Friday, 24 December 2021

WHERE'S JOSEPH?


One of the inspirations for my book Joseph and the Three Gifts was this amazing image – 'The Adoration of the Magi' (sometimes called 'The Star of Bethlehem') – created by Edward Burne-Jones and rendered as a breathtakingly detailed tapestry by William Morris in 1890 to hang in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford. 

When, a few years back, this Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece was exhibited at Tate Britain, I spent a long time sitting in front of it, contemplating both its miraculous making and the ancient mysteries of which it speaks. 

The focus of the tapestry is clearly Mary, dressed in eye-drawing blues and wine red and separated from the worshiping Magi by the ethereal presence of the floating, green-winged, star-nursing angel.

But what later caught my eye and riveted my questioning mind was the figure on the left of the image: an old man, slightly stooped, clutching a bundle kindling, gathered perhaps to build a fire to warm the mother and babe on a dark, cold night... 

A woodcutter? No, the halo dictates his identity as Joseph, foster father to the Christ child. In the tangled foliage at his feel lies a small hatchet as if dropped in his astonishment – on returning from his fuel-gathering – as he beholds the scene of great nobles bowing before his wife and the baby who looks back at them with old, wise eyes.

What struck me was that Joseph was left out of the central action of the scene: was on the periphery of the tableau: an attendant, but minor, figure in the drama. 

So began my slow discovery that, again and again, in images from great art to all manner of popular depictions – including nativity plays and Christmas cards – Joseph's fate is almost always on the fringes of an event of cataclysmic timelessness...

Some months later, in Venice, the story of Joseph and Three Gifts came to me and led to its eventual publication as a book and recent serialisation on BBC radio.

This Christmas, we received a card from some old friends featuring the Burne-Jones/Morris tapestry –– but in being necessarily truncated to fit the designated envelope-size, guess who got trimmed out of the picture? 

 


Not in this instance, obviously, but – just maybe – for a few readers and listeners I've helped put Joseph back where he belongs in this age-old tale that we love to tell and share year-on-year, century-after-century... 

 

CLICK here to find 'Joseph and the Three Gifts' read by Alex Jennings (5 Episodes available until 21/1/2022)

CLICK here to find the book of the radio series!

 

Thursday, 23 December 2021

O, CHRISTMAS TREE


However pagan its origins, I have never lost (and I hope I shall never lose) my affection for the Christmas Tree: real or artificial it seems to me to be an enduring symbol of enduring life in midst of the bleak death of winter-tide. 

 


Until 2019, our Christmases were for many years celebrated in Venice where our Christmas tree was this small glass tree (hung with Father-Christmas-decorations) made by the skilled craftsman of F.G.B. di Bubacco Giorgio, a little shop occupying the bottom part of a former campanile in Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, just in front of our Venetian home-from-home, Hotel Ala.

 

 

This year our little Santa-tree sits the alongside a Klimt Friendship Tree, made on the Venetian island of Murano, that was the last Christmas gift from a very dear Venetian friend who passed away a few months ago.

 


Knowing that Covid was going to keep us from our much-loved La Serenissima this December, we invested in a new artificial tree which decked out in baubles and other dangling odds and ends looks like this...

 

 

I am especially fond of a set of plastic birds that are now approaching 70-years-old and have been part of Sibley Christmases since I was a very small child. I think they came from F W Woolworth Company, now long-gone but once a popular fixture on pretty much every British high street. 

I dare say, at the time, these birds cost no more than a few pence each, but as they 'fly' around the tree, catching the lights, they bring back so many memories of Christmases long gone: some happy, some sad; some wonderfully celebratory and others, truthfully, better forgotten and laid to rest...


 


 

Every family Christmas tree is, I suppose, a totemic symbol: memorializing in the present, events from the past and carrying them softly, happily – occasionally regretfully, but always hopefully – towards the next new year; the next, as yet unwritten, pages of our future...


Wednesday, 15 December 2021

AWAY IN A MANGER

 

 

Dating from circa 1954, when I was about five years old, this was my first-ever concept of the Nativity. 

It was – and still is – a cheap, naively designed, gaudily and crudely painted, and indiscriminately glitter-splattered plastic product of the type of Christmas decorations that were, at the time, ubiquitously 'Made in Hong Kong'. 

