Thursday, 3 January 2013

Still King

While the subject is still vaguely topical, I thought I'd raise the issue of "round-robins".  I'm not sure how far this term is understood, internationally, so I'd better define what I'm talking about.

You know how, at this time of year, you get greetings cards from people?  And sometimes tucked inside the card there's a folded sheet of paper, printed from a generic word-processor file, but generally with a hand-written salutation including your name?  And how the sheet details all the news for the past year from the person (or more usually family) that is the source of the greetings card?  Of course you do!  Well, that sheet of paper is referred to as a "round-robin".

I'm not sure why, as the original usage of "round-robin" referred to a single document passed around between and quite often signed by a number of people.  It was a mix of a petition, a pre-email office memo (remember those?), and a chain letter.  Its circulating singularity was its point. After all, I've never seen those generic, personalised mailshots, sent out en masse by banks and charities, referred to as "round-robins".  Personally, I call those "Dear [your name here]" letters.

Anyway, these innocent family news-sheets have attracted a hate campaign in recent years.  Simon Hoggart has been campaigning against them in The Guardian for ages, and this year -- over a whole week of mornings on BBC Radio 4's Today programme -- Lynne Truss trained her not inconsiderable comic talents on them.  It was like watching a Royal Navy destroyer getting a rubber dinghy full of drunks in range of its guns, and letting rip.  Enough!  For pity's sake, enough!

The received wisdom is that round-robins are annoying because they are smug, show-offy, and often come from people you don't know or would rather forget.  All true, of course, but -- if we're talking about annoying things --  it annoys me considerably more that would-be comics trade so often in received wisdom and -- let's call it out for what it is -- playground-style bullying.

It annoys me that the social agenda can be set by means of snark.

What is "snark"?  It is a witty, mashed-up reflex of sarcasm, cynicism, and cruel and malicious stereotyping, served in an ironic wrapper of cool disengagement.  Typically, it is a young man's humour, one that sets the reassuring boundaries of what is OK and what is not OK by means of laughter.  Gays are OK, now, but fat people aren't OK.  Disability is a taboo, but there is open season on ambition and education.  FFS keep up, granny!

Even though I was once a bit of a snark-meister myself, I find I can't watch those TV comedy shows, where regular panel guests "improvise" responses to topical events, or provide snark-based amusement in the guise of a quiz.  It reminds me too much of school, where Bully or be Bullied was the law.  It's annoying that humour -- possibly the most potent means of changing minds known to humanity -- has been hi-jacked by laddish conformists, posing as iconoclasts.

Now that round-robins have been declared officially naff, it seems people have been embarrassed into the new conformity, and stopped sending them.  Which is a shame, as it's actually rather good to get those annual updates from the outer fringes of acquaintance.  Of course, my unembarrassable American friends are untouched by this trend (Simon Hogwarts? Lynne what?), but there has definitely been a falling off.

So, next year let's all go for it.  Let everyone know every excruciating detail of your operation, every last grade of every child's exams, your endless hassles with builders and decorators, your holidays, the weather, your chin-up attitude to the ordinary and extraordinary trials of everyday life...

You could even make it all up.  And while you're at it why not send a copy to Simon Hoggart and Lynne Truss?

N.B. the title of this post refers to a (probably apocryphal) story, in which a man at an up-market drinks party, unsure of the identity of his interlocutor, asks, "And what are you doing these days?"  To which the other man answers, "Oh, you know, still King".


Unknown said...


The most common use of round robin in the US is for a competition where each team or competitor plays every other one once. Never heard it used in the context you mention.

Mike C. said...


Yes, Wikipedia's "disambiguation" gives a number of meanings. My favourite is

"A wager on three selections and consisting of 10 separate bets: 3 doubles, 1 treble and 3 up-and-down bets (each of 2 separate bets). It may be considered to be a Trixie to which 3 up-and-down bets have been added. One winning selection will guarantee a return."

I have NO IDEA what that means.