Christmas Music Rant

That’s it.

I’ve heard ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ once too many times.

So, by way of revenge (as if the composer, or composers, whoever he, she or they are, care what I think as the royalties keep rolling in) (sounds like a ‘they’ song, written by a committee, if not by a computer, in its mind numbing trotting out of cliché and truism), and in the interests of promoting a little friendly post-Christmas discussion, here’s my list, in random order, of the Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs Ever.

1. Little Drummer Boy
2. Do They Know It’s Christmas?
3. Wonderful Christmastime
4. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
5. Silver Bells
6. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
7. The Twelve Days of Christmas
8. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting …)
9. Christmas in Killarney
10. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

I’m tempted to be really offensive and also do a list of my Top Ten Worst Christmas Carols Ever, starting with the turgid O Come All Ye Faithful, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Meanwhile, I look forward to receiving
a) complaints
b) threats
c) rival lists.


Snapshots of Addis Ababa


‘Nice’ houses in compounds formed by high walls topped with rolled barbed wire.

Construction everywhere, with little sign of work underway.

Beer 31 birre. About $1.50.

A dozen young men clapping rhythmically and breaking into a call and response vocal riff as they cross the Ghion Hotel park.

Hazy smog sitting in the lower part of the city in the early morning.

A man, one leg, and that useless and dragging, propelling himself across the road on his hands.

Security guards, some armed with long batons, some with guns, all over the Ghion Hotel grounds and at the entrance to both park and hotel. Likewise at bigger stores, banks, some restaurants, government buildings.

Beautiful, cloudless days, temperature in high 20s. (It’s summer.) Cool evenings down to single digits, and as low as 4.

Six lanes (three each way) of bumper to bumper traffic meeting at a cross roads with no apparent traffic control.

Colourful clothes of women.

Beautiful children.

In the time it takes to walk 200 yards from restaurant to hotel entrance, being approached first with an invitation to accompany two young men to “an excellent club – you’ll have a good time”, and on refusal being asked for 300 birre to enable them to take an exam the following day.

Being asked for money – “just 50 birre” – by one of the hotel staff.

Being offered company in the hotel bar one evening, a massage another evening, by women so dressed up they might as well have hung a sign around their neck, and beggars at the car window when we stop in traffic, and ignoring efforts to start conversations by young men on the street because you know they’ll lead to another attempted con job (knowing you’re faranji – a foreigner, and white, therefore a target, and that you have inestimable wealth in comparison with the lives of those who approach you, but finding it tiresome, all the same. And feeling guilty that you find it tiresome.)

Soccer teams running up and down the steps on Meskel Square.

Young men sporting soccer shirts in the colours of the Ethiopian national team.

Our driver turning left, launching the car across three lanes of oncoming traffic at an intersection with no traffic control. And I’m in the front on the side they’re approaching from.

After walking on another cloudless, high summer morning, eating breakfast to canned music strains of Winter Wonderland.

There’s Time. And there’s Ethiopian Time.

English tourist (a woman): grey ponytail, backpack, camo pants.

Woyalas leaning out of blue mini-van taxi windows calling the destination.

As many buses and ancient blue taxis and blue mini-van taxis as private cars.

Mercato (dark coffee with frothy milk) 10 birre (including 2 birre tip) at downtown coffee shop. (That’s about 50c.)


Leaving Ethiopia


Leaving Ethiopia, after the second week (first was in August) of working with writers associated with the Canadian sponsored Burt Award for Young Adult Literature, thinking of …

The friendship and kindness and patience and solicitude of the CODE-Ethiopia crew, especially Tesfae, Nema, and Yalow. (That’s Nema and Yalow with me in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa.)

Some lively – even contentious! – writing and editing workshop discussions (always a good sign that things are going well).

The shabby but still charming old Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, and its lovely, exotic, faded glory, falling-into-neglect grounds, through which I wandered for hours.

And someone asks – Did you have a good time?

Wrong question.

I had an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, bewildering, and daunting time.

And an exciting, stimulating, memorable, and life-altering time.

‘Good time’ just doesn’t cut it.

‘Life altering’ above all because, just as at the end of a memorable book, I’m aware that I’ll never see everyday life in quite the same way again.

