I didn’t overplay Christmas this year, although that is probably true of the last few years too, and one of the great advantages of living alone and having already done most of it. Christmas this last year was a time of relaxation for me, and I didn’t even need to hide away and avoid invitations, having made it clear I already had other plans. Although “other plans” is perhaps the wrong description: I had no plans, and that was exactly the way I wished it to be. My cat and I, the only two living in this house, enjoyed a long weekend which was the same as any other weekend, but for the shops being closed, together and without any of the fuss associated with a major holiday, with a major celebration. We did not miss it, I must admit. Cat enjoyed its usual diet, and I sat down to sausages and baked beans with a beer. The streets were deserted for my afternoon walk, not even anyone feeding the ducks down on the river banks, and it was a most peaceful, invigorating time.
I’ve had some people ask me how I can face Christmas and the New Year without any form of ritual celebration, without a big meal on the table, loads of people around me and music, wine, song, presents and all those other things which go with the holiday spirit these days. My answer has always been to bring out that word spirit which is mentioned by most, and remind them of the meaning of the word, and that being loud and stuffing your face – as we politely say – is not really a celebration, not even a feast, but more of a slaughter of the senses bringing a tide of forgetfulness over the rest of the previous year. We rejoice in something which should be in our hearts and minds throughout the year, every single day, on one single day.
And then, taking the new year, the transition from 2017 to 2018, or any other year that you wish to name, why? Why do we take this one millisecond of time between one year and the next, which is a human construct anyway, and has been changed several times over the last millennia, and mark it as being the time when we look for a new start in life? Why make resolutions when we know we’re going to dump them within hours if not minutes, and when our senses are overcome with both the excitement of the times, and the drink of the night? Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful sitting with cat on my lap, as midnight strikes in Germany and the fireworks shoot up into the heavens – this year far fewer than last, and fewer still than the year before. It is, I am sure, a wonderful experience watching the ball fall in Times Square, or listening to Big Ben chime out the twelve strokes of midnight in London, watch the fireworks light up the sky over Sydney Opera House, the turrets of the Kremlin. I enjoyed them all in my youth, as much as I did buying chicken and rice from a street vendor in Belize, or olive bread from a bakery in Venice. For some they are normal days of the week, nothing special happens. We just have to remember to change that one number we’ve been using down for a whole year, from a seven to an eight, in the date.
I am not playing down the importance of such days, of such celebrations in our social lifestyle: they have a very useful function and do remind us that there is far more to life than the trudge of commuting, of work and nine-to-five living, that there are other people in our lives who we can spend time with, that there is more to life than what we have at this minute. Although, that said, many of us should really calm down with the reaching out for ever more, and be satisfied with what we have. Do we need more than the basics which keep us alive and good friends? Is that second car, a house in the Hamptons, three Caribbean holidays in two years, necessary?
That said, I am pleased to hear that you enjoyed both Thanksgiving – which we do not celebrate in Europe, of course – and Christmas, and that the normal stresses and strains of life and environment were relieved with a celebration to be remembered. I also greatly appreciate that such a day reminds you of many other things, which is the downside of course, but I hope that the contact is there and that good wishes and blessings were passed from one to another.
I do have a few friends who celebrate Thanksgiving but, as you can appreciate, we English tend not to remember those days in quite the same light. Not that Thanksgiving is a particularly anti-British event, those actions and recriminations all came much later in the history of your fledgling country, but it is something which has never caught on anyway. We have our Guy Fawkes night, when fireworks are set off to remind us of an attempt to blow up the old Houses of Parliament at the start of the seventeenth century. That, however, is all fireworks and warm drinks, not so much a celebratory meal. Sadly we do not celebrate Trafalgar Day, or St Georges Day or even the date on which the Magna Carta Libertatum was signed, back in June 1215, which is a shame as the last is definitely on the same level as American Independence Day.
