Saturday 30 January 2021

Signed Books: LEAVING HOME by Garrison Keillor


It's January 1988 and I'm about to interview Garrison Keillor for Meridian Books on the BBC World Service about Leaving Home, his latest collection of Lake Wobegon Stories.


As we're waiting for the green light to go and he suddenly says in that measured, melancholic voice for which he is justly celebrated: "You know, I don't understand why you're interviewing me!" 


I point out that he has just published a new book.


"I know," he says, "but you should be interviewing all those really great writers..."


"Like who?" I ask.


"Oh, you know..." he hesitates a second and then rattles off a litany of names,  "Charles Dickens –– Lewis Carroll –– James Joyce –– Charlotte Bronte –– Anthony Trollope –– Herman Melville –– Mark Twain..." 


"But," I, not unreasonably, object, "they're all dead!"


"Yes, that's true," he admits, "but there are plenty of living writers who are passionate about dead writers, so you could interview the living ones in the persona of those dead greats from the past."


"That's quite an idea," I agree, my mind already starting to formulate a programme proposal to pitch to the BBC. 


"I'll make you a gift of it," says Keillor, "on one condition –– that you promise to interview me in the guise of Mark Twain following the publication of Tom Sawyer!"




Deal done! Interview begins...


The chat goes really well and I get I pleasant inscription in my copy of Leaving Home... 



At every following author-interview, I mention the idea, receive instant enthusiasm and start building a list of potential contributors to a series I am now, provisionally, entitling Author, Author! 


Some rules of the game get established: the 'authors' can only be asked questions about their most recently published book along with references to their previously published works but the interviewer is absolutely not allowed any knowledge of their subsequent life or writings. 


In addition to Mark Twain (a.k.a. Garrison Keillor) my growing list of contributors includes Fay Weldon who wants to be Jane Austen talking about Pride and Prejudice, Ray Bradbury who'll be Melville discussing Moby Dick and Terry Pratchett who's considering taking on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Unsurprisingly, there are several writers competing to be Dickens, while – maybe a little off-piste – Roy Hattersley is pitching to be interviewed as John Wisden the nineteenth-century English cricketer who, in 1864, founded Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack!

The BBC deliberates for best part of a year before turning the project down. Such is life... but perhaps now, since all the possible contributors (except Keillor) have passed on, along with most of the BBC panjandrums who rejected the proposal and since the original authors are also still dead maybe it's time to re-float the idea...


I'll keep you posted, Garrison...

Friday 22 January 2021

Signed Books: JOURNEY'S END by R C Sherriff


Among my collection of signed books are volumes given to me by writers who were also friends along with others by writers, actors and celebrities whom I interviewed while broadcasting on the BBC's radio arts programmes or encountered while making my various radio documentary series; but, over the years, I have also bought signed copies of books from second-hand book shops, on-line book dealers and at auction. 


Today's book is one such although I cannot now remember where I purchased this copy of Journey's End which recently surfaced in a box of books that hadn't been looked into for a number of years. What I certainly hadn't recalled was quite what a particular copy this is...



Journey's End is a noted play by English dramatist, R C Sherriff (Robert Cedric Sherriff, 1896-1975) set in the trenches near Saint-Quentin, Aisne, France, towards the end of the First World War.

The drama plays out in the officers' dugout of a British Army infantry company from 18 to 21 March 1918 and giving an intimate portrait of the lives of a group of soldiers during the last few days before the onset of the major German military offensive known as Operation Michael.


The Incorporated Stage Society on 9 and 10 December 1928 first staged the play, for two nights only. Directed by the then unknown James Whale (later director of many films including Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein) and with George Zucco as Lieutenant Osborne and Maurice Evans as 2nd  Lieutenant Raleigh and the 21-year-old Laurence Olivier as Captain Stanhope.


The play moved to the West End first (with Colin Clive replacing Olivier) at the Savoy Theatre and then at The Prince of Wales where it had a two-year run. 



Included in The Best Plays of 1928–1929, the play quickly became internationally popular, with numerous productions and tours in English and other languages.


The first American production production debuted on Broadway on 22 March 1929 at Henry Miller's Theatre 124 West 43rd Street.


My copy of the play is the 1929 American edition from Bretano's Publishers and gives the cast of that first New York run.


The play was once again directed by James Whale with Colin Keith-Johnston playing Stanhope and, in the role of Lieutenant Osborne – Leon Quartermaine.


