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Simon Hoggart's week: a death in the family but first, 97 Christmas dos

17 February 2012

✒Time for the annual collection of round robin letters. The average age of the writers seems to have crept up, no doubt because younger persons prefer year-round social networks. There is marginally less boasting, perhaps because of all the cavilling in the media. And as one reader says: "If you follow a family for years you often see how the brilliant offspring wind up doing quite ordinary jobs."

✒But some still assume that every tiny aspect of their lives is fascinating. One of my favourites comes every year from the Midlands. The writer describes holidays in pitiless detail. Having left several hours early to catch the ferry from Plymouth, he discovers he has left the passports at home. Luckily on the return trip they find a 24-hour petrol station and can fill up. A cruise to the Canaries is notable for the purchase of ice cream. However, the cruise company's 10% discount "applied only to actual ice cream cups, not to banana splits or pancakes", which is a disappointment.

One man in north-west London writes a 3,500 word letter which may mention every single thing he has done throughout the year, including "dust lounge … send card to niece … dry-clean trusty old corduroy jacket … replace battery in kitchen clock". This may be humorous, but it is all there.

I liked an honest letter which admitted what boring lives the writers lead. Their lives are so dull that their occasional pleasures seem rather charming. They stay at a Days Inn on the M5. The £4.99 continental breakfast is great value, "but even after spending 30 minutes enjoying this feast, we still hadn't finished, and packed away the rest for the journey. We used the milk for our flask of tea, which is an essential item for our travels". That was in June. Later he recalls buying shoes, reduced from £44.99 to £13.49.

✒Misery is a constant. Some people just have awful lives, and want us all to know. This woman has two hips that needed replacing; afterwards they holiday in Florida, where it rains. Their daughter's marriage ends and she loses her job. Then a drunk driver in a Porsche crashes into the sitting room of their bungalow. "Luckily no one was in the room at the time, but we lost lots of things of sentimental value which have been totally destroyed."

Another woman describes at immense length all the medical horrors which attended her year. After an incision by incision account of her treatment, she finishes: "Every morning I jab a pin into a finger and record my fasting glucose level." Her husband has a stroke, though happily she finds space to start the letter with news about dropping a bowl containing lemon mousse.

A family from Exeter were upset by Bill Bryson's unflattering description of their city. Their daughter wrote to him offering a guided tour, but he didn't reply.

✒However, round-robinners are a resolute breed. Bad news can be buried where it doesn't spoil the mood. This couple record the death of the husband's mother, but only in the third paragraph, after mentioning the cat's ruptured achilles tendon – "a disease so rare in cats that our vet had not encountered it before". They seem quite proud of this, and take a trip to South Africa three days after the cat's operation.

Resilience: a Birmingham family also lose their cat to a rare disease. But does that slow them down? No. "A memorable Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House was a requiem for Puddle's short but wonderful life." (Did the dancers know what they were commemorating? And what makes a cat's life "wonderful"?)

Similarly, this Cumbrian family find space for the death of their sister-in-law only after "enjoying the 97 Christmas lunches, dinners and 'dos' we have on the calendar … oh dear, should I have bought a bigger size in jeans?" I feel sure the sister-in-law would have wanted them to carry on eating.

✒Not all gloating and boasting has been banished. The Turner family live in a "perfect world", according to the college friend who forwarded me their letter. Their twin daughters each got 12 A*s at GCSE, and at the same time got As in two AS levels, plus distinctions in IT. They are sportswomen, and sing in the choir.

One would be in the wind ensemble, but it clashed with her badminton, at which she is so good that she plays for the county adult team. The other is teaching younger pupils the piano. As one despairing reader writes of another letter: "Sometimes you think these people actually want you to slit your wrists."

A Welsh family have a house in Portugal where they describe their idyllic life in such a fashion that you want to claw the walls with both envy and rage. They reflect on Portugal's economic problems, but "those already affected know that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but learning how to dance in the rain". Aaaargh!

✒God makes frequent appearances, as he wins the credit for the good things that happen while not being blamed for the misery.

One family start their letter pointing out that Jesus "is only a prayer away", which must be a help since various family members have died.

However, "we thank the Lord that both our children are in employment." Presumably God isn't interested in the record numbers of other unemployed young people. An American woman who moved to Ireland was reminded by a US cousin of why she left.

"It's a pity her grandson was hooked on heroin, and is now pouring concrete for his dad, 'but God met him in a big way, and he has been saved.' "

And many have a sense of their place in history. From Norfolk: "2011 is the 40th anniversary of our seasonal family newsletter, and it is also the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible." A coincidence? Surely not.

Many thanks for all letters; I am so sorry I only had space for a fraction.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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