Well… maybe I get a little too much time to think on a Christmas Day. The festivities ended hereabouts at about 12:30 and the darkness descended… I had a lovely, quirky cup of tea with a friend who’s alone today – we thought of the Jewish bakery but it’s shut, but a pub turned out to be open (‘by reservation only’; we persuaded them to take us in). Facebook is teeming with family photos, puddings, pretty country scenes, presents, party frocks, Christmas jumpers & general jollity.

For the past twenty years, ever since a slightly precipitous ejection from the matrimonial home, Christmases have been a slightly truncated, or bifurcated, affair – frontloaded onto Christmas Eve, and over by about noon on the big day, frenetic shopping-cleaning-cooking followed by, just as everyone else starts the real thing, an abrupt bump. The big push made shove, exhaustion met head-on on the day before everyone else meets it… and then this sort of wind tunnel of – either going to someone else’s place, if that’s the thing that’s happening, or else being here on my own. I’ve done both. I used to go to a ‘best friend’ who later fell out with me – but that’s over and best not… and the newer ex used to arrive on Boxing Day, but no… After a while being a waif and stray gets a bit tiring – it’s a lot of annual thought and effort, & you’d think a person would have sorted their scene out by now – especially with so many family commitments. (So many and yet clearly not quite enough.) And after tomorrow there’ll be no one else to help me eat the mountains of leftovers I’m so very lucky (I know) to have. (WHY? Why do I cook as if everyone was just going to be here?) Too much time to think.

And what I think is this.

Christmas is a really powerful, dark time. It always seems to me that a miracle does happen on Christmas Eve, that time stands still for a moment, anywhere on earth. Or that the earth itself does. It’s like a tesseract: we connect with the Year Dot and some cosmic energy goes WHOOSHING around like at the end of the Superman movie – we double up on that apocryphal night made of romance, Druid lore and Middle Eastern politics, and a new Christmas miracle happens every year. Alongside everything else.

Like all myths, the Christmas story is a living entity, not just among the fundamentalists. I’m sure there are other times for other people (of other religions, in other periods) which have this same feeling; I don’t think it’s specifically about the day, though this one seems well worn in. It’s about energy. The slowing or stopping seems like a point – a punctum – into which the darkness is gathered, to be dispelled by the star, the Saviour, the hope of new life, new light, redemption, a new paradigm.

Christmas is literally dark – at least it is up here in the northern hemisphere. It’s about darkness. The darkest day of the year just past, the light beginning to think about coming back, after months of deepening we can at last afford to turn and look at how dark it is – acknowledge that – and look forward.

The story that gets told about this day gets its power from that darkness – both the night sky itself in which the great star shines, and also the darkness of poverty, bureaucratic oppression, and the horrors of the tyranny whose promises are kept in the next chapter. We’re in a time of growing tyranny now; it might just be worth remembering that.

The Christmas story is, of course, literally, about redemption – and about the way redemption only comes when there’s despair. If there isn’t despair you don’t need redemptionIf you look at redemption as a concept, and it’s my favourite one, you see in ‘The Magic Flute’ or ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, or for that matter ‘Jackie Brown’, that redemption doesn’t come to those who are doing fine. It comes – if it comes – in despair, doubt, darkness, when you’ve been beaten or are lost. It doesn’t always come. If it does, it’s a miracle. And when it doesn’t, or didn’t, we sit with the despair and hold it in the light.

Christmas (as much as All Saints’ Day) is about death. For some reason – holiday stress, emotional overload, simply the cold – it’s a common time for dying,  just like for divorces and being born. The membrane is thin here. I’ve had both a Christmas baby and a Christmas Eve death, and it felt oddly right when there was a Christmas tree in the church at my father’s memorial service. Both a theatrical and a wholehearted thrower of a great Christmas, Dad.

At Christmas we sit with the people we’ve lost – this year, or ever – and hold them with us in this strange bubble of light. The hope for the future that Christmas represents – that it held for each of the dead too, maybe, back when they had a future. And, as there are different ways of losing a future, we also hold – or I do, anyway – some of those we’ve lost simply to vicissitudes. It’s a day for remembering who we love, and why, and holding that up to the light. Lucky us if we’re with some of them.

I don’t know. You lot out there. I know it’s all happening, right now – love and loss and heartbreak and destitution and drunk rages, and murder and war and terrible, terrible governments and big mistakes, and broken lives and love that just somehow dissipates. I know. And now I’m going to watch a movie or something.

