Voice – A Magazine Programme, 6

First broadcast, 29th December 1942, BBC Indian Service.

ANNOUNCER: This is London Calling. Here is the sixth number of Voice, our monthly radio magazine.

[John McCormack with Trinity Choir, mixed chorus, and orchestra]

ORWELL: This is a special Christmas number, and we are departing from our usual practice and having music in it. But as usual we want to start off by making sure what we are talking about. Christmas is something integral to the West and we all take its importance for granted, but we are talking to an audience to whom the festival of Christmas may not be so familiar. What is the essential thing about Christmas? What does it really stand for?

CHITALE: Well, first of all, I suppose, for the anniversary of the birth of Christ.

EMPSON: Not first in order[1] of time. There was a pre-Christian festival at the same date, or about the same date. The ancient Saxon tribes that we are descended from used to celebrate something or other on Christmas day. The mistletoe hung[2] up in English houses at Christmas time was[3] a sacred plant when the aboriginal Britons were savages; it’s an evergreen in winter. That’s[4] a natural thing in a cold northern climate. You must have a break somewhere in the long winter, and an excuse for a little feasting: this comes just after the days have started to get longer.[5]

ORWELL: There seem to be three ideas mixed up in the Christmas festival. One is winter and snow, another is the Nativity of Christ, and the other is feasting and the giving of gifts. Of course some of it is a development of the last hundred years. I think the giving of Christmas presents is a modern custom, isn’t it?

SOMEONE: No. Christmas presents are supposed to have originated when the three kings from the East brought their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. In India the custom is that the child is given presents 12 days after birth.[6]

ORWELL Well, we’ll try to cover those three aspects of Christmas. Let’s start off with something about the snow and the characteristic winter plants, the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe.

EMPSON: You’ll have great difficulty in finding much about snow in English literature. It’s never praised,[7] at any rate until the last hundred years. That’s natural. This is a cold country, and we don’t write in praise of cold.

PEMBERTON: There’s a poem by Robert Bridges, London Snow. I’ve got it here. That’s in praise of snow.

ORWELL: All right, let’s have that one. I tell you how we’ll do it. First of all we’ll have the carol ‘See amid the winter’s snow’, then we’ll have the poem – London Snow by Robert Bridges – and then another carol, The Holly and the Ivy. I think we’ll go straight through them with only pauses in between.

[Royal Choral Society with organ accompaniment conducted by Dr. Malcolm Sargent]

LONDON SNOW by Robert Bridges

PEMBERTON: When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

RECORD: THE HOLLY & THE IVY HMV. BD. 768 45” approx.
[St Brandon’s School Choir, Bristol, arranged, and orchestra conducted, by Leslie Woodgate]

READ[8]: It’s time we had something dealing with the birth of Christ itself, which is what the Christmas festival properly commemorates.[9]

ORWELL: Let’s start with a carol specially dealing with that time.[10] For instance, The Seven Joys of Mary.

[John Jacob Niles (tenor), with dulcimer accompaniment]

ORWELL: I think we ought to read the story itself before reading any poems about it. What is the absolutely essential thing about the story of the birth of Christ, I wonder?

READ[11]: I think the essential thing – that is, the thing everyone remembers – is the idea of power and wisdom abasing themselves before innocence and poverty. Everyone who has ever heard of the birth of Christ remembers two picturesque details which don’t, in fact, have anything to do with Christian doctrine. One is the child lying in the manger, and the other is the three Kings from the East coming with their gifts. The story is so perfectly right that it has become traditional, and it’s acted every year in thousands of churches all over the world. But in fact not one of the versions in the Bible gives quite the full story.[12]

ORWELL: I think we’ll have the version from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. That’s the fullest one. Perhaps Venu Chitale will read it for us. Here it is then – from the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew.


Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.[13]

ORWELL: And now what poems shall we have?

EMPSON: We ought to have Milton’s Hymn on the Nativity. I’m sure Herbert Read would read that very nicely.

SOMEONE: And what about having T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi? That would give a good contrast.

