His Family & Other Animals. December 2011.

Dear Rowley,

Well darling, the Grim Reaper’s been busy again this Christmastide though he had the good taste to leave my nearest and dearest alone this time. I was sorry to hear that Mirror columnist Sue Carroll had gone to the great editorial office in the sky. I liked Sue immensely. We did Richard & Judy a few times together and she was a class act with pure printer’s ink coursing through her veins. Equally sorry to hear that Evelyn Lauder – Estee’s daughter-in-law – had also died. She was one of the most impressive women I ever had the privilege to interview.

Mrs Lauder had it all figured out. She was a social and charitable lioness in New York who told me the secret of her success was getting on with her mother in law adding the proviso that Estee in turn had the good sense to get on with her. Now hold that thought as we go back in time with the ghost of Christmas recent past and review a house party where goodwill to all men was tested to the maximum.

Remember last Christmas darling? I’d blacked an eye slipping on the ice outside Bloomsbury Towers having gone arse over tiara after the Henry Poole & Co Christmas party so all I was fit for was singing eight bars of As Long As He Needs Me in an am dram production of Oliver! Admittedly things were thus looking markedly more optimistic this year as I headed for Better Half’s family seat in Surrey last weekend to tear a turkey leg with the family.

Better Half’s mother runs the house like the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She is formidable, demands a certain level of behaviour and one has to keep wits sharp to detect the subtlest shift in the social temperature. This makes family gatherings such as Christmas a social minefield that I relish in the spirit of the Mapp & Lucia novels. I have over the years learnt to enjoy the cut and thrust and leave the blowpipe and poisoned darts at home.

Tasks are invariably meted out before one has had time to unpack one’s smalls and mine was to decorate the staircase with fronds of ivy culled from the grounds and surrounding woodland. I determined to score a 10 for artistic merit and clipped sufficient ivy to dress the aisle of Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding. I did experiment with fronds of holly bush as well  but was reminded of that immortal Alan Bennett Talking Heads line: ‘that’s not a flower arrangement: it’s a booby trap’. Terribly pleased by the result though.

Our party this year comprised a terribly dry, wise friend of the matriarch accompanied by her Labrador Bella whose eyes were rather reminiscent of a former beau of mine, a young Antipodean cousin as effervescent as a Sterident tablet who was on the British leg of his Grand Tour and an American lady that Better Half had known since varsity days.

If you’re not on familiar territory as is inevitable as guest at a house party, the most sensible tactic is to only speak when spoken to and be hyper sensitive to social climate change. You are supporting cast – possibly only a spear carrying role – and one has to judge wisely when you’re expected to perform and when to quit the field and do the dishes. What you must never do is feel compelled to fill the space when anyone has drawn breath by gabbling to conceal nerves, speak over the host, express strident opinions,  overcompensate with overfamiliarity, drink a little bit too much to take the edge off then send the cheese board flying like a saracen scimitar.

We’ve all been there, no? On this occasion  Bella and I behaved impeccably and retired to our basket at every given opportunity . When Better Half’s sister and family arrived on Christmas Day we fell upon them like Robinson Crusoe having discovered that Man Friday tasted delicious when served with bread sauce. My sister-in-law is a terribly glamorous creature who has the good sense to buy me a bottle of fizz for high days and holidays. We cracked open the magnum she’d bought for my 40th and a good time was had by all.

So Christmas 2011 was really rather a hoot even if one wished at least one guest were frogmarched to Argentina and forced to participate in Total Wipeout. I returned to Bloomsbury Towers thinking that the past few days were the beginnings of a terrific novel, sit-com or farce in the spirit of Noises Off. Resolution number one on returning to London is to get back to the swim, sauna and steam regime to regain my sylph-like figure.

Did you adore Gillian Anderson’s interpretation of Miss Havisham in the BBCs Great Expectations? I was quite simply enchanted by her youthful, wraithlike and quite clearly schizophrenic Miss Havisham floating barefoot around her starkly lit mansion with white Regency curls unraveling with her sanity. The deathly complexion and cracked lips were infinitely more poignant than addled character actresses who play Miss Havisham as a witch rather than a tragic heroine. But I digress. Back to Christmas present.

Santa clearly has the clairvoyant powers of Jonathan Cainer because the booty under the fir tree this year was uncannily bang on the button. Parentals somehow acquired a bottle of Shalimar so vast that it could have been a prop in The Borrowers. Better Half combined 40th birthday and Christmas and found a pair of Art Deco oval enamel cuff links set with diamonds as big as the Ritz. My brother rather brilliantly found an exquisite mother-of-pearl dress set and my favourite aunt provided a box full of silk pocket squares. Couldn’t have liked it more.