Christmas was always a problem, at least when it came to choosing which service to go to. Because my mother was a Catholic and my father was an ex-Protestant with strong agnostic leanings, and even stronger atheist tendencies, the solution was always going to be something of a compromise. The final arrangement was that we would alternate the two religions, going to Mass one Christmas, and the local C of E service the next, and so on alternately.
‘Excellent system,’ said my father. ‘Catholic Church for believers. Protestant church for non- believers. Excellent.’
Yes, it was a good system in its own way, but it had one flaw, which was that very often when Christmas came around, nobody could remember exactly what we had done the year before.
‘I am sure we had the Protestant service last year,’ said my mother one Christmas. ‘I can remember all the tins of baked beans and the cauliflowers.’
‘You're thinking of the Harvest Festival,’ said my father, who could tell what my mother was thinking even when she couldn't. ‘They don't decorate churches at Christmas.’
‘Which is odd,’ said my mother. ‘Christmas is the time when everyone gives presents, so you would think churches would also be festooned with presents which could be given to the poor later.’
'Yes, but present-giving is secular,’ said my father. ‘It's not a God-based custom. It's not mentioned in the Bible and it's not sanctioned by the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whereas Harvest Festival...’
‘I wonder if the Pope gets any Christmas presents,’ said my mother. ‘He hasn't got any family. Who makes things Christmassy for him?’
‘The Cardinals,’ said my father. ‘They all creep into his bedroom in the middle of the night, and leave a stocking for him full of handsome new Papal headgear, and low-sugar communion wafers, and vintage Communion wine, and photograph books of places he has visited in the year, and in the morning the Pope wakes up and finds what Father Christmas has left.’
‘You're not suggesting that the Pope believes in Father Christmas, I hope,’ said my mother.
‘Why not? He believes in a lot more unlikely things than that. He has to, being Pope.’
We used to have countless conversations like this in my house, conversations which started with something quite random but always got back on to religious wrangling eventually. My father once noticed me getting a bit upset about it, and said to me, ‘Don't worry about these little head-to-head battles that your mother and I have! After all, they would be much worse if they were about something serious. But they're only about religion. What was it that Lord Melbourne said about religion? Something about it being all very well in its place, but it shouldn't be allowed to invade one’s private life...?’
(I suppose, looking back, that the laisser-faire way they argued meant they really loved each other. You can tell when a married couple is arguing to wound, or even kill. There's something in the air, something acrid and poisonous. Conversely, when a good married couple has an argument, their hearts are never really in it - they're always looking for something better to do. Here's the test: if you ask a married couple what they were arguing about the night before, it's a good sign if they can't remember. It's a bad sign if one or other side can remember every line of dialogue. It's very bad if both sides can.)
That year it was obviously the year after a Catholic Christmas because we didn't go to Mass and I can also remember that it must have been 1953 because when the family traipsed off to the big local church for the morning service on the Sunday before Christmas Day, some of the decorations in the church were left over from the coronation. As usual, the church, which had probably been nearly empty the previous Sunday, was now full of the normal absentees. A Christmas tree had been installed. And someone had gone to the trouble of doing a Christmas crib, over which many of the congregation were bending to have a look before taking their seats. There seemed to be an air of excitement among them, which you don't ordinarily associate with a Nativity scene. We went to have a look as well.
‘Oh, my heavens!’ said my mother. ‘Whatever have they done here?’
I looked in at the Crib. It contained the expected figures. Joseph, Mary, the baby, donkeys, oxen, a couple of wise men ... but what was that? It was a scale model English bobby standing by the door in full police uniform! And what was that behind him? A Turkish belly dancer? Yes, it certainly looked like the figure of a Turkish belly dancer. And there was a British soldier standing over the baby Jesus with a rifle at the ready…
‘What on earth is the vicar playing at?’ said a voice behind me.
‘Perhaps it's meant to mean something,’ said someone else doubtfully.
‘It's in shocking bad taste,’ said the voices. ‘Someone ought to do something ... Perhaps it's sabotage ... There weren't any belly dancers in the Bible, were there?’
I thought it was rather exciting, but I didn’t say anything. None of us said anything. We just went to a pew and sat down. Because we knew. We knew who had done it. It must have been Ralph. My dear older brother. The theatrical impresario.
As you already know, Ralph was passionate about the theatre. In the way other children accumulated sea shells, or conkers, or bits of broken machinery (or I accumulated train-spotting manuals, or gadgets that had once worked and which therefore could be dismantled), Ralph collected stuff about the theatre. Books, texts, programmes, then bits of scenery, costumes and props. I didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time, especially when he said ‘props’. I thought he meant some mysterious things that stopped the theatre falling down.
‘It’s short for properties,’ said Ralph scornfully. ‘You can’t be in the theatre if you don’t know that.’
‘But I don’t want to be in the theatre!’
‘Good,’ said Ralph. ‘You’d only walk into the flats the whole time.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake…’
And he would flounce off and resume work on his doll’s house.
Mother and Father were taken aback the first time he said he wanted a doll’s house.
‘Boys don’t play with doll’s houses!’ said Father. ’I’m not having any son of mine hanging curtains or dressing dollies in a doll’s house!’
‘It is a little unusual,’ said Mother, more mildly.
‘I don’t want to play with it,’ said Ralph stoutly. ‘I want to use it as a theatre.
