Bathyscaphe

Here it is once again – the most ungodly week on the calendar!

 I must confess I greet this festival each time with increasing wonder – like by whose permission am I still here?  This is a special one, though: it’ll surely be the smallest, and for the first time I go into it with the feeling of being watched – not by friends and family  who are accustomed to my excesses, but by the lurking presence of ‘authority’.   If I step out into the yard for some fresh air:

“That’s far enough, sir!”

I wasn’t going to go any further, but the strange, black-suited figure at my gate is not content with that explanation.

“You should return to your habitation immediately.  If you want air, open a window!”  His voice is muffled by mask and screen.  “Take The Pandemic seriously.  Do you realise that at least one person in a hundred thousand could suffer a moderate headache because of your selfish action?”

I won’t mention my own headache, brought about by a liberal application of gin, for fear of being gift-wrapped in cling film and carted off to an empty Nightingale Unit fifty miles away.  It is easier to retreat.

Indoors, though, the atmosphere this week promises to be, depending upon our state of ‘lockdown’, one or another kind of hell.

Not that Christmas is ever easy.  In normal years we might at least air our rapacity on the street and go about with our best ‘God bless us, every one!’ expressions as we bestow good wishes on those we meet – in normal years, but not this one.  The streets are all but deserted. Those we do encounter are so disguised by masks and haunted looks they might as well be talent-spotters for Hezbollah.

Meanwhile the media, sensing our inability to mingle with friends, relatives, loved ones, are primed and determined to batter us with a relentless hail of ‘Christmas Specials’.  Backcloths to football shows embellished with fake ‘snow’; everyone from the weather girl to the Prime Minister (oh, imagine!) clothed as if for pantomime.  Picture Dumb and Dumber, our two ‘medical experts’ dressed in crinolines, and Boris Johnson as Widow Twanky.  “She’s BEHIND YOU!”

“Oh, no she isn’t!”

 As of today the assault will intensify.   Every programme, TV or radio, is ‘Christmassed up’.  I await the Queen’s Christmas Day message with trepidation.  Mock antlers and tinsel were never her thing.

There is one consolation for us oldsters.  On the afternoon of the Sainted Day itself we elders get centre stage.  The audience may be smaller, but we can still beguile them with our tales of better times. Think of it as I think of it – as scattering the faery dust of Hope.

Some drink-impaired relative will offer a cue:  “I bet things were nicer in your day, Grandad…”

 On this special day nostalgia rules.  Be it around the festive table, ‘up the pub’ or ‘down the club’, at some stage the talk will turn to yesterdays; and some of us will relish the drift, and others will prefer to forget.

There are very good reasons why history is such a favorite subject.  Pursuant upon the miasma of too much wine and too much dine, we are too cosseted and cosy for conflict: it avoids politics, which are always dangerous, and religion, which is equally devisive.

Immortal quote:   “Stop going on about religion, Dad; it’s Christmas, for god’s sake!”

Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.

“Remember Jeff’s party?  Things got really hot, didn’t they?  I never managed to explain to him how we broke that bed!”

After an icy silence:

“No, I don’t remember.  What bed, and who is Jeff?”

Lethal!   The greatest traps are not so much the deepest submerged, but those whose fronds wave gracefully in the coral shadows, still occasionally visible in filtered daylight from above.  Beware!  Snorkelling nostalgia is contingent upon truth. All facts are verifiable.  Only the rashest romancers dare to embellish facts that are commonly known.  Only the most boring would bother.

No, the more interesting story-fodder lies full fathom five – or three-and-a-half, at any rate.  Here, where little light intrudes, the most remarkable treasures of retrospection are to be found nestling cosily in sand, awaiting the salvage of your story.

“Ah, 2005!  That was the year Pope John Paul died, y’know.  I was in Rome at the time.  No-one expected it, him popping off like that.  The outpouring of grief was incredible.  They had to close St. Mark’s Square for fear of people getting crushed.

“St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes.  I remember how terrifying it was.  I was caught up in the hysteria…”

“In St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes, amazing place, normally. Like a great theatre…”

“Amazing – and in Venice.  Did you mean St. Peter’s Sqaure?”

“Oh?  I mean, yes, of course!  How could I forget?  It was so hot, that June..”

“He died in April.”

Little traps, with big, yawning chasms of credibility beneath!  By just that one, tiny slip are we judged; thereafter our audience will be a little less rapt, still kindly, but indulgent.

Prepared for fiction.