Leon Quartermaine as Lieutenant Osborne in Journey's End by Eric Pape
lithographic crayon on paper, published 7 July 1929
National Portrait Gallery (NPG D48183)

What makes this copy of the play so particular, is that not only is it signed by Sherriff on the title-page, but is personally inscribed by the playwright (as 'Bob Sherriff') on the half-title to Leon Quartermaine...

In addition to the signatures on the pages of the book itself there is ('loosely inserted', as booksellers put it) a later-purchased autograph of Leon Quartermaine, inscribed “with pleasure”...



Leon Quartermaine (1876-1967) was born in Richmond, London on 24 September 1876 and educated at the Whitgift School in Croydon.


In 1921 Quartermaine appeared with Fay Compton in a West End revival of J M Barrie's play Quality Street and the following February Quartermaine and Compton were married, and remained so until their divorce in 1942.



In addition to his performance as Lieutenant Osborne in the American premiere of Journey's End Quartermaine made numerous appearances on Broadway between 1903 and 1935, among them Laertes (Hamlet, 1904) and Malvolio (Twelfth Night, 1930).


Quartermaine appeared in several films during the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, including As You Like It (1936) in which he co-starred as Jacques to Laurence Olivier's Orlando. 

After the Second World War, Quartermaine joined the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the 1949-50 Stratford Festivals, in a company including John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Anthony Quayle and other leading Shakespearean actors, appearing in Macbeth, Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing. In 1951 he played the Inquisitor in a BBC television adaptation of Shaw's Saint Joan.


Quartermaine died on 25 June 1967, in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Wednesday 20 January 2021


This is the first of an occasional series of posts in which I'll be sharing details of signed volumes in my book collection.

I start with P L Travers' Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, the last story about the magical nanny.

I have a number of books inscribed and signed by Travers, but I've chosen this particular title because it was her last, because she gave it to me when it was first published in 1988 and because, at that time, we were working together for the Walt Disney Studio on Mary Poppins Comes Back a planned (but unrealised)
sequel to the Studio's celebrated 1964 Oscar-winning triumph.  

This also gives me the opportunity to re-post an essay I wrote fifteen years ago about my very first encounter with the woman who gave us the Practically Perfect Mary Poppins...


I was going to tea with Mary Poppins! 

Well, no, not exactly, but I was going to tea with P L Travers, who had written the Mary Poppins books; and, at that precise moment, I was walking down a street of neat-and-tidy-looking houses that reminded me very much of Cherry Tree Lane…

True, Shawfield Street – off the King's Road in London’s Chelsea – didn’t boast any really grand houses (with two gates) like that owned by Miss Lark and none of them were quite as unusual or as exciting as the ship-shape home of Admiral Boom… But, as I arrived at the door of number 29, I felt as if I might expect to find Robertson Ay asleep on the doorstep or hear the argumentative voices of Mrs Brill and Ellen coming up from the basement.

This all happened over twenty years ago, but I remember it now as vividly as if it were only yesterday…

I'd been invited to come to tea at four o'clock and I was a little early – ten minutes early to be precise – because I really didn't want to be late and keep Mary Poppins waiting...

I went up the steps to the front door – which, rather surprisingly, was painted candyfloss pink – and I rang the bell.


I rang again.

Still silence.

Had I got the wrong day, I wondered.

Then a window, two storeys up, flew open and a head popped out and asked, in a brisk tone: "Are you Brian Sibley?"

I said that I was.

"Well," said the head, "you are early!" And the window rattled shut again.

I waited. And I waited. For the full ten minutes I waited – until the clock on a nearby church struck 'four'. Only then did a woman with curly grey hair and bright forget-me-not-blue eyes open the door.

So, this was P (for Pamela) L (for Lyndon) Travers…


I noticed that she was wearing a pair of 'sensible shoes' of the kind Mary Poppins wore; but, in contrast, she sported a very un-Poppinsish dress with lots of frills and flounces, a number of jingly-jangly bracelets and bangles (rather like those favoured by Miss Lark, I thought) and a chunky turquoise necklace.

After my wait on the doorstep, I was a little nervous, but she welcomed me in with a smile, threw my coat over the back of a noble rocking-horse who galloped up the hallway and showed me into the room where, many times afterwards, I would come to have tea and talk with the woman who introduced the world to Mary Poppins.

