Round robins

I don’t mean plump and even morbidly obese red-breasted chirping things (some Christmas cards suggest that robins have been raiding the fridge on a regular basis, and, come to that, what sort of role model is Santa in this cholesterol-terrified age?), but the messages so repeatedly satirised in Simon Hoggart’s columns (and published by him), which are sent at Christmas, detailing the woes and wonders of the sender. They are easy to satirise, what with their digests of operations and SATs results. But actually, I quite like getting them. I sometimes think there should be a moral obligation to send a newsletter round, rather in the manner of a parish magazine, so that you get to hear what has become of your friends. However, I do cop out of the straight genre, looking for vaguely spoof-ish ways of constructing a message to put in the card ( I found a great one in the form of a book cover – I would buy the book for the title, but even with out the jacket, it proves to be a sought-after rarity from the 1930s, so I will never be able to find out what happens):

The perfect book cover

The perfect book cover

That gives me enough mileage to write about the year in the Devonian village of Morchard Bishop (which is incidentally the pseudonym of another writer, active in the mid-century, and a friend of Jean Rhys, who lived not far from here).

The eymology of ’round robin’ is supposedly to do with sailors signing a complaint in a circle, so that the ringleader could not be identified and (presumably) summarily thrown overboard. But no-one’s really sure what the ‘robin’ is – a ribbon, probably, but hard to connect up with naval mutinies. Eric Partridge’s monumental Dictionary of Historical Slang says that a ’round robin’ is the host (I assume as in party, not as in sacrament), but also that it was slang for a housebreaker’s tool for cutting windows. So we’re no further forward (the great thing about etymological dictionaries is that you can’t avoid browsing adjacent entries, so did you know what your round-mys were until at least 1909? No, thought not. Trousers. It’s rhyming slang for ’round my houses’, or ’round the houses’, as we would now say it).

This is no good, I have been sucked into a vortex of slang (not a phrase you often come across). A Robin was slang for a Bow Street Runner (policeman) in the nineteenth century. And for a penny, in the 1890s. And for a child beggar, of either sex, standing about (same time period). That’s a lot of robins. (A robin’s eye was slang for a scab or sore in the Edwardian era, but you don’t need to know that.)

All I was going to say was: personally, I appreciate the lovingly folded sheets of paper, sometimes with photos scanned in, of the furthest and dearest who send cards. I think they are much maligned. It’s only when they become like a Record of Achievement that they fail.

You don’t know what a Record of Achievement (ROA) was? It will surely rate a footnote in educational history. It was an account, compiled by your school, and by yourself, of all the wonderful things you had apparently succeeded in doing, and it was intended to be carried through life, updated if you thought your first swimming certificate might no longer be pertinent, and it was to be presented to your prospective employers, possibly in lieu of conversation. It looked like a wine menu, and must have cost the same. Nobody ever, ever looked at them, and they consumed frightening amounts of time. It was a bit like Tony Hancock’s view of charity donations, in The Blood Donor, imagining himself being called to account by St. Peter (‘I shall bring out my little book, and say ‘Here you are, mate: add that lot up’).

I see I have strayed just a little from the point.


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