Probably unreliable memories of Christmas past


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Now that Christmas 2014 is becoming a memory, we have time to reflect on Christmases past (prompted, we must confess, by the delightful disclosures of Steerforth in his blog

Christmas 2014 was relatively painless. We find it better now to invite those of the family who are in the country to come to a festive lunch in a public space. Everyone tends to behave better and the drinking is more constrained by the thought of having to get home. The days when the sparkling burgundy and fortified wines flowed liberally were characterised by table thumping and finger pointing. For we are people of strong opinions. (We have observed how pointing a finger at the object of one’s harangue underlines the aggression one feels and we’re sorry to say we have noted the Dalai Lama is guilty of this).

In our Park Street days the festivities took place in the billiard room beneath a lopsided Christmas tree. The billiard room was a book-lined and panelled room painted in flat green and beige. At one end of the room was a small raised platform where a trio could perform. The cupboards were stuffed with music and old bound copies of Punch. No musicians ever performed there, although some evenings our father would stuff a silk handkerchief under his chin and play some Bach.

This much we can agree upon, but then the waters of memory are muddied. Is it the photo of the eldest girl with newly-dyed orange hair in which she holds a present out to a young cousin standing in the stiff posture of a soldier on duty that causes her to remember the Christmas feast taking place at midday? As another sister points out, the lights are on so it could well have been taken in the evening. But did our father have a flash bulb for his Voigtländer camera? Did we eat chicken, as some remember, or turkey? Was our grandmother ever there? Why did we go to our Brighton relatives again the next day for a feast of desserts when they had come to us for a more utilitarian feast the day before?

We can agree that we all went to Mass and had to restrain our appetites until our Brighton relatives arrived. By then my uncle had had a few beers and my father offered him a tot of over-proof rum as soon as he arrived. This tended to make him more irascible than usual. ‘What’s wrong with these peas, Mollie?’ he would roar, as our mother and aunts rolled their eyes at one another. One year he fell off his chair, but we couldn’t hope for that every year. We washed down turkey  (or was it chicken?)and ham, plum pudding and custard with copious amounts of green lemonade for the kids and strong red wine for the adults. The wine was usually described by our father as “drinkable”. Then it was time to dish out the presents from the relatives, which were usually of a practical nature and, in our view, as one brother described them, “rotten.” However, fresher memories attest to the fact that Auntie E’s presents were always good, even including a xylophone one year.

We were then sent off to play although we would have much preferred to lie on the floor and listen to our mother and aunts talking,  enjoying the gasps of horror and deep intakes of breath that denoted the scandalous nature of these conversations, while our father, sipping his rum,  puffed blue gales of smoke from his pipe,  and Uncle J lapsed into a snoring mess.

So we went outside to fight and climb the peppercorn tree and chase the chooks.

Something like that. None of us can remember too clearly.

We’re stuck inside our own heads with our recollections (or old photos and now videos that have become memories) and there is no way, except sometimes by trusting to the probably unreliable memories of other people, to be absolutely sure that we know what we think we know, or are who we think we are.

Jenny Diski London Review of Books  vol 34 no 39 Feb 2012



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