A Child’s Christmas In Manchester : by Neville Cardus

Anyone who feels disappointed by their Christmas presents this year might want to spare a thought for the numerous cricket-loving Dads of 1950 who must have been presented with a copy of “Second Innings” by Neville Cardus (“That’ll do for Dad, he loves his cricket“).  Picture them settling down in their favourite armchairs after lunch, sticking their feet up on the pouffe, lighting their pipes and looking forward to seeing what old Cardus might have to say about Freddie Brown’s prospects in Australia, only to be confronted by something like this:

“For though Kant was unable to go beyond appearance to reality, and though his metaphysic ended in an attempt to show us how we might know rather than what we actually do know, he at least spared us from a sort of conception of mind as a passive uncreative blank tablet – a sort of blotting-paper of consciousness upon which the external universe doodles away endlessly and without meaning.”

Scratched heads all round.  By 1950 Cardus was tiring a little of cricket and more tired of being stereotyped as a cricket-writer (a thing he’d never set out to be).  His own choice of title for the book had been (with a nod to Proust) “Remembered Pleasures”: his publishers had cannily insisted on a title suggestive of cricket, though the book contained little about the game.  At least there’s no danger of such misunderstandings occurring if you’ve stuck to the later works of Beefy, Bumble or Boycs.

Rather like a later “Autobiography“, “Second Innings” opens with a bravura passage recalling a South Manchester childhood, although, in the case of Cardus, distance seems to have lent enchantment.  This passage is about Christmas, and I wish you all an equally merry and enchanted one.

“Did it always snow at Christmas when we were young?  I cannot – or at least I will not – remember a “green” Christmas, a Christmas of rain and fog.  The covers of the illustrated papers and “double numbers” turned the nurseries into a glory of holly and robin redbreast and stage-coaches and rosy inns and coachmen with pleated capes.  Snow at Christmas makes the clock go back; it touches everything with a medieval spirit, mingling jollity and the grotesque; “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “The Mistletoe Bough”; brandy flames round the pudding and ghost stories.  If Christmas Eve should be white and moonlit, the star of mysticism may be seen to shine over even an English Christmas; for the English Christmas is one less of poetry than of hospitable prose.

When the meadows froze, people would hunt out skates, wooden and steel.  The rivers and ponds were a mass of moving figures.  At any moment the weight of them threatened a crash and splintering a crash and splintering of ice.  Elderly men with mufflers over their shoulders puffing out their breath on their cold air.  Boys and girls, young men escorting young ladies, their skates rhythmically keeping time.  Then there were “slides,” on which a perpetual queue proceeded in various attitudes of arrested animation; some dashing along legs wide asunder, others as though human volition were gone – once landed on a slide there was little freedom of the will and much stiffness at the knee-joints; and as you glided forward, or rather were subtly propelled, there was always the feeling that the person behind you was inimical, at least not friendly.

Then there was the Christmas pantomime.  I once stole out of my home and without a word to anybody went to an afternoon performance of Aladdin. I climbed to the high gallery of the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester, admission sixpence.  While I sat aloft, and looked down on all the kingdoms of the world, time came to a standstill, and outside the afternoon turned to night.  When the spell was broken I found myself in the Oxford Road; snow was falling.  There had been no warning of it when I entered the theatre.  I had sat in the gallery trembling with excitement as one scene was conjured from another.  All the time, behind my back, the snow had come to a great city on the eve of Christmas.

Under a clear moon and a sky pulsing with stars as through frosted, I was allowed to go out with the Christmas “Waits” singing carols.  I carried a lantern which was like a little castle; through a skin of parchment it was possible to see the wick inside burning steadily.  The glow thrown upward by the lamps set into relief the faces of the singers; and I remember an old man with a beard like Christ;  the shadows on his cheeks and under his eyes made me think of a picture I loved – Holman Hunt’s “the Light of the World.”

The snow was hard under our feet.  When we walked up the drives of houses in Victoria Park we made crunching noises, and we spoke in whispers as we prepared to sing outside the wide porches.  There was a desire amongst us that the carols should he heard inside the houses without warning: it was a seasonal ritual and greeting.

Christians awake!

Salute the happy morn!

After a while, long enough to suggest that our music had been listened to for its own sake, the door would open and we would be asked to come inside.  It was this way, I think, that I first saw a large gleaming dining-room and old furniture, a chandelier, a crackling log-fire and silver rimmed biscuit boxes.  Our host might easily have been little Max himself, not old yet, with many Christmases still before him.

I was not allowed to stay out all through the night and go with the “Waits” from house to house until Christmas morning dawned; but in my little bedroom at home I would wake very early and grope for my stocking and try to guess without lighting a candle what was in it.  And I would hear, from the distance, now near on the wind and now far, the cheerful greeting:

Hail smiling morn,

That tips the hills with gold!

Snow on the roofs, in the streets and in the fields beyond, a mantle of peacefulness.  Snow falling, and snow dissolving, as imperceptibly as all these happy hours were vanishing and passing on their way.  At no point could we detect a transition, increase or decrease; nobody ever saw the first or the last flake of a snowstorm.  So, like to the falling snow, in which no flake is different from another, or more laden with fate or change – so with our myriad lives and the whole of the world of those days.  Peace on earth, goodwill towards all men.  Where was the mortal heart that didn’t believe it?  No man envies another and would take his place; yet the years bow us here and there, and we are sent drifting on winds as wayward as those that swing the weather-vane on the snowy roof.”

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2 thoughts on “A Child’s Christmas In Manchester : by Neville Cardus

  1. And to think that last week when Third Man climbed those same steps to the ‘high gallery’ of the Princes Theatre, Manchester, to look down on the West Side of Manhattan, he might have been sitting in the seat once occupied by young Cardus! Time and space.

    Thank you for this and all your other posts. Every good wish for 2014.

  2. Thank you too, TM. Your re-emergence has been one of the high points of this year’s cricketing calendar, and I look forward to hearing much more from you in the New Year.

    It seems the theatre was always Cardus’ first love, with a particular penchant for the old-style Edwardian actor-manager. Du Maurier, A.C. MacLaren etc. …

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