Saturday, 27 December 2008

Picked Up by a Penguin

Thanks to the war and my own disinclination I attended school for no more than five years out of a possible fifteen.

I did not miss school. I had discovered the world of books. I devoured, especially, the wonderful early Penguins. And I never missed a day at the public library. The discovery that there was a building in the village filled with books which grown ups were desperate to lend you was the defining moment in my life.

One discovery I made was that there was no need to leave your home in order to travel. Over the centuries, this strange breed The Author was eager to do your travelling for you. You could sit back in your armchair and enjoy the best bits whilst The Author got bitten by mosquitoes.

Apparently this odd breed of human being had existed for centuries. Unhappily, with no one to guide me, my reading followed no pattern. I took Herodotus home because I thought he was in some way connected with the Daily Herald and I had ambitions to get a job there. I could not have chosen a better guide to travelling in ancient Greece and Egypt. He wrote in vivid language and - in my translation by de Selincourt anyway - used the sort of short words which we used in every day conversation. He was a great traveller but, like most reporters, no one believed what he said. He described how the pyramids were built after interviewing Egyptian priests on the subject. For centuries scholars insisted his explanation was rubbish. Some years ago I interviewed the keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum. He told me that scholars were coming round to believing that Herodotus was telling the truth.

Never mind every dog has its day. In today's tabloids every day has its dog story. So with Herodotus. He knew his readers liked stories about lovable animals. So he told the story of a breed of sheep which was prized for its fat tails. Tails which were so fat and so heavy that the shepherd made little carts that the sheep dragged carrying their tails behind them.

Herodotus knew that a tabloid story must have sex, crime, royalty or scandal. In the story of building of the treasury for Pharaoh Ramphsinitus’s vast fortune, he managed to combine all four. Herodotus tells how the tradesman who built the treasury contrived a secret way in, which, on his death bed, he told his sons so that they could steal the Pharaoh's Hoard . He wrote:

“They came by night to the palace, found the stone in the treasury wall and took it out. The king on his next visit to the treasury was surprised to see that some of the vessels in which his treasure was stored were no longer full though the seals were not broken. He ordered traps to be set near the money jars. The next time the thieves came one of them made his way to the treasure chamber; but as soon as he approached the money jar he was after, the trap got him.

“Realising his plight, he at once called to his brother and begged him to come as quickly as he could and cut off his head. Less the recognition of his dead body should involve both of them in ruin.

The brother, seeing the sense of this request, acted upon it without delay. Then, having fitted the stone back into place, went home taking the severed head with him. Next morning the king visited the treasury, and what was his astonishment when he saw in the trap the headless body of the thief.

Much perplexed, he decided to have the thief’s body hung up outside the walls and a guard set with orders to arrest anybody they might see thereabouts in tears or showing signs of mourning.

“The thieves' mother was much distressed by this treatment of her dead son’s body and begged her other son to do all he could to think of some way of getting it back. At last he thought of a way out of the difficulty. He filled some skins with wine and loaded them on donkeys; which he drove past the guard. Arriving there, he undid the fastenings of three of the skins. The wine poured out and he roared and banged his fist. The soldiers, seeing the wine flow down the road. seized their pots and ran to catch it.

“Such a quantity of wine was too much for the guards. Very drunk and drowsy, they stretched themselves out at full length and fell asleep at the spot. It was now well after dark and the thief took down his brother’s body. Then he put the body on the donkey and returned home.

“The king was very angry when he learned the thief’s body had been stolen. And determined at any cost to catch the man who had been clever enough to bring off such a coup.

“I find it hard to believe, says Herodotus, the priests’ account of the means he employed but here it is:

“He sent his own daughter to a brothel with instructions to admit all comers. And to compel each applicant to tell her what the cleverest and wickedest thing was they had done; and if anyone told the story of the corpse she was to get hold of him, scream for the guards and not allow him to escape until they arrived.

“The girl obeyed her father’s orders and the thief, when he came to know what she was doing, could not resist the temptation to go one better than the king in ingenuity. He cut the hand and arm of the body of a man who had just died; and putting them under his cloak, went to visit the king’s daughter. When she asked him the question she had asked all others, he replied the wickedest deed he had done was to cut off his brother’s head when he was caught in a trap in the king’s treasury; and the cleverest was to make the guards drunk so that he could steal away his brother’s body.

The girl immediately clutched at him. But under cover of darkness the thief pushed towards her the hand of the corpse, which she seized and held tight in the belief it was his own. Then leaving it in her grasp, he made his escape through the door.......”

A very sporting Pharaoh as it turned out. He was so impressed he offered the thief not only a pardon, but the hand of his daughter.......I only hope it was HER hand.


"The Christmas Tree" by a much

neglected poet  C. Day Lewis

Put out the lights now

Look at the tree, the rough tree dazzled

In Oriole plumes of flame.

Tinselled with twinkling frost fire,tasselled

With stars and moons - the same

That yesterday hid in the spinney and had no fame

Till we put out the lights now

Hard are the nights now

The fields of moonrise turn to agate,

Shadows are cold as jet

In dyke and farrow, in copse and faggot

The frosts tooth is set;

And stars are the sparks whirled out by the north wind's


On the flinty nights now.

So feast your eyes now

On mimic star and moon-cold bauble

Worlds may wither unseen

But the Christmas tree is a tree of fable

A phoenix in evergreen.

And the world cannot change or chill what the mysteries


To your hearts and eyes now

The vision dies now

Candle by candle the tree that embraced it

Returns to its own kind

To be earthed again and weather as best it

May the frost and the wind.

Children it too had its hour - you will not mind

If it lives or dies now.

When the Sunday Times columnist Godfrey Smith asked his readers for their favourite poems and prose about Christmas, that poem came high on the list.


Getting Ready for Christmas, by Meg Harper

Aimed at Key Stage 2 children (seven- to 11-year-olds), this Nativity looks at the different characters' reactions to Mary's pregnancy. Promising "cross-curricular activities" the script allows children to explore the themes further in personal, social and health education, ensuring the play has some classroom relevance.

Topsy Turvy Christmas, by Lucy Moore

Another one for Key Stage 2 children, this introduces pupils to truanting and blue-sky thinking. Two angels are skiving off choir practice to watch television. Seeing events unfold on TV, the angels at first view God's plans for the birth of his child as crazy, until they realise that the first Christmas is, like, "so upside down it's the right way up!" Among the humour are songs in the style of rock'n'roll, rap and even calypso.

Jesus's Christmas Party, by Nicholas Allan

This Nativity, for any children from three up, takes on the tale of the innkeeper, who loves nothing more than a good 40 winks, but suffers a night of interruptions and lost sleep. He gets increasingly irate, but melts at the sight of the little baby. A musical version, by Roger Parsley, is available.

The Stars Come Out for Christmas, by Andrew Oxspring

This play is held in the style of a Hollywood – "Tinseltown" – awards ceremony, recognising the services of those who've made an "outstanding contribution" to Christmas. Nominees include Santa, Christmas cards and Christmas dinner. But who's the biggest star of them all? Why, Beth of course: the Star of Bethlehem.