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: oral sex, thus French polishing, French culture and the French language expert; in combinations denoting venereal diseases, thus compounds French chillblains, gout or measles and the phr. knocked with a French faggot-stick or piled for French velvet.

geese: to inject a narcotic drug; as sing. goose, a sucker, a scolding, a Jew, a poke into the genital area with a finger or some form of implement; in rhyming slang an act of sexual intercourse.

golden: successful, secure; lucrative; in compounds golden girl, heroin, golden rivet, the penis, golden doughnut, the vagina

hen: a woman, variously middle-aged, unkempt or promiscuous; a gay man; a quart pot; in compounds hen-hussy, a man seen as overly concerned with domestic affairs; hen fruit, eggs; to spin a hen is to dance with an older woman

lady: a female hunchback; a queen in a pack of playing cards; an effeminate homosexual; cocaine; candidates for Debrett include Lady Blamey, a drinking vessel made of half a beer bottle with the cut edge rounded by sandpaper; Lady Green, a prison chaplain and Lady Godiva, a five-pound note.

laying: having sexual intercourse; as noun lay: a criminal occupation, the act of lying down and smoking opium; as verb to watch for, to knock unconscious, in phr. lay up in lavender, to pawn, to hide from the police, to imprison and to die

leaping: under the influence of drugs or alcohol ; having sexual intercourse; in phr. leap at a daisy, to be hanged; leaping dandruff, head lice; leap and you will receive, a ritual challenge to a fight

lord: a hunchback; from the upper house, Lord Harry, a mild oath; Lord Lovel, a shovel, Lord Mansfield’s teeth, the row of spikes embedded into the top of the wall of the King’s Bench prison and Lord Northumberland’s arms, a black eye.

maid: the word does not exist in slang although rhyming slang offers the synonymous plastic surgeon and maiden lane was a red-light area and maiden sessions one at which no-one was sentenced to death.

milking: defrauding; siphoning petrol from a car; to masturbate oneself or another; in phr. milk a duck, to attempt the impossible; to put milk in the coffee, a West Indian term for having sexual intercourse.

partridge: a prostitute; other avian professionals include the cuckoo, goosie, jay, kite, nighthawk, nightingale, owl, plover, quailsoiled dove, wagtail and wren.

pear: as a verb, to supply officers with information about a robbery and then warn the thieves to get away and as such a play on peach; pear-making was enrolling in a regiment, taking the offered bounty and then deserting; the process can be repeated several times (one makes an appearance).

piper: a short-winded horse or breathless human; a private detective or lookout; a crack smoker; piper’s news is stale; a piper’s wife plays tricks.

piping: talking, weeping, breathing heavily; begging; surveying, inspecting,  recognizing; performing fellatio. The noun pipe is variously a voice, a song, a telephone, a saxophone; anything that is easily accomplished. To put someone’s pipe out is to negate their plans.

ring: being circular the ring represents the vagina, anus and mouth; to ring a peal in a man’s ears is for a wife to upbraid him; to ring is to substitute, typically a car or horse; thus ring the changes, to defraud or deceive, esp. by passing counterfeit money or substituting a worse article for a better one.

swan: slang is kind to swans, equating their water-bound stateliness with gradual progress and the term swan about, to wander. A swan lake is not danced but eaten, being rhyming slang for cake.

swimming: if a fish is a prisoner then to swim is to fit into prison routine; to make someone swim for it is to cheat an accomplice out of their share of the proceeds and to swim in golden lard (or grease) is to be offered and accept a multiplicity of bribes

tree:  the tree is the gallows and can be triple, three corner or the bearer of fruit all year round as well as being the deadly nevergreen, leafless or turning, both as in ‘turn off’ and the twisting corpse. Any multi-coloured pill is a Christmas tree; so too is a home-made jagged-edged prison knife.

turtle-dove: a lover, which produces go turtles over, to fall in love (or lust) with. It rhymes with love (and works as a verb and as turtle-dovism) but also glove, especially that worn by a housebreaker to hide fingerprints.

