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Christmas Card from Central Park

 

A North American Christmas is a glittering affair.  I am writing this in a café/bar on the northern edge of Central Park.  The horse drawn carriages are doing a brisk business.  The blankets are thrown over the smiling passengers and the drivers are muffled up against the cold.  We have had just had the anniversary of John Lennon’s death where a crowd of dedicated fans braved the freezing temperatures to gather at the Imagine Monument.  Now that sad anniversary is out of the way, New Yorkers can concentrate on the Holidays. The season kicks off with the big Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and ends with the Ball dropping in Times Square.  By day, you will see the Christmas tree sellers on the street corners, the shoppers and the tourists are packing the sidewalks, and there is a certain spirit of excitement in the air.  By night though, the city transforms.  It is flooded by millions of electric lights decorating the shop fronts, churches, and the many Christmas trees. 
America needs Christmas this year.  The news elsewhere has been pretty depressing. 
And Americans do Christmas on a grand scale.  Elaborate decorations are festooned on the front stoop or in the front gardens and hundreds of icicle lights decorate practically every house in the neighborhood.
This would all seem alien to me if my father hadn’t traveled to
Canada in his early twenties and fell in love with the North American Christmas.

 

What is the difference between here and Britain in the celebration of Christmas?  Let us go back in time.  (Cue dreamy music and imagine the screen rippling…)

 

Okay… welcome back.

We are in Colonial America, and –quelle surprise -  the Puritans of New England disapprove of Christmas; its celebration is outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Remember, it's this lot who close the theatres tear, down the Globe and cut off the head of the British King.(Okay, may be Americans aren't so concerned about that last action.)At the same time, residents of Virginia (British) and New York (Dutch) celebrate the holiday freely. Christmas falls out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it is now considered an English custom.

By the 1820s, British writers are worrying that Christmas is dying out. They imagine Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts are made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol is published in 1843, playing a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess.  I guess that argument is still going on today.

Back to America, and during the early part of the 19th century, interest in Christmas is revived by several short stories by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", which depicts harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions Irving claims to have observed in England. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol also becomes hugely popular in the States and today is the most performed Christmas show in the in the country.
Christmas is declared a
U.S. federal holiday in 1870.

 

In early Victorian England, Father Christmas is a Post-Reformation English equivalent of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas reference and ecclesiastical trappings completely removed. He is portrayed as a giant, wearing a scarlet or green fur-lined robe, has a crown of holly, ivy or mistletoe, carries a Yule log and a bowl of punch. He distributes gifts on Christmas Eve. The "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, 1843, is Father Christmas.
 

 

 The big symbol of Christmas in America is Santa Claus.  It is a variation of a Dutch folk tale based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of December 6. He becomes associated with Christmas in 19th century America, and is gradually renamed Santa Claus or Saint Nick. In 1812, Washington Irving writes of Saint Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”  
The connection between Santa Claus and Christmas is popularized by the 1822 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, which depicts Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and distributing gifts to children. The popular image of Santa Claus is created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who draws a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa has evolved into the form we now recognize. The image is standardized by advertisers in the 1920s, most famously by the Coca Cola Company.
The Christmas Tree is bought over and made popular by, once again, the German Immigrants from whose country it originated. 

After the war,
Britain’s Christmases were by necessity frugal affairs, so it took a bit of time for the excesses of the American Christmas to cross the Atlantic.   However, like the American Halloween, it is gradually and inevitably being assimilated into the UK culture.

 

There is a new film out called The Nativity which depicts the story of Christ’s birth.  The young sixteen year old actress playing the Virgin Mary became pregnant just as the film was being publicized to coincide with its Rome opening.  This tickled me for some strange  reason.  I wanted to give it a new title: The Naiveté or Immaculate Misconception!

 

For me Christmas is dangerously retrospective.  I like to think of it as a celebration of faith.  Not religious necessarily, but a faith that is powerful and deep-seated; a belief in yourself and in the world’s life force.

Faith was demonstrated to me very strongly some years ago. This is a true story.
Yes, let’s cue that music and ripple the screen again.

