Leaf Collecting is now three years old. Many thanks to all its readers.
Here are a few cultural highlights from its writer’s year.
Visual art and history combined superbly in The Great Tapestry of Scotland.
On radio: Radio 3’s “Why Music?” weekend, and, always, Late Junction.
On TV: Lachlan Goudie’s The Story of Scottish Art, and, still, This Week.
In writing: two recent novels, Harvest by Jim Crace and How to be Both by Ali Smith; an older one, Lanark by Alasdair Gray; David Hepworth’s weblog, the nearest equivalent to what John Peel’s Sounds columns or Clive James’ TV reviews in The Observer once provided in the distant past; and The Skinny, the only publication I see nowadays the occasional reading of which makes me feel younger.
Music: a great political song which sounds as if it belongs to the politically-engaged rock music tradition of the 1980s rather than to an older classical tradition– “Smash the Social Contract” by Cornelius Cardew; a reintroduction to interesting hip-hop music: Run the Jewels, Ka (aka Dr Yen Lo), Shabazz Palaces.
And two other things: in the UK, the unexpected trajectory of Jeremy Corbyn; and, in the USA, the public speeches of Barack Obama, for example after the various shooting incidents this year, which remind you that, whatever his weaknesses as a leader of executive government, how sad it is that we will probably never hear a political orator like him again.
Many fictional Christmas stories feature a character who is on the periphery of, or a witness to, the events of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.
One such is the poem, “The Maidservant at the Inn”. It is by Dorothy Parker, more famous for pithy observations of contemporary behaviour than for reflections of older traditions.
The scene in Parker’s poem is reminiscent of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, where the hero twice encounters Jesus: first, as a young man as he is led to exile as a galley-slave, and then again, ten years later, at his crucifixion.
Paintings of the Nativity usually include only angels, shepherds and the Magi as witnesses. In “The Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the birth has not yet taken place, but one of these figures in the crowd might conceivably be an employee at that particular inn.
As, at this open-air belen in Arrecife, Lanzarote, might be the single female figure at the house in the foreground, since it is closest to the stable.
During the first decade of BBC Radio 1, one secular pleasure of Advent and Christmastide was hearing tracks from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.
Phil Spector was a mysterious figure in the popular music of that time. Although still relatively young he was rarely active. His music actually belonged to that period just before mine, and influenced the musicians we were listening to more than ourselves: the period of Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers. The songs were rather twee but the sound was rich and dramatic, an idiosyncratic half-way world between 1950s musicals and 1970s pop.
Later I was struck to read Spector’s multi-tracking production techniques described, colourfully but aptly, as “mammoth” and, even, “Wagnerian”. Journalists identified the Phil Spector influence in artistes as apparently different as Bruce Springsteen and Abba.
Internet research reveals that the album, originally released in 1963 as A Christmas Gift for you from Philles Records, was reissued with the new title in 1972, which perhaps was the reason I was hearing it so regularly around that time. When CDs arrived, Phil Spector’s Christmas Album was probably the only one of my earlier vinyl collection which I replaced in the new format. Even though it would be played infrequently, it felt like an essential accessory for the season.
In the 21st century, Radio 2 has become the equivalent of 1970s Radio 1, so no surprise that a casual listen to the station during any December may catch a track. The best? To my ear, definitely still “Sleighride” by the Ronettes.