Sunday, December 04, 2005

Letter from London 4th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

Whether the English are unique in their reserve I cannot be absolutely certain (maybe there is a tribe deep in the South American rain forests similarly aloof) but we do tend to hide away. Our new neighbours have been in their house for three months now, but contact has been restricted (so far) to the odd embarrassed wave. “They seem very nice”, says my wife, an opinion based, presumably, on the fact that they haven’t encroached across the line between our houses nor played loud rock music late into the night. They may be crypto-fascists or planning a revolution, but if they keep themselves to themselves that’s alright.

We are close now to the time of the year when the English are traditionally obliged to actually have some contact with their “friends”. We send, on average, a hundred Christmas cards per household - it’s a chore but it does allow us the illusion that we are “in touch”. “Have you seen David recently?” I said to an old colleague I met by chance. “We exchange Christmas Cards” he said - which presumably meant that there was prima facie evidence that David was still alive. The Christmas Card list is a curious thing. On it, of course, are remote family members and the (for most of us) small number of people that we do regard as close friends. But then there are also the random names who have maintained their card priveledges because they always send us a card as well, and it would be impolite to stop. When we lived abroad the increased postage involved meant that this latter group dwindled to a hard core, but since we have been back in London it has crept up again and some people have mysteriously reappeared. Who the hell are “Jim and Sophie” I asked when looking at this year’s list “Tuscany ‘92, big blonde girl” the wife replied – “Ah that Sophie” I agreed, “yes we should keep in touch with her alright!”

I think that it was when home computers became common that the “Christmas letter” really caught on. These “round robin” epistles are frequently stuck into the Christmas Card envelope and generally itemise, in tedious detail, the events of the last year. The longest I received was eighteen A4 pages using quite a small font, not as you might expect from Tony Blair or David Beckham, but from a retired schoolteacher and keen rambler in Tunbridge Wells. The page and a half in great detail about the repair to his central heating boiler left little to the imagination.

The Christmas letter is, of course, for the benefit of the writer not the recipient. The content is usually less then modest, especially where children are concerned. “Sarah’s second year at Oxford has gone well and she is well on route for a “First”. Where does she get the brains from?” The self-deprecation is usually ironic in such letters. But whilst Christmas letters are almost always awful, they are perhaps better than no contact at all. Maybe we should push one through our new neighbours’ door (or, better still, copies of our last five years letters so that they can really get to know us!).