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!

Season of Spirits

‘Tis the season when a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to pyromania.

Tonight parents everywhere are wearily steeling themselves; priming fuses, arranging GuidoFawkesGunpowderPlotspills, offering anxious fingers to the wind: in a few hours they will be standing in their urban back gardens eating half-cold, half-cooked barbecue food, handing out blunt advice on the appropriate use of sparklers and launching extremely expensive fireworks into dense, impenetrable fog. Their progeny’s cries of amazement will prove to be in inverse ratio to money spent, and after fifteen minutes of anticlimax most will retire indoors to drink themselves into a stupor. Only a hardened few will linger to savor cordite laden air, in darkness softened by the red glow from next door’s shed.

For many it will be the second party in less than a week. They will still be desperately sponging beer stains from their rented Hallowe’en costumes, or clasping their heads in a state of severe celebration fatigue.

But what are we really trying to celebrate?

When King James took the throne of England at the beginning of the seventeenth century he was unpopular. There were several reasons for this: he was James I of England but James VI of Scotland, which a lot of people found confusing; he was also averse to bathing, enough in itself to generate a certain atmosphere. The likely no-brainer, however, was his promise to ease the burdens of English Catholics – a promise he failed to fulfill.

So in 1605 a bunch of Catholic activists led by one Robert Catesby tried to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when he was inside – an exercise involving 36 barrels of gunpowder (about the equivalent of a 5000lb bomb) secreted underneath the House of Lords. Sadly, you might think, word of Catesby’s intention to turn his Liege into a crater leaked out, and poor old Guido Fawkes was caught holding the baby (metaphorically speaking: he was actually holding the end of a fuse).

For this we burn an effigy of him as a ‘Guy’ on top of our bonfires while we fire off rockets, and if this seems to you a bit of an over-reaction to something which failed in 1605 you’d be right. It is not the real origin of bonfire night; just an adaptation of a much older festival.

All Hallows is, you see, the beginning of winter. It is the night when the sun heads south for the Costas and we Northern Spirits stuff our windows and door jambs with putty to seal ourselves against the cold. It is the night when the witches have one helluva party, because the darkness will hide their wicked endeavors until next spring comes, and dear old Odin does his last collection for the year. Bonfire night was originally part of the same festival before Guy Fawkes borrowed it. A pagan binge heralded by All Hallows Eve – a banishing of spirits for the season to come.

For me, this week has special significance. It is the beginning of my winter – my peculiar darkness, when my thoughts turn to the stuff of nightmares, and evil at my window, stares in at my endeavors. As summer is the season of fertility upon the land, so winter is the nurture of the spirit. Persephone is in the Underworld, the River Styx runs black and cold, and men cower before their gods. I know my writing will catch the mood that flutters through the long night. It will be the darker, and speak of deeper things, until the dawn of Spring.