A subtle form of social semaphore

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The Independent Online

It will already have been a busy day for me by the time you read these words: champagne breakfast, presents to unwrap, that heart-stopping moment when a torrent of cards spills joyfully through the letter-box on to the mat.

It will already have been a busy day for me by the time you read these words: champagne breakfast, presents to unwrap, that heart-stopping moment when a torrent of cards spills joyfully through the letter-box on to the mat.

There is nothing officially planned for later on, but I shall be keeping myself in readiness to gasp with delight and astonishment when, at the least expected moment, my many pals appear out of nowhere to cry, in affectionate unison, "Surpriiiise!"

It is not what they call a "big" birthday. In fact, I should be grown-up enough to treat it as just another day in the calendar but, if birthdays are essentially for children, then it seems only right that on 5 February my own little inner child can come out to play.

It appears that I am not alone in needing to mark these occasions. Last week, in the Eastern Daily Press, it was reported that my local town, Diss, now has no less than 25 shops where you can buy greetings cards. This means that, with a population of 6,500, the town now has a card shop for every 260 inhabitants.

Curmudgeons with local knowledge might point out that, since two supermarkets started leeching all forms of normal mercantile life from the centre of Diss, it is lucky there are any shops open at all on its pedestrianised Mere Street, and it's true that the yobs who have taken to smashing shop windows after closing-time on weekends are not exactly spoilt for choice.

"You Can Get It In Diss" reads the jauntily flirtatious slogan on the town council's website, but the fact is that the town's reputation as being at least a decent place to shop has long gone. On any day except Friday, market day, it is easier to find a card or a second-hand coat on Mere Street than it is to buy some sugar or a quarter pound of butter unless one trudges to the local Somerfields, a grim place where one risks getting arrested for carrying an undeclared newspaper.

But why greetings-card shops? While reporting that Diss is now "the card capital for East Anglia", the EDP reveals that the British spend more on cards than any other nation in the world. Whereas an American might expect to receive 45 cards a year, the British average is 55. Two billion cards are sold every year in the UK, supporting a thriving £1bn industry.

Doubtless sociologists will have some mildly depressing explanation for why, as a nation, we like to communicate with mass-produced messages, which are often vulgar, facetious or maudlin in design and content. They will conclude that the boom has been caused by a reaction between our essential reserve and the new obligation to emote freely and often.

On every occasion except Christmas, when it is merely part of a tiresome social routine, a card can convey just the right, decorous, British degree of warmth and effort.

Personally, I find an encouraging sign of national health in the trend. Cards, after all, can be a subtle and surprisingly sophisticated form of social semaphore. When, at the end of my marriage, a swathe of former in-laws removed me from their card lists at a stroke, it was as eloquent and economical a message of exclusion as could be managed.

On the other hand, a card just received from my mother, featuring a photograph of an ostrich looking up its own arse, might take more careful deconstruction.

So Diss can be proud of its new claim to fame as the card capital of East Anglia. St Valentine's Day is approaching, a time when the injunction "You Can Get It In Diss" takes on a more urgent, personal resonance. Soon Mere Street will be thronging with shoppers looking for just the right way of communicating their feelings in the traditional British way.

terblacker@aol.com

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