One of the things I liked about living in England in the 1970s was Boxing Day. It's the name the English give to the day after Christmas. It has come to mean the day you give away a litter of boxes and recover from Christmas. In the 1970s the BBC celebrated Boxing Day by showing a day-long festival of old American musicals. In the winter of 1976 they did musicals based on the songs of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. It was also a day when one had endless invitations to drop in at other people's houses. We made a round of the local villages in Cambridgeshire with names like Little Shelford and Long Melford and Cherry Hinton. That year it was an icy cold day with huge clouds scudding over the flat, muddy East Anglian landscape that Thomas Constable had painted with such accuracy. The piled, looming grandeur of the clouds and North Sea wind his paintings suggested, seemed like cruelty itself.
I liked the idea of a second day of celebration to recover from the first day of celebration. The social round could be intense. There was ale and toasted cheese at the flat of an Hungarian literary scholar in Cambridge. It was supposedly the flat in which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had lived briefly and seemed, I was willing to think after a couple of pints, haunted by their presence. A Swedish poet out in a village called Whittlesford had a roaring fire, three or four kinds of pickled herring, and a choice of strong tea or little shot glass of single malt whiskey. If the drive between parties was long, you could also stop in at the pubs. The heater in our English Ford wasn't especially effective, and our kids loved the pubs with their coal fires and steaming pork pies, so we made a few stops. Wherever we went, we would hear, from a televison set somewhere in the room, fragments of the lyrics of Ira Gerswhin and Cole Porter. Occasionally a group would gather around and sing along. So our day was punctuated by bits and pieces of those songs and their inventive lryics.
They laughed at me wanting you,
said I was reaching for the moon,
but, oh, you came through --
now they'll have to change their tune.
Maybe I will meet him Sunday..
maybe Monday . . .
maybe not . . .
still I'm pretty sure I'll meet him one day . . .
maybe Tuesday will be
my good news day . . .
You're a rose, You're Inferno's Dante,
You're the nose
On the great Durante
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
when he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded --
If she then wants an all-by-herself night,
Let her rest every eleventh or "Twelfth Night"
It's the wrong time and the wrong place,
Though your face is charming, it's the wrong face
Even eduated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's . . .
'S awful nice! 'S paradise!
'S what I love to see.
I remember at the party in Whittlesford a Mexican scholar explaining that in Mexico City the shot glases of whiskey (or tequila) were called caballitos, "little horses." This led to jokes about "one-horse sleighs" and "laughing all the way," And this led, via the television, to an impressive rendition in fluent English with trilled r's of "I Got Rhythm."
It seems, in retrospect, an odd way to spend an English Christmas. I thought about it last week because I had spent a day shopping on Madison Avenue in New York. In every store some of those songs were playing in the background, Fred Astaire versions and Billie Holiday versions and Ella Fitzgerald versions. It called up the city of the 1920s and '30s as a magical time. Much of the magic, it seemed, had to do with the wit of a playful or unexpected rhyme. Strange that a New York that was already a fantasy of the young lyricists of the time has become our fanstasy, the Christmas poetry of a consumer culture. In the electronics store, some of the lyrics even seemed prophetic:
The radio and
the telephone and
the movies that we know
may just be passing fancies --
and in time may go . . .
The best book about these poet-lyricists is probably Philip Furia's The Poets of Tin Pan Alley (Oxford, 1990).