Tidings – A Christmas Journey

Tidings – A Christmas Journey

Title: Tidings – A Christmas Journey 

Author: Ruth Padel 

Review by Robert Selby 

 

Ruth Padel’s book-length Christmas poem Tidings is narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, a good listener and keeper of secrets who is given voice for the ‘twenty four strange hours’ of Christmas when ‘everything hidden / comes alive’, including sometimes an ‘unspoken longing to be given / something more by life’. Charoum narrates these tidings to us but is not embodied within them, though occasionally he guides – with his ethereal wiles – their central character, a rough sleeper named Robin, on his odyssey through London on Christmas Night.

At 14 Robin ran away from home and an alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather, and now, at 44, sleeps under a garden shed near St Pancras Old Church. In this way, and in his avoidance of people (‘he’s quarrelled with the world’), he leads a fox-like, marginal existence, and indeed his sole companion is a vixen that he has tamed. Padel’s depiction of St Pancras Old Church carolling on Christmas Eve, and Robin outside listening, is especially emblematic of the poem’s pleasingly unfashionable openness to the potential for spirituality within tradition and the naïve good of Christmas:

May this church

on its dark hill spark-strung with golden windows

and humming with Europe’s sweetest, oldest songs,

pass through his lonely fears to buried dreams

and kindle some unburnt thing in him that longs

to change.

The priest reminds the congregation that ‘The Holy Family were travellers / turned away and sleeping rough’ and that ‘our patron, Saint Pancras, / was an immigrant to Rome’ from ‘Phrygia – next door to Syria’. Later, we are again reminded that the Holy Family became, thanks to Herod, ‘refugees, seeking asylum’. An epilogue section depicts Christmas Day dawning over New York City and sparkling on the Statue of Liberty’s ‘torch-welcome to immigrants’ and the bronze letters of the 1883 sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on the statue’s pedestal, paraphrased by Padel as ‘Send me your homeless. Yearning to breathe free.’ Charoum declares ‘let that hope shine on’, and while this sentiment’s declaration is especially justified at Christmas time, a time – lest we forget – of charity and goodwill to all, there is a risk the reader is left wishing that, if nods to contemporary world events had to be made, they were made more subtly as inferences within the narrative of Robin and his fox.

Their narrative truly gets going when Charoum intervenes as they shelter out of the Christmas Night rain under Blackfriars Bridge. The angel communicates to Robin to ‘let the fox lead you to sanctuary and shelter’. From then on, the fox is Robin’s guiding star, navigating him through the sleety, then snowy night (‘half-blind / with ice-crust on his lashes’) not to a lowly cattle shed but to a Crisis Centre. The goodwill here must be reciprocal: a hot bath, hot food and clean sheets are available to him, provided by those startling people who not only remember that ‘Christmas / is [..] not looking away from suffering’ but who also do something to help alleviate it, while Robin for his part must overcome his fox-like urge to flee, for he has gone years without talking to another person and ‘one careless glance at him can drown / his soul in anger’. Does he push open the Centre’s door and step inside? You will have to read Tidings to find out, and also to learn how the narratives of Robin, his fox, and a little girl called Holly, converge in this wonderful poem’s penultimate and most festively magical section.

One final thing: it is Christmas morning that brings out the best in Padel’s writing. This is a time when we ‘might gaze at this bent world / with a blaze of hope / from absolutely nowhere’; the garden blanketed with snow is ‘what whispering would look like / if you drew it.’ From Charoum’s lofty perspective, the ‘River Thames looks like a platinum ribbon’ and

the frosted spikes

of Gherkin, Cheesegrater and Shard

rise into paling cloud. The Eye is motionless:

a filigree wheel, jutting into sky as if to cage

the brightening arc of corona rays,

magenta, rose, lemon, before we see the sun.

If you’re still seeking a way into the festive spirit, read Ruth Padel’s lyrically beautiful and lavishly presented Christmas poem. Merry Christmas to one and all.

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, is – as every year – running Christmas centres throughout London and the UK. You can donate here.

Review by Robert Selby

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