Thursday 25 December 2008


“At Christmas play and make good cheer, For Christmas comes but once a year” - Thomas Tusser

A Merry Christmas to all! I hope your day is filled with joy and peace and contentment. Whether with family, that special someone, good friends or indeed or all of the above, enjoy the day and make merry.

We are travelling today as I was able to book a very economical trip to New Zealand through a website as it appears that very few people wish to travel on Christmas Day! New Zealand is a four-hour flight from Australia and one the closest international destinations for us. Whenever I have to travel overseas I think of very long flights. Seven, ten, 15, 20 hour flights to get to anywhere reminds me just how faraway and distant from everywhere else our island continent is. I guess New Zealand is even further away from elsewhere.

The birthday flower for today is the white Christmas rose, or hellebore, Helleborus niger, which is symbolic of the Nativity of Christ. In the language of flowers, the white hellebore signifies purity and chastity, but the darker shades of the flower mean calumny and scandal. The white hellebore is also dedicated to St Agnes who is the patron saint of young virgins.

In the past, the day on which Christmas fell was thought to prognosticate the weather and the vicissitudes of the year ahead:
If Christmas falls on a Sunday, that year shall be a warm Winter,
The Summer hot and dry, peace and quiet amongst the married folk.
If on Monday, a misty Winter, the Summer windy and stormy;
Many women will mourn their husbands.
If on a Tuesday, a cold Winter and much snow, the Summer wet,
But good peace amongst the Princes and the Kings.
If on Wednesday, the Winter naughty and hard, the Summer good,
Young people and many cattle will die sore.
If on a Thursday, the Winter mild and the Summer very good and abundant,
But many great men shall perish.
If on a Friday, the Winter neither bad nor good, the Summer harvest indifferent,
Much conflict in the neighbourhoods, treachery and deception.
If on a Saturday, Winter will snow, blow hard winds and bitterly cold,
The Summer good with a harvest full and bounteous,
But war shall rack many lands.

Merry Christmas; Καλά Χριστούγεννα - Kalá Christoúyenna; Joyeux Noël; Feliz Navidad; Buon Natale; Nadolig Llawen; Nollaig faoi shean; God Jul!

Wednesday 24 December 2008


“If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” - Mother Teresa

It’s Christmas Eve and all should be at home with family and their loved ones enjoying all that the season has to offer: Peace, goodwill, happiness, contentment. Christmas brings out the best in us one would hope, but how often is it that our human nature bedeviled as it is with our pettiness and pathetic selfishness gets in the way of our humanity and the worst in us prevails? Charity coexists with cruelty, goodwill with hypocrisy, goodness with evil. How many households tonight hide some sadness and melancholy? How many people are tormented by their inner devils and how many cannot enjoy the simple pleasures of a quiet Christmas Eve at home?

The following poem was inspired by a scene I witnessed as an impressionable six-year-old staring through our balcony door one snowy day, around Christmas. It was my introduction to human cruelty and also to the meaning of charity, which was impressed upon me by my family. Fortunately, the scene I witnessed did not have as tragic an end as my poem does, as my mother intervened, but I wish its tragic ending was only poetic licence. There are many such gloomy endings being acted in various places around the world tonight and on many other a night.

Have a Merry Christmas, friends, and do as much good as you can without having to think twice about it.

White Christmas

White Christmas and the sparrows freeze
On the cathedral roof cross.
A girl in a ragged summer dress
With a voice blue with cold
Cries weakly outside the great church portal:
“Buy your candles, here please …”

Inside, the gold sparkles and the candles burn,
The incense scents the air
And choirs sing with voices heavenly:
“Gloria in excelsis, Deo…”
While bishops in embroidered copes
Read the gospels: “…et in terra pax!”

And the sparrow shakes with feathers ruffled
Roosting on the cross up high.
The sky black with not a star
(All of them shine inside the cathedral
This holiest of nights).
On earth snow cold as steel and a white Christmas.

Little hands tremble icy blue, and wide-open eyes stare
At the fat woman’s rich furs.
The diamonds on her fingers cut cold flesh
With their brilliant flame, while the tiny voice implores:
“Madam, please buy a candle
For our little Jesus due to be born tonight.”

The woman’s narrow eyes colder than snow,
But charity must be done tonight, and sharp-nailed hands
Extract from purse well-stuffed, a few coppers
Carefully counted so that the sum is right
To pay for a candle proferred hopefully
By a small girlish hand, outside the cathedral.

A snaky eye, alert, observes from inside the church
And a harsh voice commands all strident:
“How dare you, worthless urchin,
How come you choose this holy spot to sell unworthy candles?
Away, begone, there’s plenty a blessed candle
In the church for all the faithful to buy…”

With slow dragging steps in snow she goes away,
The candles such a heavy load on childish shoulders.
How will she tell him yet again,
The candles are not sold, even on this day?
Her tears, the only thing hot in her body
Roll down frigid cheeks and fall on snow to freeze.

A sparrow totters and falls from high up
To lie dead in front of the cathedral’s closed doors.
A girl child further down stumbles, falls
Under her load and gratefully expires, freezing in the snow
While dreaming of warm grates and a full belly.
White Christmas so picturesque, outside the cathedral…

Inside, the choir sings, the gold and silver sparkle,
Hundred of candles burn like stars. and incense smokes
The atmosphere redolent with a hundred perfumes.
The fat ladies are too warm under their furs
And the deacon smiles contentedly for
His candles are all sold and his alms box is full…

Tuesday 23 December 2008


“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” - William James

We went out to a shopping centre today and I must say it definitely felt like Christmas. Although the decorations were more restrained this year, although the shops were less busy, although there was a palpable reduction in the money being spent for gifts and luxuries, despite everything, people were still around and they were still doing their Christmas shopping. A Salvation Army band was playing Christmas carols and collecting money for those in need. A big bin was outside the department store inviting people to contribute gifts for children of poor families who would otherwise not have a gift. A local church group further down the mall was collecting coins to be used for providing a meal for the homeless on Christmas day and another table was full of photographs of third world country kids that needed a sponsor.

