In all the villages I have lived in there has been some sort of tradition of carol singing at Christmas time. That even includes Notting Hill, if you count two boys singing carols through an entry-phone as carol singing. But when I moved to the village in Wiltshire where I now live, I noticed after a while that while there were carol services aplenty, nobody went round the village doing any carol singing, door to door. There was, for a brief while, a revival of a local mummer's play, which was put on at the pub, but either the text was very corrupt or the players very drunk, as I couldn't understand a word of it, and that too faded away after a couple of years.
So I said to someone one day that somebody in the village ought to do some round-the-houses carol singing next Christmas, and they agreed, and somebody said to me a week later that he had heard I was thinking of organising some carol singing, which like a fool I didn't quash there and then, and then somebody else said that he was keen on the idea and would like to come along with me when I got the carol singing organised, and blow me down but now for the last few years I have found myself organising a carol singing expedition round the village, and the thing has become a fixture even though I never meant to get involved in the first place, because I never organise anything, only hang on to other people's coat-tails...
And every time I think of this process, which starts with one casually expressing the wish that something would happen and ends with one having to do it one's self, I keep thinking that I am not the first person who thought of this, and that somewhere, a long time ago, someone else had this happen to them, and finally I have tracked it down. It wasn't to do with carol singing at all. It was to do with going to Spain and writing a travel book about it. Here is the opening of the book. I'll tell you afterwards who wrote it, but if you are of the quiz generation you may like to have the chance to guess...
"Not very long ago (in April, 1840), I happened to say casually to someone: 'You know where I would like to go? Spain - that's where I'd like to go!’. Before a week had passed, my friends in Paris had already removed the prudent conditional tense in which I had wrapped my desire and were telling everyone who was interested that they'd heard for a fact that I was off to Spain. This direct statement was soon replaced by a direct question: 'So, when are you off, then?'. I fended off this question with the vague reply, 'Oh, in a couple of weeks, possibly' without realising that in a couple of weeks, possibly, people would start looking quite surprised at seeing me in Paris. 'I thought you were in Madrid!' said one. 'Back from Spain already?' said another. It was then that I realised that I owed my friends an absence of at least a few months, and that I had better start paying my debt of absence as soon as possible, for fear of being harassed by my friendly creditors. From now on I was barred from all theatre foyers and boulevard pavements; the most I could obtain in the way of execution was three or four days, and by the time May 5th had dawned I was about to head for exile from my native country by climbing aboard the coach to Bordeaux…"
An excellent beginning to Theophile Gautier's "Travels In Spain", as it describes perfectly the way in which a casual statement can lead to a change in the course of your life. More drastic for Gautier then for me, of course. He had to go round Spain. I only had to go round my village.
On the other hand, he only had to go round Spain once, whereas my casual statement has landed me in a carol singing ritual which is not only annual, but is becoming more complex each time. Mulled wine and mince pies have entered the frame over the last two years; this year we added a couple of instruments to the singing, and after it was all over, one of the singers, Adrian, said to me that next time we really had to get more four part harmony into our carols.
And blow me down, but he has just this morning called round with an edition of four part harmony carols!
Before this thing gets out of hand, I can see only one possible method of escape. I must mention casually round the village that I think it would be wonderful to spend next Christmas in Spain.
It worked for Gautier.
It might work for me.
The Independent New Years Day, Monday, 2001