Merry Christmas!

(Image: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, ‘The Queen of the Night’, set design for Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, 1815. Via Stephen Ellcock)

‘Home Sweet Home’

So, last Sunday. A celebration (rather than a ‘launch’, as it’s already been out for a while, and there were very few copies for sale on the day) of Roddy Lumsden’s new collection, So Glad I’m Me. I will be writing more about this book in due course, as it’s shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, but for now, let’s celebrate the celebration.

First, the book we were celebrating. Roddy’s tenth collection, and incidentally the only poetry collection I’ve ever seen with a picture of Sandy Denny on the cover. I love this cover in about ten different ways, probably. (There was a sweet moment when the music suddenly got switched on rather loudly behind the bar, by accident, and Roddy just looked up mildly and said, ‘Oh, is that Sandy Denny? Can we have the music off for now?’) I am still waiting for my copy, so haven’t actually seen inside it yet, but as I say, it will be covered in due course.

The event had been organised without much notice, so the pub was full but not rammed – and had opened specially for us, at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere was intimate, almost like family; well, this is my poetry family, I guess. It’s nice when you realise you have one. (There were people missing, including even two who were meant to be reading: illness, geography, prior commitments, etc took their toll – & they are why I recorded  the reading.) And if there’s a family home, it’s the Betsey, as demonstrated by the special opening… It was good to be there. (N.b., the next gathering of that sort of clan will probably be Tim Wells’ Christmas All-Dayer, which will probably be on 17 Dec.)

Guest readers Fran Lock, Becky Varley-Winter, Angela Kirby, Barbara Barnes, Samuel Prince, Mark Waldron, and Sarah Howe all read a poem each by Roddy as well as some of their own. They were followed by Roddy, who gave a brilliant reading, and disappeared into the night shortly afterwards. This photographic account is thin; my phone had run dead due to a charger malfunction at home, and had to be charged behind the bar so I could do the filming at the crucial moment. But I did film him, in two goes, which are at the bottom of this post. Here’s the audience, with Mr Lumsden in the foreground watching the readings.

Sarah Howe reading, with Roddy and Fran Lock watching.

The mirror: featuring Matthew Caley, Jon Stone, Tom Bland, Richard O’Brien, etc

And the videos.

7th annual TS Eliot Prize workshop: one day, ten poets

November 16, 2017

13th January, 11am-4.30pm Ten books. Ten poets. One day. (And what a day it is!) The TS Eliot Prize Shortlist has been announced, and on 13 January, 2018 – the day before the ten poets shortlisted for one of the UK’s two most prestigious poetry prizes will read their work in the Royal Festival Hall – we’ll be meeting […]

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A great day out at the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair

May 14, 2017

Sometimes someone comes along and does something that, once it’s done, seems like it must always have been this way. Charles Boyle did one of those things when he started the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, however many years ago it was now – five? Six! That first year it was a pretty small affair, in the […]

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Why, it’s a commendation!

January 8, 2017

I’ve recently started entering competitions again. Well – I entered two. And because of the year it was (2016 of course), I forgot to keep notes, so I entered the same poem into both of them. Kids! Don’t do this! So I effectively paid two fees and entered one competition, and probably pissed off the people […]

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TS Eliot weekend approacheth, and with it, the all-day shortlist workshop…

January 3, 2017

Well, it’s that time of year. The TS Eliot Prize is coming up, marking the end of this year’s ‘prize season’. In recent years it’s been the most prestigious, and biggest, award for poetry in the UK; it’s getting a bit of a run for its money lately from the Forward Prize, but still forms a defining look […]

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No No No, NaNoWriMo

December 1, 2016

Well, it’s December now. All over for another year. The failure, the ignominy… The typewriter you see above is not mine, as you’ll read in a minute. It is, in its cool, metallic, clean-lined sleekness, in its bland-faced 1960s rationality, in its businesslike luxe, its straightforward imperturbability, everything I could not be in November 2016. There […]

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A letter to Barack Obama

November 22, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving week in America, and while schoolchildren are being told the old stories about Pilgrims fleeing persecution and friendly Indians teaching them how to grow their harvest, there is a mighty battle raging in North Dakota. At Standing Rock reservation, militarised police are attacking peaceful protesters – protectors, they call themselves – in service […]

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