 

An actor is waiting for his wife to come back from rehearsals.  She has the lead in a new tour.  He is going over lines for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which he starts in a week’s time.  The phone rings.  He is surprised to hear the voice of the father of his step-son’s girlfriend. The father tells him he has some bad news. 
The actor’s wife has a grown-up son.  The son is a troubled soul. He has dabbled in drugs, but now his big problem is alcohol.  It triggers off a huge destructive personality change and memories of old nightmarish LSD trips.  The actor was concerned, but has been relieved in the last few months as the new girlfriend has seemingly brought about a stabilization of the drinking. 
The girlfriend’s father explains that his daughter had walked out on the son the previous night after the son had got dunk and had become abusive.  The father says that, for some reason, he just had a bad feeling and on a whim went over to the son’s flat to check up on him.  There was no answer, so he let himself in with his daughter’s keys.  In the bedroom he found the son. He was hanging by a belt from the post of his loft bed.  The father pulled him down.  The son was motionless.  When the ambulance arrived they said he was in a coma and he was rushed to the hospital.  The father says the doctors aren’t saying too much to him as he’s not family, but the first indications are not encouraging. The actor thanks the father and says he will keep him in touch with the son’s progress.  Looking at his watch, he sees that it is an hour before his wife finishes rehearsals.  His brother has dropped by for a visit, so he enlists his help.  They drive into the city to meet her.  The wife’s first reaction is joy that her husband has come to pick her up. His brother takes over the driving. He sits with her in the back seat and breaks the terrible news.  They arrive at the hospital and are immediately met by a doctor.  He tells them that the son is in a coma and his condition is critical  He has no idea how long he had been hanging from the post.  He believes he is unlikely to awake, and even if he does, he is very probably going to be in a vegetive state.  The wife just shakes her head and announces she is staying at the hospital.  The doctor takes the husband to one side and explains that the wife must eventually be made to realize the reality of the situation.  Her son was not going to live and if he did he was coming back severely mentally impaired and forever bound to a wheelchair.  The husband thanks the doctor for his honesty. 

 

Later that night he relays the doctor’s prognosis of the son’s condition.  The wife reacts angrily saying “no”, over and over.  She fiercely tells her husband that her son was going to be fine.  The next two nights the son’s condition remains critical. He lays in a deep coma.  A bed is made up for the mother the floor above.  From the window she can look down toward the room in which her son lies motionless.  She spends hours by his bedside, constantly talking to him, holding his lifeless hand.  On the third night, at 4am, she awakes with a start.  She has an overwhelming rush of energy and the knowledge that something is happing to her son. She looks out of the window. The lights are on in her son’s hospital room.  She rushes down the stairs.  When she enters the room her son’s eyes are open. When he sees her, he smiles. 
Over the next week, the son’s condition improves remarkably.  All the time, the wife and mother is by his side talking about any subject she can think of. 
At the end of the week, the son is discharged.  He walks out, thoroughly detoxed and looking a thousand times better before his suicide attempt.  The doctor speaks to the father and tells him with wonderment in his voice that they had several hanging attempts come into the hospital over the past two years. They either died, or were crippled. The son was the first to walk out healthier than he arrived.  The father retells this to the wife.
“Doctors don’t know everything, especially what goes on between a mother and son.  Oh ye of little faith!”

 

Let’s come forward in time…to October this year.

I am sitting in a place called The Tea Lounge.  It's a very cool laid back café in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  It is basically one huge room filled with big comfortable chairs and sofas.  One corner is filled with a counter which serves coffee, tea and small snacks and salads.  In the evening it opens up into a small bar.  The only daylight comes through the big double doorway, which gives the place a dark cozy moley feeling.  Not ideal for Summer, but perfect for a wet and slightly chilly Autumnal day.  Enhancing the autumnal feel is the orange and brown color scheme on the walls and the smooth jazz playing over the sound system.  The people here are all young professionals in their twenties and thirties.  A few of them are mothers or fathers with their preschool children.  I sip my earl grey tea and in this moment. I am content.  It is good to be back on the Slope!

