What we're reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Photo: Liz Seabrook

Photo: Liz Seabrook

In issue 34, four writers shared the books they like to dip into, again and again. Here Jason Ward shares why, for him, December always means returning to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 


It’s surely not a coincidence that our most ebullient rituals occur during the bleakest days of the year. As winter batters its fists upon the windows, tradition is a friendly face at the door, a comforting visitor to help us ignore the darkness outside. Without even noticing, Christmas rites accumulate naturally around us. We listen to the same songs every year as we put lights on the tree, make the same biscuits we always make, watch the same Christmas specials that we could recite by heart. For the satisfaction they bring, we observe these events as closely as if they had been ordained.

Here’s a ritual of mine, then: every December I listen to a different audiobook of A Christmas Carol. An unabridged reading takes around three hours, so I’m able to get through it over a couple of crisp, lonely walks. In keeping with the oral tradition that fomented literature, A Christmas Carol is not a story you’re meant to read, but rather one you’re meant to have read to you. Dickens himself did this for 127 audiences during his lifetime, including his final public reading.

Like a bicycle or the zip on a jacket, we take A Christmas Carol for granted because it works perfectly. Possessing the quality of a fable, the story unfolds with such pleasurable inevitability that it’s difficult to imagine someone actually sat down and toiled over its nouns and verbs, that Ebenezer Scrooge and his misery didn’t always exist somewhere. Not wasting a moment, its elegant narrative works like a machine: there’s a reason why two centuries later we’re still telling the story to ourselves, not just through adaptations but versions starring everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone.

Despite the Bob Cratchit in my head bearing a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog, however, I am helplessly, joyfully drawn to the original text. I love how its opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – manages to be spooky and witty at the same time. I love that it’s written with a noble purpose and yet Dickens can’t resist showing off how clever he is. Most of all, I love the meaning of the tradition in my life. Every year, wandering the same city as Scrooge once did, I’m provided with a reminder that change is achievable, and that it is always possible to be one’s best, most compassionate self. 


For more tales of Return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

What we're reading: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

In our adventure issue, we wrote about books we read while visiting the place they were set: London, The Cairngorms, the French Riviera and Toronto. But there were plenty of loved tomes we couldn't squeeze onto our pages. Here's one said outtake. Not read where it was set, but read on the move. Which is, more often than not in the busy city we're based in, where we do the bulk of our reading. Our lifestyle editor Liz Seabrook shares her thoughts on Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

It took me a little over four months to read Midnight’s Children. I realise this doesn’t sound overwhelmingly positive, but let me explain. I can only read when in transit, and – as I usually cycle – sitting still with nothing to do is a rare luxury. My time spent with my nose among pages tends to be limited. 

Midnight’s Children tells the story of three generations of a family, starting with the conception of the protagonist’s parents, to his own conception and his life up until it catches up with his present day. The history of India and Pakistan are charted alongside personal histories, journeys are taken, houses are moved out of and people are lost. The plot – though for the most part chronological – is dense and interwoven with heady descriptions that conjure each and every scene in technicolour. 

In the course of reading the book, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, saw my sister graduate, travelled through the Alps to Austria to visit an old friend and made new friends who I’ve since lost touch with. For those four months, I had a much needed travelling companion in the shape of a midnight blue, 500 or so page paperback. In that time our stories intertwined; as I sat curled up in a train carriage in Austria with Sigur Ros playing in my ears, my mind was transported to watching a boy in Bombay cycle about trying to impress a girl six months older than him. 

As I turned the last page, my heart sank; I was losing a friend. I didn’t start to read another book for a while after that. Partly because I was back in London, riding around, but partly because I was scared nothing would measure up. I’m still unsure if anything has. 

Image and Words: Liz Seabrook


To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here


What we're reading: Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

For the adventure issue, four of our writers shared reflections on books set in the very place they read them. Frances Ambler fell in love with London decades after Colin MacInnes did so in Absolute Beginners, but found very little had changed in the years since its publication--the city streets still paved with grime and gold.


Frances Ambler on Absolute Beginners

Written in 1958, and set over that year’s hot summer, Absolute Beginners shows London’s stiff upper lip and seedy underbelly through the eyes of a 19-year-old photographer. As a fresh arrival to the city, the book captures the thrill of experiencing London for the first time. 

Spending hours mentally cataloguing the style of those strutting the streets around me, I loved the book’s descriptions of “grey pointed alligator casuals” paired with a “pink neon pair of ankle crepe nylon-stretch”, and the city cool of its slang and its coffee bars. I escaped into music and I discovered that in the 1950s it was jazz clubs where “not a soul cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door”.

The city gave me space to be different. In Absolute Beginners, the unnamed narrator has left his family’s home in a run-down corner of Pimlico for an even more dilapidated bedsit in Notting Hill. His neighbours are those who are on the fringes of society in the 1950s – whether
for reasons of sexuality or race – who can find a relative liberty amid the poverty. Except, as violently demonstrated by the final section set in the Notting Hill race riots, London isn’t always that tolerant. 

I’m amazed how Absolute Beginners – at almost 60 years old – still captures London. It’s always shifting – like the narrator, I find myself marvelling at yet more “big new high blocks of glass-built flats” going up – fed by a constant influx of people. Even now, after over a decade of living in the city, I sometimes catch my breath at the cinerama of the Thames – where the “show’s never, never twice the same” – and the realisation that I call this place home. I’m with the narrator as he affirms, “My god, I love this city, horrible though it may be, and never ever want to leave it, come what it may send me”.


Image: Liz Seabrook, Words: Frances Ambler

To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here