and may you spiral ecstatically into 2016

 

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All families have their myths, and, like most myths they are rooted in truth, but grow fantastic foliage that can obscure the branches of reality that sustain it. Our myth of dad tells of a curmudgeonly  unreconstructed enemy of modernity; mainly well-meaning but emotionally stunted;  incompetent in most things except the journalistic career that filled his life; a joker whose humour seemed designed as much to exasperate others as to amuse himself.

As the youngest by seven years of seven siblings, it’s always been made clear that I got the best of dad as a child, and have only a shadowy sense of malefactions and misdemeanours that have at times been hinted at in the years of his decline since our mum’s death. But we all have our shadows and skeletons, and as I’ve reflected on dad’s death and therefore on my life over the past week I have come to the conclusion that even if I might not always have been as bad as dad, I am certainly not, at least not yet, as good a man as he was.

Dad & I playing tennis on Sough Park - ok, this one's a rarity, but clearly did happen.

Dad & I playing tennis on Sough Park – ok, this one’s a rarity, but clearly did happen.

News came to me that dad had finally given up his ghost when I woke in a tent, in a field at a music festival in Wiltshire and checked my phone for messages. Immediately a family gathering on Facebook began sharing thoughts and memories: a 21st century wake. After an initial flurry of ‘glad he’s found peace at last’ and ‘wish I’d made the effort to go and see him again in time’ type messages, the mood quickly changed to derisive memories of his culinary abominations, and yes: there were many. In prime place was the infamous rice-pudding without rice (not detected until several bowls of sugary milk had been spooned out as the rice was usually a silt of hard grains at the bottom of the pan at the best of times). And of course, when a vegetarian of several years standing, I can never forget him nearly poisoning my (now) wife and me with a chilli-con-carne made with un-soaked kidney beans (and no chilli). We soon returned to a carnivorous diet. But memories of scones deliberately made with sour milk so far gone that you could smell them as the plate entered the room tend to obscure the fact here was an old-fashioned, un-politically correct (for no-one had even heard the term then) male chauvinist pig —  who knew where the kitchen was and was prepared to use (and abuse) it. If, in memory, his cooking was worse than mum’s, it’s probably only because she didn’t venture much beyond cheese and toast or egg and chips when she ventured into the kitchen. I remember dad’s Sunday dinners with their delicious Yorkshire pudding, properly made in a big tin and served in slices (not those silly little individual jobs that ‘Aunt Bessie’ mass produces for the freezer), and a properly carved roast, the remnants of which would still be going as the homeopathic ingredient of mum’s hotpot several days later, if dad was occupied by a copy deadline (I still occasionally refer to going to the pub as ‘meeting a deadline’). Dad also baked the most delicious bread rolls, and I have never been able to match the taste and texture of the gorgeous fried egg sandwiches he would make for my breakfast before school (and yes, dear siblings: I know that your memories of schooldays are of trying to prise him out of bed in time to get you to school, but you also know now how sleeping patterns do change as you get older. And drink less.).

Dad’s typical Yorkshire tightness was eulogised in family memories from before my time of holidays to Cleveley’s where a local park was passed-off as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and circuitous routes taken on outings to avoid gift-shops and ice-cream stalls. But who can blame him for minimising the cost with, at the time, six young children in tow? Yet there were always holidays, and day-trips galore, with bottles of pop in a string bag to leave in a stream to cool. By the time my most vivid holiday memories kick in, I had become almost like an only child, with my older siblings off doing their own thing, and dad transformed from lowly local reporter to editor of the Craven Herald, with an income that allowed me a reasonably handsome allowance for book-buying in W H Smiths, or shovelling tuppences into slot machines. Thus funded, I would be left alone for hours while mum and dad went off and did their own thing, whatever that was (and I got a hint of what that was once when I unexpectedly returned early from the amusement arcade to our guest-house room in Teignmouth having had an unusually unlucky streak on the roll-a-coin machine).

I often recall my breaking away from the political and social conservatism that I initially inherited from dad, symbolised most strongly in my pinning a ‘CND’ badge to my indie-overcoat as I went out of the door to college for my A-levels in the morning, and removing it before getting back in. Incidentally, I was doing A-levels at Nelson & Colne College having taken the more-or-less unprecedented decision not to stay on at Ermysted’s Grammar School, where dad had been educated too, and would later become a governor. Dad supported that decision, however reluctantly, made on the day my O-level results came out, and although it was Thursday – the hectic day that the paper went to print – he arranged for me to go on from Skipton to Nelson for enrolment. Anyhow, I remember being terrified when Thatcher-loving dad spotted my ‘Victory to the Miners’ badge that must have fallen out of my pocket in the car. I also recall him catching a whiff of joss-stick smoke from my bedroom the night of the Heysel Stadium disaster, and angrily denouncing ‘people like me’ who caused social disorder like that. Of course, what really upset me most about that was not the wrong-headed conflation of football violence and my fledgeling green-tinged leftish-pacifism, but the fact that actually I did care what he thought of me. I wanted him to be proud of me, and I know, now, that he was, when it mattered. The last, albeit indirect, communication I had from him was when my brother texted after I said I was going for interview as an English lecturer the week before he died that “he thinks lecturer sounds very posh and he’s proud.” Well, I didn’t get the job, which rather dents the poignant beauty of this story, but I like the idea that even when he was just about hanging on to the last slender thread of his life he could still muster the energy to bother being proud of me, however misguidedly.