ORWELL: Yes, that’s a good idea. We’ve got a recording of that which Eliot made himself. The Hymn on the Nativity is rather long, so perhaps we should have another carol in between the two poems. Let’s have in Excelsis Gloria. First of all Milton[14], then the carol, then The Journey of the Magi. Here they are then.

READ: It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav’n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff’t her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun her lusty Paramour….

No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around,
The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hookèd Chariot stood
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armèd throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

But peacefull was the night
Wherin the Prince of light
His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Windes with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmeèd wave.

The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixt in stedfast gaze,
Bending one way their pretious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warn’d them thence;
But in their glimmering Orbs did glow,
Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go….

The Shepherds on the Lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sate simply chatting in a rustick row;
Full little thought they than,
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly com to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or els their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busie keep….

At last surrounds their sight
A Globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shame-fac’t night array’d,
The helmèd Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim,
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displaid,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav’ns new-born Heir.

Such musick (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator Great
His constellations set,
And the well-ballanc’t world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltring waves their oozy channel keep….

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspire’s the pale-ey’d Priest from the prophetic cell….

Peor, and Baalim,
Forsake their Temples dim,
With that twise-batter’d god of Palestine,
And moonèd Ashtaroth,
Heav’ns Queen and Mother both,
Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn.

And sullen Moloch fled,
Hath left in shadows dred,
His burning Idol all of blackest hue,
In vain with Cymbals ring,
They call the grisly king,
In dismall dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the Dog Anubis hast.

Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian Grove, or Green,
Trampling the unshowr’d Grasse with lowings loud:
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud,
In vain with Timbrel’d Anthems dark
The sable-stolèd Sorcerers bear his worshipt Ark.

He feels from Juda’s Land
The dredded Infants hand,
The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside,
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe to shew his Godhead true,
Can in his swadling bands controul the damnèd crew.

So when the Sun in bed,
Curtain’d with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an Orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale,
Troop to th’infernall jail,
Each fetter’d Ghost slips to his severall grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fayes,
Fly after the Night-steeds, leaving their Moon-lov’d maze.

But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
Time is our tedious Song should here have ending,
Heav’ns youngest teemèd Star,
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending:
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.

RECORD: GLORIA IN EXCELSIS. COL: DX. 581. 1 ¼’ approx.
[Version of King Henry VI sung by Nashdom Abbey Singers]

(L.T.S. [15] RECORDING: 10PH 8167. 2’ 20”)

[ELIOT:] ‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

ORWELL: We’ve dealt with winter and the snow, and with the Nativity of Christ. We still haven’t dealt with Christmas as it now is – the public holiday, the turkeys and plum puddings, Santa Claus and the reindeer, the Christmas parties and all the rest of it.

EMPSON: There’s not so much about it in our literature, till the Victorian stress on it, and that seems to have come in from Northern Europe and America. Dickens is very good on it, especially the Pickwick Papers, but they’re too long to quote.[16]

READ And perhaps they are hardly appropriate for a wartime Xmas. There’s another poem of Robert Bridges which seems to me to give the feeling of the festival as it was celebrated this year, when after a long interval we heard the church bells again.[17]

ORWELL: Yes, that’s a good idea. Perhaps Empson will read it for us. We’ll have the poem, and then straight after it another carol to end up with. We’ll have In Dulce Jubilo, or as much of it as we’ve got time for.

[EMPSON:] CHRISTMAS EVE 1913 by Robert Bridges

A frosty Christmas Eve
When the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone
where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me
peals of bells aringing;
The constellated sounds
ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above
with stars was spangled o’er.

Then sped my thoughts to keep
that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching
by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
and marvelling could not tell
Whether it were angels
or the bright stars singing.

Now blessed be the tow’rs
that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer
unto God for our souls:
Blessed be their founders
(said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ
in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch
the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above
and the mad romping din.

But to me heard afar
it was starry music
Angels’ song. Comforting
as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly
to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me
by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured
as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect
of th’ eternal silence.

