Last year, we stopped sending Christmas cards. We are not sending them this year either. I still feel guilty about it: friends take the trouble to send such nice ones. Part of the problem — as well as laziness — is technology. Emails make one extremely conscious of the number of separate operations required by ‘snail mail’. You need the card (whose choice is also a complicated matter), the envelope, the addresses, the stamp, the pen, the post box, and the energy to write your name hundreds of times. This all seemed worthwhile when one had confidence in the postal system. But ever since the abolition of the ‘second’ post (which was really the abolition of the first post), and the decision to pay its then chief executive, Adam Crozier, more than £1 million a year, the Post Office has become demoralised. In the recent snow, we received nothing for a week. Ever since, parcels and letters have turned up in unchronological bursts or not at all. Christmas cards first became commercial three years after the beginning of the Penny Post. As that great Victorian enterprise collapses, so will they. Future generations will be as amazed that they existed as we are when we hear about the pre-war conventions of calling cards.
Thanks to my learned wife’s latest contribution to our parish magazine, I learn that the association of the robin with Christmas was reinforced by the fact that the first postmen wore scarlet tunics to indicate their Crown service, and became known as robins (is that what a ‘round-robin’ refers to?). The British public took the bird to their hearts as a seasonal emblem and ignored its aggressive character. The robin’s behaviour was carefully recorded by David Lack, a schoolmaster, for his book, The Life of the Robin, published in 1943. He wired a stuffed robin to a branch in robin-occupied territory, and found that ‘An exceptionally violent hen robin attacked the specimen so strongly that she removed its head.’ Lack found that real robins would always assault a dummy so long as it had red feathers: even ‘a headless, wingless, tailless, legless and bodiless bundle of red feathers appears as a rival to be attacked’. Since all robins have red breasts, one cannot recognise the sex of the other by sight. Apparently it is done by song. Male ‘conversation’ is ‘more elaborate, but also more “redundant” — liable to mere repetition’. ‘How different is that from our human world, I wonder?’ asks my wife.
Christmas is a time when we must remember the poor, so I have been thinking compassionately about myself. This year, the accumulated after-effect of Gordon Brown has really hit home. What with increased taxes, ‘green’ levies on energy, incomprehensible confiscations from my future pension, and with much higher tuition fees and rail fares to come, I have not felt so strapped since we had children. Like yonder peasant, I spent the snowy period gathering winter fu-u-el because it was free. Only drink — thanks to supermarkets and competing internet/mail-order wine merchants — seems to be deliriously cheap, and this, too, is threatened by puritans who have bullied the coalition into imagining that it is the price, not the British character, which makes us boorishly drunk. What particularly annoys me is the penalty for analysing our economic misery correctly. I spotted rather early that borrowing was getting out of hand, and so got rid of all my debt. If I had not, I would find myself being paid by a terrified government to keep it.
A charming thank-you letter from one of my godsons begins thus: ‘Thank you so much for the King James Bible and the fistful of money. It was such a thoughtful and appropriate present for a Confirmation.’
Reading The King’s Speech, the new book about Lionel Logue, the man who trained King George VI out of his stammer, one notices only one huge difference between the royal Christmas broadcast 70 years ago and now — the transport. On Christmas morning 1937, George VI’s second Christmas as King, Logue caught the 9.40 from Liverpool Street in a first-class smoking compartment reserved for him in the name of Mr George. Despite fog, he arrived only a few minutes late at Wolferton station in Norfolk (now closed, of course), where a royal chauffeur picked him up and drove him to Sandringham. He had lunch with the royal family until 2.30, when he and the King went off to discuss the text of the Christmas message. The broadcast went out live at 3 p.m. precisely. Logue then had tea and left Sandringham at 6.30, accompanied by a hamper for the train, and reached his house in London by 10.45. All of this would be impossible today.
When asked to cite my new Books of the Year, I generally refuse, because Christmas is a time for old books. I have been rereading some of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, other than Sherlock Holmes. There are lots of historical novels — Micah Clarke about the Monmouth Rebellion, Rodney Stone about the Regency, and the various adventures of Brigadier Gerard, a sort of Napoleonic Flashman, only braver and stupider. I enjoyed them all indiscriminately as a boy. Now I can see that Gerard is a funnier character than Sherlock Holmes: he would make a good television series. As I write, I am engrossed in The White Company, the first of two tales of the Hundred Years War. These books are full of ‘quotha’ and ‘caitiff’ and ‘By the black rood of Waltham’, so it is hard not to mock, but the idiom is so energetically sustained that one soon becomes absorbed. It is also a challenge to one’s vocabulary. In one short chapter, I found the following words whose meaning I did not really know — staggard, sounders, falding, louted, buss and gallybagger. Like most of the non-Holmes works, The White Company seems to be out of print in this country, but busily published in the United States.
A friend is going to a reunion of his old regiment. ‘Cash bar closes at midnight’, says the invitation. The reunion is a lunch.