I’d always liked the carols that evoked a winter landscape, such as “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Good King Wenceslas” and “In the Deep Midwinter”, so began to think about poems that were also redolent of the season.



My connection to Thomas Hardy goes back to 1971, when I began studying Return of the Native and various poems as part of my English A-level. I felt an immediate connection, being the son of a working-class countrywoman who could never understand my idealism, and although I did not share Hardy’s fatalism, I also enjoyed his poetry – “The Darkling Thrush” was always my favourite. But the idea of putting this poem to music did not occur to me for another fifty-two years, by which time I had end stage kidney disease and could hardly summon the energy to pick up a guitar.

About five years after my introduction to Hardy my parents moved from Southampton to Marnhull in Dorset. Hardy aficionados will recognise this as the Marlott of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and this connection was not lost on my dad, an unusually cultured electrician and massive Hardy fan who very much did appreciate his fatalism. He claimed the well in his front garden on Ham Lane was the only well in the village and featured in Hardy’s novel (sorry to say I can’t confirm this). The local pub was the Blackmore Vale, allegedly Rollivers, where I spent just about every Christmas Eve, and it was impossible to visit without being aware of the heritage of the great man (Hardy, not my dad).

In 1984 I too became a published writer, going to write over sixty books as well as some TV and radio. My main claim to fame was writing the first picture book to be illustrated by the famous Axel Scheffler, which went on to sell over half a million copies. But my sideline had always been music, something I passed on to the two children I somehow helped to produce in my fifties. It became a tradition in recent years to record a Christmas song with my daughter Zazie (now 13) who has been steadily making a name for herself onstage in Cardiff where we live. But this became increasingly difficult as my kidneys began to decline, firstly from 40% function to 20%, then down to a miserable 9% at the end of 2022. I was not sure I would even be alive for Christmas 2023, let alone recording music.

Fortunately, there was the safety net of dialysis, and having had a vein in my arm fused to an artery, I was able to begin this in September. I can’t say I was looking forward to spending three mornings a week hooked up to a machine, not being well suited to lying dormant for four hours. But after getting through the difficult first weeks my energy began to return and I realised I would be able to do many of the things I could do on a laptop at home, including music and video editing. So I began to think about our traditional Christmas offering, and whether this year I might produce something original.

I’d always liked the carols that evoked a winter landscape, such as “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Good King Wenceslas” and “In the Deep Midwinter”, so began to think about poems that were also redolent of the season. I’d already decided to use an old tune of mine, reorchestrated, and the moment I thought of “The Darkling Thrush”, I was amazed to realise that it fitted the music perfectly. In fact, it made the original song even better since it gave it twice as many beats to the bar. The four verses, however, would have made the song rather too long, so I took the liberty of removing verse two, which might seem sacrilege to some Hardy fans, but does not detract in my view from the point of the poem. And when Zazie came to record the vocals, she sang Hardy’s words with great sensitivity and maturity.

Once the song was finished (quite an arduous process as I can only use one arm when undergoing dialysis), we shot a simple green screen video, followed by a lyric video, featuring shots of Hardy’s cottage, also edited at the dialysis unit. I’m sure these videos could be a great way for teachers to introduce Hardy’s work, possibly to pupils rather younger than I was in 1971.

I’m very pleased with the finished work. To me it conveys the original spirit of the midwinter festival, celebrating the passing of the darkest days and finding hope and positivity in what can be a bleak time of year. If it has little in common with most commercialised Christmas fare I am more than happy.

Please give our video a viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj30oJRkma4. And if you’d like to help Zazie pay for the repair to her phone after leaving it in a bag with a leaking water bottle, the song is available for download (less than a pound) at https://payhip.com/b/SDKiP as well as Spotify and numerous other sites. All enquiries are welcome to jonblakeauthor@gmail.com.






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