Roses in December

Roses in December - Flash Fiction

Second Draft

Writers used to love taking credit for their work. In all, they were an egotistical lot, always after praise and reassurance. It is understandable, I suppose, when their livelihoods depended on a few kind words from a newspaper critic. I remember what it was like, being one of those scribblers. Every day I would send something off for someone’s approbation. Oh, the snivelling letters I wrote, oh the ill-disguised contempt for the people I addressed! “I do not think your worship worthy, and I shan’t trust your opinion if you give it, no matter how elaborate you make it, but have it I must.” I don’t know whether to congratulate myself on my single-mindedness or to weep at the folly of seeking the good opinion of people of whom I had no very good opinion. We are strange creatures who can make such easy sense to ourselves of what is later revealed to be nonsense.

Lord Byron, I recall, wrote a very wordy satire, in which he claimed that one ought sooner to trust in the possibility of finding roses in December or ice in June than to trust the words of critics. I now realise that his advice would have been better, had he thought more of botany or geography, for December roses are no uncommon thing, especially in a winter garden, and ice may very readily be obtained in June in the southern nations, not to mention in the ice houses of wealthy patrons, such as those of Lord P, whose magnanimity I am currently enjoying.

I admit that my present surroundings — the sultry Edenic garden with its view of falling snow — would have seemed most unnatural some years ago, when winter meant hardship and deprivation. When I was chafing my hands and trying to warm them in the feeble flame of a tallow candle, in order to eke out a few more sentences of Grub Street fare, I could not have imagined enjoying the refreshing cold of a lemon ice in the middle of winter. Such are the limitations of the individual mind, which we have now thankfully overcome.

I used to think, just as you must, that the words I wrote came directly from my brain, but that, of course, is not the case. It is the pen, that troublesome intermediary, “condemned at length to be forgotten quite,” who decides what is actually put down on the page, and it was this realisation that allowed Lord P to remedy the written Word. He was tired of the appalling volume of nonsense that poured forth in ink every day, and despite his attempts to tackle the press, found its way into the papers and pamphlets and books. A more drastic approach was necessary, something that would nip the nonsense in the bud, like a late frost. So the idea to enhance pens was born; a revolutionary idea of great genius. And there was even greater genius at work in marketing the pens as writing aids, rather than as the regulating utensils some critics might have branded them.

At first writers bought them as a lark. No one really believed that a writing instrument had been invented that could untangle the complexities of English spelling and grammar. Then the critics began to abuse it. “Would Virgil countenance such an outrageous affront to an author’s autonomy,” they cried, “would Shakespeare?” In the spelling war that ensued over the bards’ names, Lord P’s pencil was on the tip of every tongue.

You must have heard the jingle: mind your ‘p’s and ‘q’s with Lord P’s grammatical pencil. And then, when more permanent mark-making was required: with Lord P’s grammatical pen, you ken.

Soon, no letters of import were attempted without the aid of a grammatical pen or pencil, and English tests in schools became redundant. There was no point, teachers argued, in teaching children how to spell or to put together proper sentences, when they had all they needed at their fingertips, and could just as easily trust in “the Lord”.

When the pencils were worn down to stubs, and the pens grew blunt, replacements had to be purchased, and with each replacement came new, unsuspected reforms. Dialect words were corrected, slang was replaced, and jargon simplified, in order to facilitate universal understanding; slurs were excised, and offensive opinions softened to foster kindness; and finally, purple prose was filtered, poetry elevated, and rambling sentiments were truncated. With the benevolent influence of these improvements, no reader could tell a peer of the realm apart from a Scottish maid. Lord P’s tool became the great leveller of humankind.

Writers were at ease, knowing that in the eyes of the Pen they were all equal, and that there was no longer any need to seek the opinion of critics or publishers — who were themselves meek, appreciative, and unbiased. The newspapers were inundated with letters and articles praising His Lordship’s invention, His political party and His brand of home goods.

Yet throughout this period, He was careful to remain out of the public eye, sequestered in his ancestral manor where he could enjoy the effects of his implements from afar, certain in the knowledge that no pen could disclose his secrets. Here he leads a private life, satisfied with the company of those writers he sees fit to invite into his sanctum, of whom I may boast that I am one. When I first arrived, His Lordship was sitting in his conservatory, and the snow was falling just as it is now, and he was composing an ode using a most exquisite, long, white goose quill. This he handed to me, after seating me hospitably in a comfortable armchair. He explained that although he could never tire of Shakespeare, or Milton, or Scott, he had realised that there was a need for bards who could sing of the wonders of the modern era; of toasting machines, of pneumatic dusters, of the advances in notebook-making. The grammatical pens and pencils, while still excellent for the everyman, were no longer quite novel enough for the production of great literature. That required a return to “Nature’s noblest gift.”

Such was the elegant gift that allowed me to write this story, its fine point gliding across the page and arranging my thoughts as light and effortlessly as the breeze that eddies the falling snow. I trust you will delight in its publication, and since I no longer feel the urge to append my name, it only remains for me write: with Lord P’s quill, you will.


