Spectator on Christmas newsletters

The first Christmas newsletters have arrived. I don’t read these with the speed-reading nonchalance that Christmas cards get. I save these single-spaced letters for the evening, preferably with my first glass of Merlot, a friendly, uncomplicated wine that softens any feelings of unease induced by the annual communiques. Not that I’m the jealous sort.

I’m delighted to read that ‘Ariadne is reading History at Christ Church after spending an amazing gap year in India where she built with her own hands a clinic in the orphanage where she was teaching English and Welsh. Her book describing her experience, illustrated with her own watercolours can be ordered (form enclosed) and all the profits go to the orphanage, as did the money she raised when she swam across the Channel the week before going up to Oxford. You can see how much she’s grown, because she’s on the cover of the Christmas issue of Tatler modelling a sable coat and not much else, but it’s all for a good cause.

With her fee, she’s bought 1,000 acres of rainforest!’ I hope you don’t think that I begrudge these outbursts of parental pride. ‘Bravo Orlando!’ I say, who ‘sold his design for the fold-up boat and bought a little stretch of the River Itchen, half a mile of double-bank fishing’.

Clever Orlando, ‘who saw the crise economique coming, left Goldman Sachs and set up the charity Pity the Polar Bear before starting his own crise-proof hedge fund’. But I confess that these Christmas newsletters surprise me because, well, they don’t seem very English. At least not the England I used to know, where bragging was seen as bad manners, and self-promotion was distinctly non-U. As for boasting about one’s children, a mere generation ago, it was unheard of.

When I tried to explore this sudden change in the English character, my son said softly: ‘It’s your fault.’ My fault? ‘Yes. When modest Englishmen like Papa marry Americans, it dilutes the purity of the Deprecating gene.’ I can’t deny that US imports hypochondria, the mall, litigation find their way into English life as surely as night follows day. But ostentatious Pride and Over-achievement have come like a stealth tax: suddenly and unexpectedly. I apologise. I really want to make amends, starting with the Carlisle Christmas letter for 2008. ‘Dear One and All, Well, we’ve made it to the end of another year. And what a year.

In March, we sold a single load of wheat (20 tons) for £200 per ton. We’ve never done that before, and to celebrate, we turned on the heating. We thought about selling the rest of the crop ‘forward’, but my husband decided we should sit tight. He’s waited all his life for wheat to hit these prices. Then, in August, they began to plummet. The forward price for wheat this week is only £96 per ton and he lies in bed at night kicking himself.

In September, when the banks began failing at the height of the credit crisis, we called Mr Ritchie, our banker, to ask ‘Are we going to be okay?’ We’re still waiting for him to call back. Sam is enjoying his first year at Edinburgh. He no longer minds about Christ Church. His room looks out onto the recycling bins of Pollock Halls. In the distance, he can see Arthur’s Seat. Takings in the country store and restaurant are down 20%, but we’re hunkering down and think we’ll get through these dark days. We are not over-confident.

There is much to celebrate this Christmas season. When interest rates hit 2%, we cashed in the last isa and bought six red poll cattle. The skinny guy with the funny name is going to be President in a few weeks’ time, and our hearts are glad. It’s snowing, but the Viburnam bodnantense is in blossom. We are a full house this Christmas, and the log baskets are piled high. May your Christmas be peaceful and exciting. God be with you until we meet again.’