The wonderful thing about midnight mass is being some of the first to know! The rest of the world is sleeping but you are there at the moment of Jesus’s birth. There is no greater story in the world, and sometimes I forget that Mary was an unmarried mother. You could not think of greater words than the accounts of this birth in the gospels. But the astonishing role that Joseph played in it is often overlooked. Our church is ministered by women and they have a magical way of sharing this great story with us all. It has so many strands and from it there is so much to learn, not least the journey of two ordinary simple people who were chosen to be part in this wondrous story.
The turkey is a challenge and one I always seem to face alone; wrestling with this beast is a solitary thing and I have only just recovered from the one at thanksgiving. Really I am beginning to think I have lost the plot with that and sprouts. Thank heavens the bin men come on Thursday we will soon be displaced by the piles of paper. This must be the greatest example of profligate waste. The Sainted One has been great wearing a selection of bow ties in which he looks very dashing. There are a lot of people in various stages of sleep in this house now. Christmas is marvellous. The Sainted One keeps turning off the Christmas lights, of which there are nine sets. I do not fancy my chances on a life support machine with him around.
Four years ago on the day before Christmas Eve Naim Attallah telephoned my agent to say he wanted to publish my second historical novel A Rose In Winter. This was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with him and his team at Quartet . Most people grumble about their publishers and publishers have been heard to say that their lives would be so much easier without their writers, but I am blessed in this and am not afraid to say so; sometimes I expect this gets up peoples noses, especially if they are on their tenth unpublished book, which happens to the most brilliant of writers, however, as it is Christmas and my family have had a terrible, but at the same time inspirational year, watching my brave beautiful daughter face up to and overcome her serious cancer, I feel I can be very happy about this without tempting Nemesis.
By and large people who go round saying their lives and families are perfect are very annoying ; all families are dysfunctional in their own way, and if they tell you different, there is something terribly wrong with them. One of my progeny told me a few years ago that all their problems were my fault, and that set me to thinking about my own gloriously barmy parents and how I have never connected my own inadequacy’s with them. I decided this was a generational thing, and that having perfect parents is a lousy training for life. My own life has chucked bucket loads of stuff at me, and I find this has been a deep well of experience which I tap into when I am writing. You learn that people do not change, it is the events around them which ultimately shape their lives. This brings me to luck, and sometimes one has it and so it is with Quartet and my books, for now the second one with Quartet, Flora’s Glory, is happily out there fighting it’s corner very successfully. How lucky is that? But believe me, it has not been a bowl of cherries, writers have to deal with rejection on a very personal level because your words are part of your own inner voice that sometimes you didn’t even know was there, and it is not always nice.
But in every life a little rain must fall, and my dog Beatrice definitely has an eating disorder. I have just been told by her breeder that it is all my fault and I am transferring my own phobias onto the dog. I have been told to ignore her and that she will not starve herself to death, but I could not resist hand feeding her tender slices of organic calves liver . Unwisely, as is my way with a dangerous tendency to tell the absolute truth, I repeated the dog breeders theory to the Sainted One, and have rarely seen him so thrilled. He loves the horrible planet of rectitude and the “I told you so” thing. But I cannot help feeling he has a hand in this somewhere along the line, this is a complex issue so I am going to pour a large sloe gin and read Hilary Mantel’s fabulous work of genius Bring Out The Bodies.
There is no room at the inn does not apply here … Sunday saw some great innovations in our house . All the beds were full and new spaces had been found for various young relatives. Actually it was a delight because my fabulous Goddaughter came from America where she has been wowing the Californians for three years with the voice of an angel. Another lunch happened, the numbers were rather large as usual and they settled in for a long stint. I did not do sprouts because they must be the most abused item of food known to man, I have a theory that they can only be done well by a professional cook who never lets them out of their sight and puts them on just as the guests assemble. This is not possible in our house for reasons that are too dull to relate. As darkness set in and more wine was opened, they all looked very happy and we escaped to a performance of The Messiah at St John’s Smith Square. Christmas would not be complete for me without the Messiah and it is impossible not to be uplifted by it I firmly believe that Handel said he had seen God when he finally came out of his room after five weeks with the work in his hands. What a legacy of joy he left to the world. I thought a great deal about the words “if God is with us who can be against us?”
The post still brings surprises despite the ubiquitous use of email, mostly nice at this time of year but there was some surprising news today. The Spanish Police are coming to our home to arrest one of us. It is this phantom creep who used our address some years ago and manages to con people into giving him vast sums of money using the unlikely alias of Dick Bogey . Over the years various unsavoury characters have demanded entry to our home to seize the TV which did upset the Sainted One who normally remains aloof from disturbances of an unpleasant nature. I have been accused of being Mrs Bogey on some occasions and once a sad woman did come here and claiming that her errant husband lived here and that I was complicit in concealing him, but he had another name at the time. Anyway the Bogey is active again and has absconded somewhere in Spain with a fiat Panda. So the hunt for the Bogey and the Panda is on and the only lead is our address. Watch this space. The Spanish Police would not be seen dead anywhere near a overcooked Brussels Sprout which can resemble a bogey actually, but as they will have come such a long way, in the spirit of Christmas I will offer them a mince pie.
