Category Archives: Christmas

How do you beat the January blues? Easy. Forget the weather and escape into a good book…

The night before Christmas. In a few hours, all the decorations will be gone…

Last night was Twelfth night*, officially the end of the Christmas holidays, and traditionally today is the day that the decorations are brought down. It’s always a sad time, and I hate that job more than any other household chore. Christmas is such a happy, joyous occasion in our family that when the decs are finally boxed and returned to the attic, the house always feels bare and lifeless, and the festivities seem like such a long way away. 
As I write this post, yet another storm is about to hammer through London, adding to the gloom of the season. The pretty, wintry, fantastical scenes on the Christmas cards which will no longer deck the halls as of tonight are just that, it seems. Fantasy. 
Is it any wonder, then, that we all seem to fall into a bit of a funk at this time of year? With months to go until the first signs of spring (although I did spot Hot Cross Buns in the supermarket yesterday. Too soon, Sainsbury’s. Too, too soon), the prospect of going back to work after the long break and no sign yet of the days lengthening, there appears to be little to look forward to in January and February. 
But in a way, it is also one of my favourite times of the year. Why? Because I seem to do more reading in January and February than at any other time of year. I hadn’t realised this fact until recently, when I looked back on last year’s reading. I got through more books in the first couple of months of 2013 than I did in any other period, and with the beginning of this year promising plenty of opportunities to read, I’m looking forward to another bumper period of reading. 
And who can blame me, eh? What better way to forget about the absence of festivities, the appalling weather and the January blues than to escape it all within the pages of a good novel? 
It’s a magical thing that happens when you open a book and become consumed in the story and characters within. I love the escapism that it affords you. 
Last year, I got a bumper crop of new books for Christmas, but I began my reading year with a classic that I’d never read before – Oliver Twist.  Despite the fact that the weather and atmosphere in Twist is just as frightful as that outside (if not more so), it was wonderful to share in an adventure taking part in a world far removed from my own. It was thrilling, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to start every year by reading a classic. This year it’s Dickens again – I’m about to get stuck in to Great Expectations. A story I know very well from popular culture (and some excellent film and television adaptations), but remarkably, I’ve never read. It’s a book I know I’m going to love. 

When I’d finished with Oliver, I immediately got stuck into another great book, then another and another. As the bitterly cold weather clung on into March and April, I treasured the opportunities it gave me to do nothing other than check where my bookmark had left me.

A book at bedtime…my winter blues-busters.
Whatever the weather this year, I’ll be doing a lot of travelling over the coming weeks, and instead of fearing those long journeys to and from work, I’m looking forward to the perfect opportunity to enter another world. This may sound odd to many, but I’ve missed my morning and evening commute of late and I’m actually looking forward to getting that reading time back!
Books are an important part of this time of the year for me. By Spring, the opportunities to read will be diminishing. The garden will need tending, the social calendar will get busier, and the better weather always gets us out and about more; walking, cycling and days out all taking up time that in January and February seem to call me to reading. So I’m going to treasure this time, and make the most of it.
So if, this season, you find yourself feeling down and dreary, forlorn now the tinsel and bunting are about to disappear, why not do what I do, and make the most of it? Batten down the hatches, pull up the duvet and get stuck in to a good read…it will make the wait for Spring so much more pleasurable.  
Any excuse, eh?!
(*Or tonight is, depending on which tradition you follow. In my household, Christmas Eve night is every inch the start of Christmas time, so it counts in my book, even if it does mean taking the decorations down a day earlier.)

P.S. I can’t mention the weather in this post in such a light-hearted way without referring to the awful situation the weather is creating on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment. With the bitter cold and snow in the US and Canada, and the severe flooding here in the UK, I know many out there are suffering, or fearing the worst, and if anyone reading this is affected, please know that my thoughts are with you, and I hope that you remain safe, and you’re able to keep warm and dry. 

