Thursday, December 29, 2011

Snatching a quiet moment

Today has been a lull, a rest day, a brief interlude between a very happy and enjoyable Christmas with our daughter’s family and what will be a similarly happy and enjoyable New Year celebration with our son’s.

On the day before Christmas Eve DH and I travelled up to Yorkshire, taking his mother with us. Between then and yesterday, when we drove back down to my mother-in-law’s home, we went to church twice, ate very well but not too much, talked and laughed a great deal, played Grandson #1’s new card game to much hilarity (well, what else would you expect with a game entitled Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot?) and generally caught up with each other’s lives very satisfyingly.

Beware the Bunnies!
I even found time to knit one and a half socks out of the pair I've been promising DH for ages, often as I listened to DD and her two sons playing their various musical instruments.

Tomorrow, DS will arrive with his wife and Grandson #3 for what promises to be an equally entertaining and hilarious visit. The games will be different and there will be less music, but there will be plenty of talk and laughter and catching-up with all the details that don’t always get across in phone calls and emails. Our offspring lead such busy lives with all their work and family responsibilities and we’re always glad when we can spend more than the occasional day or two with them.

Naturally all this activity means that I’m very behind with my blog-reading, but I promise to catch up once we’re safely back home in Wales next week. In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

Images via Wylio

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nativity - Assisi

Tucked away obscurely in a dark corner of the left transept in the basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi is one of the most touching mediaeval portrayals of the Nativity I have ever seen. When I first saw it nearly 15 years ago, it was almost hidden behind a pile of stacking chairs and I had to crane my neck to see it properly. Despite this I fell in love immediately with this exquisite fragment of fresco, which has almost miraculously survived at least 700 years of neglect and earthquake damage.

To my frustration, when DD and I made our Big Birthday trip to Assisi in May, we found that the apse and transept have now been cordoned off and visitors can no longer get close enough to the fresco to appreciate its beauty. So, as my Christmas present to you all, here is the wonderful image of the Madonna and Child with angels by an unknown but gifted student of the great fresco painter Giotto.

It comes with my thanks for your friendship and company on this deeply enjoyable blogging journey. I wish you all a peaceful and joyous Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year.

To accompany my touching mediaeval image, I would like to leave you with this lovely rendering of one of the most beautiful and touching of mediaeval carols.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The ghosts of Christmases past

My next sister and I belong to the baby boom generation, born in the years immediately after WW2. I say my next sister because I am one of five sisters. My father was a widower with a young daughter, when he met and married my mother in the early years of the war. The year after the war ended I was born, the first of her four children.

The photograph was taken in the kitchen of our terraced house in a cotton town in industrial east Lancashire. It shows my parents and my elder sister, A, with R sitting on her father’s knee and me on my mother’s, with a book on my lap, of course, even at that early age. Looking at us, I think I must have been 3 or 4, which dates the photo to around 1950.

What a different world it was then. Our house was originally a basic two-up and two-down, though by the time my parents moved there it was one of the posher ones in the street by virtue of an extension at the back, which housed a scullery downstairs and that greatest of working-class luxuries, a bathroom, upstairs. The photo shows that the kitchen was still equipped with an old-fashioned range, but in the scullery my mother was also the proud possessor of a gas-stove, alongside the usual wash-copper and mangle.

We left this house to move out into the country before I was seven, so the Christmases I remember celebrating in this house were very early ones. I don’t recall a tree, so perhaps we didn’t have one back then, but I do remember the homemade Christmas decorations, made first by my mother and elder sister and then, under supervision, by R and myself, painstakingly criss-crossing long, narrow strips of different coloured crepe-paper and then carefully unfolding the resulting plaits for my parents to hang around the room.

Both my grandmother, who lived next-door, and my mother were good cooks, so we had our share of Christmas goodies as far as post-war rationing would allow. Turkey was unknown to us and in fact even chicken was a rare treat, enjoyed only at Christmas and Easter. But we had Christmas cake and mince pies and even a few chocolates, so it all seemed very special.

But what I remember above all else about Christmas in this house are the presents R and I received two years running. Because we were so close in age (less than 18 months between us) we were usually treated exactly alike. We would go to bed at the same time on Christmas Eve in the room we always shared, each armed with her Christmas stocking (a laddered old lisle one which had belonged to our mother or grandmother) with its handwritten label so that our presents couldn’t get mixed up.

Oh, the excitement of putting the limp, empty stocking across the foot of the bed on Christmas Eve and then waking early next morning to the weight of the miraculously-filled stocking pressing down on the bedclothes. We never had many presents, but there were always the traditional orange, apple and tangerine in the toe of the stocking, together with the essential net bag of foil-wrapped chocolate coins. There would be small presents from our only set of grandparents and from a couple of elderly great-aunts, but that was all, since by then our parents had no living brothers and sisters.

