Sunday, 26 December 2010


On Wednesday 29 December it will be thirty years since the onset of my imposition-writing phase.

I had been working three months as a library assistant in the Inter-Library Loans office at the University of Sussex. I have forgotten most of the gaffes I made during that time, and cannot say which of them triggered the imposition. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of gaffes made in the whole length of the autumn. But on 29 December 1980, having been presented for Christmas with an erasable ballpoint pen, and knowing therefore that I could minimise the waste of paper involved, I set myself the task of writing out, one hundred times:

I must not show off in the Library.

It cannot be said to have worked. I have memories of gaffes that resulted from showing off in Sussex University Library, and even in adjacent libraries, in the spring of 1981. Indeed, the imposition story itself came in time to be a sort of calling card. And the practice of writing impositions began to be habitual. In general they were a hundred lines long, but my most ambitious effort in this genre was five hundred lines, after missing a plane, on the subject of punctuality.

The phase ended as abruptly as it had begun. In 1987, I was involved in 'Walk for the World', an awareness-raising event run by the World Development Movement and, I think, fifteen other agencies. This involved a lot of local media work, and letters to celebrities, and co-ordination of walkers. After it was over, it seemed to me that some action was necessary if I was to come back down to a realistic view of my importance relative to the rest of Cambridge. An imposition seemed to be the very thing; and a text suggested itself:

I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.

I found some paper, and a pen, and settled down to write the above sentence, with 99 repetitions:

I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avoid paranoid behaviour at all times.
I must avo

-- at which point, quite unexpectedly, I found the situation so comical that I couldn't hold the pen, and had to admit that I had kicked the imposition habit.

I would like to mark its 30th anniversary in some way. I have toyed with the idea of using it as a fundraising opportunity, perhaps with a sponsored imposition (asking friends to pledge so much line) or a sponsored anti-imposition (pledging to tweet the text of an imposition one hundred times less the number of sponsorships received, so that 33 sponsors wd lead to the text's being tweeted 67 times). But I have not got my act together as regards a fundraising pitch, and so any donations made on 29 December will have to be wholly unconnected with this eccentricity remembered from my twenties. Maybe it's a project to consider for the 25th anniversary of the end of the phase, in June/July 2012.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Christmas cards

Clare & I have just dispatched our first round of Christmas cards for the year.

We send our Christmas cards in three rounds:
  1. those that are hand-written on real card (early December)
  2. electronic cards in response to cards received
  3. electronic cards to people on our card list we've not yet heard from (final week or so before Christmas)
The emphasis on electronic cards is not an accident. They help resolve what we once felt as a dilemma, between the individual hand-written card and the round-robin. The hand-written card lets you adapt what you're writing, so it personally fits the people you're writing to; but it's very labour-intensive, and it risks being illegible. On the other hand, the printed round-robin, easy to produce in numbers and with a clear typeface, can lead to big squirmaceousnesses. Simon Hoggart has wittily demonstrated the pitfalls more than once.

The electronic card can be read without difficulty; its text can be copied and pasted from card to card, with far less labour than in wielding a pen; and it can be totally adapted to suit the individual it's addressed to. So it gets our vote, and we hope the recipients feel the same. We generally use, but there are plenty of other sites offering this service.

Not all of our friends and kin are wired, and some have stated a preference for cards hand-written on real card. They represent a sizeable minority, just over a quarter of our card list, and theirs, as you see, are the cards we send first.

I'm not quite sure how long we've been following this system, and its development hasn't left the trace in old diaries that I thought it might. Probably we decided we were going to adopt it after Christmas 2002. In our single days our card practices were widely dissimilar. Clare used to send cards to pretty well everyone in her address book; I used to send cards only in response to those I received. I liked to say, of those I got and answered after Christmas and into January, that they were spreading one of the most enjoyable aspects of Christmas into the part of the year that most needed it. I reckoned, being an obsessive correspondent in those days, that people I didn't write to at Christmas would probably get something from me later on.

The main drawback to Christmas e-cards is this. Whilst our labour-saving approach to Christmas cards is to send them electronically, our labour-saving approach to Christmas decoration is to put up nothing more than our incoming Christmas cards. Sooner or later, as our friends and kin catch on to the benefits of Christmas e-cards, there's going to come a Christmas where we don't get any cards suitable for putting up. Printed-out sheets of A4 will probably not make a good substitute.

Have to work on that one. Any ideas?