Friday 27 December 2013

My Best Reads of 2013

My 2013 top ten reads, in no particular order, chosen for enjoyment as much as literary merit are:

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Island Songs – Alex Wheatle

A Virtual Love - Andrew Blackman

On Holloway Road - Andrew Blackman

The Best of Everything – Rona Jaffe

Infinite Sky – C.J. Flood

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Honour – Elif Shafak

The Road to Urbino – Roma Tearne

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

Sunday 1 December 2013

The Night Father Christmas Was Confused

As Father Christmas clambered into the sleigh he heard an ominous creaking.
‘Bloomin’ elves haven’t oiled the sleigh properly,’ he muttered before realizing it was his knees that were protesting. The horrible truth was Father Christmas was getting old. He’d been doing the Christmas rounds for over a hundred years now and he should be thinking about retirement. In spite of having to work so much harder these days, as children expected so much more in their Christmas stockings than when he began the job, he was reluctant to give up.

It would be his nephew, Nicholas, who would be taking up the reins, and let’s face it, Nick just wasn’t mature enough for the job. Only two weeks ago when Father Christmas asked Nick to take the reindeer and sleigh out for a run to get the deer limbered up and ensure the sleigh was in good working order, what did he do? Had them tearing along at top speed like some boy racer, careless of not only his charges but endangering the elves in the delivery sleighs coming in and out of headquarters with supplies. Luckily there hadn’t been a nasty accident, but the reindeer were exhausted and needed double rations that night to keep up their strength, which was a waste of fuel. Mrs Christmas had had to lecture Nick on the concepts of eco-Christmas, this year’s theme, and not wasting the earth’s precious resources.
Still, there was no time to waste pondering – he must get on. This year the first round (every child worth its salt knows the whole lot can’t be done in one go) was both his favourite and the one he disliked the most. He decided to call on Happyton first to put him in a good frame of mind before going on to the dreaded Greediville. He loved the village of Happyton, where the Victorian houses had proper chimneys that he could get up and down with no bother. Even the houses that had been divided into flats and had boarded-up fireplaces presented little difficulty. Greediville was a newish town with mean little boxes for houses, full of new-fangled gadgets and not a chimney in sight.
The Happyton children always asked for good old-fashioned toys: Lego, dolls and footballs. Puzzles and board games were still popular and Father Christmas’s favourite; books. Of course these new-fangled e-readers and smartphones appeared on the older children’s lists but the girls still liked the pretty silver jewellery and silk scarves that Mrs Christmas sourced from Traidcraft workshops. The boys liked traditional sports equipment as well as new technological things that Father Christmas didn’t really understand. Chocolate – always Fairtrade from Ghana, Belize and Cote d’Ivoire – was still an enormous hit with all ages. It was so different in Greediville where the kids demanded their own computers, endless computer games, I-pods, I-pads, and who knew what else. They needed new models every year. Goodness knows why, Father Christmas had had the same mobile for about ten years and it still worked absolutely fine. Mrs Christmas had hinted that he should upgrade but so long as she was able to check he was alright, she wouldn't press the issue.  
The elves used much more up to date gadgets and lately had been using strange things called Apps – it did make things easier now the goods could be ordered online, meaning he could avoid the tiring incognito reconnoitring trips he used to make. It saved fuel but he put his foot down at the idea that it could all be delivered to headquarters by air-freight and insisted on the traditional methods.
As the sleigh flew over Greediville, Father Christmas’s heart sank. The place was blazing with lights. Each house seemed to vie with its neighbours for the gaudiest display. Many of them were crude depictions of himself and the deer. Last year Blitzen had been most upset and handed in her resignation. Still, Happyton would be the same traditional scene. But wait… what was going on here?
Coming in to land Father Christmas could see the usual Christmas tree outside the church. It was shining brightly – those low-energy bulbs were jolly good – but the houses were all in complete darkness. It was quite irresponsible to keep tree lights blazing all night, both on counts of energy and safety but it was a bit of shame not to have a few of those twinkly lights. He wondered if people who had pet hamsters could rig up their little wheels to generate enough electricity to keep low-watt bulbs glowing. The only other light he could see was from a cluster of six flickering candles in jam jars near the church door.
He negotiated the first chimney and what was this? There was the decorated tree but no presents lay beneath it. This house belonged to a large family who gave generously to each other. Every year the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all came to stay and lovely parcels always lay beneath the tree in anticipation of the special day.
Had they all gone away and forgotten to tell him? Or worse, had he made a mistake? Had he come a day too early? He was getting a bit forgetful lately. No, Mrs Christmas would never let him make an error like that. Then he spotted a plate of home-made mince pies – one for each of the deer and one for himself. He popped one in his mouth and placed his presents in the stockings hanging up and made his way to the next house. No brightly wrapped gifts in recycled paper here either. Every house was the same. What was happening – was Happyton no longer the generous, loving community he so admired?
Feeling rather shaken he pulled out his phone and dialled the number of the elf responsible for Happyton orders.
‘Is that Albert? What’s going on in Happyton?’
'Simples!’ said Albert. ‘Look out for the candles in jars. Must dash.’
Father Christmas made his way to the candles by the church door. Above them was a notice from the NHS Blood Doning Service. “Thank you, Happyton, for your gift of life. We collected 153 units at the special Christmastide session. Thank you also to those who gave drinks and refreshments for the donors, saving us money.”
He spotted the next cluster of candles a few yards away. Above them was another sign. “Thank you Happyton for your donations of bedding, toiletries, clothes and food. We will now be able to keep our town shelter for the homeless open for ten days over the Christmas period. Additional cash donations went to Crisis."
A third group of candles gleamed not far away and Father Christmas found another sign. This one proclaimed that Happyton’s energy saving drive throughout December had enabled the residents to Send a Cow to a family in Kenya along with several smaller gifts.
The fourth notice said “Thank you Happyton! The Time, Skills and Services Auction has raised over two thousand pounds for DEC's Ongoing Appeals. Your babysitting, gardening, computer trouble-shooting, cleaning and cooking will enable people to start rebuilding their lives in the face of disaster."
A fifth group of candles outside the school showed a poster of children from all around the world. Under the picture large multi-coloured letters spelled out “Happy Christmas and Peace on Earth to all. By not having Christmas presents from our parents this year we have funded five Shelterboxes for people in places where disaster has struck."
Father Christmas climbed back into his sleigh with a creak of his knees. He patted Prancer and Comet.
‘I’m a silly old fool,’ he told his faithful reindeer. ‘Of course the people of Happyton haven’t stopped giving. Not all gifts come wrapped in bright paper tied up with tinsel. The sleigh lifted off and Father Christmas went on his way calling his usual greeting,
                         "Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth to you all."

This an updated version of the story first published in The Greenacre Times December 2007.