Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Very Rees-Mogg Christmas N to Z

Keen followers of this occasional "blog" will no doubt have noticed that I have left the remaining Christmas letters to the very last minute. I would like to claim that this was intentional, but the truth is that I have found myself far too busy with 'politics' and only now have a few spare minutes to attend to the far more important matter of my Christmas A to Z.

Nutmeg - in the 17th Century, Holland monopolised the cultivation of this little East Indian nut and blocked all attempts to open up the market. Curiously the plant was only found in a few islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the Flemish traders were unwilling to share it, putting up trade barriers and generally making themselves both rich and unpopular. Happily in 1809 the British seized the Banda islands from the Dutch in a violent attack that killed thousands and broke the whole ghastly monopoly, teaching the Netherlanders a valuable lesson in free trade and providing cheap nutmeg for Christmas lunches across the land ever since.

Oven - it is terribly recherché to have an oven. An Aga will cook most things to perfection and keep the basement delightfully warm. In my own experience a cosy kitchen usually means a happy staff.

Partridge (in a pear tree) - there are many interpretations of this verse from the popular Christmas song. Some see the bird as 'symbolic' of Christ on the cross. Others argue that it is a political allusion to George the third and his unfortunate madness. The only thing that we could all perhaps agree on is that once dead, the little bird is absolutely delicious, particularly when served with a decent Margaux.

Quince - I was once given a home-made jar of this as a Christmas present. I confess I have not spoken to the woman since.

Rudolph the "red nosed" reindeer - is a rather irritating song about Santa Claus's "ninth reindeer". Anyone with even a passing knowledge of reindeer husbandry could tell you that it is impossible to pull a sleigh with an uneven number of caribou. We must therefore assume that the story is entirely fictional and give it the full lack of attention it deserves.

Stockings - should be worn not hung above a fireplace. My suggestion is to leave a note by the tradesman's entrance, that your slumber might not be interrupted by a large man in a red suit.

Toboggan - it is very rare to see a white Christmas in this country but even so it is always sensible to keep one's runners well greased just in case. 

Unitarians - celebrate Christmas with a plate of out of season asparagus. This is one of the very many reasons why I am not a Unitarian.

Visitors - are always very welcome of course and even more welcome once they have left.

Wreath - one should only put one's wreath up on Christmas Eve. There has been a very unfortunate trend in recent years towards people placing them over their brass knockers well in advance of the festive period. Worse still, there is an increasing habit of buying them pre-made from retailers. One of the great pleasures of Christmas is to watch one's wife or employee carefully weaving reeds and garnering the halo with holly. Much joy is lost if one has purchased it from 'Argo' or some other such place.

X - an ancient symbol of peace, a sign of disagreement, the Roman numeral for "10" and the symbol I hope many of you in the NE Somerset region will choose to place next to my name in May 2015.

Yule log - nothing good ever came of an American reinvention of a German festive 'treat'. Wars have been waged over lesser baked goods.

Zwarte Peit - you may remember this chap from the newspapers a few weeks ago. In the Netherlands young children are told that if they have been naughty he will come and kidnap them and no doubt dispose of them shortly afterwards. "Peit" is portrayed as a 'blacked up' minstrel who strikes fear and terror into the hearts of infants across that very flat land. This year, liberal minded folk in the Netherlands have suggested that this whole portrayal seems rather "racist", while others have countered that a terrifying blacked up man running around threatening to steal children is a charming old Flemish tradition. Both very convincing arguments of course.

I have very much enjoyed talking to many of you over the year and thank you for your kind words and thoughtful insults. Whoever you are and however you may celebrate it, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a productive New year.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A Very Rees-Mogg Christmas: Avoid Brueghels on your cards (M is for Magi)

I confess that unlike W.H. Auden, I have never 'got on' with the Flemish masters. The poet (a Christ Church man) who later found fame as a writer on "Four Weddings and a Funeral", immortalised their daubings in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts written in the winter of 1938. In this flaccid, non-rhyming excuse for verse, which pays not the slightest attention to iambic pentameter, Auden implausibly argues that most tragedies, martyrdoms and cataclysms really play out quite unseen. That as Christ is crucified everybody else is too busy buying souvenirs and looking the other way to notice his sacrifice. That when Icarus falls spectacularly from the sky, the sailors of the Mediterranean are too occupied with the rigging to notice his 'epic' tumble. How when great events occur, "there always must be, children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of a wood." Nonsense.

