The extra days off over Christmas and New Year gave me plenty of time to keep up with the television news. It was a schedule jam-packed with biblically unpleasant events. A horrible murder, as yet unsolved. Deaths by drowning, hot-air balloon disaster, and suicide bombing. Rioting and 30ft floods. Kim Jong-il threatening to take "annihilatory action" against ROTW if the fancy took him. I'm sure pestilence and plague happened somewhere on the planet, too, though it didn't make it on to BBC News 24 while I was watching.
And at the same time, listeners of Britain's gentlest soap opera had been forewarned that the 60th anniversary edition of The Archers, broadcast on Sunday evening, would contain a crisis so dramatic that its after-effects would be "felt for the next 10 years" (a figure repeated by series editor Vanessa Whitburn in increasingly hyperbolic interviews).
Naturally, one thinks of the day a 747 crashed into Emmerdale, Coronation Street's recent train disaster, and, most upsetting, the morning Pam Ewing woke up to find an entire series of Dallas had All Been A Dream and her dead husband was in fact alive, and lathering his hairy chest in the shower.
Would Shula awake to discover the last 15 years were but a slightly uneventful nightmare, and even Walter Gabriel was still walking around Ambridge? Online speculation was even wider of the mark: a shootout ending the internecine feud between Ed and William Grundy; the construction of an airport right in the middle of the village; Kenton joins a jihadist organisation ...
As we now know, in the end the shocking event was a woman giving birth after a near-miss with pre-eclampsia, and a man falling off a roof to his death. Even loyal listeners have derided the storyline as predictable and an anti-climax. But actually, in the gentle, real-time world of The Archers, a tragic turn of events involving a central character who has been in the soap for 25 years is no damp squib, creating a rich seam of drama that the series writers will be able to mine for some time. The Archers is about characters, not catastrophic events of the scale that we see on the news.
Meanwhile, after the series editor, Vanessa Whitburn, appeared to give away the plot yesterday in a Today programme interview in which she said the episode contained "a birth and a death and that's quite iconic, I think", BBC execs might want to consider how they managed so spectacularly to bungle the PR.
Selfishness and romance: can they really go together?
Do you always put your partner first? Maybe you shouldn't. The New York Times reports that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the happiest marriages are those where each partner behaves with a certain degree of selfishness. This is not a green light for rampant affairs, nor demands that smoked-salmon bagels be brought to you in bed each morning.
According to the psychologist Dr Arthur Aron, the most successful partnerships are those that "sustain the individual". He studied how people use their partners to expand their own horizons by accumulating knowledge and experiences. Those with the greatest degree of "self-expansion" were more committed and more satisfied in their cosy twosomes, the research showed. Accordingly, anybody looking for a lasting co-dependent shouldn't be asking a prospective date, "Fancy a drink?" but rather, "Fancy helping me improve my life?"
As unpleasant as it may seem, there is probably some truth in Dr Aron's "Me Marriage" thesis; who hasn't been in love and felt that swooning "seeing things for the first time" sensation thanks to a partner's fresh perspective? But to acknowledge the role of the ego so explicitly, even to prize it and put it at the centre of a relationship, seems rather unromantic, and not without its own risks. As a commenter named SW writes: "I've been married over 30 years and at this point, the only 'self-expansion' we mutually experience is our waistlines."
Some greetings only work in person
The tree is off with the binmen tomorrow. The last of the seasonal food and drink is dispensed with (the birds aren't fussy about eating stale pannetone). But when is it too late to wish friends and neighbours Happy New Year? Christmas greetings have a simple enough sell-by date. But should we keep on with the cheery Happy 2011s all the way through January? Or is it already time to set aside the pleasantries and get down to business?
I think the social codes have been altered very slightly by technology. There is one rule for digital salutations and another for real life. I received and sent a clutch of Hpy New Yrs via text on 1 January, and no later. But I'll say it to people's faces throughout January. Not many people bother any more with the traditional manner of bringing in the new year just after midnight – by smearing their faces with coal dust and passing the smudged cheeks around for kisses. Yet there is something pleasant about the personally delivered greeting.
In the meantime, don't expect the recipient of an emailed new year greeting to feel touched – it's about as personal as the ubiquitous "Hope you are well" that blights e-communication.