strange_complex: (Clone Army)
Cor, it's ages since I've done a meme! But this one is great.

The rules, as wildeabandon explains in this entry were originally "reorder, add one new item at the top and one at the bottom", but have mutated to "reorder, remove one item, and add three more, one at the top, one at the bottom, and one somewhere in the middle". Under either formulation, of course, the list grows by two items each time - it's just that you also get a bonus substitution under the mutated version.

I like the mutated rules better, so will stick with those, and I have taken my starter-list from the person whose entry in the meme I saw first, pseudomonas. He adds the important clarification that our additions at top, middle and bottom should correctly reflect how much we like them: i.e. they should be of a thing we really like, a thing we feel neutral about and a thing we really dislike, respectively. (I paraphrase - he actually said "preserving the sortedness, pedants"!)

(most liked)
Rose creams
Steam locomotives
Nessie Ladle
Undercooked Aubergine
Getting up early
Eating paper
Running away from zombies
Falling flat on your face while running away from zombies
(most disliked)

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [ profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [ profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [ profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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strange_complex: (Clone Army)
miss_s_b gave me an R.

Something I hate: Reactionary social values, by which I mean believing things like "a woman's place is in the home", only particular narrowly-restricted sexual activities are acceptable, you must respect your elders (regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it), and foreigners should be treated with suspicion. I found the description of these views as 'reactionary' rather confusing when I first encountered it. It basically means 'reacting against the current status quo' (as the Wikipedia article explains), but the word in and of itself doesn't really indicate in which direction - towards greater tolerance and equality or lesser? Anyway, in context and in practice it means people who currently enjoy privilege wanting to shore up the inequalities which support it by appealing to tradition. I am a liberal, and I am against that sort of thing.

Something I love: Roses - both the flowers themselves, which I think are beautiful and smell lovely, and more particularly things which are rose-flavoured, such as Turkish Delight, rose creams and rose syrup. Rose flavoured confectionery used to be quite common a century ago, but it is such a delicate flavour that it is actually quite difficult to make it 'work' in any foodstuff and (probably more importantly) it is not easy to synthesise effectively either. So manufacturers of cheap confectionery have tended to drop it, and rose-flavoured delicacies are not at all easy to get hold of. If you ever see some in a shop and want to make me a very happy bunny, this is a fail-safe gift for me!

Somewhere I have been: Rome. Obviously! My career is centred around the study of Roman history, and more particularly Roman urban space. I tend to work with provincial cities more than Rome itself, because I am interested in how people at all levels of society negotiated with one another in the organisation of urban space, and the political importance of Rome means that the dynamics at play there were exceptional and can't be extrapolated more widely. But I still need to know Rome intimately because of the way it served as an archetype for other cities, and because of what it can also tell us about the political issues which I also teach and research. I went there just last week, this time in the name of political self-representation (specifically, Augustus') and other people's responses to it, but urban space was an important part of that too (e.g. his monuments and their post-Classical history). And I will keep going back there throughout my life, because it is such a rich city that I will never know everything there is to know about its ancient past - let alone the magnificent tapestry of contradictions which is modern Rome.

Somewhere I would like to go: Romania. Hands up - this is basically about my current fannish obsession with the Hammer Dracula franchise. But since that's an obsession which I've carried with me since before puberty, the idea of actually going to Romania and seeing the landscape which inspired the original legend is hardly a passing whim with me. What I'd really like to do is take a river cruise along the Danube, the segment of which between Vienna and Bratislava I have already travelled along with [ profile] big_daz, but right from Germany to Romania this time. Then I would travel inland to the Carpathians and do the full Dracula 'thing' - i.e. visit all of the locations associated with the real historical Vlad III Drăculea, but also those which had nothing to do with him but did inspire Stoker (e.g. Bistritz, the Borgo Pass). I'm pretty confident that as a holiday this would work very much in the same way as the Wicker Man trip which I did to Scotland last March with [ profile] thanatos_kalos - i.e. it would be a great way of achieving a new and deeper engagement with a story I love, but it would also lend a nice shape and structure to the exploration of places which are in any case very much worth visiting. However, doing all of that would probably require about two weeks (though of course the river cruise and Dracula's Romania sections could be separated out into two different one-week holidays), and what with the travel and work I'm going to need to do this year for Augustus' bimillennium I can't see when I would have time to fit in even half of it until that has passed.

