Monday, 10 December 2012

10th December - A Winter Night's Tale

One of the joys of this time of year is that it feels compulsory to snuggle in of an evening with a good book and a blanket, and enjoy the delicious pleasure of immersing yourself in stories.  I have at least two big books awaiting my attention over the Christmas holiday (although I have sneakily started to read one already), and lots more hidden away on my Kindle, in case I finish my official Christmas reading.  In this modern world, when we don't tend to live within spitting distance of our families, I suppose my love of books on a cold winter's evening is the modern version of this...

A Winter Night's Tale (1867) Daniel Maclise
This marvellous painting, in Manchester City Art Gallery, needs to be fully appreciated on a wall so you can see all the little details that Maclise has packed into it.  The old woman sits in front of a fire at night, with her family gathered around her, and she tells them a story.  What sort of story is it?  Consider the facial expressions of her far lefthand audience...

One girl covers her face and the other looks over her shoulder in a nervous manner.  There is something unsettling in the tale, something that has caused one sister to hold the arm of the other, possibly wishing they had sat nearer the fire.  I always spend a long time deciding where to sit when I see a horror movie at the cinema.  You don't want to sit too near other people, just in case one of them is the spiritual form of a disgruntled Victorian nursery maid, driven mad by her young charges and hell bent on a wave of destruction before you even start on your bag of sweeties.  Yes, I really do consider that.  Then again, you don't want to sit away from the other people, just in case something comes and gets you and no-one notices.  I wonder if it's the same when it comes to stories?  It's been years since anyone told me a ghost story, I suppose the last time was in school and they usually involved a dog, the sound of dripping and an odd tapping on a window...

Grandma is no doubt sharing some tale of murder, mayhem and, by the gesture she is making, heavenly influence.  I wonder if God has struck anyone dead?  She is grasping her rosemary and pointing to the sky, making you wonder who has experienced the wrath of God and what they did to deserve it.  Beside her is her spinning wheel, as if she is literally 'spinning' a tale for her audience.

 To Grandma's left are the parents of the children, looking anxious.  One child sleeps on the mother's lap, one child hides under his father's legs, being traumatised.  No-one will be getting any sleep again.  I remember when I saw the public information films on the danger of farms, as a child.  I didn't sleep for about a week for fear that somehow I would wake up drowning in slurry.  What a way to go.  I'm sure Grandma's story isn't about slurry, or falling underneath a tractor, as tractors hadn't been invented at this point.  It's hard to work out the exact time period: Mum's hat looks Tudor, but a couple of the girls' dresses look Stuart, so it's hard to pin it down to a period of history, but that really isn't the point.  The subject is timeless, and could be anywhen from Cavemen to now.  My Grandma told some cracking stories, my favourite being one about how she had to wallop 'Fat Olive' who had stretched out her new Princess hat with sawdust and wood shavings in the factory where they both worked in the 1920s and 30s.

Back to Grandma in the picture, she is surrounded by her family, who are hanging on her every word.  I scarcely noticed the girl in the shadows, hidden by the atmospheric light given off by the fire.  Look at that creepy shadow on the screen behind  the old woman!  Gosh, that is scary in its own right.  The little details like that make this picture special.  Look at the suit of armour or the screen, all richly decorated, the armour hung with greenery.  Behind the figure on the right there is a wealth of little objects, the debris of the family and their everyday life.

Another reason I like this picture is that I remember being a child and I loved my Grandmother coming to stay as she was fascinating, mad as a hatter and full of funny stories about her life and things she had seen and done (she had some stories about when she went out to America to see Auntie Nora who married a GI that were full of splendid misbehaving).  I find it very sad watching the current crop of Christmas adverts for supermarkets and the suchlike where the arrival of 'Gran' is a burden, a side issue, and all she requires is to be sat in an armchair and fed the occasional mince pie, hopefully not bothering anyone.  That's awful, who wants to end up like that in your old age?  I want to have gathered a battery of stories with which to entertain my grandchildren, like my Nan did for me.  She didn't have an adventurous life, but it was filled with fun and naughtiness and she made it all sound great.  I hope I'll do her proud when it's my turn.

See you tomorrow.


  1. Ghost stories at Christmas are the best! This would make a great cover for a collection of read-aloud tales of the spectral. The witch-like shadow of Granny on the screen is a touch of genius, reflecting our speculation as to the satisfactory gruesomeness of her tale.

  2. The shadow coming from the suit of armour gives me the chills too. Splendid stuff!


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