[Royal Choral Society, unaccompanied, conducted by Dr. Malcolm Sargent]

ANNOUNCER: That is the end of the sixth number of VOICE, our monthly radio magazine. Those taking part were Herbert Read, William Empson, George Orwell, Venu Chitale and Christopher Pemberton. Owing to the rearrangement of our schedule, the next number of VOICE will not appear until March 19th 1943, after which it will appear every four weeks as before.[18]

First broadcast, 29th December 1942, BBC Indian Service. From The Complete Works, XIV, 1778.


The first reading is that of the amended text as printed; the second gives the reading of the original typescript and details of uncertainties

[1] order | point
[2] The mistletoe hung | and the mistletoe which is still hung

Originally the sentence started ‘For that with…’ These words and a typed “and” were not crossed out.
[3] was | also
[4] savages; its˚ an evergreen in winter. That’s | savages who painted their bodies blue with woad. It’s

In the margin: ‘After lengthening days’ (crossed through); ‘its˚ an evergreen’ is preceded by ‘because’, which is also crossed through.
[5] feasting: this comes… get longer | feasting.
[6] In India… after birth | handwritten addition
[7] difficulty in finding much… never praised | great difficulty in finding anything about snow in English literature. It’s hardly ever mentioned
[9] birth of Christ… commemorates | Nativity of Christ, but not crossed out

This reading is awkward. The handwritten alteration (by Read?) evidently first read ‘festival celebrates’ but the last letter of ‘festival’ and the first six of ‘celebrates’ are crossed through; then (in Orwell’s hand?) is written ‘properly commemorates’, with an arrow to that last word but with ‘commemorates’ crossed through.
[10] Let’s start… that time | Let’s have another carol to bring it in with
[12] not one of… the full story | the version that is given in the Bible doesn’t quite agree with the tradition
[13] It looks as if it had been intended to cut the last two verses, but the marginal marking has been crossed out. The typescript runs the first two verses together.
[14] Orwell omitted stanzas 2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 13-18, 20 and 21; stanza 23 (the tenth printed here) was crossed out. Ellipses have been added to indicate cuts. Orwell did not underline for italicisation (as customary in seventeenth-century texts), perhaps fearing that would be a distraction in reading; his practice has been followed here. One or two typographical errors have been silently corrected and linear indention supplied.
[15] London Transcription Service; therefore a BBC recording, not for commercial release.
[16]There’s not so much… too long to quote | There’s curiously little about it in our literature, although it’s so much a part of our lives. There’s Dickens’s Christmas Carol, but that’s been done to death. The Christmas chapters in the Pickwick Papers are better, but they’re too long to quote
[17] READ: And perhaps… the church bells again | SOMEONE: There’s another poem by Robert Bridges, Christmas Eve. I think that gives you the feeling of a modern Christmas.

In wartime, the ringing of church bells was to be a sign that a German invasion was imminent. By Christmas 1942 the danger had receded sufficiently to permit the ringing of bells for Christmas. See 1658.

[18] In the event, the series was not continued. Peter Davison

The text of ‘Voice’, 6, the last of the series, is reproduced from a typescript used in the broadcast. It has been amended by several hands, one of which is Orwell’s. The script is almost certainly that used by Herbert Read, for his name, crossed through, appears at the top of the first page with the timing, 29 ¼ minutes, and ‘As broadcast’.

The text is reproduced as modified for the broadcast, though there are a few places where the amendments are not clear and some guesswork has been necessary. The notes record changes and uncertainties. The surviving type-script, a top copy, has enough mistypings and overtypings to suggest that it is not the work of a professional typist. The small x’s used to cross out words indicate that the typist was probably not Orwell. There is no list of participants, but, from the closing announcement, they were: Herbert Read, William Empson, George Orwell, Venu Chitale, and Christopher Pemberton; a BBC recording was used to transmit T. S. Eliot’s contribution. Not all the speakers’ names are given in this typescript; the original’s SOMEONE has been left standing.

The typescript gives the commercial record numbers of the discs used in the broadcast; details of performers have been added in italic within square brackets.

‘Voice’ 6 was transmitted from 11.15 to 11.45 GMT, and at 11.34 there was a one-minute newsflash. The subject is not noted in PasB [Programme as Broadcast]. Peter Davison