On Sunday, after a final (surprisingly leisurely) stroll round Sainsbury’s, spent the evening in the company of friends - and friends and neighbours of friends – which was all very jolly and congenial. My attempts to cauterise the onrush of attacking viruses by the judicious application of alcohol were unsuccessful from a medical perspective, but released my usually (very) well hidden reserves of wit, charm and erudition right up to the Unfortunate Incident with the Wine and the Natural Fibre Floorcovering some five hours later. After which (and following some strenuous blotting) a hasty retreat was effected.
(I have today been emailed with reassuring photographic evidence that the floorcovering – and thus, more crucially, the highly valued friendship – seems to have survived more or less intact, thanks largely to my serendipitous preference, that evening, for pink over red wine.)
Christmas Eve I don’t really remember, apart from a lot of belated wrestling with paper and sellotape. On Christmas Day – having 'achieved' lunch (very slowly, while everyone else was off out singing carols) – I retreated to the sofa, upon which I reclined, as elegantly as possible under the circumstances, for most of the rest of the ‘festivities’. Thankfully, I had received a copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader , which was just the thing to read between snoozes. I had never been in any doubt that I would enjoy this delightful little flight of fancy and I wasn’t disappointed. It was every bit as amusing, droll and gently satirical as I’d anticipated.
I have read some whingeing comments by some of the more serious book-bloggers complaining that it is some kind of cynical rip-off, an overpriced little outing on the bandwaggon by its author and publishers alike. I beg to disagree quite noisily. Plenty of Alan Bennett’s previous shorter works – including Father! Father! Burning Bright and The Clothes They Stood Up In have been published as modestly priced paperbacks and even given away free with newspapers, I seem to remember. From time to time, however, Christmas being pre-eminently one of those times, there’s nothing more cosy and satisfying than holding in one hand a nicely produced, small hardback book which one can read and enjoy without very much effort while clutching a life-enhancing/sustaining mug of tea or a glass of mulled wine (for example), in the other hand. The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] was one such. The Uncommon Reader is another.
To complain about its price per page of text, or to compare it somehow with the cost or importance of a weighty, award-winning biography, for example, is to take it entirely out of context. The publishers got it just right, in my view, so enjoy it for what it is and stop moaning, is my seasonal message!
Having polished that one off and had another snooze or two, I started on Margery Allingham’s Mystery Mile . I hadn’t read any Allingham before, but this one had been on my list because it is set on a small island which purports to be in Suffolk but which was, in fact, based on Mersea, where Allingham had holidayed as a child. The island has shrunk to a fraction of its true size and population (even in the 1930s), and the Strood becomes the ‘Stroud’, but there’s a pub called the Dog and Pheasant and the vivid descriptions of the marshes, the mud and the estuarine tides will be easily recognisable to anyone who knows Mersea.
It was a good one to read while under the weather, though I confess that some of the urge to turn pages very quickly owed more to my frustration with the endless, camp, bletherings of the aptly named hero, Albert Campion, than it did to the compelling interest of the plot. It was rather like watching a pantomime, I thought – with too much magic and disappearances in puffs of smoke (or Mersea mist, indeed) – for my liking. Now you see him, now you don’t, but look – he’s right behind you! It seemed very much a 1930s period piece and I don’t feel terribly inclined to pursue the Campion series further. There’s an interesting page about the Mersea connection on the Margery Allingham Society website, though, and I’m quite interested in laying my hands on a copy of her first published novel, Blackkerchief Dick (1923), which is set entirely on Mersea, but it seems never to have been reprinted and the original editions are rare and command prices unfeasible for the merely curious.
The remainder of my recumbent day was spent enjoying the fabulous Royal Ballet production Prokofiev’s/Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet, with Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. Just sublime. This has long been my favourite ballet of all time, and Prokofiev’s score some of my favourite music full stop (in fact, strike all other ballets from the repertoire and just leave this one – it has everything one could possibly need). The music is replaying in my head even now. There are some clips of Rojo and Acosta rehearsing and talking about the production here , here and here.
The very silly but good fun (if you like that kind of thing) Dr Who Christmas Special was followed by the girls going off to watch yet more of the endless Strictly Come Dancing spin-offs (I’m all Strictlied-out and won’t be able to bear another dose for at least six months), while I dozed with the menfolk in front of a DVD of The Battle of Britain, which I hadn’t watched for many years.
Always intriguing to observe that, although authenticity was (to my untrained eye, at least) achieved in so many ways, the women’s makeup and hairstyles were anachronistically 1960s. Was this a refusal on the part of actresses (Susannah York in particular) to contemplate assuming the appearance of their mothers’ generation? Did nobody notice that short, feathered hair and pale lipstick just didn’t achieve the wartime ‘look’? Or was it simply considered an unimportant detail for some reason? This is by no means a unique phenomenon in 60s films, but it jars even more distressingly against the WRAF uniforms than it does in other 60s 'costume dramas'. Perhaps it is only with hindsight that we can see these things clearly.
On the home front, not only is the Christmas cake still uncut . . . it hasn't even been decorated! It's merely a huge white blob of naked icing. I'm just about to do something spontaneous and creative with some gold paper and a red candle. But whether anyone will actually attack it with a sharp knife today is anyone's guess - we're all still stuffed after a late lunch of spaghetti carbonara plus stir-fried sprouts with Black Farmer hickory smoked bacon.
I love sprouts!