Some Literary Feats for Your Yule Stockings

Viscount Norwich's bright and handsome living room in the London neighborhood of Maida Vale doesn't look like Santa Claus' workshop. But within, final page proofs are being read for the perfect Christmas stocking gift, a slim volume with an austere label: "A Christmas Cracker, being a commonplace selection by John Julius Norwich."

(The title derives from the British tradition of putting Christmas crackers alongside dinner plates at Christmas dinner. These are rolls of decorative paper that contain miniature toys, costume jewelry, tissue paper party hats, mottoes and jokes and conundrums. Following the Christmas meal, the crackers are tugged between diners, a small cap cracks, trinkets and favors fall free to be shared and to continue the family celebration of Christmas.)

Fetching Fancy Prices

Viscount Norwich began to compile his 24-page anthologies for friends in 1970. Now he produces about 2,000 additional copies each year, which are on sale, he says, in most good U.K. book shops and also in one or two perfectly awful ones. Selected stores in New York are taking them on and this year the distinguished hamburger purveyor Joe Allen has ordered 200 copies. Penguin Books has published an anthology of the first 10 years and certain single issues fetch fancy prices in second-hand bookstores.

Christmas Crackers are compiled with discreet skill and grace from whatever attracts Lord Norwich: letters and diaries and gravestones and poems, of course, but also boastful Who's Who entries, indexes from biographies, word games such as palindromes, holorhymes and mnemonics, and such oddities as a review from the American outdoors magazine Field and Stream concerning the recent re-publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover":

" . . . This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper.

"Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's 'Practical Gamekeeper'."

The Crackers never include much about Christmas because, Lord Norwich says, there isn't much written about Christmas, a rare exception being a 1977 entry from "Love's Labour's Lost:"

At Christmas I no more desire a


Than wish a snow in May's

new-fangled mirth.

The tone is elegiac, humorously understated: the song of a gifted English amateur. The son of the late Sir Alfred Duff Cooper, first Viscount Norwich, and of the late Lady Diana Cooper, John Julius Norwich is a broadcaster, writer and respected historian of Venice. "I'm now working on a history of the Byzantine Empire, which will keep me off the streets for the next 10 years. I have a horrible feeling it may be three volumes, though I am trying to keep it down to two. The story does go on for 1,123 years.

'I'm a Popularizer'

"I'm not a scholar, I'm a popularizer. I only use printed sources, I don't go burrowing down into dusty libraries. I can't read Byzantine Greek, apart from anything else, so there's no point in trying."

He does show a nice gift in his "Christmas Crackers" for translation from French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. He even includes an Icelandic lullaby, which begins "Sofur thu swid thitt/Svartur i 'augum" and which in translation means:

Sleep, you black-eyed pig.

Fall into a deep pit full of ghosts.

About 25 years ago, his mother gave John Julius for his birthday a beautiful volume bound in blue Nigerian goatskin, with some 150 blank pages. She had intended it to be used as a diary or a visitor's book, but he doesn't keep a diary and was at the time in the Foreign Service based in the explosive Middle East, where few visitors called. So he started jotting down, in elegant hand, phrases that caught his fancy and from these culled the first Christmas Cracker. It was a fairly characteristic volume with quotations from Milton, Parson Kilvert, and two dictionary definitions:

BAFFONA, f. Woman with a not unpleasing mustache.

--Hoare's Short Italian Dictionary

CARPHOLOGY. Delirious fumbling with the bedclothes, etc.

--Concise Oxford Dictionary

Also included in the first Cracker was a selection from "Reading Without Tears, or a Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read" (1860) which Lord Norwich's mother had used to teach him to read:

What is the mat-ter with that

lit-tle boy?

He has ta-ken poison. He saw a

cup of poi-son

on the shelf. He said 'This seems

sweet stuff.'

So he drank it.

Lord Norwich used the same book to teach his own children and they enjoyed it as much as he did, he says.

As the years passed, half a dozen beautiful leather-bound volumes joined the original blue goatskin commonplace book--a sort of literary scrapbook--and from them the material for each Christmas Cracker derives. The tone is always one of spontaneous discovery.

