I cannot remember an Advent that began with the oaks still in full leaf. It is bitterly cold and even the turkeys look like chain smokers as plumes follow their gobble breath, but still the leaves cling on.
The Advent spirit of preparedness once dwelt on by liturgists and poets is now confined to shopping lists, Christmas countdowns by celebrity chefs, thick supplements of luxurious desirables and, most dubious of all, Advent calendars filled with chocolates. That’s a secular step too far for me, and I find myself longing for the good old High Anglican tradition of austerity before the great celebration and feasting of Christmas.
But, in the spirit of truth, I don’t have an austere bone in my body. I love comfort, roaring fires, a plentiful table, cashmere socks and 100watt light bulbs. I aspire towards the plain and simple life, but I’m easily distracted. It was in one of those meditative moments last Advent that I announced to those near and dear to me that I wanted a simpler, purer Christmas. ‘I really don’t want anything for Christmas,’ I said firmly. ‘At least, nothing which is not edible or readable.’ And behold, on Christmas Day, my wishes were honoured: I received four copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and a goat.
The goat, like the three wise men guided by a star, I have to take on faith. It was not mine to eat, but a Toggenburg nanny goat given in my name to a family in a Kenyan village. My husband was alarmed: ‘Goats are an ecological disaster. They devour all vegetation.’ My sister was pragmatic: ‘Trade it for a Mongolian goat and you can diversify into cashmere.’ Only Sam was sensitive: ‘A goat and a bale of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Bad luck.’
What troubled me about the Trussian quartet was this: did my kind donors perceive a need? Had they been troubled by my feckless commas and wayward apostrophes? This was painful to consider for two reasons: my greatest literary hero is the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, and the only book that has followed me from country to country, without fail, is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, revised by E. B. White.
Every few years, I reread The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but Mr Kundera is my hero because he once fired a publisher who replaced a semicolon with a full stop. As for Mr Strunk, he put my feet on solid ground with Rule 1: Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s. Follow the rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write: Charles’s wife Camilla; Miss Truss’s best-sellers. But his Rule 13 has been the guiding light of my life: ‘Omit needless words.’ Pinned on the wall above my desk is his elaboration on the theme of brevity: ‘Vigourous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.’
What a noble mission: be bold, be brief, be clear. Mr Strunk had no patience with the vague and the hesitant: ‘If you do not know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! Don’t compound ignorance with inaudibility.’
The Elements of Style is like an Advent hymn, praising the beauty of austerity and the power of preparedness. However, this year I will not dictate to my nearest and dearest to ‘Omit needless presents’. I am aware that Miss Truss has a new volume out on the subject of manners, but my grandmother was the Mr Strunk of that field. ‘Manners,’ she stated with unforgettable audibility, ‘are more important than brains.’
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 8, 2005.