The lull between Christmas and New Year is as nice as being pregnant. You aren’t expected to accomplish anything of great significance. You don’t have to lay a hedge, write a novel or slaughter a pig. You can give into self-tending, sit in front of a fire, walk dogs, eat the last of the goose and, unlike in modern pregnancy, indulge guiltlessly in the last glass of late-harvest Riesling.
You can read new books, nod off, wake up and eat a chocolate truffle. Although the ice on water troughs must be whacked and animals fed, no endeavour needing conscience-wrestling is required.It’s also a time to indulge in things you think you never have time to do. Make telephone calls to friends who deserve letters. Watch DVDs that have been waiting since Easter.
And there’s time to think about absent friends. I always liked the day in early November when the French put flowers on the graves of their loved ones, not just those who died in war. My version of La Toussaint is in the quietude after Christmas when there is a pause in the barrenness of being busy and I can think about friends and family I can no longer call or write or talk to.
It was in this vein of fertilis-ante douleur that I began thinking about my old companion in the pages of Country Life, Christo-pher Lloyd. Ever since I learned that the archives of Desert Island Discs are available on iPlayer, I’ve been meaning to listen to Christo’s. I’ve heard it twice: on the Sunday morning in August 2000 when it was first broadcast, and again at the ‘birthday’ party at Great Dixter, in March 2006, two months after he died.
I never expect to succeed at downloading anything, but I googled ‘Christopher Lloyd on Desert Island Discs’ and up it came. Within seconds, Sue Lawley was introducing Christo. For 45 sublime minutes, I was in the company of my civilised, educated, talented and brave friend. If heaven is meeting up with those we have loved, listening to those friends on iPlayer, hearing their voices-the familiar chuckles, the wit and the passion is the best dress rehearsal for that ultimate reunion.
For readers of Christo’s column in Country Life, 40 years of In My Garden without missing a week, his love and deep know-ledge of music is a revelation. He credits this to a music master at Rugby, Kenneth Stubbs, who inspired a generation of boys. Christo began with the oboe before taking up the piano, and his first choice of music was the opening of the 2nd movement of Poulenc’s trio. His second choice was Arthur Rubenstein playing Brahm’s Intermezzo Op 117 in B flat minor. Listening confirmed my suspicions about the programme: the music used to be much longer, so you got a real flavour. Now, it’s unbalanced, too much talk and the snippets of music have become meaningless.
Of course, not all the guests on Desert Island Discs have Christo’s wonderful musical taste. And
I missed hearing details about his life that were such a part of him: his love of cooking, his genius for friendship, his irascible dogs, his generosity, his mischievous humour. I’d forgotten that he knew Vita Sackville-West, had been ‘blessed’ at age six by Gertrude Jekyll. Listeners didn’t learn that he read Modern Languages at King’s College, Cambridge, and after National Service studied horticulture at Wye College, but more facts might have been at the expense of knowing the man through the music.
When I first heard this broadcast, I began reading the book he chose, Flaubert’s letters, a perfect choice because Christo was a great letter writer. Forced to take just one piece of music, he chose Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I’m listening to them now. I haven’t succumbed to his luxury Syndicate whisky that he got from Edinburgh-but as soon as I press ‘Send’, I’ll follow suit. I’ll drink to the year ahead, and to the gardener, writer and friend I miss a little bit all the time.