Someone I know: [ profile] rosamicula. This is a bit of a cheat, as her real-life name does not begin with an R, but as I knew her first by her LJ name, and have interacted with her here (as well as in real life) for the best part of a decade now, it is as real to me as anything on her birth certificate. [ profile] rosamicula is one of the strongest, most sharp-witted, and most articulate women I know, and although the word has come to sound cheesy and empty due to widespread overuse, I do find her genuinely inspirational. I have learnt a lot from her, from why it is important to remove your make-up properly before going to bed to how to spot and avoid idiotic social fallacies and understand what is really important in life. If you enjoy food and good writing, I recommend her blog, Beggars Banquets.

Best movie: I badly want to cheat here and say [Dracula has] Risen from the Grave, because I never call it by its full title (who does?), so it effectively begins with an R for me. It is a fantastic movie, but then again I already waxed lyrical about it only very recently, so I guess I can manage without doing so here again. In which case, I will instead nominate Raw Meat, aka Death Line (1972). That's a bit of a cheat, too, since I have to call it by its American release title to sneak it in, but less brazen I think. It is a low-budget British horror movie, set in the contemporary present, and involving passengers being attacked by an unknown menace on the London Underground. It's not as widely-known as it deserves to be, but I think it's a real gem, probably above all because it succeeds in creating a very moving sense of pathos around its 'monsters' (who are actually just human beings who have themselves been very badly mistreated), even while also pulling no punches on the horror. It also has Christopher Lee in it (albeit only briefly), Donald Pleasence as a fantastic sarky Cockney copper, and lots of lovely seventies fashions. I have reviewed it in more detail here. Mind the doors!

OK, I'm done. Comment if you would like a letter of your own to play with.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
OK, last meme entry. And again, although Boxing Day was awful, thankfully Christmas Day itself was all right, so I can describe it fairly normally.

I actually began Christmas Day at my sister's house in Warwick, because she had invited me and her old sixth-form friend Duncan over for the evening to keep up our old tradition of toasting in Christmas together at midnight. We had a lovely evening of canapés, drinks and chat, and did our little toast together at midnight (me with raspbery and cranberry juice), even though we were all yawning by that stage. Then Duncan and I bid them goodnight and headed off in my car, under a bright starry sky and taking care to avoid the (very few) other cars and people whom we saw pursuing their own rather drunken-looking paths home. I crept quietly into my parents' house with the benefit of much practice acquired during my teenage clubbing years, and sank into bed.

The next morning, we all got up, had breakfast, got ready and headed back over again to my sister's house in Warwick for Christmas Day itself. We arrived around 11am, and sat down with a round of coffee while we showered Eloise with presents. She is one and a half now, and has very definitely become a little girl rather than a baby:


She also genuinely manages to get even cuter every time I see her. The picture doesn't begin to capture that, because so much of it is about her lovely smiling animated face and her increasingly eloquent chatter, and nor does it even really show off the growing mass of blonde curls hiding at the back of her head. But I hope it gives some idea at least.

Eloise's presents )

Christmas dinner )

Adult presents and Christmas TV )

A decent day all told - and a jolly good thing too, given what followed. :-/

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
OK, so my Christmas experience this year may have been pretty miserable, but I answered 23 out of 25 questions on this meme before family dramas intervened, and now I am damned well going to finish it.

I've given some indication of my answer to this question in the post for Day 15, where I explained the religious element which Christmas has for me, through the syncretism between Santa Claus and Saturn. It feels important to have a midwinter festival to cheer up the dark days of winter.

Christmas is also important to me because it is important to so many other people around me. I like it for the same reasons as I like the monarchy, and in fact looking for past LJ posts in which I have explained my reasons for liking the monarchy, I find that I have actually drawn the comparison between it and Christmas before. Whether we like either or not, and however we choose to relate to them, all of us in the UK (and many of us beyond) have those things in common. I don't think that means we need to treat them as sacred cows, but I do think it is valuable and useful - for example by giving us all a central point around which to position ourselves in relation to the institution itself and the other people who also feel some sense of a relationship with it.

Finally, Christmas is important to me because it is something we do every year, in more or less the same way. That makes it comforting and familiar, and helps me to maintain a sense of connection with my own past. The last few Christmases may have been pretty grim, but they haven't all been like that, and I want to remember the ones which were good by continuing to celebrate the festival. Also, the unchanging and cyclical nature of a festival like Christmas helps to set off the gradual changes which take place between one iteration of it and the next. Sadly for me, what it has shown this year is a sharp reflection of how much and how badly things have changed in the life of my family since Mum became ill - but while that has been painful, I think it is something I needed to see.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
As [ profile] foxy76 pointed out yesterday, the original list which I gathered for this meme had a repeat of day 16's question listed for day 23, so I Googled around for some similar memes, found a different question which I liked instead, and am using that.