When Jane and Michael Banks once asked Mary Poppins who she would choose to be if she wasn't Mary Poppins, she replied, in her sharp, non-nonsense tone: "Mary Poppins." It is a typical Poppins response: supremely confident, yet – at the same time – as mysterious and elusive as the place where a rainbow ends…

And, sometimes, P L Travers could be much the same. For one thing, that was not her real name: when she was born, in Australia in 1899, she was called Helen Lyndon Goff.

Then, as a young woman she became an actress and a dancer and took 'Pamela' for a stage name (because she thought it sounded pretty and "actressy"), followed by 'Lyndon' (her own second name and a reminder that her ancestors came from Ireland, the land of myths and stories) and, finally, 'Travers' which was her father’s first name. 

Travers Goff had died when Pamela was seven-years-old and she never forgot how much she had loved and missed him. Mr Banks in the stories is, in some respects perhaps, owes something to her father and, although Pamela used to tell people that he was a sugar-planter in Australia, in truth at the time that she was born Goff was working in a bank – just like Jane and Michael’s father.

It was never easy to get factual detail from Pamela and she was especially enigmatic is asked about the creative processes behind her book. She would get especially irritated if you asked about how she came to 'create' Mary Poppins. firmly making it clear that she had 'discovered' rather than 'invented' the character – but, as with so many things in Pamela’s life, you never quite knew… 

She told me, for instance, that Mary Poppins had first blown into her imagination – rather as she blows into the lives of the Banks family – when she was recovering from an illness in an old country cottage in Sussex. She said that somewhere – in that strange state between being ill and getting better – the idea of a person like Mary Poppins had come to her. 

The truth is that, several years earlier, she had written a short story entitled 'Mary Poppins and the Match Man' that was published in a New Zealand newspaper and this story was, in fact, an early version of the second chapter of Mary Poppins in which Bert accompanies her on her 'Day Out' and they enjoy a wonderful tea with heaps of raspberry jam-cakes! 


What is certain is that, during that illness, she came up with ideas for new stories about the character and wrote them down. Mary Poppins, was published in 1934, with illustrations by Mary Shepard, the daughter of the man who had drawn Winnie-the-Pooh. 


The following year, she wrote her second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, and, after a nine-year gap, the third book in the series appeared. Pamela had wanted to call it Good-bye, Mary Poppins, but eventually – after her publisher begged her not to be quite so final – it was renamed Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

And, as it happens, it wasn't goodbye to Mary Poppins because, eight years later, she wrote Mary Poppins in the Park following which the practically perfect nanny reappeared in various spin-offs including an alphabet book Mary Poppins from A to Z (which, for some reason, was subsequently translated into Latin) and a book of stories and recipes entitled Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. Late in life, the author wrote two more slim volumes: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and, finally in 1988, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door.

"If you are looking for autobiographical facts," P L Travers once wrote, "Mary Poppins is the story of my life." This seems an unlikely claim when you think that Mary Poppins goes inside a chalk pavement picture, slides up banisters, arranges tea-parties on the ceiling and has a carpet bag which is both empty and yet contains everything.

But if we take her at her word, we can find many things in her books that spring from her own life and shaped the stories she told…

For example, several of her fictional characters have names borrowed from people Pamela had known in her childhood - among them a strange little old woman with two tall daughters who ran the local general store where the young Pamela bought sweets. Her name, of course, was – as it is in the stories – Mrs Corry.

As for Miss Poppins herself, her first name was probably inspired by the younger of Pamela’s two sisters who was known in the family as 'Moya' – the Irish version of ‘Mary’.

As for 'Poppins'… Well, Pamela never gave any clues as to where that name came from. But when she first arrived in London to work as a journalist, she used an office near Fleet Street and on her way to visit nearby St Paul's Cathedral – home to the Bird Woman – she would have passed a little lane with the curious name, 'Poppins Court'.



Unlike today's street signs, early London gazetteers did not include the apostrophe and 'Poppins Court' was once the site of a 14th Century inn called 'The Poppinjay' that was owned by the Abbots of Cirencester and had an inn-sign displaying the Abbey's crest: a parrot-like bird.

And while we're talking parrots...

Although she and her sisters never had a Mary Poppins for a nanny, they did have an Irish maid named Bertha –– or maybe she was called Bella, Pamela pretended she could never quite remember! Bella (or Bertha) was a marvellous character with almost as many eccentric relatives as Mary Poppins.

