Every year it happens, with the utter predictability of my children saying no to the Christmas Day sprouts, and my father-in-law to the parsnips. Somewhere around 25 November my mind turns to Christmas cards, and in particular those destined for friends and relatives in the United States and Australia. This year, I assure myself, will be different. The cards travelling to distant lands, with a bespoke accompanying letter and perhaps a clutch of photographs, will be in the post by the beginning of December. And with that done, I will sit down with the dozens of cards meant for friends in the UK, and actually enjoy writing them, without the pressure of Royal Mail deadlines.
It never works out like that. Maybe as a way of limbering up for all those New Year resolutions I will fail to keep, the cards get sidelined as life becomes inexorably more hectic. The folk in Australia and America don't get their cards. Instead they get a Christmas Eve email, chatty enough, but based on the one sent to an elderly friend in Atlanta, Georgia, who is always the first recipient. Hers gets used as the template, so if I'm not concentrating, my old school pal and his family in Wagga-Wagga get asked what the weather is like in the American South, and how their grown-up grandchildren are.
As for the UK cards, they never get dashed off before Christmas week, and if you happen to live in rural north Herefordshire you might even spot me trudging through the snow today to a postbox, for one desperate final fling of envelopes. It's a form of procrastination reserved for the festive season, what we might call proChristination, and I know that I'm not the only person afflicted, indeed I'm not even the only person in our house. My wife has the same problem, with the consequence that the task of writing Christmas cards looms over us both like the gigantic shadow of an ogre in a Santa hat.
It doesn't help that I consider the business of sending Christmas cards – and boy, is it a business – a little ridiculous, especially in this text and email age of constant communication. I have 20 or 30 precious friends I rarely see or hear from, and I value the cards I get from them as much as I value writing cards for them. But I'm in regular contact with my other mates, so why the palaver of exchanging the greetings that we've already expressed verbally, or at the click of mouse? I know that sounds Scrooge-like, but there it is.
I can think of only one sound reason for dashing off dozens of Christmas cards to all the folk you're in frequent touch with, and that's to raise money for good causes. Why would anyone line the pockets of WH Smith or Clinton Cards when they could be making a small contribution to Shelter, or Macmillan Cancer Support? It's an annual bleat of mine, but it bears constant repetition, a bit like those Christmas Day sprouts.
Interrogation isn't the way to get the best answers
In the blurb for The Independent's splendid charity auction, which finished yesterday, I was tickled to be described, by my colleague John Walsh, as "an interrogator of legends". Anyone who has been interviewed by me will know that I'm no interrogator, not in the familiar sense of that word. I've never thought that interrogation was the best way to get a person talking, although police inspectors and spymasters would disagree, to say nothing of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, who enthusiastically apply that old journalistic maxim: "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"
I suppose all interviewers find their own style. Over 20 years and more than 1,000 encounters with stars of stage, screen and sporting arena, I've found that an atmosphere of conviviality, preferably involving lunch and at least one bottle of wine, yields the best interview. Maybe that's what makes me an interrogator of legends rather than a legendary interrogator. On the other hand, the two men you might describe as genuine interviewing legends are Michael Parkinson and the recently retired Larry King, neither of whom ever went directly for the jugular, which doesn't mean that they didn't, charmingly, with a smile, very often find it.
Who rises earlier? The TV presenter or the farmer?
Maybe it's the stable-and-donkey dimension to Christmas that makes the countryside so much more Christmassy than the city, for all the metropolitan carol-singing collectives and festive illuminations. Yet the imperatives of life in the country are untouched by the holiday; the cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens still need feeding.
Last week we had a drinks party, at which a friend visiting from London, a breakfast television presenter, met some of our Herefordshire friends. One asked her what time she has to get up, and she told him 4am four days a week, expecting the sympathetic response she gets in Muswell Hill. He was unmoved. He's a dairy farmer, up seven days a week at 3am.
As for the countryside feeling more Christmassy, it's never truer than when we're under a blanket of snow. However, the dazzling loveliness of the scenery is a nightmare for country pubs. On Wednesday we had to cancel dinner at the Stagg Inn at Titley, high up near the Welsh border, because of the deep snow. They told us that they'd already lost all but one of their other reservations. Paradoxically, with the landscape looking exactly like a Christmas card, there's heaps of room at the inn. Merry Christmas!