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It’s Christmas! Time for a break from work, filled with plenty of moments with family, delicious food, Christmas movies and perhaps the odd glass of mulled wine. But amid the buzz and bustle, I do hope there’s some time for you, too. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy curling up in an armchair, toasty warm, with a hot drink and a good book or movie – bliss!

Today, I’m sharing Christmas-themed books and films that I find always get me in the holiday spirit. They’re ideal for festive escapism (if you’re weary of cooking, or overloading on excited children), and they also make lovely gifts. Please feel free to add any suggestions you have as well.

Books

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. A classic! The Dickensian Christmas setting always feels so magical.

The Night Before Christmas by  Clement Clarke Moore. Read it aloud and the rhythms of the words transport you right back to childhood; to being five years old and lying in bed trying to fight sleep in order to be awake when Santa comes.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Though the author has recently stated in an interview that he doesn’t like Christmas, you wouldn’t know it from his 1978 book, which is a classic, as is the animated film based on the book.

Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas Treasury. I love the world she created in the Little Women series. She has such a way with description. And like A Christmas Carol, this book takes you back to a time when Christmas was less commercial and more traditional.

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern. If you could wish for one gift this Christmas, what would it be? A really heart-warming book that reminds you what the season is all about.

And of course there are many excellent romance novels that focus on the theme of Christmas, especially those published by Mills & Boon for the season.

Films

The Holiday. Always guaranteed to leave you smiling.

It’s a Wonderful Life. The old ones are the best – and this one is right up there as the seminal movie to impart the Christmas sentiment.

White Christmas. Good, old-fashioned romance as Hollywood used to make. The title song will get you in the mood.

Love, Actually. A fun rom-com with the feel-good factor.

Miracle on 34th Street. Not just for children; this one will warm your cockles.

While You Were Sleeping. The juxtaposition of the isolation of the heroine and the happy, bustling home of the hero always touch me.

Black skies, the crunch of snow underfoot, breath puffing out in a cloud on the icy air, the smell of chestnuts roasting, candlelight and, to complete the picture, voices raised in harmony singing age-old carols. It’s a wonderful sight and sound; one of my favourite elements of the holiday season.

I live part of the year in England, and part in France, which means I am most familiar with the French/English carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. No doubt you’ve heard it, and wondered at the strangeness of the gifts. The gold rings would be rather nice, but a partridge in a pear tree…?

In the English version of the song, which is something of a game for children in remembering the cumulative gifts for each reiteration of the verse, on each of the twelve days from Christmas Day an extravagant gift is given, until:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

12 drummers drumming

11 pipers piping

10 lords-a-leaping

9 ladies dancing

8 maids-a-milking

7 swans-a-swimming

6 geese-a-laying

5 gold rings

4 colly birds [not calling birds, as commonly sung; a colly bird is a blackbird]

3 French hens

2 turtle doves

and a partridge in a pear tree.

But the carol, thought of as traditional English one dating back to the eighteenth century, has its roots in two French songs:

  • ‘La Foi de la loi’, in which the gifts are a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs’ trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful full-breasted maidens and twelve musketeers with their swords.
  • ‘Le premier jour d’l’an’, in which the gifts are one lone partridge, two turtle-doves, three wooden branches, four ducks flying in the air, five rabbits running on the ground, six running dogs, seven windmills, eight chewing cows, nine horned bulls, ten white pigeons, eleven silver plates and twelve crowing cockerels.

Which gifts would you prefer of the three versions of the song? Personally, I’d go for something like:

12 romance novels

11 hampers of chocolate

10 round-world cruises

9 Piers Brosnan butlers

8 boxes at the ballet

7 glasses of champagne

6 Jimmy Choos

5 gold rings

4 silk scarves

3 tins of caviar

2 jazz quartets

and a diamond bauble on the Christmas tree.

