This year Christmas passed with a lot of food, a lot of beer, some antique board gaming, and some movie time. A traditional Christmas!
If any time is a time for tradition, Christmas is that time. Enacting its rituals – Christian, pagan and secular – connects us with loved ones far away, or with our former selves, as we step off of the onward rush of things for a few days of light in the darkness and trees in the parlour.
Fittingly, this year’s movie rituals involved films that, like Christmas, all do strange things with time.
On New Year’s Day my wife and I took off to see the new episode in the Star Wars sequence, The Last Jedi. Like all the best epics, this sequence started in media res, its sequels prequels and the sequels to those prequels sequels to the originals. The latest offering delivers great action, some nice performances, and a reminder of how good film music used to be. That wealth of good stuff almost distracts from a story that plays like a weak episode of Star Trek.
A week earlier, on Christmas Day, we shared one of our favourite pictures with the family: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This is another film that throws Aristotle’s unities out of the window to chronicle the events of decades, covering the life (although, curiously, not the death) of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, loosely based on David Low’s cartoon-strip character, Colonel Blimp, from 1902 to 1940.
In common with many of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films, there is an uncanny element in Colonel Blimp: the three characters Candy meets at different points in his life played, with pointed delineation but fine subtlety, by Deborah Kerr.
First comes the strong-willed Edith Hunter, the English-language teacher who causes a diplomatic incident in Berlin: Candy realises, too late, that he is in love with her. Sixteen years later, during the First World War, he catches sight of field nurse Barbara Wynne, who bears a striking resemblance to Edith: back in England, he seeks her out and they are married. Another 22 years pass, and, after Barbara has died, we find that Candy’s Mechanised Transport Corp driver, Angela “Jonny” Cannon, is also a ringer for the young Barbara/Edith.
“You may say that she was my ideal – if you were some sort of sickening, long-haired poet,” Wynne-Candy remarks of Edith. Indeed, we may – but Edith/Barbara/Jonny comment as much upon how the hard realities of class and gender have changed as they do on the continuity of “ideals”. This is a little miracle in a film so perfectly balanced that, thanks to one of the greatest screen performance of all time by Roger Livesey, a character subjected to often angry satire emerges as one of the most beloved in British cinema.
A great film must be accompanied by a great beer of equally perfect balance. On this occasion, it was Girardin’s superb “Black Label” 1882 Gueuze, which starts with a slightly acetic mustiness before exploding onto the palate like a very dry, effervescent champagne, augmented with grapefruit, apple and orange zest.
Before that, we enjoyed a bottle of my own “Bruinette”, an attempt at Orval that went off-piste. Brewed in the summer of 2016 after a holiday in Wallonia, and fermented with a Saison-Brettanomyces yeast blend, this is one of the best-looking beers I have made, a deep, clear bronze topped off with a rocky foam. Unfortunately, when young the sweetness of its Caramalt clashed with its cardamom spice mix and musty yeast. Eighteen months later, the beer has dried out and become much more integrated – in place of mess we have something approaching complexity.
Alongside Star Wars and Colonel Blimp, our third Christmas film ritual was Edgar Reitz’s 25-hour, 13-part sequence, Die Zweite Heimat. Early in 2017, we watched the 11 Heimat films for the first time. Die Zweite Heimat became a Christmas stocking present as a result.
Heimat: Eine Deutsche Chronik, rather like Colonel Blimp, tells a story of social change over decades. In this instance it is the story of the rural German village of Schabbach, centred on the character of Maria Simon, between 1919 and 1982. As with the Star Wars sequences, its sequel, Die Zweite Heimat: Chronik Einer Jugend, does not simply pick up the story in 1982. Instead it focuses on one character, Maria’s son Hermann, and compresses the action to a single decade, the 1960s.
“Die zweite Heimat”, literally “second homeland”, is often translated as “leaving home”. The ambiguity is deliberate. As Reitz explained, the second homeland is the one we make as adults, the place we choose of our own free will as distinct from the one into which we are born.
The idea was set out in episode 10 of the original Heimat, where we see Hermann’s burgeoning career as a composer in the big city of Munich in 1969, and witness a growing alienation and lack of comprehension between mother and son. When Maria and the other Schabbach villagers gather to listen to one of Hermann’s compositions on the radio, it is clear that it is all too modern for them. Die Zweite Heimat begins with Hermann entering the music conservatory in Munich and establishing himself among the cosmopolitan avant-garde, and develops that theme: a generation coming of age in the 1960s, attempting to break away from the world of its parents – the world of war, Nazism, and, indeed, “homeland”.
Nonetheless, it is notable that the best-travelled character in these films – Juan, the Chilean immigrant whose 11 languages include Esperanto and Mandarin – is also the most nostalgic. He fails to get into the conservatory because the professors find his marimba playing “too much like folklore”. He delights in making enchiladas for his Munich friends. As he learns German, he becomes fascinated with the word “Sehnsucht”.
My parents, who are just five or six years younger than Hermann in Die Zweite Heimat, now live some 500 kilometres from where they were born. My brother and I live not 35 kilometres from our birthplace. Maybe it’s a baby-boomer thing?
On the other hand, my brother has lived in three other countries (including a stint in Munich, coincidentally) and has a decent grasp of three other languages. And as we made our way “home” to our parents for Christmas, we took the road out of the great metropolis of London towards the Schabbach-like sleepiness of the West Country.
When we arrived, it was time for beer.
