Archive | December, 2010

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

22 Dec

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is curling up on the sofa and re-reading Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Over the years, I’ve amassed a nice little collection of various editions of the book, and am always on the lookout for more.

My oldest copy is a second edition (what I wouldn’t give for a first!) which my mother bought back in ’55 when she was living in Manhattan. It’s especially nice because she inscribed her name (when it was her maiden name) inside. It’s the only one I have without illustrations, though it does have lovely lettering throughout.

My other favourite is one featuring illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, my all-time favourite illustrator. He’s absolutely brilliant and I’m somewhat of an Ardizzone collector too.

Then I have a teensy copy with very clever little woodcut engravings by Fritz Eichenberg, a German-American who was once head of the art department at RISD.

Another newer edition from the ’80s includes lovely illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. Although Hyman is American, she studied art in Sweden and I think her illustrations are very Swedish-looking.

My most recent copy was published in 2004 and is illustrated by Chris Raschka, a Caldecott winner whose work is colourful, modern and vibrant.

Here are a few of my favourite passages and illustrations from some of my books.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six day and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve  nights when I was six.

It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cat, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes.

… soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very patiently, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs and she said, “Would you like anything to read?”

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the door and mittened on them manfully.”

“Get back to the Presents.”

“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloth; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes; blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes; from aunts who always wore wool next to the skin there were mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all; and once I had a little crocheted nose bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us.”

“Go on to the Useless Presents.”

“Bags of moist and many-coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap and a machine that punched tickets and rang a bell; never a catapult; once, by mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet …  And troop of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladder. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo!”

“And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood at the corner of the street and you waited for hours, in vain, for an old lady to scold you for smoking a cigarette, and then with a smirk you ate it.”

“Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlours; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnut and the mulling pokers”

Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostril, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself. I hated him on sight and sound, and would be about to put my dog whistle to my lips and blow him off the face of Christmas when suddenly he, with a violent wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheeks bulged with goose, would press against their tinseled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street.

Aunt Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.

Aunt Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would it among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.”

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.


Cranberry sauce

19 Dec

Making the annual “trough” of cranberry sauce is probably my favourite Christmas chore. First of all, it’s dead easy. And it also makes the house smell wonderful. And, finally, the finished product is so very delicious!

2 cups (475 ml) water
2 cups (380g) granulated sugar
1 orange, peel and juice (+ a little more orange juice if needed)
1 lb (455g) cranberries
2 Tbsp Grand Marnier

Put the water and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Peel the orange using a potato peeler, making sure to only get the peel, not the pith. Slice up the orange peel into thin matchstick-length pieces. Juice the orange and try to get ½ cup (118 ml). If your orange didn’t yield enough juice, just top up with some ordinary orange juice. Add the juice and orange peel to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a good 20 minutes until it’s thick and syrupy.

Rinse your cranberries and add them to the saucepan. Put the lid on and wait about 5 minutes until the berries have finished popping – like popcorn, but not as noisy.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool a bit before stirring in the Grand Marnier.

That’s it! Then just pop it in some sterilised jars and try not to eat it all before Christmas. It should yield enough to fill 3 jam jars or so.

Decorating for Christmas

17 Dec

There’s nothing more fun than sending the husband up into the loft.

To get the Christmas boxes, of course!

Every year I forget which tree decorations I have and spend ages looking at them all over again and remembering who gave them to me, who made them or when I bought them. Each one has a story.












The cards are hanging in front of the sitting room mirror looking quite nice, I  must admit:

Only seven days to go!

Claire’s Persephone Secret Santa

15 Dec

The gorgeous Claire who blogs over at Paperback Reader (go and have a look – it’s really good) organised a splendid Persephone Books Secret Santa this year.

My Santa turned out to be my friend Cate (aka bleuroses)! When I say ‘friend’, I don’t mean that we’ve actually met face-to-face (yet), but that we’ve become good online friends thanks to our bonding over Persephones and Virago Modern Classics over on LibraryThing.

I think Cate knows my library pretty well because she made a fabulous choice for me – The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. She cleverly slipped the beautiful bookmark under the ribbon so I know which book it is, but I’m not actually going to open it until Christmas Day.

