Winter Solstice – I should go down to the canal

Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Christmas brings out my inner Thomas Hardy. I’d really like life to be like “Under the Greenwood Tree” his only cheerful, not to say funny book; but reality turns out to be – in the main – “Jude the Obscure”.

I wake up early this morning at around 4.30am and lie in bed filled with the sense of a recurrent dream in which I am slowly becoming invisible; a wraith moving through remembered places and among people I loved and some who loathed me -evoking feelings inviolable to passing time but always there; a miasma.

Madame asks “can’t you sleep?“; “No”; “What’s up?”; “Dreams”. A pause. “Go and make a cup of tea”. And so I shuffle off to the kitchen and boil the kettle – searching for a packet of shortbread biscuits to cheer myself up. I give myself a stern talking to: “For crying out loud – do try to stop being so down!” – so I read for a bit, drinking tea and eating biscuits. I’ve just started “The Waste Land – Biography of a poem.” by Matthew Hollis. I’ve been spending far too much time reading in the past, and I quickly run out of concentration – it’s possibly a bad choice for a chronic melancholic. Then I remember that this evening at 21.47 we will celebrate the Winter Solstice. For some bizarre reason it feels like a personal achievement, although in truth it’s the beginning and not the end of winter. But seasons come sheathed inside one another like celestial music, and so today we celebrate a subtle change of key. The buds are on the trees. The long winter nights concede their dominion to the sun and from now until the summer solstice the light dominates and thistledown memories give way to new life.

We haven’t been down there yet, but the canalside will be showing the first flowers of Winter Heliotrope. When they’re in their full glory they have a strange perfume – like almonds possibly – but subtle – you have to search for it. There will be Coltsfoot – but in eight years we’ve not seen it here in Bath, and in fact the last time I saw it I was on my bicycle taking a turn around my parishes bordering the Severn and I spotted it peeping through snow. Of course there are many winter flowering garden plants but they never lift the heart as much as wildflowers. We greet them one by one in the spring like old friends with whom we’d lost touch.

The seasons aren’t just measured by day length but by events like this and – as my sister reminded me yesterday – some time in mid January we will suddenly notice that the brief snatches of the themes we overheard in the overture, have broadened out and asserted themselves. The woodwinds have been joined by the strings and by June it will have become a full Brahmsian orchestra. The saints pass in procession; the old Christian calendar which had the good sense to borrow extensively from the (so-called) pagans – is the liturgical song of the earth. Plough Monday – the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany – when the Young Farmers carried an old Ransomes Plough into the church to be blessed and it was so bitterly cold that the Archdeacon lost his voice as he preached at the beginning of the old farming year and his breath crystallized in the air. These are the furnishings of the memory; a form of defence against the enslavement of technology and greed.

And so I shall throw off my gloomy cloak and we will celebrate. The season that begins tonight and lasts around two weeks is often deprecated as a festival of overconsumption and indulgence. From 1644 until 1660 Christmas celebrations were officially banned in England by the Puritans and replaced by a period of solemn reflection on our sins! – In their dreams! Of course Christmas and its revelries were never suppressed and our reputation for surly disobedience remains untarnished – but the celebrations always ran deeper than the deepest roots of imposed religion. The fear of the dying of the light and the joy when it returns defies all logic. We know perfectly well that the sun will triumph – until next year – and yet – the return of green shoots leaves us shuddering with thankfulness and we celebrate. In this time of catastrophic climate change we know that the unthinkable may yet come to pass.

And so this week, as we all meet up again, I’m cooking; practicing and planning. The diary is marked up with the day we need to collect our meat from the farm, the exact time and day I need to start a sourdough loaf to be ready, fresh, on Christmas day. We’ve hunted down our best pickles and chutneys; I’ve taught myself to bone, stuff and roll a chicken; our groceries and a good deal of wine will arrive early on Christmas Eve and there is fresh stock in the fridge. I’ve learned how to make hollandaise reliably with a good deal of help from our youngest (chef) son and so Christmas breakfast will be eggs royale, or benedict according to taste. Madame – who likes neither – will probably have poached eggs on toast; either way we all get spoiled. We won’t be eating anything like a month’s calories in a day. We’ll be spending money we haven’t got on treats we can’t afford but the government hasn’t crushed our will to live yet. Christmas Eve will be Italian; a light salad of lambs lettuce, dried ham and burrata followed by pappardelle in a rich ragu of tomato and ox cheek and Christmas lunch will be utterly traditional by popular demand.

In the midst of Covid lockdown Madame and I had a Mexican and really enjoyed it. For the first time in decades I haven’t made a Christmas cake or Christmas puddings – all far too rich for us these days and then the festival of cold meat and lentil soup will take us up to New Year’s Eve when we’ll probably be in bed by 10.00pm. I see nothing much to celebrate from last year apart from its ending and short of an unexpected political earthquake nothing much to look forward to. The earth, though, has her own seasons and we’ll begin by looking for those Winter Heliotropes whose faint perfume will certainly overpower the stench of corruption and idiocy that surrounds us. Our celebrations are an act of resistance.

And if I don’t post again before the weekend – we wish you a very happy time this weekend. Whatever name and faith you give it, we hope it’s cheerful Hardy, not too Laurel and Hardy and not at all dark Hardy!

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