What’s more, Bertha – or Bella – possessed something that was her pride and joy: a parrot-headed umbrella. "Whenever she was going out," Pamela once told me, "the umbrella would be carefully taken out of tissue-paper and off she would go, looking terribly stylish. But, as soon as she came back, the umbrella would be wrapped up in tissue-paper once more."

You will remember that Mary Poppins always carried her umbrella, regardless of the weather, simply because it was too beautiful not to be carried. "How could you leave your umbrella behind," asks the author, "if it had a parrot’s head for a handle?"



"Spit-spot into bed," was a favourite phrase of her mother's, and other bits of Mary Poppins' character were clearly inspired by Pamela's spinster aunt, Christina Saraset, whom everybody called 'Aunt Sass'. She was a crisp, no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold who, like Mary Poppins, was given to making "a curious convulsion in her nose that was something between a snort and a sniff."

When Pamela once suggested to her aunt that she might write about her, the elderly lady replied: "What! You put me in a book! I trust you will never so far forget yourself as to do anything so vulgarly disgusting!" This indignant response was, apparently, followed up with a contemptuous, "Sniff, sniff!" 


Now, doesn't that sound just like Mary Poppins? Certainly I can report that P L Travers herself said something along the same lines to me, when I rashly suggested, one day, that I might write her life-story!

As a young girl, Pamela took dancing lessons and there seems to be dancing, of some kind or other, in every one of the books: remember Mary Poppins joining all the birds and beasts at the zoo in dancing the Grand Chain? Or the Red Cow who catches a falling star on her horn and can't stop dancing?



And, speaking of stars, reminds me that, as a child, Pamela had been captivated by the beauty of the constellations she saw in the clear southern skies above her home in the Australian outback. She never lost her fascination with star-gazing and there are stars scattered throughout the pages of all her books. In one story, Maia (one of the stars in the constellation Pleiades), comes down to earth to do her Christmas shopping; in another, Mrs Corry, her two gargantuan daughters and Mary Poppins paste Gingerbread Stars on to the night sky.


Over the years I knew Pamela, we had many conversations but the one I remember most clearly took place not long before she died at the grand age of 96 and it was also about a star.

I had asked her if she thought perhaps another story – maybe one last tale about Mary Poppins – might come to her. "I think it might," she replied slowly, "because, the other day, on the street outside, I found a star on the pavement!"

"A star?" I repeated, with surprise.

"Yes," she said softly, "a star. Go and look for it yourself. I hope I shall find out where it came from and what it is doing there."

It was dusk when I let myself out of the candy-pink door of 29 Shawfield Street that particular afternoon and headed off to look for that star. Light was failing, but I found it, at last: just as Pamela had said – a star-shape, faintly but clearly marked in the surface of a paving stone.

A puzzled passer-by looked quizzically at the man staring intently at what looked like a very ordinary piece of pavement. 


Doubtless it was some rouge imprint on the surface from the manufacturing of the cement paving-stone, but I was remembering the words of the old snake, the Hamadryad, on that night of the full moon when Mary Poppins took Jane and Michael to the zoo:


"We are all made of the same stuff... The tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star - we are all one, all moving to the same end..."


Like Mary Poppins, P L Travers saw – and gave others the ability to see – the magical in very ordinary and everyday things.

She had discovered something as rare and amazing as a star in a London street and, then, she had given it away...

I hope she found out why it was there…

Of course, Mary Poppins would have the answer, but, as you know, she would never, never tell...

© Brian Sibley, 2006, 2021

Illustration: Mary Poppins and the Hamadryad by Culpeo-Fox; all other illustrations by Mary Shepard


Saturday 16 January 2021



A recently surfaced treasure from the depths of the Sibley collection...

A copy of the Souvenir Programme for the London stage production of the musical, Doctor Dolittle, based on the 1967 movie of the same name and the children's books by Hugh Lofting.

The show had its world premiere at the Hammersmith Apollo, London on 14 July 1998 (my birthday!), starring TV presenter and personality, Philip Schofield in the title role and featuring Dame Julie Andrews as the voice of Polynesia the Parrot. 

The programme was signed by Schofield during an interview with me for my BBC Radio 2 programme, Starring Julie, celebrating Miss Andrews' career; and, later, by the show's composer and lyricist, Leslie Bricusse with an inscription referencing 'Rex' (Harrison) who starred as the Doctor in the original film.