How I remember dad best: at work, belly showing, chatting to the local MP at Dales village gala, mum in tow.

How I remember dad best: at work, belly showing, chatting to the local MP at Dales village gala, mum in tow.

For all dad’s sometimes reactionary opinions, he was always open to actual, living, in-the-flesh people in a way I’ve never quite managed to be. I might fancy myself as having more liberal and tolerant views but I find it much less easy to mix socially and make friends of people than dad did. You might expect, for example, that he would look at a hitch-hiker and launch into a diatribe about spongers expecting people who’d worked hard to afford the luxury of a car to give them the benefit of it for nothing, and if they can’t afford a car why can’t they get a bus like normal people? I can recall such sermonising from the comfort of his armchair, but in the car, if there was room, he’d pick them up and chat and find out about their lives. If there happened to be a lead for a story, all well and good, but he was genuinely interested in folk. My most vivid hitch-hiker memory was of my being in the car and his picking up a teddy-boy looking type at the foot of Wysick Hill (I had to move from the front-seat to the back: it wouldn’t do to have a child taking precedence over an adult, however infra-dig the latter’s appearance). It transpired he needed a lift to Skipton Magistrates Court, and dad took a seemingly casual delight dad in telling him, “Oh, that’s handy then, I’m on the magistrate’s bench. What are you up for?” I expect the rest of the journey was rather uncomfortable for the young man as he endured a lecture on the woes dad had seen befall the ne’er-do-wells that had passed before his (I imagine rather less than entirely acute) judicial glare.

Many of my earliest childhood memories are of just dad and I at home or in the car. As he worked from home as a reporter he could mind me during the day, and take me with him on reporting missions. If ever we heard a klaxon-horn we’d make a Starsky and Hutch style dash for the car. To a very small child, the Hillman Imp Caledonian was a perfectly adequate substitute for the Ford Gran Torino, after all they were both red with a white ‘go-faster stripe’. I like to say that dad was the original ambulance-chaser, but his finest hour at tangling with the emergency services came before I was born when he was among the first to the scene of a series arson attacks often enough for him to become prime suspect for a while.

However he gleaned his leads (my sister recalls his number posted in ‘phone boxes for people to ring once they’d called 999), there was always a sheaf of stories typed on the percussive typewriter that chattered and tinged its way through my childhood.  Dad, who never sent an email and steadfastly refused even to charge, let alone use, the mobile phone he was given, had what is in retrospect a remarkably innovative solution to filing his copy. I don’t know if he came up with the idea, but he preferred to avoid the office and so when he had his week’s complement of stories typed up, he would bundle them into a neat parcel of brown paper, tied with string, and we would walk the few paces from front-door to bus-stop to wait for the X43 Manchester to Skipton “White Lady” . The package would be put on the bus dashboard “to be met at the station in Skipton”. On Thursday, the day the paper was printed, Dad would often have to go briefly into the Herald office. I can’t really remember why; maybe just to pick up his wages in a manila paper packet. Usually we’d park at the back, behind Skipton High Street, and go in through the printing works with their metallic-inky smell, and the deafening clatter of the presses and huge hot-metal typesetting machines. I would pocket little fragments of used type and be fussed over by the printers and the office-based reporters before we’d head off over the tops for the weekly shop at Morrisons. Yes, backward-looking technophobic dad, who would prefer to drive for an extra three or four hours en-route to the south coast rather than use a motorway, was among the earliest adopters of supermarket shopping, travelling all the way to Keighley for the convenience of a one-stop-shop, and giving me the privilege of a ride in the trolley to boot. Driving back along dry-stone-walled country lanes we would pass the tomato tree (where the discarded remnants of,  presumably, someone’s picnic had allowed him to convince me that was where the tomatoes grew), and see someone out walking their Golden Lavatory-door, before passing part of the ‘Early Morning System’ on the approach to Stoney Bank Road and the descent back into Earby, and home.

Dad & me at one of his and mum's favourite places: the green at Burnsall.

Dad & me at one of his and mum’s favourite places: the green at Burnsall.