"That's what it's meant to be. I mean I have discovered the strange fact that it is virtually impossible to go out looking for things. Occasionally I get panicky and think 'my God I haven't put anything in the collection for the last three or four months, what's happening to me?' . . . And if I have a few hours to spare in the library, I go through some old anthologies and never find anything. Quite extraordinary, it just comes."

As Personal as a Diary

A good anthology--Norwich's own favorite is Maurice Baring's "Have You Anything to Declare?"--is as personal as a diary, as surprising as an unexpected gift: serendipity in literary shape.

"I think it does reflect one's personality more than most other collections do," Norwich says. His own personality is famously sunny. "So that's a nice thing in itself if you don't mind having your personality reflected.

"Nobody gets as much fun out of it as I do, that's for sure. I adore it. It's all the fun of a collection, it's the only collection that costs you nothing, where you have just the same feeling of exaltation when you find a really good bit as you would if you collected pictures or jade."

The mix, he says, is everything, and the risk is to rely on such anthology regulars as Sydney Smith, John Aubrey, Dr. Johnson, Pepys. Norwich has trouble restraining himself when it comes to Gibbon but gives full rein to his passion for palindromes, or lines that read the same backward or forward, such as "Sex at noon taxes."

"I have now discovered the mother and father of all palindromes," he says, "which is an epic poem of several pages of which every single line is a palindrome. It even rhymes. It was written by a man who is our deputy high commissioner in Ghana, and he sent it to me out of the blue. It's stunningly good and it makes sense in a slightly impressionistic way--'Night, ninth gin'--and in the end it builds up to the most extraordinary feeling of sleazy barroom life in a little port somewhere. That man's a genius, he's wasting his time in the diplomatic service."

The 1986 Cracker will open with a quatrain from an 11th-Century Chinese poet taken from a book Norwich bought in Peking airport in China. Its evocative last line is, "Without bamboo one becomes vulgar." The 1984 opener was from a poem written by King Faud of Saudi Arabia after a visit to London:

Venus was sculpted by a man,

But the far more attractive

woman, Margaret Thatcher,

Was sculpted by Allah.

My heart raced when I saw her

face to face. . . .

The 1985 Cracker was an unfortunate olive color, but it will be bright mailbox red in 1986. Other than that, the Crackers have a nice continuity from volume to volume: an immensely touching description of the Battle of Trafalgar by a young ordinary seaman is followed some years later by Adm. Collingwood's crisp complaint on the same occasion: "I wish Nelson would stop signalling. We all know well enough what to do."

Norwich is expert at choosing lines of poetry and, while there are no great surges of emotion ("It's awfully difficult to produce a major surge in a few lines"), there are entries that he says he can't read aloud without his voice breaking. He's not quite sure what he wants in a Cracker--"it's quirkish, it's as difficult to analyze as what makes you laugh and what makes you cry"--but he knows what he does not want: aphorisms or words of homely wisdom.

"I don't like any moralizing. Anything that could be burned in pokerwork and hung over the bed is out."

Notes by His Mother

Lord Norwich thinks it is a bit soon to include anything by or about his mother, the otherwise immortal Lady Diana Cooper, who died last spring just as the 1986 Cracker had been compiled. She did contribute gloriously to the 1979 edition, when Norwich printed some of the notes she left on her windshield to avoid getting tickets for illegal parking.

"I frequently used to borrow her car and I'd find a handful of these old notes to traffic wardens because she kept them to use them again, it saved writing a new one. I never told her I was keeping them, she always forgot (she'd written them)."

Some samples: "Dear Warden--Taken sad child to cinema--please forgive." "Dear Warden--Only a minute. Horribly old (80) and frightfully lame. Beware of the DOG (A foot-long chihuahua.)" "Dearest Warden--Front tooth broken off: look like an 81-year-old pirate, so at dentist 19a. Very old, very lame--no (parking) meters. Have mercy!"

On each of the notes was written, in the hands of various traffic wardens, the single word, "forgiven."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World