Bonne Année

So The Dabbler has made it through another 366 days, with at least one and often two original posts on the vast majority of them. We’ll never be the most popular UK culture blog (we leave it to our rivals, naming no names like, say, Sabotage Times, to chase after worthless hits with such things as The 5 Reasons to Look at Pippa Middleton’s Bottom while supporting Manchester United) but we have some 25,000 per month of the best readers.  And we’re not finished yet.

Heartfelt and genuine thanks to our readers, treasured commenters (many of whom have become real-life friends), League of Dabblers members and of course contributors – with particular thanks to our stalwart columnists Susan, Jonathon, Frank and Mahlerman, who between them have notched up, well, a hell of a lot of posts.

Plenty more to come in 2013, stay tuned and Happy New Year to you all.

Festive Folkiness

Tired of Wizzard and Cliff? Here’s some alternative festive fare….

Scientific studies show that nobody can bear to listen to any of the standard Christmas pop hits (Slade, Band Aid etc) after 9am on Boxing Day. But here we are, still in bloody Christmas, so what to do on a musical Sunday? The answer is to seek alternative festive offerings. Here are four of a folky bent.

Jethro Tull’s Ring Out Those Solstice Bells, odd though it is, just about qualifies as one of those Christmas standards, in that it features in the lower regions of those many Now That’s What I Call the Bestest Mega Xmas Party Ever-style compilations. However, their Christmas Song does not, probably because the lyric is not very jolly:

Once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making;
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.

So how can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry
and how can you smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong?
And if I messed up your thoughtless pleasures,
remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song

Ideal for a Christmas hangover…

A much less hectoring sentiment can be found in the Carol of the Field-Mice (‘Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning’), words penned by Kenneth Grahame for The Wind in the Willows. You can find several choral different arrangements on Youtube, but I like this 2012 one by English folkie Bella Hardy, which uses the melody composed by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe for the wonderful 1983 Cosgrove Hall animated film (which featured David Jason as Toad – his finest performance in my view)…

BeauSoleil are a band from LaFayette, Louisiana, formed in the mid 1970s and still going. This is Christmas music, Cajun-style: Continue reading

Farewell, Christmas Food Fest…

Thank god, the Christmas food (and drink) fest is almost over. Though if your Christmas is like mine, you may end up with quite a few culinary curiosities in your food cupboards.

I buy numerous jars of pickles every year. Last year’s pickled walnuts were still in the cupboard when I put this year’s bottle on the shelf.  Someone opened last year’s bottle – I only know because when I pressed down on the top it popped up and down. This year’s jar remains, as yet, unopened.

Last year our neighbours brought us a gift of some jaw-clampingly glutinous buns from Fitzbillies, which they openly admitted were an unwanted gift. This year we received the same sticky buns as a gift… from the same neighbours.

One of our guests has a liking for a rare liqueur called Kummel. He claims it was originally produced in Denmark for the Russian Tsars. The bottle is labelled 39% proof  – and evidence proves that anyone who drinks over half of one is likely to spend a fair part of the day in a somnambulistic stupor.  Yet this drink is much sought by after by said guest as a precious Christmas tipple. So we always buy it, just for him.

Whilst toiling away in the kitchen, I managed to catch a glimpse of Heston Blumenthal’s giant Christmas igloo/pudding on television.  How absurd.  But we didn’t complain when we tucked into one of his ‘hidden orange’ Christmas puddings at home. How soon can we put our names on the list for one next year?

It’s a bit random, this crazy scorpion-in-candy (much appreciated by my godson), mad macaroon-Marmite Gold-chocolate-orange-cigar-and-cheese-football filled food fest.

So, which Christmas foods do you like  – or loathe? And which will forever remain curiosities at the back of the cupboard in your household?

Old Key’s Almanacke

We are overjoyed once again to have been granted permission to publish Old Key’s Almanacke, a series of unerringly accurate predictions for the coming twelvemonth…

January : Eric Pickles stages a coup and becomes the first Supreme Overlord of the British Isles.

February : Yoko Ono celebrates her eightieth birthday by ushering in an era of world peace and avant garde nitwittery.

March : Very windy.

April : Latest attempt to discover what “diverse ‘n’ vibrant” actually means ends in failure.

May : Boffins unveil previously unknown anagram of Will Self.

June : Tennis player records loudest ever grunt.

July : Blindfolded tot pins strand of wool to cack-handed drawing of donkey.

