Whatever happened to the Christmas song?

There are many things with which to be pre-occupied this weekend.  Big, serious things.  But there’s always room for a little trivia too.  Displacement activity is what is required when there is a maelstrom of awfulness threatening to engulf us, some of us personally, others in watching horrific events unfold in others’ lives.

And now that Christmas preparations are in full swing – or kinda ground to a halt in our eyrie – we’ve been digging out the old Christmas CDs.  It is at this time of year that I turn the radio dial to Classic FM and overdose on all the Christmas musical delights on offer.  In January, I’m more than ready to pack it all away again for another 12 months.

But – and it might just be that I’m getting old – there’s definitely something a bit lacking in the choons put out this time of year by the young yins.  It might just be that Top of the Pops provided a focal point around which we could grow familiar with festive releases.  And some of the ones brought out in my yoof were also pretty risible.

If you go even further back in the mists of time, it seems clear that putting out a Christmas track or even, a medley or an album was a big thing.  And this is where the greatest choons lie, in my opinion.  It’s what the crooners were made for after all.

There’s Dean Martin walking in his Winter Wonderland.  And he’s also keen on letting it snow.  Bing, of course, likes to warble about a White Christmas.  And in truth, there was something akin to pass the parcel going on with these festive standards.  But Judy Garland pulls yet another show stopper out of the bag with her version of Have yourself a Merry little Christmas.

They all used to bring out Christmas albums.  But few of them could best Frank Sinatra doing a little Christmas dreaming.

And it’s not just the crooners either.  The jazz world loved a festive choon.  That’s why Louis Armstrong spent Christmas night in Harlem and spent some time wondering where Santa was. 

The chicklet nearly put me off this fabulous Ella Fitzgerald effort about Santa Claus getting stuck in her chimney but thankfully, it’s no longer on constant repeat and I can like it again.

But my favourite Christmas jazz standard has to be this duet with Ella and Louis Jordan bemoaning that it’s cold outside.  Original is still so often best.

From my yoof, two festive anthems stand out.  Jonah Lewie’s attempt to stop the cavalry and of course, Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues offering a stunning alternative fairytale in New York.

But can I think of a classic from the last few years?  No.  Though there is hope.  Primarily among the folkies and the indies and the indyfolky bands.

Here’s three more modern warblings which I love.

Okkervil River reckon we should all spend Christmas listening to Otis Redding.  Fine advice and best listened to with the tree lights twinkling and a glass of something warm and peaty to hand.

And off the For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas compilation, this number by Ellen and the Escapades strikes all the right festive notes.  By the fireside is the best place to be.

If all this schmaltz is weighing you down, try this alternative, almost anti-Christmas choon from Los Campesinos!  which pays homage to, among other things, the Boxing Day football match.

Whatever happened to the Christmas song?  Like the rest of us, it lost its sparkle a little.  Gone are the days of innocence and romance, replaced with a relentless commercialism and a pressure to do more with less.

When actually, as the best songs suggest, Christmas is an opportunity to reflect on what really matters.  And perhaps this weekend we need to focus on that message – of hope even in the darkness.


This is not a love song

The best friendships are often the ones you never expected to have.  They sneak up on you and catch you unawares: how else to explain two girls who having flitted in and out of each other’s circles for three years end up inseparable?

She was the cool one.  Effortlessly, beguilingly so.  She probably never knew this, but I wanted to be her.  She’d have laughed if she knew.

Yearned to be her actually.  Those dimples.  That black biker’s jacket.  Charmingly unaware of her well, charm.

Not that she’d thank me for such a girly turn of phrase.

It started in the library.  Two pals bereft of their bestests, eventually heading to the pub.  As you do, when you’re 20 and that’s the best place to idle away an hour or six.

And then a routine.  Meet up early in the library, a juice and fag break at 11, lunch at 1, coffee at 3, then tea.  A couple more hours in the library then time for a hard earned beer.  It was good enough to get us both 2:1s, much to the chagrin of one of our other chums who bemoaned the unfairness of it all.  *You two were always out on the piss, how did you do it?*  We really did sit down with our exam timetables and work out when we could have a night on the lash.

We were an odd couple in a way.  I’m pretty sure I taught her to cook, almost.  I was passionately political, she was interested, but not so much.  She had better taste in music.  And men.

We shared a thing that year for Goodbye Mr Mackenzie.  An obsessive thing.  Our leaving university presents to each other were the Good Deeds and Dirty Rags albums.  Vinyl for her, cassette for me.  We nearly wet ourselves laughing at how amusing that was.  But I think we both still have them.