The winter scene above by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, is just the sort of bunk Auden was struggling to explain. In this 'painting' the baby Jesus is rendered no more than a dull pink streak on the left hand side of the canvas. Indeed, more prominence is afforded a man carrying a cheap bucket away from a poorly cut hole in the ice than to the Christ child. As he does so, the three crudely painted Magi - Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar - curiously accompanied by a hobbit in a 'brown' dressing gown wait, like oddballs in a bus queue, as two rather effete soldiers in red stockings stand guard close by. The Bible is very specific on the visit of the Three Kings (Matthew 2 verses 1 to 12) and to the best of my recollection, red tights and a man with a bucket, do not feature.

The whole effect is to ridicule the Nativity, while simultaneously turning us into nothing more than 'voyeurs' who must crane our necks to see the action. The Brueghels and their ilk are highly revered by many today, but for my part I have long viewed them as nothing more than medieval 'spot the ball' merchants, endlessly repeating a tired old formula with subject matter that is far beyond their understanding. Speaking very much for myself, I do not wish to be an 'onlooker' - I want to be where the action is, in the front line, drinking in the sights, the sounds and smells of the manger, looking the bewildered Joseph in the eye or gazing upon the magnificent halo of a passing angel.

Indeed, unlike the superb paintings of say Vicente Collado the Flemish 'Masters' seem determined, like so many others who followed them, to take the story of Christ and make it all about themselves.  

With only nine days to go until Christmas, many of you will be suffering the last minute anxiety of cards arriving from people one has forgotten existed. In such circumstances it is very tempting to send one's man out to buy a 'corps commanders reserve' and fire them off without thinking about the imagery on the front. My advice is to take a moment of reflection and look before you affix your postage stamp.

Hopefully, the scene will be relevant to this magical season and the birth of Christ; if it is a picture by any of the Brueghels however, my tip is this: send your man back to the shop, with clearer instructions.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

K is for Good King Wenceslaus

Good King Wenceslaus I, the eldest son of the limp and erratic Vratislaus, was the King of Bohemia from 921 until 935, when he was murdered by his brother Boleslav the Cruel. That his fratricidal sibling had such a name should perhaps have served as some warning to the altruistic ruler, but it appears that Wenceslaus, while very 'giving', was a dreadful judge of character. Worse still, there is convincing evidence that he was the progenitor of the very first 'welfare state'. 

In the nine hundred years after his death, the cult of Wenceslaus was to grow and spread across Europe, culminating in the writing of the carol that bears his name.

You are no doubt familiar with the hymn, penned by an Englishman John Mason Neale, which relates how the Good King, looking out one night (on the feast of Stephen) sees a poor man gathering winter fuel and decides to follow him home with a magnificent basket of pine logs, flesh and wine. 

I confess that as a child I found the message of the song more than a little perplexing. While others dwelt on the 'giving' aspect of the tale, it struck me that there was a deeply dubious subtext to the lyric. In essence the third verse suggests that if one forages for wood close to the home of a rich man, one might well be rewarded with a 'state benefit'. 

The carol ends on a cliff-hanger, with the monarch and his trusted servant traipsing through the snow. What happens next is left only to conjecture but presumably the upshot of it all is that the 'poor man' sees that there is an easier way to provide for his family than bothering with all the hoo-haa of going out to work. One can only suppose that the moment the larder was empty he was back at the castle gates, trying to catch Wenceslaus's eye his hand literally out in expectation.

