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Making the Yuletide cheerful

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When we first learned that we had been chosen to write a Yuletide piece on the subject of Dame Hilda Tablet and her circle, we found ourselves overcome--overcome with joy, that is, for our projected ten-volume biography of Dame Hilda had not gone quite according to plan. While a one thousand word piece could in no way do justice to the monumental scope of the life and works of so illustrious a composeress--indeed, we felt that nothing our humble efforts could produce could ever do justice to the scope of Dame Hilda--we felt that here at least might be a project that might be more suited to our particular strengths and abilities. A project, in short, that we had a hope of finishing.

Our first port of call was 109 Coptic Street, that familiar address where we had spent so many happy hours of frustrating… fruitless… fruitful… research in the past. Escorted into the sitting room by the boy Evelyn, we had the feeling that we had, at last, truly come home. And though nearly overwhelmed by deja vu--if, indeed, that was what it was--we pressed on with our plans for an interview that would once and for all bring the manifold charms of Dame Hilda and her circle to a wider audience. Sinking deeply into an armchair and sipping deeply from the gin and tonic that had been offered us, we looked around the room at three familiar, expectant faces and... and... pressed bravely on...

We began by asking Miss Strauss, who since the untimely death of Kathleen Ferrier had often been hailed as the queen of English song, how she explained its timeless and universal appeal. How, transcending all boundaries of culture and nationality, it spoke to all listeners and to, in particular, herself.

"The vowels," said Elsa without hesitation. "I particularly like the vowels."

"Damn right," said Hilda.

"Also, English folk songs are often short. I have sung Winterreise, you know, also Dichterliebe, and when one is singing such song cycles one cannot easily pause for refreshment."

"Would you say that you had a particular favorite?"

"Champagne and smoked salmon is always marvelously refreshing," Elsa informed us. "Especially if the crusts are left on the sandwiches."

"The songs, Elsa," said Hilda. "The songs."

"Oh. Of course. I should say... whatever Hilda has arranged."

"Of course," we echoed.

With that out of the way we pursued the issue of Miss Strauss's extraordinarily versatility as a singer. Far from restricting herself to the wide, wide scope offered by the much-beloved English folk song, we were aware that she has a repertoire which includes pieces sung in German, French, Italian, Russian… Finnish… Gaelic…

"Ancient Greek," prompted Hilda.

"...ancient Greek..."

"Persian," Hilda continued.

"And a whole host of other languages," we summarized with an eye towards concision.

"I find it is easiest," said Elsa modestly, "when there is no one in the audience who speaks the language."

"Which is a jolly good bet," said Hilda, "when it comes to Persian."

We quite agreed.

"And if that doesn't work, you can always tell 'em that there are no tickets left."

We found ourselves pondering whether to pursue the question of Miss Strauss's Austrian background, which had been so aptly and insightfully raised by Zopyrus in a Yuletide letter. Though we had put to one side the vexed issue of Miss Strauss's parentage, we remained convinced that we could perhaps uncover the story of how, imperiled by the gathering clouds of war, she had fled her native land and sought sanctuary in the bosom... erm, in the arms... erm, in the household... of her dear friend Hilda Tablet.

(On reflection we decided that perhaps this was a topic best left to another writer.)

Casting about for another question to put to Miss Strauss, we became aware that Dame Hilda was eying us rather pointedly through her monocle.

"Are you sure, Bertie," she said, "quite sure, that this is the sort of stuff Zopyrus wants for Yuletide?"

"What do you mean, Hilda?" we replied warily.

"I mean, wouldn't they prefer something more lively? More dramatic? This is a remarkably static interview. We haven't had so much as a bit of recitative yet. And it isn't even semi-staged! What d'you think the Yuletide reader wants, anyway? A treatise on historical performance practices?"

We found ourselves overcome with a fit of coughing.

"I don't believe so," we answered. "It was a very explicit letter, after all."

"Explicit, old cock, is just what it wasn't! Thought you might want to liven things up a bit. Add a bit of rumpy-pumpy to the mix. Make the Yuletide gay and all that."

"Oh yes," said Evelyn with approval.

We dared not mention Zopyrus's views on the boy Evelyn, which accorded so well with our own. Making the Yuletide gay was, we feared, a task well beyond our abilities. Or taste. After the full frontal nudity that we had inadvertently inflicted upon unsuspecting Third Programme listeners during a previous installment of Dame Hilda's life, we were cautious of anything that might be interpreted as an overt appeal to sensationalism. Perhaps, we concluded, we could settle for making the Yuletide cheerful.

