Peter Hitchens describes his childhood train journeys home for Christmas with a reference to the children’s novel, The Box of Delights by poet laureate John Masefield. The 1935 book is an eerie and beautiful fantasy set in Deep England, complete with Herne the Hunter, King Arthur, shapeshifting wolves, Punch and Judy, and an evil wizard.
For me, Christmas is always a journey, and a long train journey at that. The old strict-regime English boarding schools may have robbed their inmates of many small, warm, things, but mine gave me this gift – the annual delight of the return home, warm yellow lights at the end of a long slow progress through frosty hills and woods, full of anticipation, with the red sun excitingly low in the cold, clear sky.
Scott Fitzgerald had much the same experience, as he described in ‘The Great Gatsby’, of ‘the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow’.
I think many people have some similar sensation. It is absolutely no good if the journey has been too easy or too comfortable. We cannot feel properly warm and safe unless we have at least felt the edge of the wind and feared being caught in the storm…
John Masefield, in ‘The Box of Delights’ gave Kay Harker an enchanted, if worrying, homeward journey. It’s the low, clear light that does it. Kay looks up at the hills from the train window, and thinks ‘It was a grim winter morning, threatening a gale. Something in the light, with its hard sinister clearness, gave mystery and dread to those hills.
“They look just the sort of hills,” Kay said to himself, “where you might come upon a Dark Tower, and blow a horn at the gate for something to happen.”’
The entire essay is wonderful. Speaking of The Box of Delights you can watch the six-part BBC adaptation from 1984 on YouTube.