In nautical terms barnacle-encrusted recollections get less distinct as you descend below the twenty-year critical level.  And far safer.

 Mischievous currents may move events and places around, so as you drag your air-line among them in your steel helmet and leaded boots you can no longer trust them to be as you left them, all those years ago, but who’s to know?.

Was that before the Berlin Wall came down, or after?   ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’  Who was President then?

This is Christmas and the wine is flowing and your audience, most of whom were yet to be born in the times you so gleefully explore, is as captive as they’re ever likely to be.  Tired, well-fed caterpillars, you can watch their eyes glaze over as you help them into the chrysalis.

The Peurto Rico Trench of memories.  No-one should dive to sixty years or beyond without a bathyscaphe, yet it is warm, it is comfortable, and in some ways a liberation.  Depth and darkness.

“Did I ever tell you I was one of the crew of the Kon Tiki?  A bit of a wild one, I was, in those days.  Me and – dear me, what was his name – Floyd!  Yes, that’s it; Floyd Patterson. We used to hang around with a Swedish chap, Thor Hennerdahl.  We did a lot of boating together, y’see…”

The Monopoly Board was laid out some five minutes ago.  A face leans into vision.  The money is being counted out

“Do you want to be the top hat, grandad?”

If I look up I will see a little Mexican Wave of returning consciousness pass through my small audience

I had something important to tell them, didn’t I?  Wisdom to impart.  Whatever it was, I can’t quite remember it.   Maybe next year, when there are more of us?

No, that isn’t true; there won’t be.  Every year we get fewer in number.  Little by little, time will ease us apart.

Never mind; it’s Christmas – in ways the man in black at our gate can never understand.

“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”

20/20 Vision

 

There are bound to be a few contenders for this title, so I might as well make my pitch early.

Well, New Year is with us.  The air smells of cordite, my shirt smells of whiskey, and the house smells like…maybe just open a few windows?

The first thing, I guess, is to christen the decade – like we had the Roaring Twenties last century; how about the Scorching Twenties this time around?  Then we should maybe give a title to the era – the nineteen-twenties absolutely owned prohibition, will the twenty-twenties be remembered for degradation?

I have no personal experience to offer:  contrary to suggestions by certain people, I was not around in the Roaring Twenties; but history suggests that was a time of liberation, a carefree release from the strictures of the corseted Edwardians and their predilection for war and power.  Will this new decade have the same signature of freedom and tolerance?  I wonder.

But setting all that aside, New Year to most of us is a personal thing:   even for cynical old duffers like myself, to whom it should be no more than a flip of a sheet on the calendar by now.   I still sit up and wait dutifully for midnight, listen to an hour of painful contemporary music after the bell has gone, before creeping off to bed.  In spite of my bold comments above, in truth, the memsahib and I rarely party through the night these days. At Christmas mayhap we will – at New Year, no.  It’s such a fuss getting hold of the extra oxygen; I’m not sure which deserted us first – the stamina or the motivation.

The same is not true of everybody.  Witness our neighbors, for whom the clock was clearly an invention too late.  The fireworks start at eight o’clock, conspicuously ignore the witching hour, and splutter to a damp pulp at around two-thirty a.m.  I don’t mind – I just wonder if they’re partying through the night, or…oh, they wouldn’t be, would they?  Well, these days – so many things, darlings, you know? You can’t tell what they’re getting up to.

So here we all are, groggily awake, ready to embark upon our brave new adventure.  I have my kitbag of ‘resolutions’ pruned to one.  I am determined to lose sufficient weight so when I am cremated I can go through a standard-size furnace door.   In which cause all Christmas food still remaining has been banished to the patio.  It is the turn of the birds, now.   Mince pies seem particularly popular – the memsahib informs me it has to do with the alcohol content in the mince:  Rocky Robin has suddenly acquired a much more interesting meaning.

I have tried playing them some music to get a party going but their little hearts aren’t in it.  They are just birds, after all.  Winter is hard for them in our garden – what will they do when the stollen runs out?   The RSPB wants us to do a survey of our garden birds later this month – I hope they will be sober by then.

Aye me!   Another utterly commercial and brazenly damaging annual festival is over and we can all get back to being rude to each other for another year.  I am about to put down this ingeniously sequestered piece of Christmas cake and go to weigh myself for the day.

Wish me luck!