Perhaps this year, more than previous ones, people will realise what Christmas is all about. We shall see things more clearly the real meaning of Christmas as the economy is going downhill and the financial climate is worsening. People will surely see beyond the glitter of the tinsel and listen to voices in need beyond the piped carols of the elevator. As our own financial security is threatened we will perhaps feel a little more compassion for those who are even less fortunate than us. The poorer amongst us are often more generous than those of us who are well off. Someone who has little will paradoxically be more likely to share it with someone in greater need than them…

We have several welfare and community service in our neigbourhood. We often visit and provide some assistance, whether it is financial or some kind of volunteer work. A very special place is an old people’s home nearby where each Christmas a special kind of tragedy is played out. Several forgotten elderly people sit listlessly and watch with empty eyes the flashing light of a scraggly Christmas tree by a window, knowing full well they will not glimpse a sign of a loved one coming in to visit them. How many heavy hearts, extinguished eyes and hopeless souls will spend another Christmas battling with memories of happy Christmases past, while the well-wishing staff dole out a “festive meal” for them on yet another sad and lonely Christmas day. And in the meantime, the carols are playing on the PA system throughout the nursing home, contributing to the cheery holiday mood.

What is the true meaning of Christmas and how can we come to understand it? Simple. Visit someone you don’t know and take them a little something this Christmas – nothing much, just a token for your thought for that stranger, who nevertheless is a fellow human being. Someone you have never seen before, in a nursing home, a prison, an orphanage, a mental hospital. The rejects of our society, those people that the grand machine has chewed on and has spat out. Even more than what you take to them, give them a gift of some of your time. Sit and talk with them, share a conversation, small talk, a pleasantry. Clasp their hand and give them a gift of hope. Hope that the world still has some decency and compassion and care and fellow feeling. Charity is more than giving an odd coin now and then to the man shaking a can at you in the mall. It’s even more than signing a big cheque for your favourite charity organisation every year. Charity is humanity and sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, with a genuine attempt to try and alleviate that suffering in a palpable, real way.

The hand extended toward you is not always begging for money, it may only want to be clasped and held for a while, with your heart open and your ears unstopped.

Have a peaceful and loving Christmas!

Sunday 21 December 2008


“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” - John LeCarre

Films made from novels can be a real mess, especially if the novel is one you have enjoyed reading very much. It is seldom that a novel can give rise to a good movie, but I have seen some such films, proving that if the sensitivity is there, a film-maker can do justice to the author. The film we watched last weekend was an interesting concept, which was a film based on a novel, which novel was based on six other novels. Highly derivative, and here I am writing about it, adding yet another layer on top of everything.

Authors have always been inspired by other authors and novels have inspired other novels. Quite fashionable in the last few years are “reading group novels”, where the novel revolves around a group of people who take part in a book club that discusses a new novel every month. I recently read one by Elizabeth Noble called “The Reading Group”, which was rather soppy and not worth bothering with. Before that I read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, which was much better, and quite enjoyable. Now this film based on a book I haven’t read (nor do I wish to read, now that I have seen the film), the book being “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler.

The film of “The Jane Austen Book Club” was made in 2007 by Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay. Let me warn you, this is a classic “chic flick”, which is all about a group of six Californians who get together to discuss Jane Austen’s novels, one a month for six months. There are five women and one man, all at some crisis point in their lives and all identifying with characters and plots out of Jane Austen’s books. Although there are references to Austen’s novels in the film, even if you haven’t read the novels you can follow the film and I promise it won’t spoil your reading of Austen.

There is a lot of talking in the movie – a couple of witty lines, but also a lot of plain old gas-bagging. Some of the characters are very unlikeable and although the acting is good, the plot is quite trite and the ending gratuitously out of fantasyland. The characters the actors portray are very shallow and there is little genuineness in the film, whether it’s turns in the plot, depth of characterisation, or even a token tragic ending for one of the couples (in the film they all end up deliriously happy).

It was pleasant enough to watch, but I would not watch it again, nor would I recommend it highly to anyone else to watch, unless it’s on cable and you have 106 minutes to kill. I guess it was a bit like a soap opera, brain junk food – of little nutritive value but moderately toothsome at the time of consumption. Some of the excellent film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels would be better to watch and infinitely more enjoyable.

I wonder if anybody reading this has read the novel from which the movie was made? Perhaps you can tell us about it, whether it was better than the film…


"Sadness flies away on the wings of time." - Jean de La Fontaine

John William Godward (9th August 1861 – 13th December 1922) was an English painter from the end of the Pre-Raphaelite/Neo-Classicist era. He was a protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema but his style of painting fell out of favour with the arrival of painters like Picasso. He committed suicide at the age of 61 and is said to have written in his suicide note that "the world was not big enough" for him and a Picasso. His already estranged family, who had disapproved of him becoming an artist, were ashamed of his suicide and burned his papers. No photographs of Godward are known to survive.

This is his painting “In the Days of Sappho”. Most of his paining are on ancient themes and his style is meticulous, richly coloured and based on an idealised vision of antiquity.