Weihnachten

With Christmas just around the corner, and complement our review of 2012 (see the Facebook page or Twitter to catch up on the highlights) I thought I’d share with you an excerpt from Pegasus Falling set during the winter of 1944. 
It’s not your usual Christmas story involving elves and reindeer, gifts under the tree and carol singers. It’s probably not the kind of thing you’d want to read if you’re expecting a warm, cosy story. In fact, it’s rather bleak. But in a way, there is an element of the Christmas message in here, thanks to the brave and honourable action our hero takes. 
In Chapter 2 we find Sammy Parker, a British Paratrooper captured in Arnhem, incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. There, he witnesses the full horrors of the final solution. As winter sets in, the suffering is exacerbated and Sammy tries bravely to help his fellow inmates. But one evening, he finds himself unexpectedly summoned to the camp commandant’s office where he is horrified to find out what is going on away from the main camp…

Sammy and Doctor Rhadski worked together in the small storeroom sterilising the instruments, grateful for the opportunity to huddle close to the hot water boiler. The cold northerly winds now sweeping down across the north German plain brought the first flurries of fine dry snow which blew like salt across the compound, driven by the icy gusts. They had listened stoically to the news on their illicit radio, that a German offensive had smashed the American front in the Ardennes and halted the Allied advance, adding perhaps a further six months to the war and as Christmas approached Sammy wondered how much longer he could sustain himself in these conditions. His health had suffered from the effects of the cold and poor diet and Karl had allowed him to move his bunk into the dispensary to spare him the nightly ordeal of shivering, sleepless in his freezing cell. Yet compared to the inmates of the main camp he knew he was living in comparative luxury. He looked at the doctor. His eyes gazed hopelessly out of a cadaverous face and his breathing became ever more strained. Sammy tried to share his meagre rations with him but he invariably declined.
    ‘It is important that you survive, my son.’ He wheezed painfully. ‘You must live to tell them about this place and what they did. Good Germans must know and understand what has been done in their name.’
    ‘But if you don’t eat you will die and that is foolish. The war will soon be over, Germany will need men like you.’
    The old man smiled. ‘I am dying already, it would be foolish of me to take food from you and put you at risk.’
    ‘You are being foolish and stubborn,’ said Sammy. ‘You’re not dying, you are killing yourself.’
    ‘You are a good man, Sammy. You remind me of some English friends I had before the war, good people. Our two sons were as close as brothers.’
    ‘You were in England?’
    ‘I have visited England, of course, but no, these were doctors from London whom I met at the university in Heidelberg. We were post-grads there. I fell in love with the woman. We were lovers for a while, until her Englander arrived.’ He shrugged and gave his wheezy laugh.
    Sammy touched his arm. ‘You will see them again, Rudi, I promise, but you must eat.’
    The old man looked at Sammy affectionately. ‘No Sammy, I shall not survive the winter. I have TB.’
    Sammy looked at him sadly. ‘How can you be so sure?’
    ‘I’m a doctor, for God’s sake, but it’s rife in the camp, and there is dysentery and pneumonia. The consequence of all this good living, I guess.’ He tried to laugh again. ‘You know it’s ironic, but the gas chambers are a merciful release for most of us.’ Sammy looked away, chastened by the old man’s suffering.
    The klaxon sounded for the evening roll call. Sammy gazed through the window of the dispensary at the shivering prisoners huddled together in groups on the arctic Appellplatz. He knew the SS guards would keep them there until they almost froze, before returning them to the main camp for the night. He saw Rudi, his hands tucked under his folded arms, coughing into the icy wind and as he watched he felt the bitter tears of frustration running down his face. He turned wearily and slumped into a chair. He felt crushed by despair at his impotence in the face of such infamy. Suddenly the door burst open to admit two SS guards.
    ‘Komm, Englander, on your feet, the boss wants to see you, now.’
    ‘What for, what does he want?’
    ‘You don’t ask the questions here, you piece of shit, you just do as you are told. Now move it, nobody keeps Gräber waiting.’
    He was taken under escort to the commandant’s office. He wondered what he had done. Perhaps Gräber had discovered he was sleeping in the dispensary instead of freezing in his cell. He determined to brazen it out.
    Gräber pointed to a chair. ‘Setzen Sie sich.’ He looked at Sammy, his cold shark’s eyes expressionless. ‘Do you know what today is, Captain Parker?’
