THE envelope was marked "Private and confidential", the notepaper headed with the name of a firm of solicitors. A heart sink moment, as GPs are supposed to say of the appearance of particularly pesky patients.

The content was altogether more uplifting. Mr Harry Whitton, one of the many readers with whom these columns conduct a sort of semi-detached relationship, has left me £500 in his will.

Frequently described hereabouts as incomparable, and sometimes as incorrigible, Harry was a retired electrical shop owner from Thirsk who loved his town and loved name dropping in almost equal measure.

"I enclose a letter from Sheikh Hamdam Maktoum," he'd write, or "Here is a photograph of me with Princess Anne" or "Lord Howard de Walden once told me that his father occasionally dined while wearing a suit of armour," the accuracy of which claim we have never been able to verify.

We teased him endlessly and, as ever was the hope, he took it in great good part.

Harry was also a Dunkirk veteran, local historian, broadcaster, film maker, raconteur, racing man and speaker. "Names will drop like rain from a pair of Wellington boots," he advised when headed for Leyburn Probus Club.

He was 86, died last Christmas Day when filming morning service at St Mary's church in Thirsk. We'd never met.

Though timely for Christmas, his handsome legacy will be used to fund a short break in early Spring - a Whitton weekend - and to drink, as incomparable as incorrigible, to his wonderful memory.

BERTHA Pallister, whom we've known since Shildon childhood, has died, aged 97 - thus failing to emulate Walter Tillotson, her father, who lived to be 102.

She had the sweet shop on the way home from school, greeted every request to know what there was for a penny as patiently as if it were the first time she'd heard it that afternoon. The bubble gum cards would be worth a fortune today.

Bertha had marked her 90th and 95th birthdays with a pillion spin on the back of her nephew Ricky Tillotson's motor bike, wanted again to be a pillonaire on her 100th.

When 91, she'd opened St John's church Christmas fair by singing Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow, for the first time on that church hall stage since 1912. "It was the song that shot me to stardom," she said.

Her funeral was on Monday at St John's, the church she had served so loyally and so long.

RALPH Edwards has died, too, four months after an improbable appearance in Gadfly. He was 92.

In 1949, Edwards devised the game show Truth or Consequences for American radio, based on a parlour game of his youth. Contestants were invited to answer questions, usually damn fool, or pay forfeits like dressing in baby clothes or washing an elephant. They could be interrupted by Beulah the Buzzer.

"Aren't we devils?" Edwards would ask his audience.

Though later he also devised This Is Your Life, the very model of longevity, his greatest stunt was to propose that the good folk of Hot Springs, New Mexico, change the town's name to Truth or Consequences. After a ballot, they agreed. With Ralph Edwards Park verdantly in the middle, Truth or Consequences it remains.

HALF way through what should be a festive column and nothing but death and its aftermath. From Canada, happily, Phil Atkinson sends news of another old friend who remains very much alive.

Ted Harrison is a Wingate lad, played on the pit heap, watched Hopalong Cassidy in the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Palace picture house and was never blind to the bleakness of his childhood environment.

"The pearly gates themselves would have appeared drab in such surroundings," he once wrote.

In 1967 he got a teaching job in the Yukon ("Weaklings need not apply," the advertisement had said) and thereafter became one of Canada's most celebrated and most honoured painters, frequently of the Yukon itself.

He's featured in a Canadian magazine - still energetically at work at 79, still possessed of the "musical Geordie accent of his native County Durham", hailed as "a national treasure".

His work, he says, is the School of Cheery. "When people first saw it, they said 'Hey, Ted, have you been smoking the funny stuff?" We all needed cheering up, anyway.

SO at last to Christmas, and thanks to the splendid Bob Harbron in Norton-on-Tees for the latest instalment of The Village Story.

The Norton Heritage Group had researched and produced more than 1,000 pages since 1977, 600 of them contained in 18 different books over the past 23 years - all on one village.

This one (Series II, No 5) records that in the many "big houses" in Norton and the surrounding villages, the festive season would run energetically from December 24 to January 6, house servants on their last legs in its wake.

"Domestics" would start at 6am, have short breaks at 9.30am and 3.30pm and be flat out from 7-11.30pm. Houses vied with one another to be biggest and best, with dinner parties for up to 150 and never fewer than a dozen.

By way of reward, and in exchange only for a bit more bowing and scraping, staff were themselves given a Christmas box on December 26. Hence, of course, Boxing Day.

STILL with such things, Ian Forsyth in Durham reports that on BBC Radio Newcastle the other night, he heard Patrick Tynan talking of Judi Dench's role in Mrs Henderson's Presents - "as in what's Santa bringing this year". It's possible he meant Mrs Henderson Presents, but a happy Christmas to them both, anyway.

IAN'S also one of several who've added to the ongoing debate about the correct use of "may" and "might", including a learned missive from Alick Mcwilliam, also in Durham. Now that the holidays are here, however, it seems Scrooge-like to intrude with such hair shirted academic exercises. We may/might return to it in the New Year.

WITH awful irony, one of the columns which mentioned Bertha Pallister, in June 2001, was headed "Time to tackle the mail mountain."

"These columns have become one way traffic," it began. "Readers write and I fail to reply. The in-tray overflows egregiously. Probably there are Green Shield stamps buried down there somewhere, or a copy of the Daily Sketch, or the long lost key to the back door."

Sadly, the flow is unchanged. The mountain is now so far beyond the reach even of a good secretary that Mr Alan Hinkes himself would be hard pushed to conquer it.

A pre-Christmas foray into the foothills reveals letters entombed like hairy mammoths, long extinct. Dozens of Christmas cards have been sent to random recipients rescued from the avalanche, but others still await.

So we leave the year with an apology, as well as with thanks to all those who - unacknowledged in every sense - are so essential in these columns' survival. A very good Christmas to you all. Where there's a will, as dear Harry may have said, we return with fresh resolution in the New Year.