Letter from Roger Tarbuck, December 2017-January 2018

Christmas Tree 2013

They say that time flies for older people. Well it gets faster than that: weeks go by like days, and, for some, it can be even faster. I once read an article by a man who’d been very ill for several weeks. He talked about the “flickering” that he’d been vaguely aware of. This turned out to be the alternating light and darkness punctuating the days and nights while he was ill. Few will have experienced that, but it fits in with the idea that time is relative, varying from person to person, even from minute to minute. I remember how the minutes dragged, when I ached with anticipation for the cinema doors to open for the Saturday matinée, or for birthdays, holidays, Christmas and bonfire night to be here. And then, how the jolly times were over so terribly quickly!

I had a chilling thought only this year. It was just 31 years from 1914 to 1945, yet that time encompassed two earth-shattering world wars, global depression, a lethal, international influenza epidemic and awful hardship and misery for millions – and over 70 million dead in the two wars alone, not counting what Stalin did. And don’t forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thirty-one years. Good grief! That’s like going back only to 1986. Can you imagine all that happened from 1914 to 1945 crammed into the period 1986 to 2017? But the year 2000 came and the old century was slammed shut and tossed up on to a shelf, along with all the other items of history: the French revolution of 1789, slavery, Trafalgar, Balaclava, The Boer War, the Somme – making all the more recent terrible events comfortably historic. Of course, it’s essential that we look forward and make preparation for what lies ahead, as we are urged to do all the time, in politics, education, religion, etc., but the danger is that in looking only forward we may ignore the past and the crucial lessons we that learnt from it. This applies to our whole existence, from global relations to the decisions we make from day to day as individuals. Living is like crossing a wide and busy intersection, with traffic whizzing past in all directions, as I was once told in Madrid: “You have to look ahead and behind and from left to right – all the time”.

All the time. Yes, time is everything: it’s impossible to imagine any condition without it. Time is life, yet we refer to some things as “timeless” – things that seem to have an existence outside our ordinary experience, and they stay with us. It is as if all our experience were stored inside us and all we needed was some whiff of home cooking, an old familiar song, or feeling love’s hair on our cheek, for the past to come sweeping up to the present, as clear and as moving as it was a lifetime ago. Of such is nostalgia.

Christmas is loaded with nostalgia. It pours on us for two months every year, with the carols, the music, the increasing pressures, each one infected by a yearning, a glorious association of ideas, so that whatever happens now – old or new, welcome or unwelcome – it all comes in the context of Christmas, which has laid the building blocks of who we are. These foundations endure because they are of the spirit, older than time itself.

There has nearly always been a popular Christmas song, but such songs don’t last, with very few exceptions, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Jingle Bells”, etc. Others, such as “Snowy white snow and jingle bells”, from about 70 years ago, just fade away. Christmas pop-songs there have been aplenty, but how many new carols have there been? What do they sing round the Christmas tree in the shopping precinct, and in the churches and the chapels and the cathedrals? The old carols, of course – except, perhaps, for some trendy attempt, to be forgotten by New Year. New items don’t carry nostalgia like the carols that we sing at Christmas. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for new carols to be sung, but they have to be good, and time must be allowed for them to mature and blend into our hearts. (“Little Donkey”?) We are soaked in nostalgia at Christmas, from church choirs to the tiny out-of-tune children on our doorstep, unknowingly weaving their nostalgia with ours as we join in the glorious custom, which brings the past sweeping up to the present, with, if we are lucky, the wonderful sentiment that all is well, all is love and all is One.