A Christmas warning

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I am telling you this in good time. Producing a big Christmas feast for a group of people is a lot of work, and if all that work is left to one person, something is not right. Anne Enright’s latest book, The Green Road, tells the story of four siblings and their widowed mother in the lead up to a long overdue Christmas reunion.

Because the mother has opted out of the difficult parts of life, and three of the siblings live away from their native County Clare, and also happen to be completely self-absorbed, the task of preparing the Christmas dinner falls to the most reliable sister with the least glamorous life, Constance. No need to tell you that turns out to be a thankless task. Here she is doing the dreaded Christmas grocery shopping:

The next morning, she went early into Ennis. It was 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve and the supermarket was like the Apocalypse, people grabbing without looking, and things fallen in the aisles. But there was no good time to do this, you just had to get through it. Constance pushed her trolley to the vegetable section: celery, carrots, parsnips for Dessie, who liked them. Sausage and sage for the stuffing, an experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed. Constance bought a case of Prosecco on special offer to wrap and leave on various doorsteps and threw in eight frozen pizzas in case the kids rolled up with friends. Frozen berries. Different ice cream. She got wine, sherry, whiskey, fresh nuts, salted nuts, crisps, bags and bags of apples, two mangoes, a melon, dark cherries for the fruit salad, root ginger, fresh mint, a wooden crate of satsumas, the fruit cold and promising sweet, each one with its own sprig of green, dark leaves. She got wrapping paper, red paper napkins, Sellotape, and – more out of habit, now the children were grown – packs and packs of batteries, triple A, double A, a few Cs. She took five squat candles in cream-coloured beeswax to fill the cracked hearth in the good room at Ardeevin, when no fire was lit this ten years past, and two long rolls of simple red baubles to fill the gaps on her mother’s tree. She went back for more sausages because she had forgotten about breakfast. Tomatoes. Bacon. Eggs. She went back to the dairy section for more cheese. Back to the fruit aisle for seedless grapes. Back to the biscuit aisle for water biscuits. She searched high and low for string to keep the cloth on the pudding, stopped at the delicatessen counter for pesto, chicken liver pate, tubs of olives. She got some ready-cooked drumsticks to keep people going. At every corner, she met a neighbour, an old friend, they rolled their eyes and threw Christmas greetings, and no one thought her rude for not stopping to converse. …

Constance pays, pushes the trolley down to the carpark, unloads the shopping into the boot, and remembers Brussels sprouts. What can she do? Everyone knows Christmas is an all-or-nothing occasion.

‘Oh what the hell,’ said Constance. She slammed the boot shut and turned her sore feet back to the walkway and the horrors of the vegetable section. The over to the spices to get nutmeg, which was the way Rosaleen liked her Brussels, with unsalted butter. And it was a good thing she went back up, because she had no cranberry sauce either – unbelievably – no brandy for the brandy butter, no honey to glaze the ham. It was as though she had thrown the whole shop in the trolley and bought nothing. She had no big foil for the turkey. Constance grabbed some potato salad, coleslaw, smoked salmon, mayonnaise, more tomatoes, litre bottled of fizzy drinks for the kids, kitchen roll, cling film, extra toilet paper, extra bin bags. She didn’t even look at the bill after another 15 minutes in the queue behind some woman who had forgotten flowers – as she announced – and abandoned her groceries to get them, after which Constance did exactly the same thing, fetching two bouquets of strong pink lilies because they had no white left. She was on the way home before she remembered potatoes, thought about pulling over to the side of the road and digging some out of a field, imagined herself with her hands in the earth, scrabbling around for a few spuds.

Lifting her head to howl.

You get the picture. Don’t be Constance this Christmas. The passage is also a commentary on the gluttony and excess that gripped Ireland during the economic boom, probably still the norm for many people.

The Green Road is one of about 25 books I read this year but I’m afraid it was almost too deliberately well-crafted for me. I enjoyed many of the sections as stand-alone pieces, particularly the scenes in Africa and New York. Less so the hammed-up Irish scenes. Ultimately the odd character of the mother at the centre of it all removed all the urgency of the climax as I didn’t care enough what happened to her or her spoilt/neglected kids.