And then big grown up life.  Ha!  Two wee lassies lost in London.  We had a routine there too.  It involved Saturday morning kids’ TV, boiled eggs mashed up in a bowl, happy hour cocktails at the Islington Filling Station followed by the Comedy Club.  Only because it was cheap, and it sold pints of heavy.  And had Scottish bouncers which meant we always got in.  Like I said, grown up.

And like best friends do, we talked.  Endlessly.  Ceaselessly.  But the funny thing is I can scarcely remember a single conversation.  Just the rhythms, the cadences, the comfortable silences, the shared conspiracies, and most of all, the silly nonsense.

In and out of each other’s pockets.  For at least five years, when real life really did start to intrude.

A baby for me.  She came to visit and said nothing.  Was just there, where and when I needed her to be.  A riotous honeymoon in Oban for her.  With a circle of female friends that only a really good woman could create.  Many of them all the way back to schooldays, which says a lot.

And then, the best thing a pal could ever do for her pal.  She got married on the day the Queen came to my town when I was a councillor and I was expected to stand in line to greet her.  She gave me the perfect excuse not to be there and I can truthfully say that not even royalty kept me from my pal’s big day.

A pregnancy, quickly followed by a tragedy.  She marvelled that I drove 500 miles in a day to be at her dad’s funeral.  Why wouldn’t I?  She was my friend, I couldn’t have imagined not being there.  It’s what friends do.

Our thirties beckoned.  More babies.  More life.  Fewer meet ups, but the ability to pick up from where we’d left off:  the sure sign of an enduring friendship.

On one memorable night out, when far too much drink had been taken, and much mirth had been had, we had a moment.  Not ones given to overly emotional stuff, we had a meaningful conversation.  Of sorts.

If you ever needed anything, you know…. and you know, if you ever need anything, like…  Yup.  Cos you know, you know I’d be there for you.  God yeah.  And you know that too, if the need, you know…  Another beer?  Two girls in their best imitation of blokeness.  But it was all we needed to say, twenty years down the line.

And while not so entwined in each other’s lives – months would pass with nary a text between us – it didn’t matter.

Our last big night out?

One of those home made gig nights that we should have been too old for, but still reckoned we were too cool for school with.  Then a hasty retreat to a comfy bar with seats where we could talk and hear each other.  Revelling in our new found matronly status.  We ate our breakfast bacon rolls when we got home and shared a bottle of champagne in the garden, looking at the stars, engaging in nothing very much talk, as usual.  Giggling like the wee girls we once were, indulging in a little daft dancing.  Good times forged on the simplest of pleasures in a goodwill city.

For we knew we were still friends, nearly twenty five years on.  Friends who would be there for each other.  If ever, like, something you know, big happened.

Which it did.  The big C.  Faced with the same level headedness all the slings and arrows of life were shown.  Get on and get on.  It was me who wanted to rage against the injustice of it all.

A year and more which ravaged her but she never really let on just how much.  About the pain.  Little Miss Stoic who didn’t want the fuss and the bother or people worrying about her unnecessarily, but remarkably honest and practical in talking about it all.

But when they bought a puppy in the summer, I knew.  And I knew she knew.  But no dwelling allowed, though an earnestly honest chat about how we might both have done things differently, surprised us both on a treasured walk along the beach, our last time together.  It was a crisply cold, late autumnal afternoon.  With the most incredible sunset which entranced us.

“As long as I have.  It will be what it will be.  And I take what I have had with me and know it was enough.”  Her most remarkable ability to face up and deal with it:  I doubt I have ever known anyone braver.

The final text exchange was so typical of her.  Telling me they’d had a family viewing of me on the telly and how tickled they all were.  She delighted in all her friends’ successes.  Was proud of and for us, whatever we did.  She was fine, she said, even though she knew she wasn’t.  No fussing please, still generously giving of herself to us all.

And now she’s gone.  Not even 44, two boys in their teens, a mother who loves her dearly, a man who loves her even more.

A great big gaping void in their lives.  And in mine.  Not in the day to day sense but a hole nonetheless.  It really does feel like I’ve lost a part of me.  Selfish I know, when in the scheme of things, I was merely a note, not even a chord, in the arpeggio of her life.  And should have been there for her more.

