Brian Viner: 'Every December we marvel at the smugness of the round-robin letter'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

Our favourite Christmas round-robin has arrived, from friends we haven't seen for 20 years, indeed that Jane has never met. I was at university with them both, and one of our cherished festive treats is the account of how fabulous their lives have been these last 12 months, how affluent they have become, even how tall their children now are.

Every December we sit down with a mug of coffee and a mince pie each and marvel anew at the total absence of irony, humility and self-awareness in this annual masterpiece of preening smugness, which this year includes a gem of a line about us all suffering Christmas Day in the perishing cold, while they and their sons (6ft 1in, 6ft 3ins, 6ft 3ins) enjoy a barbecue at their second home in Cape Town. We know they have a second home in Cape Town because the round-robin boasts both their addresses at the top, and also because their epistle of about five years ago said that they'd enjoyed a holiday in South Africa so much that they'd simply had to invest in some prime beachfront property there.

All of which brings me to Roger Lewis, biographer of Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Anthony Burgess and Charles Hawtrey (and what a fantasy dinner party line-up that would be), who every Christmas sends out a round-robin recalling his year, which is intended as an antidote to such ghastly bragging exercises as that described above. These letters – sometimes gloomy, usually vituperative, always very funny – have now been extended into a book called Seasonal Suicide Notes. It's been my bedtime reading for the past week. Paradoxically, it is a joy.

Moreover, it has added resonance in our house because Lewis lives but six miles away, in the small, gloriously idiosyncratic Herefordshire town of Bromyard, and writes about places and even people we know. An entry for September 2008 hails some autumn treats coming up in Bromyard: talks on "The History of the Spitfire," "The Stoats of Brockhampton Wood", "Acupuncture and Pelvic Pain", and "You and Your Radishes".

You have to love a town that educates its inhabitants in matters relating to Spitfires, stoats, pelvic pain and radishes, all in the course of a couple of months. But there are myriad other reasons to love Bromyard. Lewis offers several in his book, such as the sign in the hairdresser's window – "closed due to quietness" – and I have noted a few of my own down the years. Once, Jane was in the greengrocer's when someone came in asking for parsley. "We don't have any," came the reply, "but if you walk down the street 200 hundred yards, then turn left, you'll see an alleyway after 20 yards or so. Go to the bottom and you'll see a whitewashed cottage. That's where I live. Go round the back and you'll find a little vegetable plot with lots of parsley. Help yourself."

That's rural small-town life for you, although it was also Bromyard where Jane went into the baker's one morning and asked for a medium-sliced granary. "We've completely sold out of bread, it's brilliant," said the young woman behind the counter. Jane looked at her bemusedly. "It's not brilliant for me," she said. This was the point at which the most complacent of shop assistants might be expected to say, "No, sorry, you're right." But this shop assistant seemed to be spoiling for a fight, and Jane half-expected her, like Two-Ton Ted from Teddington, ruthless killer of Benny Hill's milkman Ernie, to reach for her bun. "Well, it's brilliant for me," she said heatedly. That's rural small-town life for you, too.

Anyway, I was delighted to discover from Seasonal Suicide Notes that Lewis is practically a neighbour, in addition to which it turns out that we were at the same university at the same time. Could it even be that his dyspeptic Christmas round-robins were inspired by the very one that Jane and I gag over every year? In the hope of finding out I phoned his publisher to ask if she could put me in touch with him, but it turns out that he's gone away for a few weeks. Either that or he recoiled, and begged her to think of an excuse, saying "I've read his column in The Independent, I'd rather have root-canal surgery without anaesthetic than meet him." I ventured this theory to his publisher. "How did you guess," she replied. I'm 58 per cent sure that she was joking.