August : Scandinavian police officer wins claim for discrimination after failing to appear in fictional form on television.

September : Bearded imam delivers intemperate rant.

October : Rats and monkeys crowd the city as it crumbles into ruin.

November : On its fiftieth anniversary, the assassination of JFK is officially rebranded as Grassy Knollgate.

December : In his Christmas message to an agog nation, Pickles hands supreme power to Alain de Botton.

The 12 Days of Christmas Slang

After reading this post, singing about a partridge in a pear tree will never be quite the same again…

Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree!

So they do sing.  Santa Slang tends to see things a little differently. This may stem from the cynical loudmouth’s consumption of all those seasonal measures of the patent digester, the o-be-joyful and the brimming glass of mahatma, not to mention the 88 kindred terms for the French cream (noted by Captain Grose as that liquorous additive ‘so called by the old tabbies and dowagers when they drink their tea’); it may be — the old boy’s stock-in-trade being what it invariably is — an irrepressible need  to foul even Yuletide’s nest. Either way, this is slang: we make our own rules, or at least our alternative definitions. So gather round, my dears, douse the telly, cage the tinies and unwrap another page of samples from Mr Slang’s Fictionary: where the words, if not the world, turn upside down.

bird: a prisoner and a sentence; an obscene gesture made by raising the middle finger from the otherwise clenched fist; such a bird is both given and got. As cocaine it weighs a pound and like the tree, it is something the weak-minded can be out of.

calling: to call is to beg, to blame, to challenge and to vomit (thus onomatopoeia’s call Buick, call Charles, Hughie, Herb and Ralph). Alternative renditions have colley, which in slang is marijuana; thus collie-man, a marijuana salesman

dancing: having sexual intercourse; usu. in phr. e.g. dance to the shaking of the sheets, dance to the reels of Bogie; to be hanged, thus phr. dance upon nothing in a hempen cravat, dance the Newgate hornpipe, dance at Beilby’s ball where the sheriff plays the fiddlers

drummer: a travelling salesman; a thief who specializes in robbing houses while their occupants are out, usually for a short time; the laziest and therefore the slowest shearer in a shed.

drumming: posing as a door-to-door salesman to tour houses and thus identify empty ones, ripe for robbery. The drum-arsed are possessed of large buttocks.

French: Continue reading

Going Crackers

Exiled in the US, Rita attempts to import an English Christmas…

We don’t have Boxing Day in America, but it’s probably just a matter of time before we adopt it as we have so many other English Christmas customs over the years I’ve lived here.  Christmas was a rather sad time during my early years in America.  I missed my family, and California with its December sunshine and mild temperatures just didn’t feel Christmassy enough.  I felt nostalgic for the Christmas traditions of my English past, even those I found ridiculous at the time.  Where were the tacky paper streamers festooning the living room, the flaming plum pudding, the mince pies, and most of all the Christmas crackers with their silly hats and corny jokes?

Things improved when we moved to Maryland.  The weather was more suitable and we even had a few white Christmases.  When we had children, establishing family traditions from both our cultures became important.  My mother began sending me Christmas crackers through the post, by slow sea mail in those days, and they often arrived crushed but still cracking.  My children’s friends were fascinated but sometimes scared by the explosive pops, and underwhelmed by the little plastic trinkets inside.  My husband took over the role my father had always played: being the one member of the family to stubbornly insist on wearing his paper hat all day despite constant ridicule.  My mother came over to visit one Christmas and managed to smuggle a plum pudding through customs hidden among her underwear.  We speculated wildly on what her fate might have been if she had been apprehended at the airport.  “British woman caught with contraband pudding,” the headlines might read; “Christmas spirit no excuse” judge rules.

Another year we got some real headlines.  English Christmas customs were foreign enough in America at the time that our family was featured in the local newspaper.  A reporter encountered me at the library and, hearing my accent, asked to interview me for a series on Christmas customs around the world.  She came to our house and took a photo of my children self-consciously pulling a Christmas cracker, giving them a brief burst of fame in the community.  But gradually English Christmas products began to appear in American stores.  Our local grocery chain began stocking Crosse and Blackwell brand Christmas puddings and brandy butter so we didn’t have to rely on my mother’s smuggling abilities any more.

