It's that time of year again, and I don't mean the time when the Christmas lights are prematurely lit. Early December is fine. No, it's that time when you have to make your annual trip to the Post Office to buy stamps for the cards you want to dispatch to far-flung parts of the globe.
First problem is to find your post office: not the simplest task when so many have shut down. And don't try telling me that you don't need a post office. If corner shops had letter-scales and stocked stamps in anything other than six or 12 first-class, that might be a solution. But generally they don't. And, maybe unreasonably, I never quite trust those Mail Box places to get the tariff right; they have so much else to do. So it has to be the Post Office.
I say that with no joy at all, as you absolutely know what awaits: a labyrinthine queue, at times protruding from the door, which slowly shuffles past the envelopes, the cards, the gift boxes, the toys, the myriad other distracting sidelines with which post offices try to disguise their central function, and finally the currency exchange counter (which, unlike the other counters, is double-staffed and otherwise deserted).
I foolishly thought I had struck lucky this week. I spotted a post office, which appeared to have more floor space than customers, and jumped off the bus, with an example of each type of card we are sending to be weighed. First appearances were promising. A queue of five people and three counters (out of seven, plus the money counter) staffed.
You can guess the rest. Twenty minutes later, I was second in the queue and just one of the seven counters was staffed. Then the girl in front of me wanted a stamp for a card to Canada, and, almost as an afterthought, asked whether she could arrange over the internet to have her post held while she was away. Yes, said the person behind the counter, but went to check anyway. There followed a mass mobilisation of staff to look for the elusive leaflet.
By the time my turn came, there were 15 people behind me, many of them with that glazed, depressed look that I thought unique to eastern Europeans under communism. I also had plenty of time to peruse a large notice with diagrams of envelopes, which said: "Be Wise! 4 out of 10 people use the wrong postal service from our range."
To which I wanted to rejoin: "You bet they do. They get so fed up waiting that they slam just any stamps on to their card, and your new system of charging not just by weight, but by size and shape, makes it impossible for the uninitiated to get it right." Actually, I'm not sure that the initiated always get it right either. An American friend received last year's card months late, although it had been sent from a post office with the recommended stamps. Just this once, I'll let the Post Office off the hook and blame US Mail instead.
Another time, another place, another David
An Education is a small-scale, rather English, film, for which Carey Mulligan, as the precocious schoolgirl, Jenny, has received accolades. Perhaps not unnaturally, I was more intrigued by the male lead, Peter Sarsgaard, as David, the oh-so-plausible seducer. From his first appearance, at the wheel of his Bristol in a rainstorm, when he offers to convey Jenny's cello so it is not damaged in the wet – but not, of course, her, because any young girl knows better than to accept a lift from a stranger – his smooth, slightly self-deprecatory manner seems disconcertingly familiar.
When he then proceeds to meet the parents – aspirational, but woefully lacking in social confidence – and convinces them that, despite their understandable misgivings, their daughter is safe in his embrace, the similarities can no longer be ignored. What his stunning, albeit temporary, success shows is that timid, salt-of-the-earth Britons are suckers for social polish with a dash of humour. Add a nice suit, a tie and some Oxbridge references, and David is made.
There is talk, for and against, of Labour using the "class card" against the Cameron Conservatives at the next election, but I wonder whether a "social plausibility card" might not work as well. Forget that notorious Bullingdon Club picture; An Education, televised at prime time in the week before voting, might cause another David some discomfort.
From a flat-earther: doubt is not denial
It's all the cut and thrust of legitimate debate, I was told briskly. You call us "catastrophists"; we call you "flat-earthers". If you can't take the rising global heat, get out of the Copenhagen kitchen.
I wonder, though, whether it is really quite right, let alone sensible, for the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary to describe those of us not actually on the streets protesting imminent Apocalypse as "flat-earthers". And yes, they did call us that last weekend.
Latest surveys show that a majority of voters, albeit a small one, harbours doubts about global warming. Those doubts take different forms. Some people doubt the planet is warming at all; others accept that it is, but doubt that humankind is to blame. Yet others think that, while warming may be real, nothing can realistically be done; at best, we will adapt. The trend is disputed, too. Is any change just natural variation that will reverse itself just as naturally, or will Siberians be growing vines before long?
With so many dissenters and so many shades of dissent, it seems unwise for ministers to scold so many potential voters at once. They may be confident of their cause – as they have been of other suspect causes, too – but are they looking to convince or to condemn? Doubt and dissent are different things.
Most people are not qualified to challenge the climate scientists; nor am I. But I dislike the propagandistic, at times theological, terms in which the global warming prophets so often make their case. And the peer review process has its drawbacks. Ministers need to recognise that you can be a good steward of the environment without bewailing the planet's demise. Many of us recycle, like clean air, prize the countryside and try to travel "green". Insulting our propensity to doubt will not make us better citizens, nor will it win our votes.
* It may be the season of goodwill, but I'm starting to look at those rows of recycling bins in another light. First it was the charity clothes bins. "Gangs" are apparently lowering small children into them to extract the bags and get first pick of the donations. Now it turns out that bottle-banks, too, have a malign side. Another "gang", it was reported this week, used the bottle-bank in a Birmingham suburb as a sort of arsenal, removing bottles and using them as murder weapons. There are those of us, it seems, responsibly putting things in, and a few others who will stop at nothing to get them out.