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