Brian Viner: A grotesque soap opera, in annual episodes

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The Independent Online

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and I am getting thoroughly hacked off with all those round-robin letters that drop out of Christmas cards.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and I am getting thoroughly hacked off with all those round-robin letters that drop out of Christmas cards.

You know the sort of thing. "It has been another good year here in Budleigh Salterton. We redecorated the downstairs toilet in April and were visited in June by Donald's step-sister Geraldine and her family! Unfortunately, they scraped their brand new Audi estate as they were turning into our drive! Oh, and for Clive's 10th birthday in September we bought him another gerbil. He now has six!!!!!!"

That's one exclamation mark for every gerbil. Round-robin letters are always infested with exclamation marks, just as Clive's bedroom is infested with gerbils. They represent a desperate attempt to lend a note of excitement to the unutterably mundane.

Because it is an immutable rule of round-robin-writing that one must impart no interesting news whatever. At least I thought it was, until I talked to a chap who once received a letter which started along these lines: "It has been a rather miserable year here in Budleigh Salterton. Our daughter Cheryl was tried for murder and, sadly, convicted."

I wish we got ones like that. We did get one this very morning that briefly caught my attention, because it stated that Sebastian had spent the past 12 months "shooting up". It's not every day you learn that a 12-year-old has acquired a heroin habit. But it turns out that Sebastian has grown three inches, that's all.

He is now nearly as tall as his mother. He also likes ice-skating and is showing a lot of promise on the guitar, in case you're interested.

I'm not. And I know him.

The round robin - which, like that other pesky business, trick-or-bloody-treating, seems to have made its way here from America - is flawed in so many ways. A letter should make a connection between sender and recipient, referring to people in common, shared experiences.

Reading a letter should make you feel singled out, special. A round robin does precisely the opposite. While appearing to enhance the Christmas card it comes with, it actually conveys the message that you're not quite worthy of a personal note, and further insults you by inferring that your life is so boring that it might even be enriched by news of young Sebastian's prowess on the guitar.

The only round robin in a Christmas card should be the one on the front, on a snow-covered bough. And worse than the round-robin letter is the round-robin e-mail. Someone still has to fold a round-robin letter, insert it, post it. But e-mail is a labour-saving device to start with. To receive a Christmas round robin by e-mail is to be told: sorry, but I've decided to expend next to no time or energy on you this year.

Having said all that, there is one Christmas round robin for which we wait with bated breath. It is sent by former neighbours, Nick and Sarah, who moved to Toronto and share a home with Sarah's 89-year-old great aunt. We have never met great aunt Betty, in fact we barely know Nick and Sarah, yet each Christmas we get a bulletin on Auntie Betty's health, and each Christmas she seems to have lost yet another faculty.

Three years ago she was nearly blind, but apparently in great spirits. Two years ago she was totally blind and almost deaf, but battling gamely on. Last year she was blind, deaf and beset by diabetes, but indomitable. This year she remains cheerful, despite being deaf, blind, diabetic and completely lame.

It is like some grotesque soap opera unfolding in annual instalments. We are rather hoping that next year's inevitable letter might contain details of a trip to Lourdes, and the news that Auntie Betty is back in full working order.

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