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Jacqueline Kent is… a writer of non-fiction and biography, fiction, general articles and literary journalism. Her working background includes radio interviewing, print journalism, radio and TV scriptwriting, editing books, ghostwriting, teaching editing and creative writing, and arts administration.
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The carols of Wheeler and James

Does anybody remember, let alone sing, the Australian Christmas carols of Wheeler and James? Judging by the Christmas that has just passed, the answer is no: lots of carols involving the little tiny child, little drummer boy (the word ‘little’ is sooo Christmas), having oneself a merry little Christmas, but no gathering Christmas bush together in this golden weather, or any of the rest of them. I wonder why this is? Perhaps because the most readily available version of the carols was recorded by, I think, the Adelaide Singers fifty years or so ago, complete with posh ABC vowels and choral arrangements.

As far as I recall — and I’m writing this, sloppily I suppose, without having checked Wikipedia or any other internet source — William James and Something Wheeler were two musicians who made careers at the ABC in the 1930s (I think William James was the head of ABC music). They decided to write a bunch of carols that were purely Australian. ‘The boobook calls across the night/The red moths flutter in the light/Oh sleep my little one sleep’. Well they weren’t immune to the ‘little’ plague, obviously, but for some reason those words from ‘Christmas Night’, linked to a very pleasant lullaby tune, always bring a lump to my throat. Mind you, sometimes the Australianness is strained: three drovers instead of three wise men? But I always loved them.

Kids don’t seem to learn them at school any more either. I think thisis a pity. For me, just seeing the sheet music in the  cardboard discount boxes outside  that music shop in Glebe Point Road — green and red and white on the cover, pics of Christmas bells — is a real Proustian madeleine. Brings back that pencil-shavings smell of the primary school classroom at West Ryde with Miss Shoemark doggedly sightreading her way through the carols while we piped along beside her. Haven’t heard them regularly since then, and that’s — ooh — a very long time ago. Maybe it was just a New South Wales thing? We never heard them at all when we moved to South Australia. And my two sisters, who were that much younger, never learned them at all.

What could be done to bring them back? There must be a whole generation of people who remember them. The tunes are nice, the words pleasant. And they say a hell of a lot more about Christmas in Australia than drummer boys and bleak midwinter. Maybe we just felt that Christmas here isn’t the way it ought to be, and that Wheeler and James should have known better than to celebrate it the way it really is.

Still, I can’t help feeling that here’s a good story, and I guess that just writing this post is an aide memoire to myself to write it. I really would be sad if W#038;J were entirely forgotten.

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