24 December 2013

"What's to-day, my fine fellow?"

Who's that knocking on the window, 
Who's that standing at the door, 
What are all those presents 
Laying on the kitchen floor? 

Who is the smiling stranger 
With hair as white as gin, 
What is he doing with the children 
And who could have let him in? 

Why has he rubies on his fingers, 
A cold, cold crown on his head, 
Why, when he caws his carol, 
Does the salty snow run red? 

Why does he ferry my fireside 
As a spider on a thread, 
His fingers made of fuses 
And his tongue of gingerbread? 

Why does the world before him 
Melt in a million suns, 
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes 
Burn like saffron buns? 

Watch where he comes walking 
Out of the Christmas flame, 
Dancing, double-talking: 

Herod is his name.

Weird, huh? I don't know how many mugs of mulled wine Charles Causley had scooped when he composed Innocents Song, blending Santa with King Herod's notorious Massacre of the Innocents from the New Testament. But there it is. A winter's tale, with just a hint of darkness against the twinkling candlelight. 

A little horror to leaven the jollity is traditional around Christmas. Dickens, inevitably, but also the atmospheric and otherworldly short stories M R James.  This year,  Mark Gatiss has adapted his Tractate Middoth for the BBC.  Youtube yields up other unsettling delights from the back-catalogue. 

Michael Hordern's splendidly detailed, greedy, mumbling professor in Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) almost makes up for his appalling, emotionally-empty performance as Prospero in the BBC Shakespeare version of the Tempest.  And although the recording quality is a bit iffy, Number 13, masterfully but simply narrated by Christopher Lee, is fine unsettling stuff for the hour of the wolf, dram trembling in hand.

I hope it has been a good year, and my thanks to all the folk who've taken time to lend their lugs to our podcasts and to read this blog over the past twelve months. I hope both have been diverting.  As the Stygian gloom of a December afternoon draws in, all that remains is to wish you all, all of my readers, a very Merry Christmas tomorrow.

May Santa fill up all your coal scuttles to the brim.


  1. Merry Xmas to you in return LPW, and many thanks for your analysis - always absorbing and witty - and thanks also for your hospitality here!

    Causley is one of my favourites - first heard Herod's Song on BBC Closedown oh god some decades ago now. Here is the Phil Beer /Show of Hands setting -


    The truncated title the BBC gave Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You my Lad' (James took it from Burns of course) is a bit annoying - the original is surely spookier! Full story here -


    Some more Causley - a very distinct voice

    A Ballad for Katharine of Aragon

    As I walked down by the river
    Down by the frozen fen
    I saw the grey cathedral
    With the eyes of a child of ten.
    O the railway arch is smoky
    As the Flying Scot goes by
    And but for the Education Act
    Go Jumper Cross and I.

    But war is a bitter bugle
    That all must learn to blow
    And it didn't take long to stop the song
    In the dirty Italian snow..
    O war is a casual mistress
    And the world is her double bed
    She has a few charms in her mechanised arms
    But you wake up and find yourself dead.

    The olive tree in winter
    Casts her banner down
    And the priest in white and scarlet
    Comes up from the muddy town.
    O never more will Jumper
    Watch the Flying Scot go by
    His funeral knell was a six-inch shell
    Singing across the sky.

    The Queen of Castile has a daughter
    Who won't come home again
    She lies in the grey cathedral
    under the arms of Spain.
    O the Queen of Castile has a daughter
    Torn out by the roots.
    Her lovely breast in a stone cold chest
    Under the farmers' boots.

    Now I like a Spanish party
    And many O many the day
    I have watched them swim as the night came dim
    On Algeciras Bay.
    O the high sierra was thunder
    And the seven-branched river of Spain
    Came down to the sea to plunder
    The heart of the sailor again.

    O shall I leap in the river
    And knock upon paradise door
    For a gunner of twenty-seven and a half
    And a queen of twenty-four?
    From the almond-tree by the river
    I watch the sky with a groan
    For Jumper and Kate are always out late
    And I lie here alone.

  2. Forgive me, I thought you were quoting a Beatle survivor song there for the first stanza.

    Shocked and stunned, I opened another bottle and settled down to mock, mercilessly.


    Merry thingy and a hairy new year.

  3. "..........As the Stygian gloom of a December afternoon draws in......"

    Jaysus, it's not that bad is it? You speak as if you're north of the Arctic Circle and bathed in perpetual darkness, it bein' the Winter Solstice and all. You're in Scotland, not the Faroes! It could be worse! It was -26 C where I am yesterday morning. I am expecting it to be -31 C New Year's Eve. By mid January it will settle at -40 (C or F, take your pick) and stay there until the Vernal Equinox.
    I reckon it's positively tropical, albeit a tad darkish, where you are.
    Quit bitchin'.