And when he finally got the gift of a big, second-hand, slightly battered doll’s house that was too dingy for any sensitive girl to use, that was exactly how he used it.
‘The outside is worn and needs painting,’ he told me, ‘Which is exactly right for all those Chekov plays set in a dilapidated country house!’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’
I had quite early on discovered what delicious turns of temper I could induce in Ralph by feigning ignorance of matters theatrical so I never lost an opportunity to do so, even when I knew full well what he was talking about.
‘And the interiors are ideal for all those drawing room comedies, for Oscar Wilde’s plays, for instance. And Bernard Shaw’s. It’s amazing how many of Shaw’s plays are set in posh surroundings considering how left wing he was meant to be.’
For hours he would fiddle around with figures to his heart’s content, staging scenes, working out entrances, getting people up and down stage. I once pointed out to him that what he was actually doing was playing films, not theatre, that the doll’s house was much more like a movie set than a stage setting. That stopped him in his tracks for a moment. Then he bounced back.
‘Ah, but even if only one room represents the stage, I like to keep track of what the characters, the ones off-stage, are doing at any one moment. You’ve heard of Method acting? This is Method directing!’
The figures became very real to him. Not just as characters in his plays, but as actors in their own right. He gave them names. I remember there was one little red-haired lady called Yvonne who got most of the best female parts in Wilde, Chekov and Sheridan. One of his lead male actors was called Gilbert. Another one was called Arthur.
He tended to treat these figures as real people and even invented little stories for them regarding their private lives as actors.
‘I am afraid Arthur has been drinking again,’ I overheard him say once. ‘I shall not be sending him on as Duncan tonight.’
‘Who’s Duncan?’ I said.
‘Have you never read the Scottish play?’ he said.
‘What Scottish play?’ I said.
Ralph ground his teeth and retreated into a superior silence. On another occasion, I seem to remember, I found him ticking Yvonne off. She was married to Gilbert, but was having an affair with the little figure called Alex, opposite whom she was playing currently in some play by Noel Coward.
‘You can do what you like in other plays,’ he was saying strictly, ‘but when you are in a play of mine you behave yourself, young lady.’
So after we had seen the Christmas crib in the church that Christmas Sunday and I then found myself sitting on the end of the family row next to my brother, I had no doubt that I was sitting next to the guilty party. (I had actually recognized the British soldier as one of his faithful figures.) During the service I leant against him and asked in a whisper if he had done that to the crib.
‘Yes, I did!’ he said. ‘And a good job too! About time someone gingered it up. Every year that damned crib has looked so boring, like…like… well, a bit like a scene out of Queen Victoria’s private life!’
‘Well, the Virgin Mary is always number one like the Queen. Joseph always hangs back like Prince Albert. The three wise men shuffle in like Disraeli, Gladstone and…’
A fierce look from Father stopped him in his tracks. We got through the service in silence after that, apart from a bit of singing of course, and left the church afterwards, pushing our way through the crowd gawping at the crib. As soon as we got outside, into the cold dark evening, my Father rounded on Ralph.
‘I am extremely cross with you, Ralph. I take it that was your work, the disgraceful additions to the Nativity scene?’
Before Ralph could say anything, the vicar appeared. He hurried over to us.
‘Father, I am so very sorry about what happened,’ began my father. The vicar ignored him. He turned to Ralph.
‘Ralph, I think you know what I am going to say, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Ralph. ‘It didn’t quite work, did it?’
‘No, I am afraid not,’ said the vicar. ’Well, it did in a way because it was a big talking point and everyone paused for ages at the crib, which they never have before, so it did sort of work, but I think the figures you chose were just a little advanced for the audience. I think we need some more everyday characters. A gardener, perhaps? An AA man? A lollipop lady?
‘An AA man would be nice,’ said Ralph. ‘I think I have one at home somewhere.’
‘Just a moment,’ said my father. ‘You knew about this, Father?’
‘Knew about it?’ said the vicar. ’Well, of course! Ralph and I planned it together. It was his idea, actually. He came to me and suggested that we might give the traditional Nativity scene a bit of a rethink. Shakespeare can be done in modern dress, so why not Christmas? Brilliant idea! And then he thought that a mixture of ancient and modern… But didn’t he tell you about all this?’
‘No,’ said father. He turned to Ralph.
‘I am extremely cross with you, Ralph. I do think you might have let us in on the secret.’
‘Yes, Father,’ said Ralph.
‘He’s a clever boy,’ said the vicar.
‘Yes, Father,’ said Father.
‘Bring the AA man round tomorrow morning, and anyone else ordinary you can find,’ said the vicar and bustled off into the dark.
We walked home in silence.
Supper was quite quiet, too.
The subject was not referred to again by either side.
Christmas rolled on in its usual merry way. We wrapped presents, sang carols, cooked things, opened cards and, finally, on Christmas morning, did our stockings.
Then came Christmas lunch.
‘You can all come in now!’ sang out Mother.
We all trooped in and gasped at the sight of the turkey.
It stood in the middle of the table, huge, sloping upwards, a crisp skin reaching a peak.
The slopes were pristine, unbroken.
But on the peak there was planted a small Union Jack.
On either side of the flag there was a small figure in climbing-gear clothing with snow goggles and an ice axe.
Clearly it was Hillary and Tensing, conquering the turkey.
We gave Ralph a round of applause, he bowed and then we all sat down to Christmas lunch.
Someone Like Me