I had a bit of a disaster with the Christmas pudding one year, terrorizing a neighborhood child.  First I should explain that I have an unfortunate history of pyrotechnical disasters at my social events.  I set the lawn on fire with torches intended to repel mosquitos at a barbecue.  I lit a Roman Candle on my son’s birthday cake thinking it was a sparkler.  The firework exploded all over the room, the cake was inedible, our kitchen table still bears the scars, but fortunately no one was hurt.  I had another close call just this last Thanksgiving when I almost set my sister-in-law’s hair on fire with my seasonal Continue reading

Ghosts of Christmas

As is now a Dabbler tradition, here’s Brit’s Christmas poem…

Ghosts of Christmas

Christmas, like revenge or copulation,
Is mostly fun in the anticipation.
It’s weeks, it’s days, and now it’s here, it’s here!
And now it’s gone, in a haze of port and beer,
And leaves you wondering where the hell it went.
Children learn this lesson in Advent,
Or should do, or else what is Advent for?
To prise open each tiny cardboard door
And find this surprise: the trick is not to cheat,
But to let tomorrow’s star or chocolate treat
Come in its time, and surely Time will claw
Its agonising way to Twenty Four.
Or Mum will say “You really are the worst,
You’ve only scoffed the whole lot on the First!”
And Dad will say “Son, to delay such feasts
Is what separates us humans from the beasts.”

But come Christmas Day, Dad’s bestial enough,
Postprandial and, just like his turkey, stuffed.
Immobile as a slumbering manger ox
and mumbling that there’s nothing on the box,
(Except repeats of good old Tommy Cooper,
Just peeping through the brandy butter stupor,
And Morecambe and Wise – that one with André Previn)
Until half-awake at twenty-five to seven,
His head humming with Jingle Bells and Slade,
He’ll dimly total up the price he’s paid
In cash and flab and stress and indigestion,
Then dimmer still, the philosophic question:
How come every year it seems to me
That Christmas isn’t what it used to be?
And if it’s every year, should I infer
That Christmases were never what they were?

And then he’ll root around the plastic tree,
Scavenging for scraps of childish glee,
And finding none, he’ll conjure up at last,
That great parade of Ghosts of Christmas Past,
The Great-Grandmas and Grandmas and Grandads,
Their grins and gins, and ‘when-I-were-a-lad’s,
And carol-singing schoolmates in their dozens,
And lonely aunts, and plain annoying cousins,
Who, all on separate currents, drift apart,
With all that love and loss, to break your heart.
It all came in its time, and Time claws past
Each long-awaited Christmas ’til your last.
But did those ghosts believe it, every one,
That this is really it now, this is fun?
Or were they all just waiting, and then it went.
We should have learnt that lesson in Advent.

So we’ll shovel snow from the graves of our relations,
But there are no graves – these days it’s all cremations,
And there is no snow – English Christmases aren’t white.
So instead let’s drink, and bid a Silent Night
To the days when only laughs and presents mattered,
And to family and friends and ashes: scattered.

Dabblers at Christmas

Merry Christmas to all our readers! In lieu of a card, here are some Christmas memories from the Dabbler Editorial staff, plus some lovely music…

Gaw – Arguments About War

Some of my fondest Christmas memories are of the arguments (and I don’t mean rows). There was a golden period for arguing: two or three years when we were joined for the holiday by my grandfather and uncle, and once by my great-uncle. They, along with Dad, were enthusiastic, not to say compulsive, arguers. It must run in that part of the family – I recall my uncle relating that one of his earliest memories was of peering out of the parlour window, Sunday lunchtime and starving hungry, impatient for his grandfather to conclude his weekly post-chapel argument: the old man couldn’t tear himself away from his fellows at the garden gate and the particular biblical point at issue.

Anyway, it was the mid-‘70s and our topic wasn’t as elevated, though it did partake of plenty of Old Testament brutality. The Christmas schedules were full of WWII films: PattonBattle of the BulgeThe Desert FoxBridge Over The River Kwai; the bestseller list also featured books such as Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. The Second World War had ended a mere thirty years before and so it was very much in living memory, certainly for my grandfather and his brother (as distant from their present as the Falklands War is for us).

The arguments dwelt on such issues as: Should Patton have pressed on to Prague? Was Monty a vain egotist or a visionary strategist? Was it right to invade Italy from North Africa? What was the point of Eisenhower? I had nothing to contribute other than questions, but was totally enthralled. It was my first exposure to how fascinating a place the grown up world could be and it probably sparked an interest in history that continues to this today.

