The Irritations of Modern Life; 20: Round Robin Letters

IT'S THAT time of year again: when the round robins come bob, bob bobbin' through your letterbox. By Christmas Eve you'll know all about Martha's hip operation, will have heard about Clive and Louise's trip to Hawaii, and will know why poor Elmer can't be with the family this Christmas.

Round robins always pose the same question: who the hell are all these people? You probably haven't seen the sender for several years, let alone their friends and acquaintances. You're never going to meet them, either, because one of the main objects of a round robin letter is to describe, in luxuriant detail, all the family feasts that Derek and Sheila couldn't quite find room to invite you to. "The party to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in July was blessed with golden sunshine..." Hey, what party, you hear yourself saying. How come I wasn't asked?

It is only in the last five years that the round robin letter has taken off here. Before that, the only one you got was from that nice couple from Alabama you once met in a B&B in Salcombe. When their round robin arrived you read it out loud and had a good giggle. Ah, well, you said, those Americans! But it's not just Americans any more. It's Dick and Vera from Carshalton, Reg and Marigold from Ipswich.

But what is the point of a people as reticent as the English trying to give their news on a photocopied sheet of A4? If something genuinely interesting has happened in the last 12 months, they're not going to tell you about it. They never say: "In May, Dick had a brief fling with his secretary. Vera's first instinct was to seek a divorce and screw him for every penny, but now they're trying to patch things up for the sake of the children." You never get one admitting: "Ryan's been terribly troubled by his acne this year. We think it was the anxiety that led to his being pulled up for shoplifting in WH Smith's in Basingstoke, but it's all behind him now and the new cream is working well."

No, all you get is a commentary of the weather at family events: showers at Brian and Julia's wedding, five degrees of frost at great-aunt Bertha's funeral.

What a blissful age it was before the word processor was invented, when your fourth cousin three times removed couldn't run off 100 identical letters at the press of a button.

Technology can't be uninvented, but there is one tactic you can use to defend yourself: just send a card back and write: "What a splendid idea to send your Christmas greetings in a chain letter. I think we did what we were supposed to do: we sent photocopies to 10 people picked at random from the phone book. Good luck to you too in '99."

That should stop them.

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