Review: ‘Tidings: A Christmas Journey’

There aren’t many things that manage to transcend the modern malaise of ironic detachment and self-consciously cynical remove, but Ruth Padel hopes Christmas is one of them. In her new poetry collection Tidings: A Christmas Journey, Padel tells the story of a distinctly twenty-first-century Christmas. The narrative poem takes on the voices of the ‘Angel of Silence’, a homeless man, a little girl, a fox, and a volunteer at a homeless shelter, to give a varied and unconventional portrait of the festive season in all its unruly, unromantic urban glory.

The unconventional, in all its forms, is constantly stressed.  This is a very topical spin on Christmas, with its timely and insistent focus on the marginalised and the excluded, its emphasis on the quality of the outcast in Christ:

The Holy Family were travellers
Turned away and sleeping rough.
(‘A Wolf in the Carol Service’)

Cover photograph by the reviewer
Cover photograph by the reviewer

The twenty-four surreal, suspended hours of Christmas are used to bring out everything hidden, repressed, secret. Padel persistently pursues a clear-eyed realism regarding the experiences of these unpicturesque outcasts, but maintains, above it all, an idealistic vision of the unifying power of Christmas as a fragile and beautiful idea. Padel tries to fulfil different functions—that of the activist, the traditionally warm and affirming if faintly saccharine? ‘Christmas writer’, and the pointedly moral voice of social justice in the vein of a Dickensian ‘Carol philosophy’. Padel’s Christmas, then, is sprawling and diverse in many ways—in its voices, its implicit goals, its times and places. Is this the essence of her idea of Christmas, then—a messy, unpicturesque, eclectic glory, beautiful in all its contradictions and variety?

…all one can imagine
Of mystery, wonder, hope, despair–
And a world, many worlds, elsewhere.

It is certainly convincing at times, this wholehearted unironic belief in the power of this concept of Christmas—and what better time is there to believe wholeheartedly and unreservedly in something?  But there is a sense, in parts, that it is less of a universal spiritual harmoniser and more of an increasingly fragile fiction, trying to stretch itself over too many disparate elements. With everything it tries to do, the poem itself seems, at its heart, to remain at too much of a remove to be genuinely affecting. The voice has a constant distance, a faraway cinematic quality:

He isn’t sure he heard (am I in his head?)
but he’s turned and, look, he’s following the fox.
He trusts her.  Let her talk to him…
(‘Robin Under Blackfriars Bridge’)

Something about the third-person present tense reads with the abstraction of a screenplay, a tone of observation that comes across oddly removed from its object. The insistent didacticism, the pushing of a message, the pointedly symbolic geographical sweep—it rings ever so slightly hollow with its distant, almost unfocused sentimental quality.  From ‘Robin Under Blackfriars Bridge’:

…Christmas is a wind
That blows people together.

When Padel leaves behind all of her conflicting aims, though, there is an easy unforced realism that emerges with a finely balanced force and beauty. The passages of pure description play the best, their moods ranging from seductive abundance, to wistful evocations, to unsparing vividness:

Dicing and dancing in every town,
Pipers in masks and paper crowns
Chasing the devil to put salt upon his tail,
(‘Dark, Pagan, Forbidden’)

The windswept hills, wild thyme
And pale blue skies of Palestine.
(‘Dark, Pagan, Forbidden’)

…in the east, a wavy smudge
Of fluorescent orange runs
Like livid paint across
The rising line of black pine trees…
(‘Sunrise Over Rome’)

Padel skillfully evokes the charm of the secrets and the undersides of Christmas, the beauty of the inherent loneliness and darkness. It is in its moralistic function, essentially, that Tidings falls short; its attempt at creating a kind of appropriately saccharine Christmas universality complete with political engagement. But the effect of Christmas sentimentality is, inevitably, dependent on a fitting seasonal context. In that sense there is something to Padel’s conception of Christmas as a suspended space of stopped time. Amid tinsel and mulled wine any such sins of sentimentality can be forgiven.  And so it is perhaps fruitless for me, in a distinctly unfestive month, to try and understand Padel’s wild, motley Christmas urbanscape:

…the heart
Of the Christmas under-song.
Outcast, and hope, and searching in the dark.
(‘Robin Under Blackfriars Bridge’)

Grace Lee

‘Tidings: A Christmas Journey’ is published by Penguin, RRP £9.99.

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