Once we have enjoyed, or at least celebrated, Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, Bonfire Night and Armistice Day, we will, of course, be very close to the beginning of Advent and where Advent comes can Christmas be far behind? No it can’t. By definition, it’s impossible.
Many people find Christmas stressful. My tactic, when told how stressful Christmas is, is, I’m afraid, to stop up my ears like unto the deaf adder, grit my teeth and make sure that I do enjoy it. I do understand, though, that if, say, a large party of unexpected and frankly rather badly-behaved guests were to turn up on Christmas Eve, it might interfere with the smooth running of the festive preparations. I think the following anecdote, however, demonstrates how, with a little presence of mind and sang froid, the most unwelcome intrusions can be overcome, so as not to interfere with the family’s proper enjoyment of the Christmas season.
I mentioned in passing a short while ago that Patrick Campbell had written “quite an amusing anecodete about the anti-Partition faction of the IRA trying to burn the family home down”. In retrospect, this worried me slightly, as the IRA are a notoriously litigous organisation, and I felt that I should have made certain that I was sure of my facts before publishing this allegation. Perhaps it was some other three letter organisation – the BBC? the SDP? ELP? who had been responsible? I needed to be sure.
To confirm my memory, I ordered up a copy of a compilation of Campbell’s writing from my local library, and located the relevant piece. I discovered that I had erred slightly and that although it had, indeed, been the IRA responsible, they had been slightly more competent than I had implied and had succeeded in burning the house down. I had also forgotten the whole point of the piece, which was the crucial role played by PC’s mother in this episode (and this is all building up to a picture of her, which is worth waiting for, so bear with me).
I hand the telling of the story over to Campbell himself (the action takes place on Christmas Eve) –
“When a fellow is faced with armed men, it’s my honest opinion that he should have his mother around, if the situation is not to descend into flurry and confusion.
Three times I have looked down the muzzle of a gun. On the first two occasions my mother was present, and an orderly conclusion was achieved. In her absence, the third time, I handled the business so maladroitly that even the police got it back to front. The lesson is plain.
My mother and I first started gun-slinging, as it were, in 1922. The Irish Civil War was in progress and one of its victims – or very likely to be if he didn’t look slippy – was my father, then a member of the Cosgrave Government. He had returned once to our house outside Dublin with three perceptible bullet holes in the back door of his car, in no mood to share my mother’s opinion, aimed at restoring his confidence, that the IRA had probably mistaken him for someone else.
[A few days later when a thunderous banging comes on the back door] it was my mother who went to the top of the kitchen stairs, to see what was afoot. I joined her almost immediately, a pale lad of nine, having been roused from my sleep by the noise. I’d been sleeping badly of recent weeks because it was nearly Christmas, and my whole soul was crying out to take possession of my first Hornby train.
“It’s all right” my mother said, taking her customarily steady view “it’s only some men.”
[His mother is, firstly, keen to establish that the men haven’t come to murder the family. Having established that they’ve only come to burn the house down …]
With the first matter … settled to her satisfaction, she passed to others, now of equal importance. ‘What about all my lovely books? … First editions, signed by Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murray. And the pictures- Orpens, Gertlers, the little drawings by John …?”
The raiders, jammed on the stairs, were getting hot and angry. An exposed youth, still stuck in the passage, was being berated by the cook [who had invited the men in in the first place]. He appeared to be a cousin of hers, and was refusing to carry her trunk out into the garden.
‘All right, all right …?’ said the first raider. The protracted conversation was causing the handkerchief to slip off his face. ‘Take out anything you want, but for God’s love hurry up about it … Who’s got the petrol and the matches?’
At this point my father appeared in the hall, unobtrusively and still unsure of his welcome. The raiders appealed to him “Ask your missus to give us a chance, will ya? Sure, we’re only acting under ordhers …’
He took command … advising me to wake my sister, still peacefully asleep, and to put on some warm clothes. He then suggested to my mother that they should both try to save a few personal mementoes before we all withdrew to safety in the garden.
‘And leave’ my mother cried passionately ‘ all the children’s Christmas toys behind? Certainly not!
The possible outcome of the night struck home to me for the first time ‘Me train!’ I cried ‘Don’t let them burn me train!’
‘Of course they won’t’ said my mother. She rounded on two of the men. ‘You’ she said ‘go to the cupboard in the bedroom and find out all the parcels you can find. And look out for the doll’s house. It’s fragile.’
They shuffled their feet, deeply embarrassed. Several other men were throwing petrol around the hall. ‘Well, go on!’ my mother shouted at them. ‘And leave your silly guns on the table. Nobody’ll touch them.’
By the time the first whoosh of petrol flame poured out of the windows she had five of the men working for her, running out with armfuls of books and pictures, ornaments, and our Christmas toys. They’d become so deeply concerned on her behalf that they frequently paused to ask what should be salvaged next. “Is the bit of a picture in the passage any good, mum? Is there ere a chance of gettin the legs offa the pianna, the way we could dhrag it out … ?
When they had disappeared into the night they left my mother, bathed in the light of the flames, standing guard over a great heap of treasures in the middle of the lawn, with Orpen’s picture under one arm and the little drawings by John under the other – a clear winner on points.”
And here, thanks to the good offices of Wikipedia, is the Orpen Picture Beatrice Elvery