A couple of years ago I remarked to my sister how the best bit of childhood Christmases had been the great arguments. She raised her eyebrows: no, it had been awful, really boring. So it goes.


Brit – Sprouts

Christmassiness is elusive in adulthood, so Christmas memories are generally childhood ones, but I offer you a tale from just a few years ago concerning my first solo attempt to cook a full Christmas dinner.

Now I don’t claim to be any great shakes as a chef but I do have good project management skills, and cooking a Christmas dinner, I reasoned, is essentially an exercise in scheduling, to ensure that each component of the dinner is ready at the same moment. So having conducted my critical path analysis of the vegetable boiling times and drawn up a Gantt diagram of the terminal and summary elements (including, obviously, the gravy and the pigs-in-blankets) I set to work with confidence. My wife was upstairs, tending to our baby daughter, and I slid the kitchen doors shut to keep the warmth in.

With Radio 3 carols warbling festively away in the background, I was soon into the spirit of the thing, humming Hark! The Herald Angels as I peeled the potatoes and prepared the stuffing. Soon the bird and the veggie option were roasting away alongside the spuds and parsnips and everything was going swimmingly. I even had time to pour myself a beer before putting the veg on. Plop plop plop, into the pan of boiling water went the sprouts … I saw three ships come sailing in, on Chrrristmas Dayee, on Chrrristmas day I trilled merrily… I saw three shi- My blood froze. A terrible groaning sound came from my left. With a speed of movement I can only attribute to adrenalin I leapt across the room just in time to clamp both hands on the wall-mounted cupboard containing all of our glasses and crockery as it attempted to descend crashing to the floor…

And so there I was, quite stuck, pushing with all my might to prevent a catastrophic fall that would destroy not only all of our glassware but half the kitchen too. Man, it was heavy. Recovering my breath and wits, I called out to my wife for assistance. I called again, very loud. But she was upstairs, and the kitchen door was closed. The Kings’ boys had moved on to Once in Royal David’s City. ‘Hmmm’, I said. My arms were beginning to weaken, and on the hob, the sprouts were boiling, boiling away…


Nige – Christmas 1978

1978. That was my most memorable Christmas – and the happiest. On Christmas Eve, after an epic labour, Mrs Nige at length brought forth our firstborn child, a daughter. Sent away, as is customary on these occasion, to make tea, I stood at the window of the hospital kitchen, staring out over a patch of half-dead grass towards a scrubby fringe of bushes and bare trees – and experienced an overwhelming feeling of intense bliss that took me completely by surprise. It was as if I was suddenly, for the first time, seeing the reality – the thisness – of the world, and feeling myself fully part of it and all its myriad processes; as if I too, in a quite different way, had been born into the world that day. The kettle boiled, I made tea, I rejoined mother and baby. The new life began…

Later that day, I found myself drinking a great deal of whisky and eating a great many ham sandwiches, burbling happily and feeling quite simply ecstatic. I slept little, was up bright and early on Christmas morning to knock on the bemused neighbours’ door and break the good news, then later it was back to the hospital. On arrival I slipped into the bathroom and quietly vomited. I realised then that I was in such a state that not only had I not noticed I was drunk, I hadn’t even noticed the hangover. It took me days to come down from that ecstatic happiness, and at some deeper level, I never really have.


Toby Ash - Some Christmas memories…

Advent calendars and paper chains,
Getting ready for the school nativity play.
Tea towel around head, sandals on feet,
Please can I be Joseph? No, you’re a sheep.

Lying drunk in the gutter after port and ale,
Picked up by Mum and Dad on the way back from mass.
The shame, the shame, they both did wail,
While I sat dizzily, cold and pale.

Grandma’s handbag flying through the air,
Aimed with precision at the comfiest armchair.

That jacket I didn’t like after I pulled open the paper.
But I do, I do, I did lie.
Too late. You’ve upset your sister, they all did sigh.

Christmas pudding, decorated with holly.
Grandad John telling jokes, keeping us jolly.

Savouring this time when we’re all together,
Trying to forget that it cannot be forever.


Worm - A Joyous Christmas

Not a memory but a lovely piece of music from Gerald Finzi – which he created towards the end of his life, having already been diagnosed with terminal Hodgkin’s Disease. However the music is full of the message of joy and beauty of Christmas, casting it as an intrinsic part of the English pastoral. The music is set to the words of a poem written before the first world war by poet laureate Robert Bridges.

