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Friday, 20 December 2013

Have a happy humbug this year

This is the kind of image that I grew up with as a child attending a school operating in the Anglican tradition. For many years there was also Sunday school at a hall that sat next to the local Anglical church and which we reached by going out the back gate into the park and around the foreshore of the bay, across the suspension bridge and up the road a bit. At my kindergarden, which is still associated with the school, we played parts in nativity plays; I might have been a shepherd, I just can't remember, or an ox. My parents also sent us away during a few summers to a camp operated by the same church; I remember sitting one evening on one of those trips with another boy, by the river looking up at the stars trying to imagine a Creator and what the existence of such a thing might mean for me. I admit to having been a serious student and I suppose that being so gave no displeasure to any of the adults who supervised me and my friends during those years when I barracked for Manly and sailed boats on Saturday mornings in local regattas.

There were of course also presents at Christmas. I can't imagine any small boy complaining about them. And naturally it didn't take long to work out where the presents came from, especially as I was put to working in my mother's gift shop saving up my wages from time spent behind the counter during the busy end-of-year season. With the money I would buy presents for my father and mother, and for my grandmother and my brother. And with adolescence came the obligatory focus on (mostly imported) popular music - Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, ELO, Earth Wind and Fire - and also an interest in my brother's collection of science fiction novels. At this time, I was still standing up during the weekly assembly at my secondary school singing hymns and God Save the Queen but on weekends with friends I was studying lyrics that would make a parson blush. I lived a double life and I suspect that my father, especially, was slightly dismayed. It was he, after all, who had taken me and my brother to see a matinee performance of Jesus Christ Superstar although he was not openly religious and was the kind of man who tended to refer to those who were, as "sky pilots".

I stopped sailing when I went to university and spent all my spare time in the library and in bookshops. Now it was Renaissance poets and Bukowski. Christmas would of course never be the same again; Christmas never had a chance.

So to the matter of this post. Ebenezer Scrooge is an artifact of the mid-19th century, the creation of a writer born in the early Romantic era and whose early life was characterised by penury and want. Dickens must really have enjoyed fame and fortune considering the circumstances of his youth. But he never let the light go out and as a result he is still read and written about now. I find it hard to reconcile Scrooge with my own person however, and in fact I find Dickens a bit overwrought and sappy at the best of times, a man prone to creating blocky, cardboard-cut-out caricatures for sensational narrative affect. Dickens may be admired by many but for me he's hardly the writer at the acme of the art especially now as we approach the 200th anniversary of his birth. In fact I can take his books or leave them, it makes no difference. Stylistically he owed everything to Jane Austen - who never wrote about Christmas because it had not yet, in her day, become a commercial occasion - and must be reckoned, if we're fair, to be an acolyte of the master of prose who came before.

So you see I'm on top of Dickens, just like I'm aware that the writings we refer to as the Bible are undatable, unattributable and are probably mostly fiction. Yet people still choose to believe they are factual records of things, and on that basis they choose to maintain strong ideological positions, on many issues, that I find repulsive. Is it any wonder that "humbug" is the thought that has, for so many decades, quickly appeared in my consciousness when I think about Christmas? The only thing you can say about Christmas that is uncontroversial and entirely positive is that it makes people act in ways that help to strengthen the sense of community. People exchange cordial greetings, send cards to each other, buy each other gifts, and sit down to share specially-prepared meals. On that basis alone do I tolerate Christmas, and that will have to be enough for you. Otherwise: "humbug!"

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