THE CHRISTMAS ROBIN
Fans of a certain classic British TV series will remember Baldrick’s definition of irony ‘like silvery or goldy, only blacker’.
For the past several years I have begun this encyclical with some witty remark about Val’s repeated claim to have seen a robin redbreast on our satellite dish. ‘The territory of the European robin,’ I have repeatedly assured her, ‘does not extend as far south as Andalusia. Here at el Cortijo del Rector we see ravens, eagles, vultures, harriers, hoopoes, wagtails, azure-winged magpies, little owls and, er… big owls. We do NOT see robins.’
So in confident expectation of yet another opportunity to floor my spouse with my superior ornithological knowledge, I photographed this jaunty fellow in a Suffolk wildlife sanctuary last month.
Then, this morning, as we drove to market, we BOTH saw the brilliant blazing breast of a robin, flaming against the green of the grass verge. Collapse of stout party. Will she ever let me live it down?
what is a CHRISTMAS robin?’ a mystified Indian friend asked me last year. Let
me explain that in Brit-speak a ‘round robin’ is a news letter. Some folk
hate them (newsletters, I mean, not, of course, robins) but at least you can be confident that we empty nesters (give or take a
dog or three) won't bore you with our offsprings’ triumphant
acquisition of scout badges or swimming certificates.
When I snapped my robin last month we were in England for the Suffolk Arts Festival at the Britten-Pears Centre. Having reached a significant birthday in July, I swore that this would be my final foray into competitive singing, but the crits were OK and, if the old Hobson’s Choice holds out, vanity may carry me through another year. Val decided long ago that the stress of vocal competitions (worth a guinea a box, as the old Beecham’s adverts used to put it) was no longer for her, but in our recent choral evensong she stormed the tricky first soprano line of my new Magnificat in fine style while heartily comminating the composer. I still hear the occasional high C ringing out over the whirr of the dishwasher.
Early Spring saw us in Minnesota to catch up with our Anglo-American grandchildren, Joseph and Claire and see Richard compete in a half-marathon in the snow. (He has since achieved the full twenty-six miles). We shall be flying there next month for our second Mid-West Christmas and New Year.
It is almost a quarter of a century since my Best Beloved drew a firm line under holidays involving tents. She claims her decision had something to do with my getting myself lost at night in a Central American jungle (and having to be rescued by eleven-year-old Will) but I suspect that the attentive scorpions, snakes and spiders had more to do with it. However, said she, glamping might just be acceptable, which is why we spent the week of our granddaughter Jaya’s fifth birthday in a ‘pod’ at Terheijden, a favourite haunt of her parents, Will and Mariska, where we lingered over wonderful Dutch breakfasts and climbed the vertical ladders of this splendid working windmill.
We returned from the Netherlands to discover that our senior dog Boris had a malignant tumor of the lower jaw. Malaga has an excellent animal hospital with a brilliant young surgeon and, six months on, after the knife and several chemotherapy sessions, Boris is thriving and rejoicing in his status as the most expensive crossbreed (greyhound-mastiff) in Andalusia.
In August our forty-eighth anniversary gifts to each other were DNA testing kits from Ancestry.com. The exercise has thrown up all kinds of surprises. Not only are Val and I soul mates (which we knew) but also blood relatives (which we didn't). This is doubly remarkable as one of her other genetic matches is with a black family. We are now hot on the trail of her mysterious paternal grandfather to whom we have hitherto only referred as ‘Roger the Lodger’. As always, it is our Minnesota grandchildren who produce the most startling revelations, as DNA reveals that they are related to Winston Churchill through his American mother Jenny Jerome.
Whilst some of the characters, such as Ian McKellen are already famous, others appear in print for the very first time. My Michigan cousins Leanne and Madeline have helped me research the life of their great uncle Alfred Haselden, a Wigan coal miner who became Henry Ford’s right-hand man in Europe but lost his chance of a knighthood when a deserted wife exacted a tragic revenge on Blackpool sands.
Checking my weather ‘app’ this morning, I note that Minneapolis is currently a degree or two warmer than our neighbouring village of Villanueva de Algaidas, but we are packing our ski boots and thermals in confident expectation of a Mid West white Christmas. Here in the foothills we may get the occasional light dusting, but we can already see the snow piled deep on the peaks of the distant Sierra Nevada.
We are busily rehearsing for our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Rutter, of course, but also Vaughan Williams and Rachmaninoff. It is interesting to realise how many carols we Brits think of as ‘traditional’, such as ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘We three Kings’ and ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ are actually American, though of course we sing them to the 'wrong' tunes.
A blessed Christmas and Happy New Year to All.
John, Val and We Three Canines (Boris, Biggles and Bella).