The answer's pretty simple for me, though. I had a fair number of Dr Seuss books as a child, but the Grinch never crossed my radar until 2000 when the Jim Carrey film came out. Scrooge, meanwhile, I've known about properly since we read A Christmas Carol at school when I was about 11, and in a general cultural references way for longer than that. So his story has much deeper roots in my psyche.

Besides, I've always absolutely loved all the different ghosts and spirits which appear to him - I remember being absolutely fascinated with the description of Marley's chains, and his face appearing in place of the door-knocker the first time I read the story back at school. Clearly gearing up to be a proto-goth right there.

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strange_complex: (Farnsworth don't aks me!)
Er... Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Cupid, Dasher, Rudolph...

Dammit, I have eight but cannot get the ninth!

Oh well, that's a pretty good head start for anyone else doing this meme today.

Christmas kisses for anyone who can tell me the ninth in a comment while likewise respecting the 'no search engines' rule.

(They're a very weird set of names anyway, aren't they? When I have pressed 'post' on this entry and can look at search engines again I am going to search out where the hell 'Donner' and 'Blitzen' in particular even come from. Crazy mid-nineteenth century clerics!)

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
I'm answering this for my parents' house in Birmingham, because that's where I have always usually spent Christmas Day - although in fact this year we won't be doing so, as we are going to my sister's house in Warwick instead. I don't normally decorate my own house, although I did buy a wreath for the door last year, and will probably put that up tomorrow.

We usually have a tree in the front hall, standing on top of a side-table which is there throughout the year. This gets set up and decorated by me and my sister on Christmas Eve, except in the years when we have hosted a Christmas party, when we set it up in time for that instead. On the same day, I go out into the garden to collect sprigs of holly, ivy and other ever-green shrubs or winter-flowering plants, and then slot them into holes drilled into a log for me by my Dad, which is then set up on top of the mantelpiece in the lounge to create a wintry display. As it happens, I took pictures of both our tree and the mantelpiece display in 2006, so can show you what those look like:

My Dad also has two sets of those Swedish candle bridge style light sets, which he likes to set up in the windows half-way up the stairs and on the upstairs landing, and which do a great deal to make the house look cheery and festive from the outside. The upstairs landing window doesn't actually have a proper sill for them to stand on, so this involves some quite elaborate jerry-rigging with string and blocks of wood to support them. But in all honesty, I think that inventing clever methods to get the lights to sit where he wants them to in defiance of the design of the house is half the fun of those lights for my Dad.

Other than that, we put cards up on bookshelves, dressers and plate rails, occasionally put a wreath on the front door, and that's about it really. We did have some streamers and other paper decorations when I was a child, but those have long since outlived their natural lives, and I don't remember any member of the family protesting when they were quietly retired some ten or fifteen years ago.

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strange_complex: (Augustus)
Above all, that at least one of the funding applications which I have currently in the pipeline or in the process of being written comes off, so that I can relax about my prospects of carrying out my Augustus project successfully. Ideally, I need funding for both a) the bimillennium conference and b) further sabbatical time, so my big Christmas wish is for any combination of research grants which achieves that. But if I must choose, I would prioritise the conference funding, because I already have some sabbatical time - but I have nothing for the conference yet (eek!).

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strange_complex: (Sebastian boozes)
I get the impression it is more of a north American than an English thing. Our trans-Atlantic cousins' equivalent to mulled wine, I suppose. In fact, the only time I can recall actually drinking any was at a Christmas party hosted by the lovely [ profile] redkitty23, who is indeed American. It seemed OK, but I haven't felt inspired to track any down since.

In the course of a quick Google to remind myself of what is in it, though, I stumbled across something called the Eggnog Riot, which was apparently sparked off in 1826 after some hot-blooded young cadets smuggled whiskey for making eggnog into an American Military Academy. I do feel that knowledge like that ought to be shared.

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
...with whomever you want, where would you be and who would you be with? (late)

Written last night, but unposted because LJ was down.