 

The trip to Canada was worth the effort.  For my current relationship and for the audition for the Shaw Festival.  The train journey is even longer at the moment because of work they are doing on the tracks.  It took about 16 hours from New York to Toronto.  Long Distance Relationships are pretty unsatisfying and difficult, but that seems to have been the nature of our relationship from the beginning.  She is now in her second year of university.  I envy her in many ways. One of her courses this term is the history of English literature.  On one of her school days I sat-in in one of her lectures.  It was about The Canterbury Tales, which of course Aquila are doing as one their shows.  The lecturer was an enthusiastic lady in her sixties.  I listened to her speaking with the Middle accent and was intrigued at the definite Scandinavian lilt to the vowels and intonation.  Aquila's Canterbury Tales is more likely to have Long Island and London intonation, and with many fart jokes thrown in for good measure. 
 On my first morning in
Toronto I had my audition for the Shaw Festival Theatre.  I had to prepare two monologues, which I haven't had to do since...well, since my last audition for the Shaw three years ago.  The brief was that one of them had to be from the era in which Shaw lived, which is the same as the programme for the Shaw.  I did a monologue from Jekyll & Hyde and that allowed me explain the interesting concept behind the show,(read Rhythm of the Gods) and a speech from Oleanna.  Whilst I was performing my party piece, they read my résumé and my letter. When I finished I was relieved to see that they were smiling.  It seems that my commitment to marrying a Canadian had made a difference.  I sat and chatted happily for five minutes.  I'm not sure they were looking for anyone specific, but, you never know...

 

 

 

 

So there I was... on the corner of Lexington and 57th the 31st Floor, in this penthouse corner office with this amazing view of New York and the East River.  The New Vic and Newcastle-under-Lyme seemed a long way a way.  New York on a Friday afternoon was just a cauldron of money-making energy.  On top of the World, Ma!  How I came to be there was a series of steps.

 
Step one: I saw an ad in this online listing called Craig's List.  This is the main source for all apartment letting, subletting and room sharing in
New York, Queens, Bronx and Brooklyn.  It also has a jobs section.  Handy really, because that is exactly what I'm pursuing.  The apartment hunt has begun too as I'm homeless in three weeks, but things tend to be last minute in this city. So a job is first on the list.  Now most of the jobs are not of the acting kind, but there is a small section where they do advertise.  I wouldn't hold out much hope of anything worthwhile except that three years ago I applied for a job to a company who were looking for a British War Correspondent... or an actor who could play one.  Much to my surprise they saw me and gave me the job.  And this was when I was carted off to Colorado to shoot a top secret in-house training film for NATO.  What I neglected to tell them at the time is that I HATE any kind of loud noise or explosion.  Since the whole thing was set in a theatre of War, this was something of a handicap...but I am getting away from the point.  The point being that I received a great paycheck for this traumatic experience.  So I suppose things have been pretty good recently as I have had no reason to look at Craig's List since that time.  Now, however, it's back to what I call Black & White world. And so…

 

Step 2:  I go to an audition for one day of filming.  The only description is a man in his forties.  The audition goes well, I think. I give them American and English accents.  They ask me to lose my temper in the read scene.  I call them "Cunts" and this seems to go down well because that evening:...

 

Step Three:  I receive the call that I have the job.  And so hence to the office of the big chief of an online trading company.  He has a TV built into the wall, a big oak desk and a picture of himself, his Asian wife and children, posing with the Rolling Stones who seem to be personal friends.  The advertising company who is employing me is working on a pitch to the online trading company. They have been asked to come up with a number of ideas.  My particular scenario is playing a customer who has come to discuss his stocks with his unhelpful brokers - so very different from our online trading company -  and is patronized.  In slow motion he loses his temper.  I therefore spent the afternoon calling the actor in front of me every Anglo-Saxon swear word I could think of.  At one point my language was so strong that the producer began to worry that we would upset the rest of the workers in the offices where we were shooting -  not that were that many working on this Friday afternoon.  It was wonderful drama therapy for me and a couple of hundred bucks for my trouble which will pay the rent this week.

