The big day has finally arrived and it’s time to pay brief but certain homage to the creator. Hold on a minute though, stand down from those keyboards and rest easy; we’re not 72 hours early and neither are we celebrating the sun standing still, the Feast of Juul or Yalda. This is something of a much more recent vintage and to a substantial number of the denizens of A.UK Towers, of greater significance. The object of the celebration in question is, of course, gravy. To be more accurate, the detailed consideration of ‘How to Make Gravy’ that is the central concern of Australia’s gravy day – the 21st of December.
The 21st marks the official commencement of Christmas in A.UK towers. Any and all mention of the dreaded festivity is strictly forbidden by ordnance 217(S.48), which also explicitly outlaws fatuous chainstore TV ads, Mariah Carey warbling like a stuffed turkey over the Home Bargains PA and (controversially) stir-up-Sunday. However, come gravy day and all that changes; this year especially that is a bloody good thing, cobber. Everything is so preternaturally weird and aberrant right now that any orderliness is very welcome and what more ordinary than a chuffing great argument about the precise recipe for a minor accompaniment to the seasonal roast dinner.
We A.UK curmudgeons are famous for our disdain for the mirthless glop that is the Christmas ditty, rarely will you see even the slightest acknowledgement of their existence grace our pages. However we do, as always, make an exception for Paul Kelly and today we join with all true blue Aussies to rejoice in the glory of his songwriting through the medium of meat juices.
What makes us drop all our Grinch like posturing for this song is the way that Kelly offers visions of Christmas that we can both relate and aspire to. This is no idealised cinemascope Xmas, nor is it one full of pasted on concern for those less fortunate…. Kelly’s world is the best and worst of the times in simple affecting words that encapsulate the poignant humour, pointless indulgences and gratifying family fuck-ups we’ve all experienced over the festive season.
In brief ‘How to Make Gravy’ recounts Joe’s call (or is it letter) home to brother Dan and his thoughts about what might or might not come to pass on Christmas day. Kelly writes characters as well as anyone working today and here they are brought to life in an exquisite way with beautiful small details about their circumstances. Yet they are left sufficiently blurry to allow us to impose meaning, so they can represent just what we want them to represent to us. Dan, Joe, sister Stella, the Bothers, Joe’s Kids, Angus, parents Frank n Dolly, Mary, Mary’s current boyfriend and Mary’s previous boyfriend (whose name nobody can remember and who is mercilessly skewered in six short words ‘just a little too much cologne’ – or ‘he never did get Nina Simone’ in later versions) and Roger of course. All of them as real, as troubled and as perfect as anyone in song.
Kelly is brilliant at capturing the foibles of everyday life, in this case the extended family Christmas, in humble language that at first sounds unassuming and artless but carries with it a serious emotional punch. We can sense the thoughts and feelings of everyone present (or not) at that gathering. Ultimately the genius in ‘….Gravy’ is to do all this from afar, which just adds to the sense of distance and longing that is at the core of the song. We empathise entirely with Joe and his imaginings about what he is missing whilst locked up 1,000s of miles away. It’s somehow more intense experienced vicariously, when imagination is reality, rather than being present when the experience often cries out for imagination to make it palatable.
The song has hit home so much that Gravy Day grow in numbers each year, has its own fake (but sanctioned) social media accounts and this year it’s own ABC TV special.
With a small, ordinary everyday metaphor like a pretty average gravy recipe Kelly manages to encapsulate the entirety of Joe’s (and our) sorrow, longing, joy, regret and desperation. He nails the tragedy of not being there and that is something that too many of us can draw from over the next few days.
Oh.. before we forget, that recipe Paul… let’s just say stick to the singing.