The regrets of course.  At thinking she’d come out the other side and there would be time – a lifetime still – to get old on.  For more champagne moments in the garden.  Discussing books we’d read and enjoyed – male authors only, if you please.  Little old lady trips to book festivals.  More gigs – always the promise of more gigs.  Nonsense chats about the minutiae of life.  Basking in the special bond of our love for our treasured boys which only mammies of boys can share. Putting the world to rights. Auditioning for Grumpy Old Women.  And then reverting to our youth, turning to our comfort zone of noisy guitar bands.

Gone.  Dust.  Only tears and treasured memories remain.  Half a life spent together, half a lifetime to be spent apart.  A full life lived, a life fully loved.

This is not a love song.  Oh, but it is.  It truly is.

A Flutter on Friday 21st October 2011

Something old…

By the time you read this, dear flutterer, I shall be safely ensconced in Inverness, hopefully heading for an interesting fringe meeting and some decent scran.  To be followed by a wee refreshment or two and some good craic.  Apparently, there are 2000 plus folk here for the SNP conference and if I’m really lucky I’ll know a few of them…

Usually this part of the Flutter is populated from my back catalogue.  Choons I have known and loved long ago.  This one is a veritable oldie but a new one on me.  Loving it.  And proves the benefit of learning a lingo at school.

More from Scotland’s Greatest Album which I contrived to miss again this week.  We’re now at the 90s, and the rule-bending continues.  Apparently the Waterboys Whole of the Moon is a 90s track, not because it was originally released in 1985 but because it was re-released in 1991.  Pah.

I won’t even suggest you go and look at the bands and artists that did make it into the “expert panel” (sic) top fifteen.  Most of them are rubbish.  And while I hold no candle for them whatsoever, how they managed to miss the Wets who dominated one of our soggy summers with a number one that stayed for an unprecedented 15 weeks.  They also ignored Annie Lennox as a solo artist (yet included Edwyn Collins) despite her achieving critical and commercial success with her album Diva.

And to prove absolutely that this Emperor has no clothes, there was no room for the Vaselines, the Delgados, BMX Bandits, Del Amitri (always had a wee soft spot for Justin and his sideboards) or even Bis.  Now you could argue that little here has stood the test of time, but then that could be said of some of the dross being singled out by the panel.  Pah.  Again.

…something new

It’s not all that new, but I am listening to the Soul Club’s album Paradise more and more.  And finding myself hooked.  The eponymous, though apparently secret, title track tells you why.  NME describes them as a folk rock duo.  Which is darned lazy stereotyping.

Have also spent a wee bit of time down at Daytrotter this week.  And discovered GIVERS and a fabby session – every track a winner frankly.  But I really, really like Words.  Also brand new at Daytrotter, a session from Vetiver and this gem Worse for Wear.  No, this will not be my anthem tomorrow or Sunday…

Something borrowed…

Every year since 1988, in honour of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, the European Parliament has awarded a prize for Freedom of Thought to individuals or organisations judged to have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy.  Nominations are made by the political groups represented in the Parliament.

The shortlist of three finalists has just been announced.  The first finalist is a collective “Arab Spring” nomination of five people who have risked their own lives to bring about democracy, fundamental rights and dignity for all. Asmaa Mahfouz (Egypt), Ahmed al-ZubairAhmed al-Sanusi (Libya), Razan Zaitouneh (Syria), Ali Farzat (Syria) and Mohamed Bouazizi (Tunisia) have all played decisive roles in the Arab Spring.

The second finalist is Dzmitry Bandarenka is a Belarusian civil activist and member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. He is one of the co-founders of the Charter ’97 civil rights initiative and co-ordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign.

And the third finalist is the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, a Colombian community of “campesinos” (peasant farmers), which has become an internationally recognized symbol of courage, resilience and dedication to the values of peace and justice, in an environment of brutality and destruction.

No, I am not worthy;  neither are any of us.  But sometimes I think it is important to be reminded of the many varied ways being in Europe

…something blue

I’m actually at the SNP conference to speak (gulp!) at a fringe meeting organised by the Poverty Alliance and Child Poverty Action Group Scotland on poverty (funnily enough).  Their credentials are clear enough, mine are less certain.  Apart from being gobby about there being far too much of it still in Scotland.  Last week, we heard dire warnings from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that as a result of changes to the welfare state by the UK Government, 400,000 more people will be living in poverty by 2020.  Today, the latest life expectancy rates were published and showed that a child born in Kensington and Chelsea will live 13.5 years longer than a child born in Glasgow.

The gap is growing not reducing, which is a sobering and stark reminder that we might all be aspirational noo in Scotland, but it amounts to little more than rhetoric for many children and families.