Andrew Vine: My dear, you just can’t get the staff...the curse of the round-robin letter

AS problems go, the one outlined in the letter that followed hard on the heels of the avalanche of Christmas cards rather took me aback.

How many people received round-robin letters this Christmas?
How many people received round-robin letters this Christmas?

“The au pair’s gone back to Venezuela to visit her family,” it bemoaned. “Which is most inconvenient at this time of year, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

Oh, yes, absolutely. You poor dears. Must be sheer hell for you. Many’s the time during the 35 years since I left home and school to take up a job that I’ve missed the services of a Venezuelan au pair. It’s been tough, but somehow I’ve managed.

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The sheer selfishness of the girl in wanting to spend Christmas with her family is just jaw-dropping. “And of course, she’s chosen to go knowing perfectly well we’re having the usual gang over on New Year’s Eve for canapes and charades.”

Well, you can’t get the staff these days. I’ll be thinking of you, wearing your fingers to the bone handing out trays of nibbles to guests attempting to mime the new Star Wars film.

It sounds to me like a stern word is in order upon her return. Leaving you to struggle with ensuring that there are enough vol au vents and sausages on sticks to go round simply isn’t on, but do try to bear up under the strain.

Still, looking on the bright side, being left in the lurch by the au pair is the only shadow on yet another amazing year of unrivalled success and dazzling achievement, spelt out across six pages of the annual family bulletin.

It’s been that way for the past 15 or so years, since the last – and only – time that I met Barry and Jocasta at a reception in London. We chatted amicably enough, and since Christmas approached, addresses were exchanged for cards. We parted, unlikely to meet again since we had nothing in common, they live on the south coast and I’m in Yorkshire.

Then it began.

Even though that initial exchange of cards was never repeated, every year since then has brought a fulsome account of Barry and Jocasta’s glittering life together, arriving by post as the New Year looms.

What a whirl. How gilded and glorious.

Celebrity-packed parties, the new yacht’s maiden voyage – oh, and the crew are simply marvellous – Barry wondering if this will be the year he gets a knighthood to go with the CBE, his opting for the Maserati in red after flirting with blue because it matched Jocasta’s eyes, the fabulous weekend at the Cannes Film Festival where Angelina was such a darling, the new stable block.

Jocasta takes responsibility for keeping everybody informed of what the family has been up to, and does so with a breathless, gushing enthusiasm, peppering her news with lots of exclamation marks and little smiley faces.

She’s delighted to report that Tarquin and Penny have got engaged, Marcus is the most popular child at Montessori and he’s going to have a brother or sister very soon.

Excellent. Good for them. Who are they? I haven’t a clue. Nor do I know who Quentin, Miles, Alex or Angela are, but they’ve all had another brilliant year.

Uncle Harry, though, hasn’t been too bright thanks to a flare-up of the old trouble, which is a shame, but he’s been prescribed some ointment, so fingers crossed.

The only nugget of useful information is that Vincent is enjoying his gap year in Colombia, which has me itching to fire off an email suggesting that since he’s down that way, he might pop over the border into Venezuela and berate the au pair for deserting her post.

I’ve a hunch that I’m not the only bewildered recipient of this round-robin, and out there on the vast mailing list of fleeting acquaintances, others up and down the country are likewise asking themselves what they’ve done to deserve this annual monstering of one-upmanship.

I’m toying with the idea of sending Barry and Jocasta a bulletin of my own that reflects on the year.

Taking a rowing boat out at Knaresborough, wondering if this is the year when I’ll get a new pushbike, opting to keep the rust-coloured Fiat Punto creaking along for another 12 months, the weekend in Scarborough when I ran into a bit-player from Last of the Summer Wine, the trip to the stables to scrounge a couple of bags of manure for the roses.

Or maybe not. My world would seem more alien to them than theirs is to mine.

I do hope, though, that when next year’s arrives from Jocasta and – dare we hope – Sir Barry, they haven’t got to put up with another frightful dereliction of duty by the au pair. It would quite take the shine off my Christmas.