Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,
Whoosh! Another year gone by already! Well, I expect you've been wondering what we've all been up to…
January – Wondering what to put Old Hundred under last year, we decided to go in for a crop of. sugar beet this winter. To get over the awful sense of anticlimax following New Year, Roger and I thought it would be nice to have a Twelfth Night celebration to involve the whole village – something like an apple-tree wassailing – the only problem being that we haven't any apple trees. So, typically, Justin suggested we wassail the sugar-beets instead. Roger said that was silly but Justin pointed out that the only real difference between singing to one plantation of vegetables and another was whether you made alcohol out of them.
Unfortunately, Uncle Igor (who I thought had been asleep all this time) had been listening to every word, and was seized with enthusiasm. The sugar beet contains up to 15 per cent sugar in solution, he said, so the end product, if handled properly, could prove very similar to the birch-sap wine of the Old Country.
So there he was, out in the middle of Old Hundred at midnight on the 6th, yodelling away to the beets in Ukranian (Fortunately Roger saw this coming and locked away all the shotguns beforehand). In translation, Uncle Igor's song goes something like this:
The Sotby Wassail
Now merry meet, thou sugar beet / 'Tis time to wassail thee;
Green grow thy top, to bear good crop / (Though thou art not a tree).
Well grow thy shoot, and broad thy root, / Much sugar may'st thou bear
To make the drink that we all sink / For wassailing each year!
February – When we lifted the beets this month, Uncle Igor kept a ton or two back to mash and boil for – you'd never guess – Sotby Hall Cider. Roger argued in vain. Uncle Igor insisted that since most commonly available commercially-made ciders are mostly made from maize syrup, if he added a little acetone, some sulphur dioxide and a handful of oak chippings, no-one would be able to tell the difference. He could well be right, but if it does work he'll only want to produce Sotby Hall Apple Brandy the year following. I really must put my foot down this time.
The Mink Hounds were still running on the 19th, and so are the local League Against Cruel Sports, making sure we're not chasing anything more sentient than an aniseed bag, so we like to take them through Wragby Fen, where between the really deep bits and the punt-guns of the wildfowlers, they stand a sporting chance of survival – which is more than they've been offering the Bain Valley Hunt.
No sooner did the news break of Prince Charles' official engagement to Mrs Parker-Bowles, than friends and neighbours were clamouring to know whether we had been invited to the wedding. I would have thought that the question that should have been uppermost in people's minds was: did we approve? Well, of course we didn't. If Prince Charles had become a Catholic, it might have been a different matter – but he isn't, so it isn't, and we didn't, and we don't, and we wouldn't even if we had been – which, by the way, we weren't.
March - Tamsin has been asking Uncle Juan, in his capacity as a bishop (a cardinal bishop, since February, did I mention?) and as her godfather, if she can get an excommunication certificate – like a certificate of baptism, she says, but the other way round, so she can produce it as evidence of her good standing when she applies to join the Humanist Society. He told her "once a Catholic, always a Catholic". You can be an excommunicated Catholic – and renouncing your faith automatically carries excommunication – and you are denied the sacraments of the Church – and even the conversation of fellow-Catholics, in extreme cases – but you are, nonetheless, still a Catholic. She is dreadfully disappointed, but Uncle Juan very nicely suggested that, if she writes to the Bishop of Louth asking him to confirm that as an atheist she is excommunicate, the bishop's letter of reply will be the nearest thing she can get to an excommunication certificate.
Charles insists that's nonsense, that it's like the ordination of priests which can be reversed in a ritual of defrocking. The fact that there's no prescribed rite makes it just the same as exorcism, he says – you make it up as you go along. He says he knows a defrocked priest who will do a reverse baptism with a hair-dryer and some witch-hazel. I told him to keep his New Age mumbo-jumbo to himself. I'd rather Tamsin were an atheist Catholic, than none at all .
April – Sad news, and good. Poor old Pope John Paul II having gone to his eternal reward, Uncle Juan flew off to Rome for the Papal elections, and for a while it actually looked as if we might end up with a pope in the family!
