Well, it wasn't too bad in the end - Christmas, that is. Christmas Eve, that was awful, a stomach bug leaving me too ill to do anything but peck at my mother's delicious lunch and huddle under a blanket with the children, and then the evening alone in the Hovel fielding distressing calls from good friends whose romantic situations make my own past problems look like a glide through the Tunnel of Love. So I decide, on Christmas morning, to take up Emmanuelle's mother's invitation to go up to Shropshire, even though it's a three-hour drive.
Shropshire is a little near the Welsh Menace for complete comfort, but, by heaven, it's beautiful. It has these things that I suppose are technically called hills but compared to the scenery around Baker Street are mountains, and as I leave the ghastly outskirts of Birmingham, twinned with Mordor, I move from Tolkien's imaginarium to Lewis's and enter Narnia, as drawn by Pauline Baynes. There is still recent snow on the ground and I clear the head with a stiff, bracing walk beside half-frozen streams.
Being welcomed into a new family can be disconcerting, and there is trouble afoot when I arrive - tension between Emmanuelle's mother and her partner, which is resolved by them dumping each other shortly before the Christmas dinner is served. Impressive timing, I admit.
Still, they are generous. My haul of presents includes a sign bought in Spitalfields Market, saying "NO TRESPASSING/VIOLATORS/ WILL BE SHOT/SURVIVORS/WILL BE SHOT/AGAIN", and a tenderly inscribed copy of Roger Scruton's I Drink, Therefore I Am, the philosopher's excellent book on wine. It always amused me that this magazine's former wine correspondent came from the right, whereas the evil Spectator's correspondent Simon Hoggart comes from the (comparatively speaking) left. And while Scruton's politics may be vastly different from my own, we have a similar attitude to what Rabelais calls agelasts and what the Australians call wowsers. I find his book glued to my hands.
Boxing Day morning finds me in a good humour: Australia have been bowled out for 98. More, or rather less, than that, one could not have wished. And E's family are themselves amusing. That evening, we sit around the dining table and have one of the most outrageous cross-generational conversations I have ever had. I don't know about you, but conversations about personal matters when either of one's parents is present tend to be stilted, evasive and quickly and firmly closed down. Not here. Her younger sister, whom I shall call Lolita, wanders around wearing not much more than a bra, sometimes standing behind my chair and giving me shoulder massages, even though in some parts of the country I would be old enough to be her grandfather. Their mother, whom I shall call "Mrs Robinson", might have an unusual notion of polite conversation, but as her daughters are either at or went to Oxford she must be doing something right. Hallelujah: this is a brainy house.
Yet somewhat eccentric. The small talk, if you can call it that, avoids the standard family subjects. Lolita, to me: "If you had to sleep with either me or my sister, who would you choose?" I look to Mrs Robinson for a trace of disapproval, but find none.
“You place me in an awkward position," I say as diplomatically as possible, "but I must say I relish the dilemma." (I should reassure readers that I have no intention of sleeping with either, nor they, really, with me. But still, blimey.) There is a general debate about the relative merits of the shaven and the unshaven female pudenda. Apparently Lolita favours the former.
I pour myself another pensive glass of wine.
Both sisters express varying degrees of reservation about the merits of heterosexual sodomy. Mrs R assures them that when the right moment and the right man arrive, such reservations somewhat evaporate. There is more, much more; several times during the evening, I find myself wishing I was taking notes.
At occasional points, one or the other speculates on what it is about me that allows them to be so prodigal with their chat, but no one is complaining, least of all me. I suppose I just have that kind of face. I want to go back.
Next week: Mark Watson