Well, first I need to explain for context that I am exhausted beyond coherence at the moment. That's no surprise - it's been a very tough term, and I knew that at the time. I'm pretty sure I have adrenal burnout - it would be surprising if I didn't, really. Certainly, I feel physically leaden and just like curling up in bed all the time, and mentally dull-witted and utterly incapable of making plans, organising what I want to do with my work or anything like that. Again, no surprise. In simple, human terms, I have had my efficiency, motivation and intellectual engagement cranked up to the max for the past three months. Of course there's nothing left.

Anyway, this means that basically my vision for an ideal holiday currently revolves around the maximisation of opportunities for rest, relaxation and recuperation - with a little dusting of Christmassy goodness on top. I see some sort of hill-side lodge, surrounded by pine trees and snow (of course!). On offer in the premises are hot tubs, comfortable sofas and arm-chairs next to a roaring fire, a plentiful supply of good books and DVDs (with a lovely big telly to watch them on), and huge warm soft beds which feel like nests for hibernating animals - and which there is no particular reason to get out of in the morning. The place is kitted out with appropriate Christmas paraphernalia, including a tastefully-decorated tree with lots of presents underneath it.

In the surrounding area is beautiful winter scenery - snow-drifts, frozen streams, hedgerows full of holly, etc - which might be explored during pleasant wintry walks. But it can all be seen perfectly clearly from balconies and large plate-glass windows in the lodge anyway, and no-one is pressuring me to actually go on a walk. It's just a thing that's available for the doing if I decide one day that I feel like it. Similarly, there is a stack of sledges in an outside shed, some ice-skates and a suitably-frozen pond to use them on, and a cheery village complete with a traditional English pub in the valley just below the lodge. But no obligation whatsoever to make use of them.

The lodge is staffed by quiet, undemanding, efficient people, who just run the place smoothly and without issue. They don't insist on being able to come in to clean my room at a certain time each day - they just slip in magically while I'm not in it. They are totally happy to serve up meals at whatever time I feel I want them. They keep hot-tubs bubbling, fires burning and beds plumped up at all times, without me having to ask for anything. Trained experts are on hand to administer gentle soothing massages and other relaxation / beauty treatments whenever they are required, and the kitchen staff are Michelin-starred chefs. They will, of course, serve up the best Christmas dinner I have ever experienced on the day itself.

As for people to share this with me, I think if I can only have one person, it would be my sister. But this is a lodge, with plenty of rooms presumably. So I could very easily come up with a list of about ten or so friends - some ones I see regularly anyway, others I don't - whom I would also like to be there. We'd all go with the shared assumption that when we wanted each other's company, we would find each other in the public lounge, hot-tubs, dining room etc, but that anyone who preferred quiet and solitude would be very welcome indeed to pursue it. Each room would be equipped with its own fire-place, arm-chair, television, dining-table and jacuzzi-bath as standard anyway, and people would bring portable massage-tables up to your room at the simple push of a button if you wanted one.

So - who's coming to my fantasy lodge, then?

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strange_complex: (Me as a child)
Day 09's prompt was 'Best holiday traditions', and I was really pleased about the plural form of 'traditions', because it meant I could just list everything I liked, and didn't have to choose. Now, I do have to choose!

So I have looked over my previous list, and with due consideration I am going to nominate the process of getting all the presents out from under the tree and sorting them into big piles for each person as my absolute favourite moment.

In part, I'm sure I still like that bit simply because as a child the presents were very straightforwardly the most exciting bit of Christmas, on a basic "yay new stuff!" level, and that excited child still lives within me. But I can appreciate the more adult aspects of the ceremony now, too. Like the fact that piling up the presents signals the start of a good two hours where as a family we are all basically focused on expressing our affection for each other and making each other happy. That's nice. And I've always liked the way they come from under the tree, too, like a sort of magical fruit which has grown there over the previous few days.

I'm sure things won't be anything like so ordered this year, with a one-and-a-half-year-old running around the place making mischief! But I'm pretty sure she will be her own compensation. :-)

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strange_complex: (Barbara Susan planning)
As an adult I'm pretty good at waiting, because I know how nice it is to have a lovely big pile of presents to open on Christmas day. That said, nowadays I often know what is in half of them anyway, because we tend to share present suggestions and requests around within the family in order to ensure that we're all buying things that the recipients will want. The only presents I really have to exercise self-control over are ones given to me by friends, students or colleagues, which are a) a genuine mystery and b) often presented to me quite a few days before Christmas itself.