PS. The Twelve Days come in various national versions. I am loathe to bow to stereotypes, but could this list come from anywhere but gastro-heaven, South-West France, where the song is entitled ‘La Foi de la loi’: ‘a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs’ trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful full-breasted maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.’ Though, oddly, no geese.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

The Dabbler’s Traditional Christmas Poetry Repeat

After Christmas Lunch (signed: Jack) (print)
Merry Christmas from all at The Dabbler! It has now become a Dabbler tradition to give Brit’s tragicomic Christmas poem an airing. The ideal time to read it is on Christmas Day, upon waking after your post-lunch nap…

A boozy, stomach-busting Christmas dinner – preceded by beer and champagne, accompanied by wine and seen off with brandy – is a fine thing, but it comes at a terrible cost. That cost is the postprandial sofa-bound late-afternoon slumber from which you will wake, utterly confused, at 6pm with a strong sense of momento mori and a nameless dread in your soul. This is when Christmas really bites back. I wrote this poem about it.

 

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.

The Seasons: Christmas in England

Lord of Misrule

Professor Nick Groom’s new book The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is a celebration of the English seasons and the trove of strange folklore and often stranger fact they have accumulated over the centuries. In an exclusive post for The Dabbler, Nick looks at the English Christmas…

Hallowe’en, with its black plastic witch costumes and gruesome sweets, is over. Pumpkins can now be bought for a pittance. For my daughters and their friends (and for shops and supermarkets up and down the country) that means one thing: Christmas. But England once had a far richer tapestry of seasonal festivals, which patterned and punctuated the year. Who now delays gathering nuts until after Holy Cross Day? Who eats a goose at Michaelmas? Little remains of this calendar of saints days, weather lore, and local customs; instead, this harvest-home of traditions has been replaced by a dumbed-down agenda for the year based on a handful of annual retail events: Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en, and Valentine’s Day (although commemoration of the maverick Gunpowder Treason Day has remained fairly immune to exploitation). But it is not too late to rediscover those lost festivals that once connected us organically to the year, from the first snows of winter to the last gleanings of apples and pears.

We are of course a profoundly more urban and a less rural population than ever before, increasingly cut off from the land and its produce, and so the shared heritage of the yearly cycle has accordingly become ever more remote from its agricultural origins. Instead, our experience of the year reflects contemporary society, which in its technological and agricultural sophistication will go to the ends of the earth to source or grow asparagus in the autumn, strawberries in the winter, and apples all the year round. Our awareness of the passing of the year is now prompted more by seasonal ‘limited edition’ flavours of gourmet potato crisps than by birdsong and wild flowers.

The consequence of this is an impending cultural catastrophe because our collective memory of the year is heading towards extinction: what was once a cornerstone of national identity, braiding together remembrance, history, and landscape, is increasingly derelict and forgotten. Only tattered remnants survive. What will have been lost to us when we no longer recognize, or even hear, the cuckoo call in the springtime, when we read the nature writing of Gilbert White and John Clare not for the shared pleasure of the shifting seasons but as an archaeological relic of a bygone era?

Reconnecting with our seasonal heritage is one of the best ways of reawakening what it is to be English. So let the Scots keep their Hallowe’en in its re-imported, American form – the sombre English festival for that time of the year is Hollantide, which has its own wealth of folklore. And by acknowledging Hollantide, a distinctive little piece of the cultural jigsaw is restored. How many students have wondered why Shakespeare’s Prince Hal remarks of Falstaff, ‘Farewell, the latter spring; farewell, All-hallown summer’? Shakespeare was not writing metaphorically, but from his direct experience of the seasons. We’ve just had an ‘All-hallown summer’: warm days during Hollantide at the beginning of November; a belated frolic.

