Sunday, 24 December 2006


As one grows older, Christmas becomes more a time for past memories than for present celebration. Faces and voices of loved ones long gone crowd into consciousness, and those left behind reminisce over Christmases past.

The people are gone, but the places are still there. Revisiting old haunts is not, however, as rewarding as revisiting old memories. The places we lived in when young have all changed, and in some cases are scarcely recognisable. Recently I looked at the house where my parents and I lived during WW2 when I was a teenager. It was surprisingly familiar – and gratifyingly well cared for. At the end of the road the same open country view remained, and I reflected how lucky we were to be in such a pleasant spot during those anxious days. But the town we knew has been transformed from a sleepy old Somerset country market centre into a bustling industrial town with a busy bypass. I didn’t want to linger.

Even my grandmother’s former home, Harrogate, that sedate Yorkshire spa town with its unique piece of open parkland, the Stray, and its magnificent summer floral displays, is much busier than it used to be, hosting many conferences and other events. Sheffield, where my parents lived and worked for many years, is no longer the smoky industrial city I knew – called “a dirty picture in a golden frame” because of the glorious Peak District country nearby; it has been transformed, not always for the better. Manchester, my birthplace, has changed out of all recognition since the city centre was redeveloped after an IRA bombing episode. So I’ve no strong wish to revisit any of them. They are no longer the familiar places I remember.

The theme of changing landscape and its influence on our lives is beautifully developed by Simon Schama in his book Landscape and Memory. Setting out to retrieve memories of his past by revisiting seminal places, he works a rich vein of recollection and allusion. “To see the ghostly outline of an old landscape beneath the superficial covering of the contemporary is to be made vividly aware of the endurance of core myths”, he says.

One of the most poignant portraits of the vanished past is that painted by John McDermott in his poem “The Old House”. Set to a somewhat plaintive melody, it was a favourite of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack, and when he sang it as the last item in his final farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1938, the lights dimming as he concluded and left the stage, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. It evokes the deserted homes of Ireland in the wake of the great transatlantic diaspora which followed the famines and poverty of the mid-19th century, and in which some of my own ancestral family took part. Even if you aren’t familiar with the tune, the words are incredibly moving:

“Lonely I wander through scenes of my childhood
They bring back to memory those happy days of yore
Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted
No light in the window, no welcome at the door

Here’s where the children played games in the heather
Here’s where they sailed their wee boats on the burn
Where are they now? some are dead, some have wandered
No more to their home will the children return

Lonely the house now, and lonely the moorland
The children have scattered, the old folk are gone
Why stand I here, like a ghost or a shadow?
’tis time I was movin’, ‘tis time I passed on.”


zola said...

Memories are also here-and-now images and feelings that just keep on growing and growing.
Anticant : A Fiddlers Green will still be seen after this yuletide pathway is trodden.
But no more by the dockside now by the webside we be.

Anonymous said...

'Tis time I passed on?'.
Not before you post a picture of you in a Burqa.
There is plenty of energy in the old dog yet, don't be so maudlin.
(In fact, I will send you a story about 'maudlin' to shake you out of your Yuletide somnambulance).
PS Terry - no more mince pies with REAL Brandy for the big man.

zola said...

More mince pies I say.
Brandy makes him randy as they say.

Anonymous said...

Whisky?. Frisky.
Gin?. Thin.
Wine?. Fine.
Rum?. Glum.
Sherry?. Terry.
Cola?. Zola.
Me?. Beer.
Poteen?. Already, I am wearing a diamonte Burqa.

anticant said...

Hells bells! It's Christmas Eve, for heaven's sake. I've only HAD one mince pie yet, and here you come lumbering in obviously pissed as a Merkin already, issuing orders right left and centre. Get back to your poultry slaughterhouse pronto.

[Sinks sobbing onto burrow sofa and grabs another mince pie.]

Anonymous said...

hic..hic ... doing me best

Anonymous said...

Post it, big man.
Just f***** post it.
We are waiting.
You know we are.
meanwhile back at the ranch......

Jose said...

Didn't know you existed, Anticant, and I am now happy you honoured me by visiting my blog because I think I have found somebody perhaps as old as I am and whom I already respect.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

anticant said...

A warm welcome, Jose. Please be a frequent visitor to my burrow, and I shall take a daily look at your thought-provoking site. If you e-mail me with your e-address, I will give you some background info.