lots of partridges and no bloody poetry

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twelfth Night tomorrow and it's time for one last look at this year's cards and a brief thought for everyone who sent them. I suppose you know you're getting old when you start getting cards and not knowing who they're from. "Merry Christmas from John and illegible" in Hong Kong causes several minutes of incomprehension. Then realisation dawns: a long- lost friend who decamped to the Orient years ago and legend had it, married a Mongolian, thus revealing depths of romance and passion hitherto undreamed of behind a rather stolid exterior.

We don't often get our Christmas cards - this one in auspicious red and gold - via the diplomatic bag, either: two friends are working in what the foreign office (and indeed the Independent) continue to call Peking. This is a city I feel rather rosy about after reading John Blofield's lyrical account of life there in the Twenties with its pleasure gardens, tea houses and flower girls, old men in bright silk gowns, courtyards, palaces and libraries. Blofield concluded that anyone who had ever lived in this marvellous city would never feel at home anywhere else, a sentiment that our friends would recognise, even in these horribly changed times.

Every year there are cards from people who haven't received anything from us; but rather like buying random rounds in pubs, it all seems to even out in the end. I choose my own cards on dreamy compulsion, responding to designs and colours from somewhere deep in the unconscious, and it struck me only recently that every year I swerve towards partridges in pear trees. Last year it was a surreal Leonora Carrington-esque garden scene with mysterious fleeing figures, this year a shiny, gold and orange arrangement. What it is about partridges and pear-trees which particularly appeals is a mystery, but perhaps it has something to do with my general bias towards the pagan and secular. The godly stuff is OK if the senders actually believe in it, but it's a bit rich from people who haven't set foot in a church since our Maureen's Debra's Maffew was christened.

Raphael's angels and renaissance altarpieces have aesthetic qualities, and one friend scored high on ethnography with a charming 19th-century depiction of the Holy Family from Slovenia, but at B's workplace they take their religion very seriously indeed. I've never seen so many doves of peace, hallelujahs and Jesu is borns in my life. I have to admit they radiate a certain austere spirituality among the comic fat robins and holly garlands. I might lean towards paganism, but I do like to give the festival its Christian name. Our most sinister card, all in black with an embossed tree, wished us politically correct "Holiday Greetings", and unaccountably lowered the spirits.

Perhaps for multicultural reasons, those crazy dudes from the east, the three Magi, were much in evidence this year, and for sublime kitsch they take some beating. There are three main styles of representation: vibrant cartooning, silhouetting and the Cecil B De Mille just-about-to-burst- into-song special. A fine example of the latter is the superb rendering of the trio in full Arabian fig from darling Grandad, who signs all in capitals. Without wanting to sound like Bob Hoskins (though I would, if they'd give me the money), better than any card received this year was the brief conversation I had with him just after Christmas. He announced his determination to buy this newspaper (what he'll make of it is anyone's guess, since it differs radically in tone and typography from the Bolton Evening News), and then, as if alarmed about what he might find in it, asked suddenly: "Do you write poetry?" He rewarded the negative with an emphatic "Thank god, I bloody hate poetry!"

At my shoulder I could hear the egregious Bob grinning: "Garn! It dun aff ta be dis wy!" as we negotiated the usual family no-go areas, then all at once we were giggling and gossiping and, strangely, discussing railway engines. "I've been thinking about writing a book," he said drily. "I have solved several problems which have been puzzling scientists for years." So that was what was going on in that place of rich mystery, the garden-shed, when I was young. As I was saying to B as we attempted to track down a festive bottle of perfume (forget Buzz Lightyear - just try getting hold of Givenchy's Organza), if anyone could synthesize that memorable, manly pong of turps and compost, of hot tea, demolished radio-sets, motor oil and ancient biscuit-tins filled with screws, they'd make a bob or two at Christmas.

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