Like most kids, though, I often peeked as a child. I seem to have known from quite an early age that birthday and Christmas presents were always stashed in the cupboards above the (fitted) wardrobes in my parents' bedroom, and would regularly take advantage of any opportunities which arose to climb up on a wooden stool and find out what I could expect on the day itself.

Most of the time, that didn't really cause any problems. I managed to keep my secret knowledge to myself, and it wasn't usually a problem to look suitably surprised and pleased when I got the gifts themselves, because I was a child and all gifts were exciting anyway, whether I knew what they were in advance or not. But I guess over the years I learned that a genuine surprise was more fun for me.

One year, though, I did get myself into trouble for it. Not by being found out in a straightforward way, but because I gave the game away myself while basically trying to do my Mum an emotional favour. I already knew that she was 'Santa', so when I found what were obviously destined to be our stocking presents one year a week or so before Christmas, I decided to write a letter to Santa asking for exactly those same things. In my childish mind, this was intended to be lovely for my Mum, as it would reveal to her that she had managed to buy exactly what we really wanted, and she would feel a glow of warm satisfaction. And I'm pretty sure I did throw in a few random other items in an attempt to make my letter look 'realistic'.

But it obviously didn't convince, because she sussed what I had been up to straight away. I don't remember being told off hugely for it - perhaps she realised that my intentions were generous, even if they were based on me looking in places where I knew I wasn't supposed to look. But I did feel pretty ashamed of myself afterwards, and I think I pretty much figured out for myself after that that I really shouldn't look in the top of the wardrobe any more.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
Well, obviously this has varied between different stages of my life, but I can identify things which were typical in different periods.

As a child of course it was all about the excitement, finding myself shut out of rooms where parents were hastily wrapping presents, and not being able to get to sleep because I was too busy listening out for Father Christmas.

Later, from my mid-teens onwards, I quite often went out to pubs or clubs with friends on Christmas eve. This was a particular favourite activity of a guy I got together with shortly before Christmas in the year that I was 17. I think joining in on his typical Christmas eve out with his mates at the various rock pubs in the centre of Birmingham was one of our first or maybe second dates. By the next year, we'd broken up, but were still friends (occasionally with benefits), so I went along for the same thing - and at that age, something you've done twice already feels 'typical'.

I've pretty much lost touch with the guy since, but I've been out for drinks on Christmas eve at various other times since with different friends or my sister, so it was definitely reasonably typical for a while. I've always been mildly surprised by how few people seem to be out doing the same thing, but then again I haven't done it myself either for a fair few years now, so maybe more people have started going out on Christmas eve than I realise. Anyway, I always liked the feeling of liminal, non-standard time, with all normal activities on hold and a free rein to just sit around, drink and relax, and also the feeling of weaving my way home half-sozzled through the cold dark evening, ready to creep ever-so-quietly to bed and then wake up to Christmas in the morning.

In my mid-twenties, we began hosting family Christmas parties at my parents' house, at least one of which was on Christmas eve itself - though more often they ended up being held on the 23rd. Three got written up in my LJ, here, here and here, but they stopped in 2007 because shortly after that my Mum got cancer, and it became too much for us to manage after that. At least twice we also went to a carol service on Bournville village green on Christmas eve itself.

But in parallel with those traditions, and still continuing to this day, is the habit which my sister and I have developed of staying up until midnight on Christmas eve and toasting in Christmas together with a little drink of something. I'm not sure when we started this, but it has definitely become an annual fixture now. In fact, this year I will be driving all the way from Birmingham to Warwick and back on Christmas eve just to share it with her, in spite of the fact that I'll then be returning again the following day for Christmas itself (which we are holding at her house for the first time ever). But I think I will enjoy the epic journey through the still, cold wintry night as an experience in itself, and I am certainly looking forward to some (very restrained) toasting in front of her wood-burning stove. After all, Santa will just stay home if we don't raise a glass to him on his way around the world.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
This is a day late because I have been at a (very enjoyable and stimulating) conference for the past two days. It actually took place only three blocks away from my house, which makes it probably the closest-to-home conference I will ever attend for the entirety of my academic career. But I still couldn't post to LJ yesterday evening anyway, as I snuck out of the conference to go to the cinema with the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan instead - which I'll post about separately, of course.