Goodreads puts together a list of the books you’ve read each year, and looking back on my titles, I can give you my favourites. Best memoir: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou Best non-fiction: Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart Best novel: It’s a tie between Transatlantic by Colum McCann, The Uninvited by Liz Jensen (seriously disturbing), Nutshell by Ian McEwan (just finished, wow) and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson.

If you are based in Switzerland and still looking for Christmas present ideas, don’t forget my non-fiction book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, stocked in all bookshops with English titles.

Happy holidays!

Paper candles burning bright

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Many years ago my parents procured a shop-sized roll of Christmas wrapping paper whose pattern became the unmistakable trademark of our family Christmas. When I first remember that roll it was too heavy for me to lift. By the end of its life several years later the thick cardboard core was covered with just a few thin layers of paper that no one wanted any more.

The pattern was distinctive: Candles blazing on an orange background. Endless candles burning throughout my childhood, bridging the gap from primary to secondary school. Some years even my school books were covered in that paper.

The cardboard box that held the stones that held up the Christmas tree was also covered in that paper. And in the strange way that memory is both reliable and unreliable, when I close my eyes I can still feel and see that paper, and yet what I see is more the essence of the paper than anything I could accurately reproduce.

But when I begin with the paper, I can gradually see everything else as it was in my childhood home at Christmas: the white tablecloth, the serving dishes of celery and carrots, the gas fire, holly on the picture frames, the World Book encyclopaedia, the piano, the brass and wooden ornaments on the black mantelpiece. Voices calling in the hall and cousins arriving and the smell of red wine.

In this way I can always go home for Christmas. If I could find a scrap of that paper somewhere, maybe through some alchemy I could use it to travel back in time, or maybe the spell would be broken forever.

Wishing a joyful Christmas or happy holidays to all the regular readers of this blog and to any newcomers.

To the disgruntled aunt on the train

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Really I should be writing to the nephew of the woman I overheard complaining on the train yesterday. You see the nephew hosts Christmas dinner in his house, as the disgruntled aunt explained to her travelling companion (a woman of few words), and anyone else in the carriage who spoke Swiss German. He invites the extended family, including his disgruntled aunt, for a fondue chinoise on December 24th.

(Cultural note: fondue chinoise is not remotely traditional but it has become really popular as the seasonal celebratory meal. You have a big platter of thin strips of raw meat and each person spears their piece of meat on a fork and cooks in a hot broth set up over a flame on the table. This is eaten with French fries, salad and a selection of up to five mayonnaise based sauces for the meat.)

Now the disgruntled aunt usually contributes lamb’s lettuce (Nüsslisalat) to this meal and she brings a lot more than is needed, a kilo in fact. So the nephew has at least 500g left over and can eat lamb’s lettuce all week. Lamb’s lettuce lasts for ages.

But this year the nephew is asking the guests to chip in to pay for the meat. The aunt is outraged, what with all the extra lamb’s lettuce she’s been providing , not that she ever got a word of thanks or recognition for that. And lamb’s lettuce is not cheap.

In revenge this year, the loud aunt will contribute only 500g of lettuce and certainly no money and we’ll see what the nephew thinks of that.

There is a separate row simmering in the family over the Christmas songs. Another relative takes it upon herself to print out a booklet of Christmas songs for everyone to sing together and there have been mutterings about the songs being too old fashioned, and there is one in particular that the loud aunt cannot abide and she has asked the other relative to strike it out because she simply cannot bear it.

The disgruntled aunt provided some entertainment for her fellow travellers today but also a little food for thought. Why is the nephew hosting a party he cannot afford, inviting people who are less than grateful? If he can afford it, why is he asking for money? Is this the kind of Christmas gathering these people should be having? How many other people are chained to arrangements that they are dreading? And of course, wouldn’t this gathering make a very entertaining Christmas film?

All this reminds me of a sweet poem by Frances Cornford which I first heard earlier this year from a colleague of mine who recited it at a very apt moment, the details of which I can’t remember now.

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

This post is in tribute to Maeve Binchy, the great advocate and champion of listening in to conversations.