Christmas is always a bad time for me because my father died just before Christmas when I was fifteen, having been preceded by my fourteen year old sister three years previously at the same time of year. I was not to know then that my brother would die seven years later. What I remember most about all this was the empty chairs at the family table. The spaces were filled of course by friends and well wishers, and later a new family with it all the joys and sorrows that are part of life. But you never forget the pain of loss, which is why I have worked for Cruse Bereavement Care for thirty eight years. Training as a bereavement volunteer was the most single helpful thing I have ever done in my life, primarily for myself because healing yourself is the first step to being any use to other people. The Times has just published some moving accounts of the work Cruse does by way of personal stories. Once I told my own for an important Sunday magazine and the response was both moving and uplifting. The thing I learned which was most useful was that the grief you feel is not a mental illness, it is sadness and loneliness, which is something quite different. The wonderful thing about Cruse Volunteers is that they don’t set themselves up as experts in the treatment and understanding of serious mental health issues, and they cleverly, do not call themselves counsellors, a label which has become sadly misused in the last few years. The mantra with Cruse is whatever you feel is probably normal and part of the mechanism you have been given to deal with the worst thing that can happen to you, which is to lose someone you love.
Last night we heard of the death of a wonderful man who was the dean of Exeter Cathedral during the time my husband was the member of Parliament for that fine city, he was greatly revered by all who knew him, and he and his wife became close friends with whom we shared many hours of laughter as recently as this September. Next week we will be joining all those who knew and loved him at Exeter Cathedral to celebrate his life. He had a marvellous sense of humour and a canny twinkly sort of wisdom. I suppose he was a man to whom you could say almost anything and he would not be shocked. But he would not have agreed that you only live once, which is the YULO thing, which is one of the buzz words going about at the moment. Actually he will be there with a sage and loving take on it all next week. But I feel terribly for his lovely family , this was a giant of a man and his empty place at the table will be very hard for them to fill this Christmas. But “in altro i cuori” it is what my beautiful Italian cousin said to me this morning.
You might well ask what the above have in common? Yesterday I went to a group family cognitive therapy session. Having spent many hours working in this kind of field I am in a position to say that the therapist was excellent, if that is what you want. However I cannot give a definitive opinion as I developed what was, in the jargon ,a psychosomatic coughing fit , more like a paroxysm actually, and had to leave. Now that was Ok as far as it went, but I came away with a terrible fear of snakes and a return of my fear of flying which I have worked hard to overcome in the last forty years, and been moderately successful in that aim; so much so that I was planning to visit my new esteemed friend Bev In India where there are, I am told many snakes. You see before getting to work the therapist took us on a lively preamble of his fear of snakes and his inability to overcome this after four years in Freudian therapy. Now this was not a good start, but then things got more intense, as for some reason we were taken into the awful journey into “fear of flying” with rather graphic descriptions of my particular phobic obsession about the final moments as the plane goes down. The session was not about either of these things, but I had recurring dreams last night one of them involved being in a plane with a snake, and not the human kind. Well.. perhaps this was a kind of displacement technique …but I took refuge in my own therapy today where I do not have to cross the room and select a partner who is a complete stranger to me with whom I can share my feelings which is where the codpieces come in.
This set me thinking about peoples ways of handling stressful and terrible events, and I realized, and not for the first time, that my whole domestic life is a giant cognitive therapy session, this house is always full of people talking about their feelings and wanting to be fed. This is why I write historical fiction and spend many hours immersed in the delightful escapism it offers. My characters do not have therapists, they work things out and they, at least the people, in my books, are not so surprised by the vicissitudes of life. I think there is a spider in the basement I am off to see my friend next door and have asked the Sainted One to deal with it .. he is being adorable at the moment and finished painting the lodger’s bathroom , I do not ask myself why .. life is a mystery….you see it is all so simple really.
I have been ill and lost my appetite for a week which was good in one way because I got thinner. But it is no fun cooking for hordes when you feel like throwing up. Yesterday was recovery day and I had lunch with a wonderful family and came home feeling all was well again with the world, that is until this morning when a household event made me feel sick again. In fact so sick that I had to lie down on the kitchen sofa whilst trying to pretend it hadn’t actually happened . You see I am very squeamish about anything to do with lavatories or the rituals surrounding them. I bit the bullet and inspected the lavatory in the studio we rent out because new guests are arriving , I saw at once that the Lavatory brush must be replaced , it was taken downstairs to the basement to be hygienically disposed of. Now this was too much for the Sainted One and the useful recycling phobia kicked in. Later I found the brush ready for the recycling “engineers” because the discarding of same would I assumed be a waste and the men ( or Women) would jump at such an opportunity, after all they might wrap it up and give it away as a Christmas present . Admittedly it did have some wear in it, but the latest guest had left traces of what could only be described as shepherds pie. But worse was to come, the container had been put on the draining board as a useful accoutrement for mops and cutlery. I am in a state of exhaustion the whole kitchen has been disinfected even the dogs are looking nervous. I still feel sick!