The reason for the Good King's later brutal murder has long been a matter of speculation, but I like to think that having witnessed the nation being brought to the brink of poverty by free meals and winter fuel allowances, Boleslav realised that drastic action needed to be taken and took it upon himself to instigate some 'cuts' of his own. 

Despite his name, Boleslav the Cruel is much revered in the modern day Czech Republic. History, one likes to imagine, will be similarly kind to George Osborne.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Ban this filth: The Holly and the Ivy.

I confess that I set out to write the 'H' and 'I' segment of this series as a celebration of the old English song The Holly and the Ivy. However,  in the course of my research the true meaning of the lyrics was revealed to me and so instead, I shall briefly 'out' this panoply of filth, that you might ban it from the music room when you gather around the Bechstein on the 25th of December. 

Prior to my enlightenment, I had believed that the song was nothing more than a gay amusement, innocently equating the suffering of Jesus on the cross with the bright colours of the evergreen plants. It seems however that as with so many elements in our modern Christmas, the references to the Messiah were added later. The song itself is 'pagan' and these perennials are not being celebrated. They are being used 'figuratively' as metaphors for acts best left beyond the boudoir door.

The 'holly' is a thinly concealed vision of raw manhood. The 'ivy', which represents womanhood,  is thankfully largely ignored in the text and while modern feminists might feel rather aggrieved that once again they have been overlooked by a clearly misogynistic 11th Century poet, one cannot help feeling that they got off rather lightly.

I shall say no more, lest the truth falls into the 'wrong hands' and spreads sensationally around the prep rooms of minor public schools. You can draw your own conclusions from the text . In the meantime, I have written a stiff rebuke to Breitkopf and Haertel, enclosing my sheet music and demanding reimbursement of eight-pence and a recommendation of a parental certificate . I would suggest that you do the same.

Monday, 9 December 2013

E, F and G are for Edwin Fermor-Garboldisham

Field-Marshall Sir Edwin Fermor-Garboldisham was a very odd man even by the standards of his eccentric and fascinating age. An exemplary soldier and veteran of all four Anglo-Ashanti wars, he was in his long life to see off three mutinies, two wives and the attentions of the sensational novelist Florence Marryat - who immortalised him as 'Alan' in her first book "Love's Conflict". 

He also invented the Christmas tree fairy.

Like his near contemporary Henry Evelyn Wood, Fermor-Garboldisham had a passion for airedale terriers and a fervent religious faith. During the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854 he was to lose both spectacularly when an enormous crucifix fell from the bell tower of a Byzantine church and crushed his much loved dog, Edward, as well as several sepoys (whose names are forgotten to us). The loss was incalculable and he never owned a hound again. 

On his return to England, the grieving Field Marshall grew closer to the increasingly deranged Marryat, who somehow managed to convince him that fairies were real, long before such nonsense was to become fashionable. Against the advice of friends Sir Edwin embarked on a long quest to prove that "fairy folk" did indeed exist, taking out a full page advertisement in The Times in which he promised to pay a farthing per unsubstantiated sighting. He was declared bankrupt the next year and following a long and complicated lawsuit over the intellectual rights to Tinkerbell, he retired to the village of Paxford in the Cotswolds, from where he penned misspelt hate mail to JM Barrie, while plotting his revenge.

Unfortunately it was not to be. A plan to mass produce paper fairies to use as bait was the last straw financially and the bailiffs were called in. The Field Marshall died in disgrace of second degree gout and the planned statue to him that would have graced the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was never cast.

Fermor-Garboldisham's debtors immediately seized his only asset and sold the fairies as  'traditional Christmas tree decorations' to members of the newly emerging 'middle' class who took to them immediately and have foolishly placed them atop their trees ever since.

To the chagrin of all.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Very Rees--Mogg Christmas D is for "Drummer Boy"

When I was a very small child I was taken one day to see a theatrical presentation of "The Sound of Music", the tale of a nun who falls beguilingly in love with an Austrian naval captain and his seven delightful children. As I sat in the stalls with my notebook and  pencil, waiting for the curtain to rise, I confess that my expectations were low. Even at the age of six I had very strong views on how theatrical productions should be staged and felt, as I still do, that if the performers were neither grossly overweight nor singing in Italian, something was probably very terribly amiss.