"It's called femslash, don't you know?" said Dame Hilda. "Shocked that a broad-minded chap like you hasn't heard of it, Bertie. It's the very latest thing. Rather like Der Rosenkavalier only more so."

"Hab’ mir’s gelobt, Ihn lieb zu haben in der richtigen Weis’," sang Elsa happily.

With Hilda looking over one shoulder and Evelyn over the other, we found the writing environment becoming rather close. Extricating ourselves with some difficulty (we will refrain from relating Evelyn's parting words, which were accompanied by... but I digress) we returned to our computer at home, where we found that some two thousand, seven hundred twenty-eight messages had been posted to #yuletide chat since our departure for Coptic Street.

Filled with ideas and a new sense of enthusiasm and direction we worked at our computer late into the night, discussing with the denizens of #yuletide such topics as diverse as Adam Lambert, recipes, femslash, cats and, erm, femslash. When finally rosy-fingered dawn began to break over the rooftops and dreaming spires of our fair city, we sighed with a sense of a night well-spent. Such, truly, was the writers' life. Upon looking at our project file we discovered that we had added a grand total of eighty-seven words to our piece.

It was at this point that we first seriously contemplated turning to femslash. Or to drink.

Yet in all our travails and uncertainties we never found a more loyal friend and confidant than Dame Hilda herself, who gave generously of her time and of her gin in our hour of need. Never have we heard such words of encouragement as Dame Hilda vouchsafed to us on that occasion.

"Are you quite sure you're up to it, Bertie?" she said.

Disoriented by lack of sleep, we hardly knew how to reply. "I..."

"Fangirls can be a nasty bunch, you know. The stories I could tell. Turn on you just like that."

And she snapped her fingers, a gesture whose suddenness caught us quite unawares.

"You see?" she continued. "You're as jumpy as a cane plant at a clarinetists' convention. Pale, too. Trembling. Vitamin deficiencies, I dare say. You should try Complevite. Did wonders for poor old Benjie."

'Default' is an ugly word but we must not deny that the idea did pass through our mind in a moment of weakness. Soon we rejected it as unworthy of the trust that had been reposed in us by the generous and, one might say, trusting Yuletide moderators. That trust, reposing as it did, never strayed far from our consciousness. Particularly during the small hours of the morning, when we...

"Are you sure Zopyrus wouldn't prefer some music instead?" broke in Dame Hilda once more, with that subtlety of which she was the master... or possibly the mistress. "I could bash out a tuneful little something for tuba and harmonium in no time flat. Diatonic, even."

"No, no thank you. Very kind of you, very kind indeed, but the rules do specifically mention words…"

Dame Hilda carried on with her attack. With her kind advice, that is.

"I say, old cock," she said. "I say, how many words have you written? It's nearly the twentieth, y'know."

Taking out our laptop we opened once more our word processing programme and noted with a thrill of surprise that we had, in fact, passed the minimum word count some sixteen and a half words previously. (Our inspiration had failed us mid-hyphen.) Heartened, we were just resolving to press onwards when Dame Hilda spoke the portentous sentence that was to alter the whole course of our Yuletide project.

"Why don't you just chuck it in?"

"I beg your pardon?" we replied.

"You've written your thousand," she further expounded. "Why don't you just upload the ruddy thing and be done with it? Have a few rocks fall at the end. Have everyone die. It's traditional in opera, don't y'know."

Hesitant to bring our project to a premature conclusion, we resolved to reject her inappropriate... her unsolicited... her rather intriguing... we resolved to consider further her rather intriguing suggestion.

And after due considering, lasting some fifteen minutes, we proceeded at last to upload our little work of fiction. Inadequate and incomplete though it was, and inadequate and incomplete though it must remain.

Sincerely we hoped that Zopyrus, whom we felt already as if we knew, would be well pleased with our humble excursion into the inviting and flowery yet treacherous fields of literature. As we booked ourselves into the Priory for a short and hopefully restorative visit, we awaited an approving comment on our work.

And, most of all, we hoped that Yuletide would bring Zopyrus half the happiness... as much happiness... possibly even more happiness than it had brought to us.