Oliver Cross: Something special about the season and its not Santa

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I USED to be more atheist than I am now, which doesn’t mean I believe that the Red Sea parted or that all the world’s animals fitted into the Ark. I’m not daft.

I have gone a bit soft, though; a bit less militant in my non-belief. This happens every December and is because of the influence of Christmas and especially the carols. I look forward to hearing In The Bleak Midwinter, by the extremely religious poet Christina Rossetti, far more than I look forward to hearing whatever the Christmas No 1 is.

The Christmas story, too, is very compelling. The idea of an all-powerful god who wants to experience his own creation and to understand suffering, and who acts through the mundane medium of a carpenter and his wife, is wonderful, although I think it’s more a tribute to the power if the human imagination, as formed through the hit-and-miss mechanics of evolution, than to the wisdom of a deity.

I’m sure that if I could bring myself to believe in it, or at least to suspend my disbelief, I would have a happier Christmas and possibly be of more use to the world.

The idea that only people motivated by religion do good works is, of course, nonsense and well-intentioned non-believers like me at least don’t do much damage. Besides, if belief is a good thing, then stronger belief should be even better, instead of leading, as it often does, to bloodshed by the gallon

Bible-belt nuts in America, Muslim and Hindu nuts in Asia and the Middle East or Communist nuts in North Korea make me proud to be counted among the heathens who have never (and this is quite literally true in my case) harmed a fly – and if so many people weren’t so bad, I wouldn’t need to feel so smug about achieving little in my life apart from harmlessness.

On the other hand, most religious people aren’t nuts. I’m thinking of the Quakers, working for peace and social cohesion and giving us chocolate as a bonus, Christian Aid or Pope Francis, the only pontiff of modern times a non-believer could warm to.

I don’t think, because I have an excessively literal mind and don’t begin to understand mysticism, that I will ever drift towards religion, particularly because if I did, I might have to approve of Tony Blair’s dreadful Faith Foundation, the very thought of which sends me straight back to rock-solid atheism.

But I’m considerably looser around the concept of belief than I used to be and I no longer think that Christmas can be dismissed as either a lot of nonsense grafted onto a pagan winter festival or a mindless orgy of consumption. It is obviously both those things, particularly the latter, but that isn’t all it is. Something spiritual still manages to assert itself in a way which can touch even determined secularists like me.

And since this column was written well in advance, I almost forgot to wish everybody a retrospective merry Christmas, which I will now do in the style of the late Irish comedian Dave Allen, who used to say that he was a practising atheist, meaning that he was practicing to be an atheist, or that he was “an atheist, thank God.”

His religious views were coloured by his experience of a strict and, he thought, often cruel Catholic schooling, particularly as dispensed by nuns. But despite Dave Allen’s religions scepticism, he ended all his shows in the 1970s and 80s by raising his glass of whisky to the audience with the words “Goodnight, and may your god go with you.” I’ll drink to that.

Web search reveals First World War musical mementos

HERE’S a good story for Christmas supplied by my friend Dibbs, whose interests include clarinets, the internet, growing strange plants and making salami.

He found on eBay an advertisement for two rosewood clarinets, costing £200 for the pair, in a box dated June 1917 and giving the original owner’s name as Major B. W. Hogarth of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

So naturally, for him at least, Dibbs decided to investigate and found from a report in a local newspaper of the time that Maj Hogarth had been present at a meeting in 1897 of seven doctors in Morecambe, Lancs.

The doctors discussed a plan to employ a district nurse in the town, but Maj Hogarth, in that bold Victorian way which got the railways built and the empire organised, said that this wasn’t enough; they should build a whole hospital.

Which soon came to pass because by 1901the Queen Victoria cottage hospital was open and among the children born there was Dibbs himself. Since he started his cyber-investigation with no idea where it might lead, Dibbs found this very satisfying.

The disappointments in the story are that the clarinets were not, by Dibbs’s exacting standards, very good so he didn’t buy them and the hospital, after growing considerably from its Victorian origins, was demolished in 2002.

There is no record of what happened to Maj Hogarth after 1917, although being an army doctor, it’s sadly possible he was among the fallen in the Great War.

Still, the story remains a very good example of value of idle curiosity and messing about on the internet.

Superstore helps me sidestep sticky situation

I HAD an untraumatic Christmas, for which I thank Aldi, which supplied me, as a sale item, with a state-of-the-art sticky-tape dispenser for 99p.

The dispenser was a made in very heavy metal with a non-slip rubber base so that when you came to use it, it stayed where it was supposed to be rather than jumping behind the radiator. Also, the dispenser included a roll of tape which would have cost more, on its own, if it had been bought without the dispenser. Sometimes you can cash in on things not making sense.

It saved an awful lot of trouble when it came to present-wrapping, which generally starts with looking for the sticky-tape which I haven’t located since last Christmas, then exploring, with much damage to the fingernails, where the sticky-tape begins, and then trying to tame the sticky-tape so it doesn’t turn in on itself and go wild.

Without the dispenser, the present-wrapping would have produced pre-cut lengths of sticky-tape distributed over the house and even, as usually happens, my hair. Thanks very much Aldi.