So to Christmas: the biggest seasonal festival in England, one that has in fact become characteristic of England. Christmas affords an opportunity to identify and celebrate typical English values and culture. Giving provisions or doles to the poor and needy was customary on St Thomas’s Day (21 December) to ensure that everyone enjoyed a good holiday, and meals during these celebrations inverted social status in order to support the poor and needy. Presiding over this world turned upside down were boys elevated to the status of bishops, and the ‘Lord of Misrule’ [above] a carnivalesque figure bedecked with holly – ‘Sir Christmas’, or ‘Old Father Christmas’. Natural order was also overturned alongside social order: on Christmas Eve decorated boughs and greenery were brought into houses – holly, ivy, and mistletoe.

Christmas dinner was for many years the roast beef of old England; turkey was first imported in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth was considered traditional; goose was for the poor, who dined on the birds left over from Michaelmas. Mince pies, made of spiced meat, were oblong and known as ‘coffins’ but eating them was lucky for the forthcoming year: ‘As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas, so many happy months will you have’. Christmas cake was usually reserved for Twelfth Night – a wise reminder to stretch celebrations into the cold, dark days of the New Year.

Old Christmas was therefore a time of questioning hierarchies and sharing with the lower social classes. In the nineteenth century, the tradition of decorated boughs was overtaken by Christmas trees, and the American ‘Santa Claus’ replaced Old Father Christmas. The first Christmas card was sent in the same year that Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol was published, and the first Christmas crackers were developed by confectioners competing to make their bon-bons more appealing. But the Victorians also assiduously maintained donations, alms, and charity boxes, their enthusiasm for Christmas being inspired by guilt at the condition of the labouring classes. It was a reminder of poverty, a communal reparation for the years of Enclosure Acts, urbanization, and industrialization that had provided the grimy foundations for the workshop of the world.

Today, we would do well to add to our Christmas celebrations some of these traditional associations and customs. But reconnecting with the seasonal calendar doesn’t just have to mean reviving old traditions: every custom has had its beginning. I am fortunate to live in a village where we traditionally wassail orchards every January – at least we have done for the past two or three years since establishing a community cider press. So perhaps we should make Christmas in the twenty-first century an annual reminder of our disappearing seasonal environment: of holly, ivy, and mistletoe; of robins and wrens; and of trees. So, plant a tree on Christmas Day or simply feed our native birds before you enjoy the fruits of the season. Make it your own tradition.

nick groom the seasons

The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom

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!

2011: freedom or bust?

Daniel Kalder looks back at the various vernal revolts of 2011 and argues we shouldn’t get too excited.

Sometime around the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a long period of abject Western media failure regarding the Putin phenomenon began. Journalists were so busy making fatuous comparisons to Stalin or hyping The New Cold War™ that they refused to address why the president was so popular in Russia. I suspect this is because many of them missed the 1990s, when Americans and Europeans had enjoyed near godlike status. Yeltsin had been no catastrophe for them, even if he was for 99.99% of everybody else.

However, Putin was genuinely popular and until a few weeks ago seemed unassailable. A generous man might read this as proof of success: that life in Russia has improved to the point where citizens are no longer willing to accept corruption in exchange for stability. When I lived in Russia, I attended some entirely futile anti-government rallies comprised of pensioners, punks and nationalists; the latest protests are larger, much more diverse and the Kremlin obviously hasn’t decided what to do about them… yet.

It’s ironic, meanwhile, that these demands for democracy are occurring twenty years after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus unilaterally declared the USSR dead, thus overriding the democratically expressed will of the majority of soviet citizens who had voted in referenda earlier that year for the Soviet Union to remain united (assuming we can trust those results, of course).

That two decade anniversary also makes me think of the erstwhile soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe which had seized their liberty in 1989. All of these countries- from Estonia to Bulgaria- almost immediately applied to join the EU, membership of which is now making them, ironically, less free again.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between the totalitarian USSR and the impotent, soft authoritarian EU. But how the citizens of these nations, who are still resentful of Moscow’s long dominance of their internal politics, can so freely submit to oversight of their national budgets by an unelected cabal in Brussels, or worse, meekly acquiesce as entire populations are forced to vote again whenever a referendum in the EU brings the wrong result… well, it blows my mind, man.

