Eye of the beholder
A QUIET day at home is not the novelty that it used to be, but an online retreat awakens me to just how differently I’ve come to look at the world around me. It’s on the theme Imagi Christi, images of Christ, and it’s the Greek word metanoia that I dwell on, translated as “A change of heart leading to a change of perception”: learning to see things in a new way.
So a damp walk by the Trent on a grey November Sunday, in an unremarkable environ of the city, has ceased to be a grudging second-best — a poor relation to a walk in the Peaks, or a weekend on the Lakeland fells. In the gratitude of just putting on boots and meeting up, we notice fresh things about the river and the meadows: the movement of the rowdy geese gathering for migration, the spreading wash from a solitary boat.
Even the pylons have ceased to be a blot on the landscape. We avoid the wet benches, pour coffee from our flasks, eat too many chocolate bars, and move on in contentment. It will do for now. It will do.
THE National Trust has been our salvation, too, with its parks and gardens still open for roaming. Starved as we are of opportunities to sing, my daughter and I have moments of mystical, spine-tingling pleasure in the unlikely setting of the ice house at Calke Abbey. Partially underground, it is a great vaulted rock cavern on two shallow levels, with a hole in the roof through which they used to pack the ice.
And, oh, the acoustic! It turns us into angelic voices. It makes simple arpeggios sound like an award-winning composition. There’s no echo, just pure resonance, and we can imagine our song floating out through the hole and bearing our words away on the winter breeze. Sung in here, “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is the closest we are going to get to Advent praise, and it magnifies all our longings at this odd and unnerving time.
It’s behind me
IN CONTRAST, it’s the screaming and shouting of the panto that I’m really going to miss. I average about 12 regional shows every year, and it’s the one occasion when you don’t have to behave like a critic, and can be — indeed, are obliged to be — as wonderfully silly as everyone else. A woman sitting next to me in Birmingham Rep once asked me earnestly what it took to be a critic. She clearly thought that I was being facetious when I suggested the ability to write in the dark, but I had no such intention.
I’m going to miss roaring, “Nickers, Buttons!” as some villain tries to make away with the shy gift for Cinderella that we’ve promised to look after for him. I’m going to miss responding “Pyjama pyjama” to the Dame’s “Nightie nightie”, and being up on my feet and singing until I‘m hoarse. I’m going to miss sparkly sets and dancing bunnies and terrible jokes, and, most of all, coming out on a tide of happiness because the fairy godmother has waved her wand and everyone will live happily ever after.
But I have equally to confess that I am not going to miss driving back home on a foggy night on the M1, or standing on a late-night Birmingham New Street platform, or defrosting my windscreen in a deserted car park at the other end of the journey. Lockdown induces honesty about life and priorities, and I know I may never want to do that again.
CHRISTMAS is coming, and we have plans A, B, and C. Plan C would see me celebrating Christmas on my own for the first time in my life: a prospect that leads me to to reflect on the simplicity of Christmas past. I’m listening with pleasure to Alan Bennett reading The Wind in the Willows; the chapter, “Dulce Domum”, in which Mole returns to his shabby home and the carol-singing field mice warm their toes at his fire still gives me a glow.
I ponder how simple Christmas used to be in a post-war Britain. The tree went up on Christmas Eve, when my father got home from work. On Christmas morning, we would fetch the goose from the baker, Mr Kemball, who cooked great batches of these in his big ovens, and carry it back home with an accompanying jug of steaming gravy, covered with a cloth. There were mince pies and sherry for the postman, who delivered on Christmas Day: goodness knows what time the poor man got home, and in what state.
As for presents, my abiding memory is of waking early on a day so cold that ice covered the inside of our windows, and seeing by torchlight the book Five Go Down to the Sea on the end of my bed. Happiness was complete. We did it simply then, and my head, though possibly not my heart, tells me I could do it simply now, if I had to.
AND seasonal kindness seems to be around, even among the tensions, deprivation, and bitterness of the lockdown: a desire not to come down too hard on people and thus add to their discomfort. I smile at the nicely put sign on the counter of a lakeside pavilion serving hot drinks and snacks to a carefully distanced queue: “Please do not touch our cakes. They don’t like it.”
Pat Ashworth is a journalist, playwright, and theatre critic.