When I was younger I would celebrate new year to a certain extent, always depending on which country I happened to be in at the time. Sometimes there would be fireworks, sometimes just looking out over the desert with nothing in sight but a flat horizon, or looking out over the shattered buildings in Sarajevo, the deserted streets of Belfast, or walking the unmade streets between dilapidated wooden houses, looking for the garage door behind which an illegal bar would be hidden. But it was mainly being with other people who were celebrating – or being alone, as the case may be – and having the pleasure of their company. I was, and probably still am, one of those people who thought that the new year celebrations were rather lost in the scope of things, especially since new year has not always been on 1 January. It was only due to the pride of Julius Caesar and his creation of the Julian calendar that we have new year on the day we do, and also out of convenience, since this was the day when Consuls began their work. In the early Christian calendar, and this is why some people find it difficult to have such a major celebration on this day, new year fell on the day of Jesus’ circumcision – really a Jewish celebration, if one can term the cutting off of a piece of skin for religious reasons grounds for a celebration. But, things being what they are, Christmas was moved from one date to another many centuries ago, it was not always 25 December, and so the new year date for his circumcision is also just a matter of myth and fable.
Not that I wish to change the ideas behind any celebrations! I just have an obsession with knowledge, and sometimes the trivia that I do know springs out at inopportune moments and surprises me as much as it surprises those around me. I am sure I’d not be the best date – certainly not on a first date – if I came out with my Christmas and new year stories! But the right sort of trivial information can bring a conversation back and save a date as much as anything, and that is what I like to bolster myself with, not that I need a reason for reading and learning, and some of my letters are the better for it too. And at the same time as that small bit of information would be inappropriate, there are times when my philosophical, historical or literary knowledge would be out-of-place too. Not that I mix in such circle all that often, but coming out with a quotation from Descartes, for example, during a football match would not be understood by most, whether it fitted the bill or not. I’m not saying that football fans would not have read Descartes, they are a very mixed bunch and a professor can enjoy football just as much as the next person, but it would probably be bad timing.
Music is one of those things which has come back to me after many years of idleness. It’s not that I have been ignoring music, just that much of the music produced in recent years has been unappealing, it has not spoken to my soul in any way, and I think that is one of the things music should be capable of doing. I have recently rediscovered the pleasures of music by going out to the ballet, something I had never, as a youngster, thought I would admit, or do. Ballet, when I was a youth in the rough streets of London and North Yorkshire, was something for women and weird men, not for real people. Those who were rich and had nothing better to do with their time paid good money to go to the ballet, and to the opera, to be seen, as much as to see a performance. Having been in the theatre many times – considering a career in it years ago – I know all the older theatre buildings where the upper-class seats, often in private lodges, were turned not so much toward the stage, so that the occupants could see the performance, but towards the audience, so that the gentry could be seen and applauded in all their finery. But now I have discovered ballet, especially the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and returned to the music which accompanies it and, of course, through this music t much of my youth. I’m not talking about the loud, snazzy, glittery music of the Seventies, though: I was definitely a Pink Floyd, Yes, Camel fan with tendencies to Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac. And, I can admit it because no one else knows of this anymore, also the Mills Brothers, with their beautiful Paper Doll, although most would remember the Sinatra version, I think the Mills Brothers was far better.
Funnily enough, I came across the Mills Brothers, who were not big in England, through a mention of The Inkspots on a popular British television sitcom. This was back in the days, as you appreciate, when there was television, radio or vinyl. If you wanted to catch decent music over a longer period of time, you went out and bought the records. No chance of just clicking on the internet, as I can do now, and calling up old titles such as Dream a Little Dream of Me or any of the others. And then there was a sudden resurgence of interest, which I caught, when a Seventies duo, actors, not singers, covered Whispering Grass and made it into the British charts for a few weeks. The internet brings the Mills Brothers, and so many others, back to life, along with so many other brilliant musicians of earlier years, right down to some of their earliest films – watching the Mills Brothers singing Lazy River and Till Then as I write. Although I don’t suppose that you, in your DJ days, would have laid these songs on the turntable too often: they’re not really made for dancing, more for the pleasure of real music and real talent and good company in a real bar or restaurant.
I wonder how many of the people I know today, including those in my own age group, would even have heard of any of these groups and artists. Not that they would follow any of the modern musicians either, but our worlds, back then, were completely different, and I am sure half of the big bands and groups of the time, you could name ten or twelve from memory, which we believed would be the group for all time, have not been heard of today at all. I upset a youngster a short while ago who was listening to the latest song by a brand new – for him – artist called Debbie Harry. I’m sure you can imagine how he felt when I told him first that I knew her in my teenage years, and, secondly, how old she is now. Had I not turned my interests in the direction of philosophy and literature, then music would possibly have been my chosen area of interest, not as a player or musician, but as a historian. The twists of fate and fortune.