Anyway, my favourite Christmas book is easily Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I must have read it first soon after it was published (in 1996, when I was 20), as I simply bought and read each new Discworld book as it came out in those days. In fact, I often asked for the latest one as a Christmas present from my little sister, so it seems very likely that she first gave this book to me that Christmas. Certainly, I have made a point of re-reading it around that time of year several times since I acquired it.

What I like most about it is Pratchett's explorations of the Hogfather as the result of a long process of cultural evolution - all safely-contained jollity in the present day, but with his roots in much earlier primeval festivals centred around brutal rituals of sacrifice. I already knew before I read the book that Christmas had not always been celebrated in the form I was familiar with, and had basic elements in common with mid-winter festivals from other times and cultures (not least from watching The Box of Delights as a child). But I think Hogfather gave me a much more powerful emotive understanding of Christmas as an evolving, multivalent festival, and a clearer sense of what options that opened up for me as someone who didn't believe in the teachings of Christianity, but still loved celebrating festivals and felt a sense of magic and significance around Christmas in particular. It remains a great way for me to tap into that feeling when I need to.

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strange_complex: (Lady Penelope)
Firstly, many thanks to the people who commented on my last entry in the 25 days meme to suggest effective charities working to increase access to education in the developing world. I haven't had a chance to reply to your individual comments yet, as I went to bed soon after making the post and have been either working or worrying about sofas all day today! But your suggestions have all been really helpful. It's probable that I will go with one of [ profile] the_alchemist's suggestions of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative or Deworm the World, for their combination of proven effectiveness and joined-up thinking about people's needs, but I haven't looked through the other ideas properly yet, and want to give them all a fair hearing before I decide for sure.

Meanwhile, today's entry is going up a little early, as I am going out this evening. But I'm not sure I have a massive amount to say about it anyway! Obviously I try to make gifts look reasonably enticing and attractive. I usually choose purple shiny wrapping paper if possible, though at Christmas I may go for something a bit more seasonal-looking instead. E.g. this Christmas I'll be using one roll of black paper with a pattern of white wintry trees on it, and another silver-grey one along much the same lines. I wrap the gift itself as carefully as I can, though my habit of giving a selection of chocolatey treats and candles to each member of my family each year makes this difficult. Those things are too small (in value and often size) to be wrapped individually, but they are also of different sizes and shapes, so they make for awkward bundles to wrap. I'm pretty rubbish at remembering to buy gift-tags, so my gifts often have the names written on the paper instead - but hopefully now that I've written about that here I will remember this year!

And I think that's pretty much all I have to say on this fascinating topic.

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strange_complex: (Penny coin)
I don't make a point of special charity donations at Christmas time. That's something which only really makes sense if you are a Christian, and invested in the idea of charity as a suitable way of commemorating Jesus' birth - which I am very much not. Rather, my main form of charitable giving is via monthly direct debit, because that means my donations can be counted by the cause I am supporting as part of their regular stable income stream, which most charities seem to prefer. That said, I also make ad hoc donations in response to fund-raising campaigns if I am struck by the worthiness of the cause, or do things like donate goods to charity shops or buy items whose profits go to charity as and when it suits me to do so.

The main charity which I support via monthly direct debit is the Red Cross. In all honesty, this is partly because one of their fund-raisers rang on my doorbell one day and asked me to do so. But I said "OK" rather than "Please go away" because I have huge respect for their non-partisan work in helping the victims of wars and humanitarian disasters, and very strongly wish that more human beings would behave like that instead of creating the disasters in the first place. It seems the least I can do to encourage and support the people who are working to repair damage rather than cause it. Also, I know that the Red Cross have amazing people like [ profile] sneerpout working for them, which seems like the badge of a sound organisation.

