It’s December 20th. The new day is sounded by the neighbour’s hacking cough, and by the soft thump of an envelope on the doormat. Tucked inside is a summary of your failings in size 12 font, or, as it’s more commonly known, the ‘Round Robin’.
‘Round Robin’ letters can be difficult to decipher, not least because your vision tends to blur with the tears of your own inadequacy. Stuffed like a turkey with spiced-up descriptions of family life, these Christmas newsletters can cause you to start losing your grip on reality, and the lighter you’re holding at the edge of the paper.
Is this even for me? Is often your first thought, because how can you know? It seems like Liz was so fired-up with relaying Helena’s SATs results that she forgot to address the letter personally, never mind to ask you how you are or how the divorce is going.
But it’s not just the sheer smugness of these letters which makes them hard to read. Many writers insist on ending every single sentence with an exclamation mark, making you feel a little like the ball on an over-excited two year-old’s paddle-bat. Sometimes, one isn’t even enough, you get a line of three or four, the textual equivalent of a grin, raised eyebrows, and thumbs-up. This can leave you wondering if these people find everything so utterly astonishing, or just their own extraordinary lives.
“Bob and I went for a gorgeous walk in the Quantocks last week! It was sunny! A wonderful day, only ruined slightly by Bob’s knee exploding halfway down Beacon Hill!”
Now, in my opinion, only one of these sentences warrants an exclamation mark – Meredith must have been very surprised to have such good weather. We can therefore assume that the other two are merely used to continue the jocular tone of the letter – full stops can be rather cold and impersonal (just like some people you might know).
Having slogged through the bit about the writer themselves, you’ll be faced with the next most important thing in their lives – their endearing and exceptionally skilful spawn.
“Samantha is making astounding progress on the hurdy-gurdy, passing Grade 8 alongside revising for her 19 GCSEs (we don’t know how she does it!). Phil and I simply cannot keep a rein on her truly admirable ‘zest for life’.”
No one can be average these days. Put simply, you can’t just be mediocre at making a snowman, you have to be spectacularly brilliant at making a snowman. In fact, if Aled Jones doesn’t launch into a spontaneous fluting warble as soon as you finish making your snowman, you may as well just go home.
Note the cliché thrown in here. Sounds like something you’d write, doesn’t it? You see, you and Alison aren’t that different really – you speak the same language! Ahhh, it’s like you’re one big happy family.
Now, mind the gap (year student).
“This month, Pamela is building drainage systems in Uganda – hard work, but she’s not one to complain! She’ll be back for a few weeks in June before setting off for Somalia to help in a hydrotherapy centre for aardvarks.”
What they’re not telling you here is that Pamela complains incessantly because the ground’s too hard to dig (‘so hard!’), and because she’s subsisting on insect larvae when she’s used to eating flambéed quail.
And of course, the angelic youngest child, adored by his quadruple CRB-checked teachers.
“Not to forget 8 year-old Titus, who can now put on his Velcro-shoes unaided, and who is a whirlwind on the rugby pitch! The referee at the last match actually forgot to blow the whistle, so transfixed was he by our little sporting phenomenon!”
The metaphor may have momentarily sparked your grossly depleted interest, but probably not. ‘Revolving plate in a microwave’ would have been more captivating, and accurate. Speaking of microwaves, your Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Additives’ mac ‘n’ cheese has just pinged. Best go get that, you’ll need all your strength for the travel section.
“Rose at 5:20 sharp and caught the 5:59 train from Reading to London Paddington, changing platforms for London Kings Cross with 52 minutes spare to grab a coffee and eat a raisin bagel in the waiting room. A slight hold-up of 12 minutes at Peterborough due to detachment of carriages, but I arrived more or less on-time in Lincoln at 10:05.”
Such over-sharing isn’t just limited to journeys. You’ll most likely reach the end of the letter (keep the faith) with precise knowledge of the circumference of Jolie the Dalmatian’s hind-quarters. This is preferable to knowledge of Sandra the writer’s hind-quarters, however.
Unlike these people’s taxes, family photographs in Christmas newsletters can’t be avoided. Shots of all 15 Robsons crammed into frame, eating marinated feta al fresco under waxen fronds. Perhaps a snap of Tina and Jeremy, arms around each other in a visceral embrace, obscuring a large proportion of the Basilica behind them.
By this point you’ve concluded that the senders of these ‘Round Robins’ don’t care one ounce of currants about your puny sorrowful life. This is not the impression that Julian, who likes to talk about traffic calming measures, and who you haven’t seen in 17 years for precisely that reason, wants to give you. And so, into the mix of stodgy self-aggrandisement he sprinkles some sugar, or candied orange peel if you prefer, in the form of a mention of you, dear reader. This can cause you to fall backwards in shock, to salute yourself in the mirror, or perhaps, to lose it completely and destroy the letter with relish (or petrol, which tends to be more flammable).
“We hope you are well, Laura, and keeping off the booze. We must make sure to pop over sometime in 2017.”
If you’re erratically splashing a red cross on your door, there’s no need. This is never going to happen. Don’t you know these people are ‘so incredibly busy’? Stop thinking you’re so important.