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Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus, Bitches ...It's time for the Holiday Hits of one of the Black Country's finest: the celebrated poet and novelist RM Francis.

Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus, Bitches

...It's time for the Holiday Hits of one of the Black Country's finest: the celebrated poet and novelist RM Francis.

by Jay Lewis, Reviews Editor
first published: December, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

(We add) a light touch of dark humour to balance out the sometimes overwhelming twee and wholesomeness of the season... I just find a sprinkling of something bitter in the sweetness helps temper a more sophisticated flavour.

We continue our festive series of Holiday Hits and Horrors with a personal guide to the festive rituals of poet and novelist RM Francis, born and based in the Black Country. In early 2023, he released The Chain Coral Chorus - a collection of poems, fieldnotes, and essays assembled in the aftermath of his time as poet in residence for the Black Country Geological Society.  As the nights grew appropriately darker, Ameles/Currents of Unmindfulness - his debut collection of unsettling horror stories was also released. In the OL office we have, like some cursed creatures with voracious appetites - devoured it. So, what of RM Francis' plans for the festive season? Well, strike the harp and join the chorus, bitches! he's going to tell us now...

Christmas is a time of “unconscious return to tradition”. I heard this in a recent conversation with religious scholars Jonathan Pageau and Richard Rohlin. In their Symbolic World podcast, they go through the history of the feast, bringing in the boughs, lighting of candles and singing of songs, and position our modern equivalents in a mythological or symbolic context. It’s a fascinating discussion of the depth of the little things we do this time of year.

We all have our traditions, sent down through generations and across cultures. Some are shared as part of a wider community – songs, Christmas trees, exchanging gifts. Some are more localised to our families, estates and households – I go for a pint in the Tenth Lock with my Father in Law and my beautiful people of Brierley Hill, and I irritate everyone with how bad I am at Rummy. “Jesus Christ, Rob, warram yo’ playin’, Cribb? ‘Ow many tiymes am yo’ gonna ask the rules? No, Rob, sets beat sequences – gerra nother round in”.

On Christmas Day, just before pudding, we fill a dessert spoon with dark rum and raise a toast to good health.  That comes from my paternal grandfather – a man of strict dignity who passed away one Boxing Day – we toast as much to him as to the general these days.

In my home, we like to charge our traditions with a bit of irreverence. Not profanity as such, but just a light touch of dark humour to balance out the sometimes overwhelming twee and wholesomeness of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. It’s important. I just find a sprinkling of something bitter in the sweetness helps temper a more sophisticated flavour. That makes good sense to me too, after all, Baby Jesus’s birth took place with the shit and filth of stable animals – heavenly and earthly, divine and bestial coming together.

At the beginning of Advent we put up our tree and decorate our house. This is awesome. I mean that quite literally. In doing this alongside our immediate and global neighbours we’re part of a web of cultures under the influence of that ‘unconscious return to tradition’. We may not know this, we may know it subconsciously, but we’re part of a huge and diverse interconnectedness through these simple acts of hanging kitsch baubles on a simulation tree that lives in the loft for 11 months of the year and looks a little more bedraggled each Advent. The profound sharing of practices across generation, region and time-space fills me with awe. We illuminate our homes with ancient symbols, and we do so raptured in joy and, quite often, silliness.

As we do ours, we listen to Christmas songs. Not just any songs. We’re not the sorts for Slade and Wizard and that horrible Pretenders song. We listen to Bluegrass – those beautiful Germanic, British and Celtic Appalachian grooves. We listen to The Petersens. Painfully wholesome but they’re proper players. I’ve been known to shed a tear over their versions of 'Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel' and 'I Heard the Bells'. They are just too beautiful, and again, I’m drawn back through centuries of festive cultures.Have a listen to this little piece of brilliance. A song from English Folk musicians going back to the 17 th Century. As a Black Country boy, I’m quite taken with the knowledge that the original lyric opened with “Sit Yow Merry Gentlemen”.

Anyroad, I digress, doh I? Get yower lug’oles ‘round this:

Now, you’re probably thinking, where’s the fucking irreverence? Here goes. As we’re decking the halls and listening to the songs, me and my wife drink Port from chocolate containers. Not irreverent enough. Stay with me. Before the whole rituals of Christmas begin, we take a chocolate Santa or Reindeer, and we bite its head off. One bite. One wolfish gnarl of a bite. Farewell, Rudolph – then all the reindeers saw it, and they shouted out in abject horror! We fill its hollow body with fortified wine and I raise a toast:

'I now declare Christmas started!'

After a few ports and the slow nibbling away of Dasher and Dancer. Our tree is donned in gay apparel. We’ve got a nice buzz and we’re sick to the back teeth of telling one year old Stanley to stop chewing tinsel. Then we’re knackered and there’s washing up and bedtime routines to be done. Time to be still and quiet. That’s Christmas in our house. Strike the harp and join the chorus, bitches!

Essential Information
RM Francis's website (where you can buy any or all of his books) is here

Jay Lewis
Reviews Editor

Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based poet. He's also a music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.

about Jay Lewis »»

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