Fall­ing head­long

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator -

RICHARD ADAMS, the leg­endary graphic de­signer of Not­ting Hill, has, for the past 27 years, marked the sea­son by send­ing out a Christ­mas story to his friends, in the shape of a small il­lus­trated book­let, usu­ally about 36 pages long. The book­let is il­lus­trated, printed, folded and sta­pled, with a heav­ier car­tridge-pa­per cover, and of­fers wishes for a Merry Christ­mas and a Happy New Year.

For the past five years, Richard and I have been do­ing it to­gether. The first time we col­lab­o­rated, we chose a di­a­tribe by Wil­liam Cob­bett against what he called The Thing, that great ur­ban coil of money and debt that snaked out across the coun­try and ru­ined peo­ple with­out them un­der­stand­ing why.

Sub­se­quently, we sent out a cou­ple of gloomy short sto­ries by Ge­orge Giss­ing and ex­tracts from a book about Siberian birds by two De­cem­brists, brothers, who were con­demned to Siberian ex­ile in 1826.

We make it a point of hon­our not to be­gin too soon, like those su­per­mar­kets that sell tin­sel in Oc­to­ber. Some­time around the first week in De­cem­ber, I get an email from Richard, with a nudge. I nudge back. We trail a few pos­si­ble choices and gen­er­ally bring in our friend Jo­nan­gus Mackay, who spoke Gaelic be­fore English and has amassed, read and lost more li­braries than many peo­ple own books. He usu­ally knows what we’re af­ter.

This year, it was Thomas Love Pea­cock, the English comic writer and friend of Shel­ley. Born in Wey­mouth in 1785, he grew into such a beau­ti­ful child that Queen Char­lotte once stopped her car­riage to give him a kiss; later, he be­came Chief Ex­am­iner at the East In­dia Com­pany, suc­ceed­ing the util­i­tar­ian philoso­pher James Mill.

His nov­els tend to in­volve a party of opin­ion­ated con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists de­scend­ing on a re­mote coun­try house to talk, drink, dis­pute and fall in love. They are af­fec­tion­ate, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous, par­o­dies of Shel­ley and his ide­al­is­tic friends and hang­ers-on, each, as Pea­cock re­called, with ‘some pre­dom­i­nant crotchet of his or her own’.

One of Shel­ley’s crotch­ets was veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and the be­lief that Man had de­gen­er­ated from a golden age by eat­ing meat— al­beit he al­most died on a diet of bread, but­ter, tea and a sort of le­mon­ade pow­der when he and Pea­cock went trav­el­ling. He grew so fee­ble that Pea­cock pre­scribed three mut­ton chops well pep­pered; Shel­ley ate them and got bet­ter.

We se­lected the open­ing chap­ters of Head­long Hall, fea­tur­ing one char­ac­ter who thinks the world is go­ing to the dogs, an­other who be­lieves in sci­en­tific progress and a land­scape gar­dener who’s al­ways plan­ning to rem­edy Na­ture.

The com­edy lies in the truth that peo­ple rarely, if ever, change their out­look on any­thing and will draw the op­po­site con­clu­sions from iden­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion, im­per­vi­ous to ar­gu­ment or in­flu­ence. We thought it rather apt for the times.

With one shop­ping week left to Christ­mas, I wrote an in­tro­duc­tion and Isaac, my el­dest son, did the lay­out, in Baskerville 10/14-point. We asked the fiendishly tal­ented poet and pain­ter Mer­rily Harpur, who wrote the Fox­a­to­rio, to pro­duce a cou­ple of il­lus­tra­tions. Within 24 hours, she gave us three spir­ited car­toons. We proofed the texts and the story went to press.

One wet af­ter­noon very shortly be­fore the Christ­mas week­end, Richard and I sat down to­gether to sign, seal and ad­dress 400 Christ­mas sto­ries. This is the hard­est part. I know where half my friends live and could take you blind­fold to their doors, but I have no idea what to put on the en­ve­lope. That may be why you haven’t got yours yet.

Peo­ple rarely change their out­look, and draw the op­po­site con­clu­sions from iden­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion

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