I’ve been inspired lately by the paintings of Oswaldo Guayasamin. Although he is well-respected in Latin America, I rarely see the type of eulogizing that over him that is so common with Frida Kahlo, whose identity as a mature and political artist has been submerged in a depoliticized portraitist school of thought that is infinitely less disturbing of the existing order. Like Kahlo, Guayasamin, born in 1919 into a feudal and neo-colonial state like Ecuador, took sides in a visceral and visible struggle against poverty, injustice and the invisibilization of suffering that was part of so much art contemporary to the time.
This is not an essay, but a few musings in response to the images I have been able to find online. Here, I share a few, in particular the early Quito series which I find as interesting as some of his more well known pieces from the Age of Anger and the Age of Tenderness. Above, some of Frida Kahlo’s less popular artworks, The Wounded Table , circa. 1940, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and United States, 1932 and 1954, Marxism Heals the Sick, a reflection of her understanding of disability and the devalued lives we live under capitalism when we are incapacitated or chronically ill.
Born into a humble Kichwa and Mestizo family, he was one of 10 children, losing his mother, and then his closest friend at an early age. These experiences, along with searing social criticism of the sweeping inequities of race and class discrimination, shaped his approach to art both as a vehicle of personal expression, and as a tool for, and of, social change.
In particular, Guayasamin’s travels through South America, Mexico and the United States brought him into contact with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, both ardent communists and anti-imperialists. This influenced Guayasamin greatly both as an artist and social critic. Between the 1940s and 1960s he committed himself to the path of social justice and a Pan-American vision of suffering and liberation. He firmly joined the political left and was close to Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, poets and songwriters of the Chilean left, active until they were assassinated by the U.S. backed Pinochet regime in 1973.
Guaysamin’s final piece is the posthumous Chapel of Man built on his property overlooking Quito. He was a painter, muralist and architect whose deepening vision taught him to see the ignored and the silenced.
Culture and memory share a root, like branches of the same plant. That root is us, human beings, in our most creative and unself-conscious renditions. Once again, after the whirlwind of systemic violence and structural upheaval engineered through the COVID19 pandemic response, the time has come to honour the memory of those we love who have been lost to the novel coronavirus. My father, the late Professor Manabendra Bandyopadhyay (1938-2020), was one such deep loss.
Although he had been suffering from loss of sight and other health issues in his last few years, for over half a century, he contributed vastly to the field of Bengali literature and poetry, fiction/poetry in translation, and critical approaches to the early discipline of comparative literature— from the late 1950s until his retirement from teaching at the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In his participation in the cultural and socio-political world of Bangla letters, my father often searched out unusual or unique writers— “against the grain”. While in his translations for adults, he often examined and explored different schools of writing from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, it was his love of books for kids that had a big impact on me as a young reader and thinker.
For my father, books for children were as eclectic and engaging as those for adults. He presented me with hundreds of books over the years, and it is especially those books of childhood I often turn to, for a break from the grinding neo-liberal world with its anxieties, bleakness, and inhumanity.
I fondly remember a range of books from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, to Toronto poet’s Dennis Lee’s Wiggle to the Laundromat. Along with these, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, James Kruss, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Erich Kastner, Rhoda Power, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, and the inimitable Tove Jansson made paths into the rich and exciting world of books, a world that was both escape and confirmation, at different times. Through the reading of such international cast of characters, historical moments and types of books, my interest in historical periods, and how people live in different times and places, was piqued.
In particular, I am grateful to my father for sharing his love of Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures from both Turtle Island and Australia. This awareness of the space I inhabited as a brown child of an immigrant parent to Canada, set me apart from other primary and middle school children as did my experience of racism from a very early age at the hands of my peers in the pristine provincial primary schools of Ontario of the 1970s.
