Hello friends, yet again the season of Christmas letters. And therefore open season in some papers to flay us letter-writers. Not quite sure why, cos it's about the only thing we give people that's handmade, not bought in some over-decorated shop. Anyway, if you don't like it you don't have to read it, and if you feel really strongly, fill in the 'Nevermore!' coupon on page 84. (BTW I just read somewhere that Poe's first idea was have a parrot, not a raven. Thank heavens he didn't, it would have ruined the resemblance to Michael Howard.)

So: this year we at last got the attic done. Delighted with our builders, delighted with the results. Aieee, the building inspector made us put whopping great door closers on just about everything, ugly metal monsters screwed into the nice oak of the music room and everything he could see-it was with a visible effort that he forwent the catflap. Still, as far as we know the law allowed us to whip them off in short order the moment we saw his heels. So if anyone would like about a dozen door closers, used once, just pass the word. One can imagine a stage army of the things being passed around just so that people can get their inspection certificate and immediately passed on to the next site.

Looks good (credit to The Designer, not her coffee-maker, who can't visualise anything much). Strangely-angled hip-beams, if that's what they're called, stark and dark against cream walls. "Makes a statement," stated our builder. Low allergen count for our more sensitive friends. Lovely double bed waiting to entice you-all.

Beds. Yes. A swift count revealed that we now had 1 Official Spare Double Bed, 2 double and 2 single airbeds, 1 folding bed and a chaise-longue. That seems to add up to spaces for 10 guests at any one time but who wants to take chances? "Look", says the Furnishing Department, "we might need another spare double bed at a moment's notice, and what's more," the F.D. added, "I just happen to have seen an end-of-line sofa bed going cheap, it's a matzia, can't miss it," so we didn't. Which I must say works very well. I loll on it in The Library in front of a dark TV. Next time Les Boys are here they can show me how to get the Simpsons.

Easily the best moment of the building adventure was when Jo was showing someone round and found that the shower cubicle had been wrapped in gift wrapping. Puzzled mightily she tore it off and stood entirely speechless for nearly a minute.

Inside was a double bass. Martin had bought it as a birthday present and smuggled it in. (You ever tried smuggling a double bass?) Although it does look a bit menacing as it peers over her shoulder.


And now it's Question Time for Those Gardening Greens. (We're the ones who ask the questions, not give the answers.) "Dear Compendium of All Knowledge About Indoor Plants," we say as we open our book, "our Swiss Cheese plant has some yellowish leaves. What do you think is the cause?"-We turn the pages past all sorts of awful maladies, each with its precise cause: corky growths-the corky-growth bug; small holes in leaves-be more careful with that shotgun; initials carved on trunk-keep a closer eye on your grandchildren. Terrifying names like thrips and botrytis and symphalids, names that MS Word doesn't believe are real, and for once I might believe it. At last: yellowish leaves. "Dear Greens, the cause is: poor cultivation." Got it. Spot on. Perfect diagnosis. Something's wrong. That's exactly what we needed to know. Thanks.


We have been exploring Northumberland a bit more. Reasonably quiet, reasonably close, not a lot going on most of the time, bar the occasional Leek Show. You can certainly imagine sitting on one of those long hills playing the smallpipes to a flock of damp, unimpressed sheep. We stayed at Allendale, which has a fine walk along the river banks, with surprise carvings here and there, thanks to Millennium Lottery money. At one point the river runs below a mossy-arched bridge to a shady pool thronged by violets, and laps at a stone wall whence a mysterious door opens directly onto the water. Try as I might I couldn't get Jo to lie down in the pool and pose as Rossetti's Ophelia. That would easily have been Most Romantic Gesture of 2003.

Instead, as Most Romantic Gesture I've had to settle for when I was sitting on Hadrian's Wall to play the flute. I was on my own so no members of my family were harmed or even embarrassed in making this gesture. July's soft drizzle fell around me; the tourists lowed gently to each other across the fields; the other side of the wall ran the railway, steely, efficient, straight-edged, almost Roman; and a flock of sheep ignored me, dutifully damp and unimpressed. For those interested it was a milecastle called something like Poltroon's Cross. And I played a slow air written by a friend for Northumbrian pipes, St Cuthbert's Bones, particularly suited to this locality where St C hung out sometime in the 7th century.

