Over coffee after a long walk a friend described my attitude towards Christmas as ‘bah humbug’. Such a comment would normally go unnoticed; this time it made me think. My mother was a romantic secular Jew who, throughout my childhood, made Christmas a magical event, and so it remains. The exchange of cards and presents, the special family lunch on the day itself, the catch-up phone chats with friends abroad and the very notion of Father Christmas all give me great pleasure.
Even so, there are Christmas trappings that I find irksome. I would happily forgo Christmas decorations, save for the holly wreath on our front door. I would also go without Christmas parties. But then I don’t much like parties at any time! I enjoy chatting with strangers in the street, on a train, at a cafe or wherever, but for some reason, small talk with guests at a party is difficult. Indeed, I often prefer to be alone, perhaps seeking the quiet of an empty room.
This Christmas, however, partying has been different. Perhaps things are changing! I have now been to two; one at the neighbours next door, the other a twenty-minute walk away. My friends know how I feel about parties and those who invite me expect that I will either decline or, if I do come, will stay for only an hour or so. A corollary of this position is that, if my stay is going to be so short anyway, why should I spend hours travelling to and from the venue. Accordingly, invites to distant parties are usually declined.
Next door, once the preliminary pecks, hand-shakes and season’s greetings were over, I found myself next to Clive, an eighty-something year old retiree who had spent years of his professional career in senior positions in the media – BBC, newspapers, book publication – and on national advisory committees. Listening to him was fascinating, moreover, at no time did we touch on me or indulge in general gossip.
Our ten minutes together ended when our host, a very sociable man, suggested we separate – we should move on and talk with others. But just before our separation I discovered a figure I had been seeking for years – the value to the UK economy of the English language. With Clive’s experience, surely he would know the answer – and he did. As measured by the trade in goods and services in which English is a central component, the figure for sales of English language books, newspapers, films, radio, TV etc is of the order of £200 billion each year, much of the income from which comes from abroad. It took a chance meeting at a party to discover this sum. A Christmas present if ever there was one. The party had been a success.
When I arrived at the second party, our host handed me a drink – orange juice, I don’t drink alcohol – and led me into the kitchen where he introduced me to John, a tall, confident, softly spoken man who had just retired from a lifetime in quarrying. My mind lit up – mines intrigue me. He had been involved in making aggregates – used in the manufacture, for example, of cement and bitumen, rather than for making stones for construction.
He asked me what I did, to which I replied that since my retirement I had become a wordsmith, writing essays and learning French, adding how using words gave me great pleasure. Then it was my turn to probe. After responding to a volley of mining questions, John told me how I reminded him of his father, a man who prided himself both in posing questions and in his ability to argue persuasively about anything; whether he agreed with the proposition or not. I responded jokingly, with a play on words, saying that there was obviously something about his father that was ‘Gorgias’ (here pronounced ‘gorgeous’) – Gorgias was a Sicilian philosopher who lived from 483-375 BCE and believed in arguing for argument’s sake.
My joke fell flat and a riposte soon followed – “As you are an intellectual and a lover of words I feel I should point out that you twice used words incorrectly. In making aggregates, stones are not ‘ground’ but ‘crushed’, and the crushing is not carried out in a ‘factory’ but in a ‘plant’ ”. Whatever his intent, his comments were welcomed. I had met a man who was forthright, and who had taught me two new words – an unexpected pleasure.
Christmas presents come in all forms and this year Santa was good enough to offer me two good parties and three gems to savour. If only all parties were so rewarding! Perhaps next year I will try to go to more.