I come from a small country. I understand the advantages of an alliance with a bigger neighbor. But I am not seduced by the vague, utopian EU goal of ‘ever closer union’ and I don’t subscribe to the comic fantasy that the EU could ever rival the USA or China as a world power. The fear/shame stigma surrounding nationalism is largely a continental issue, not a British one. Thus while passport free travel is nice and Brussels surely provides pleasant sinecures for national politicians who can’t be bothered with elections any more, I fail to see the point of surrendering to the Franco-German axis at its heart.

So what is its appeal? Let’s ask Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor:

There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.

Hmm…

Well now that makes me think of Egypt, where following the so-called Arab Spring, a majority of Egyptians have just voted for reactionary parties such as The Muslim Brotherhood or worse, the Salafists. Of course, this is not surprising if you consider that Egypt is a very traditional, pious society, which has been governed for decades by a corrupt military junta. Who were the people going to vote for, the parties that claim to embody the Will of Allah; or that wee man with the moustache who used to lurk about the UN?

It has been vaguely amusing (while also pathetic), to watch the American leaders and bien pensant media types who were so wrong about the meaning of the uprising now argue that political power will make the Brotherhood, which has over eighty years of hardcore Islamist pronouncements behind it, less radical. Such stupidity is nothing new. Apologists denied the obvious extremism of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin for a long time. In the 60s, many European lefties loved Mao. One of Jimmy Carter’s advisors compared the Ayatollah Khomeini to Gandhi. Don’t worry, say the useful idiots, it will all be OK.

Not likely. Remember the 2004 uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan? Well, in Ukraine the guy who (allegedly?) stole the election is now president, while the “heroes” who defeated him are either a) in prison or b) in disgrace. In 2008 Georgia’s president launched an attack on his own citizens and lost one third of his country’s territory. As for Kyrgyzstan… well… yeah.

Thus, when I watch the rallies in Russia, I celebrate the protestors’ loss of fear, but wolves are always waiting in the wings. And yet for all that, sometimes things actually do improve. However fatuous the EU may be in its goals and deeds, it’s far better to be forced to submit to Merkozy than to be devoured by Stalin, if that’s the choice history offers you.

As for Egypt, however, I’m considerably less optimistic. Have a nice 2012.

Images of 2011, Part 3

Stop the year! We’ve just received a last minute entry for our Images of 2011 feature.

Rosie Bell: There was so much news this year.  You had barely digested one item when another meaty one was put down in front of you.  Here’s a picture that for convenience combines two news items at once – 29th April and 1st May.

A very happy New Year from everyone at The Dabbler – thanks for stopping by.

Images of 2011, Part 2

We’ve invited Dabblers to contribute their image of the year. Today, in our second installment, we hear from Brit, Noseybonk, Mahlerman, Jassy Davis and Daniel Kalder.

Brit: I’ve picked this image of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and others watching news from Pakistan of the mission that would kill Osama Bin Laden because I feel the death of Al Qaeda’s spiritual leader cannot go unremarked, even by The Dabbler.

The appalling insult of the 9/11 attacks transformed American and British foreign policy and the hunt for Bin Laden has been the single most controversial and important factor in global affairs for the last decade. And yet… what has changed since the hunt ended? Bin Laden’s death was strangely anti-climactic and is already almost forgotten as we transfer our fears from terrorism to economics. We live in a very strange world.

Noseybonk: Who can summon an idea of more nauseating horror than Ed Balls disguised as Santa Claus? Observe the agony on Osborne’s face as the Shadow Chancellor drives a sharpened stick deep into his anklebone while squealing from beneath the beard: “How’s this for a cut that’s too far, too fast, you Toff fugger?!”

