This year, Christmas felt like a good funeral. The nervous adrenaline that flows in a crisis saw to it that beds were sensitively made up with electric blankets for guests who like instant warmth and new hot-water bottles for those who believe electric blankets disrupt biorhythms. The mangers were filled with sweet new hay, the tree from our woods smelled like balsam from Maine, log fires burned in three rooms at all times, and food and drink appeared so regularly it seemed as if Cook had returned from a 22-year sabbatical.
The music was perfect: a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in St Edmundsbury Cathedral on the 23rd, the King’s College version on the radio on the 24th, back to the cathedral for Festal Eucharist on Christmas morning, and, in the peaceful interlude after Christmas, the Epiphany Singers in the beautiful wool church in the next door village of Walsham-le-Willows. And then, like the days following a funeral, we began to feel the absence.
The house emptied, the needles fell from the tree as if it had received a jolt of chemotherapy, and even the pashmina of snow that covered the fieldscouldn’t disguise the sense of loss. Epiphany is a word I love. When I was six, I proposed it as the name for our new spaniel puppy, but was defeated in a family vote. Years later, I learnt that it was Greek for something made clear’. I reckon this is what we all yearn for: a kind of mental (I could say spiritual) fog light beamed at the road ahead. We’re not asking for a technicolour TomTom, we don’t have to know the destination, we just need to be able to see the road.
The economist Paul Krugman, his Nobel Prize for Economics still shiny as a new penny, confesses that he believes that calling these times a ‘recession’ is understating the case. Manufacturing is plunging everywhere, banks aren’t lending, business and consumers aren’t spending. ‘Let’s not mince words,’ he says. ‘This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.’ Although I hope that the great economist is wrong, I am thankful for his clarity of language.
The words ‘credit crunch’ have a temporary sound to them, a suggestion of inconvenience, of irritation, but not disaster. Recession is more serious, but it also sounds transient until you lose your job, lose your house, lose your balance. But ‘Depression’, with its black-and-white images by Walker Evans and the words of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is something different. Perhaps mine is the last generation to have lived with the memory of the Great Depression, not because we were born then, but because we grew up hearing the haunted stories of farms lost, dreamsabandoned, talents wasted. Despite the predictions of a few sage thinkers, this crisis feels as sudden as the Epiphany floods of 1953 when half of Holland drowned and the North Sea swept into East Anglia for miles, drowning hundreds of people in a few hours.
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But for every voice that says ‘I saw this coming’, there is a chorus silently wondering ‘Where has all the money gone?’ Where is Mr Madoff’s $50 billion? Where are the millions and billions lost by the banks that two generations of taxpayers will be shoring up like creaking wooden huts? What’s happened to all the money poured into the banks? And how can politicians be so out of touch as to believe that reducing VAT 2% would stop the descent?
It’s a simple enough plea: we want to know where we stand. We hope it is In the Bleak Midwinter and not Apocalypse Now, but we need to know. And so the year starts in mourning: for shops dressed in gaudy ‘closing-down sale’ signs; for young friends, graduates with good degrees, who can’t even find minimum-wage jobs; for the soldiers whose ‘family have been informed’ and the victims of the war in Gaza, a bitter roll call that follows the economic death knell each morning on the Today programme. And we wait, for ‘something made clear’.