|by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. One of the most marvelous things about the Internet is that wherever you are the riches of the world are just a few keystrokes away, and this is never more true than at Christmas, when you can, wherever you are, remember, access what the most fertile, inventive, and creative minds crafted to celebrate the birth of our Messiah. It is a feast, a banquet, an embarras de choix that never palls, even if you do have distinct touches of Scrooge about you.
One of my favorite Christmas carols never fails to exult, thrill, and cleanse. I always feel better hearing it... and if you know it, I suspect you feel the same. It's called "Carol of the Bells," and if you don't know it, it's my pleasure to introduce it to you. You'll be glad to have it. Either way, go to any search engine to find it. There are many fine versions.
Play it now... turn it up and up again. This is no pallid anthem but a stirring declaration that something of transcendent importance is about to occur... and the bells are ringing out to ensure you don't miss it and are not late.
It is of Ukrainian origin; a 1904 choral miniature work by Mykola Leontovych, set to the words of an ancient Ukrainian pagan chant. It tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful and bountiful year that that fortunate family will have. Given the rocky road we've all traveled this year, I am sure you hope that swallow visits you... as I do.
I was just 26 in 1974, the time in one's life when, having assiduously pursued education, self-improvement and development, one is ready to stride life's stage and announce to the world that you are ready to demonstrate your powers and do your bit, however small, to make things better on terra firma. You have your health, your teeth, an ample mane, and that crucial "never say die" attitude, so necessary, sure to be sorely tested in the days ahead. You can be certain of that. In short, you're as ready for life as you'll ever be. And that life bloomed for me in 1974.... when I set out, like the protagonist of every great novel, not just to see the world, but to conquer it.
And so this year, I tasted life, and tasted deep I tell you, in the city where everyone finds the England -- and the life -- they desire... London.
London, beloved, rich, desired, accepting.
If one believes in Fate, as I didn't then but believe now, I encountered mine in what I regarded, not alone either, as the greatest city on earth... where every minute was like the best champagne and every person delivered gifts one had waited a lifetime to receive and was ready to savor. In this year, in this city everything was possible... so long as one was bold enough to dream it, bold enough to seize it. And I was... and I did.
Robert Montgomery Scott.... His Excellency will be pleased...
I can see him clearly in my mind's eye... and will never forget. He was a gentleman to his fingertips... which meant cordial manners, polished speech, and, most of all, consideration; for a gentleman is nothing without that. When I entered his office in the Embassy of my United States, in Grosvenor Square, he was direct, but most kind; I could see at once he meant to be my benefactor...
I had written Walter Annenberg, U.S. Ambassador that year, to see if he would assist me in gaining access to the Royal pageants I was studying and wished to see at first hand. Ambassador Annenberg, a titan of American media, richer than Croessus, was the best kind of envoy being gifted with means and the desire to disperse them liberally. He also understood the need that media have for never- ending content and the need to encourage the creators of such content, people like me. And so he asked the debonair Mr. Scott to receive the young Harvard man and see what could be done. He was no doubt scrutinizing me, drawing his own conclusions; that was his job. But the scrutiny was oblique, a chat, not an inquisition. And after this most amiable inspection he said, "For the next year, whenever the Ambassador is invited to any Royal ceremony, you shall go as a member of his official party."
The skies had opened and the road below was clear. I was grateful then... and grateful now because he -- and the Ambassador -- had given me just what I needed, just when I needed it. And how often does that happen in even the longest life? But it was happening to me, in 1974, in London, and I put the bit between my teeth and relished the run.
That summer there was a shower of largesse... not least because of the Harvard Traveling Fellowship bestowed on me, a Fellowship which made it all possible. I went to the annual ceremony of every order of chivalry... the Bath, the Order of the British Empire, the St.Michael and St. George, and delved deep into the mysteries of Thistle, St. Patrick, and Garter. I loved every minute of it and, for current use and later reflection and proof that I had lived, wrote it all down, fodder for many articles to come. I had occasion to thank the Ambassador over and over again...
... especially on the day when I attended the ceremony marking the 25th wedding anniversary of H.M. The Queen and her Consort of Edinburgh. My reserved place was right behind one of Prince Philip's sisters, as if I were a sprig of the Family Royal myself.
But money at an end and the pressing need to harness reality brought me back to Cambridge, to Harvard, to graduate, to get a job I was perhaps destined to hate; how could the mundane details of "real" life compare?
But I had a scheme... to write my way to freedom... and so back to London where in due course I returned in December of 1977, there to hand-deliver a proposal for my first book, to Hamish Hamilton the famous publisher whose ranks I wished to join.
No knock. Just a letter.
It was Christmas Eve, 1977. My friends and I were going to Covent Garden, dressed to the nines, bright, mordant, as sophisticated as earnest money and deadly effect could make us.
Just before we left, a letter was slipped under the door... it was hand addressed to me. I opened it with alacrity only to read, "I regret to inform you..." It was on Hamish Hamilton's stationery. I didn't complete the letter and was marooned in such unhappiness no Sugar Plum fairy could lift my spirits.
Upon returning, I saw the letter, on the floor. Robert Dobson, so often in the right place at the right time, picked it up and said, "Hadn't you better read this?"
And so I did... and in instant, a single instant, there was "Joy to the World" in my heart as my now editor Roger Machell wrote, "I regret to inform you we cannot accept your proposal as written but if you make a few minor changes..." A contract and cheque were waiting for me after Christmas at his office. And so "Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and Confusion at Queen Victoria's Court" was born... and another benefactor stepped forward, Christmas Eve mind, to advance my career and provide succor.
Now it my turn, 64 this year as I am, to give to others in remembrance of the many, now too often gone before, who have given to me. God having blessed me so, and especially that unforgettable Christmas, makes that imperative, pressing, essential, a great joy and comfort.