I feel like I should be supporting some kind of charity which works to provide education to people who would otherwise have poor access to it as well - e.g. people in developing countries, and especially underprivileged groups within those countries such as women and girls. I can't think of a more effective way to achieve positive improvements in people's lives - both socially and economically, and both individually and collectively - than by helping them to access a good education. If anyone has any suggestions for suitable charities which work cost-effectively and in ways that are respectful of and responsive to the real needs of the people they are helping (i.e. which don't push particular dogmas at the same time as providing charity), then please do tell me about them in a comment.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
Oh, plural form of the word 'tradition' in this title, how I love thee! Because now I can just list all my favourite traditions without having to choose between them. Here goes:
  • Buying everyone candles to mark the Saturnalia, because I can, and people indulging me over it.
  • For the thirteen years that we did it, the annual Christmas dinner with my Bristol buddies.
  • Decorating the family tree with my sister while listening to CDs of cheesy Christmas music and trying to stop the cat chasing after all the decorations.
  • Going out into my parents' frosty, wintry garden to find sprigs of greenery, berries and winter-flowering plants, slot them into a log drilled with holes which my Dad made me for the purpose and make a winter display for the top of the fireplace.
  • Helping to host a Christmas party at my parents' house, including taking charge of the mulled wine, singing carols and enjoying getting all dressed up and into the festive spirit.
  • Staying up until midnight on Christmas eve to toast in Christmas with my sister.
  • Putting sherry and mince pies out for Santa, which I still do even though we stopped having stockings any more in 2005. I'll say more about why I do that when we get to day 15, 'Do you still believe in Santa Claus?'.
  • Bringing the presents from underneath the tree and into the lounge, sorting them out into piles according to who they're for, and then taking turns for each member of the family to open one present at a time, while sipping delicious coffee and eating chocolates.
  • Having angel chimes on the table during Christmas dinner.
  • Everything about the dinner itself.
  • Setting fire to the pudding! I'm not sure when this became 'my' job, but it is now, and I love doing it.
  • Sitting around afterwards with a roaring fire in the grate, drinking more coffee and playing with new presents.
  • Watching Doctor Who.
  • Staying up late after everyone else has gone to bed watching TV and catching up on other peoples' days, and opinions of Doctor Who via the internet.
  • Going to see my oldest friend Amy and her family on Boxing Day.

Now wouldn't it have been a pity to have to choose just one of those?

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strange_complex: (Gir cupcake)
There are not actually that many specifically Christmassy desserts, are there? I mean, OK - mince pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, maybe Yule log. I can't think of any more beyond those, though.

Still, luckily for me I genuinely love Christmas pudding (and sprouts, and parsnips, and roast turkey - which makes Christmas a very good time for me all round, really). I'll admit that it sometimes seems a bit daunting after what's already been a huge Christmas meal - but that's kind of the point at Christmas, isn't it? I probably wouldn't want to eat it more than a few times a year, either. But those few times I do genuinely look forward to.

My perfect Christmas pudding is moist, rich, aromatic, fruity, and smothered in brandy butter, thick brandy cream and hot brandy sauce. If I can only have one of those, it's the brandy cream which is most important, as it is light and cool and helps to counteract the stodgy rich hot pudding.

I actually made a Christmas pudding three years ago, which I'm happy to report came out very well - genuinely one of the nicest I have ever eaten, in fact. I enjoyed doing it, and I'd love to live the kind of lifestyle where I had the time to do that every year. But it does take a lot of time and effort, and realistically a good-quality pudding from the supermarket is much better value for time, and cheaper to boot.

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strange_complex: (Snape sneer)
Obviously, in context, this means 'favourite Christmas memory'. And as other people doing this meme have said earlier today, it's a difficult one to answer, because it is in the very character of Christmas that you repeat the same things every year. That repetition makes it difficult to distinguish specific individual memories, and distorts the picture by merging different years' experiences into one.

I've always enjoyed the parties which my parents have held on either Christmas Eve itself or the 23rd December, for example, but I think the memory of those which is now in my head is a sort of amalgamation of all the best bits of all the parties we ever hosted. Since that was a good five or six of them, I don't really want to nominate any individual one of those parties as my favourite Christmas memory, because I am far from sure that the experiences I'm remembering really belong to one individual party.

So I'll go for a distinct moment which I really can remember, in large part thanks to it being recorded on my LJ. It's a quiet one, featuring me on my own, sitting up late after everyone else had gone to bed and watching Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone while wrapped up in a quilt just in front of a television turned down as low as possible in order not to disturb my mother in the bedroom immediately upstairs, while the embers in the fire sank slowly into the grate and there were copious chocolates lying on the lounge floor around me, all within easy reach.

That might not seem like a very sociable memory, but I've chosen it not just for the moment itself, but for the fact that the reason I enjoyed that experience so much was because it came after a really lovely family Christmas day, and indeed several days of festive jollity with all sorts of different family and friends beforehand. Sitting up late by myself at the end of it all, surrounded by warmth, comfort and indulgence, gave me the chance to look back over the previous few days, hug the memories to myself and appreciate how good it had all been. I was wrapped not just in my quilt, but in a hearty dose of the Christmas spirit - and that is why that moment now stands in my memory as a place which I aspire to get to at the end of every Christmas.

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