Nothing like a mug to reveal the inner person

BRITAIN'S BEST-LOVED REPLACEMENT COLUMNIST

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SEASON'S GREETINGS! Yes, I got the call-up once again, all very last minute, to fill in for the holidays. I guess I'm just a victim of my own formidable reputation as a troubleshooter. Fortunately I was free, since my gig as windsurfing correspondent for the European had just finished in October, and I was about to start looking for work. Is it coincidence, or fate? Who can say?

For those of my regular readers who might have missed both the pieces I wrote for the European, let me bring you up to date with what has been going on with me since I last appeared in these pages in August, which is, after all, what they pay me (less than Wallace Arnold) for! In spite of several valiant and hopelessly romantic attempts, I never did track down my girlfriend Julie (not her real name) in Tuscany, but our sometimes sad, sometimes funny, on-off trial separation continued in its inimitable stormy fashion right up until her wedding two weeks ago.

Under the circumstances, I didn't mind not being invited, and I even went along later to tell her so. Unfortunately I was waylaid by one of those dreadful Christmas drink-drive roadblocks. What makes them put them up? By the time they sort out the drunk from the sober, everybody is late for whatever they were racing to get to. I found the whole idiotic business extremely inconvenient, not so much the fine as the ban.

Christmas, perhaps not surprisingly, has never been one of my favourite holidays. I find the enforced cheer very much at odds with all the feelings of existentialist alienation. Let me give you the run-down of Christmas chez Solip. It's not tremendously exciting, I'm afraid - nothing really big has happened since 1993, when my dad got drunk and hit my mum during an argument about my brother being gay (I'm sure David won't mind me mentioning it, now that he's married, with kids!).

This year was, by comparison, very relaxed. My mum's husband Jerry managed not to say anything about when I'm going to pay him back, and my sister- in-law and I are, after a tearful Christmas Eve scene, once again on the best of speaking terms. We also played a marvellous party game of my own invention called Name That War, which I won by coining "Bill and Tony's Ramadan Ding-Dong". Finally, Grandpa rallied unexpectedly and came out of hospital in time for a quiet Boxing Day lunch.

Of course, at the time of writing, Christmas hasn't even happened yet, so I'm guessing, but educated conjecture is an important tool in the freelance journalist's bag of tricks, and one with which I am fairly handy. I also expect there will be a lot of talk about Dad, if last year is anything to go by, but I won't be joining in. I prefer to remember him as I knew him growing up, and not as the sad, selfish figure who appears in the private investigator's occasional briefings.

I don't think I will have stayed beyond Boxing Day, since I'm too busy with work, including another column in the space next week, for which my deadline is, I believe, Wednesday. After that I'll be looking for more freelance work to support myself while I finish my Diana poem. I'm very interested in writing some political opinion pieces on behalf of MI6, if anyone has any advice.

One additional note: I have been asked not to mention Peter Mandelson under any circumstances, a directive which I have taken as an invitation to use my own judgement. After careful consideration, I have decided to pass on this anecdote: I once interviewed Peter Mandelson at his modest Hartlepool home, back when I wrote a column for Today called "Me and My Mugs", wherein I weekly proved my lifelong conviction that your mugs say a lot about who you are. Glancing at my notes from that fateful day, I see that I recorded the following: "1 x World's Greatest Son, 2 x Queen Mum, 1 x `Swine Lake' Dancing Pigs, 3 x plain beige, 1 x blue, 2 x Liberty flower pattern, 1 x Far Side (border collie arriving at sheep drinks party), 1 x Happy St Patrick's Day From Murphy & Son Roofing (chipped)."

The list, I think, speaks for itself. I should like to wish a very Happy New Year to all my regular readers, and belated congratulations to the new Mrs Millard (not her real new surname). It only remains for me to say "see you next week". See you next week.

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