 

Alright, off to bed.  I'm going to the first night of a new play in the West Village with my agent Honey on Sunday night.  It's my first socializing for nearly two weeks.  The rest has been cereal, pasta with pesto, water, typing, Microsoft Office, auditioning and scanning the horizon for jobs and apartments.
It'll be exciting to have a little color for an evening. I think I'll wear a suit...  To compliment my new found cheekbones.

 

More ripples across the screen…we travel forward to December

 

Well…

… to the contrary.  Not well. 

I’ve been sick.  It started on Saturday night.  I have moved to Queens… the same area where the police on the Friday night had fired 50 rounds into a car filled with four unarmed black men and killed a groom on the eve of his wedding.
Yes, there’s a different atmosphere to
Queens
Your walk from the subway takes you through
Greece and outdoor café’s with overhead heaters; and on through Little Egypt and smoke-filled Hookah bars; to a dark apartment which I am subletting an equally dark room off my good friends Erica and David; and their two cats. I don’t know if they’re trying to tell me something but the cat litter is placed right outside my door! For those in the UK, if Park Slope was Hempstead, then this is Peckham!

I had escaped the area to meet a friend in the city.  I had a sore throat, so I took a couple of painkillers and later washed them down with a pint of Guinness.  Later that night I had planned to go over to the Slope to attend my friend David Dunford’s annual seven course gourmet meal. It goes on through the night. The first course usually arrives at 10pm.  This year it wasn’t starting until 9.30pm. To kill time, I went and saw the film of The History Boys.  It has a good script, nice performances, but was shot with the quality of a 1970s porn movie.
It became obvious during the movie I wasn’t going to make it to Dave’s Dinner.  I became feverish, my head was aching, my throat was sore and I felt sick.  I made it through the movie and then struggled home on the subway, through a nightmarish nighttime Greek and Little Egypt world.  I said a quick hello to Dave and excused myself grabbing a bowl from the kitchen.  I then proceeded to throw up through the night.  I tried to speed the process up by watching the Ashes on the Internet. For American and Canadian readers, the Ashes is  a cricket Test Match series featuring
England playing Australia. The match has over a hundred years of history and is always played with intense competition… except this year; it seems that the England cricket team had decided that competing was just…well too intense.  They played unbelievably badly.  So watching it didn’t help the way I was feeling. 
I finally got to sleep at
8am the next morning.  Sunday was dire.  But I did sleep ten hours on Sunday night. I felt a lot better on Monday and had to go out today for an audition.  I was weak and still had a sore throat which also gave me painful earache – really, is this interesting?  I don’t think it is the done thing to go into illness details -  You know what it’s like when you’ve been ill, everything is seen through a grey haze.  Today it just seemed the world is closing in and fighting with my back to the wall.  So to get myself in shape for the audition I walked through Central park, which despite the grey filter was still ridiculously romantic, and after the audition I went to St Patrick’s and lit a candle. Things worked because I have a callback for tomorrow. 
Iago in
Salt Lake City.  I nearly fell over in the audition because the director spoke to me.
“What’s your take on Iago?” 
Initially startled, I then processed his voice and realized he was English. It all began to make sense.  I muttered some feeble answer like: ‘that’s a deep question, but you have to know why he does what he does -  no one else need know, but you must.”  He asked me if I had done the play before.  I said that I had, but it hadn’t been wholly satisfactory as I had been filling in for someone (I thought it politic to say so) and then dangerously told them how I incorporated Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into Iago’s “What’s he then that says I play the villain?” soliloquy, but prefaced the description by saying it was probably a reaction to being shoehorned into the role.  

Anyway we’ll see how tomorrow goes.  It’s the same run length as Oleanna… something my agent Honey could live with. 
What she might have more trouble living with is that
Aquila has asked me to come and talk with them about their plans for the New Year on Friday.  She hates me being out of the city for any length of time.
The upshot is I fought back a little today, but feel pretty un-brave and the city seemed overwhelming today. Last night I was hoping for a good night’s sleep, but I slept fitfully, waking up nearly every hour with different worry dreams. The one I remember is being attacked in the dark but three viscous big black dogs, then somebody threw the light switch and they turned out to be three small black puppies.  Go figure, Mr.  Freud.