The Witchery Within

It must be something in the sky!   The mild clouds, perhaps, dove grey to break winter to us gently.   Moving fast – they have so much to bring and so little time.  Or some newly created homeland in the earth beneath, layered, filo tier upon filo tier of leaf, carpet and roof, food and bed to the millions, the small unseen.  Indoors, the spider harlot waits upon the white enamel of the bath:  advertising cheap sex for the hungry wanderer, with a price too high for most.

Walking beneath the shedding trees, shoes cloyed with mud, face refreshed by the cleansing breeze, I need no reminding that every season is a cause for celebration, autumn as much as any.  ‘The summer fair, she has grown old’ – Nature takes a broom to the detritus of another year, and that’s excuse enough.   Amid the gathering gloom of evening I glance up into the tangled black of a half-naked sycamore beside my path, then glance again.  A part of a high bough is suddenly separated and an old woman’s cackle rattles through the branches as she flits away into a distance written for her by ten thousand years of superstition.  Speaking of brooms!

For my part, I will celebrate.  For as long as men can remember, All Hallows Eve has been as close to a night of overindulgence as their village could afford, when everyone huddled together for safety, lest a passing witch should pay them too much attention.

We don’t believe in witches now, yet we dress as though we did.  It’s as well that we don’t because we loose our children onto the streets in our defiance and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but a feast of such morsels may be all too tempting for those watching crones.  Somehow (we need not look far to discover how) the solemn authenticity of Hallowe’en has been violated and reassigned as a night of gaiety and mirth.

Like each revel of legend – like Christmas, like Easter, Hallowe’en has become a plundering ground for the Barons of Consumerism.  No festival can be a festival now without a ‘retail experience’, a market for the usurers, the vintners, the purveyors, the costumiers (I flatter them – it is an enormous stretch to hinge a far eastern sweatshop upon the title of ‘costumier’), all no more than an ‘Enter’ keystroke away.   Hallowe’en is an instant inducement to buy and then cast aside.  Few know why they celebrate, but worse, even fewer will encourage their children to enquire.  The off-the-shelf costumes that drag our beloved progeny away from their video games for a couple of hours cost no more than a few dollars, a smattering of pounds, to provide.   84% of them will be glittering in the household trash within a few days.

A sizeable proportion of those costumes, those millions of costumes, is plastic.  Masks are almost certainly plastic, as are most cheap black cloaks and other accessories.    Pumpkins will be hollowed out and their perfectly edible flesh discarded without thought for how it might be better used.

In Britain, to add further insult to our already over-stressed environment, we will celebrate a second orgy of consumption within a week by releasing plentiful quantities of low-grade explosives into the ether while we cavort around as large a bonfire as we can possibly construct.

We should not be proud.    Many thousands of tons of plastic microbeads will be generated as a result of this Hallowe’en. They will pollute our rivers and our oceans for generations to come. The food we waste is not just our food but food for the world. The smell of cordite in the morning of November 6th should be enough to remind us the air we breathe is rationed.  It does not go on forever.

One of the few redeeming features of Guy Fawkes Night in the UK was a tradition whereby children earned a few coppers by constructing an effigy supposed to be of Guido Fawkes – which they trailed around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to beg a ‘Penny for the Guy’.  This seems to have died out, now, which is a shame because for the children to make a presentable Guy effigy took imagination and effort, and their use of straw and old clothes was creative recycling.  A similar creative experience awaits in the making of Hallowe’en costumes if we are prepared to grasp it,

So in your celebrations this Hallowe’en raise a glass to those families who have joined together in creating costumes from reusable materials, rather than buying them from a rail.  Spare a thought for those whose supper tables include at least one pumpkin pie.  If you must observe Guy Fawkes Night, think a little about the distress you cause to pets (and many people) for the sake of a few expensive bangs:  take your children to an organized display.  Save yourself a fortune, and help to minimize the environmental damage as much as you can.

Here’s a post which began as one thing, then took an unexpected turn, though when you dissect the subject matter the connection is obvious, really.  The glory of autumn, or fall, is not in its colours or its earthy scents, or even in the changing of the seasons, mud beneath our feet, relief from the oven of summer: no, it is in a different kind of celebration, a celebration of perfection.  For Nature of herself exhibits, in these few months, an act of crucial balance in which everything that was brief is changed, and all that is permanent remains untouched.  She does this with the absolute reassurance of power, which at times we are so arrogant as to believe we have conquered.  We have not.

As we enjoy our festivities – as well we might, for every year gets a little harder than the one before – we would do well to remember that for every blow we strike to the planet upon which we live there is a riposte;  in the end, all our debts must be repaid.

Photo credit:  Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.