What a Card!

Just as the sending of holiday postcards has [mercifully] almost completely died out, the sending of Christmas cards is a dwindling occupation, according to recent news articles. Reasons given include the cost of postage and the rise of popularity of social media.

In our household we still send cards, although in a true portent of how life will become in the future, the number of cards we must send has reduced.

Among those of us [mostly older] who uphold the tradition of sending cards there are various methods of acquisition, from those who manufacture their own-from family photos or recycling last years’ to my own preferred method of buying charity cards. The purchase of the cards is probably the most pleasurable part of the process, since many of the major charities’ cards are sold by volunteers in our local library along with wrapping paper, gift tags and so on.

I am sorry to say that my criteria for choosing are not altogether altruistic in the sense that I tend to choose by design rather than choice of charity. This year, for example I was much taken by a design featuring a shelf of books on winter and Christmas-related topics. Steering clear of anything religious I eschew biblical scenes such as the night sky over a fictitious Bethlehem, camels, three ships or whimsical stables. I also reject ‘humour’ in the form of comical Santas, reindeer or snowmen in cartoon poses. I don’t like glittery snow scenes either.

It must be tricky for card designers to produce originality nowadays. Old masters are acceptable, as is anything well drawn or a stunning piece of photography.

With a few exceptions the writing of Christmas cards is not a task I enjoy. The exceptions are the cards for people with whom I have little contact apart from this. There is a friend from student days, a friend from single-dom days [whose card, by tradition must be from one ‘Archers’ character to another; this year it was from Lilian to Justin-a story line only die-hard Archers fans will understand].

In an unprecedented effort, this year’s cards were written early in the month. This was in order to apprise those of a Luddite nature that we have moved house. There are few of them, now-friends and relations who do not use email, let alone social media.

As we begin to receive cards it is clear that the early writing formula has succeeded, with cards from the ‘once-a-year’ contacts plus a smattering of cards from our neighbours. Notable among these is a ‘home-made’ card from the single gentleman at number 2. He has already done sterling service as the basis for the character, Jeffery Marsh in my story ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [see last month’s posts for the story] and has much more potential for creative fact and fiction. The card, in a large manila envelope is shoved through our letter box. An autumn leaf has been glued on to a piece of gold card-clearly recycled from some packaging, although one corner of the card is missing as if torn off. There is some hastily scrawled writing ‘Happy Xmas’ in red, replicated as Happy New Year inside. Has he taken irony to an unprecedented level? We can only hope…

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Travel or Holiday? What’s the Difference?

We are travelling across The Netherlands, meandering slowly northwards with the aim, having negotiated Germany and Denmark of an eventual stay with a Norwegian friend. The Dutch countryside, though flat as a table-top is scenic in a bucolic way and the villages chocolate box pretty with their thatched, angular, barn-style roofs and manicured gardens. [I suppose the analogy of the chocolate box must be becoming obsolete nowadays-as a child I was used to seeing the array of assorted chocolate boxes ranged along the top shelf of the village shop and all bore images of thatched cottages or streets of half-timbered houses. Heaven knows why…]

All this prettiness is, of course very uplifting. But to enjoy travel [or a holiday-whether the two are the same is a matter for debate] every sight need not be picture-book gorgeous, in fact quite the contrary-some of the ugliest views can provide the best travel experiences.

Take docks. We sailed overnight last night from Harwich in Essex [East coast UK] to Hoek von Holland [The ‘Hook’]. Harwich is a tiny port, occupied almost entirely by the two sailings of one ferry company. The enormous ship dwarfs the quay as lorries crawl up the ramp like swarming insects to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the vehicle decks. At last it was our turn to be swallowed, trundling across the metal gantry and shuffling into a narrow space between two caravans. We downed a couple of drinks, chatting to some touring Americans to one side and some touring Australians on the other before tumbling into bed in our cabin.

We woke to the view of Rotterdam, a forest of cranes and pylons all engaged in loading or unloading container ships. How many containers can there be in the world? One per head of the population? You could be forgiven for thinking so. The containers look like children’s bricks as they are plucked from the quayside in giant pincers and placed with meticulous accuracy on to the wide, flat deck of a ship, piled to an impossible height until it seems the vessel might topple sideways-and yet there is one on the horizon, disappearing somewhere with its unwieldy cargo.

We ground to a halt in the berth and descended to the depths to rejoin out vehicles and a long wait for our turn to disembark. Then we were away into the Netherlands and Northwards.

I attempt to make sense of the signs. ‘Slag boom’ says one, or ‘sluiz-droomen’, or broodjes slommen’. The Dutch language seems to consist of faintly abusive and insulting words although they are in fact all innocuous terms for everyday objects. We cross ‘dijks’ and wait for ‘brugs’ to open and allow boats to pass on the countless  waterways that make up the country-once passing underneath an aqueduct bearing sailing ships-an astonishing sight. We cross huge barrages like driving across the sea, where on either side cormorants are gathered, spreading their wings to dry before plunging after another fish, or tall grey herons poised motionless along the roadsides.

So to Germany then-ausfahrts, glottlestops and beer-swilling, thigh-slapping efficiency-ah, but only for one night!