But when reading, the ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being, allowed me to understand and perhaps at a young age, confront the reality of racial inequality which I experienced. Books like Aguhana, Half-Breed, The Island of the Dolphins, A Nice Fire and Some Moon Pennies gave me a glimpse of a world that was made invisible and silent in the Canadian educational system, that of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Stories by Lois Lenski based on interviews with children and families, gave me an idea of how working class and rural children, especially girls, lived as recently as the 1930s-50s in the various United States of America, and how important they were to household economies as recently as the ‘50s and ‘60s. Stories about Harriet Tubman and Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, were a part of my personal canon, as much as Anne Frank and Laura Ingalls Wilder were the staple authors for little girls at the school library.
In remembrance of the important role that fiction and poetry has played in my own life, I offer up today’s blog post as a tribute to all those amazing writers who tackled the daunting task of writing gripping and memorable fiction for children, writing that satisfies at any age, books such as Alice in Wonderland, and those of Roald Dahl. And through acknowledging them, I acknowledge the fount of this fictional diversity, my father.
This week on the second anniversary of his passing, I have been thinking of him even more. When my partner planted a butterfly bush in his honour, butterflies immediately came to visit. White, orange-patterned, and yellow, they fluttered down to the purple, pink and red flowers. We will always think of our absent loved ones when the butterflies float and dance by us on their invisible currents.
I want to end by sharing a musical piece about the world of Macondo, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A Colombian Nobel-winning writer who was popularized in Bangla by my father, and whose work he explored for many years. Here the lyrics are by Mexican accordionist and composer Celso Pina and performed by Leiden (Cuba-Mexico) and Andrea Echeverri (Colombia) formerly of the group Los Aterciepelados (The Velvet Ones). I am sure he would have enjoyed hearing this rendition.
Macondo by Celso Pina (Mexico) (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)
The hundred years of Macondo, sound, sound, in the air
And the years of Gabriel trumpeting, trumpeting, his announcement!
On April 28th, one of Cuba’s outstanding women poets, among many, Fina Garcia Marruz, celebrated her 99th birthday. This writer was part of the cultural and literary circle of the Origenes magazine in the pre-revolutionary period and remained committed to the spirit and ideals of Jose Marti, making her home in Cuba after the 1959 Revolution. Along with producing many volumes of poetry, she was part of the editorial committee working on Marti’s Collected Works.
Life partner of poet and writer Cintio Vitier, she inhabited a rich and cosmopolitan cultural world. Fina Garcia Marruz has received numerous awards including the 1990 National Literature Prize, Cuba, Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award in 2007 and the Reina Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry in 2011. Additionally she has received the Federico Garcia Lorca Prize in 2011 and numerous distinctions and honours in her native Cuba.
I attempted a translation of two of her most deceptively simple poems, only to find they were not so! I was first introduced to her name and work in Josefina de Diego’s beautiful book of nostalgia and Cuban childhood, Grandfather’s Kingdom (Tarjama Press, 2012)/El Reino del Abuelo, Collection Sur, 2020.
El Joven, Fina Garcia Marruz, Cuba
Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano. Vamos juntos. No me importa morir. Perdamos una tarde, una mañana. Toda la vida. Dialoguemos sobre cosas fútiles y bellas. Oh, abrazarlo todo locamente¡ Vamos a ver el mar, sin detenernos para nada a contemplarlo. Vamos a ver el mar, con la nuca vuelta de espalda, ignorándolo como él, cuando nos mira. Mira como tengo los bolsillos vacíos! Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano.
The Young Man, (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022)
Now that I am a god, give me your hand. Let’s go together. I don’t mind dying. Let’s lose an afternoon, a morning. A lifetime. Let’s talk about futile and beautiful things. Oh, hug everything madly! Let’s see the sea, without stopping at all to contemplate it. Let’s go see the sea, with the nape of the neck ignoring the sea like the sea does, when he looks at us. Look how my pockets are empty! Now that I am a god, give me your hand.
Al Despertar, Fina Garcia Marruz , Cuba
uno se vuelve
al que era
al que tiene
el nombre con que nos llaman,
uno se vuelve
al uno mismo
al uno solo
lo que olvidan
en su dulce despertar.