Mahlerman: At the end of a year when my creaky belief system has been sorely tested, and the Christian Apologists and New Atheists seem to be getting planning permission where once a Nativity scene could be enjoyed, the enclosed picture from last summer in Clapham gives me hope that we are not irredeemably lost as a civilization. This, on the day when one of the greatest thinkers of our generation drew his last breath.

Jassy Davis: My image of 2011 has to be the post-riot clean up shot from Clapham. The riots played up to the worst of London’s reputation – that it’s a violent, feral place with no community – but the clean-up teams that gathered afterwards showed that we’re not totally detached and cynical; that there is a heart beating underneath the city’s stone.

Daniel Kalder: My image of 2011 is a screen shot of Colonel Gaddafi (bottom), taken shortly after his captors had attempted to ram a stick up his arse, and shortly before one of them would execute him with what Russians refer to as a “control shot” to the head.

I choose it not because I think it symbolizes the dawning of a new era of democracy in the Middle East or any of that fairyland nonsense, but rather for the unsettling emotions it evoked in me. Suddenly, at the end of his life, after 41 years of tyranny, following the fight to the death he had promised, The Brother Leader, The Man With The (literally) Golden Gun found himself surrounded by enemies- frightened, old, fat, bald, alone and utterly defenseless.

To my surprise, I found myself feeling pity for him in those last minutes. He didn’t deserve sympathy, but that’s how it was. It’s not often we get such an intimate glimpse into the last minutes of deposed man-gods. Suddenly he seemed very human, and I couldn’t help it. Perhaps too, I also felt sad for the jubilant humans around him, who will now surely enjoy more tyranny and violence, albeit at the hands of another.

Images of 2011, Part 1

We’ve invited Dabblers to contribute their image of the year. Today we hear from Gaw, Mark Pack and Susan.

Gaw: My picture of the year (top) is in memoriam: the cover shot from Christopher Hitchens’ recent memoir.

A grave-dancer left a comment on the New Yorker’s remembrance accusing Hitchens of being full of himself. So true. Rarely can anyone have been so completely full of himself: even his looks were of a piece with his sparkling written style (at least in the earlier days). And given he seemed to have read, and absorbed, just about everyone this particular self was multitudinously replete.

‘Sparkling’ is a word that often comes to mind when reading Hitchens’ prose, perhaps especially his literary criticism. However, it occurs to me now that it is potentially misleading. Surfaces sparkle, and though he could be sweeping in his judgements, he was usually forensic in how he arrived at them. He was an incredibly close and intuitive reader: individual words, a particular syntax, a brief sketch, could provide the key to a whole oeuvre. As a consequence, whilst his prose did indeed sparkle, it was rarely flashily superficial; like a bottle of champagne, the effervescence went deep. Champagne of a pretty old and rare vintage too – there’s a rather old-fashioned sententiousness amidst the fizz.

Not that he appeared to care much for ‘poo: he thought it overrated, along with lobster, picnics and anal sex. With respect to this little list, I believe he was only half right, and he was, of course, capable of being wholly wrong. More often than not though, he was impressively wrong: one wouldn’t be too surprised to learn he’d arrived at his quartet of disappointments in the course of a single al fresco sitting.

I really will miss him, not something I can say about many people I’ve never met. At its most simple, just like excellent champagne, he’s given me an enormous amount of pleasure. I’ll be raising a decent glass of the stuff to him this Christmas.

Mark Pack: I could try to come up with some reference about how 2011’s scientific advances have taken us that bit closer to understanding the structure of the universe, or how a vista of cold, black space symbolises our economic outlook. But really, it’s just an amazing photo. Enjoy.

(Take a closer look here).

Susan:

 

 

Finally, I saw a pink elephant in Cornwall (and I was completely sober at the time).

Images of Christmas

Today we present a Dabbler Christmas extravaganza. Later Susan takes us on a 3D Christmas Eve adventure, but first we invited Dabblers to contribute an image of Christmas and here are those of Nige, Skipper, Philip Wilkinson and ZMKC.