Merry Christmas all!

Dabbler Diary – Bedlam in Bethlehem

I took a day off work to paint the kitchen, not very Christmassy. We had to have a new roof put on it earlier in the year and the bare plaster has been accusing me for months. It didn’t go smoothly but then what ever does? The ceiling needed two coats and the walls three, couldn’t quite obliterate the wretched green. It was like when the teenage Adrian Mole tries to paint his childhood bedroom wallpaper black but the bells on Noddy’s hat just keep peeping through and he has to eventually colour them in with a felt tip pen. Bloody awkward painting, too. All nooks and crannies and precarious ladder-balancing for the velux alcoves. I also made the mistake of having Radio 2 on while I worked and now have the Christmas pop hits lodged in my head. Most Decembers it’s Paul McCartney’s (Simply Having) A Wonderful Christmas Time and Elton John’s Step into Christmas that alternate as the killer earworms but this year it seems to be Shakin’ Stevens I can’t shake off.

When I’d finally finished the third coat I staggered to the sofa, arms aching from unfamiliar painting motions, insides aching from my winter cough and Shakey pummelling my brainbox, Children plaaayin’, havin’ fun’… ‘Tis the season, love and understaaaandin’, Merry Christmas, Everyone. That dance he did on Top of the Pops while wearing that jumper is the uncoolest thing that has ever been done by anyone ever.


In the Dabbler’s Christmas Compendium a few years ago Frank Key shockingly revealed that John Lennon’s Merry Xmas (War is Over) is stuck in his head all year round. I offer Frank my sympathies for this unspeakable affliction; and also my apologies for mentioning the song again and doubtless triggering another chorus.


Not that I’ve got anything against the old Christmas pop hits. The Slade and Wizzard ones in particular are peerless blasts of gaudy entertainment. In fact I love nearly all the staples. What I can’t stand is the Michael Buble/Rod Stewart ‘Great American Songbook’ approach to the festive record (jazzy hotel bar versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas etc). The sleigh bell effects are too obviously symbolic of cash registers and the attempt to inject cod ‘classiness’ into Chrimbo misses the point. Christmas isn’t classy, it’s camp and naff, and that camp naffness must be embraced. This particularly applies to Christmas trees – nothing worse than a tree that’s been ‘tastefully’ decorated in one or two colours. Chuck it all on there, I say. Brit Jnr helped this year and insisted on putting every decoration on her favourite branch, leaving the tree quite bare except for one corner groaning under the weight of baubles and spray-painted pine cones. I had to come back later and rearrange to achieve the desired ‘tinselly Jackson Pollock’ effect.


It seems that Christmas becomes magical again when your children are in the period between inability to understand and inability to believe. Brit Jnr has seen Father Christmas four times already this year. However, three of those Father Christmases were pretend. She saw the real one at The Stripy Owl, a new, Hogwartian toyshop on Church Road. Upstairs was a small waiting room with puzzles and sundry diversions, plus a wardrobe. An elf, jingling, opened the wardrobe door. We entered it, Narnia-style. Inside was a snuggery containing a festive tree, a writing desk, a fireplace and Santa. He asked pertinent Christmas-related questions of Brit Junior which she answered truthfully and confidentially. They then performed a Christmas dance together and said (he jollily, fortissimo; she solemnly, pianissimo), “Three cheers for Christmas. Hip hip hooray. Hip hip hooray. Hip hip hooray.”


Anyone going to watch The Hobbit then? Stretching that fine children’s novel into three blockbustin’ movies looks like absurd studio greed, though I’ve read a couple of positive reviews.

I dearly loved The Hobbit as a boy (and Lord of the Rings as an adolescent) and can still name the dwarves and recite much of that onomatopoeic showstopper “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!”  The greatness of The Hobbit is that, like Wind in the Willows and indeed, Harry Potter, it creates an extremely cosy world which readers yearn to dwell in forever. The cosiness of the backdrop makes the passages of danger and excitement all the more dangerous and exciting, but it is the world, not the story, that calls us back for endless rereadings. Incidentally, we live in a golden age for children’s books. Not only do we have all the old stuff, but there is tons of wonderful new stuff too. I particularly recommend I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and I Really Want to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donno if you need to buy late Christmas gifts for children with a black sense of humour (which is all of them).


