Monday, October 22, 2007

folklore in autumn

Because when I started running I was in Spain and it was midsummer, I'd pretty much come to feel that the cooler the weather the better. I wasn't prepared for real cold, for air so fresh that it hurts to breathe it in, for your whole head feeling squeezed by cold (this is also known locally as "brain-frost"), for aching ears and thumbs without feeling. So in the market I bought some gloves, a kind of garment that I've done without happily for many years, though they would have been helpful a year or two ago when we climbed St Sunday Crag and it was all ice. The truth is that I have an aversion towards gloves, the same aversion that I have towards sun-glasses and headphones: an un-Berkeleyan reluctance to sacrifice unfiltered sensory data, as if that alone keeps me in touch with what the world is really like. No doubt, then, it was unconsciously deliberate that I immediately lost the gloves and next morning ran the "Seven Hills of Frome" with the sleeves of my fleece hooked over my fingers.

This resonant name for my favourite route is merely my own invention, but fully in accord with all the other towns and cities that are proverbially said to have seven hills. One has a lot of incentive for thinking about gradients while running. Most inland towns are located in valleys on rivers, so a circuit of the town is bound to involve at least two dips when the river is crossed upstream and downstream. And since a single hill is almost an imaginary concept, experienced in practice as a whole series of ups and downs, you can see how the folk-number "seven" would be acceptable as a loose description of what surrounds almost any town.

Certain pre-Christmas rituals emerge in my own life during this part of the year. One of them involves clearing up the last remnants of last Christmas, such as the bowl of mixed nuts in their shells, which needs to be emptied to make room for this year's bag of nuts. I don't know how many nuts ever do get cracked on Christmas day, though I'm sure it's very few: providing the bowl of nuts is just one of those rituals I can't rationalize. As the year wears on, this object soon falls into utter disuse. The time has now come when I realize that this stock of food, in order not to be wasted, needs to be consumed. Most of the contents, inevitably, are almonds, the proverbial hard nut to crack. (This is because they are really kernels, not nuts at all: the almond-tree does not intend them to be eaten.) Indeed, breaking an almond-stone with nutcrackers is barely possible - you are as likely to snap the handle of the nutcracker itself. Since it's turned out that this year, like every other year, has never contained enough time to savour this challenge, I now resort to the quick treatment, which involves putting a handful of almonds on a breadboard, covering them with a drying-up cloth and smashing them with a hammer. It's great fun, though not for the neighbours.

Another minor ritual, in preparation for Christmas jollities, is that I work out an arrangement of another Christmas carol on the guitar. This year it's going to be "God rest ye, merry gentlemen", which sits very nicely under the fingers in E minor. Unlike last year's "See Amid the Winter Snow", this is not really one of my favourite carols; I hardly know even the first verse. But it does have quite an attractive melody of a folk-song type, really in the Aeolian (La-)mode though on the guitar I'll no doubt play around with some harmonies as well as thinking about how to address those long sequences of crotchets.

The choice is appropriate in a way because I've got more interested in folk melodies this year. It happened (like the runnng) when we were in Spain for five weeks. We had no recorded music and a rather random selection of books, mostly not in English, so I suppose it was cultural starvation that drove me inwards to discover what melodies and words I actually had in my head. A lot of them turned out to be folk-songs, ancient or modern. I had come to know them a long time ago and they took a lot of patient retrieving: The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, Waltzing Matilda, Danny Boy, Streets of Forbes, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Clerk Saunders, Mr Fox, and The Gypsy - these last two, compositions by Bob Pegg for the brief firework of a band (also called Mr Fox) that he formed with his wife Carolanne - some of the other songs I knew from June Tabor's versions.

Usually I try and learn to play something Swedish as well: a familiar Christmas song or something in the spelman line. My mother can sometimes be cajoled into singing bits of an immense repertoire for all seasons of the year, but especially Christmas and Spring. Like everyone else in Sweden, she also knows a few of those singalongs that accompany the drinking of brännvin (grain spirit) and are known as Snapsvise (visa = song, folk-song, ballad, melody, tune). In a land without bars, social drinking is mainly a domestic custom, and this custom of taking turns to perform a snapsvisa, each one followed by a communal Skål! and the glug of down-the-hatch, is a means of encouraging joining in and of pacing the intake. I recently found a CD containing 100 snapsvise, but there must be new ones all the time. Only a precious few are old folk-melodies of the modal type; many more are adapted from popular melodies in their more familiar majors and minors: anything is fair game - pop, country'n'western, Franz Lehar or O Tannenbaum or Ol' Man River; and of course, the familiar Christmas and spring songs with words adapted to the praise of små nubbar (little shots) and the generous sensations of a belly filled with warmth. The important thing is that everyone knows the tune. The nearest British analogy I can think of is soccer chants. Some are spoken rather than sung. Nearly the briefest of the lot is just two words.

Titta! Taket!

(Look! The ceiling!)

A snapsvisa surely within the compass of the shyest participant, but a one-word alternative is merely "Nu!" (Now! - satirically attributed to Finland-Swedes).

I have another personal ritual: for some reason I always notice that November 26th is St Catherine's Day. Noticing it is in fact the limit of my celebration, though St Catherine is (mainly on the basis of the South English Legendary) my favourite saint. Perhaps I was also influenced in this choice by reading somewhere that her rather doubtful legend might have originated in the martyrdom of a pagan princess at the hands of Christians - it seemed to add an interesting slant. But however pointless in itself, this marking of the season has an important meaning for me. The darkening days depress me, and I constantly try to cheer myself up by pulling spring towards me. On St Catherine's Day I know I'm just about there - my mood changes. It is almost Advent, and the wood-borders are already green with fresh new plants. It is not impossible, I like to dream, that in some exceptionally favourable spot a first snowdrop could show on St Catherine's Day. In defiance of the calendar, I really consider Christmas a spring festival.


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