But, and it is a big but, on the floor at the foot of the bed, would be the present from our parents. Just one present, which of course made it very special. When I was (I think) five and R was four, we were given a walkie-talkie doll each. We have no pictures of them, but I don’t need any. I can still see them both so clearly. R’s had dark hair and brown eyes, whilst mine was a blue-eyed blonde. Wonder of wonders, both would close their eyes when we laid them down.

Our mother, who was a fine dress-maker and made all our clothes, had made clothes for both dolls, a nightie, a day dress and a party dress. After this length of time I can only remember the party dresses and they were wonderful. Each was made of taffeta, with a net overskirt. R’s doll had a yellow dress and mine a blue one, and, as a crowning glory, our mother had painstakingly sewn tiny sequins all over the bodice of each. Even now I wonder at the thought of her, with a house to keep and by then four children to look after, working on these miniature garments in the evenings when we had gone to bed, so that our dolls would be properly dressed.

The following year it was our father’s turn to be the creative one. When R and I woke up on Christmas morning, at the foot of each bed was a dolls-house, made from scratch in the evenings and at weekends. Rather than the front wall coming off to show the rooms within, the long sloping roof lifted up and hinged back to reveal a kitchen and living room, a tiny staircase rising from the ground floor to the first, a little bedroom and a miniscule bathroom.  All the rooms were papered and painted (our father was a painter and decorator by trade) and neatly furnished. The crowning glory this time were the tiny lights in every room, made from torch bulbs powered by a battery, which we could switch on and off at will.

There were carefully chosen presents in subsequent years, and thanks largely to my parents’ example, Christmas has always been a very important time for me. But I don’t think any presents I have received since, however special, will ever replace in my memory and affections my beautifully-dressed and much-loved doll and my perfect little dolls’ house.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A comic interlude

For the last few days I’ve been trying, and dismally failing, to produce enough coherent thought for a proper post.  As soon as this dratted cough lets me get a halfway decent night’s sleep, I’ll be back with some real writing. In the meantime, here is an absolute gem by the wonderful Richard Stilgoe, first brought to my attention by David Cloake, the inimitable Vernacular Vicar.  Thanks, David. J

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Light in the darkness

Yesterday DH and I went shopping, a not unusual activity at this time of year, but a task usually avoided by us both like the plague, except for necessities. It was cheering to see the shops and streets decorated for the festivities, though a little worrying to see how relatively quiet they were so close to Christmas. I think many shoppers are pulling their horns in this year and the shops must be feeling the pinch.

On our return I settled down with a nice pot of tea to look though that day’s posts in Google Reader and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse of a traditional German Christmas market, as given by Friko on Friko's Worldjust as I recently appreciated the tempting images of aspects of Christmas Spanish-style, as supplied by Annie on Moving On.

I think this juxtaposition may be why today’s shocking attack at the Christmas market in Liege in Belgium has hit me with particular force and left me feeling very unChristmassy indeed. Seeing ordinary lives torn apart by violence in the middle of the very activity DH and I had been doing yesterday brings home yet again the horror of man's inhumanity to man. It sometimes seems that our world is moving ever further from the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men”, a sad thought to ponder only 12 days before Christmas.

To comfort myself and remind myself that Advent is all about hopeful expectation, even in the midst of sadness and suffering, I have just listened again to the exquisite Advent Song, written by Christine McIntosh and set to music by her husband John, and posted very recently on her blog blethers. The words are here, and the music, sung by their church choir, is below. I hope it may speak to you as it has to me.

Image: Paul Brentnall /

Friday, December 09, 2011

Small is beautiful

Sitting at my desk on a cold, damp day, with pictures of the dreadful storm which struck Scotland yesterday still vivid in my mind, it’s already hard to remember that this year in Europe we enjoyed one of the warmest autumns on record. This meant that for the second year running I was fortunate enough to have glorious weather for most of my stay in Prague. Even the mere memory makes me feel warmer. So to distract myself from the winter weather outside my window, I would like to take you with me on a walk around my favourite part of Prague.

Mala Strana, or the Little Quarter, lies across the Vltava River from the centre of the city. Most visitors come to it across the historic Charles Bridge from the city centre. However I discovered that it can also be approached through the large and lovely Letenske Park and this second route rapidly became my favourite.

It takes you through the park, with its wonderful views over the centre of Prague and past the Belvedere, the beautiful Renaissance Summer Palace, into the Royal Garden and towards to Prague Castle. Walking in the shade of magnificent specimen trees, with views of the castle dominated by the towers of Saint Vitus’ cathedral, was something I never tired of. 

Prague Castle, still the seat of government and one of the largest complexes of royal buildings in Europe deserves a post of its own, by someone more knowledgeable than I about its history. Having explored the castle last year, this autumn I preferred to walk through or round the castle and down one or other of the long flights of steps which lead from the castle heights to the Little Quarter below.

It’s also possible to walk down the steep and beautiful Nerudova Street, famed for the historic emblems on its house-fronts, which were used to identify individual buildings before the introduction of numbering in 1770. 

