To see ourselves

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 20 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:189
  1. Ian Robertson

    We are the guests from hell. Five of us descend on our dapper and meticulous relatives in a blizzard of Sainsbury's plastic bags, strewn crumbs from the journey's sandwiches, and divots of mud smeared across the hall carpet within seconds of arrival. No sooner has the mud been cleaned up, and the unloading of the car begun in earnest, than the handle of an overstuffed bag snaps and, with a wet and sickening crunch, the content of a not-quite-good-enough bottle of Bardolino spreads across the cream, deep-pile carpet with a miraculously vigorous capillary action.

    Amid shrilly giggled apologies, a strangely fixed “Oh don't worry” smile from my brother in law, and much hysterically ineffectual scrubbing, the car unloading continues. We have, naturally, also brought with us several of the most lethal micro-organisms known to have afflicted the human race: these leak profusely from our children's noses but are spread even more efficiently across the dinner table by the uncontrollably phlegmy coughing fits to which we, as a family, are prone. Just think, a whole nine days' holiday ahead of us still!

    By Christmas Eve I have managed to reopen deep family wounds through injudicious comments which leaked out unbidden in the wake of a delightful afternoon sipping hot whiskies in the Horseshoe Bar of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel. We have, of course, forgotten to bring any wrapping paper for our presents. My wife's brother in law, endlessly patient, provides us with the 23 square metres necessary to cover them.

    Santa has been kind. In addition to a percussion kit, including drum, for our daughter, he has brought two high-speed radio-controlled racing cars—Hurricane and Black Stinger—for our 3 and 5 year old sons. This makes preparing and serving Christmas dinner a particularly invigorating experience for our hostess. We have a great sense of humour as a family, and all laugh heartily at the little shriek she gives when Black Stinger suddenly runs up her leg just as she is basting the turkey with scalding fat.

    Guests and fish go off after three days, they say, but if you are a haddock or a visitor you don't notice the smell, so to speak. Generally, most people think of themselves as wonderful; those who don't tend to be given anti-depressants. While this psychological truth has its advantages if you want to enjoy the hospitality of your inlaws without suffering paroxisms of self loathing, it is not so useful on a road system where more than 90% of people regard themselves as excellent drivers. Police records, on the contrary, show that many more than this residual 10% of us behave appallingly at the wheel. With deaths on the roads amounting to the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing without survivors each month in the United Kingdom, it is clear that self protective self esteem needs to feel the cold blast of reality, at least as far as driving is concerned.

    And as regards visitors at Christmas? Well of course most people are appalling guests, but we are rather different, such good company you realise, and … Excuse me, my brother in law has just come to see me about some glassware downstairs … apparently there's been a small accident. …—IAN ROBERTSON, neuropsychologist, Cambridge

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