Upon Awakening, Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022
to what one was
to what one has
the name by which they call us.
of one's self
only one's self
what they've forgotten
in their sweet awakening.
María Isabel Granda Larco (3 September 1920 – 8 March 1983), known as Chabuca Granda, was a Peruvian singer and composer. She was a trailblazer as a woman lyricist and composer, drawing on Peruvian Criollo music, as well as Afro-Peruvian rhythms, which were much devalued in high society of Lima at the time. It was a world which was plagued (and continues to be) by racism and classism toward Indigenous and Afro-descended peoples while highly dependent on their labour, particularly domestic labour provided by women workers who are often racialized as non-white. In this song, Chabuca shows her continual break with convention by centering the experiences of a working class woman and her labour. Enjoy some poetry put to music and sung by one of Peru’s most noted singers of the late 20th century!
Maria Lando by Chabuca Granda, Peru
La madrugada estalla como una estátua Como estátua de alas que se dispersan por la ciudad Y el mediodía cánta campana de agua Campana de agua de oro que nos prohibe la sóledad Y la noche levanta su copa larga Su larga copa larga, luna temprana por sobre el mar
Pero para María no hay madrugada Pero para María no hay mediodía Pero para María ninguna luna Alza su copa roja sobre las aguas…
María no tiene tiempo (María Landó) De alzar los ojos María de alzar los ojos (María Landó) Rotos de sueño María rotos de sueño (María Landó) De andar sufriendo María de andar sufriendo (María Landó) Sólo trabaja María sólo trabaja, sólotrabaja, sólo trabaja María sólo trabaja Y su trabajo es ajeno
Maria Lando, Chabuca Granda, Peru, Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji
Dawn breaks, exploding like a statue, like a statue of wings scattered All through the city And noon sings like a bell made of water A bell made of golden water that forbids loneliness And the night lifts its large goblet, its large goblet, large, an early moon over the sea
But for Maria there is no dawn But for Maria there is no midday But for Maria there is no moon raising its red goblet over the waters
Maria has no time to raise her eyes Maria ,to raise her eyes, broken by lack of sleep Maria, broken by lack of sleep ,from so much suffering Maria, from so much suffering, all she does is work
Maria just works and works, Maria only works, and her work is all for another.
Speak out!, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, (1911-1984) Pakistan translated by Mustansir Dalvi
Speak out! Your words are free. Speak up! Your tongue is still your own. Your body remains yours ramrod, erect. Speak out! Your life is still your own.
Look! How in your smithy’s forge flames soar; iron glows red. How the locks have opened yaws and every chain, unlinked, now spreads.
The short time left to you is enough. Speak up, before the body and its tongue give out. Speak out, for truth still survives. Speak out! Say whatever you have to say!
Democracy Poem #1, June Jordan, (1936-2002) USA Tell them that I stood in line and I waited and I waited like everybody else
But I never got called And I keep that scrap of paper in my pocket
just in case
The Unknown Citizen W.H Auden – 1907-1973, Britain
(To JS/07 M 378This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be One against whom there was no official complaint, And all the reports on his conduct agree That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint, For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. Except for the War till the day he retired He worked in a factory and never got fired, But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc. Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views, For his Union reports that he paid his dues, (Our report on his Union shows it was sound) And our Social Psychology workers found That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink. The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way. Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured, And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured. Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan And had everything necessary to the Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire. Our researchers into Public Opinion are content That he held the proper opinions for the time of year; When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went. He was married and added five children to the population, Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation. And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education. Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
Everywhere, beaurocracies use their powers to strip peoples’ lives of all that makes and gives meaning— from human connection, to the right to live with dignified wages, to housing , health, education, mobility and sustainable employment ,and the right to peace.
Plunder and pillage of the earth coincides with armaments bursting and spewing toxins, just as politicians and kleptocrats spew toxic bloodshed with their real-life maneuvers and internet trenches. Never have so many been bamboozled by so few, it seems!
