Cold and damp and foggy. The ground is too hard to dig. No gardening is possible, only watching and waiting. Late afternoon. The fog lifts a little. The sun, low in the sky, looks like the moon, until the fog covers it again.
That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hang
Upon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare, ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 73
When I was a boy in the 1950s, children’s voices were part of Christmas. We heard them every year on Christmas Eve as they struck up Once In Royal David’s City or Silent Night outside the front door and dad went out to give them sixpence. But those days are gone.
Now I listen instead to Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols or, better still, Friday Afternoons, the twelve songs he wrote for the boys at the prep school where his brother was headmaster. So called because he practised with them on Friday afternoons.
I believe he must have enjoyed writing songs for them to sing in much the same way that Vivaldi must have enjoyed writing music for the girls at the Ospedale della Pietà to play, or Shakespeare writing female parts for the boy players to act.
How much more exciting and satisfying it is for an artist to show what can be achieved when innocence and experience meet on equal terms. It is the real life equivalent of what always happens in an artist’s imagination.
Boy players and boy sopranos must have had more in common than the fact that their voices hadn’t broken. Children are great mimics and it’s that, I think, that lets anyone who writes for them give free range to their imagination. The boy sopranos’ angelic voices, the young girls’ precocious musicianship, the boy actors’ ability to be and not to be female, are all of a piece in a world that is entirely imaginary. The boundary between reality and imagination grows blurred.
Never never land! Wonderland! The Land of Counterpane! What country, friend, is this? This is Illyria, lady.
Tomorrow is the opening night of a four-day festival of writing by (mainly) Yorkshire based writers. All four days are broadcast on FM and online from Chapel FM, an independent radio station in East Leeds.
I have one piece in it and my wife, Jaspreet Mander, has two. The first, ‘Bringing Up Home’, a lyrical reflection on the renovations we undertook when we bought our house in West Yorkshire earlier this year, goes out on Wednesday at 2.30pm.
The second, ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’, memories from her childhood, follows mine, a dramatised reading of my short story, ‘There Was A Man’, on Sunday, 2.00-2.30 and 2.30-3.00.
If you miss them, you can listen again any time on the Chapel FM archive at chapelfm.co.uk.
The first time I saw a fox in the garden of our new house, I was thrilled. I looked out for it every evening and was equally thrilled each time I caught a glimpse of its eyes, nose and, best of all, its brush.
But the thrill began to fade as the fox holes began to appear and the bulbs that I had planted lay scattered on the soil instead of under it. With some regret, I set about blocking the gaps under the fence where the fox was making its entrances and marking its territory as his, not ours.
After spending most of the afternoon yesterday building our defences, plugging the gaps under the fence with sods and stones, I looked out of the bedroom window this morning and saw – another hole. An inspection of the garden after breakfast led me quickly to the place where the fox had breached our defences. A dislodged sod lying on the muddy soil gave it away.
Whether the battle is over or not remains to be seen. I should be sorry to lose our wild visitor, though not his territorial ambitions which, regretfully but inevitably, were incompatible with mine. There could be only one winner. There are, after all, other gardens for him but only one for me.
Mrs Mander (my wife, Jaspreet Mander, keeping her own name instead of taking mine, adhering to Indian traditions instead of British) went with me last night to The Leeds Library to a reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Gerald Dickens, great-great grandson of the author.
‘Not so much a performance,’ she said in the interval, ‘as a phenomenon!’
If his great-great grandfather had been there, as the Ghost of Novelists Past, he would have been very satisfied with what he saw and heard. All the drama, the multitude of characters, the humour, the pathos, everything was just as it should be and as one imagines it must have been when the novelist himself performed it on his many reading tours, here and in the USA.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is still touring here. Catch it if you can.
We were enchanted by The Leeds Library too, an 18th century library in the heart of the city, a maze of shelves three storeys high in pristine condition, filled with books old and new. We needed no persuading (though the lady sitting next to us was persuasiveness itself) that the price of membership would be well worth the freedom to drop in whenever we liked and pass the time of day (or yesterday) with the ghosts of librarians past, present and to come.
I’m delighted to be part of this year’s Chapel FM four-day literary festival ‘Writing on Air’ which opens on 23rd November.
My contribution is a short story called ‘There Was a Man’, dramatised for radio and due to be broadcast at 2pm on the final day of the festival, Sunday 27th November.
Everything in the festival remains in the Chapel FM archive and can be heard online any time after the original broadcast.