However, to my young eyes, it seemed – and, oddly, still seems – a simply conceived and roughly presented icon that represents the uncomplicated, yet infinitely mysterious truth at the heart of the Christmas story. 

There is the Stable, the Star, Mary, Joseph, the Baby and, for good measure, a newborn lamb or two.

And the tree? Well, possibly (though certainly beyond the imagination of my five-year-old self) a symbol, in its livid greenness, of life and growth; or, perhaps, a nod to the Old Gods of the Greenwood or to the Christmas tree of our modern Western era (the forest wildness tamed and brought into our homes to die as sacrifice to the season); or, again, if not too uncomfortable a concept, an evergreen foreshadowing of the harsh-grained Wood of the Cross...?

 

Sunday, 12 December 2021

A WONDERFUL KNOCKER!

 

The knocker caught [Scrooge's] eye. 

"I shall love it as long as I live!" cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. "I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face! It's a wonderful knocker!"

 

Friday, 12 November 2021

THE DARKNESS IS RETURNING

 


When, earlier this year, I wrote at some length about my experiences of depression and the harrowing effects upon my mental health, I did so as someone who felt that he was emerging from the dark, dank forest; as someone who was no longer feeling doomed to wander, lost and alone among the tangled undergrowth and snaking branches of the great black trees that were blocking my every turn: instead I was now almost on the very outskirts of this grim woodland with the promise of open, blue skies sunlight and fresh air becoming daily closer and more reassuringly within my reach.

Of course, from past experiences of a longish life during which – from my very earliest years – depression has been no stranger, I was aware that the daily (sometimes hourly) existence of the depressive is ever a roller-coaster rising to points on an unpredictable undulating journey where bracing wind is suddenly whipping through your hair, causing tears to start into your eyes and filling your lungs deep-down deep enough to purge the accumulated dust and debris of many wearisome days and unending nights. 

But then, of course and all-too soon, there is always that moment of teetering before the scary-as-hell hurtling plunge into another dark, subterranean abyss from which you cannot believe you will ever again emerge. 

At odd moments, like this bleak early Friday morning, I am going to use this blog-that-no-one-reads-any-more to jot down some of the raw feelings as I am in the grip of experiencing them. 

Maybe it might help me – if and when (or to strike a more positive note, as and when) I claw my way up again – to look back and so better understand the process by which my depression (for it is wholly mine as opposed to some alien force) goes from merely dogging my heels like a constantly shift-shaping shadow to the point where it has me in its claws and is dragging me away into that shuddery darkness where it is most confident of holding its prey hostage. 

Writing even these few over-metaphored paragraphs has caused the shadow to momentarily hesitate and to scuttle a little way off, but I know it only bides its time and will, maybe today or in a few days time will again make its move...

Monday, 8 November 2021

LOST PROPERTY

 

Having taken a sabbatical from Facebook, I'll be returning, now and again, to my blog, safe in the knowledge (as here) that few if any read it these days so I won't have to 'like', 'love' or express some other emotion on reader's comments.

Much on my mind and in my heart right now is the question: "Why does the Church (quite frequently individually although not always collectively) seem to so often let people down?" 

I was recently re-reading (in St Luke's Gospel, Chapter 15) Jesus' words:

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

Why hasn't a shepherd come in search of this wandering sheep...? 

 

'The Lost Sheep' by John Everett Millais

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Signed Books: PURE IMAGINATION by Leslie Bricusse

 

 

This post – in an occasional series devoted to signed books in my 'library' (as I grandly refer to a great many piles of assorted volumes!) – is prompted by the death, at the age of 90, of Leslie Bricusse, the brilliantly gifted British composer, lyricist, and playwright.

Leslie Bricusse's prolific career ranged across stage musicals from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (both with Anthony Newley) to Pickwick and musical films from Doctor Dolittle via Scrooge to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as well as providing unforgettable music and songs for films, among them Goldfinger, Goodbye Mr Chips and, perhaps surprisingly, Superman!

Leslie's career is chronicled with charm and a sly wit in his 'Sorta-biography', Pure Imagination.


