23 Dec 2016
by Gary Burnand
When I was a child I would spend the occasional holiday with my godfather and uncle and namesake, Martin Middlebrook. He had just written his famous historical masterpiece ‘The First Day on the Somme’, and was writing his follow up. I would sit at his kitchen table, inking in battlefield plans on overlaid tracing paper, to be sent to the publisher. It was quite possibly my first creative foray.
At the same time, my father was an officer in the R.A.F. and we were stationed in Germany; the first line of air defence during an icy cold war. I remember so well my father heading off in his Blackburn Buccaneer to caress the East German border at night, climbing to 40,000 feet as air raid sirens split the ambient below and shook us from our beds. We had a V.W. Camper van, and holidays were an endless trawl across the battlefields and war memorials of northern Europe.
In those days, back in the early 70’s, the landscape was still an ammunition strewn scar. My brother and I would descend to the bottom of immense craters made by 500lb bombs, picking through the dried Norman mud looking for old bullet casings or trying on British Brodie tin helmets, torn and rusted but still wearable. Imagine that, wearing a helmet riddled with bullets, that fell to the earth in 1916 and lay untouched until a young boy picked it up and tried it for size in 1973.
We all know of course the story of Christmas day and football between enemies, that miniscule hiatus in a time of inglorious brutality, the extending of hands and a full time whistle goodbye. It’s often repeated, though we seem never to have learned. This Christmas will be spent with my children, a day from now we will meet. It hasn’t always been that way, and the mystery is that with all our connectivity, we can still appear far. I spent Christmas 2011, in Kabul, alone in a house of Afghan friends. A lapsed Christian in a Muslim abode. I woke early on the 25th, and the day passed without a mention of the day. I felt strangely unbalanced, something was missing. I arranged to Skype with my kids, but they were not free until seven in the evening. And at just that moment, as I logged onto my computer after a long and empty day of longing, the internet went down. And I sobbed. And then some more.
Soon on a wintery train to share those timeless values, that seem to hark to a different age.
Christmas isn’t about presents, it's a time to remember transient values that should be cemented, should be permanent, but only reappear annually over a mulled wine and mince pie. And will be forgotten by turkey’s end. Values aren’t contemporary by their nature, humanities foundation was never underpinned by modernity’s artifice. It’s simply that Christmas has become the poke in the eye, the casual reminder. And if that is where we are, well I guess that's a blessing.
I have been texting my son for weeks now, counting down the days until we sit in a London pub and grab a pint. Yesterday, my daughter and I, with that marvel of the age that is FaceTime, ordered Christmas dinner for five from Marks & Spencers. We are nearly set. All we need is to meet and to laugh and to smile, and I will be made up, permanently full of something, some values that a pint of Pride and chestnut stuffing aside, can’t be bought, or wrapped or sent in the post. Values aren’t like that; they are only tangible because we have felt their worth like the nap of a cloth, teased out in some vicarious way – through a glance or twinkle, the curl of a lip or the flick of a head – that’s how we measure it. That’s how we know.
When I was a child, a child of that time, that’s how I remember Christmas. It was the smell of the tree, and that spinning Christmas globe that the BBC brought out of its airing cupboard once a year, it was staring at the chimney in certain disbelief. In 1916 it was the laying down of arms and the setting aside of enmity to kick a pig’s bladder across a muddy no man’s land. And if ever there were a greater metaphor, I have yet to see it.
Modernity is a capricious bedfellow, but the values that Christmas bears from it’s holly and ivy loins, they are the thing of generations, of humanity and time. And when I sip on my beer in a London pub next week with my son and daughter, I shall think of those absent days of longing, that no amount of material plunder would ever have salved.
Merry Christmas to you all.