Rowan Pelling: Ghosts and ghouls at New Year


I never see New Year as a time for riotous celebration. By the close of Boxing Day, I've had my fix of bonhomie. The Merry Gentlemen are rested and it's time for something darker. As we approach Twelfth Night, it is easier to sense the echoes from pagan times and feel how closely our Christian celebrations overlie far more ancient ones. The public imagination has continued to embrace the twelve-day countdown to one final

I never see New Year as a time for riotous celebration. By the close of Boxing Day, I've had my fix of bonhomie. The Merry Gentlemen are rested and it's time for something darker. As we approach Twelfth Night, it is easier to sense the echoes from pagan times and feel how closely our Christian celebrations overlie far more ancient ones. The public imagination has continued to embrace the twelve-day countdown to one final

revelry before the bitter months close in, clinging to the old name for the festival.

Despite centuries of carols and cribs, most people are strangely resistant to the concept of Epiphany. I entered the words "pagan" and "Twelfth Night" on the Google search engine (what else do you do at 3am?) and discovered a raft of websites urging people to host their own Saturnalia on 6 January. The one for Wiccans freaked me out a little when I found myself unable to exit it and thought myself drawn into some Rosemary's Baby-type scenario. Restarting the computer finally did the trick and I found solace with The Lions Part, a group of Medieval-minded actors linked to the Globe theatre. They are hosting a free Twelfth Night celebration on the banks of the Thames and exhort you to, "Join us!" Only a truly puritanical heart could resist the notion of a Holly Man who, "decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage, appears from the river Thames".

It makes perfect sense that we are particularly susceptible to supernatural forces at this time of year. The long, dark nights lend themselves to ghoulish tales and, frankly, if we're going to believe in the Virgin Birth, then we might as well keep an open mind on spectres. It's no coincidence that the best known fictional account of the season, A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story, while television screenings of spine-tingling melodramas such as The Woman in White and The Innocents have become as traditional as It's a Wonderful Life.

I willingly surrender to a large dose of terror. My idea of New Year heaven is to haul up in a remote country cottage with a few friends and a well-thumbed copy of M R James's Ghost Stories. The eeriest line in English literature is, "It had a face of crumpled linen." Edith Wharton also wrote a mean ghost story, but hers don't lend themselves as well as Edgar Allan Poe's or James's to being read aloud. But nothing, of course, beats the real thing. I have long relished a plausible young man's account of how an "evil-faced old woman in Victorian costume" materialised through his midriff as he was sleeping on a sofa in an Edinburgh flat. And at least half my relatives claim to see dead people: familiar stories that are better-buffed with each outing.

The country pub my parents ran was definitely haunted – my siblings and I all agreed on that. None of us liked being in the bedrooms above the bar on our own and, until I was 18, I always slept with a sheet covering my head. My younger sister would jam paper under the door that connected the cottage side of the building to the pub part, in an attempt to stop "something" seeping through. My mother and I both heard "someone" walk, at dead of night, from close by my swathed and wakeful head, along the corridor and down the stairs through two locked doors.

But the most chilling tale belongs to my brother Hereward, who was so scarred by the experience that he spent a decade sleeping surrounded by crucifixes, like a scene from The Omen. He heard a cart come up the hill and stop outside the pub, followed by the scrunch of footsteps and the slow but determined sound of someone advancing on him. Doors opened, floorboards creaked. White-knuckled, he gripped the covers over his head (a family trait) and was frozen with terror, utterly unable to call out. When the ghoul reached his bedside it lunged for his sheets and a violent tussle ensued. The force proved overwhelming and my brother lost his grip. And there before him, as clear as day, he saw ... Well, it's changed a little over the years. When Hereward was six he was quite sure it was "a skeleton". Now he's 30 it sounds much closer to "a face of crumpled linen".

Bad blood

Talking of vile manifestations, can you think of anything sneakier than Crimestoppers' initiative encouraging people to shop suspected drink-drivers to the police for cash rewards? Now nothing is big or clever about weaving your vehicle into the school bus, but, if you think some moron's about to do just that, the correct procedure is to wrestle them to the ground and grab their car keys.

My father had no problem with confiscating car keys from errant customers in his days as a pub landlord. The occasional ingrate would swear at him but, as far as we know, no one ever left our pub en route to a major collision. What is so dispiriting about the Crimestoppers' plan is that it is aimed at people's venal instincts as if there were no point in appealing to their moral ones. And it's open to spiteful abuse, like the Department for Work and Pensions scheme that encourages people to snoop on their neighbours' benefit claims. These initiatives are better suited to the Stasi than a democracy.

My indignation is only partly fuelled by the fact that I may, once or twice, have been misguided enough to get into my car when I'd had a bevy or two and thought it would not affect my customary road-wrangling. The trouble is that this sort of cocky drivel only occurs to you when you are drunk. Which is why friends were invented: to tell you, when necessary, that you are an inebriated twit. If, despite their best efforts, you drink and drive this New Year, you will only have yourself to blame if you find yourself wrapped round a tree with a breathalyser dangling centimetres from your broken nose and a two-year ban pending. However, people don't always get their just desserts – here's a seasonal anti-morality tale to cheer up miscreants everywhere.

Two years ago, my younger sister careered into a tree after an all-night party, having volunteered to go to buy cigarettes for equally blotto friends (NB: if your friends are also drunk as skunks, they're no use at all). My lawyer uncle agreed to defend her in the court case, but I was amazed to find that, instead of advising my sister to plead "guilty as sin", he had decided to tell the magistrate "her human rights had been abused".

"Do you mean," I asked, "her inalienable right to attack trees with an ancient Ford Escort?" envisaging an irate judge sending her down for a life term. "No, no," he said crossly, "they've abused her blood sample." Drink-drivers have a right to have their blood sample taken to an independent expert for a second opinion. But by the time the bumbling Crown Prosecution Service brought my sister's case to court, her sample had deteriorated beyond any expert's necromancy. Thus, my uncle argued triumphantly, my sister's right to have another person confirm that she was a lush had been disgracefully traduced. And the magistrate agreed with him.

I relayed this staggering news to a group of friends in a bar. "Cool," said one Australian girl. "Your uncle sounds just like mine." She then told us how her brother and his wife crashed their car coming back from a party. The police found the drink-sodden pair staggering around the wrecked vehicle, but when they tried to prosecute, her lawyer uncle successfully argued that the couple were so utterly blasted that night that neither had a clue who was driving.

Before you install a mini-bar in your Volvo, you should know that my sister has not driven since her accident and has no plans to do so. (My mum made me write that last bit.) This means that she will never ever drive an Aston Martin Vanquish, the most beautiful car in the world, as I plan to do when I grow up.

Let that be a warning to all of us.

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