Nige: Let us define our terms. As the scrupulous Nigel insisted in that wonderful Rev Christmas special the other night (if you missed it, for heaven’s sake catch it on the BBC iPlayer), Christmas is the festival that begins at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is preceded, as Nigel didn’t mention, by Xmas – the X denoting eXcess. This orgy of conspicuous consumption is the unfortunate product of a healthy human urge – the desire to give – inflated by commercialism into a grotesque travesty of itself, sweeping away that generous impulse in the stress, frustration and exhaustion of the ever longer, ever madder Xmas frenzy. Mercifully it ends (if only until the Boxing Day sales) with the coming of the first day of Christmas. In this, the Christian festival, we celebrate a great and solemn mystery as best we can – with reverence and merriment, charity and silliness. As is only right and human. Happy Christmas, everyone.

(Top: nativity scene by Conrad von Soest)

Skipper (Delhi, India December 20, 2011):

This week before Christmas, I am going around the world; considering the means with which I keep the creditors at bay, this is a regular occurrence. Outside those countries where Islam reigns supreme, it is difficult to find a place where Christmas goes unnoticed. Where Christianity is scarcely to be found, the reason for the season must be completely unmoored from its religious underpinnings. So, in explaining why The Season is so viral, there can be only one answer: the profane trumps the sacred. People like getting and giving stuff.

Yes, it sounds tawdry, and there is no editorial itch more relentlessly scratched this time of year than the evergreen tirades against the evil twins commercialism and consumerism.

But. Giving and getting is fun. Figuring out why an excuse to do so has spread around the world is easy. So is skipping the scolds.

Philip Wilkinson: What is it about stained glass? I’ve found that my posts about stained-glass windows have consistently been among those attracting the most interest from readers, eliciting many comments, emails, and other responses. I think it’s partly the fact that stained glass windows tell stories, and people like stories. The rich iconography also has something to do with it – the religious imagery in these windows has depth and layers, and readers are often surprised to find that there’s more going on there than they’d thought. And there’s another thing. In England, most of the medieval stained glass was destroyed by iconoclasts in the 17th century. Only a handful of churches (such as York Minster and the parish church at Fairford in Gloucestershire) have anything like a full set of medieval windows. It’s more common to find just a few fragments of old glass, or nothing at all.

So even a 19th-century window can provoke a feeling of reaching back to previous ages. Few more so than this example (below) from Huish Episcopi in Somerset, I felt that sense of reaching back when I wrote about it in a post a year ago:

This is the stained-glass window of the Nativity, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and produced in the workshop of William Morris. Crowded round with onlooking and music-making angels, Mary reclines on the straw of the stable, cradling the infant Jesus in her arms. The Magi wait on the left to present their gifts. It’s an unusual composition, dominated by the pale robes and pinkish wings of the host of angels, topped by the stable roof and the hint of a starry sky, and the elongated figures are very much of their time. If the recumbent Mary seems odd to our eyes, she has a long pedigree: there are examples of this posture in Nativity scenes in medieval stained glass in Chartres and Cologne, worthy sources of inspiration for a window in this noble building crowned with its wonderful tower.

Quick as a flash, a commenter picked up the thread. In the Byzantine Empire, Mary was often pictured as a recumbent figure, and in the Orthodox Churches this was part of an ancient way of portraying the Nativity in a cave, beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Immediately memories of frescoes and mosaics seen on holidays in Istanbul, on visits to the Byzantine churches of Ravenna, on a trip to the magical town of Mistra in Greece, its hills studded with ruined churches, came back to me. Of course, Burne-Jones in this window was drawing not only on western Christian images of the birth of Jesus, but of eastern ones too. Artistic threads coming together from one side of Europe to other.

ZMKC: Surf, beer, tinsel – what more could anyone want on an Australian Christmas morning?