Wednesday 6 January 2021



The ancient Christian feast day of Epiphany (today) commemorates the visit of the Wise Men to the new born Christ Child, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and is the origin of our tradition of giving Christmas presents.

In Venice (from where we ought to have been returning this afternoon!), as in all Italy, Epiphany is still commemorated and a vital part of the celebrations (at least as far as the children are concerned) is the anticipated arrival of La Befana – a female counterpart of those Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/St Nicholas characters who feature in the Northern European and American Christmas folklore.

Meet our personal, Venetian, Befana...


An old woman, riding a broomstick through the air at night, La Befana, wears a black shawl and carries a sack of sweets and gifts which she leaves in the stockings that the children hang up for her. She is covered in soot because – like Santa – she enters the children's houses via the chimney.

Children who have not been good during the year, receive – instead of sweets – a lump of coal (or, nowadays, black sugar-candy) and because she is a good housekeeper, she'll always use her broom to sweep the floor before leaving. 

It is polite to leaves out a small glass of wine for La Befana, together with and something to eat – just as Santa gets all those glasses of milk and mince pies...

Here's an elaborate Venetian puppet-version of La Befana... 

One Christian legend tells how La Befana was visited by the Three Wise Men, seeking directions as to where Jesus had been born. The old woman did not know, but – being a homely, house-proud soul – she gave the travellers shelter for the night.

The following day, the Wise Men invited La Befana to join them on their quest, but she refused saying that she was far too busy with her housework. Then, too late, she charged her mind and went off in search the the Wise Men and the Christ Child but was unable to find them.

So it was that – to this very day – La Befana is searching for them still and, on her travels, leaves toys and candy for all the good children she finds and coal or bags of ashes for those who've been bad.

Italian children are warned that if they ever see La Befana they'll receive a thwack from her broomstick: a typical adult ruse to keep youngsters in their beds on Epiphany Eve while parents are distributing sweets - or coal - and sweeping the floor.

There is, however, an alternative legend of a somewhat darker nature in which La Befana was a woman who on the death of her dearly-loved child went mad from grief. Hearing of the birth of Jesus – and thinking, in her deranged state of mind, that it must be her dead baby – she set out to find him. On eventually meeting Jesus she gave him gifts and, in return, Jesus gave La Befana a gift of his own: that she would be, for all time, the mother of every child in Italy.

To mark Epiphany – and the arrival of La Befana – a regatta is held in Venice every 6 January, with veteran gondoliers (in witchy drag), rowing up the Grand Canal to a finishing line at the Rialto Bridge.

Traffic on the Grand Canal comes to a halt and everyone crowds the fondamenta on either side of the Canal. A giant stocking hangs down from the bridge to mark the winning post and great excitement attends the race and the presentation of the special Befana-emblazoned pennants that are the prizes!

Then everyone (especially little old Italian ladies) gets on with the really serious business of enjoying hot chocolate, mulled wine and sweet flaky biscuits called (in the Venetian dialect) galani...


And here's the proud winner of 2009's race, Giovanni Rossi...

Being Epiphany means, of course, that it it also Twelfth Night and the season of Christmas (or Twelve-tide as it was once known) is officially over for another year.

Oh, well, here's to the next one –– and, who knows, maybe in Venezia!

Images:  Befanas and regatta by Brian Sibley & David Weeks © 2008/9



Today is the feast of 'Epiphany', the day in the Christian calendar that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. 


In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally  the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.


To mark this festival, here's an extract from my book, published Christmas 2019, Joseph and the Three Gifts: An Angel's Story...





Time to talk about those Three Kings – or, as they are alternatively known, the Three Wise Men…


You have seen them so many times – in their robes, crowns and turbans – that it will not change your view to be told that the number three is only a guess (based on the number of gifts), that they were not necessarily kings (at least not until they were designated as such in much later versions of the story), that their names, as we now popularly know them, were never officially recorded and that they didn’t actually arrive that night at the stable, but came later – up to two years later – long after Mary, Joseph and the child were living in rather more conventional accommodation.


But rather than confuse what has been a perfectly successful story that has stood the test of time for centuries, we’ll stick to the facts as they have been set down in legend.


They come, these wise men from the East – sages, let’s say, in their own far-off lands – with their camels, entourages, servants and all the standard paraphernalia of authority figures.