 

Back home now and just about to venture out to say hello to my landlords who I was surprised hadn’t painted a red cross over the bedroom door and gone past singing ‘Bring out your dead!”

 

In an email my mother wrote - wistfully I thought - that perhaps it might have been better if my brother Robin or I had turned out to be gay.  I talked to Robin very candidly about the gay thing. 
“Yeah, but the thought of someone putting a willie up my bottom…”

“But Rob, it doesn’t have to be that way, you could be alpha male and be the one doing the penetrating…”

“But doesn’t it have to be reciprocal?”

To which of course the only reply can be…

 

“I’ll be buggered if I do that.”

 

 

One of the main added attractions of doing Oleanna in the UK in the summer was that it put me in close proximity to my ailing father.  In March of last year, after years of strokes, failing health, gradual immobility and periods of hospitalization, he was admitted to a nursing home,  The doctor’s prognosis was not encouraging. He was diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, amongst many other things.  He certainly seemed to be in another world for the first few months he was in the home. 
Eventually my indefatigable stepmother Pat demanded that he be seen by a specialist. The specialist said my father didn’t have Parkinson’s and took him off the prescribed drugs. The effect was immediate. On my first visit there I could hold a conversation with him without any problem – well unless you call the old woman across the room singing to her self, or the old, highly intelligent gentleman who now felt compelled to sit on the floor and drag himself across the home’s lounge, a problem.  On my first visit, after being with my father for over an hour, I said goodbye and told him he had to get out of there.  I implored him to make an effort. He had to show them on his own.  This would be especially difficult not only because of his immobility, but also that the word dementia was on his record.  They already thought he was an idiot. 
My visits to him continued over the summer and were painful, but I was encouraged that there was a twinkle in his eyes and that his skin had lost the deathly pale whiteness.

Christmas I will always associate with my father.  As I said, he was a changed man over Christmas.  My father was not an easy man. He was over six foot tall, strict and terrifying, and physical punishment was the normal way matters were dealt with in our childhood.  He was also very careful with his money. He had been a war child and had endured the rationing that followed in the nineteen forties and fifties. 
However at Christmas, all that changed, 
His Canadian experience of Xmas had a lasting impact on him.  He would start shopping for presents in September.  The Christmas tree would be enormous and festooned with at least five sets of lights and laden down with decorations. Santa would bring a sack of toys and the presents under the tree took up half of the room.  There was huge amounts of food, sweets, Christmas cake and my stepmother Pat’s delicious mince pies.
Late at night he would sit in his chair and stare at the tree, listening to Christmas music.  In his hand he would hold a Canadian Whiskey with Ginger Ale, topped with ice and a slice of orange. As he stared at the flashing lights, he would smile and his eyes sometimes would fill up with tears. It was the one time of the year I glimpsed the boy that my father had once been.  Perhaps he glimpsed it too.

 

So let us come up to date… the final ripple of the screen… to a week ago…
I held the phone in disbelief.  My stepmother had told me the news and I didn’t quite believe it.  My father’s condition had improved so radically that he was going home! 
There would a team of carers to help Pat look after him through the day, and if she needed a break he would be admitted to the nursing home whilst she was away.  He couldn’t walk very well, but he could get himself up on his feet and he could move a little.  She then handed the phone to my father. He sounded the same as he sounded ten years earlier. He was animated and mischevious. He was excited to hear that I was going to Canada for Christmas.

“It’s God’s Own Country,” he said dreamily.
He then talked about his visit there in great detail. He cracked jokes.  He asked about my life, showing concern for my well-being.
“How do you feel about being back home?” I asked excitedly.
My father sighed.

“I’m out of jail.”
I could only listen and smile. 
My God! He got himself back.

I will think of him this Christmas whilst I am in the snows of
Northern Ontario, knowing he would enjoy the snow.  He already told me that all I needed to combat the -15 to -40 temperatures was a pair of ear-muffs.  I will think of him looking at his tree with his Christmas music playing, and a glass of  Rye and Dry in hand.

 

Yes, faith has a strong power and miracles don’t just happen on 34th Street.

 

Merry Christmas to you all.

 

 

 Summer 2006