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Dear Friends

Season’s Greetings

A growing number of Christmas cards we receive these days come with an enclosed letter reviewing the kind of year the sender has enjoyed – and in a few cases apparently not enjoyed. So enthralling are these accounts of the vast scholastic achievements of children, the births of grandchildren, and the deaths of mothers-in-law and dogs that I feel a guilty obligation to reciprocate.   

So this year, in a break with my tradition of grumpily ignoring all seasonal messages of greeting in any form, I’ve decided to offer my own version.  If nothing else, it will stop our American acquaintances, some of whom we haven’t seen in years and will probably never see again, writing plaintively to ask, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys?”

The first thing that I’m pleased to report is that Martha and I are ending the year as we started it: alive.  I recognise that, with two weeks still to go until 2014 I may be tempting fate by saying so. But after a certain age, mine for example, staying alive is something that’s no longer entirely taken for granted.  Well it is, I suppose, because in not taking it for granted lies madness.  But I do these days occasionally scan the small-print obituaries in the newspapers with a view to assessing my own life-expectancy.  Someone offered a formula: take the average of your parents’ ages and lop of seven years.  Yes, I know it doesn’t work, but I’m reassured that I can look forward to at least another twelve years.  And, as it happens, that’s when my financial adviser tells me the money will run out.

We’re also, dare I say it, not only alive but well.  

‘Well’ is, of course, a relative word.  This I’ve come to understand by glancing in the full-length mirror behind the bedroom door and recoiling, startled, from the reflection.  Is that really me, I ask my former self.  I’m afraid it is, replies my present self.  Clearly my diet isn’t working, and something needs to be done.  I’ve decided therefore, as a broad objective, to attempt to reverse the present numbers.  Having spent thirty years losing one pound, I’m going to try losing thirty pounds in one year. My apologies if you remember that I’ve cracked that joke, or a variation of it, before, but it’s still topical.

Martha, meanwhile, once again filled her annual quota of surgical procedures.  Never one to do anything in half measures, she had operations on both feet (details will be provided only on application).  To halve the recovery period, she had them done simultaneously, which had the effect of doubling it.  This inconvenience she endured with her usual stoical good humour, while I cursed at having to acquaint myself with experiences hitherto unknown, such as finding my way around the local supermarket (and suffering the sarcastic remarks of neighbours). 

Martha’s medical outlook must now be rosier almost by process of elimination; having now repaired two hips, two feet, one spine and one shoulder, there aren’t too many essential joints left to worry about.  Well, just the remaining shoulder, I suppose.  I have to say that our medical insurance provider has been most generous, in recognition of which we’ve happily agreed to pay several thousand pounds more in premiums next year.

Between surgical interludes, we did a bit of travelling during the year.  The highlight was a three-week trip to America where we stayed, in several states of the union, with various friends.  They were all most hospitable, although it does strike me as odd that we haven’t heard from any of them since.  Perhaps we overstayed our welcome – or under-spent on the house gifts.  As an aside, I have to say that the Atlantic, metaphorically speaking, seems to widen with each passing year.  Not so long ago we felt like immigrants in Britain.  We now feel that way when we travel to America.

We also enjoyed attending the wedding of the daughter of old friends on an island in Sweden.  This we can look back on with pleasure – so long as we overlook being mugged in Stockholm, of all places, supposedly, after Pyongyang, the world’s safest city.  The perpetrators were Mexican – or at least some variety of Central American – which only goes to show that criminals are now thinking as globally as bankers.  The results of their efforts run in parallel: one way or another, our pockets get picked.   

Incidentally, when I demanded of the desk sergeant at the police station that Wallander be put in charge of the case, he was not amused.  After telling me I’d been watching too much television, he added that they had considerably less chance of solving the crime than the bloke in Midsomer Murders has of solving his.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, we received a letter which our friends told us translated to a notification that the case had been closed.  I can only suppose, from watching Swedish television serials, that the police there are interested only in Fascist serial killers. 

Speaking of bankers, our finances improved considerably this year, largely due to the absence of expenditure on wedding and engagement parties, not to mention sundry other related outlays.  Sara and George moved this year into a flat a few miles away from us.  This, their first house, naturally scored as a big event.  The second big event was George painting the skirting boards.  I doubt Michelangelo lavished as much care on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  There’s talk of a skirting-board party when the job’s done.  This will probably happen some time next year.

Unrelated to the proximity of Sara and George, we ourselves have decided to move house.  Our splendid Esher mansion is too big for just two people.  It would easily accommodate a family of ten.  And the running expenses keep rising; just cutting the quarter-mile of laurel and leylandii hedges around the garden costs almost as much as the combined utility bills.  

Leaving Esher, if indeed we do, will be a wrench, especially as Martha is now in charge of pretty much every civic activity in town.  I’ve had to promise that, wherever we end up living, she’ll still be allowed to take over the essential civic functions.  We’re still debating where we should go, the list of potential destinations ranging from France to Florida.  A compromise is called for, I agree, but the practical obstacle is that there’s nothing between the two locations except an ocean.  Surbiton here we come! 

If there’s a remarkable aspect to 2013 it’s that we were not called upon to attend a single funeral.  We did, though, watch a couple of funerals on television – those of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.  Both were, post mortem, politically beatified.  Certainly both had an impact on the world.  I wonder if they’ve had a chance to meet yet, and whether they got along.  

They’ve now been joined – actually since I started writing this piece – by Peter O’Toole, famous for playing the fool in pubs and Lawrence of Arabia in the desert.  In the context of the latter, I hope O’Toole appreciated Noel Coward’s comment on his performance.  “He looked so beautiful he should have been called Florence of Arabia.”  

On the sporting scene, England handily retained the Ashes, beating Australia 3-0, but are, as I write, in the process of relinquishing them in an unexpectedly one-sided series down-under.  Not, I must admit, how I expected the cricket year to end.

And Andy Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon since before the Second World War.  Next year, as Scotland votes on whether to remain in the United Kingdom, we may have to say he’s the first ever Scottish national to win the title.  But I don’t think so. 

Meanwhile, Martha and I send our salutations from Esher, England and St. George, and wish you all, my devoted readers, you happy few, a happy holiday and a very healthy and prosperous New Year.


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