Friday, December 16, 2005

Round Robins

Last year, amongst the Christmas books Tom buys me every year, was one by the otherwise well appreciated Simon Hoggart, which annoyed me enormously.
The book came in a manageable format, a pretty red and silver sleeve, which features a funny seasonal cartoon and the intriguing title, ‘The cat that could open the fridge’. Moreover, the blurb promises an ‘inimitable funny commentary’, and attests that the writer has wisdom and humanity, with a touch of class. (Yes, you’ve guessed it, such accolade can only come from a fellow journalist, one who has worked for the same paper and who is still a colleague in broadcasting…)
Well, I only recall laughing out once, namely at the quote on page 92, when an extremely miserable circular letter, describing all the disasters and mishaps of one family, ends thus: ‘On this note, we wish you an equally contented and peaceful 2004’. As the comic element was provided by the sender himself it did not need SH’s commentary at all. As for the rest of the book: it didn’t even put me into the agreeable state of mild amusement, which is all any of the other books that have the undeserved praise “hilariously funny” heaped on them have ever managed to do. In fact, it thoroughly frustrated and angered me. So much so, that I have decided not to send any more Round Robins.

And to those of you who might see the book around, or - heaven forbid - the follow-up, I'd like to say:

Do not buy this book. Its 145 pages consist almost entirely of quotes from Christmas letters, all of which have been sent to SH by readers who declare to absolutely loathe them, who find them excruciatingly boring and/or disgracefully smug and boasting. At £9.99, SH has added nothing worthwhile. In fact, everything he says/implies about the so-called round robins – the writers don’t know when to stop, the letters aren’t really funny, not really entertaining, not really enlightening, not really insightful, and really, really, really could have done with radical editing… – aptly applies to his own book. Only difference being that the poor betrayed writers of those letters did not claim to be funny and insightful, they had the decency to use their own words and didn’t ask anyone for payment!!!

If you’ve ever felt like SH’s contributors about someone’s Christmas circulars – namely that they’re “boasting, whingeing, ... miserable, ... nit-picking, testy and grandiloquent, ... packed with facts without information and information without knowledge", their writers "often blissfully lacking in self-awareness” – don’t be as cowardly as they were! Don’t shop those people (whose only ‘crime’ is to think that staying in touch is a nice trait) to SH so that he can publish another book, with 95% of the work done by the very people he insults. One page, for instance, contains less than 18 words by the author himself. Instead, do the decent thing: Tell them that you don’t want to be bothered with their annual whinge.

And another thing: Reply to Christmas greetings! Only horrible people like those who write to SH, and include such lines as, ‘my oldest and dearest friend, but oh dear, what a plonker!’ think that not replying for a decade is a hint that they don’t want your Christmas cards, the rest of us think that you simply can’t find the time, but that you still appreciate hearing from us!

I for one have decided not only to give up writing Round Robins, but also writing to people who do not write to me. I used to think such tit-for-tat attitude was rather silly and small-minded and petty, but the thought that there could be just one person out there who thinks of me as someone “trapped in a forest of self-delusion” who forces other people to plough through "thousands of words describing every detail of someone’s life" (as if free will and bins didn't exist...), has resulted in this resolve. Instead, I'll point people into this direction, my blog.

Blogs, of course, will undoubtedly receive the same loathing as Round Robins by fans of Simon Hoggart, are they not, after all, certainly by those people's definition, the very epitome of wearisome self-important drivel, detailing every boring development in some non-entity's life: from what they've cooked/eaten to their nostalgia for 80s punk, let's say?

Well, to all of those (who might as well call for the undertaker now, as they're clearly already dead inside) I have to say, I have 'met' more people via blogging who are tremendously kind and generous, interesting and exceptionally educated (which says quite a lot considering I have worked at Universities in Germany and the UK for longer than I care to admit to), not to mention talented, funny and original, than in 'real life' for yonks and yonks and yonks!!!

And tomorrow I'm going to meet some of them in the flesh, and I can't wait!


Mona said...

Oh I love Christmas books. They're so fun to read and always put me in the spirit. I haven't heard of this one you mention...though I guess I'm better off for it. My favorite is definitely the kids' book Polar Express.

Zabeena said...

Oooh, I don't have the polar express! (I haven't seen the film either... but you never know what Santa's going to bring the kids...)

Joanna said...

Okay, Zabeena, here is our round robin, sent out last week. I think you should carry on - me, I LOVE getting them, even the sort SH looks down his nose at, what's the point in a card that just says, "love John and Jane"? Especially when you have no idea who John and Jane are.

Once again, apologies to those who don’t like them, a round robin, but Lucius doesn’t see the point in sending a Christmas card with no news, and if we tried to write the news by hand, we’d be lucky to get them done by next Christmas.

Mostly, Lucius is busy with work, too busy to get on with many projects around the house. However, a few weeks ago, he and our friend Luke Hughes, the furniture maker, volunteered to put up a couple of chandeliers which I had bought in a junk shop. Easy, they said, we’ll be finished by lunch they said, then what shall we do, they said. A few minutes later, in a state of great excitement, they announced that they had found lovely solid oak beams under the plasterboard, and why didn’t we take down the whole ceiling in order to expose them. In a moment of madness I said yes.

Next thing I know, the dining room is full of broken plasterboard and dust, and the solid oak beams turn out to be stained pine with oak veneer on the sides but, crucially, not on the bottom. I carry on cooking lunch, they carry on making a mess. Plans are made for a wooden ceiling, lots of clever design by both Luke and Lucius. Polly, Luke’s wife, volunteers Luke to return and help rebuild the ceiling in due course. That night, I wake up at about three o’clock and remember that we are having a houseparty the following weekend, and that we will be about 14 for three meals. Too many for the kitchen. At this point Horatio and Alfred are volunteered to clear up the mess made by the grown ups, and, as it is half term, they oblige. Much cleaning, more than is normally achieved in a month of Sundays at Huntswood, and the room is ready for use, despite the lack of a ceiling. On Saturday morning, beginning to lay the table, I find Lucius drilling the first batons to the ceiling, and chase him out to the workshop.

By the time our guests have gone, Lucius has planed a great deal of beech from the wood, and is ready to get on with fixing the new ceiling. Once he begins, he abandons all the early plans to reface the beams, and makes it flat. It is really beautiful. When I tell my friend DD about this over the phone, she suggests that the room would be even better if Lucius panelled the walls too. So that is what is going to happen. In the meantime, we have a lovely new ceiling, with two junkshop chandeliers.

Otherwise, Eleanor occasionally drags herself home from her drama school life in London; she has moved from a student hovel in Golders Green to a studio flat in Swiss Cottage (about three minutes’ walk from the college bar). Horatio is applying to various universities to read engineering. He has been taking part in a physics Olympiad (described, accurately, by someone in the kitchen as “voluntary exams”), which results in much poring over physics textbooks by Lucius and Horatio and any visitor thought to be even slightly interested. Lettice plays a great deal of hockey, sings, and has GCSEs in the summer. Alfred has just started at Marlborough, which he seems to be enjoying.

Love to you all
Lucius, Joanna, Eleanor, Horatio, Lettice and Alfred

PS I was going to illustrate this letter with pictures of Lucius working on the ceiling in unsuitable clothing (DJ, best suit, etc), and with a picture of the finished product, but have been beset by technical problems (ie total incompetence on my part, also – bad workman that I am – a hopeless printer).

Zabeena said...

Oh Joanna! Thanks ever so much! It made me laugh and conjured up some great pictures, and I now feel I know a bit more about your family, and that's great. Maybe I won't give it up after all... let's see how I feel next year...

Anonymous said...

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