This is my 37th Persephone book (not counting the ones I have in other editions) and a very welcome addition it is indeed!

But that’s not all.

A few weeks ago, I received a parcel from Persephone in London containing a lovely book bag bearing the Persephone logo. However, there was no note or card or message in the parcel and I was at a complete loss. I’d half convinced myself that I’d ordered the bag myself and just forgotten about it. I finally gave in and got in touch with the folks at Persephone who told me who’d bought it.

So a double thank you to Cate!

Not only do I now have the most fabulous book bag on the planet, but I’ve also lined up my first read of 2011.

Newlyn Cheese

14 Dec

I had my first visit to the new Newlyn Cheese shop today, and what a treat it was!

It’s very small, but perfectly lovely and filled with the most delicious cheeses, biscuits, bread, chutneys, etc.

And who could resist cheeses with names like Miss Muffet and Ticklemore Goat?

I came home with wedges of Miss Muffet, Rachel and Cornish Blue. Miss Muffet is soft and mild and I bought it for my Gouda-loving husband. Rachel is quite possibly the yummiest cheese I’ve ever tasted. My mother-in-law thought it smelled of goat, but my sister-in-law and I were smitten. It was apparently named for an ex-girlfriend of the cheesemaker and is described as “sweet, curvy and slightly nutty.” Hah! I had to buy some of the Cornish Blue because last month it won top honours at the World Cheese Awards, the first time in a decade that a British cheese has won. And it beat 2,600 other entries!

World Cheese Awards … now why aren’t those televised?

I very nearly also bought some of the Yarg wrapped in wild garlic leaves, but decided to leave that for a future visit. And I’m confident there’ll be plenty of future visits.

The Wind in the Willows

13 Dec

I recently re-read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for one of the book groups I belong to. It brought back such lovely memories of my childhood and of my mother tucking me into bed and reading me a chapter every night.

The Wind in the Willows is especially good bedtime reading; in fact, its first incarnation was a series of stories that Grahame told his son Alistair. Here (courtesy of the Bodleian Library) is a letter to a seven-year-old Alistair from his father who was holidaying in Cornwall:



10th May 1907.

My darling Mouse

This is a birth-day letter, to wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish we could have been all together, but we shall meet again soon, & then we will have treats. I have sent you two picture-books, one about Brer Rabbit, from Daddy, & one about some other animals, from Mummy. And we have sent you a boat, painted red, with mast & sails, to sail in the round pond by the windmill  — & Mummy has sent you a boat-hook to catch it when it comes to shore. Also Mummy has sent you some sand-toys to play in the sand with, and a card-game.

Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken pris­oner by brig­ands at all. It was all a hor­rid low trick of his. He wrote that let­ter him­self  —  the let­ter say­ing that a hun­dred pounds must be put in the hol­low tree. And he got out of the win­dow early one morn­ing, & went off to a town called Buggleton & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London, & while they were hav­ing break­fast he went into the stable-yard & found their motor-car & went off in it with­out even say­ing Poop-poop! And now he has van­ished & every one is look­ing for him, includ­ing the police. I fear he is a bad low animal.

Goodbye, from

Your loving Daddy.

I must thank Letters of Note, one of my very favourite blogs, for the letter and the happy coincidence that brought it my way just after I’d re-read the book.

When talking about The Wind in the Willows, most people seem to rave about the famous Chapter VII – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But, while it is indeed a beautiful piece of writing, I think my favourite chapter is Dulce Domum in which Mole returns to his own home after smelling it and being overcome with that desperate and tearful joy that many of us feel when we think of ‘home’:

Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like — your cosy quarters — or Toad’s beautiful hall — or Badger’s great house — but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat — and everything came back to me with a rush — and I wanted it! — O dear, O dear! — and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty — and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time — I thought my heart would break.

Of course, Ratty understands, and the two of them find Mole’s house. As Mole is dropping off to sleep in his little house, the chapter ends with:

He [Mole] saw clearly how plain and simple — how narrow, even — it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence … it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again, and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.

Isn’t that what we all want?