    Sammy held his gaze. ‘No, and why should I care?’
    Still unsmiling, Gräber said, ‘It is Weihnacht, Das Christfest, the last of the war.’
    Sammy smiled broadly then said softly, ‘Geronimo.’
    ‘What did you say?’
    ‘It doesn’t matter.’
    Gräber smiled. ‘You don’t understand, my friend, the Wehrmacht will be in Antwerp within the week. Von Ründstedt’s Panzers have smashed through the American lines in the Ardennes, the allies are in full retreat and our secret V weapons are levelling Paris, Brussels and London to the ground as we speak.’ He rose and walked to a large wall cabinet. He lifted a large stone flask and poured thick yellow Korn schnapps into two glasses and offered one to Sammy.
    He raised his glass. ‘Sieg Heil. To victory.’
    Sammy smiled. ‘I’ll drink to that.’
    Gräber laughed aloud. ‘Come, my friend, let us go and eat.’
    ‘Eat?’ Sammy echoed with some surprise and followed as the SS man made off into a connecting room.
    Several SS officers were standing round a table laden with a dazzling variety of delicacies looted from the occupied countries. Polish ham, Norwegian herring, smoked salmon and pâté de foie gras from France, lobster and langoustine and Viennese pastries. Sammy’s gaze fell upon a woman dressed in the uniform of the SS. It was clear she had been beautiful once. Her thick blonde hair framed a finely boned face which was now growing plump. She had a dissolute appearance, her expression vacant. He thought she was probably drunk. ‘Be careful, Liebchen,’ Gräber laughed, ‘I think our guest fancies you.’ Turning to Sammy he said, ‘Allow me to introduce my adjutant, Leutnant Höchst, but watch yourself Captain, die schöne Gisele eats men like you for breakfast, don’t you, meine Süss?’ He bent to kiss her. She gazed up at Sammy, leering stupidly. ‘Meine Kameraden!’ Gräber addressed the gathering. ‘It is Christmas, the last of this war, for Germany is on its way to final victory. So in the spirit of magnanimity to a gallant enemy, I have invited our gallant British Bulldog and…’ He tapped his nose with his finger, winking suggestively. ‘…friend of Churchill’s daughter, to celebrate with us.’ He paused, grinning. ‘Before we return him to his kennel, that is.’ They all laughed heartily and sycophantically. ‘Come, Captain Parker, eat.’
    Sammy looked at the assembled company. They stood around, arrogant, loud and contemptuously self-assured in their leather and steel. He looked at the repast laid out before them and thought of the conditions barely a kilometre away in the compound. The cold, the hunger, the disease, the hopelessness and the assurance of a painful, unjust and premature death at the hands of these philistines. He turned his gaze finally to Gräber. Slowly and deliberately he turned his glass over, causing the yellow liquor to patter noisily onto the carpet. ‘I don’t think I care to,’ he hissed. ‘It is enough that I have to witness your sickening barbarities every day, listen to the cries of children and see the hopelessness in the faces of their elders as they try to ease what’s left of their short miserable lives, to watch the casual beatings and murder of people who have done no more than try to survive this hell. What I will not do is share any of this loot with you.’ He flicked his hand contemptuously at the assembled officers. ‘Or these shitbags.’ He placed the glass on the table and wiped his hands on his jacket as though trying to remove all witness of contact with his captors. He scowled at them. ‘If I live through this, Gräber, I swear to God I shall see you pay for all you have done here, you bastards. Now, I have no doubt that you will arrange for a couple of your simians to beat the shit out of me before I go to sleep tonight, so let’s get it over with, shall we?’ He turned and walked from the room.
    Gräber shouted after him. ‘But I can’t have you beaten, Parker. You are protected by the Geneva Convention, remember. And Germany is a civilised country.’
    He heard their laughter as he made his way out of the officer’s block. Trying to understand why Gräber had not immediately placed him under arrest or had him beaten, he hurried to the dispensary hoping they would not look for him there, but he found the administration block empty. Then faintly, drifting across the icy Appellplatz from the guard’s quarters, he heard singing and carousing. He sat on his bunk. ‘You’re OK, Sammy my son, at least until Boxing Day. They are all having a good old Christmas piss up.’
    He smiled and lying back, pulled the thin blanket over himself. The fire had died in the stove and he knew he would not be able to fetch more fuel until morning. As he lay, weary from hunger, he felt the cold gradually begin to eat into his limbs and he wondered how much more he could take. 

Want to find out what happens to Sammy? Find out where to buy “Pegasus Falling” on Ganxy