Once at the bottom of the hill the Little Quarter just begs to be wandered around, almost at random. Its mixture of streets and squares of mostly C18th buildings, interspersed with glorious Gothic and Baroque churches and towers, is made to be explored on foot and alone, so that you can linger at will.

One of the many things I love about Prague, in Mala Strana and elsewhere, are the little side streets, alleys almost, which tempt you to leave your planned route and explore. On one such side street I found a reminder of the fact that for nearly 400 years Bohemia and its capital Prague were part of the Hapsburg Empire and the official language of government and education was German, not Czech.

Today Mala Strana, with its fine town houses and mansions, is a favoured location for embassies and other institutions. It is haunted by tourists, who are bowled over by its history and beauty, but also keeps its quiet places, where you can feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets. It is a quarter with personality and deep charm – living proof, if any were needed, that size bears little relation to importance and worth.  Mala Strana - small is indeed beautiful.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Handel galore

A friend just gave me this link and now, on a cold, wet, miserable, December day, I'm sitting here with a great big grin on my face. Enjoy.....and I promise not to make a habit of this. J

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Strong words

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and this morning at church our Bishop will be with us for a confirmation service. It will be a very happy occasion and during it we will listen to the prophet Isaiah's great message of encouragement from chapter 40, one of the set readings for today. It is one of my favourite Old Testament passages and is indelibly associated in my mind with Handel's immortal setting from his Messiah. 

When I was growing up in the north of England in the 1950s and 1960s, the annual public performance of the Messiah was an essential part of the approach to Christmas for many people, either as performer or listener. Fifty years on I still make sure I find time to listen to it at some point during Advent. Another tradition which enriches my life. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

Friday, December 02, 2011

And so a tradition was born

Yesterday I went out for lunch. Hardly earth-shattering news, you might say, and you’d be right. But it was a very satisfying lunch for me in more ways than the obvious one, because it was the 10th such lunch in a series that goes back to my early days as the vicar of three country parishes.

I arrived in the parishes in the spring of 2001, in the middle of the appalling foot-and-mouth epidemic which ravaged so much of rural Britain that year. On my arrival I found three welcoming and hard-working congregations, a number of deeply-worried farmers and a moribund branch of that stalwart Anglican organisation, the Mothers’ Union.  

Like the Women’s Institute, the Mothers’ Union can often be the butt of jokes and the victim of some misunderstanding, but it’s an organisation for which I have a great deal of time and respect. Yes, its members are mostly on the wrong side of 50, but that’s true of a lot of organisations nowadays, both religious and secular. In today’s pressured world, how many younger people, desperately juggling work and family commitments and also trying to have a bit of time for themselves, have much time or energy to spare for joining things?

I joined the MU, as it’s usually known to its members, twenty years ago, when I was curate in a small market town. The branch I joined was large and lively and made a big contribution to parish life. Its monthly meetings had interesting speakers and were very enjoyable and I quickly learned to value the way in which the MU encourages its members to get involved in a wide range of socially useful projects, from making tiny baby clothes for premature babies to running parenting courses or helping to staff contact centres for separated parents or crèches for those visiting prison.

In my time as a member, among many other activities I’ve knitted baby clothes, raised money for literacy programmes for women in Africa and collected toiletries for the local women’s refuge, so that women and children arriving with nothing can at least look after their personal needs.

So it’s hardly surprising that one of my priorities on becoming a vicar was to revive the local MU and make it an area branch, covering a number of rural parishes too small to support their own branch any longer. The new branch went well and as Christmas 2002 approached, the members agreed that they would like to mark the end of its first year by having a Christmas lunch.

In the past this would have meant going out to a local pub or restaurant, but the costs quoted for the special Christmas menu were higher than most could comfortably afford, so we came up with a splendid alternative. The vicarage had a very large living-room, easily big enough to put up a couple of folding tables and accommodate all the members comfortably. We made out a menu and asked each person which favourite dish she (or he – we had a husband and wife who were both members) would like to bring for our shared meal.

The lunch duly took place and it was so enjoyable, and the food so good, that we thought it might be fun to invite others to share their favourite recipes with us, and to compile a recipe booklet to raise money for parish funds. The recipes poured in and a week’s hard work on my part (it should have been a week’s holiday, but needs must….) saw the booklet compiled and printed in time to go on sale for the summer. I don’t know about other people, but I’m still using mine.

Two years later I moved to a new post in England, but happily the MU branch I left behind went from strength to strength under its new branch leader and was still flourishing when I retired and moved back to Wales. Of course I immediately rejoined and was more than pleased to find that the tradition of the bring-and-share Christmas lunch had continued unbroken.

Yesterday’s lunch was in the village hall and I duly turned up with my contribution, including the bread rolls for which I've been famed from the beginning, thanks to my bread machine’s infallible ability to make perfect dough. J  We sat at a beautifully decorated table, ate well, swapped news and had fun, and I came home feeling very contented, both from the excellent food lovingly prepared and in the knowledge that a small and very personal tradition was still enriching the lives of those concerned. Bon appétit!