My initial scepticism was not alleviated by the niggling inconsistency of the father's profession. Why on earth would a land-locked country like Austria be in need of a navy at all?  However, by the denouement in the convent graveyard, where the demonological "Rolf" tries to 'entrap the Von Trapps', my pencil and notebook had been cast aside and it was all I could do to stop my little lungs from shouting "Liesl! Run! Run for your very life!" The scene remains for my shilling the most terrifying moment in modern stage drama.

Shortly afterwards I began to listen to the recordings of the real Von Trapp Family singers and their bakerlite discs, sung rather shrilly and at varying speeds on my wind up gramophone were  to become the soundtrack to my teenage years in the 1980s. Indeed, my first girl-friend Susan, was wooed to the joyful Es Wolt Ein Jagerlein Jagen

No Christmas was complete without my take on the Von Trapp Family's rendition of my favourite song of all - The Little Drummer Boy. Accompanied by my cousin Earnest on the alpenhorn, while my Aunt tapped out the rhythm on a marble bust of Napoleon, I would thrill visitors with my rendition and fight off compliments in the vestibule afterwards.

And then one day my sister took me aside and insisted I listen to the 'Bing Crosby and David Bowie' version that she had recently purchased on a 7 inch disc. I was instantly appalled. The tempo was wrong, an additional tune had been added, the drum was barely audible and there was no alpenhorn at all. In subsequent years this dreary dirge has become the 'standard' while the Von Trapp version has slipped from the collective memory.

I have tried in vain to track down a recording of the Von Trapps singing the original, but like the message boy "Rolf" I am afraid I have failed you. As you decorate your trees or pen those 'last minute' cards, take a moment to remember the real Von Trapps, think of the small boy who had nothing to give the Christ child but a pathetic drum beat and try to excise the ghastly "Bing" and his chum Mr Bowie from your ears. Christmas is no more about 'Bing' Crosby than it is about tarmac and his monopolisation of the season is - as you will discover if you read on - something of an obsession of mine.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Very Rees-Mogg Christmas C is for "Christingle"

I confess that oranges and I have never seen eye to eye. As a youth the pleasures of pith escaped me and rind was known to bring me out in a rash. To make matters worse a maiden great-aunt, whose husband had absconded with a Dutch ski champion, decided that the quickest route to the conclusion of a broken heart, was to move as far away from snow as was feasibly possible. She acquired an orange grove in the 'Algarve' and I spent an awkward summer there in the late nineteen eighties, patiently trying to explain to Portuguese labourers how best to pick a fruit and place it in a barrel on the back of a mule. Their singular failure to master even one word of English in the nine weeks I was there, shaped many of my views on the question of the then EEC and I have not been able to look at a donkey in quite the same way since.

The colour orange, unlike blue, has had a somewhat promiscuous relationship with different political movements over the years. It has been associated with socialists, white supremacists, Unionists, liberals and 'anarchists'. Just as one would never trust one's wife if she were to flit about a cocktail party chatting to every willing man, one should never put faith in a colour that cannot make its mind up.

And so to 'Christingle', an event that has crept into the Christmas calendar and is now inextricably linked in many people's minds with badly decorated fruits, poorly tied ribbons and The 'Church' of England's Yuletide celebrations. As with so many other topics in this series "Christingle" is an invention, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the birth of the Christ child. Oranges are barely mentioned in the New Testament and one cannot quell the doubt that this entire 'child-friendly' sing-song was invented by a citrus salesman. Avoid it. And stick to apples instead.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Very Rees-Mogg Christmas B is for "Bah Humbug"

B is for Bah Humbug

It seems that barely a year goes by without news of another 'metropolitan' council deciding to re-brand, 'reimagine' or simply cancel Christmas altogether. I am regularly lectured by acolytes of 'Professor' Richard Dawkins that the origin of the festival is the Roman feast of "Saturnalia" and indeed sometimes that 'it has nothing to do with the birth of our Saviour at all'. 

