My Secret Santa

For ever so many years, a group of us have met at around Christmas time for a big evening party. The group used to be all the tenants of the first floor studio at 10A Lant Street, so the Pennington Robson crowd, the Sign Graphic Design crowd and then the Brett Lesage lot. But we also invited past employees, as well as almost anyone who had been involved at some point during the year in any given project. (So this now includes the photographer Aidan McCarthy, the artist Peter Gander and one or two others). Some time ago, the Lant Street offices closed down and the various groups spread around London, but the event continued. It is now masterminded by Julian, MD of Sign Graphic Design, so the event expanded to embrace the people who share his studio in SE 16 and his neighbours in the same block.

The venue changes from time to time, we have been at The Baltic, near Southwark Tube, The Three Stags, near Lambeth North and this year we were at The Fentiman Arms, near The Oval. The format remains pretty constant, we take a private room and we have a guessing competition and a Secret Santa. The word goes out in around September alerting the group by email, by November they have been told the date and by early December they have been asked to make their choices from the Christmas menu, and the excitement mounts. What will this year’s Secret Santa be and what’s the competition? About a week before the event the tension is getting unbearable and then the longed-for email arrives:

This year’s Secret Santa present theme is ‘Winter Warmer’. Ā£5 or less, usual lucky dip. Please wrap.

This year’s Xmas quiz/task theme is ‘Think Outside The Box’: gift wrap/decorate an empty box, with a cryptic clue that you made it. So, you can design a sheet of Christmas wrapping paper, or make a tag, or a bow or whatever. Create your own or customise existing. Can be creative/outside the box (geddit?). Bring in discreetly.

or

This year’s Secret Santa is…a book.

This year’s Christmas Quiz…a bookmark, which gives a clue to your identity (but not your name!) and include it in the aforementioned gift wrapped book.

The Secret Santa presents go into a sack, bright red with a white border, naturally. Each quiz task gets a number, or as in this year it is included in the present. When I tell you that some people’s idea of cryptic is pretty Times Crossword, you will get the drift.

The book I got with its bookmark was a paperback novel called Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This is a lucky dip, and I was definitely one of the lucky ones, since many of the other books were ones I had already read, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, Midnight’s Children and several others.

Beautiful Ruins is a very strange novel, it switches from Italy in the 1960’s to ‘recently’ in Hollywood, USA. The story starts in the Cinque Terra, a rocky promontory along the side of the Ligurian coast, near to La Spezia. The little fishing villages cling like barnacles to the rocky cliffs and many of them are famous tourist destinations; Portovenere, Monterosso, Corniglia, and Porto Vergogna. We stayed in this area in the 1970s, we visited the Cinque Terra, they are enchanting. We were staying across the bay in a rented villa in Lerici looking across the very bay that Byron swam, near where Shelley drowned and not far from where Frankenstein was born and beneath the mountains that gave Michelangelo his marble. All very romantic.scan0006

The hotel in Porto Vergogna is called The Hotel Adequate View (it probably sounds more romantic in Italian) and is owned by Pasquale Tursi whose life is changed when an American actress arrives to stay at his hotel. She is Dee Moray and she is unwell and has been sent to this quiet spot by her film director Michael Deane.

We switch to ‘recently’ and Hollywood, when Claire Silver, a script reader for the said Michael Deane is longing for a sign (from heaven?) that will tell her whether to leave her boyfriend, change her job or give her the perfect film script to present to Mr Deane for production into a real film instead of the trash that he has been making for the past several years…these stories coalesce on a Wild Pitch Friday. The last ‘pitcher’ is late, the job she thought might change her life turns out to be funded by Scientologists and her boyfriend wants a porn-flick for the weekend; so although she has locked up the office (a back end lot on a bigger complex) she returns, only to find the pitcher, Shane Wheeler has arrived along with an old Italian, our friend Pasquale…

This is a novel about dreams, aspirations, and fantasies. The characters are flawed but loveable, their dreams are destined to raise them out of the humdrum into another life, a future that is both very real and hopelessly out of reach. The narrative takes us back and forth, and we feel their dreams slipping away, like the tide – ebbing and flowing and never quite reaching the rock where they are waving, not drowning.

It is a romantic story, sometimes very funny, often rather sad, always satirical. The perfect book for the Christmas break.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

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