We began with another echo of Munich: my father’s homebrewed, clove-forward Weiβbier. That was followed by his light, American-hopped IPA. Later we turned to my own, re-worked “Pacific Northwest” Double IPA, which is bitter, fruity, and as aromatic of pine resin as a three-week-old Christmas tree.
One of the events recounted during Die Zweite Heimat is the building of the Berlin Wall. It makes its first appearance in a radio announcement in the second episode, set in 1961.
That was also the year in which board-game manufacturer John Waddington Limited brought out Go! – The International Travel Game, in which players compete to race around the world collecting souvenirs. My father’s first-edition set of this long-defunct game came out for a spin on Christmas Day.
Playing board games is always a bit nostalgic. But Go! evokes these feelings like no other. Like Clive Candy, it is very much of its era, caught somewhere between the exoticism of Empire and the age of mass air travel. The Berlin Wall was just going up – you can collect a beer stein for a souvenir if you go there – but while the game allows for travel to Moscow, there is no trace of Vienna or any other destination in the empty wasteland of Eastern Europe. Play involves a lot of tortuous mental arithmetic converting long-lost currencies like francs, marks, lira and piastres. The “Risk” cards can see you blown off course on a transoceanic voyage, or thrown into quarantine to avoid the spread of smallpox. There are mysterious brands like BOAC, redolent of another age.
I remember rolling the Go! die in my childhood. But it rather boggles the mind to think that my father was only 14 or 15 years old when he first sat and played on this set. Tucked under the yellowing instruction booklet was a second set of the game’s complex ticket-price schedules, written in his rather baroque schoolboy hand – very different from the spidery script he produces today, after decades calibrating his fingers to the business of turning metal on a lathe.
And so, while the game is a race against time in which one can cross an oceans in 10 minutes and two throws of a die, playing it seems to slow down time and stretch it out. It’s a little like the static but sped-up shot of the Munich skyline that sits beneath the opening credits of Die Zweite Heimat: stillness belying furious movement, jet airliners zipping across the night sky like shooting stars.
Accordingly, we accompanied Go! with a stately, ponderous, take-it-slow beer in the form of a 2016 Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw from Brouwerij Het Anker. Dark, sticky, full-bodied, boozy and liquorice-laced, this vintage was perhaps a little too sweet and could have benefitted from a few more years in the cellar – but, after all, those characteristics went well on Christmas Day.
Go! was not a hit for Waddington like Monopoly or Cluedo. Board-game enthusiasts point to a number of problems, chiefly the requirement to roll precisely the right number to finish an air, train, sea or road journey from one city to another. Inevitably, players get stuck one or two jumps from their destination and haplessly roll threes and fives, turn after turn after turn.
It’s not exactly enthralling. But it is a bit like real life. Who would deny that, the closer one gets to one’s imagined destination in life, career, or whatever, the fewer one’s options become, and the more incremental one’s progress?
The indulgent beers continued once we had returned home on Boxing Day. On the 27th, we simmered a joint of gammon in a liquor of water, sugar, spices, salt and Miłosław Koźlak, a sort of Doppelbock from Poland’s Browar Fortuna.
I saved some to drink, of course, and found it sweet and malty with a liquorice-and-aniseed finish. It carried its 7.5% ABV well but turned a little medicinal after a few sips. When it came to eating the gammon we turned to Andechs’ Doppelbock Dunkel, from a bottle I had picked up from the Kloster itself back in August.
The next day we shared two bottles of Het Anker’s Carolus Christmas, bought a year ago on a trip to Brussels. This is probably my favourite festive beer, full of sugar and spice and all things nice, and unashamedly boozy.
The 30th saw us taking supper with our neighbours. I smuggled two homebrews along the street – another “Pacific Northwest” and a very dark Stout from early 2017 called “None More Black”. For an apertif I took a bottle of Deus Brut Des Flandres by Brouwerij Bosteels, a curiosity fermented with Champagne yeast and shipped to the Champagne region for traditional turning on its lees and disgorgement. The result is a lively, light-bodied beer that conceals its wine-like strength behind an odd flavour profile of honey, marzipan and shaving foam.
Real Champagne followed on New Year’s Eve, of course, but not before another beer as a warm-up. Einstök Ölgerð make Icelandic White Ale, a Witbier that was the perfect contrast with everything Christmassy that had gone before: exceptionally pale and crystal-clear, but with a slightly rounded texture from a touch of oats in the mash, its flavours of orange zest, coriander and herbal hops deployed with incomparable understatement. It’s is exemplary in its own subtle way.
A week into the New Year and a month after it began primary fermentation, I finally racked my Barley Wine, “Memento Mori”. The yeast gave up at a finishing gravity of 1.046, leaving behind a sweet beer of just under 10% ABV. As a last reminder of our Christmas drinking the bottling process filled my kitchen with the smell of malt and liquorice, as if it had been flooded with Gouden Carolus.
The bottle-conditioning process promises to be as languid as the primary fermentation. I will keep it warm for a week, transfer it to the cellar, and then try to resist temptation for six months before the first tasting. Should that meet with the all-important hiss of escaping carbon dioxide, I will face the challenge of leaving the beer to mature to its full potential over the next five, seven, 10 years.
Who knows, perhaps the next time I sit down to play Go!, a decade from now, I will build another layer of time on the experience by pouring a few glasses of “Memento Mori”, and ponder how things have changed since the beer was first brewed? Perhaps, perhaps – if, to coin a phrase, I were some sort of sickening, long-haired poet.