While it is very gracious of ninnies to show concern for worshippers of Roman Gods, one is only sorry that they cannot extend the same courtesy to those of us who have opted to follow the majority faith of these isles. One tries to fight the urge to wish such people nothing but ill, but I confess that it is a battle the 'urge' often wins. These no doubt are the types who wrap gifts to their children in back issues of Pravda and spend the festive period drinking herbal tea and pointing out that the Queen's speech is 'pre' recorded.

The dreadful term "Winterval" has increasingly been deployed in recent times by these and their allies in 'civic' council buildings, to encompass the 'broad range of religious festivals' that occur in December. There are those who argue that such consideration is a noble thing; that by making society 'inclusive' we encourage 'happiness' and general 'good cheer' amongst all men (and yes of course women). I would beg to differ. Inclusion is a ghastly concept. It drives colour and vitality from our streets and one feels quite sure that most other faiths are far too busy celebrating their own nonsense, to worry about ours. 

Throughout it all one imagines Mr Dawkins and his chums rubbing their hands with glee, for their determination to drive Christianity from these isles has nothing whatsoever to do with 'Darwin' or 'truth' as they so tiresomely claim. These modern Scrooges, along with their allies in the Labour party, the 'Humanist Society' and the governing council of North Korea have just one goal in mind - and that is the eradication of joy. They wish to excise it from the high streets and the department stores. They wish to ban it from the churches, the firesides and the public houses. They will indeed most probably never surrender, until we are living in a grey world of drab half-wits wittering on about how we are all descended from apes and there is nothing we can do about it.

The best defence of course is attack. Should you know such people please make sure you send them a card. Preferably with a nativity scene on the front. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A Very Rees-Mogg Christmas

As Crīstesmæsse or 'Christmas Day' as it is increasingly, rather tiresomely called approaches, it occurs that there are many in our fragmented and mosaic like society, that have lost the ability to celebrate this important feast day properly. Indeed it seems that rather like those dreadful Brueghel paintings, so popular in the Flemish flatlands of the 14th Century, Christmas for far too many has become lost in a landscape of cheap plastic fairy lights and the inevitable 'Santa Clauses' that one frequently sees rather unconvincingly scaling the sides of houses in certain estates on the outskirts of Keynsham.

Generations of Rees-Moggs have honed the oft labyrinthine traditions of this season and indeed it is something we feel we do rather well.

With this in mind I have set myself the task of writing a brief guide to the season in a popular and easy to read A to Z form and I shall be sharing my thoughts with those of you nimble enough to click on the link in the coming weeks.

We shall begin, inevitably perhaps, with the letter A

Advent  from the Latin 'Adventus' (meaning coming) is the beginning of the Western Liturgical year and begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The time is a traditional period of reflection on the 'second coming' of Jesus and is celebrated across the spectrum of churches with the exception of the tiresome Lutherans and the ever difficult 'Seventh Day Adventists'. Traditionally the high altar and priest are vested in a magnificent shade of purple, except on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when rose may be used instead.

From before the time of Queen Victoria Advent Calendars have been sold. Often depicting the events building up to the birth of Jesus in pictorial form, these miniature diversions have delighted generations with their images of Mary hearing the news that she is pregnant, or riding on a donkey to Bethlehem.

Unfortunately in recent years these charming introductions to the Nativity have been hijacked by confectionery manufacturers and marketing chumps, who have sought to sell cardboard cut-outs filled with 'chocolate' and decorated with pictures of popular television characters such as 'Hello' Kitty or "Where's Wally" instead. As far as I can remember there is no mention of "Fireman Sam" or "Bob" the Builder in Luke 2 verses 1 to 20. It might well have missed my keen eye but I am fairly certain that "Barbie and her friends" do not feature prominently in Matthew 1 (18-25) - although one is only sorry that they therefore escaped the massacre of the innocents. Do not buy your children these dreadful things. They will thank you for it in adulthood. And possibly before.