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River - Joni Mitchell

Back in the 1990's I was one of the people who helped put on an annual St Patrick's Day literary reading at the Union Chapel in Islington in London. The event was curated by Seamus Heaney, and the proceeds went to the Action Group for Irish Youth, an organisation that helps young Irish immigrants in difficulties in London. Heaney invited a mix of major authors and up-and -coming ones to read from their work, and we had the pleasure of listening to the likes of Colm Toibin and Joseph O'Connor before the rest of the world had even heard of them.

Of all the readings over three years, the best by far, stealing the show from the likes of Edna O'Brien and Roddy Doyle, was that of Nuala O'Faolain. Nuala was a journalist who wrote a weekly column for the Irish Times, in which she was frank about the trials and tribulations of being a woman in Ireland. Maybe surprisingly, this was not something that had happened very much in the Irish Republic up until that time, and her outspokenness about this and many other issues won her a large readership. As she told it, a publisher suggested they publish a dozen of her articles as essays in book form and she agreed, thinking that not much would come of it. The publisher then asked her to write a short autobiographical introduction which she also agreed to, and once she started, it got longer and longer, the autobiographical part in the end dwarfing the essays. She wrote about many intimate aspects of her life, naming names and sparing few, in the belief that only a couple of hundred people would read it, if that. He was genuinely surprised when the book, "Are You Somebody?" topped the Irish hardback bestseller list and remained on it for over a year, even when the paperback was out and had also reached number one on the softback list. She said she lost many friends due to her treatment of them in the book, but gained many more. It is perhaps the finest autobiography I have ever read. And the essays are excellent too. Her performance, as she read from the book at the Union Chapel, was thrilling, full of wit and humour and she had the packed audience of over a thousand posh London Irish eating out of her hand.

I remember her every year at this time, principally because of her essay about what it is like to be a single person on Christmas day. Zoe Heller, writing in the Sunday Times, summed it up:

"Toward the end of the book, she gives an account of a Christmas that she recently spent on her own. Her description of the day, spent walking in Ballyvaughan with her dog, being bravely ''sensible'' about her situation and at the same time abjectly fearful of the solitary future stretching out before her, is one of the most perfectly observed portraits of female loneliness I've ever come across -- with more genuine, painful candor in it than all the modish, scandalous confessions of recent years put together."

Joni Mitchell's song "River" from her 1971 album "Blue" has the mood of this essay, the "solitary future stretching out before her" after the split-up with her lover, allegedly singer Graham Nash.

Like the essay, this is a kind of anti-Christmas song, expressing the sadness of being alone on the 25th, the solitary piano mirroring her feeling of being alone in contrast to the bustle of the yuletide preparations and the "jingle bells" refrain it employs.

Or as PG Wodehouse once wrote:

"There is nothing worse, when one is face to face with one's soul, than seeing a load of fatheads enjoying themselves". - (Piccadilly Jim).

A bit harsh perhaps, but just pause a moment to think how Christmas feels from their point of view. Have a great Christmas.

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