They are also sometimes referred to as Magi – ‘magicians’ is probably not the best word, so let’s say they ‘astrologers’, although they are also, almost certainly, astronomers since, in those times, the two are pretty much one and the same. 


Men of stature and significance they may be, but they are certainly not followers of the God of Moses. Nevertheless, they have been summoned to make their journey by the rising of a new star in the Eastern sky. There are those who have sought to explain this claim with speculations about comets and eclipses, but I prefer the more poetic explanation that the heavens themselves proclaimed the magnitude of this cosmic event.


The challenge set these Magi was to seek, find and pay reverence to a child who, as the signs foretold, was born to kingship. And, without doubt, it has proved a hard task and has been a long and onerous pilgrimage through the worst bleak mid-winter weather.


However, as their quest nears its goal, these wise men – for all their wisdom – make a disastrous and near-fatal error. They decide to consult the local monarch, King Herod (or, as he prefers, Herod the Great), as to the birthplace of the new sovereign of whom they’ve been told. It was, I suppose, the logical thing to do: if you are seeking the whereabouts of one king, ask the advice of another. 


Unfortunately, this particular king happens to be a paranoid psychopath. So when three wandering sages ask the Jewish-born Herod, ‘Where is the child born King of the Jews?’, he is seriously rattled. What does it mean? Usurpation? Herod consults his own wise men and, from their extensive knowledge of ancient prophecy, they advise His Majesty that Bethlehem is the likely birthplace. Had Joseph been aware of this, several perplexing aspects of his recent experiences would have made more sense, such as that edict of Caesar Augustus and the ninety-mile trek to a Bethlehem birthplace. Order is all too often masked by partial knowledge.    


The fearful Herod slyly instructs the travellers to pursue their mission and, if they find the child, to return with news so that – as he disingenuously claims – he, too, may go and pay homage. The unsuspecting Magi head straight to Bethlehem, unaware that the consequence of their regrettable mistake will cost many lives.


That is in the future; for the moment, here they are three more outsiders arriving in the heavily congested town. For sake of continuity, then, let’s return to that now somewhat overcrowded stable to witness their entrance. Out of courtesy to the old stories, I will use their traditional names…


Caspar (or, if you prefer, Kaspar or Gaspar), the young man: lithe, virile and clean-shaven, believed by some to be a king of India; Melchior, the old man: stooped and venerable with long white hair and beard, often referred to as a king of Persia; and Balthazar, bearded and dark of skin: a king, it is said, of Arabia. You can, if you’ve a mind to, research their individual and collective histories across centuries of lore, but – believe me – as with any fable it will add little to your appreciation.


They kneel or, in the case of Melchior (whose old knees no longer permit kneeling) bow before Mary and the baby, something so at odds with Joseph’s understanding of custom and correctness that he steps back a pace in bafflement.


Then the visitors open and offer gifts of astonishing value and disconcerting significance that Mary accepts with solemnity and apparent understanding, but which further trouble Joseph and make him feel even more an observer of another person’s story.



Caspar is first; his gift, enfolded in richly embroidered silk, is a porphyry jar, plain and unadorned, but with a stopper of blue agate which, when removed, releases the clean, sweet, aroma of frankincense that transforms the stale stable air with its bouquet of citrus and spice.


Melchior is next, his gift, securely tied with leather straps, is a finely wrought casket of antique silver, studded with garnets as red as blood and pearls the colour of a summer moon and, within, a great quantity of gold gleaming with a heavy, burnished warmth in the lantern-light. 



Then last (or first, the order is unimportant) Balthazar presents his gift: a purple velvet bag secured with golden, tasselled cords from which he takes a box of pale, translucent alabaster incised with a complex design inlaid with lapis lazuli the colour of a peacock’s breast. When opened, a heady, overpowering perfume spills out into the air: redolent of new-turned earth, laced with resin, it is the bitter fragrance of myrrh. 



These offerings are not only heavy with weight and worth but also with prefigurement: frankincense representing divinity and worship; gold for kingship and honour; and myrrh for death and burial.


If Joseph has even a glimmer of comprehension about the meaning of these portents, it is overwhelmed by the prosaic question of how he will manage the journey back to Nazareth with wife, child and such seriously cumbersome luggage.

The Illustrations are by Henry Martin

Here's a link for anyone tempted to read the rest of Joseph and the Three Gifts: An Angel's Story