The same issue of The Spectator led by Fraser Nelson’s mighty Best Year Ever editorial contains this article about the rubbishness of Christmas telly by Brian Sewell, which ends on a magnificent note:

….I would like a reminiscent channel devoted to straight plays first televised it matters not how long ago, for some of us would be content with Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga or Trollope’s Pallisers, or even runs of Acorn Antiques and Hyacinth Bucket; and there must be something of the grandees of the past fit for resurrection, something by Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski or even Kenneth Clark, whose  Civilisation (much though I disagree with it) I would willingly watch once a quinquennium.

Terrific reading, but twaddle, since Sewell omits to recognise that we live in an age of unprecedented telly channel and On Demand choice and, given the existence of BBC Four and Sky Arts, there is no possible way you can make a quality-declinism argument about television. What we might have lost is the whole-family, One Nation light entertainment of the Morecambe and Wise variety (though Miranda comes very close).




Behold the Gothic perpendicularity of Bath Abbey, its arpents of light and air! Far beneath the fan vaulting swarms a horde of tots in festive costume; Brit Junior is a donkey. We are there with friends for a Saturday afternoon event which is officially entitled Family Carol Service, but which should be called Bedlam in Bethlehem, or A Nativity Nightmare. The format is simple and insane. Standing before a giant screen projecting his own image, the Revd Prebendary Edward Mason, Rector, tells the familiar story of the nativity. As each character or archetype is introduced, the congregational children in the appropriate dress are invited to come forward to the ‘stage’ (the crossing, raised, betwixt transepts). Thus we have not only a host of angels before us but also hosts of sword-waving Kings and unruly shepherds; plus a bewildering menagerie of stable animals: donkeys, sheep, oxen and of course a traditional Christmas tiger. Between these mad processions we sing relevant carols, led by the boys’ choir (themselves in random fancy dress and conducted by Herod, whom we are invited to boo, Panto-style).

There is one extraordinary theatrical highlight. During ‘Little Donkey’ gasps of delight spread from the rear of the Abbey; for what should come plodding stageward but… a real donkey! It is a beautiful, huggable donkey and just as it passes our pew – O miracle of miracles! – it defecates prodigiously and malodorously in the aisle. A lady with a bucket, primed for just this eventuality, lunges forward a moment too late and can only catch the second wave. Shrieking with involuntary laughter, she dances over the steaming dungpile and calls for her assistant, who has a yardbrush and dustpan. It is, by some distance, the funniest thing the children have ever seen. Boys in front of us are literally rolling in the aisle. Some tots look in danger of exploding with happiness. Dads guffawing, babies wailing, everyone jabbering away in the pews; it is a medieval atmosphere. I can’t sing in tune, so normally don’t sing at all but holding Brit Junior aloft I bellow out O Come All Ye Faithful with the best of them as she improvises her own lyric; and do you know I’ve not felt more Christmassy nor so near to Sanctity in decades.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.


An early Christmas present, from Mahlerman…

Working in and around Notre Dame (Paris) from the middle 12th Century were a group of composers who came to be known as the Notre Dame School of Polyphony – polyphony being, briefly, a style of composition employing two, or more, simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines.  The only two of this group that we know much about are Leonin and Perotin, or Perotin the Great, both probably French.  Perotin was the first known composer to write music with more than two voices.  Here, the Alleluia: Nativitas, an organum based on a Gregorian melody for the nativity of the Virgin Mary.   150km North-East of Paris is the holy district of Laon, and there stands another Notre Dame, the marvellous Gothic Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Laon, a tour of which we can enjoy while listening to this nearly one thousand year old music.

Since 1982 the Estonian composer Arvo Part has lived in Berlin, and his Seven Magnificant Antiphons were composed for that city’s RIAS Chamber Choir in 1988, with a revision in 1991.   In the Roman liturgy, antiphons are sung at Vespers during the week leading up to, and including, Christmas Eve, and the final part O Emmanuel simply means ‘God is with us’.  The American Steve Reich had this (among other things) to say about Part “His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion” .  See if you agree.

Not really a Christmas Panto, but as a way ‘into’ music for children, and adults, I know of no better entree than the magical fairy tale The Cunning Little Vixen by the Moravian Leos Janacek.  Maturing very late (he was in his 60’s when the Prague production of Jenufa made him famous), he had a life-long fascination with the lilt of the human voice, famously jotting down the notes uttered by a page-boy shouting ‘wanted’ names in his London hotel.  The late Continue reading