With such complicated lyrics, it is no wonder children get so confused singing the song in their Christmas pageants. There’s a wonderful version of this song available on YouTube sung by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser that embodies this confusion created by the complicated list – well worth a watch!

 

 

Today I’m delighted to feature an interview with the wonderfully talented jazz singer, Peter Borthwick. I was one of the lucky few to attain a ticket for the launch of his new album, ‘This Moment’, and the performances were exquisite. I’ve been humming ‘Cuban Peter’ for weeks now…

This month, I’m giving away a copy of my novel Burning Embers and Peter’s CD ‘This Moment’ – entry details here.

For more details on Peter, visit http://www.peterborthwick.com/. ‘This Moment’ is available from both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and on iTunes.

 

1. When did you first fall in love with jazz, and why?

I’d say it is a long and enduring love affair spanning most if not all of my life. My grandfather used to play jazz piano and I grew up listening to a lot of jazz. One of my elder brothers in particular loved jazz and so I enjoyed listening to his eclectic collection. Much of my musical tastes are a result of his mature discoveries. On the way to school in the car we would listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing the American Songbook so much so that I knew the recordings, including every detail of the wonderful band arrangements, back to front. And why? Well, in contrast to a lot of the classical music I was exposed to, it was invariably fun with lots of instrumental variation to satisfy my attention span!

 

2.  You gave your first performance in a Chiswick restaurant – how did it feel to perform then, and how does it compare to performing now?

Then, as now, when I perform it is a pleasure and something that comes quite naturally to me. Now I use a microphone to sing, which allows me to sing very softly and focus on both tone and portraying emotion in my song.

 

3. Can you tell us a little about your quartet?

The jazz world is such that once you have one recommendation or like the sound of a particular musician they will invariably have recommendations for you, and so the band was formed by trial and error over some years. Having met bass player Simon Little when he was playing for someone else, I asked him to play for me. Later it was Simon who introduced me to the pianist Janette Mason, who has arranged all the songs on my new album. I’ve performed with Mark Fletcher longest of all (we’ve recorded twice before the current album), and he is one of the country’s best. This quartet forms the basis of my band, which expands or contracts depending on what we’re doing. It is a great joy to play with them, particularly as we all work so well together.

 

4.  How did you enjoy the launch for your album at the Jazz Club in Soho, London?

It was a whirlwind. There was quite a lot to do with a press launch first and then a show. It was a joy to be supported by such a terrific audience made up mostly of friends and long-standing supporters. I was only sorry that some people were unable to get in as tickets sold out, so hopefully we will be back there again soon to make up for it.

 

5.  Do you have a favourite venue for performing?

Any venue where there is a decedent sound system and an appreciative audience makes for a great night – and preferably with a place for people to dance!

 

6.  Which do you prefer, a capella or big band?

I think both lend well to different times and situations. I particularly love the big band sound but equally wonderful can be singing with a string quartet, which I’ve had the pleasure to do a number of times and am planning to do again soon.

 

7.  Which artists have been your biggest inspiration?

Contemporary artists who have championed the jazz renaissance like Harry Connick Jr, and to an extent Michael Bublé. I love the voices of Fred Astaire and Nat King Cole.

 

8.  Aside from jazz, what are your passions in life?

I love cinema, story-telling and photography. I have a highly visual as well as auditory inclination, so I seek out beautiful cinematography – equally important is a great soundtrack!

 

9.  What is the message you would like to send to your fans?

I hope that you enjoy the new album, which has been created entirely with fun and the lifting of spirits in mind. Please keep giving me feedback, and if you have any songs you’d love me to sing, I’d love to hear from you.

