I love P L Travers’ ‘Mary Poppins’ books. I never read them as a kid, I wasn’t really aware of them. I guess the ten year old me would have thought of them (dismissively, wistfully) as ‘girl’s books.’ But they are strange, knotty, magical books – with a dash of Edith Nesbit and a pagan whiff of Worzel Gummidge about them.
‘The Fox at the Manger’ – which is republished early next month by good old Virago – is a handsome gift-sized hardback containing one short Christmas story by Travers (and several very handsome Thomas Bewick animal engravings. If you ever come across it, do read Jenny Uglow’s book on Bewick!)
(I wish every writer I love had a Christmas story of their own. One that could be published in its own little stocking-sized hardback. My favourite of all must be Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’ – which is such a clichéd, obvious choice that it’s hardly worth bringing up, really. Though I do love it.)
Travers’ book is an altogether rarer and more obscure tale. It has a feeling of being brought out of the past – out of a post-war Britain, in which the bells of St Pauls (as we are told at the start) are ringing for the first time following the hostilities. It’s a world in which mothers tell their children the story of the nativity on Christmas Eve. A world that seems quaint now and faraway, somehow.
The nub of this tale (and can you believe I’m reading Christmas stories already, when we’re still a week short of Hallowe’en..?) is an innocent question about the nativity, and why all the animals at the manger in the stable in Bethlehem were all domestic animals? Weren’t there any wild animals present, offering gifts?
And so the mother sits down and tells them a story – she extemporizes a tale. Or is she possessed by some kind of benign, Christmassy spirit? And the tale she tells of the fox has about it some of the outdoorsy wildness of the Mary Poppins stories – with their pagan gods and personifcations of abstractions, living stars and wild beings from across the galaxy – all of whom are in thrall to Mary.
In this new nativity tale the fox comes creeping into the manger and it’s all about what gift he will bring to the Baby Jesus. How pleased with themselves all the other animals and visitors seem when they talk about what they’ve donated. The fox’s gift – I won’t spoil it here – is actually quite touching. The bit where the baby sits up and starts talking – that’s a bit creepy, I think.
It’s a nice little book, like something fallen down the back of an old aunty’s shelves. A funny little present from the past.