One of the many pleasures of reading classic Christmas books is the way they open a window into the past in an especially vivid way. More than just present another idealised vision of Victorian festivities, the best of them can highlight the small details and forgotten language of Christmas’s past. As Piers Torday’s delightful stage adaptation reminded me, few books do this more effectively than John Masefield’s The Box of Delights.
Everyone remembers the phrase, ‘the wolves are running’, but John Masefield’s book is packed with many more examples of wonderfully evocative language. But what do they all mean? ‘
‘“Would you mind frightfully, if we stopped at Bob’s and got some muffins? Only you’ll have to lend me some tin, for my purse is gone. I haven’t a tosser to my kick.”
“Now Kay, you mustn’t use slang in the holidays.”’
Kay Harker’s guardian might not like it, but John Masefield makes a real feature of these odd little phrases. ‘A tosser to my kick’, for example, is to have no money. Tosser means ‘Coin’, as in the tossing of a coin perhaps. A kick is a trouser leg with an empty pocket. The term that also crops up in Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea, appropriately used by the permanently skint Dido Twite, who is playing cards with nothing to gamble. The reason for Kay’s temporary poverty occurs in the previous scene when he is robbed blind by two fox faced card sharks.
‘“Now, I’m going to swing,” the old man said, “and keep it, you, young Master, from rolling me over, if you will be so gracious.” He swung his bundle up to his shoulder; and, indeed, if Kay had not been there to steady it, the load might have pulled him over; he had a frail little old withered body, “like the ghost of ninepence,” as he said.’
Kay is aided in his plight by a kindly old man with a twinkle in his eye called Cole Hawlings. When they first meet he presents himself as infirm. The eye catching description, ‘the ghost of ninepence’ is slightly cryptic. It appears to be some sort of derivation of ‘right as a ninepence’, one of many similar proverbs meaning fit and well, the most widely used today being ‘right as rain.’ The ‘ghost of’ part of the description comes from the 17th century meaning, “slight suggestion, mere shadow or semblance”. Could Cole Hawlings even be alluding to the theft that is about to befall Kay?
“Time and tide and buttered eggs wait for no man.”
Cole Hawling’s bids Kay farewell with one of the book’s best loved sayings. It combines the story’s great recurring features – comfort food and a harking back to England’s past. ‘Time and tide wait for no man,’ is an old phrase, the earliest known record dating from 1225. It refers to things beyond man’s control; time is particularly important here, as the box of delights allows Kay to do just such a thing, taking him back to Roman Britain, into Arthurian legend and the Arcadian world of Herne the Hunter.
“Young folks in this generation, you don’t know what a posset is. Well, a posset,” said the inspector, “is a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ‘em well up, and you get into bed and then you take ‘em down hot.”
More old comfort food suggestions come later from the unhelpful local policeman who prescribes the drink, which dates back to the middle ages, as a means for Kay to put excitable thoughts of kidnap out of his head. A jorum is a large cup, possibly of silver or gold, which adds a slightly chivalric note. A ‘hegg’ is presumably an egg.
‘”They don’t take salt pork any more,” Peter said. “They take pemmican, which is beef chopped up with fat and raisins and chocolate and beer and almonds and ginger and stuff. It must be a sickening mess, but it’s very nourishing. It’s supposed to be what the ancient Britons had.”‘
The posset seems to do the job, and Kay and his friends forget all about the kidnapping just long enough to go to the river to sail their new model ships. Having filled half of the barrels with chocolate and biscuits, they choose verisimilitude over taste for the remainder. But Peter’s facts aren’t quite right – pemmican was actually a high energy food eaten by native Americans and made famous in this time period by polar explorers like Scott and Shackleton. It also makes an appearance in Swallows and Amazons, which suggests it was well known among children of the 1930s.
‘But to get up before it’s light on the first day of the holidays – I think it’s the purple pim!’ Peter said.
Peter, as well as getting his facts wrong, is a bit of a hindrance to Kay and an all round ninny. But he does have a fine grasp of the slang of the era. ‘Purple Pim’ means ‘that the absolute limit’, or ‘enough already.’ Its origins are unclear though I wonder if it could be a play on ‘the Scarlet Pimpernel’, a popular British film version of which was released in 1934, the year before publication.
“I say,” Peter said. “I am glad I came out with you. I never thought I should see a gang scrobble an old man and carry him off in an aeroplane.”
When Peter is finally dragged out of bed, he is rather thrilled to witness the abduction of Cole Hawlings in a magic plane. To ‘scrobble’ is to steal, kidnap or waylay. It is apparently an invention of Masefield himself, though it has a suitable rough and ready cockney feel to it. Neil Gaiman revived it in his book Neverwhere, which is populated by a similar assortment of criminals and ne’er do wells.
He saw old black beams, old men and women drinking to Christmas, or stooped over children’s stockings, as they filled them with toys, neat surprise packages, Eggs of Delight, and oranges.
As Kay’s lion and unicorn led sleigh caravan comes in to land on Christmas morning (did I mention this book was very Christmassy?) he gives us a wonderful glimpse into the bedrooms of middle class English children on December 25th 1935. I’m intrigued by the Eggs of Delight, which could be the ancestors of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs as the company began producing filled chocolate egg as early as 1923. This was the golden age of British chocolate manufacturing, so it’s likely all manner of wonderful confections would have filled children’s stockings that year.
The Box of Delights by John Masefield with illustrations by Judith Masefield is published by NYRB