Christmas Crackers



I’ve become addicted to John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Cracker books, which appeared in our local Oxfam bookstore. They’re a pot pourri of poetry, prose, biography, anecdote and various other uncatalogable delights. Like this bit of Swinburne:

And the best and the worst of this is
That neither is more to blame
If you have forgotten my kisses
And I have forgotten your name.

A whole historical novel lies within that, but I bet that 70,000 words wouldn’t do the story the justice those twenty odd words have.

Copyright prevents me sharing some of the best items wholesale, but I’d recommend anyone trying to track down the poem All The Days of Christmas by Phyllis McGinley. It’s about a woman’s pondering on what present to get for her long time partner, but lines like:

I’ve no gold ring
And no turtle dove,
So what can I bring
To my true love?

have a resonance for some of our historical gay couples.

What I’ve most enjoyed in this book, apart from discovering wonderful poems, are the little insights into the lives of the famous.This letter to a Victorian railway company is funny in itself, with lines like:

“I took a ticket at Carlisle for Birmingham on the way to Oxford and when we arrived at Preston the recollections I had of Birmingham seven years ago made me conclude we were at Birmingham.”

“I got bewildered at Wolverhampton and spent the night there and next day was told that my Bletchley ticket was out of date.”

It’s even funnier when you see it was written by David Livingstone – maybe he should have had Stanley to help him navigate the untamed wastes of the English Midlands. Or looked at the name plates on the stations?

My absolute favourite piece is from a trial in 1836, in which Grantley Berkeley was accused of assaulting another man, one who’d allegedly attacked Berkeley and his family in the form of a review of his novel ‘Berkeley Castle’. The judge concluded:

“I really think that this assault was carried to a very inconsiderate length, and that if an author is to go and give a beating to a publisher who has offended him, two or three blows with a horsewhip ought to be quite enough to satisfy his irritated feelings.”

I’m off to find a horsewhip…

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

My giveaway today is a framed original coca-cola advert from a 1940’s edition of National geographic. I’ll pick a winner by random from the comments .

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

2. How many ghosts visited Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?

37 Responses

  1. I love the sheer randomness of what you can find at Christmas!

  2. Ah, it’s good to know it’s not just me who stares at British Rail Stations with confusion and trepidation!

    • LOL But there’s such a big clue, darling. Like the name, spelt out in letters a foot high.


  3. LOL! My irritated feelings are satisfied just by the thought 🙂

  4. “I got bewildered at Wolverhampton …” And how many of us could say the same, like a branding station for confusion and dismay. Our own private Wolverhamptons.

  5. Those excerpts are precious!

    How much snow have you got? I’m going to venture into town in my hat and snow boots now. I may be some time…

    • We have 12-15cm (we’ve been out with a ruler and measured it!) Too powdery for snowmen, but me and the two young ‘uns just walked up to the service station and had unhealthy hot lunch. Yum.

      Aren’t those excerpts fab?

      • Made it back from town safely, but my credit card is complaining and M&S have much reduced stocks of thermal underthings and fleecy pyjamas. Eating yoghurt gingers, but should really get up and toast crumpets to go with a nice cup of tea.

        Tonight’s Christmas Party is unsurprisingly cancelled.

  6. Speaking as a Scot who regularly travels to the Midlands by train I can sympathise with Dr Livingstone! Thank you for this lovely little miscellany 🙂

  7. “if an author is to go and give a beating to a publisher who has offended him, two or three blows with a horsewhip ought to be quite enough to satisfy his irritated feelings.”

    LOL – that judge didn’t know many authors personally, I’m guessing!

    The books sound fascinating – wonder if they’ll show up in my local Oxfam?

    • I do hope you can run them to ground. I was hoping to pick up some more last Tuesday but they’d been sold. 😦

  8. Oh, that’s great!
    *puts horsewhip on Christmas wishlist straight away* ;D

  9. Hi Charlie! I love that quote from Livingstone. Maybe that explains why no one could find him when he went to Africa – if he didn’t know where he was how the heck could anyone else?

    • LOL Actually, elsewhere in the letter he says that can find his way around Africa just fine. Which makes it all triply funny.

  10. I’m going to see if the book is available here. Probably not, in which case I’ll be very annoyed. I must have it.
    I don’t know which I liked best: befuddled Livingstone (and do we really KNOW he was in Africa when he was found? Or were Victorian spin doctors at work?) or the one about horsewhipping publishers. I have one I’d like to whallop (none of my current ones, I hasten to add. Loved this post, Charlie.

    • Who knows about the truth of half these stories. They’re on my list to find out when I get to heaven.

      No idea if the books are available in your neck of the woods. Hope you can run them to ground…

  11. I love the randomness of all that. The poetry is nice and the little snippets of life just make me laugh. I’m sure I know a few people who would be just as confused at the train stations.

    • I think growing up in London, and travelling on the underground since I was a baby, has given me extra confidence about travelling to strange places.

      And yes, the randomness is brilliant.

  12. At least you have rail stations… we have a group here called “Rails to Trails” where they advocate for railroad lines to be converted to paths for cyclists and walkers. I want to start a group called “Trails to Rails.. Bring Back Train Travel!”

    The giveawy sounds fun… but I won’t stick you with the postage, so don’t enter me.

    Nan Hawthorne

    • We have plenty of disused lines converted to paths – they’re brilliant. Could do with relaying some of them, though. Maybe.

  13. I must give myself a horsewhip for Christmas for dealing with publishing types. Even three strokes sounds satisfying, yet hardly enough.

    • Three strokes would be an ample sufficiency. Reviewers could have the full dozen. 🙂

      • Oh, no, not the reviewers! Well, maybe one or two. Most of them have been great. Let’s be nice to the good reviewers. You can cane the ones who turn a “review” into a personal attack, though. The full dozen, plus.

  14. The poem about having no ring to give would be especially poignant for a gay couple, as they couldn’t exchange wedding rings anyways.
    I find myself oddly touched by that,

    • *nods* So did I. Makes me mad that a devoted gay couple can’t exchange such a symbol of their love whereas a less devoted straight couple could.


  15. That book sounds fab. I will have to look for a copy, if possible.

  16. That sounds like a fun book. Thanks so much for sharing, Charlie.


  17. Charlie, if I’d known about that horse whip earlier I’d have been much more cautious in our dealings. *g*

    A great post to kick off what’s starting to look like the best Advent Calendar yet (I’ve been working my way back to front)!

    • Yep, I think it’s excelling itself. If I had a horse whip, I would never use it on you. (I do, however, possess a genuine policeman’s truncheon!)


  18. Super!
    All the rail journeys I took as a child seemed to have stops called Buffet…

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