Followed promptly by Least Romantic Moment of 2003. I stood up: my trousers didn't. They were caught on the stones, and the bottom fell out of my world. About a mile back to the car, past the tourists hooting happily, my neb in the air all the way. No other trousers in the car. Hmm. My coffee breaks on the way home were in the dingiest, most ill-lit places I could find.


Much to own surprise, I Came Out as a wannabe fiddler by going to a weekend workshop. Delicately my class was called Players-the other class was called Advanced. Near-beginners is what we really were. Like those coffee-shops where the smallest cup size is called "large". Come the closing concert we 'Players' meowed our way through a simple tune while for some reason (ask the tutor) we tried to stand first on one leg and then the other in alternate 8-bar chunks. I was crying with laughter. I suspect the audience was just crying.

Jo's choir concerts are as always far more dignified than that, grave and stately tabby cats all. One a week in the runup to Christmas. Nonchalantly she pops into her glad rags-"just off for a gig, dear, back in no time"-and minutes later there she is back at the crossword as though nothing had happened. Just a slight whiff of mulled wine in the air .... Good gigs, though, she took part in a terrific South American baroque mass, rocking and rollicking, waving foaming and splashing, calypso and samba sneaking before-their-invention previews through the pearly baroque quaver chains, and we in the audience (all six) would have danced if we'd had room.


I keep getting spam saying things like Size Does Matter and offering implausible remedies for imagined shortnesses. Damn right it does, at least to would-be fiddlers-anybody promoting quackeries for a longer little finger?


Small world department: I sometimes play tunes for a folk dance group of special needs students, called Rinkaghyn. This year's outing was a little Cornish resort called Perranporth; and it was there that Jo's mother was evacuated in her youth. Legends of her school matron are probably still told today to frighten children. Today it's a one-charity-shop town so I don't suppose it's grown much since then.

This festival, by the way, turned out to be a hotbed of Cornish Nationalism. Strong (even persuasive) propaganda for Cornwall's claims. Plenty of Cornish speakers. One of them did a poetry session, and I could tell that his stuff was funny because everyone else was roaring with laughter. Humph.


Whim took us to Oxford for a long weekend this year. What a nice place to revisit, all those fine buildings, and they've solved the traffic problem by disinventing the internal combustion engine. We found two good concerts in two nights and walked by the canal and Jo agreed that it was a very fine town with many advantages, so for curiosity we popped into an estate agent and checked the price of a not-too-imposing house. Nine hundred thousand pounds, he said coolly. Who'd want it anyway? we asked. Take away this cheap tat! we said. And we came hastily back to Leeds.


Watched a wonderful street theatre show, The Albatross, where Martin was playing. Lots of good stuff but most wondrous of all, the setting was both sides of the Tees barrage, so a water course flowed right through the stage, actors and musicians rushing to and fro----bounce, bounce, bounce---over a temporary rope bridge, wobbly as wet jelly, but never falling off.

Owen's professional mixing debut has taken place. A proper commercial CD with credits to him. This puts me in mind of my parents struggling with something I'd done, while I explained with affectionate exasperation at their farawayness from the things that matter.

And while on descendants, we had a lovely day with our excellent grandson Alex in London. God, but we enjoyed watching him tease his parents. Had to admire their amused patience, too. Isn't it fun being Grand?


This has been a worse year than most for benign co-operation between Britain and the world. Depressing. But we've come across the 'Good Gifts' catalogue (see www.goodgifts.org) from which you can select a present, such as a bike for a midwife in Cambodia or music lessons for British school-children; they send the money to the organisation concerned and also send a card to someone on your behalf. Sounds good to us. Wide variety of presents: I'm tempted by the idea of helping with village libraries in India. Some a bit surprising---15 to feed a homeless pet rat for 6 weeks; 10 for herbs for zoo lions---what are these lions up to? God, I bet it's teenage dopehead lions out clubbing. What about buying a detox course for a Leo?


Love to everybody from Thomas and Jo, Christmas 2003