Xavier's extensive contacts in Latin America were willing and eager to rally round, but, in the end – what a disappointment! A German! But on the plus side, dear Juan has been appointed Legate to the European Episcopal Synod, and (much to Charles' irreverent amusement) Avocato di Diavolo in the matter of documenting and authentication of miracles. He reports to the Prefect of the Congregation, the Holy Office, and of course, His Holiness. Along with these appointments there are a few perks, like time-share use of the new Vatican jet. He's very kindly agreed to fly poor Wilhelmina to Lourdes next month as she is convinced that her hysterical paralysis is caused by the chain coming off. And, since he now gets to preview the new Harry Potter films before anybody else outside the studios, it was nice to see 'The Half-Blood Prince' on DVD before the book even came out – even if it was dubbed in Italian. Hagrid sounds like Tito Gobbi, but it's quite amusing.
May – Uncle Igor tapped the first drum of sugar beet cider. What a relief! The liquor that came out was grey with a frothy scum and had bits floating about in it, rather like well-used washing-up water. It smelled of bad drains and tasted – according to Justin – altogether like the coconut firewater they make in South India. Roger was absolutely adamant that Igor and Justin were not going to bottle it and brand it as 'Hanuman Special Export Coconut Toddy' for sale to the alcoholic no-hopers in Sri Lanka. He made them empty every drum down the drain at gunpoint. When the man came to empty the septic tank at the end of the month, he said he'd never known the tank smelling so bad - nor looking so clean. Now Justin is experimenting with heavy perfumes to mask the smell and market the stuff as 'Green-Kleen – The Organic Sewage Sanitiser that makes your Septic Tank as Sweet and Sparkling-Fresh as a Summer Meadow'. So far, the only fragrance that works on the vile brew is frangipani.
June – Roger's College is now officially Kesteven University! And guess who the wife of the Vice-Chancellor is?
July – The Taj-I-Noor Kebab & Curry House in Louth has ordered a case of Fragipani Green-Kleen to offer as a complimentary digestive to obnoxious drunks they want to get rid of after closing time. Igor and Justin never know when to give up, it seems.
August –- Roger is hardly out of his study, these days: he's learning Proto-Indo-European in order to be able to deconstruct Dumezil's primary epigraphic sources, he says. God knows what he's really doing on that computer of his, now we've got broad-band. I've told him that, if this means that the traditional Aryan tripartite social system is a myth after all, he can jolly well help everyone else with the silage.
September - Oscar copied all of Uncle Igor's Ukranian folk-songs from his collection of old 78-rpm gramophone records onto one of those I-pod players for his birthday. Igor was delighted. So were we. Now we don't have to listen to the dreadful things ever again.
October – Tamsin is settling in well to her second year at Bolingbroke, and we've all got used to calling her Thomas. The only bothersome thing was, she kept saying she wanted to drop Physics and do Sociology instead. As Justin said, it would save everyone a lot of trouble if they included deep frying and table-wiping in what they teach them. I don't want any daughter of mine to end up in a Kentucky King Mac Happy Meal Eatery. Fortunately, Roger cured her by taking her to the Social Science faculty Alumni Cheese and Wine Party at Kesteven University, where everyone was either an anthropologist or a sociologist (I don't really know what the difference is – I suppose that anthropologists study humans, and sociologists don't bother?). Anyway, he told her just to sit there and observe. An hour or two later she phoned us and begged to be taken home. She was visibly shaken, and promised to be a good girl and carry on with something useful like astrophysics. Sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind. The downside of her shock treatment, though, is that she is now more firmly convinced than ever that God cannot possibly exist.
November – I have taken to going out to the Horncastle Mothers' Union Every Wednesday night, to hear riveting lectures on How To Crochet Your Own Hang Glider, or Pilates Skateboarding For Health And Beauty, by and for a bunch of demented middle-class housewives, bored to utter distraction. Not that life is boring, here, of course – but I am being driven to absolute distraction by Roberta's insistence on watching every episode of the BBC/HBO serial TV production of 'Rome'. How dreadful it all is: in particular, it's the sex scenes I can't stand. Or, to be exact, what I can't stand is little Roberta incessantly pointing out that there is no archaeological evidence for half of what they do that isn't daubed on the walls of Pompeii brothels or graphically inscribed on Etruscan black-figure ware. How would she know?
December - The ghostly patrol of Roman soldiers (a vexillation of the lost Ninth Legion, Roberta assures me) has caused several traffic accidents on the A15 in the last few weeks. Local lore says that, if they're seen marching south, it's a dire portent for the year to come! Well, all I can say is, I hope it's London they're heading for!
Best wishes from all the Kirov-Renshaws,