The Occasional Student

James Garner 15 January 2009

“Pass the chocolates, James. What are you doing with them?” The answer, plainly apparent, is reading the little booklet and deliberating. Only, in my household, there is a rite of passage whereby adults take confections at speed, and at random. The most experienced hands merely extend, eyes averted, and glide over the box, extracting the first chocolate they encounter.

Small cries follow: “oh, coconut”, “coffee, again!”, “you know, it looked nice.” This chain is only broken by me, childishly refusing to surrender to the fates. I always feel sure someone is on the verge of observing, “There’s no little booklet for life.”

Every December my Grandad sends out a round robin letter. He eschews family news in favour of doom mongering. The letter includes potted summaries of books he has read, all with titles mentioning a “coming crisis,” an “impending disaster” or, perhaps his favourite, “time-bombs.”

This year his letter struggled to keep a sombre tone. “A deplorable year, an unforgettable year,” it began. My Grandad was spectacularly vindicated by the financial crisis, something he has been predicting for nearly as long as his own death. He is now 93. A deep recession could be the health tonic that adds years to his life.

At Christmas he asks me what I think about the letter. For years I didn’t really read it and, whatever the looming terror, I would say, “I imagine things will turn out alright.” Now that I am a student of politics I sense more is expected of me. This year I said, “Given the key trends of the post-war era and the unprecedented geopolitical will, I envisage that the macroeconomic situation will turn out alright.”

Really, I want to say to my Grandad, these predictions are all well and good, but right now I’ve got a strong feeling there’s a mountain bike, a plasma TV and an original pressing of Is This It wrapped up under the tree for me.

I cast my mind over the presents I’ve bought. My Grandad is always the hardest. What do you get for the man who has everything? No, Punch readers, not penicillin.

I did have one disaster. I’ve had a good run of being able to buy my mother a DVD, the one film a year aimed at middle-aged social workers. This year I got And When Did You Last See Your Father? but it was only six pounds. So I had to think of a second present. How I long for the simple days of the £21.99 DVD, even the £17.99 DVD.

Something functional is a safe bet so I was delighted when I noticed the disrepair of our address book. A replacement, I considered, was a thoughtful gift, conveying the thought, “Look, not just a cheap DVD, I also got an address book.”

I was sitting pretty on this for a few days until I realised it was less a present, more a job, i.e. transcribing all the addresses across. I resolved to do it myself and learned that people really do live in places like Oswestry and Bognor Regis and Birmingham. Actually, I live in Birmingham too so I should have known that. The extra effort was made worthwhile when my Mum opened it and said, “Somebody’s written in it!”

Later in the day I was sitting down, surrounded by my choice presents, an ironing board, a large picture frame and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! 2009 calendar. A new box of chocolates arrived at my lap, without the little booklet. In this crowd, I obviously couldn’t ask for it. Stealthily I scanned the room. “You do realise,” someone piped up to get my attention.

Oh, here we go. I quickly prepared a stinging rebuke. I would tell them it was perfectly ridiculous not to use the booklet provided and then complain about getting a coffee one, especially when some of us like the coffee ones. And maybe there isn’t a little booklet for life but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advice when it’s readily available. In fact, if there was such a booklet, I imagine that’s exactly the sort of tip it would include.

“You do realise,” the voice continued, “that all Ferrero Rocher are the same.”

James Garner