Happy Epiphany 2013
Christmas is upon us, but Epiphany still has an age before kick-off, on January 5th.
The birth of Jesus was of course an extraordinary story, but what confirmed its legitimacy was not the virgin birth (which might have been understandably taken as a wind up), nor the affirmation of Bethlehem local government officials (who were just doing their job), nor the affirmation of the shepherds (who were simply watching their flocks by night), but the arrival of “kings from the east” bearing gifts 12 days later on.
Epiphany is a good time to look back at the previous year.
I’m saddened to report that several events in the Armstrong calendar have not been praiseworthy. Notably, Neil Armstrong, once the pin up boy of the clan as first man on the moon, died, aged 82, on August 25th, after coronary artery bypass complications in surgery. Legend has it that Uncle Neil came to England and consulted Grandad Ralph’s sister Gertrude (in Crook, County Durham) in an effort to learn more of his family origins. He was told by her that his origins lay in Cumberland, south of the Scotland-England border.
Way back then, Clan Armstrong was a family of scoundrels, robbers and rapists (sometimes all three). Uncle Neil bucked this trend, and not only became an outstanding engineer and pilot, but on July 21, 1969 he made what was for him a small step, but what was for mankind a giant leap (non stick frying pans were invented as a direct result of this mission), as the first man to walk on the moon.
On the other hand, resorting to type, Lance Armstrong, for years the “Invincible athlete”, won the Tour de France for 7 consecutive times but was last June defrocked as a performance enhancing drugs user.
Clan Armstrong was established in 1237, but in the 19th Century we migrated from Allendale in Northumberland to the Durham coalfield, and then to the coal rich Barnsley bed in the Soviet Republic of South Yorkshire. The Armstrong clan motto translates “I remain unvanquished”, and I Clan meetings take place each summer with a formal gathering every second year, when men are wear underpants under their kilts.
Deaths in 2012
A year is always defined by those whose life ends during that year, and apart from Neil Armstrong, mentioned above, deaths which touched my life include Dave Sexton – ex Chelsea, QPR and Man Utd Manager, John Bond, player, manager and football commentator, singers Davy Jones (Monkees), Robin Gibb (Bee Gees), and actors Bill Tarmey, Clive Dunn and Eric Sykes.
National treasures everyone. Overseas, Whitney Houston, Donna Summer and Andy Williams all took their divine talents to the heavenly choir stalls, joined by actor Larry Hagman and accomplished xylophonist Patrick Moore. He won’t this year be telling us how the Wise Men followed the Star of Bethlehem, but instead he will be getting the facts straight from the camel’s mouth. Two South Elmsall gifts to the world will also be there, Hilda Ingham, matriarch extraordinary and John Hardcastle, table tennis legend, and owner of the deepest voice in Christendom.
All are a backdrop to my life, which is diminished by their departure from planet earth.
Heir to my fortune Jonathan now lives and works in downtown Manhattan with fiancée Alice, to whom he proposed in front of the Old Lady last autumn.
Edward has moved into fashionable East London (I don’t think you get much more fashionable than a multi £000 one bedroom flat, a half hour’s walk away from St Paul’s). Property inflation is a perpetual game of 3 card brag, where long term the only winner is the banker.
Claire has moved into a Chorley des res with Captain Den.
Carolyn and Robert are still wondering whether to migrate to France. Or as they say over there, Carolyn et Robert sont demandent encore s’il faut migrer vers la belle France.
And finally Rachel and Brian continue to nurture our two precious grandchildren, Verity and Harri, both now at school in Accrington, and appeared as shepherd and angel respectively for the school Nativity play. Unfortunately Verity was ill with a virus on the week of the play, but soldiered though it. We have enjoyed mentoring Harriette 3 days a week until the start of the autumn term, but now it’s just the occasional sleep over. Staying at ours last week, we enjoyed our first Christmas dinner of the season, and I roasted Turkey a la Heston Blumenthal.
His scientific methods of cooking birds (soaking them in brine overnight before roasting them in a low oven) to give moisture revolutionised the way we roast chickens, and will too, I suspect with turkeys. As is always the case with turkey, the biggest problem is what to do with leftovers. The prospect of eating turkey sandwiches ad infinitum is not appealing.
In last year’s Christmas newsletter I told how Lynne and I bought our wedding rings in Dublin, and that they were inscribed Love, Loyalty, Friendship,the mottto of the Claddagh Ring. Thanks to a bargain buy from lastminute.com Lynne and I spent Lynne’s birthday (March 17) in Dublin in 2000, at a hotel overlooking the annual St Patrick’s day parade on St Stephen’s Green, and one of the highlights was sipping Guinness for breakfast on a balcony overlooking the start of the parade. The best relationships are made from a combination of love, loyalty and friendship. Prince Charles once asked “whatever love means”, qualifying his love for Diana. Many have defined love, but for my money the best is that of St Paul’s, in 1 Corinthians 13:
1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
It’s appropriate to quote Paul’s definition of love, for Christmas is a time of love. And if anyone meets its high standards it’s Mammy, now in her 98th year. She could love for England.
Apart from my son’s proposal a few weeks ago, on 29 December my big brother Malcolm re-marries. Both, like Uncle Neil, bucked the family trait and done well without using performance enhancing drugs. But that’s a story I’ll tell in next year’s Christmas message.
Finally, I blogged on 7 December 2012) “We’re all in it together…aren’t we?” which looked at how, when our backs are to the wall someone will inevitably mutter that immortal phrase “We’re all in it together” to justify their own solution to the problem at hand.
But not only do we endure the bad times, we also enjoy the good. And for many of us born in “the west” Christmas is a time when we can be thankful for our relative prosperity.
And it’s also an opportunity to love our neighbours.
But who are these neighbours?
It’s not people who live next door. It’s particularly those who you would normally avoid.
It’s a very difficult question, I know.
Happy Christmas 2012