Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.

 

Snowy Transformations

I arrived in a freezing Germany on 9 December 2017. My goal: to visit the Christmas market at Marienplatz, Germany. Bundled up in five layers of my paltry southern hemisphere winter wear, my eyes watering in the cold, I braved the outdoor experience alongside my husband.

A gluhwein stand

The atmosphere was marvellous. Stands of hot chocolate and gluhwein steamed invitingly in the biting air, while visitors and tourists waddled past in their padded coats. Just taking off my gloves to examine little goodies at the stands froze my bony fingers. Shopkeepers helpfully spoke English when I looked blank at the German tongue, and people seemed generally cheerful despite the minus one degree Celcius temperature. It took three trips to the market before I had decided on what to buy. South African Rands don’t make much of a dent in Euros. And, to my practical mind, many of the ornaments and trinkets, nice as they were, wouldn’t have been very useful.

I settled on buying traditional food. The stand that got my Euros was the one

A strange kissing companion

that offered tasting samples and I enthusiastically bought packs of stollen (a fruit bread) and lebkuchen (a ginger-type biscuit) for friends and family back home after nibbling the delicious little blocks.

We had just got back to our hotel room when it began to snow in earnest. I was delighted. In two hours every horizontal surface I could see was covered in soft whiteness. But of course, with icy weather comes travel problems. My departing aeroplane that night had to undergo special de-icing procedures before it could safely take off. I have to say that this was the best part of my trip. Because I have a cockpit pass I was permitted to sit in the cockpit for taxi and takeoff and what a view I got. Before taking off the Airbus A340 was surrounded by three giant de-icing vehicles. Like weird-looking Transformers (I think the creators of the film based their models on these machines), the trio scooted back and forth around the wings and tail spraying 60 degree Celcius liquid across its surface. Using a checklist designed for such conditions the pilots did all the requisite checks and procedures before lifting off the icy runway. Beneath us the whitened landscape twinkled in gentle yellow lights until it disappeared beneath a layer of cloud.

Winter lights

What a treat. Sitting in the cockpit was much more exciting than any movie I could have watched on the aeroplane’s entertainment system.

My funny husband

Mince pie journeys

 In the first week of my Christmas UK holiday I have had seven mince pies. That’s one per day. Five of those have been in different locations. My first munch was at a Carol service at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in central London. This centuries-old church has excellent acoustics and the small choir and soloist needed no amplification for their voices to ring out above the hundreds of singing congregants. After singers concluded the evening with “O come, all ye faithful” servers brought round spicy mulled wine and mince pies. Yum.

img_0073My next mince pie venue was in the little village of Biggleswade. Where? Yes, that’s what several long-time London residents asked me too. Biggleswade is in Bedfordshire at the end of a countryside one-hour train journey from King’s Cross Station. It’s quiet, but growing, assured my cousin, who has lived there for 30 or so years. And in fact a long time ago there was “The Great Fire of Biggleswade”. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “The Great Fire of London”. Never mind that. My cousin’s home-made mince pies in her bright home filled with Christmas decor and family memories were so yummy I had two of them.

Continue reading