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Some Literary Feats for Your Yule Stockings

December 03, 1986|MARY BLUME | Mary Blume is a Paris-based free-lance writer. and

LONDON — Viscount Norwich's bright and handsome living room in the London neighborhood of Maida Vale doesn't look like Santa Claus' workshop. But within, final page proofs are being read for the perfect Christmas stocking gift, a slim volume with an austere label: "A Christmas Cracker, being a commonplace selection by John Julius Norwich."

(The title derives from the British tradition of putting Christmas crackers alongside dinner plates at Christmas dinner. These are rolls of decorative paper that contain miniature toys, costume jewelry, tissue paper party hats, mottoes and jokes and conundrums. Following the Christmas meal, the crackers are tugged between diners, a small cap cracks, trinkets and favors fall free to be shared and to continue the family celebration of Christmas.)

Fetching Fancy Prices

Viscount Norwich began to compile his 24-page anthologies for friends in 1970. Now he produces about 2,000 additional copies each year, which are on sale, he says, in most good U.K. book shops and also in one or two perfectly awful ones. Selected stores in New York are taking them on and this year the distinguished hamburger purveyor Joe Allen has ordered 200 copies. Penguin Books has published an anthology of the first 10 years and certain single issues fetch fancy prices in second-hand bookstores.

Christmas Crackers are compiled with discreet skill and grace from whatever attracts Lord Norwich: letters and diaries and gravestones and poems, of course, but also boastful Who's Who entries, indexes from biographies, word games such as palindromes, holorhymes and mnemonics, and such oddities as a review from the American outdoors magazine Field and Stream concerning the recent re-publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover":

" . . . This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper.

"Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's 'Practical Gamekeeper'."

The Crackers never include much about Christmas because, Lord Norwich says, there isn't much written about Christmas, a rare exception being a 1977 entry from "Love's Labour's Lost:"

At Christmas I no more desire a

rose

Than wish a snow in May's

new-fangled mirth.

The tone is elegiac, humorously understated: the song of a gifted English amateur. The son of the late Sir Alfred Duff Cooper, first Viscount Norwich, and of the late Lady Diana Cooper, John Julius Norwich is a broadcaster, writer and respected historian of Venice. "I'm now working on a history of the Byzantine Empire, which will keep me off the streets for the next 10 years. I have a horrible feeling it may be three volumes, though I am trying to keep it down to two. The story does go on for 1,123 years.

'I'm a Popularizer'

"I'm not a scholar, I'm a popularizer. I only use printed sources, I don't go burrowing down into dusty libraries. I can't read Byzantine Greek, apart from anything else, so there's no point in trying."

He does show a nice gift in his "Christmas Crackers" for translation from French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. He even includes an Icelandic lullaby, which begins "Sofur thu swid thitt/Svartur i 'augum" and which in translation means:

Sleep, you black-eyed pig.

Fall into a deep pit full of ghosts.

About 25 years ago, his mother gave John Julius for his birthday a beautiful volume bound in blue Nigerian goatskin, with some 150 blank pages. She had intended it to be used as a diary or a visitor's book, but he doesn't keep a diary and was at the time in the Foreign Service based in the explosive Middle East, where few visitors called. So he started jotting down, in elegant hand, phrases that caught his fancy and from these culled the first Christmas Cracker. It was a fairly characteristic volume with quotations from Milton, Parson Kilvert, and two dictionary definitions:

BAFFONA, f. Woman with a not unpleasing mustache.

--Hoare's Short Italian Dictionary

CARPHOLOGY. Delirious fumbling with the bedclothes, etc.

--Concise Oxford Dictionary

Also included in the first Cracker was a selection from "Reading Without Tears, or a Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read" (1860) which Lord Norwich's mother had used to teach him to read:

What is the mat-ter with that

lit-tle boy?

He has ta-ken poison. He saw a

cup of poi-son

on the shelf. He said 'This seems

sweet stuff.'

So he drank it.

Lord Norwich used the same book to teach his own children and they enjoyed it as much as he did, he says.

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