‘I got my first Christmas card yesterday,’ said the man next to me in the pub gloomily.
‘First ever?’ I said. ‘Blimey, I had already received my first one by the age of 16. Mark you, I didn't get my second one till I was 23. Then after that…’
‘No, you berk,’ said the man. ‘The first one this year, for God's sake.’
I think this is one of the wonderful things about Britain, that in pub conversations total strangers can insult each other freely and openly without offence being taken. I decided to come back fighting.
‘I've already had my first one this year. ‘
‘About eleven months ago. in mid-January.’
‘Mid-January! Blimey, what did it say?’
‘It said, “Sorry we forgot to send you a card. Hope this isn't too late. Reg and Katie.”’
‘Ah!’ said my neighbour. ‘Then it wasn't the first of the year. That doesn't count. It was the last of last year. Had any of this year's yet?’
Do you ever get into conversations like this in a pub? They're not like any conversation anywhere else, are they? Well, yes, they're a bit like the conversations you get in a family, but at least with a pub conversation you don't have to meet the people involved again.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I had one a week ago. Reproduction of a French medieval tapestry scene, you know the sort of thing.’
‘What did it say?’ said the man.
‘I don't know,’ I said. ‘I can't read medieval French.’
‘You know what I mean, twitface. What was the message written inside?’
‘It said “Happy Christmas”’.
‘Not printed. Written. What was the written message?’
‘Oh, it was an invitation to a party. Reg and Katie wanted to ask us to drinks on the 20th.’
‘Ah!’ said my neighbour. ‘That bears out my theory!’
This is another feature of the English pub conversation. One member of it always steers the conversation round until someone says something that seems to prove his theory. Then he says that it's what he's said all along, or that it only bears out his theory, or something like that. Nobody has any idea what his theory is. The only way to find out is to wait for him to perform a dramatic pause, during which he drains his beer, wipes his mouth and shakes his head as if to clear his wits.
My neighbour paused, drained his beer and wiped his mouth.
‘My theory is that people are so sick of sending Christmas cards to each other by now that they will only send them if they serve some other purpose, such as to issue an invitation.’
‘Think people are sick of sending each other cards, do you, Howard?’ said the landlord.
Another feature of pub talk. The landlord. Asking inane questions. Formed by turning round what someone has just said into the interrogative. All landlords are like bad TV chat show hosts. So are all TV chat show hosts.
‘Sure they are.’ said Howard. ‘As I said, they are only sent if they can be used for other things these days. Look at the one I got this morning. Comes from a firm I have dealings with. It's been signed by the whole office. Terry, Pat, Shane, Kevin, Wayne, Derek, and everyone. Well, not everyone. It hasn't been signed by Tracey.’
‘Why not?’ said someone.
‘They haven't got a Tracey working there, amazingly. They've actually applied for one. “Person called Tracey, must have proof of name, wanted for office work”. Can't get one for love or money. Anyway, that's not the point. The point is what's written on the back of the card. Look!’
He turned the card over and read:
‘”You owe us £87 VAT as per last invoice. Early settlement would oblige." You see, they're using cards to send bills now!’
‘You could always send a cheque for £87 back with your Christmas card, Howard,’ said the landlord.
‘If we always got money with our Christmas cards,’ said someone, ‘it would undergo a tremendous revival.’
‘Well, I think it's a load of nonsense,’ said Howard, ‘and I'm not sending any cards this year at all. Or at least, only to people I get cards from.’
‘If none of us sent any cards till we got some from other people, then nobody would send any Christmas cards at all,’ I said. Somebody laughed, which didn't best please Howard. He turned and looked at me.
‘OK, clever clogs,’ he said. ‘What's your feeling about Christmas cards?’
I feel more or less the same about exchanging Christmas cards as I do about having English pub conversations. They come at regular intervals, are utterly predictable and force you to be friendly to people you can't stand.
I did not, however, think it was either the time or the place to say this.
The Independent Friday Dec 9