And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Workshopping in Addis Ababa (2)


It was fun being a minor player, though still with the label Special Guest, in the second round of CODE-Ethiopia workshops in Addis Ababa. This was for writers of supplementary curriculum material for Ethiopian schools, and was partly conducted in Ethiopian Amharic, leaving me in the fog of incomprehension which I’m sure some of the participants at my workshops were in at least part of the time.

The level and ubiquity of English is staggering, and I constantly found myself apologising for my concomitant ignorance of Amharic. About the best I could do in Amharic was to ask where the loo was.

Still on the topic of language: Ethiopia has over fifty (keep that in mind the next time we’re worrying about bilingualism in Canada), very few of which exist in written form, so you can imagine the challenge and cost of developing education and providing written learning material. There are also political consequences if one language becomes dominant (in government, publishing, dissemination of information, etc.) (think Canadian bilingualism), and in this context, English forms almost a kind of unifying force, by serving as a quasi-national language.

Back to the workshop: My session was on ‘Children’s book writing, editing, illustration and design in other countries’ (i.e. Canada), the most useful part of which, I think, was my sharing of a selection of Canadian books for children and young adults, and the ensuing discussion of participants’ responses to front and back covers (why they ‘worked’ – or didn’t), and design generally.

Then it was a walk through the Friday-night-teeming-with-traffic-and-people Piazza district to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest in Addis Ababa, built at the whim of Empress Taitu in 1907, for supper as a guest of the CODE-Ethiopia people.

And I’m humbled and moved all over again by their kindness and hospitality, especially when the evening culminates with a goodbye gift of an elegant traditional vest, which – you never know – may set a fashion trend in St. George, New Brunswick.


Workshopping in Ethiopia


I’m an inveterate sceptic about the efficacy of writing workshops.

So at the end of co-presenting a writing workshop on behalf of CODE-Canada and CODE-Ethiopia for writers thinking of entering the Burt Award for Young Adult fiction, I’m probably not the best person to ask if it went well.

But … I think it did!

Between us, my co-presenter, Luleadey Tadesse, of Addis Ababa University, and I covered the usual topics – plot construction, developing characters, what makes a ‘good’ YA book, writing and editing as a process, etc. – and invited participants to try a number of writing projects that (we hope!) illustrated and enriched the topics discussed, and that may later blossom into material for an extended work.

Here’s the whole crew – participants, administrators from CODE-Ethiopia, Luleadey, and me – on the steps of the Ministry of Education, near the famous Arat Kilo in downtown Addis Ababa, where the workshop was held.

Familiar Unfamiliarity


From St. George, New Brunswick, on Friday morning, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday night … Funny how fast but slow we travel in the 21st century.

Arrive at Saint John airport one and a half hours before boarding. Fly Saint John to Toronto – two and a half hours. Wait three and a half hours. Fly Toronto to Frankfurt – seven and a half hours. Wait two hours. Fly Frankfurt to Addis Ababa with a stop in Khartoum – eight and a half hours. Passport check at Bole Airport – one a half hours.

So that’s eight and a half hours hanging around time for eighteen and a half hours actual travel time.

But …

What a joy to arrive in a strange city (I can’t claim familiarity with Addis Ababa on the strength of one week here last August) and see a familiar face, Yalew, from CODE-Ethiopia, waiting at Bole with a sign: Robert Rayner.

On the other hand, the grand, old, faded glory Ghion Hotel, beside Meskel Square, does feel strangely familiar on second visit, especially walking in its lovely grounds.

There are more familiar faces from CODE-Ethiopia on Sunday afternoon at a meeting with Tesfaye, Nema and Arefayne, plus a new acquaintance, Luleadey, to go over plans and topics for the week’s writing and editing workshops.

So what do I say, starting tomorrow, about the major features of young adult fiction, and the essential elements of a good YA story, and narrative modes in YA fiction, and creating a setting for a YA novel, and the architecture of a YA novel, and the challenges of writing for YA’s?

Feeling physically and mentally delicate after not enough sleep since Friday, I eat at the hotel, feeling as if I’m in some kind of time warp and continental warp, dining in the faux elegance of the Ghion to wallpaper music from the 50s and 60s, Woman, Yesterday, Going Home (the theme from Local Hero, which I last heard on TV being blasted out at St. James’ Park before Newcastle United -v- Norwich City), Always on My Mind, Sealed with a Kiss …

Sealed with a Kiss! When did I last hear that?

Probably when I was a YA.