On other days I might accompany dad as he drove the Barlick & Earby Council of Social Services charity mini-bus, rounding up all the area’s blind folk to take them to their weekly social. Or I’d go with him on his rounds for the Skipton and District League of Hospital Friends, again in a minibus that ferried people to visit relatives at Raikeswood Hospital, and then pushing round a trolley of sweets, hailing and hallooing patients and staff alike. “Are you Jack’s lad?” would come the perpetual refrain (pre-echoing the “Are you Jack’s dad? I would hear from my son’s schoolmates three decades and more later) as I wandered round with him, munching on a chocolate-based freebie from the trolley that compensated for the hospital smell and the less than immediately appealing company of the old and unwell. I wasn’t much better at coping with institutional visits when he was in need of the concern and good cheer, rather than being the one doling it out. Even in his later years when he frankly couldn’t drive safely himself, he was still ferrying old ladies back and forth to church on a Sunday morning, until eventually he had to finally give up the freedom of four wheels after what was an apparently hair raising final journey, shepherded to a roadside halt by twin police cars as a he slipped into a hypo-glycaemic delirium. Even at that point, he was taxiing a one-legged friend back home, I seem to recall (possibly erroneously, but dad never let the facts stand in the way of a decent tale).

It has been all too easy to think of dad as little more than an embarrassment, at times, but he was a lot more than that. As my niece Vicky put it, Granndad Jack was “daft, exasperating, challenging, and funny”. He was also, well, a good bloke, and I wouldn’t be…

(well, that’s it: we can stop right there. I wouldn’t be without him.

 

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So, farewell then, McAuley.

Thanks to my lovely, inspirational English colleagues and friends, past and present, (and a stray Geographer!) for yesterday’s goodbye meal, and for their support and kindness over many years and especially these recent difficult weeks.

on tenuous thread my lodestone lurched
and wavered, tracing black intents,
it felt your field, when I felt failed
(inflected new my future tense

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The past year, like all those before it, is littered with unfinished blog posts, untaken pictures, unwritten letters and cards, unspoken words of friendship.

My track record on resolutions is not good. Even things as simple as a ‘photo a day project’ have run, at best, six months before something got in the way, I missed an entry, and then felt there was no point carrying on.

So, as I prepare to take the barely precedented step of settling down to start some work that doesn’t need finishing for several days (and despite starting early won’t be finished for several days), I’m making a not-quite-new-year, nearly-resolution –  as I face a year of change, uncertainty, and promise –  to maybe make more effort to do good stuff more frequently.

(Perhaps

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This year’s Christmas message to my students:

This time last year I was writing to my students and thinking mainly of those in my Y13 form and classes who, like my eldest son, would be leaving McAuley in the forthcoming year.

This year, for the first time since 1992 I haven’t got any year 13 students, and instead it is I who will be leaving. This is my 18th and last Christmas as a teacher at McAuley, so this time I am thinking of those of you I will be leaving behind as you prepare for GCSE or AS level exams. It is an exciting time, but also one of anxiety and doubt over what I will be doing, just as many of you will be anxious about how will do on your courses and what you you will do in your lives beyond.

As I write, it is just turned 2am on Christmas morning, and I am reminded of some words I wrote in my first term at McAuley for a prayer at staff briefing. I wrote five stanzas based on the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The lines for the nativity were:

It is a long, tiresome labour.
The delivery is not without flaw.
But God will out: He doesn’t mind
Being cradled in my words of straw.

Of course the ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ refer to the actual birth of Christ, but they are also about the difficulty of faith, and of the labour involved in striving for adequate expression of faith, especially when it isn’t the strong, strident, confident faith that we may feel we ought to have.

For many of us, belief is difficult, problematic, tiresome: what emerges from that struggle is bound to feel flawed. But just as, in the Christian story, God was willing to enter into history in the very particular and humble surroundings of a stable, and be cradled in a food trough lined with straw, so the idea of God, however conceived, can find some kind of expression in our thoughts and words, however inadequate they may be. Some of us can be confident in the certainty of a real relationship with a personal, active God; others may have lost that faith and look back with nostalgia and regret at a simpler childlike trust as something little different from belief in Father Christmas; others may never have had faith, but still have a yearning for deeper meaning; a sense of the transcendent. Into those doubts and longings, there is often the pull of a desire for, a searching hope for, something meaningful even when we feel the best life can offer might be ‘fair fancies’.

Thomas Hardy, that great poet and novelist, gave the most powerful and moving expression to that sense in his poem The Oxen which I offer to you as a Christmas greeting, and an early ‘farewell’:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

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I’m gradually getting round to typing up some of the poemy prayery scribbly things I’ve written for morning briefing in school over the years. Here’s one (with an embarrassed nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins):

Glory be to God for mundane things:
For skies of cast-iron grey; for nil-nil draws;
For lukewarm lunches eaten on the hoof;
For jokes that make you smile, a bit; for bores
Who mean well; and for wedding rings
That won’t come off; rain dripping from a roof.

Exalt, if you will, those who cannot think
Quite what to put on their CV; and praise
That bit of flat land near the sea.
Regard the unlooked at picture, and then raise
A glass and drink a toast to your kitchen sink;
Divine the divine in a song in minor key.

Praise God for mangers, mustard seeds, and spit;
For sycamore trees, Samaritans, and salt;
For water, wine and vinegar; for blood;
For pilgrimage, but mostly for a halt
Along the way. Thank God for making it
To this new day. That’s quite enough. That’s good.

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