Yesterday we left a chilly but fine and bright Chesham, where our son and his little family live, to make our way back to the north west of England. By the time we arrived in Manchester it was raining. Somehow there was something predictable about that. Of course, I know that the weather does not follow those kinds of rules but sometimes it seems as though it has to conform to the stereotypes: in this case, that Manchester regularly has bad weather. But it does feel very cold up here in the North!
We had arrived at Euston Station yesterday in plenty of time for our train so we went for refreshments before boarding the train. I had a halfway decent but still oversized and overpriced cup of coffee from one of those station cafes that claim to have a connection with France but, despite selling pain au chocolat, really have no idea what France is all about.
Phil made the mistake of ordering a tea with milk. It was a truly disgusting cup of tea. Like the coffee, it was far too big, although as a rule it is quite acceptable to drink a large mug of tea. This was supposed to be a small paper cup but still held a good half-pint. The main problem with it was that no time appeared to have been left between pouring hot water on the teabag and adding milk. At first sight, after removing the plastic lid they always clamp on such hot drinks, it looked like watery hot milk with a teabag string hanging from it. It only became remotely tea-coloured after the teabag had been agitated a little in the mixture. Not good at all! Eventually Phil abandoned it and we went to investigate the train situation.
An almost complete lack of information awaited us. Although the train was now due to depart in about twenty minutes, there was no platform announcement. This would be slow even for budget airlines telling you which gate to go to! According to the (imminent) departures board, the train was "preparing". If this meant that they were cleaning it up after its previous journey, then it must have been somewhere. However, even when there were only 11 minutes to go until departure time, there was still no information about the platform. Eventually there was an announcement, ending up with, "Will passengers please board the train as it is ready to depart". Goodness knows what anyone with mobility problems would do!!
After that the journey was more or less incident free. Naturally, we had to walk almost the full length of the train to find our compartment but that has become par for the course. We had seats in a "quiet coach" so we only heard one phone ring and being guiltily answered during the journey. Mind you, even a "quiet coach" doesn't escape the numerous messages from the train staff, always preceded by a bright "piiiiing", giving customers, not passengers these days, helpful advice about remembering their belongings and so on.
Back in Manchester, I saw Phil onto a tram with both suitcases and went off to meet a couple of friends. This had been planned before we left the country so it was no surprise to him. I felt he should regard it as an opportunity - an opportunity to get the house nicely warmed up before I arrived home!!!
For five or six years now my friends and I have attended a carol service, raising money for an organisation that helps alcoholics and drug addicts find solutions to their problems. It has become a kind of symbolic start to the Christmas festivities for us and, besides, having a good sing song is always good.
As a rule we go and have something to eat before hand. This time we went along to Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant in Manchester. One of our number has a loyalty card which entitles her to free gifts or reductions from time to time. She was rather hoping that this time she might receive a free bottle of wine to share with us but this was not the case; a piece of pottery was promised. So we selected some dishes from the menu, all very tasty, and bought a bottle of wine to share anyway.
Eventually, as we were about to pay the bill, the promised pottery arrived: a sort of earthenware plate, emblazoned with the words "pasta plate". My friend can be quite blunt. "Is that it?" she demanded, in somewhat disgruntled tones. A little taken aback, the waiter offered an alternative, perhaps a deeper dish of some kind. My friend calmed down and recovered her usual charm, even persuading the young man to wrap it for her and even put it in a larger bag than was necessary so that she could hide in there some presents she wanted to keep out f the sight of other friends she was seeing at the carol concert. Some people lead unnecessarily complicated lives, it seems to me.
We enjoyed the carol service, which took place in the lovely little church of Saint Ann, one of Manchester's treasures, in fact usually called "the hidden gem". The choir from Chethams School of Music sang beautifully for us. We tried to sing beautifully in turn but with less success.
I almost had a fit of the giggles over the words of "Ding Dong! Merrily on High". The second verse was printed as follows:
E'en so here below, below,
let steeple bells be swungen,
and i-o, i-o, i-o,
by priest and people sungen.
I can never previously remember having to sing what I assume to be old (olde?) English "swungen" and "sungen" in that Christmas carol before. And all that "i-o" business seemed new as well. Or maybe I am suffering from selective forgetfulness.
And then someone seemed to have changed some of the words of the old "Once in Royal David's City" as well. However, on investigation it turned out that they had just omitted one verse. Maybe it is no longer politically correct to sing a verse that ends up with these lines:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as He.
It was written in or around 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander, wife of a clergyman and eventually of a bishop when the clergyman progressed upwards in his career. She also wrote "All Things Bright and Beautiful", the children hymn which had to have some lines removed in more politically correct times. As a child I sang about everyone having his place in society: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. We thought nothing of it then but such sentiments are no longer allowed in children's songs and hymns.
The 19th century was perhaps a more innocent age!