 

With Leslie's lavish signature (we collectors love an author with a distinctive hand over the careless scribbler!) on the theatrically-purple front free end-paper.



Over the years, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting with Leslie and his lovely, much-loved wife 'Evie' at their homes in London and Los Angeles in order to quiz his encyclopedic memory in preparation for several of my (now vintage) BBC Radio 2 series on aspects film and stage musicals and performers.

Always a welcoming, gracious host and one of the easiest and most accommodating interviewees who would always deliver the purest of  gold!

I have two particular mementos... 

Firstly in LA where, after giving him a copy of The Unsung Story, my book on A Christmas Carol (in view of his interest in Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge!) he jumped and rushed from the room calling over his shoulder: "I've got something for you that you absolutely won't have in your Dickens collection!" He momentarily returned with a copy of the Japanese libretto for the Tokyo production of Scrooge to which he added a typical inscription...

 

 

 

Then in London in 1989, meeting up with Leslie after the premiere of his stage production of Doctor Dolittle along with Phillip Schofield (playing the Doctor) who was contributing to a programme I was making about Julie Andrews (the voice in the show of the Doc's parrot, Polynesia). Phillip inscribed the cover of my souvenir programme to which Leslie couldn't resist adding his added his own idiosyncratic addition... 

 


Many thanks for all the music, Leslie – and the memories!


Saturday, 18 September 2021

Signed Books: LORD OF MISRULE by Christopher Lee

 

I own signed books that simply feature the author's name; many (from a long career of interviewing) that have such additions as 'Nice to meet you...' or 'Thanks for the interview'; and there are some inscribed to me or to others (where I bought the volumes from booksellers or at auction) with lengthy, sometimes florid, essays!

In signing this particular book, Lord of Misrule, the seldom taciturn Christopher Lee used very few words (and a number!); but his very personal inscription is charming and delightfully pleasing. 

Modesty forbids, but if you have a copy of Lord of Misrule, you can look up the reference!  



 
 

Sunday, 5 September 2021

ERIC FRASER'S 'Radio Times' art for the BBC's THE LORD OF THE RINGS

 


This post is for all you aficionados of
the BBC 1981 radio serialisation of The Lord of the Rings who have been following my six-monthly Blog and Facebook journey across the original twenty-six weekly episodes as they were first broadcast on Sundays from 8 March to 30 August, forty years ago.

Here, all in one place, is the complete set of Eric Fraser's black-and-white illustrations made to accompany the credits to the weekly episodes in the BBC's listings magazine, Radio Times

All images, except that for the second episode ('The Shadow of the Past'), are reproduced from Fraser's original art now in my collection; in this one instance, the image used was scanned from its printed reproduction in Radio Times. (I would, incidentally, be grateful for any information about the ownership of this 'missing' piece!)

The three images made for episodes 15-17 ('The Voice of Saruman', 'The Black Gate is Closed' and 'The Window on the West') are published on this blog for the very first time since, during that three week period, there was an industrial dispute at the print-works responsible for producing Radio Times and the magazine was issued only in an slimmed-down emergency format with few, if any, illustrations. The additional image at the top of this post was a generic design Fraser made featuring Gandalf, Frodo and Sam which was used on the BBC souvenir poster for the series and, subsequently, as a decoration for the box containing the cassette-tape release of the recordings. 

 

1.  The Long-awaited Party

 

 

2.  The Shadow of the Past

 


3.  The Black Riders

 


4. Trouble at the Prancing Pony



5. The Knife in the Dark

 


6. The Council of Elrond

 


7. The Fellowship of the Ring

 


8. The Mines of Moria

 


9. The Mirror of Galadriel

 


10. The Breaking of the Fellowship

 


11. The Riders of Rohan

 


12. Treebeard of Fangorn

 


13. The King of the Golden Hall

 


14. Helm’s Deep

 


15. The Voice of Saruman




 

16. The Black Gate is Closed 

 


17. The Window on the West

 


18. Minas Tirith

 


19. Shelob’s Lair

 


20. The Siege of Gondor

 


21. The Battle of Pelennor Fields

 


22. The Houses of Healing

 


23. Mount Doom

 


24. The Return of the King

 


25. Homeward Bound

 


26. The Grey Havens