First Draft

Writers love to take credit for their work. In all, they’re an egotistical lot, always after praise and reassurance. It’s understandable, I suppose, when their livelihood depends on a few kind words from a newspaper critic. I know what it’s like, I used to be one of those scribblers. Every day I would send something off for someone’s approbation. Oh, the snivelling letters I wrote, oh the hidden – ill-hidden – contempt for the people I addressed! “I do not think your worship worthy, and I shan’t trust your opinion if you give it, no matter how long you make it, but have it I must.” I don’t know whether to congratulate myself on my single-mindedness or to weep at the folly of seeking the good opinion of people who I had no very good opinion of. We are strange creatures who can make such easy sense to ourselves of what is later revealed to be nonsense. One gentleman, I recall, wrote a very clever satire, in which he claimed that one ought sooner to believe in the possibility of finding roses in December or ice in June than to trust the words of critics. His advice would have been better, had he known more of botany or geography, for winter roses are no uncommon thing, especially in a winter garden, and ice may be very readily obtained in June in the southern nations whose winter corresponds to our summer months, not to mention in the houses of wealthy patrons, such as the one whose beneficence I am currently enjoying.

The prospect before me would have seemed most unnatural some years ago, when winter meant hardship and deprivation, but now watching the falling snow, surrounded as I am by all the opulence of an Italian garden, is so commonplace that a writer will hardly remark on it. A critic may rest at ease, enjoying the scenery and the delicacies that are brought for his enjoyment, safe in the knowledge that those busy pens are at work everywhere, creating so we may destroy. Nothing original or worthy of praise will be penned without our knowledge, for it is years now since we cornered the market. There is not a single pen, pencil, fountain pen, typewriter, or even a stick of charcoal that doesn’t go through our facilities.

I used to think, just as you must, that the words I wrote came directly from my brain, but that is, of course, not the case. It is the pen, that troublesome intermediary who decides what is actually put down on the page, and it was this realisation that allowed Lord P_____ to ensnare writers as he did. He was tired of the appalling volume of nonsense that poured forth in ink every day, and despite his attempts to tackle the press, found its way into the papers and pamphlets and books. A more drastic approach was necessary, something that would nip the nonsense in the bud, like a late frost. So the idea to regulate pens was found, a revolutionary idea of great genius. But my Lord P____ never wanted credit for the discovery, or for the means he employed to be made public. He ensured that if anyone found out, they could not write about it.

He could not have anticipate the tedium of reading the same things in the periodicals every week, or the lack of good stories that could not be told without bad style or grammatical errors. It wasn’t his fault that he had to sit in his exquisite winter garden and struggle to find an appropriate quotation to describe the beauty of snow falling on the red roses outside, or the delicious taste of the ices that he consumed as he watched the scene. The colours seemed dimmed, the senses dulled without adequate words to describe them. That was when his lordship invited me to his home. He took me outside, and together we picked a goose feather that had fallen in the snow. I hope your esteemed magazine may publish this little story, but if not, I think perhaps I shall seek the gentleman who wrote such excellent satire and send this quill to him.

I will not sign my name, knowing now what I did not know before.


Editing Notes

  1. The story obviously takes place in a fictional world, possibly framed by a “real world” narrator, but I still thought that perhaps mentioning fountain pens and typewriters while suggesting that Lord Byron was still alive might be a bit too anachronistic.
  2. I needed to clarify Lord P’s plan, and the narrator’s stance, since none of it really made sense.
  3. The inspiration that brought the story together was Grammarly. I haven’t tried their service but I despise their Youtube ads, and I have deep reservations about homogenising grammatical quirks, and encouraging writers to conform to someone or other’s style guide rather than thinking through their decisions themselves.
  4. Besides, I have Mac Pages to help me…
  5. In a future draft, I think I would like to explore the relationship between writers and critics a bit further. Despite using the imagery, I don’t think I’ve resolved the main quotation from Byron!

Roses in December?

… as soon
Seek roses in December—ice in June;
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff,
Believe a woman or an epitaph,
Or any other thing that’s false, before
You trust in Critics, who themselves are sore…

-from English Bards and Scotch Reviewers by Lord Byron

Roses, snow, and winter have been frequently bound up in poetry. They make a striking image, and by their juxtaposition seem to symbolise a contradiction. Thomas Campion, in Elizabethan cliché, likens his mistress’ mouth to “rose-buds fill’d with snow”. Alfred Austin has a sweet poem called, My Winter Rose, which I included in Centifolia. Austin was appointed poet laureate after Tennyson, and (coming full circle) wrote a (somewhat unconvincing) Vindication of Lord Byron.

However, a quick Google search tells me that most pieces that take “roses in December” as their title seem to be referring to a quotation frequently attributed to J.M. Barrie:

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

Although, if this page is correct, then in the  context of his rectorial speech, Barrie is paraphrasing someone else, ironically beginning, “you remember”…

“… you remember someone said that God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

According to The Phrase Finder, Barrie was quoting from a poem by the wartime Anglican priest, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy (better known as Woodbine Willie). Once again the phrase turns paradoxical, as the poet appears to regret the gift…

Roses in December

God gave His children memory
That in life's garden there might be
June roses in December.
But sin the Father's goodness scorns,
And weaves of them a crown of thorns,
That wounds when they remember.

Sharp, stabbing points of vain regret
Around my soul forever set,
Turn June into December.
Ah, Christ, Who wore my crown of thorns,
Have mercy on the heart that mourns,
Forgive, when I remember.

from Poetry Nook

Many of Studdert-Kennedy’s poems are written in dialect, and deal with the difficulty of keeping faith during wartime, but I liked best the power of this simple little verse…

A Scrap of Paper by G.A. Studdert-Kennedy

The phrase crops up once again in this charming song (performed) by Vera Lynn.

If you know of an earlier use of “roses in December” than Byron, please let me know; I am most curious!