So it’s time, time to go back to those words of other times and other wars, to remind us that war is NEVER the answer. It is the time to remember as Aime Cesaire did, that the victors may win, but in winning they lose their souls.And to join with him in his praise for a cooperative and non-expansionist way of of being:
Eia for those who never invented anything
Eia for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything
but yield, captivated, to the essence of things
ignorant of surfaces by captivated by the motion of all things
indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world…
Time to go back to seeds of hope, glimmers in the crack of geopolitricks, to measure time outside of (the aptly named) Tik-Tok and value humanity and our common future. It’s time to remember those who can be erased so easily, by a click or a swipe.
I’ve put together a few poets whose old words and not-so-old words, sing in these bleak times. I hope you too will be inspired to raise your voice against war, not just in Europe, but throughout the world!
Try to Praise the Mutilated World
Adam Zagajewski, Poland
TRANS. BY Clare Cavanagh
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
The War Will End
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine
The war will end.
The leaders will shake hands.
The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son.
The girl will wait for her beloved husband.
And those children will wait for their hero father.
I don’t know who sold our homeland
But I saw who paid the price.
What Were They Like?
Denise Levertov, USA
Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.
Epitaph on a Tyrant
W.H. Auden, England
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
And with Federico Garcia Lorca (Ode to Walt Whitman), we should exhort ourselves to vilify and not glorify war :
Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream.
This is the world, my friend, agony, agony.
Bodies dissolve beneath city clocks,
war passes weeping with a million grey rats,
the rich give their darlings
little bright dying things,
and life is not noble, or sacred, or good.
In the Barracks
Yannis Ritsos, Greece
The moon entered the barracks It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets Touched an undressed arm. Sleep Someone talks in his sleep . Someone snores A shadow gesture on the long wall. The last trolley bus went by. Quietness Can all these be dead tomorrow? Can they be dead from right now? A soldier wakes up. He looks around with glassy eyes A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips.
Warsan Shire, Somalia/Britain
Conversations About Home ( At a Deportation Centre)
Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.
I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.
It’s been ages since I have posted on the blog. Pandemic fatigue and the onset of winter and lock-downs have exacerbated SADness and made writing a difficult chore. While I have been doing some drawing, I haven’t mustered up the focus to write. This blog, pays homage to the work of two poets, February birthday boy, Bertolt Brecht (10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956), whose relevance and sardonic humour, make his poetry, equal to his fantastic play-writing skills. Reading Brecht brought me to my second author in today’s blog, Nuyorican Boricua poet, Pedro Pietri (March 21, 1944 – March 3, 2004). Famed for his humour, commitment to anti-colonial liberation and his great poetry full of macabre and witty insights, like Brecht, Pietri found great moments of poetry in the little things, and on the side of the little people.
Additionally, in honour of February as Black history month in North America, Pedro’s approach to writing as an Afro Puerto Rican was underscored by his solidarity with a number of colonized and immigrant groups in New York City where he spent much of his adult life. As both an Afro-descended and Spanish/English speaking writer, as a member of a reluctant occupying force conscripted as a U.S. veteran for an imperial war; he was able to interweave these aspects of his life in his frequent use of “Spanglish” and tongue in cheek references to cultural practices and icons from his various experiences.
Wounded by chemical exposure during the Viet Nam war, he suffered a great deal from his time in service, and it served to open his eyes to the plight of the poor and the colonized, people of colour, internationally. This internationalism while understanding the contradictions and ironies of his particular moment, link Pietri and Brecht across ages and political epochs and seminal wars of empire. While the trumpets of war sound off in the distance, this is an important time to remember and imagine that we are part of a great movement of people through-out time that believe another world is possible. In the meantime, skill, humour and critical thinking in all the arts– poetry is no exception– are necessary to survive the Neo-liberal bio-security, racism, war mongering, and financial finagling!
As poets and play writes, Brecht and Pietri deserve to share a virtual stage ! I have shared the art of some ground breaking visual artists to accompany these pieces.