I recently ran a question survey via SurveyMonkey and Goodreads to discover people’s ‘most romantics’. For the question ‘What is the most romantic love song?’, the results were as follows:

  • ‘I Will Always Love You’ – 36%
  • ‘Make You Feel My Love’ – 29%
  • ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ – 18%
  • ‘Fix You’ (Coldplay) – 7%
  • ‘Wonderful Tonight’ – 5%
  • ‘Come What May’ (Moulin Rouge) – 5%

Of course, music taste is a very individual choice, but I can see why the top three songs were so popular. Each is a classic, each has a simplicity and clarity that is touching, and each spans musical genres to achieve a timeless quality. Put the lyrics of the three songs together, and you get endless love, commitment, promise, tenderness, faith, sacrifice and a bursting-at-the-seams expression of the joy and exhilaration of new love. A powerful mix!

‘I Will Always Love You’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JWTaaS7LdU) was written by country singer Dolly Parton, and the version by Whitney Houston is the best-selling single of all time by a female singer and topped the UK charts for a record-breaking ten weeks.

‘Make You Feel My Love’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0put0_a–Ng) was written by Bob Dylan, and has been covered by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and Kelly Clarkson, among others. But it is Adele’s recent version that most sticks in my mind – haunting and pure.

‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxREN8JUdI0) was a hit for Frankie Valli back in 1967. It has been covered an amazing 200 times since, by artists as diverse as Andy Williams, Lauryn Hill, the Manic Street Preachers and Muse.

So each of these love songs has been immensely popular worldwide. No wonder they feature in most top ten lists of favourite first dance songs for weddings.

What’s interesting about these love songs leading the poll is that each is not sung by a person already secure in their love. In ‘I Will Always Love You’, the singer is letting go of her love; in ‘Make You Feel My Love’, the singer is trying to convince someone to let love in; and in ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ the singer is wooing with words: ‘You’d be like heaven to touch’ says ‘I haven’t touched you yet, but oh how I want to’! The best love songs, it seems, touch on heartache and longing too. This quote by James Matthew Barrie, author of Peter Pan, springs to mind: ‘Let no one who loves be unhappy… even love unreturned has its rainbow.’

This past week the newspapers have been full of commentary on the release of this year’s Eurovision entry song: ‘Love Will Set You Free’, sung by Engelbert Humperdinck (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFNv9pjqZkk).

The song is a ballad, simple, restrained – the vocals accompanied by a melancholic Spanish guitar arrangement.  The lyrics are romantic, but they speak of courage in the face of heartache: ‘As you kiss him in the moonlight/With heavy words I say/If you love someone, follow your heart/’Cause love comes once if you’re lucky enough/Though I’ll miss you forever, the hurt will run deep/Only love can set you free.’

Reactions to the song have been decidedly mixed – but then, aren’t they always when it comes to Eurovision? Personally, I’m glad to see a ‘golden oldie’ standing for us in the competition; Engelbert is something of a national institution if for nothing more than his choice of name (he was born Arnold Dorsey). And to have a love ballad as the entry is surely better than a vacuous pop number: at once I recollect the 2007 entry ‘Flying the Flag (For You)’ by Scooch, that awful air hostess number (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBOnDcmckdc), which unsurprisingly came 22nd.

Still, a song about the end of a relationship? It’s a risky choice given the UK’s intense embarrassment in 2003 when Jemini’s entry, ‘Cry Baby’, got a spectacular nil points due to the singers’ inability to hit a single note in tune (see for yourself, if your ears can take it, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAJ62IG3gBo).

Well, we could not possibly do worse this year, I suppose. But I hope we fare well against the competition. Engelbert told the Daily Mail, ‘I have been called the “King of Romance”. I’ve represented romance all my life and have been a part of the business for 45 years. You can’t pretend, it has to be within you. Romance is what makes the world go around; when people hear romantic songs, they fall in love.’

The sentiment, at least, is worthy. We shall see how the judges merit old-style romance up against more modern, upbeat, fluffy music. No doubt we’ll watch an eclectic mix of music on the competition night.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone ran a song competition for love songs only? Now that’s an event I’d attend! Love is the one thing that unites every country worldwide. It seems to me it would be a marvellous, unifying and inspiring event – an international celebration of love.

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