It seems bizarre to me that book shopping at this time of year should be about negotiating your way through mountainous piles of ‘Things You Never Knew About…’ or ‘The Book of Absolutely Useless…’ -type miscellanies. Surely Christmas, with its long, lazy afternoons and that strange week of limbo between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, is the perfect opportunity to get stuck into those weighty tomes you’d normally only have time to read on a long summer holiday? By the time you’ve shelled out a tenner for some flimsy collation of trivia to go in your beloved’s stocking (absolutely useless, indeed), you may as well have spent the extra few quid and bought one of the many genuine titles gasping for attention underneath the Truss and Schott ziggurats out there.
This season, when even the fiercely agnostic may find themselves subconsciously singing along to familiar biblical passages in the form of Christmas carols, I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography (Atlantic Books, £16.99). This is a fascinating exploration of the origins of the most widely circulated and influential book in history. Revised, interpreted, re-interpreted, then revised again so frequently that its meanings mutate in every slight shift of historical circumstance, the Good Book still has the potential to do such bad. By asking the question ‘if religion preaches compassion, why is there so much hatred in sacred texts?’ Armstrong, a former nun and prolific religious historian, unpicks one of the vital questions of our time.
Martin Meredith’s Gold, Diamonds and War: The Making of South Africa (Simon & Schuster, £25) is an equally riveting read. In this follow up to his monumental The State of Africa, Meredith argues that what characterises much of the modern country we call South Africa was shaped by the events of the nineteenth century; not least the rise of its fortunes from gold and diamonds, the steady dispossession of African land, and the enforcement of segregationist measures that eventually culminated in apartheid. With elections coming up in 2009 and one of the great triumphs of the last century, the country’s transition to stable democracy, looking depressingly more fragile as the ANC tears itself apart, this is an important offering from a historian with more than forty years of experience on this most beautiful and beleaguered of continents.
After a disappointing cinematic year, when a handful of movies such as The Lives of Others, Control and Atonement shone out as beacons among a lot of dross, it’s cheering to know that a clutch of excellent films are on their way. I was particularly moved at a screening this week of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the film based on former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, which was first published as Le Scaphandre et le Papillion two days after the author’s death in 1997. With a skilfully adapted French screenplay by Oscar-winning playwright Ronald Harwood, Julian Schnabel’s deeply affecting film conveys cinematically the world as viewed through Bauby (played by the superb Mathieu Almaric)’s blinking left eye, the only part of his body left physically functioning after a massive stroke, and the means by which he managed to communicate his experience of existing in the rare ‘locked-in syndrome’. I cried my own eyes out.
Talking about tears: if you are not one of the smug few with tickets to Michael Grandage’s production of Othello (or one of the crazed devotees willing to shell out thousands for a pair on eBay), get thee down to the Donmar Warehouse and start queuing for one of the ten precious tickets being released by the box office at 10.30 each morning. This outstanding production – which was sold out before the cast even started rehearsing – contains an electrifying central performance by Chiwitel Ejiofor, and I will certainly be fighting for another chance to see it before the run ends in February. Ewan McGregor’s diminutive Iago is subtly malicious; Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona sweet and capricious; and the 26-year-old Tom Hiddleston is a revelation as Cassio – a notoriously tough part to make interesting, let alone empathetic, as Hiddleston does. After a slew of trendy West End Shakespeare that has deployed various forms of modern dress and setting, it was something of a relief to watch Grandage’s simple take on this most complex of plays: beautifully restrained lighting, minimal sets, and classic doublet-and-hose meant that nothing modishly conceptual or aesthetic could detract from the pure brilliance, and devastation, of the play itself. My skin still prickles at the memory of Ejiofor’s entrance into Act V Scene II: ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul…’
Meanwhile, on the subject of the soul: Ludus Baroque, a period-music group, are providing a rare opportunity to hear Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio in its entirety at the Canongate Kirk on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Starting at 6.30 on Friday 14th December, they are performing all six cantatas in one evening with a 75-minute dinner break in between. As a self-professed Bach-nut this is my idea of sheer heaven, and even makes the prospect of the long slog up to Edinburgh bearable. I just hope the idea catches on and inspires others to do the full-length Oratorio more often. In the meantime, there’s always the trusty Messiah: my Handel fix this year will be coming on 21st December in the form of the Belmont Ensemble and the English Chamber Choir in London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields.
The musical event I am most looking forward to this festive season, however, has got to be The Melodi Ensemble, who are playing a free lunchtime concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Christmas Eve. The groundbreaking Melodi Music Trust provides opportunities for disadvantaged children in Soweto to read, write, and learn music; giving them a better chance in life. The ensemble will be performing a mix of classical, Christmas and traditional African music and should help to put the luxurious excesses of the season into some sort of perspective, as well as providing a glorious afternoon’s entertainment. That starts at 12.30, after which there’ll be just enough time to finish wrapping presents and scoff a couple of mince pies before heading off to the Tower of London, where my friends and family have developed an annual ritual of attending Midnight Mass and singing our hearts out as Christmas Day breaks across the country.
Happy holidays one and all!