Every few years around this time, I read or see or hear a version of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Such a beautiful prose poem where the words sing like the wind and the sea herself. This year, I drew to a reading of the piece, as I found the very LP record that we used to have when I was a child, on Youtube. You can hear it below, if you like. I was inspired to pay a visual homage to Thomas’ prose, where the English language sings and lilts, through snow and village and time. Below, you’ll find this lovely vignette authored by Thomas. I’ve drawn some pictures that came to mind as I heard the narration. I hope you enjoy this piece, whether it’s your first time reading/hearing it or not! May the coming year bring us all hope and community!
One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, 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 days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
It was on the afternoon of the day of Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, although 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 slide 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.
The wise cats never appeared. We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder. “Fire!” cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.
And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, towards the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, “A fine Christmas!” and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.
“Call the fire brigade,” cried Mrs. Prothero as she beat the gong. “They won’t be here,” said Mr. Prothero, “it’s Christmas.”
There was no fire to be seen, only clouds of smoke and Mr. Prothero standing in the middle of them, waving his slipper as though he were conducting.
“Do something,” he said.
And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke—I think we missed Mr. Prothero—and ran out of the house to the telephone box.
“Let’s call the police as well,” Jim said.
“And the ambulance.”
“And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”
But we only called the fire brigade, and 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 quietly, 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?”
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
“Were there postmen then, too?”
“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”
“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”
“I mean that the bells that the children could hear were inside them.”
“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”
“There were church bells, too.”
“No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence.”
“Get back to the postmen.”
“They were just ordinary postmen, fond of walking and dogs and Christmas and the snow. They knocked on the doors with blue knuckles….”
“Ours has got a black knocker….”
“And then they stood on the white Welcome mat in the little, drifted porches and huffed and puffed, making ghosts with their breath, and jogged from foot to foot like small boys wanting to go out.”
“And then the presents?”
“And then the Presents, after the Christmas box. And the cold postman, with a rose on his button-nose, tingled down the tea-tray-slithered run of the chilly glinting hill. He went in his ice-bound boots like a man on fishmonger’s slabs.
“He wagged his bag like a frozen camel’s hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot, and, by God, he was gone.”
“Get back to the Presents.”
“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; 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. And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles’s pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”
“Go on to the Useless Presents.”
“Bags of moist and many-colored 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 a mistake that no one could explain, a little hatchet; and a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow; and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds. Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknel, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions. Oh, easy for Leonardo! And a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall. 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. And then it was breakfast under the balloons.”
“Were there Uncles like in our house?”
“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. And on Christmas mornings, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swathed town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading, scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddled their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; 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 chestnuts and the mulling pokers. Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”
Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two curling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars. 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 nostrils, 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 violet wink, put his whistle to his lips and blew so stridently, so high, so exquisitely loud, that gobbling faces, their cheek bulged with goose, would press against their tinsled windows, the whole length of the white echoing street. For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Aunt Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, then when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit 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.
Or I would go out, my bright new boots squeaking, into the white world, on to the seaward hill, to call on Jim and Dan and Jack and to pad through the still streets, leaving huge deep footprints on the hidden pavements.
“I bet people will think there’ve been hippos.”
“What would you do if you saw a hippo coming down our street?”
“I’d go like this, bang! I’d throw him over the railings and roll him down the hill and then I’d tickle him under the ear and he’d wag his tail.”
“What would you do if you saw two hippos?”
Iron-flanked and bellowing he-hippos clanked and battered through the scudding snow towards us as we passed Mr. Daniel’s house.
“Let’s post Mr. Daniel a snowball through his letter box.”
“Let’s write things in the snow.”
“Let’s write, ‘Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel’ all over his lawn.”
Or we walked on the white shore. “Can the fishes see it’s snowing?”
The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.
Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house.
“What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?”
“No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.”
One, two, three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door.
Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen… And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small, dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.
“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.
“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored 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.